It was my non-age years. Could have been twelve, or fourteen, or sixteen. The time when every day was much the same. The library was my domain. I went there straight from school and ransacked it. On the way home I considered the sameness of the path-how everything was familiar: the little concrete bridge, the chicken-wire fence, the ankle-deep river, its flow-combed carpet of green. I visited the park every day for the beginning of summer and my mother thought I was just across in the school grounds. We swang out over the river from the weepy willow in a slow arc. We had seen it done by the younger boys from the other side of the park and then tried it out for ourselves. There was no special gang; just some I knew from school and some I didn’t.
After the bridge was a short lane with those walls built of amorphous concrete from which you could dig out ancient twigs and shards of pottery with a penknife. A gate to the park, turned plastic to the touch from generations of green paint. The flower beds. I had read books on nature and sometimes sat by the river to see what there was to it.
Things had a corroded look about them. This is what memory highlights. Stones crumbled away from the concrete of the bridge; rust stains ran down from the railing supports. The river bank too was unsteady.
Then there was the row of cottages, living proof that the city had not always extended so far. They preserved a country look about them, and in the last one, vacant for years, you could see the blackened saucepans, straight-backed wooden chairs, and ancient Rayburn stove. I was satisfied with this relic of the countryside in the heart of the city, just as I was satisfied with the woodlice behind a wardrobe. These were the things I thought about in bed to make myself fall asleep.
The two-storey house on the comer hid under a thick mantle of ivy. There was clearly something sinister going on. Every old house had its share of ivy, but none was choked in, enveloped and encrusted in old green like this place. It bore the taints of senility and leprosy, a house turned prematurely ancient. I did not need to hear the rumour that it was inhabited by a madman.
The books I clasped under my arm. Their smell was a comfort. I cherished their compact shape, the way one might treasure a well-made pistol and cartridges. The barrier of words did not exist for me then. I dived straight into the story. And after some time found I needed no air: I could stay under as long as I liked.
The library became visible again on the other side of the road and then came a long traipse up a steep hill. Tall brick walls and then tall houses on each side. The doors had fanlights and pillars on each side. Nobody came or went. I could not imagine what kind of people lived there, but I could imagine what would happen if I launched down that hill on a bicycle. Cars whisked by at the bottom, sporadically and without warning, appearing and disappearing in one intake of breath. A bicycle without brakes would gather speed in seconds and be guillotined. Such possibilities of instantaneous death seemed incompatible with the placid suburbs. But there they were. Lots of bicycles had no brakes. We often freewheeled down hills. The direst warnings of parents and teachers seemed misplaced. No classmates died from eating with dirty hands. No one was crippled with verruca by not walking through the chlorine footbath.
The library nestled low in its company of trees. The city always looks green from a height. At times I would stop and try to put some order on the view. Distant black roofs of the houses on Sion estate, the concrete playground in the park, glimpses of walls and gable ends. I wanted to connect this view from the hill with the geography of the whole city. According to the street map, the river flowed into the sea at a point as far from the bridge as my house.
Past the school. It was of course always empty at the times I went by. Only once had I seen the hordes of screaming girls, some day when we got off early. But in the late evening the concrete walls and high spiked railings made it look far more of a prison than the boys’ school ever did.
The solid granite building was of the same material and construction as the church. The nuns had a reputation. Some older boys would climb the high spiked railings and kick football about on the broad concrete yard. I watched them and listened to their curse words. The ball resounded on the hard surface, the boys’ voices took on harsh resonances in the enclosed space.
No car outside, no movement at the windows when I reached home. An empty house is a thing to be savoured. I lobbed the bag of books over the fence at the side. They would land safely in the cuckoo spit bushes. Back at the side-door I looked right and left, then putting my foot on the door handle made a grab for the top of the wall. I wedged one foot against the door frame and wriggled onto the parapet. On the other side an old junk table had been pushed conveniently up against the fence.
The garden was a long stretch of patchy grass, ploughed up by the boots of a recent delivery. Where the old rabbit cage had been left abandoned the grass had sprung up entwined through the wire frame. The garden was like that-mysterious patches of fertility and other parts under a curse.
Mother would undoubtedly still be helping Mrs. McCabe from down the road with the chores. I had never seen the woman, but had an acute image of what she must look like. These old ladies full of the saving power and the Holy Ghost often called on my mother and then she would be at her most respectful.
The bells were sounding for four o’clock. The convent first, then the church. Of an instinct I rooted among the scrap metal to break free of the recurrence. I did not like the feeling of time getting locked in a circle. If other people had thoughts like this, I knew nothing about it. These are the thoughts which are left stranded with themselves.
I left the books safe from the rain under a zinc tub. Zinc tubs, marble fireplaces, Georgian architraves-such things appeared in the backyard and stayed weeks or months or forever. After a quick peek through the gaps in the fence, I got up on the table and lowered myself down on the outside again.
