Authors: Bill Walsh
Bill Walsh lives in Waterford.
is his first novel.
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published by Penguin Ireland 2006
Published in Penguin Books 2007
Copyright Â© Bill Walsh, 2006
All rights reserved
The moral right of the author has been asserted
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject
to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent,
re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's
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We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
Grandad parks the car outside a corner house. The front of the house has a window upstairs, and a door and window downstairs, and waiting at the door is a small woman in a green dress with white dots. She's round like a bubble, her hands are in the pocket of her apron. I think she's our Nanny and we might be coming to live with her. At the side of the house there's a building with a flat roof. It has a door and a window out front but the grey blinds are pulled down and I can't see what's in there.
A gang of boys are playing football on the road while girls play hopscotch on the pavement. Maybe we can play with them, if we're good.
As we all get out of the car, a man in a dark coat passes on the pavement and complains about the cold.
Our Grandad, who drove us here, claps his hands and breath puffs from his lips as he says, Shockin' altogether.
The trees in the street bend in the wind as we five children in our black duffle coats follow our Daddy up the garden path towards the woman in the dress with white dots.
Ah, will yeh look at them, she says, and kneels on one knee with her hands clasped in front of her. She opens her arms and calls for us to give our Nanny a hug.
I don't know what to do. Mona looks up at Daddy and he nods towards Nanny. Nanny wraps Mona in her arms so tightly all I can see are Mona's black curls sticking up from Nanny's arms. Nanny hugs Sheamie and Pippa. I think I'd like a hug too but now Nanny is standing up to talk to Daddy.
Let me look, Peter, and see if you've changed.
I don't know what Nanny means because Daddy's hair is still black his eyes are still yellow and his long narrow eyebrows still meet over his eyes.
Nanny says to Daddy, You're looking a bit thin. But never mind that. You're back in Waterford, and that's all matters for now.
Nanny turns to Grandad.
What kept you, Willie? Don't tell me you brought them to the pub?
Well, ah, says Grandad, wiping the black stain from his mouth.
Well, ah, my feckin' arse, says Nanny. She stands with her arms folded for an answer.
'Twas only the one after they got off the train from Dublin. Jasus, Peter didn't have a decent pint since he went to Australia. God, Annie, can't a man have a pint after seven years?
Nanny waves Grandad away.
That's no excuse. The poor children are jaded. Look at their eyes falling out of their sockets.
The two women up the street turn their necks to watch and Nanny says she's not talking about it now. Come inside and don't be perishing here any longer, with the world gawkin' at our business.
As Nanny and Grandad walk ahead of us through a narrow hallway with stairs on one side and a bedroom with a lamp on the other, my little brother Danny reaches for Daddy's hand. I turn to hold Daddy's other hand but Daddy walks past and tells us, Go ahead, there's nothing to be frightened of. I look for another hand to hold but all the hands are on the other side of the door in a room Nanny calls the sitting room. It looks small and smells like other people's dinners but it's warm from a blazing fire and I never saw a fire in a room.
Grandad makes straight for it and when he bends to it to heat his hands his underpants stick up over the back of his trousers. Christ, I'm freezin', he says, and gives himself a little shake. He's a big square man like a wooden box and has a round face like a clock.
Nanny tells us to come nearer the fireplace. Mona, Sheamie and Pippa are there first and I have to squeeze my hands between Mona and Pippa. I feel the cold leaving everywhere but my fingers. My fingers are so cold the heat makes them sore. I'd like to move them away but Nanny said I was to come close. There's a brown sofa and two armchairs in front of the fire and I'd love to sit because my legs are stiff from the plane and train, but when you never saw your grandmother before you can't sit on her chairs unless she tells you.
With her hand on Mona's shoulder, Nanny says, I'd know those freckles anywhere. How old are you now, Mona?
Mona turns all red and shy and I never saw Mona red or shy before. Mona flicks her eyes at Daddy and Daddy nods for Mona to answer.
Next, Nanny put her hand on Sheamie's head. Hair as red as ever, she says. He was in the pram the last time I saw him.
Sheamie fixes his thick glasses back up his nose and squints at Nanny but he doesn't say anything because he's serious. Maybe he's afraid to say something wrong. Daddy has to say Sheamie is seven now, the years don't be long going, Mammy.
They don't indeed, Peter. Nanny tries to smile but tears run from her old grey eyes. Daddy puts his huge arm around her shoulder and Nanny looks tiny lying against his chest. She says, Last year is after being the longest of my life. Thank God it's over. Let nineteen sixty-nine be a new start for all of us. She lifts her apron to wipe her cheeks and when she lets it drop her cheeks are damp but she's smiling down at Pippa and me.
And tell me, who have I here?
Pippa and me are nervous. We never had a Nanny that wanted to look at us before.
Daddy says, This is Pippa with the blonde hair, and Nanny calls Pippa a little doll. She straightens the green ribbon on Pippa's blonde ponytail. I wish I had a ponytail with a green ribbon so Nanny would straighten mine.
Nanny kisses Pippa on the cheek and Pippa says, I'm six and a half, Nanny, and Nanny says, Sure, God love her. I wonder should I tell Nanny I'm five and a half so she'll say sure, God love her about me?
