Inside his home in Derry, Joe Logan’s life is ruled by his tormented father; outside, by the tension and violence of the Troubles. Sometimes his father makes him run errands despite the nearby reports of gunfire. Other times his mother, afraid to be alone with her volatile and war-wounded husband, confines Joe to the home. A bright and sensitive young man, Joe finds solace and freedom in writing—a pursuit encouraged by Kathleen Doherty, a young teacher at a nearby school whom he meets and befriends. In Kathleen, Joe has found a friend who understands him, makes him laugh, and allows him to forget his burdens for a time. But everything changes when his brother, Brendan, arrives home from London, newly energized to join the raging fray, and cavalierly bringing the war straight into their home.
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Shadows on Our Skin
By Jennifer Johnston
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 Jennifer Johnston
All rights reserved.
Father, you had to go away.
And sadly I have had to stay.
I am sad we had to part.
I will miss you in my heart.
He chewed the end of his pen and tried to visualise the words printed in the Journal, even perhaps with the importance of a thick black line around them, presenting them to the world. No, anyway. He crossed them out, carefully inking out each word so that no one would be able to read it.
Dear father I am sad you had to go.
So, blow, flow, po ... ha ha ... slow, oh, oh, oh.
Miss McCabe's chalk squealed pitifully on the blackboard. A triangle. Three sides. A.B.C. Three angles. Triangle.
He saw his father propped against grey pillows, his head folded down into his shoulders like some ancient bird.
Father, it's time for you to go,
But don't think my tears will flow,
Because I hate you so.
His fingers trembled as he wrote the word hate.
The sides of the triangle are all the same length. Squeak. A to B. Squeak. B to C. C to A. An equilateral triangle. All equal.
Your eyes are blue,
Your nose is red,
I wish that you were bloody dead.
That means that each angle must be 60 degrees. Angle A, 60 degrees. Angle B 60 degrees. Angle C 60 degrees. Thus making 180 degrees.
You've lived too long, already, Dad.
And when you go I won't be sad.
I'll jump for joy and shout and sing,
Dee da dee da dee da dee ding.
Now hands up those who can tell me the name of a triangle with three sides the same length. Martin Casey. That's right. An equilateral triangle. EQUILATERAL. Squeak, squeak.
When you go to the heavenly land
I'll hang out the flags and order the band.
That, now, had a ring about it. A kind of dancing rhythm.
What degrees are the angles of an equilateral triangle? Joseph Logan?
The drums will beat
And the bells will ring ...
A terrible silence filled the room and then he heard his name spoken once more.
'Thank you for your attention.'
A murmur of sycophantic laughter.
She pointed with the chalk to the lines on the board.
'What degree is angle A?'
'I suppose it is too much to expect you to know what angle C is. What angle C must be?'
'I'm sorry, miss ...'
She spread her hands out towards the rest of the class, who roared in one triumphant voice, '60 degrees, miss.'
She wrote 60 degrees on the board and then turned to face Joseph again.
'What do you call this particular triangle, Joseph?'
He looked past her at the board.
'Equ ...' he read. 'Equ ...' He left it at that. There was no point in getting tangled up in the other letters. He knew they wouldn't sound the way they looked.
'Equilateral,' said Miss McCabe. Her mouth was angry. She underlined the word three times and then the chalk broke. She threw the pieces on to her desk.
'I am here to teach, Joseph,' she said. 'You are here to learn. The law,' she spoke the word with contempt,' demands that you attend school. If I had my way I would open that door, and let you and all the others who don't wish to learn go home and wallow in your ignorance. Wallow.'
She opened her desk and took out a new piece of chalk.
'One day, when it is too late you will regret your inattention. Regret this incredible waste of time. Your time and, I may say, my time. You will remain behind after the others have gone home.' She sighed and turned towards the board. The class sighed too, they had hoped for better things.
By the time Joe was let out of school the town was beginning to lose its colour. The rows of houses up the hill behind had the look of cardboard cut-outs against the draining sky. The wind that blew up the valley was cold and the day's dust and several crisp bags played dismally around Joe's feet as he walked along the road. He was in no hurry to get home. Mam never got back from the café much before a quarter to six and it was more than likely that the old fella'd be sending him out on messages here, there and everywhere, and Mam would catch him at it and there would be ructions. More ructions. It was that sort of day. A ructious day. There weren't many people about. Down below him in the distance a couple of shots were fired and then there was silence. The street lamps were flowering and people had not yet drawn their curtains, so the dusk glittered. He stopped by a long low wall and put his school bag down on it. His mother hated him to loiter. He shoved his clenched fists into the pockets of his anorak and huddled it around him, against the wind. A mist of smoke from the thousands of houses below drifted along the valley. The only colour to be seen now was the green grass of the hill across the valley, on top of which rose the grey walls that surrounded the city. A seagull drifted on the wind, out too late for safety. It was being blown away from the river back towards the hills. With an effort it moved its wings and turned steeply, setting off for home again. Joe picked up his school bag and took the hint. He passed a couple of shops, the windows barricaded, with stripes of light between the planks, 'Business as usual' scrawled on the closed doors. He turned off the main road down the hill, past a row of derelict cottages, the windows frightening holes. He began to run. This stretch of the road always put fear in him. Around the corner a couple of men were strolling casually. Joe slowed his feet. He always felt that to run for no good reason made other people nervous. One of the men laughed at some joke. Joe sauntered past them.
