Ruth McCracken 72
Hitting the town
Mairéad carefully placed the needle on the single she’d bought with Granny’s Christmas money, and turned the volume to maximum. She waited for the inevitable protest from her Da to roar up the stairs. Sure enough, just as Freddie sang She’s a Killer Queen, Mairéad heard, ‘In the name of sweet Jesus will y’ turn that racket down.’ She sighed, stretched out her arm and lowered the volume. One day she would be free of this, maybe even follow Siobhán across the water to England, then she’d be able to play her music at full blast to her heart’s content.
She’d thought long and hard that afternoon about what to wear. She wanted to feel special, yet found nothing suited. She’d gone through the clothes Siobhán hadn’t taken with her, but they were too tight. She looked in the mirror, and decided the brightly striped tank-top, faded blue jeans and almost scuff-free pair of black platform boots was the best she could do.
She sat at the dressing table and began to pull the brush through her hair. If she wore it loose, he’d notice how shiny it was, how well it framed her pale skin and dark eyes. But it was so thick, would it attract attention? She gathered it into a ponytail.
She opened her Jackie. She’d picked it up from O’Neill’s on the way home from school yesterday, and had spent half the night reading and re-reading it from cover to cover. Guided by a photograph in the beauty pages, she leant close to the mirror and applied the eyeshadow, mascara and lipstick she’d taken from Siobhán’s carrier bag at the bottom of the wardrobe. She’d tell him all the girls in her class wore make-up, she’d stick out if she didn’t wear it as well.
The door crashed open. Declan rushed in. ‘What’ve y’ done with m’ Action Man?’
‘Knock, will y’.’
He was riffling through the bedside cabinet that sat between her and Siobhan’s beds. ‘Where is he?’
‘Why would I have yer oul’ Action Man?’
‘What’re these?’ He held up a packet of Durex, which he tossed on Mairéad’s bed before clattering out. The door banged shut.
Mairéad flushed. ‘Them’s not mine!’ she yelled. She picked up the packet at arm’s length, and shut it in Siobhán’s drawer. She noticed the time. She’d better go, he’d be cross if she were late. Grabbing her satchel, she raced down the stairs. She had a good feeling about this. Her zodiac had said the start of 1975 would bring great personal growth. She snatched her duffel coat from the coatstand. Her hand was on the latch before Ma spotted her.
‘And where d’y’ think ye’re off t’, wee girl?’
‘Pictures.’ Mairéad opened the door.
‘What to see?’
‘Man with the golden gun.’ Her right foot was on the threshold.
‘Some of the girls.’ She was out the door and halfway down the path, a cry of ‘Is that make-up you’ve on, young lady?’ chasing after her.
In case Ma was watching, Mairéad turned left at the bottom of the street as if she were going to the stop to catch the bus into town. She walked as fast as her legs would carry her without breaking into a run. The cold nipped her cheeks, the smoky smell of coal fires hung in the gloom. After a few minutes she returned, crossed back over and headed in the opposite direction. She cut through The Entry to the cul-de-sac, hopped over some dog dirt, opened the passenger door of a bright blue Ford Cortina, and climbed in.
He nodded, folded his paper and tucked it under his seat. As he reversed, Mairéad went to click in her seatbelt, but noticing he wasn’t wearing his, decided not to bother. He said nothing, concentrating on the road.
She turned on the radio to fill the silence. For something to do, she opened the glovebox, found the Opal Fruits, unwrapped a strawberry one, his favourite, and held it up for him. He leant over, his lips brushing her fingers as he took it, his moustache bristles tickling her. She tingled. She kept the sweets on her lap, in case he’d want another.
Still he said nothing, so she studied him on the sly. He wasn’t the tallest of men, nor well-muscled, but there was something about his confident swagger, the way his cheeks were reddened from the close shave he’d had before coming out, the mischievous crinkles round his pale eyes, his slick-backed hair brushing the top of his collar, the squeak of his long black leather coat, the sweet scent of Old Spice, the way he flicked his cigarette out of the car window… Something about him made Mairéad restless.
After a good ten minutes, when they were snaking through the countryside towards town, he reached across and switched off the radio.
‘What is it with yous youngsters and loud music?’
‘You sound like m’ Da.’
‘Fuck, don’t tell m’ that.’ He fiddled with a packet of Gallaher’s, pulling out two with his teeth while hunting for the dashboard cigarette lighter with his left hand. ‘Still, at least I don’t look like him. I take after yer Granny on that score. Yer Da and m’ Da, d’y’ remember him?’
