Eamon O’Leary is a frequent contributor to The Galway Review. He has recently finished a collection of humorous memories from an Irish boyhood in a pre-digital age of comparative innocence.
It paints a vivid portrait of a young boy’s adventures, games, and gangs, his friends and family on his road to growing up and becoming a “Big Boy.”
Bells A Ringing
By Eamon O’Leary
The wind was rattling the windows and because it was lashing and because I was a big boy of four and three-quarters, Ma said she’d leave me at home when she went to the shops.
“I won’t be gone ten minutes; I’m only going to the butchers to get a few chops. Promise me, you’ll be a good boy, and I’ll bring ye home a Trigger bar.”
I was fierce important, all alone in the house for the very first time. But ten minutes is a long time, and it was kinda cold with the windows rattling. I crawled under my bed.
That was where I kept my treasure.
It was in a shoebox that Da gave me. I’d a huge spider and two wasps wrapped up in the tissue paper, and two lumps of bubble gum in a box that used to have plasters in it, and all my old Beano’s were there as well. The chewing gum didn’t taste nice, but still blew bubbles as big as footballs. And when I rummaged in the kitchen, I found some matches. Ma and Da always said, “Never touch those matches,” but I was a big boy now.
Back under the bed I went, and it was getting nice and cosy when I heard someone kicking our door and shouting in the letterbox.
“Are ye coming out? The rain’s stopped and we can go up the field and play cowboys and Indi…”
It was my best friend, Kevin Coghlan. I reached up on my tippy toes, opened the door, grabbed my coat, dipped my fingers in the holy water, and rode off. Ma always told me to bless myself every time I went out – “If you do,” she said, “Jesus will look after you for the whole day.”
Kevin was a year and a quarter older than me, but his Ma hadn’t sent him to school yet. He was nearly six. Maybe it was because he always had snail shaped bubbles coming out his nose. They were greeners. And he wiped them on his sleeves. That’s why they were always shiny.
I was The Lone Ranger, riding Silver, and Kevin at my side was Tonto on a pony. Sometimes Kevin wanted to be The Lone Ranger, but I told him I’d only be his best friend if I was. We gave our backsides a wallop and took off up the road to the woods. Bullet and Mango ran along beside us.
Bullet was barking. Bullet was Kevin’s dog, a massive one, bigger than Kevin and me put together. When he wasn’t barking, he was slobbering, panting, and farting. We called him Bullet ’cos that was the name of Roy Rogers’ dog. He was supposed to be an Alsatian and a guard dog, but he’d long thin legs like a greyhound and I heard Kevin’s da cursing him once. He told my Da; “That dog’s a pure eejit. All he does is bark and wag his fecking tail. That tail is flying around non-stop. It’s a wonder he doesn’t take off. I’m telling ye, the fecker I bought him off is a right chancer. Thoroughbred, my arse. I think Bullet’s mother was playing the field, if ye get my drift.” Da laughed and lit a fag, but I didn’t understand what they were talking about.
But Bullet was fierce fast. Anytime Kevin put a collar on him, he’d shoot off, dragging Kevin, who skeeted along behind. He used his runners as brakes and his toes peeped out the top and his ma used to shout at him, “Are ye thick or what?”
And Mango was our cat who thought he was a dog. With claws as long as spears and ears that looked like something had chewed them and spat them back out. His nose was kinda mashed in and Bullet kept out of his way. Da said “He’s a right hard chaw. When he purrs, it sounds like a dirty diesel engine.” He was kinda yellowish and brown and Da said, “Let’s call him Mango for a laugh.”
“You can’t call him that,” said Ma.
“It’s better than Manky,” Da said, and Ma could see the justice in that, so Mango he stayed.
Mango followed me and the Brother everywhere. And anytime Ma was looking for us for our dinner, she’d look out to see where Mango was and even if we were in a hide, she’d find us.
The woods were up at the top of our road and Ma didn’t like us playing up there ‘cos she thought it was dangerous, but Da said, “It’s sad, but in a few weeks, the bulldozers will be in, destroying in a few hours what’s been growing for years. Let them enjoy the woods and the bit of grass while they can, because in another year, it’ll be houses and only concrete they’ll be playing on. Progress my arse.”
Kevin was like a monkey, climbing miles up the trees. Mango was up there too, even higher. I stayed on the ground with Bullet, keeping a watch out for Geronimo or other Indians.
“What’s that noise?” I said, looking up at Kevin.
“Me look,” said Tonto. “It fire engines, two of them, coming down our road.”
Seconds later, we were galloping towards the clanging bells. In the distance, we saw puffs of smoke like the Indians made, and I could see loads of the neighbours outside our house. A few of the women were holding on to my Ma. I couldn’t make out what she was screaming, but it sounded like; “My baby, my baby, my baby’s in there.”
“What’s wrong, Ma?” I asked, panting after racing back.
I think Jesus must have been on a day off, and I didn’t duck in time and my ears really hurt, and it was days before the swelling went down, and ages before I could hear again.
And then Ma announced, “It’s time for school for you, my boy.”