Paul was kicking ball against the gable end of the cross street. The bottled sound between the parallel walls pleased me. After a particularly resounding shot the windows shuddered in their frames.
What’ye doing, Paul asked morosely.
I’m going downtown.
No you’re not, he said scornfully.
Yes I am. Come with me and see.
He studied the ball, then gave it a kick over the closest wall. This was unexpected. I had no real friends among the group he hung out with. As we went the mutual scorn between us thawed. Paul told me about how the milkman messed around with him every morning and was out to get him. This sounded thrilling and implausible. The milkman was an old man who called at six in the morning in his electric van, knocked on the door once a fortnight with the bill, Go in and get yer mammy would ye, he’d say. We argued all the way past the bus-stop and up to Gardiner Street. When it eventually became clear there was more than one milkman in the city I felt a sense of relief. The dispute was buried, but Paul went on to tell about a shopkeeper not paying him for bottle deposits, and how his brother had been stopped by the police for walking down the road, just walking down the middle of the road, and he was so hard to understand it was an exasperation to talk to him. What road? What was he doing? Where did they take him to? There was a missing bit that didn’t fit in with the way the world worked and when a passing man bumped against us and muttered a single word, ‘Watch,’ Paul stopped in the street and looked at his back until the man glanced back.
Let’s go, I said urgently, and we walked in silence. I could have boasted about all the orchards I’d robbed, or of climbing into the yard of the paper factory, but the words stuck in me and I felt a weight round my neck. Looking at his long morose strides and speared glances, I wanted to be rid of him, to shake him off like a ragged mongrel.
But I didn’t. We walked past dilapidated tenement houses, not the usual way to town, but a shortcut.
He shouldn’t park his car down a laneway, said Paul.
We had stopped to look at a flash blue car. There was a yellow dust-cloth on the dashboard. Why not? I asked.
Someone will light a fire underneath.
I laughed at him. There was a year’s difference between us, sometimes less, but it was important.
Cars don’t just go on fire if you put a match to them, I said. That only happens in the films.
That’s what you think. They really do go on fire. Didn’t you ever see a car with a fire extinguisher in the back?
Don’t be stupid, I said. Cars don’t have fire extinguishers.
Yes they do, Paul insisted. He looked in the car window to check, pushing his face up against the glass to get a good angle, pressing himself against the bodywork like he wanted to hug it.
All right I believe you, I called, so there’s a fire extinguisher. Let’s get out of here. Let’s go.
I think I see it, Paul said, then relented and followed me away, so we were just two boys walking down a lane again, nothing to worry about.
Just walking around, that’s the way it was through Roches and into Penneys and then a quick lookaround in a cheap DIY shop. He stopped just ten feet outside and edged his jumper up a few inches. I let out a low whistle, I was impressed as hell. It was clear Paul was up to something, it was understood all along, and I hadn’t noticed a thing. It was as slick as a card trick, smooth as stepping off a moving boat onto the dock.
See I can use this for cutting me ma’s carpet round the fireplace, he said, ripping the cover off a Stanley knife. I looked around but people didn’t give us a second glance.
And this is what I need to keep me bike fixed up. I really need it you know, he said.
Fucking good, I said, it’s a neat job. I took the vicegrips and snapped the mechanism tight and loosened it, loving the well-oiled metallic click and clack.
I got this too, but I don’t need it actually, he said, and drew out a wooden-handled corkscrew. It was a nice thing to hold in your hand, thrust forward and twist. I could picture using it on the bark of a tree.
You can have it. Maybe you could give it to your ma. She’d never believe I bought it, I said. He looked at me as though I were stupid.
Just say you found it. Tell her you found it in the park.
Dunnes was next, he picked up a sawtooth-patterned dark silk tie and a small pack of doilies. Again he explained in detail, he’d been at a funeral once and everyone needed a dark tie, and the dainty white frills were for the front room table and I asked myself why is he telling me this, why?
In the next one I said I’d look at the record section, thinking they’re too big to fit under a jumper, I’ll meet up with him outside and see how he got on. But I spent too long flicking through the albums or maybe came out at the wrong exit because he wasn’t there, not just inside either, and I wasn’t going to wait more than five minutes, not with the way the security guards stand around there. It was getting on for six now, they were closing up. I turned down Moore Street. Maybe he got caught and was being held inside, I was thinking.
There was twenty pence in my pockets. I stopped at a stall.
How much is a pear? I asked.
Four for a pound. How much do you have love? Show me there? Here ye can have this one, and this. She chose two plump pears and thrust them into my hands.
You look worried there. Don’t be worried. Here, I’ll throw in a couple of oranges for you. Here you go. And have a banana.
No please, I said, it’s all right. And she looked at me in amazement as I tried to give back the extra fruit, pushing it back in her hands, and then I turned away with the one pear, and I heard her utter in shock, well the Lord God Almighty, as though I had just robbed her in broad daylight.