THE FRONT GARDEN IS LUSH AND GREEN. Each blade of grass is vivid in the warm golden sunshine and the big hedges enclose us to make a box of velvet. Behind us, the bungalow’s stippled walls are white and I think of green, white and gold, of the flag and shamrocks and the harp. This is Ireland and we are home for the summer.
Mary has the ball. She stands with her back to us and tosses it over her head.
‘Queenie-i-o, who’s got the ball?
Is he large or is he small?
Is she short or is she tall?
Queenie-i-o, who’s got the ball?’
It lands in front of me and I run forward to scoop it up. I rush back and get into line just in time. Mary has turned round and is looking hard at each of us.
Geraldine, Mattie, Evelyn, Anna and me. All in line. All with our hands behind our backs. Only I have the ball. But it could be any one of us.
‘It might be Anna,’ says Mary, ‘or it could be you, Geraldine.’
Not until Mary accuses one of us directly do we have to tell her. If she is wrong, though, she must do it all again. Mary is trying to make us laugh. We might drop the ball if we laugh. It is important to keep a straight face.
‘John Kevin, do you have the ball?’
How did she guess? But I am giving nothing away.
‘You childer! Your dinner is ready!’
Auntie Lizzie calls us from the front door. Geraldine, Mattie, Evelyn and Anna all rush off for their dinner. Only Mary and I are left.
‘So, John Kevin,’ she says. ‘Do you have the ball or don’t you?’
‘Give me a kiss and I’ll tell you.’
‘John Kevin!’ she cries. ‘Don’t be so bold!’
‘Just a little one,’ I say.
She walks towards me, smiling, and kisses my lips. I close my eyes. Her lips are soft and I like to kiss her. I drop the ball. As I do, she bites my lip.
‘Now!’ she says. ‘That’ll teach you to be so bold!’
And she runs off to her dinner.
I touch my lip. It is not too sore. But why did Mary bite me? I go in for my dinner. I hope it is not ham and potatoes. We had ham and potatoes yesterday.
‘You be the Daddy and I’ll be the Mammy.’
Anna’s dolly has no arms or hair and one eye seems to be turned back in its head. The dolly has no clothes either, not even a nappy. It must be a girl dolly because it has no willy.
‘OK, Anna,’ I say.
‘Now, Dolly,’ says Anna. ‘You be a good girlie till your Daddy gets home, otherwise he might scold you.‘
My Daddy never scolds me. And I wouldn’t scold Dolly. She looks like she has suffered enough already.
‘What’s that, Dolly? If you’re good will Daddy bring you sweeties? He surely will, pet, won’t you John Kevin?’
We are by the river at the bottom of the back garden. It is more of a back field than a back garden. Uncle Tommy grows vegetables in it and has planted trees at the front of the field, near the bungalow. They are apple trees and Auntie Lizzie makes them into apple pies and apple sauce for the roast pork on Sundays. Auntie Lizzie is always cooking, bread, scones, cakes. And lovely Sunday roasts with apple sauce and delicious apple pies. But I think Auntie Lizzie is too fond of ham. And potatoes.
‘I’ll give Dolly an apple from the tree,’ I say.
‘Oh, isn’t that a lovely Daddy, Dolly? Come here Daddy till the Mammy gives you a kiss.’
Anna is very pretty. But I am scared she might bite me. She leans towards me and we kiss. I like Anna. She doesn’t bite.
‘Now you childer. I’ve only Aggie and Gusty to do and then we’re done.’
I am in Uncle Tommy’s post van. Uncle Tommy delivers newspapers and parcels to farms on his route. He loves driving the van and taking us with him. It is fun being driven in the post van with Uncle Tommy. It roars and rumbles up hill and down dale. I do not know what a dale is but I think it must be the opposite of a hill. We have been learning about opposites with Miss Farrell. Miss Farrell says that opposites attract. I am not sure what this means but it sounds very clever.
‘Did you know,’ I say to Anna, ‘opposites attract?’
‘Attract what, John Kevin?’
‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘Other opposites?’
‘Opposites attract each other,’ says Mary. Mary is a year older than us and she is very clever. She knows all of her tables. I only know the one, two and three times tables. But I am learning.
‘We’re here,’ says Uncle Tommy. ‘You childer can sit in the back of the van. I’ll open the doors. Let the air at you.’
He stops the van. A man and a lady appear at the end of the lane. Uncle Tommy opens the door and gets out. He says hello to the man and the lady and then he opens the door for us. Mary, Anna and I all get down. It is very high up in the van and Uncle Tommy helps us. He is smiling and I know he is in a good mood. He has been to Jimmy’s Bar. Whenever he goes to Jimmy’s Bar he always comes out of it in a good mood. My mother says it is because of something called whiskey. You can only buy whiskey in bars. It is like a special medicine they sell there.
Mary, Anna and I walk around to the back of the van with Uncle Tommy. He opens the back doors for us with his key and we sit on the cold metal. Anna and I hold hands and soon we are kissing. I like kissing Anna more than Mary because Anna doesn’t bite.
I am just about to ask Mary if she wants a kiss when she runs off. Even though she bites when she kisses I do not want her to feel left out. But she has run off and I do not know what to do.
Uncle Tommy appears in front of the van doors.
‘You two! Will you stop that? That’s very dirty what you’re doing!’
‘Yes, Daddy,’ says Anna. ‘We’re very sorry, Daddy.’
Mary is looking at us. She is smiling and I can see that she has told Uncle Tommy about Anna and I kissing each other. Uncle Tommy is not in good mood now. I think about the whiskey and how my father also has a special medicine called Guinness. Sometimes this makes my father feel very happy but sometimes he gets unwell too. Then he always says, ‘Never again,’ and looks grey.
Perhaps this is what has happened to Uncle Tommy. Perhaps the whiskey has made him ill. But why did Mary have to tell him? I would have kissed her as well.
Tommy says goodbye to the man and the lady and we drive off back to Ballydown. I want to hold Anna’s hand but feel I shouldn’t. I am very sad. Anna is sad too. But I do not think Mary is sad at all. I do not understand girls. Or grown-ups. Or kissing.