- Published: 2 July 2018
- ISBN: 9780143771807
- Imprint: RHNZ Vintage
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 304
- RRP: $38.00
This Mortal Boy
October 1955. If Albert Black sings to himself he can almost see himself back home in Belfast, the place where he came from. He begins it as a low hum in his head, but words start tumbling out louder and louder I am a wee falorie man, a rattling roving Irishman. He’s not sure what falorie means, but his da has told him he thinks it’s about sorrow, which at this very moment he is feeling. A falorie man is harmless, just likes a bit of mischief, his da had said. Shut up, Paddy, a voice shouts, and other voices start clamouring in unison, Shut the shite up, Paddy. I can do all that ever you can he sings. Shut up, not really meaning it for him, it’s just something to scream about when men are locked in stone cells behind steel doors, they shout and they scream day and night and their voices are the one thing they have, their voices that the warders can’t control I can do all that ever you can for I am a wee falorie man. The trains that run past the west wing of the prison have been rattling all night, first the express that runs down south, then the goods trains, their long banshee wails trailing behind them. The morning train passes and he raises his voice louder and louder to drown it out I’m a rattling roving Irishman like it’s a yodel now.
‘No you’re not,’ the man in the next cell calls, ‘you’re a no good ten-pound Pom, why don’t you go back where you came from?’
That’s me, Paddy thinks, as he straightens his clothes out as neat as he can, for there are no mirrors in this cell. Neither fish nor fowl as far as these men are concerned. He speaks like an Irishman, he calls himself an Irishman, but he’s from that No Man’s Land that calls itself the United Kingdom. But it’s there, Sandy Row, Belfast, the street crowded with shops and life and people going about their business. He’s no culchie. There are said to be one hundred and twenty-seven shops in the Row, although he’s never counted them. The corner shop with all the items of groceries his mam buys to make their tea, the rag shop, the barber’s shop, the pubs where his da spent money they didn’t have. There’s the picture theatre and the butcher and the sweet shop and the stall that sells double-decker candy apples with coconut on top. Funny how you can go from one place to another in the blink of an eye. There’s the chance, in the situation he now finds himself, he could be sent to the gallows. He sees himself standing on a platform, the audience waiting for the last act of the play. The platform will actually be a trapdoor. He will be fit and well, standing up straight, the next minute he’ll be down the way, dropped from one level to the next, in a different state, that of the dead. That’s what he’ll be doing, going from one world to another, his past and his future all rolled into one. All the people in this play will still be alive, but he might not. Who is to know what will happen next?
He allows himself a pace or two back and forth, puts his eye to the slit in the door. The cell, around ten feet by six, consists of a slatted steel bed screwed to the floor, covered by a mattress of canvas and straw that still stinks from the piss of the last man who slept on it; a bench with three shelves where he keeps his notepaper and a book, the cigarettes his friend Peter in the south has sent to him; a bucket to shit in that is due to be taken away, but the man who collects it is always late, as if the task that lies before him must be delayed for as long as possible.
And sure enough, as he sets his eye to the aperture, there’s an officer coming, the one called Des, a skinny little man with an out-thrust jaw, keys dangling in his hand. He lets Albert pass through the door, hands him his tie. They haven’t given it to him in the cell in case he strings himself up. He’s not ready for that, not yet. He fumbles a Windsor knot as he is hurried towards the outside world.
‘Good luck, Paddy,’ someone calls from the floor above, the rancour gone.
The Supreme Court in Auckland has a high arched dome made of timber, with splendid curved windows on either side of the room. It’s said to have been built in the design of Warwick Castle but, handsome as it is, which part of that sprawling edifice it’s meant to represent is hard to discern. There is no moat and no tower, although the courtroom is illuminated by a grand chandelier with royal decoration on its rim, like the edge of a crown. Behind the judge’s bench hang the flags of the United Kingdom on the lefthand side, and on the right that of the 58th Regiment, presented in 1845 to the inhabitants of Auckland. It says so there on the flag. The dock stands in the centre of the room, almost close enough for the accused to reach out and touch the jurors seated in padded red leather chairs; the jurors sit face to face with the Press Gallery on the other side. There are chairs behind the dock where the public may sit, and above that a mezzanine floor where there is more space for the audience. It’s called the Ladies Balcony, although lately women have been admitted to the main gallery. The whole court is crammed with spectators craning their necks as the moment approaches for the accused to appear. On this day, the lower gallery is brimming with brightly dressed girls, their faces vivid with dark lipstick and blue eye shadow.
