Dave Duggan is a dramatist and novelist, living in Derry. The Guardian described his first novel, The Greening of Larry Mahon (Guildhall Press, 2004), as ‘an engrossing study of shifting rootlessness.’ His second novel, A Sudden Sun, was published by Guildhall Press in April 2012 and reviewed as ‘a powerful and heart rending story of the raw courage of a woman in the face of adversity’, by The Irish World. He wrote the Oscar nominated short film Dance Lexie Dance (Raw Nerve Productions, 1997) and was awarded a Major Arts Award by the Northern Ireland Arts Council in 2010.
By Dave Duggan
…… There he is now. I can see him, but he can’t see me. The baldy head on him. The belly and all. He must be fifty now. I remember him and he only a boy. The buck teeth on him. The freckles and the little blue shorts pulled up around him. The pudgy red cheeks. Margaret doted on him. She thought the sun shone out of him somewhere down below, but the sun shines out of no man. I couldn’t fault Margaret. She took me in, didn’t she? A medal I’ll give her. Don’t mind me Margaret.
Look at him, leaning over the counter. He’s saying me name to the blondie wan, with her hair pulled back and the fake smile. Maura, that’s right. He’s me nephew, that’s right. Margaret’s son and only. That’s right. I suppose the blondie wan wants a medal too.
Let him turn this way and see if he can see me. He has no glasses yet. He probably has them for reading. Make him look like the right school teacher. Shur, isn’t that what he is? Oh, Margaret was so proud of him. Yeh, yeh, I know. I was proud of him too.
There he is now, turning. I’ll let him come on a bit before I go to him. There. Now. The oul’ stick first, then the legs. Like a crab I am. The stick is only for show. Mar dhea. Keep your head up girl. Don’t waver.
‘Well boy. You came to see your aul’ aunt. We’ll go along here to the lift. Up to the room. You’re on your own? Now boy. Round here. Don’t mind them. They’re half-doped up.’
Here’s me woman now to pester me. I hope she’s not going in the lift with us.
‘I got that tablet. I did Nurse.’
And I threw it in the bin. I’m only codding. I never threw it in the bin. I slugged it down like many a pill before. I don’t know what the half of them are for.
‘Here’s the lift now boy. Go on in, will ya? I’ll push the buttons. I have the code.’
The doors slide over. The lift woman tells us we’re going up. Don’t we know that? I still haven’t figured out is she behind the mirror or is she above us in the ceiling. Night, noon and morning she’s here with her ‘Second floor, going down. First floor, going up.’ Up. Up. Up. Going up and up and round the bend.
He’s looking at me in the mirror. I used to be taller than him, right up to the time he was nearly a man, when he visited me in London. He had more hair then. He’s a bit bockety now. Listen to me. Don’t believe that mirror. Making a dwarf out of me. A dwarf with a stick and crooked hands and a bag between me legs and a pipe up inside me. He probably knows about that. No shame in it. Better than having me weeing on the floor.
‘Here we are now. We’ll lave me woman in peace with her going up and going down. Out that way. Round be the nurses’ station. All corners. It’s all corners here. No corridors.’
I remember he came down the long corridor in Tooting Bec and I met him full square in the middle that time. Sunlight from the high windows fell on the cardinal red tiles. There were daffodils and tulips outside, nodding at each other. I walked him back the corridor, the way I came. My bed was on the left, near the back, between the nut-case who slashed her wrists and the empty bed. Bad and all as I was, I never done meself any harm. I gave him the chair and I sat on me bed. We talked about home and Margaret and him coming back from Asia. Asia, mind you. He asked me how I was and I said ‘grand’ and neither of us let on that we knew I was in that ward because I was off me head.
‘Over here boy. Another corner. I’m Number 12. See it there. Now boy. Come in will ya. Sit down over there. Yeh, there.’
It’ll be the same chat as before, only Margaret is dead now, so he can’t tell me about her. And Kathleen’s dead too. And Mama. And me father. They think I know nothing, but I know who’s gone before me. I can do nothing about that, only wait me turn. In this place.
‘That’s right. Two beds. She’s down in the lounge with her friends. I have no time for them. I’m not used to living with other people. I shouldn’t have to if I don’t want to. They tell me I fell a few times. I don’t know did I. Me wrist? Oh, the bone is sticking out a bit. Things stick out and fall off everyday. Ah no, I never fell in here.’
He’s after spotting the garden. A bit of a yard it is, with tubs and a geranium, with two shades of green leaves and a pink flower. I had a suit in one of them greens long ‘go. The lighter one. The jacket was cut in tight at the waist and the skirt was straight and close. They loved me when I walked down Barrack Street in that. Jealousy you see. I had what none of them had. I had escaped.
‘Come on then. We’ll go into the garden. If you could call it that.’