‘A wee bit, aye.’
‘Gorillas’ arses, the pair o’ them.’
Mairéad laughed. She took the cigarette he offered, opening the window to let in the fresh air and stop her clothes smelling. She pictured Da’s worn corduroys, the V-neck with the hole under the armpit, his baldy bearded head, and his nervous chicken-walk. Uncle Liam was a different man all together.
He changed gear as they approached a junction, his hand brushing against her knee, just as she hoped it would.
‘Do w’ need t’ talk about what we’re doin’?’ He was trying to sound matter-of-fact, but his voice had a slight tremor.
‘No,’ she reassured him, ‘I’m fine.’
They drove on without talking another mile or so, the hedgerows darkening as dusk turned to night. He switched on the headlights. Down in the valley the town glowed orange, as if on fire.
‘Quarter past four an’ it’s only gettin’ dark now,’ he said. She smiled. He really did sound like her Da.
They slowed right down to take a sharp bend, and he continued to brake. A red light in front of them waved up and down, signalling they were to come to a halt. A sign ordered drivers to switch off their headlights. Mairéad sat bolt upright. A checkpoint. She made out figures lying ahead in the ditch, and knew weapons were trained on the car in case they tried to turn around. Uncle Liam cut the engine. A shadow in a beret and bulletproof vest loomed, a rifle nestled across its torso.
‘Relax,’ he said, winding down his window. ‘Yer uncle’s takin’ y’ t’ the pictures, that’s all. Leave the talkin’ t’ me.’ She heard him politely greet the face that peered in. A torch shone round the inside of the car, and straight into her eyes.
‘Open the boot please sir.’
‘No problem son.’ He was sweetness and light as he got out of the car and made his way round to the boot.
A beam lit up the passenger side, there was a rap on the window. She wound it down, blinking, and then jumped when a young soldier with very white teeth stuck his head in. The barrel of his gun rested on the open glass. Mairéad had never seen a black man close up before. She wondered if the rumours were true.
‘Giz a sweetie.’
She fumbled for one, and without thinking unwrapped it. He poked out his tongue – pink, like hers – as if waiting for the priest to give him a wafer.
‘Sound,’ he chomped. ‘Orange. My favourite.’
‘Here.’ She passed him a green one. ‘For balance.’
He chuckled. The car shuddered as Uncle Liam clambered back in. She quickly wound up her window. As the soldier winked at her, she couldn’t help but smile back.
‘Right yous are lads, cheerio now.’ Uncle Liam kept up the pleasantries until they were through the checkpoint. Then, ‘Bastards!’ he growled. ‘Fuckers, the lot o’ yous.’
The rest of the journey passed quickly. Uncle Liam was pumped up, speeding round bends, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, the muscles of his jaw clenching and unclenching. Mairéad felt queasy.
They drew into the pub car park. He turned off the ignition, sat for a while, then took out a hip flask from the inside pocket of his coat.
‘I think a wee snifter’s in order before w’ go on, eh?’
She shook her head. ‘I’m OK.’
‘Sure? Y’ look even paler than usual.’
‘Are y’ sure no-one’ll get hurt?’
‘What’s all this?’ He stopped scanning the other vehicles in the car park. He took her by the shoulders and turned her towards him, his thumbs pressing hard into her. ‘I thought y’ wanted this as much as I do, that y’ knew what y’ were gettin’ into.’ His warm whiskey breath tickled her ear.
‘I did, but…’
‘But wha’?’ His voice, low and quiet, threatened. ‘Don’t forget, there’s nothin’ wrong with what we’re doin’. Y’ can have a clear conscience.’
‘I know, it’s just…’
‘Wha’?’ A fleck of his spittle landed on her lips. She wanted to draw away from him. She wanted him to hold her tighter. ‘Are y’ getting’ cold feet on m’? An’ me goin’ out of m’ way t’ get y’ this far?’
She watched as a couple of young lads with snooker cues entered the pub, laughing and joking. For a while she said nothing, sitting with her hands in her lap, thumbs twirling round and round until he slapped his big heavy hands over hers. His knuckles were bony and white.
Finally, she spoke. ‘He’s the same age as Siobhán, an’ he has a nice smile.’
‘Thon soldier at the checkpoint.’
He grabbed her wrists tight.