The jury has been sworn in and taken their places. Some of them are returned servicemen, others have missed the war because they were too young or too old. The foreman is called James Taylor, a bank manager, dressed in an immaculately pressed charcoal suit, a snow-white shirt and a handkerchief in his breast pocket, his tie striped gold and navy with a crest on it; he sits alongside Neville Johns, a man described as a company director, whose tie appears to bear the same crest, his face shaved smooth as satin. The two men seem to lean towards each other, although it may be that the proximity of Jack Cuttance, a butcher, sitting next to them, is drawing them closer. Jack’s thick hands grip the rail in front of him. Beside him sits Ken McKenzie, the youngest on the jury by perhaps twenty-five years, his face bleached with anxiety so that the scars of healed pimples stand out. Then there is an accountant, a tiny man with large black-rimmed spectacles, whose fedora has such a wide hard brim it almost engulfs his face when he puts it on. Next there is a gasfitter with a hard mouth that curls with contempt, as if he had already judged the evidence he is about to hear; a shop assistant who sells men’s wear at an upmarket shop in High Street, better dressed in his way than the businessmen, but different, his pale-grey suit jacket slim around his hips, and perhaps the youngest above Ken McKenzie; then a night watchman who has warned them he might have trouble staying awake during the day as he tends to doze off. He and the ticket seller who works shifts at the Civic Theatre along the road have nodded their recognition, as has another man who describes his occupation as a product distributor, which sounds very fancy but turns out to mean he is a grocer. A university lecturer who teaches Classics and wears not a suit but a hairy brown jacket and a tweedy-looking tie, and a high school woodwork teacher called Frank complete the jury. So that is the lot of them: James, Neville, Jack, Ken, Leonard (not Len, please), Wayne, Marcus, Norman, Rex, Roy, Arthur, Frank. The twelve good men and true. Not all of them will invite the others to call them by their first names. Ken McKenzie will call several of them sir when he addresses them.
They glance sideways at the accused as they are seated, and then look straight ahead. After the swearing in, a recess is called where they will get to know each other over morning tea and biscuits. The defendant disappears down a hole in the floor, descending narrow stairs to a holding cell, like a rehearsal for the gallows.
This jury is not the first to have passed judgment on Albert Black, for already he has been indicted by a Grand Jury, a collection of worthy citizens who meet on a regular basis and decide whether a case should go forward to a full trial. The accused does not meet with them, nor are the public admitted, although the press is present. The Grand Jury make their decision in private and offer a recommendation to the judge. There has been no doubt in their minds that Albert Black should confront the full force of the law.
The head of Albert Black, who is also known as Paddy Black, or even as Paddy Donovan when he wants to fool a wee doll into thinking he is someone else, or yet again when he wants to escape the immigration department, rises again through the trapdoor as he ascends, a warder close behind him. Albert is emerging inch by inch, his black hair that is thick and wavy, his green Irish eyes and skin like milk. The jailer, Des Ball, acts as if he would like to have a cattle prod to poke him along, while at the same time he is revelling in a day outside the prison walls. In the blacked-out paddy wagon that has transported them the short distance from the prison to the Supreme Court he’d said, lighting a cigarette without offering one to his charge, shackled as he is by a chain to his leg, ‘It’s a grand day out there, Paddy my lad. Bet you’d like to be taking a turn or two down Queen Street right now. A nice milkshake at Somervell’s, or a rare steak at Ye Olde Barn, that’s your favourite trick or treat, isn’t it now? Ah yes, remind me now, you don’t like people to stand in your way, do you lad? I’m glad not to be standing in front of you, with a knife in the back, that’s your speciality, a bit of blood on the floor, never mind the raspberry fizz.’
The Irish boy has said nothing. The moment is upon him as he enters the room head-first and all eyes swivel towards him. It’s an up-and-down world all right. His trial for the murder of Alan Jacques, the man who called himself Johnny McBride, is about to begin in earnest.