'Isn't it Joe Logan?'
'Yes,' said Joe.
They all stopped walking and looked at each other. The taller of the two men was chewing gum.
'Time you were home,' he commented.
The other man scratched his nose with a very long finger.
'How's your old man?'
Joe shrugged slightly.
'Just the same bloody old bastard as usual.'
'Sssh,' said the gum chewer.
'That's about it.' He felt elevated by the casualness of his answer.
The two men laughed. Joe laughed.
'Any news from Brendan?'
'Mam, gets letters ...'
The men were bored.
'Time you were home anyway.'
The wail of a fire engine, or perhaps an ambulance. Joe turned his head to see if he could see anything through the broken houses. There were some more shots from the other side of the valley.
'Get on home.'
When Joe turned to look at the two men there was no longer anyone there. They had been, maybe, a figment of his imagination.
The moment he opened the door he heard the voice calling him.
He hung his coat up and went into the kitchen.
The drums will beat and the bells will ring.
The stove would be out if he didn't put something on it soon.
She always left a scuttle of anthracite by the stove. He put his school bag down on the table.
'Joe.' And then a fit of coughing, great deep, gut-splintering coughs. He took the top-plate off the stove and lifted the scuttle. Batter, batter, batter, over and above the coughing. It was the sound of the stick on the floor above. The ultimate summons. A good blackthorn that had belonged to his father before him. Then the clatter of fuel into the almost empty stove. He put the scuttle down on the floor again and opened the damper to get a bit of heat up before she came in.
'I'm coming,' he answered at last, but the battering continued until his hand was on the bedroom door knob.
His father was lying on top of the bed fully dressed but for his shoes, which lay empty on the floor. He had a blanket pulled over him for warmth. The room smelt of sweat and beer and sickness. It had always smelt the same as long as Joe could remember. One bar of an electric fire burned up what good air there was and gave out a little warmth in return. A saucer full of butts and a dirty glass were on the table beside the bed and a pile of newspapers were tumbled on the floor. The grey man on the bed looked at his son with anger.
'What kept you?'
'Nothing kept me.'
'You should have been home by four. Where were you? I'm parched.'
There was a long silence while son looked at father and father closed his eyes to indicate his incapacity.
'Did you not go down at all today then?' asked the boy.
'How could I? I got this pain round my heart the moment your Mammy left the house. I was only able to stoop down and strip off my shoes. I thought I was gone that time.'
I'll hang out the flags and order the band.
'It's not right she should leave me like that.'
The eyes opened to cunning slits, gauging, biding, then a little more they parted to show misty pupils surrounded by a web of red streaks. Mucus pulled at the corners. 'I'm parched,' he whined again.
'Mammy'll be in soon. I'll make you a cup of tea.'
'I could do better with a couple of bottles of stout.'
He groped under his pillows and pulled out a pound note. He held it out towards Joe.
'Don't you know bloody well what it is? Here. Take it and get on away round to McMonagles and get me a couple of Guinness and a packet of fags.'
'Ah, Dad ...'
'Ah, Dad yourself to hell out of here.'
'What's that to do with you if they're shooting. They're not going to be wasting their bullets on you. Here.'
He waved the note with remarkable vigour for one so ill.
'Where did you get that money anyway?'
'That's none of your bloody business. Here. Here. Take the money and get out of this before she comes in.'
Joe took the money from his father's thin fingers and stood looking at it. The man on the bed looked relieved. He pulled the blanket up around his shoulders and shoved his head down deeper into the pillows.
'That's a good lad, and look it, before you go, I'm perished, shove on the other bar of the fire.'
Joe went over to the fire and pressed down the metal switch.
Crackle went the end of the element. A star sparked and went out. There was a smell of burning dust. Joe ran out of the room and down the stairs. Behind him the lung rattling coughs began once more.
'And get a move on.' The voice that followed him down the stairs wasn't too feeble.
The wind had brought sleet, which danced in and out of the lamplight. The curtains were all pulled now and through occasional cracks you could see the sparkle of the tellies. The shooting seemed quite near suddenly, and from round the corner came the sound of glass breaking. Joe hesitated and then his mother appeared, her head bent forward against the sleet, her legs pumping her up the hill.
Ructions. He stood back into a doorway, hoping that she would pass by without seeing him. Down at the bottom of the hill a crowd of boys were shouting.
'I see you,' her voice said. 'Skulking, that's what you're doing. Skulking.'
He stepped out into the light.
