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BERNADETTE OWENS

 

 

Bernadette Owens lives in Belfast where she recently completed her Doctorate in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen’s University. She writes short stories; and is working on a first novel. She won the Orange Northern Woman Short Story prize (2004); was shortlisted for the Fish Flash Fiction Award (2007), and Aeon Award (2008). She has been a grateful recipient of a Lisa Richards Agency bursary (2003); a DEL scholarship for doctoral research; an Arts Council NI SIAP award (2006); and an ADF iDA award (2017). This is her first contribution to Southword.

 

 

 

Biafra

 

 

 

 

Because of the flit, mother was cross and busy. Things had been sprung on her. She had everything to do, and no time to do it. She had to dish out dinner, and get Rudi and Joey fed fast, for they were spending a night with Auntie Annie. The bacon was cooked but the cabbage wasn’t, and the clock was ticking. She had to change Nellie’s nappy, which had begun to smell; and dash back and forth to turn the nightdresses drying at the fire, for nylon scorches in the blink of an eye. She had not a minute to sit down and see the school photograph that Rudi brought home. She was red-in-the-face, asking Christ for patience, lifting noisy saucepans, and plates and cutlery that clattered. She hurried the girls through their meal with table taps and short sentences. Father stayed out of the way because what could a blind father do in such a small and busy scullery? Going fast is only fun if it’s a game.

Beryl was watching it all closely, for her sisters spending a night away from home was something new for everyone, and one day, maybe, it would be her turn. She wanted to watch all the way through, to when Cousin Vonnie would come in her sky-blue beetle to collect them. But she was also waiting for the right moment to sneak upstairs, where - because of the flit - no one was allowed. Her book about the tin soldier was up there, for she had dug through the bedding and clothes heaped on the settee to look for it. “Do you hear me?” father had said. “Till after school on Monday, you have none of you to go upstairs.” Uncle Liam had been earlier and sprayed the rooms. He’d brought a flit gun to kill the bugs. The word for this was ‘fumigation’, but how did it look and sound when the gun fired out the poison? Her book, though, was the important thing. Then, while mother took the bucket of seeping nappies to hang out the back, and father stood on a chair to get the leather shopping bag down, her chance came. She took her bread and butter and left the scullery.

The tin soldier had been made from a kitchen spoon. He was the last of a set, and the odd one out, with only one leg because, in the end, there was not enough tin to complete him. That was all she had read so far, but from the pictures further on she knew there was a dancer in the story, and a huge rat that would chase the soldier. Rudi had bought the book for Beryl in the school jumble sale, from the five pence piece father had given her. There was a word on the front cover that puzzled Beryl. She’d hoped mother might have said it when admiring everything Rudi had bought; but no. Later, she’d asked Rudi what the word was, and Rudi had said she had better try it for herself. But Beryl had already done that, and knew only that the word ended in ‘-fast’; how it began she could not work out, not with covering these letters or those letters, or building it up from its parts. What she did know was that the soldier was in trouble; she thought the word on the cover must have something to do with that. Whoever owned the book before had scribbled on the front page in blue biro, but the other pages were just like new. She wanted to look at it again before she slept.

First thing she saw was a flit gun lying on the floorboards. She stood over it looking, thinking it was not like a gun at all. She set her bread at her feet and hunkered down for a closer look. The canister on the end must be what held the poison. The part that looked like a bicycle pump must be what shot the poison into the air, onto the backs of the bugs, into their eyes and mouths. It would sting, and their miniature eyelids would swell and turn red like blepharitis.

There was a funny smell in the air. Beryl sniffed it. The chairs and beds had been dragged away from the walls, and the mattresses were the wrong way round, drooping on each side. The bedsprings went down deep, and were furry with dust on the coils. Beryl could see right through them to the floorboards below.

By the window was a yellow tin, rusty along its edges, with a soldier on its front, just like the little tin soldier, in a red jacket, tall hat, but with a flit gun instead of a musket resting on his shoulder. This was a funny thing to happen and something Beryl had begun to notice often - though had no word for yet: how matching things happened together. ‘Musket’ was a nice new word for Beryl and there would be more to learn in her book, she was sure. She shook the tin. Empty. The poison – all of it - was in the air. Would it have gone away by Monday after school? And where would it go?

Downstairs, Joey was crying. Mother was telling her to stop her carry-on. “What girl your age still drinks from her bottle?” she said. “What will Auntie Annie say about you behind your back? And cousin Vonnie? You’ll shame us all.” The voice was coming from the front room. Beryl had to be quick.

She found her book on the mantelpiece under the old Freemans catalogues. Standing on the potty chair, she could reach. She slipped the book out from under the weight with small quick jerks. At the top of the stairs she stuffed the bread in her mouth, chewed fast with noises she wouldn’t normally make, and swallowed.