Daddy taps me on the head and tells Nanny, The black hair is Matilda.
Nanny looks at the grey bear in my arms and wonders, Is that one of them what-ya-ma-call-ums with the sad little faces? A koala? she says.
Nanny is smiling down at me and I don't know what to say. I think I should say something, but it doesn't matter now because I'm too slow. Nanny kneels down to Danny who's clutching Daddy's trouser leg with his chubby fists. Nanny says, Danny is a Kelly, so he is, with those dark brown eyes.
I thought we were all Kellys though my eyes aren't brown, they're blue.
Nanny stands now and looks down at the five of us.
I want yee all to know this is yeer home as long as I'm alive and there's breath in my body. We don't know what to do. Nanny cocks her ear for an answer. Do yee hear?
Daddy says, Did yee hear that? This is yeer home from now on. What do you say? Mona, you're the oldest.
Mona whispers, Thank you, Nanny. Then we all say, Thank you, Nanny, except Danny who's looking under the chairs for something to play with. He's only three.
Grandad says to Nanny, Sure, Annie, you hardly think the
children want to stay with us. Peter will get on his feet quick enough. He'll pull the pieces together.
And why won't they want to stay with us? That's what we agreed.
Don't start trouble here today or you'll answer to me. The best thing you can do is make yourself useful and don't be wonderin' how you're going to sneak out to the pub, either. No more pubs today.
Grandad grumbles under his breath as he tucks his shirt inside his trousers and hangs our duffle coats in the closet under the stairs. I look at Nanny's grey hair and wonder how this old woman with whiskers like a wombat will mind the five of us.
Nanny sits on the brown sofa and pats the cushions and tells Mona, Sheamie, Pippa and me to sit beside her, there's nothing to be frightened of. Sheamie sits on one side of Nanny and Mona and Pippa are quick to sit on the other side. There's no room for me. There's an empty armchair beside the television but I think it's Grandad's because there's a hollow in the cushion and a rolled-up newspaper tucked down the side. I sit on the red rug in front of the fire and hope nobody tells me to move, that I'm sitting in everyone's way.
Grandad goes to the kitchen to make tea. That is, he bends over the cooker and wonders, How do I light this gas, Annie? Nanny says, That man, I don't know how he'd survive if I wasn't here. She goes out to light the gas ring for Grandad and when she comes back Mona asks Nanny can she use the dunny.
Daddy laughs and says Mona is looking for the toilet.
Oh! Nanny laughs. There's no need to ask, Mona.
Mona stares at Nanny's lips and Pippa says, Mona didn't hear, Nanny. She only hears in one ear.
Nanny says to Daddy, Mona had two good ears the last time I saw her.
Daddy is sitting in the armchair with Danny on his lap under a blue picture of Jesus, sad because his Crown of Thorns is hurting his head. The veins in Daddy's temples swell, his forehead wrinkles and his yellow eyes glare at Pippa, making her pink cheeks turn red. Her bright blue eyes turn to the floor. Daddy says, Mona got an infection. Sheamie squints at me through his glasses and I lean tighter into the sofa. Daddy has told a lie.
Nanny shows Mona where the bathroom is and when she comes back she sits on the brown sofa again and asks Daddy about our Mum. What in God's name possessed her? she says.
Daddy looks sad like Jesus in the picture. Grandad calls from the kitchen to wait till we have the tea, then Daddy can tell them everything. He brings in cups on a tray and round bits of crusty bread that he calls blaas. The tea is sweet and warm and the blaas are smothered in flour and butter. I hurry mine because I want Daddy to tell about Mum.
Daddy finishes his tea. He curls his long straight fingers around the teacup and flicks at the handle with his thumbnail. Nanny and Grandad sit up on their seats, only Daddy doesn't say anything because now there's a noise in the hallway and everyone looks to the sitting-room door.
When it opens, a man in a suit and squeaky black shoes comes in. He has a round face like Grandad, clumps of curly black hair and eyebrows growing down over his eyes. Nanny says he's our Daddy's brother, Uncle Philip, home from his job in the bank. I wonder does he live here too and will he mind us coming to stay?
He comes right up to ask our names and wants to shake our hands. He has big hands and his skin is soft like a girl's.
Aren't they gorgeous children, he says to Nanny, and listen to that accent.
He stares at each of us. I turn my face away when he smiles at me because I never had an uncle before. Then he goes off to change his clothes. He comes back to shake hands with Daddy again and kiss Nanny on the cheek before he goes out again.
When he's gone Nanny says, I don't know what I'd do without Philip in the house.
Philip is the pet, says Grandad, and winks over at Daddy. Daddy winks back and smiles across at Grandad, but Nanny carries on about Uncle Philip. She won't hear a bad word about him the way he hands up his money every Friday without a bit of bother. He's very involved in the community too. He collects for the St Vincent de Paul. That's because he's going out with a nice girl, Rita, who's very religious. Almost became a nun. Now she works in Grace's supermarket. Two evenings a week he trains the schoolgirls' hockey team. That's where he's gone off to now.