'It's only ostriches put their heads in the sand and think they can't be seen. It's no kind of a night to be out, son. I bet I know the nature of your business.'
She held her hand out towards him. With a certain guilt and a certain pleasure he took the pound from his pocket and gave it to her. She snapped it angrily into her bag.
'Hurry,' she said. 'Come on, hurry. They're up to something tonight.'
Inside the door she shook the drops from her coat and hung it up. She held out her hand for Joe's anorak.
'Is that you back, Joe?'
'No. It's me back.'
There was silence for a moment and then a creaking of bedsprings and two thuds as his feet hit the floor.
'Don't disturb yourself.' She only spoke the words in a half-whisper as she walked down the passage into the kitchen. They could hear his uncertain steps above them. She filled the kettle and put it on the stove.
'Have you much homework?'
'Not much. I'll do it after tea.'
'You might as well start it now and not be wasting time.'
Feet dumbered on the stairs. There were pauses for coughing between each step. She busied herself, wiping at things with a cloth, getting out the pan, her hands nervously flying here and there. Joe took some books out of his bag and sat down at the end of the table.
Meisse agus Pangur Bán,
Cecthar nathar fria shaindán,
Bíthamenma-sam fri seilgg
Mo menma céinin shaincheird.
He mouthed the words silently. He saw in his head, the old monk and the white cat, their heads nodding slightly as people's heads did in concentration. The pan hissed with heating fat. The door opened.
'Is my tea ready yet?'
'Amn't I only in this minute. I haven't even taken off my wet shoes.'
'The boy was late from school.'
He struggled across the room and lowered himself into the chair at the other end of the table.
'What kept you, son?'
As she spoke, she peeled strips of streaky bacon off the top of the pile and laid them with great care on the pan.
'I was kept back by the teacher.'
'For insubordination? What? Was it that? Rebellion? What? Have we spawned a rebel? Taking after your father? what?'
'Will you leave the boy alone. Can't you see he's doing his homework. The only thing you ever rebelled against was work ...'
Always the witty word. Your mother always has the witty word.'
'Meisse agus Pangur Bán,' said Joe aloud, in desperation.
'What's that you're saying?'
'I'm learning my homework.'
'What was it you said but?'
'Meisse agus Pangur Bán,' repeated Joe.
Frying bacon filled the room with its comfortable smell.
'Go on,' The man leant over the table towards him with a small show of enthusiasm. 'The next line. I had the Irish once.'
'Cechtar nathar fria shaindán.'
'I forget. I'm only learning it.'
'You'd want to put a bit more work into it.'
'I'm doing it now.'
He ducked his head back towards the book again.
'Aye.' He leaned back in his chair again. His remembering face was softer than the anger of his everyday one. 'I had a bit of the Irish once.'
'Back when you ran the Movement, I suppose.'
She flipped the bacon over on the pan with a knife, and then pushed the slices to one side to make room for the sausages.
'Aye,' she said. 'That would be right. Sarcasm.'
'Did you get the fags for me?' He spoke to Joe across the table. Without lifting his eyes from the book, Joe shook his head.
'He did not. I met him out in the street and brought him home. You've no call to be sending him out on a night like this. It's a dirty night, and they're shooting.'
'They'll not shoot Joe.'
'Have you never heard of stray bullets? Anyway, he's not going out tonight.'
'I suppose you took the money?'
'Ay. I did.' The only sound for a long time then was the spitting fat in the pan and a slight hum from the kettle.
Meisse agus ...
Worms of hunger crept in Joe's stomach.
The old man scraped his chair on the ground.
'I'll just have to go up to the shop and get ...'
'I thought you were next thing to death.'
'... some fags.'
He began to heave himself up from the table.
'I'll not be many minutes.'
'I had a letter from Brendan.'
He sat down again. He pushed his red hands out in front of him on the table and looked at them for a moment.
'I did.' She turned round from the stove and patted her pocket. The letter crackled.
'Well?' he asked. His hands were puffy with disuse. His nails bent over the tops of his fingers, ridged and brown.
'Is he well? What does he say?'
'He wants to come home.'
The hands moved apart and then together again and were still, two rather unpleasant animals on the cloth.
White cat watching the mouse hole, breath gathered for springing.
'Ah.' It was a waiting sound.
She went to the cupboard and took out a bowl of eggs.
'Is that all you're going to say?'
'I don't know what to say.'
At a loss for words? What is the matter with you at all?'
Cecthar anthar Brendan.
'I've been thinking all day, you must write and tell him not to come.'
Brendan agus Pangur.
'Wouldn't it be great to have him back.'
The hands danced slowly for a moment.
'It would be great altogether.'
She broke an egg into the pan and scooped the bubbling fat over it. It spat, reflecting her own anger. She dodged her head sideways a little to avoid the stinging fat.
'I don't want him back.'
Another egg slid in beside the first.
'I'll not write.'
Excerpted from Shadows on Our Skin by Jennifer Johnston. Copyright © 1977 Jennifer Johnston. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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