She reached the fourth step from the bottom just as Rudi came into the hall, with coat belted and hat strings tied beneath her chin. Rudi stared up at her open-mouthed. Beryl sat, and put her book on the step behind, out of sight, as Father came into the hall with the shopping bag. Every Saturday he and Rudi took it to the Cash ‘n Carry to buy necessary things for the week: a jumbo block of Galtee cheese, tins of Cow ‘n Gate, teabags; and - for the weekend - Tayto crisps; but tonight it would become Rudi and Joey’s travel bag.

Mother appeared and put the rolled-up nightdresses in the bag, then pulled Joey into the hall, which was crowded now, with everyone but Nellie there. Joey’s lovely dark lip was big and moody. She stood rigid and puffy faced, as mother buttoned up her coat. “That us?” said father, zipping the bag. His eyes turned upward to the ceiling.

Nellie’s little voice rose then, growing fast and loud to a wail. “Mary, mother of God” said mother, rushing to the scullery where Nellie lay in the big pram, filling the house with her cries as they waited in the hall for Vonnie. They waited such a time. Father liked to be early for everything. Going fast is hard when you’re blind.

Vonnie pulled up right outside, and Rudi and Joey stood against the wall so she could come in. She said, “Hello everyone,” and shook father’s hand. She chatted to him with her hands in the pockets of her fur-trimmed jacket. Her name was Vonnie Lynne, a beautiful name that did not belong to either father or mother. She had a crocheted bag with big circle shapes hanging from her shoulder, and her corduroy trousers had wide flares. She could be in Freemans looking like she did. Her hair hung down her back, and when it slid forward she stretched her long neck and swung it back in place. The keys in her hand went jingle jangle as she took Rudi and Joey to the car. Father stood in the hall and chewed the skin on his thumb until mother joined him with Nellie whimpering in her arms. Nellie pointed to Beryl on the fourth step. Mother flattened father’s shirt collar against his pullover. Then Vonnie put her head around the door, saying “Rudi’s asking for you.”

“Me?” said mother, putting Nellie in Vonnie’s arms. Father followed her to the car.

“How’s life, little Beryl?” said Vonnie, jigging Nellie lightly on her hip. Nellie was reaching for Vonnie’s hair with wet fingers. “Your eyes look sore.”

Beryl lifted her book. “Look what I have.”

“Oh!” said Vonnie, coming closer. “I know this one. It’s a love story.” She smelled buttery and of something wonderful like rhubarb and grass in the park. Maybe Vonnie would know the word on the cover, but then she left, and the hall was empty again.

*

Beryl lay on the floor, on two settee cushions, feet to the clotheshorse, head to the unlit grate. She lifted her eyes from the page the moment mother appeared in the doorway with the school photograph in her hand. Earlier, she had put it on the high shelf out of the way, and said nothing about it.

“Hear that?” said father seated over at the window by the TV. “That military chief is after saying ‘starvation is a weapon of war’.” Mother set the photograph down and stood at his armchair, to watch the news about the black babies. Light and dark flickered over their faces. It was exciting to be watching TV in bed, strange with your bed on the floor, and lucky to be seeing the mysterious things that happened at nighttime.

The black babies had fingers in their mouths and withered skin. They were staring out with the whites of their eyes shining. Some had the huge bellies of starving black babies. Some had arms and legs like drum sticks. Grown-ups were standing round, some sitting, some looking right out at you. One mummy was feeding her baby, the way mother used to feed Nellie. A newsman with a microphone began talking. He looked like Val Doonican but without a smile, explaining about the famine and the two sides at war. He said ‘blockade’ and ‘pestilence’, new words for Beryl. “And we think we have it bad,” said father. Mother folded up the clotheshorse.

When father went to the top of the road for a pack of Embassy, mother turned off the TV, took the photograph from the sideboard, and pulled a chair up next to Beryl’s makeshift bed.

“Were you upstairs?” mother said. “There’s poison up there.”

So Rudi had told on her.

“Answer me.”

“Only for my book.” Beryl turned the page over. The goblin was towering above the soldier, his eyes dancing in his head.

Mother held out the photograph. “And what about this? Have you seen this?” Beryl looked at her bright yellow dress with navy collar and rickrack trim, her red cardigan that used to be Joey’s. Mother’s eyes were fastened on her. “Have you looked at yourself?” Beryl didn’t understand the question. “What’s the matter with you?” Mother was bending low and close. “Look at the big red rims round your eyes. You’re putting us to shame.” Mother stood and pulled the chair away. “If you don’t start doing what you’re told and eating up like your sisters – they’ll take you away. They’ll think we’re not looking after you.”

How Beryl wished she had lifted the flit gun upstairs and fired it, pushed the pump once, maybe twice, maybe lots of times, and seen the puffs of poison shoot into the air, and turn invisible as they fell to the floor.

“Sight of you!” mother said. “Like one of those Biafrans. That’s what people’ll call you: the Biafran.”

*

Father came back with a barmbrack. “Four pence,” he said. “Fella says it’ll be off tomorrow.” Mother sliced it for supper in the scullery, and father switched the news back on. Suddenly from the street, gunfire rang out, loud and sharp, as if it was in the room with you. “Jesus,” said mother from the scullery doorway. “The light,” said father, “the light.” More shots came, in a rapid chain, as father felt along the wall for the light switch, then spun back to turn off the TV. The scullery went dark and mother crept into the front room.