Right at the back of the court sits a pale girl, and he turns his head towards her before he faces the judge. He senses rather than sees her. But she is there.
It’s raining, but then it’s often lashing down in Belfast. Kathleen sits on a bentwood chair, her hands folded in her lap as she looks out over the slate roofs shining in the wet. A notepad lies on the gate-leg table in front of her, but she can’t take up the pen to write in it. There are words swirling through her head. Words like my darling boy, my bonnie wee lad, you will come to no harm, your mother is here waiting to embrace you on your return.
It’s a plain room, furnished mostly with remnants from her mother’s house. She keeps it clean, but mould festers on the walls up where she can’t reach it, even standing on the chair. There is a sofa with wooden arms and a squab covered in a slip made from ends of blue and lemon patterned linen that looked awful nice when it was new she always thinks. The material was on a small discount from the factory where she works. Perhaps she will get round to making a new cover someday, because her husband and the boys have spilled tea and baked beans over the years. Stains she can’t remove, the indelible stains of a life lived within these walls. An armchair and her mother’s treadle sewing machine stand in the corner; she has patched many a shirt on that machine. It is what they have, her dowry. It is more than many people round here have to show.
The door opens and her husband comes in. He smells of acrid tar from mending roads, and of dampness from working in the weather. He looks at her and shrugs.
‘Dinner not on?’ he says.
‘I’ll fry up some of last night’s taters,’ she says, ‘and a couple of eggs. Clodagh’s niece brought some in from the country. There was more than enough for her to use up.’
‘There’s no good moping,’ he says, shifting his bag off his shoulder. ‘It’ll come to nothing.’
‘Our boy’s due in the dock. Our Albert. What’s not to mope about?’
‘It’ll have been a mistake. You’ll see, they’ll sort it out over there in New Zealand.’
But it’s three months now since they received the telegram with the terrible news.
He sees the look on her face. ‘Worse things have happened.’
‘Like the Blitz you’re always reminding me about. Have you forgotten now?’
Kathleen shivers, pulls her cardigan around her more tightly, tucks a frond of her dark hair behind her ear. The fire is low on the hearth. ‘The boy was with me then. Not in New Zealand.’ Remembering how it was, the explosions and the fire raids, the people dying or already dead all about their street, the way she had put Albert on a shelf in the closet and held the door shut against him, leaning her body in with all her might, hoping not to be thrown off her feet when the next blast came. He was barely six at the time, still small enough to put in a cupboard and keep him safe. Later she had to take him to the air-raid shelters, but by that time the bombing was over, even though the planes flew low overhead at nights.
‘You weren’t here then,’ she says, her voice flat.
‘No, you’re right, I wasn’t here then.’ He speaks in a slow way you could take or leave as sarcasm. ‘We all have to answer to the Big Fella sooner or later, don’t we now?’
So yes, here was her husband who hadn’t been conscripted but had gone to the war all the same because it was his duty, the way he saw it, far away on foreign battlefields, while she and their son hid in cupboards and their world fell down around their ears. Even though his grandfather had been killed at the Somme, like those tens of thousands of young Belfast men who had died in the ditches, it was the way it was, to go and fight for what you believed to be right. Never mind that he, himself, had not been so right since he’d come back.
‘I’m sorry, Bert,’ she says. Their son, the middle one, born between the one who died and the little one in the next room writing his homework, bears the same name as his father, so they are Albert and Bert just to keep them apart. ‘You’ve done what you can.’
She stands and he puts his arms, smelling of tar and sweat, around her, and she rests her head against him, remembering that this was why she, who was once Kathleen McKay, married Bert Black. Through the good times and, now, for the desperate bad. ‘I’m at my wits’ end. If only I was there with him,’ she says. But they have been through all that and it has been to no avail.
‘Why did we let him go, Kathleen?’ he says, his voice a muffled sob, and now she is the one comforting him. ‘We’ve been up against it since the beginning, that government and all.’
‘I’ve got a few ideas,’ she says, and because she is the strong one these days, he listens.
Discarded medical equipment litters the floor: surgical tools blistered with rust, broken bottles, jars, the scratched spine of an old invalid chair.
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.
As I reach for the doorbell, my phone bleeps with a text and my head instantly fills with a roll call of possibilities.