‘Christ. For such a smart wee girl y’re a right fuckin’ eejit. If he was ordered t’ stick his gun in yer mouth an’ pull the trigger, d’y’ think for one minute he wouldn’t do it? D’y’ think they were bothered about yer cousin’s nice smile when they shot him in the back? Eh?’
It started to rain, huge drops splashed on the windscreen. Mairéad thought there was a touch of ice in them. Tears pricked her eyes.
He held her face in his hands now. ‘Ach. Ye’ve always been a soft-hearted wee article. But remember, no soldier has any right t’ b’ here in the first place.’
Mairéad kept quiet. She wasn’t sure herself what she was trying to say.
‘I’m family, Mairéad.’ He let her go and took another swig from the flask. ‘Does that mean nothin’ t’ y’? If y’ pull out now… I daren’t even think what they’d do, who they’d hurt.’
The blue light of an ambulance flashed down the road. He glanced at his watch. ‘We need t’ get movin’. OK?’
She nodded. ‘OK.’
‘Good girl.’ His hands rested on her thighs a moment, she felt their warmth. ‘C’mon.’
It was sleeting hard. She pulled up her hood and followed him as he walked over to a red Mini, felt under the wheel arch and pulled out a set of keys. She glanced round nervously as they got in, even though she knew no-one would ask any questions. It took less than five minutes to drive to the cinema, but that short stretch of road was ridden with bumps and potholes, each jolt making her dig her fingernails into her palms even deeper. When he dropped her off, he reminded her that tomorrow they were all going round to his and Auntie Bernie’s for lunch after Mass, and then he pulled away into the traffic. She watched until the Mini’s tail lights swung towards the shopping centre, then hurried past the cinema to the bus station. In the waiting room, she bought a Fanta from the vending machine. When the agreed ten minutes was up, she marched to the phone box on the corner. It stank of piss. She covered her nose and mouth with a hanky, dialled the number she’d spent weeks memorising, and put in her tuppence at the bips. She calmly informed the policeman who answered that they had an hour to clear the town centre, and that they were looking for a Mini in the Arcade car park. She had almost replaced the receiver before she remembered to give the code word.
All the way home on the bus her legs shook, from the vibrations of the engine, or shock, or maybe even exhilaration, she wasn’t sure. The house was undisturbed. No Declan at the front, kicking his football against the kerbstones. No Da glued to the television in the living room, checking the latest match results. She found Ma in the kitchen slicing spuds for chips.
‘Y’re home early, been stood up?’ Ma tackled another big potato.
‘Where is everybody?’
‘Ach, the money your Granny gave Declan was burnin’ a hole in his pocket, he was goin’ on and on and on… So in the end yer Daddy gave in an’ took him to the sales.’
Mairéad flinched, as if she’d been kicked hard in the stomach.
‘If y’d hung on ten minutes, y’d’ve got a lift.’
‘They’ve gone t’ town?’
‘He has his heart set on a Spirograph.’
‘But they never go t’ town on a Saturday.’ Mairéad’s head throbbed.
Ma threw the chips into the fryer. They sizzled in the hot fat. She dragged the heavy-bottomed pan from the cupboard. ‘They should be back any minute now.’ Ma tugged at Mairéad’s hands to get her to stop biting her nails. ‘Never worry, there’s plenty more fish in the sea.’
Mairéad burst into tears and flew upstairs.
‘Ach love, sure I was only teasin’,’ Ma called up after her.
Mairéad was glad of Siobhán’s absence, the last thing she wanted was her big sister pretending to care. She kept on her coat against the arctic chill that had settled in the room. She turned the volume up to maximum and placed the needle on the record. She sat in front of the mirror and with cotton wool soaked in cleansing milk wiped off her make-up. Her eyes were lacklustre and red-rimmed. She forced herself to breathe more slowly. They’d – she’d – issued a warning. They’d – she’d – given the location of the bomb. No-one was going to get hurt.
Guaranteed to blow your mind, Freddie sang.
Mairead flung herself on the bed, shoes and all, wrapping the candlewick bedspread round her. The needle reached the end, and clicked and clicked. Mairéad stared at a crack in the ceiling, and waited. And waited. And waited.
Ulster-born Milton Keynes resident Ruth McCracken has always loved spinning yarns. She’s had several short stories published in various local magazines, but since taking early retirement is also focusing on completing longer pieces. As subscribers to her newsletter Wee Stories know only too well, progress is slow but steady.