“Is it over?”

“Shh!” said father. “There’s someone out there. I can hear -”

Three quick raps came at the door. Mother leapt, and father grabbed her arm. Beryl twisted the blanket. Then more raps came: three together, a furious fourth.

“Let us in,” said a man’s voice.

Father held up his hand. ‘Say nothing’, he meant. ‘Don’t move.'

"Jesus," said the voice. "I'll get killed out here."

Father took a step forward and mother pulled at him.

“What if he’s shot?” whispered father, his eyes to the ceiling. “What then?”

But Beryl knew what mother was thinking. What if he’s the gunman who comes in and shoots them? Maybe he’ll shoot mother first, or maybe father. Then there the man was, in the room, shaking, saying “Saw your light go off. Every other house is pitch black. And not a sinner on the street. They knew something was happening. They knew all right.” He was looking through a gap in the curtain. He was ordinary, in jeans and a black jacket, letting on to be just a pedestrian. “Look!” he said. “The sixers are pulling up at the top of the street. Hear them?”

“Sixers?” said father, his eyes on the ceiling.

“The Saracens.” Doors banged open. Soldiers were leaping out with muskets.

“Trapped here now,” said the man. “Till it blows over.”

He unzipped his jacket. Beryl’s tummy lunged. He had a pistol, probably. Her insides were swelling fast till there was no more room for them. She needed the potty, but the potty was upstairs.

“Mummy,” she said.

“And now the rain’s on,” said the man.

“Mummy,” Beryl pleaded.

“Christ, would you shush!”

“I need the potty, mummy.”

The man stood, glaring at her.

“Take her out the back,” said father.

Mother grabbed Beryl and carried her at arm’s length through the scullery. She missed the step down to the yard, where the rain was slashing down. “Be Jesus,” she said, hurtling into the coalbunker, as Beryl flew face-first into a nappy on the line. For a moment the sopping nappy engulfed her, but mother pushed her on to the end of the yard where the ‘eyesore’ was, and opened the door that dragged along the concrete. “Pull down your pants,” she said. “Sit.” The eyesore stank and dripped. There was always water lying round it even when the yard was dry. Two old doors with rotten bottoms stood against the bath that was never used, to hide the filth of it.

The shit poured out of Beryl like the liquid tin that made the little soldier. It kept coming until her insides had shrunk again, and all the badness was out. Mother crouched next to her, her fist in her mouth. Even in the stench of the eyesore, her baby smell came through. All of a sudden, the rain stopped. The moon had been shining all along, and the safety pins on mother’s jumper flashed silver.

Mother wiped Beryl’s bottom, with a fist wrapped in paper.

“Who is that man, mummy?”

“Shh!” mother said, rubbing hard on Beryl’s thigh.

*

Later, when the top of the road was clear, and the man had gone, mother and father sat by the TV with tea and barmbrack. Beryl had a rusk in hot milk. Mother had sprinkled sugar all over it. On the floor she’d put a saucer with two teabags, cooling. Steam floated up from them and turned to nothing. The room was dancing silver and grey with the light from the TV. From down there on the floor, things looked to Beryl the way they did in her book: towering at an odd angle. The beads of hot sugar turned to liquid in her mouth.

“From now on,” said father, “you’ll conduct yourself as you’re told.”

Mother cleared away, saying nothing about the uneaten rusk. Father took the rosary beads from the sideboard drawer and knelt at his armchair. “Friday today,” he said.

“Sorrowful mysteries,” said mother, kneeling too.

They blessed themselves till mother stopped. “Beryl,” she said. “Put the teabags on your eyes now.”

“And listen to the prayers,” said father. Beryl squeezed the tea bags into the saucer and lay back.

“Then go to sleep,” said mother.

Beryl lay listening to the Our Fathers and Hail Marys, with a warm teabag pressed on each eye. It stung, but this was necessary to draw the badness out. The big bump on her lower eyelid that bled sometimes would shrink. The flakes of skin would fall away. The itch would stop. Her eyelashes would grow back. Soon, she forgot the prayers and thought about the pictures in her book. The rat in the sewer, the soldier’s long fall into the street, the fire melting him in the end. Was it meant to be happy, with just the little tin heart and the dancer’s spangle left in the burnt-out grate? But where had they gone: the soldier and the dancer? Maybe the word on the cover was the answer.

And oh! How long would it be till she was like Vonnie, and happy: with soft hair that moves and swings; crocheted spangles on her bag; a laughing voice you like to listen to, and keys that jingle jangle. Beryl rolled over and the teabags slipped from her face. Tomorrow, she would find a biro, and where it says ‘this book belongs to’ she would writeVonnie Lynne’, remembering the ‘e’ you might forget because it doesn’t say, “Look at me. I’m here."

 

©2017 Bernadette Owens

 

 

 

 

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