Round the corner, down the lift – ‘Going down. Ground floor.’ – out and round another corner and him saying ‘is that the tv room?’ and ‘the dining room’s big and airy’ and me nodding and
mmm-ing back at him, ignoring everyone staring at us, with their mouths open and their ‘who’s that with Maura?’ eyes on them.
‘Me son, isn’t it? Can’t you see it’s me son? And I’ve a daughter too, younger than him. She’s a doctor in Paddington. In the General. Oh, he’s a surgeon in the Chelsea. Ah, shur, I lived all me life in London.’
I might think that but I’m not going to say it to them. The fella with the two legs gone, sitting in the wheelchair outside the mock post office. The wan with the crooked back and the snail’s slither going into the dining room. The wan with the tubes in and out of her and she laid out like a model, the red ruby lips like ripe plums.
‘Ah, London was always my place really.’
And before we get to the door out to the garden, I’m back in the big city again and I push the bar on the door with me kinked wrist and Martin pushes the door of The Bridge Tavern and we both go in.
‘A couple of half wans Maura, to fight the cold and we’ll see then.’
Martin. A man too late and a time too late. The pub is quiet, only ghosts from last night hovering in the dusty air. Their forms will be back later. We’re just the first. Martin nods and the whiskey glasses land on the counter. No money yet. We’re good for another few rounds. Martin gulps his whiskey and his scrawny Adam’s Apple lurches up and down, taking it in. He’s scrawny all over, with only the bit of a pot belly to say he’s more than a rack of bones. I was scrawny meself then, scrawny in the head, me brain rattling empty and mists filling up the spaces.
He’s after seeing the geranium in the corner of the garden.
‘Lovely, yeh. It’s a wonder none of the aul wans pick it and take it to their rooms. Oh, yeh. Packed it be’s. Big gangs of us out here partying in the sun. Barbecues we had last year. Dancing and all.’
With Martin singing ‘When it’s Moonlight in Mayo’ and his scrawny arm across me shoulders and me half-dopey. We never went back to the flat. Why would you, when there’s money and ghosts coming to life again and songs? Martin’s songs.
‘Sit down there boy. Don’t mind the plants. They’ll be here long after we go.’
He doesn’t believe me about the dancing. I don’t blame him. He’s looking at the sky. I tell him about the planes that go over. One of the men says there’s an airport out by the Back Strand. He’s pulling me leg. I can tell you he won’t be pulling me real leg, don’t mind his talk about airports.
‘Did you fly over yourself? Or did you come on the train?’
The train and the boat and the train again and the final chug-chug into Paddington and London and freedom and the time of me life.
‘I have no regrets, you know. Some of them do be talking a bit like that here. ‘If you had your life over again would you change anything?’ I’d not change one bit of it, I tell them. They don’t know how to take me.’
A flash of memory comes to me.
‘Do you remember when you visited me in the flat on the Kilburn High Road?’
He smiles and shakes his head. He remembers nothing. He visits for Margaret, his mother, not for him. Not for me. A duty thing. He surprised me that day. Just turned up out of the blue. Travelling again. Staying with a woman in Swiss Cottage. A woman! What does Margaret make of that? She thinks he’s a saint.
Come in, I say. Sit down I say. Martin is still under the blankets on the sofa-bed. The only chairs are at the table right behind me. He hears me cursing, scraping the match, trying to get the gas going.
‘When did you come over? Go way. I tell you boy, you’re a big fella. Africa is it now? A priest you are, is it? A teacher? No. A kind of manager. Volunteers you manage? Margaret must be mad, you going off again.’
I look at him, a message from me sister. What can I tell him? He looks around the flat. The gas hisses into life under the kettle. I rattle it on the iron ring and he looks back at me.
‘Do they drink tea in Africa? I’d say they do. Shur, they drink tea everywhere.’
He eyes Martin on the bed. What is it to him that I have a man on the bed and that his pot belly and his whiskey breath and his songs of old Mayo keep me warm in the cold days in Kilburn? I tell Martin nothing and he tells me less, though he chats away. God love him. He escaped too.
The whistle from the kettle stirs Martin but no part of him appears out of the blankets. A turn and a grunt, a yawn and then more sleep. If this nephew wasn’t here, I’d crawl back under the blankets with Martin.
‘You’ll get plenty sun in Africa boy. It’s sunny outside, is it? Ah, I’m not really up yet. No rush. Night shift, you see. No, don’t be sorry. You’re here now. How’s your mother?’
Dead now, Margaret. Like the plant there in the tub. He’s mad poking and moving the plants around. And going on about them.
‘That ones’ bate. Lave that over there. I know the leaves are turning. I can see them from here. Will you sit back down, will ya?’
I can tell him anything now. They’ll all dead.
‘Sit down. I’ll let you take that aul pink geranium, you’re that mad about it. You were never much of a singer, were you? Not like your mother. A great singer, she was. Would you? Ah no, not now. They’d say we were drunk. Sit on a while and maybe a plane might go over.” ….