Short story

England 2 West Germany 3

The summers of my childhood were hot. If there was rain, and surely there must have been, I don’t remember it. To wear us out, mother often took me and my cousins on long evening walks out the Long Tarry. By late summer the hedgerows were covered in blackberries, and we piled them into buckets – our hands stained with the juice. We used to eat as many as we picked until one day my cousin Barry saw a white grub emerge from one as he was about to eat it.

His scream echoed round the fields and my mother, who had walked on ahead, got the fright of her life. “What’s wrong, what’s wrong?” she called out as she clattered down the hill towards us. Mum always assumed the worst, and that wasn’t the wrong instinct where Barry was concerned. He was always getting into scrapes. Last year he was caught fogging an orchard. The police delivered him home like a convict being frog-marched to the dock. Uncle Joe delivered a punishment worse than any judge. Barry couldn’t sit comfortably for a week.

“Were you stung? Were you stung?” My mother had a habit of repeating herself.

Ashen faced, the white accentuated by the bright purple splodge of blackberry juice around his mouth, Barry stood silent, still in a state of shock. I filled the void, over-dramatising the size of the little grub in telling his story.

“If that’s the worst you ever eat Barry, you’ll be a lucky boy, a lucky, lucky boy,” my mother said, adding gratuitously: “In some parts of the world, grubs are a delicacy.”

She ruffled his unruly mop of thick black hair. “Look, you’ve spilled your pickings.” The bucket of blackberries, oozing their juices from rough handling, lay on the ground. “The birds will have them, the birds.” Again the echo.

It put Barry right off blackberries, and after that I never ate any until I’d got them home and submerged them in water to flush out any bugs.

That was the summer my granda died. He’d been away working, but wanted to get home to see England play West Germany in the World Cup. Granda wasn’t a bigot, but he hated the English.

Granny had made fresh soda bread on the gas griddle for him, and the tiny house reeked of the smell of smoked bacon. Granda loved a fry. “You make the best soda in Ireland, May,” he told her.

We waited in the street to see him coming from the train station, he always had something for us, usually lucky bags picked up at Campbell’s shop on the way home. “He must have missed his train,” my mum said. “Missed his train. Typical.” The time of the next train came and went, and mum walked to the station to ask if anyone had seen him. She was frantic with worry – my mum was conditioned to expect the worst. We trailed in her wake.

“You best ask the police,” the inspector in the ticket office told her. By the time she got home the police were already at the door.

The conductor had found him dead in his seat when the train terminated in Lisburn. He was slumped over a copy of The Irish News. He’d had a massive heart attack.

“He went out like a light,” mum was told later. At the wake I heard my dad say “the ould fella didn’t know he was dead until he turned up at the Pearly Gates. Shame he missed the match.” If granda had seen Gerd Müller’s winning goal he’d have died a happy man.

Nobody got to watch the match. The curtains in the house were closed and the TV was turned off. Granny took to her bed and the front room was taken over by the men of the family. They spent the night telling jokes and drinking beer. I couldn’t understand why they were laughing and I cowered next to my dad on the couch until I was packed off to the back bedroom with Barry and his little brother Sean. We could hear them laughing until the early hours. We couldn’t sleep for the noise and the thought Granda’s ghost might be about the house.

The next morning mum took us for a walk round the park. The sun was shining and the lake was filled with birds – ducks, moorhens, gulls and the swans – half a dozen beautiful white birds with their cygnets. When we complained we’d brought no bread for the ducks, my mum snapped at us.

“Who cares about the bloody ducks? Bloody ducks.” I’d never heard her use a bad word before and I started to cry. She cried too, and we hugged one another while Barry and Sean looked on bemused.

“It’s all right mummy,” I said. “I’ll not tell daddy you used a bad word.” That made her cry even more.

When we got back to the house, granda was home. Mum brought us in to see him in his wooden coffin with golden handles. The lid, with his name engraved on a gold plate, lay against the wall. The room stank of lavender and it made me feel sick.

I’d never seen a dead body before and it didn’t look much like granda to me, but I didn’t like to say. Most of the adults seemed to think he looked better than he had ever been.

“His cheeks have a lovely glow.”

“He looks just like himself.”

“He’s a fine looking man.”

I’d never see him without without his specs, and he looked odd without them. Instead of his dungarees, he was wearing a blue shroud, and was framed in lace like the statue of the Child of Prague in granny’s bedroom.

Granda’s huge white hands were clutching granny’s ‘good’ rosary beads – my mum had bought them for her in Lourdes. They had been blessed by the Pope apparently.

I’m not sure granda would have approved. He wasn’t one for saying the rosary. On Sundays he always stood at the back of the church chatting to his friends and he never had a good word to say for the priests. “Spongers,” he called them.

The women seemed to spend all their time saying rosaries and making ham sandwiches. I said more Hail Marys that day than I’d ever done – even as penance when I’d confessed to “impure thoughts and deeds”.

Granny didn’t go to the funeral. The doctor gave her tablets and she spent the day in her bedroom, it was if she had died as well.

But the next day she was up and at herself. I woke to the smell of fresh soda bread on the griddle.

By lunchtime granda’s old clothes had been packed up in brown paper and were in the hall waiting for the man from St Vincent de Paul. His pipes were in the bin.

“No, they killed him,” granny said dismissively when I asked if I could keep his ornate clay Meerschaum pipe.

I rescued it when she wasn’t looking.

By the end of the week, the only evidence granda ever lived in the house was a wedding picture on the wall, his collection of Irish rebel songs by the record player, and the ‘souvenir’ copy of the Irish News recording England’s defeat at the hands of their old rivals.

This short story was published in Freckle in 2019