The walls here are brown and red. They used to be blue, pale blue but not baby. Grey-blue. Old man blue. Hospital blue. Prison blue. Now they’re brown and red.
I did it.
Mammy tells us everyday not to climb the wall.
“Yous’ll fall off. Hurt yeselves. Don’t come crying to me if you hurt yeselves.”
I double-dare Frank.
“Go on, baby.”
He sticks his tongue out.
“You won’t be doing it. Chicken.”
“Sure, but you first,” he says.
The wall is high. We use bins, clamber up them, get a toe-hold and haul ourselves skyward. On the wall there’s graffiti. Irish Ran Away in weak yellow letters. Underneath, in green, bigger and bolder, decrying the first: Brits Out.
We climb the wall year round, because of the tree that grows up behind it. In winter we rub our bare hands on the rough bark and feel fiction-heat, get splinters. In spring the blossom smells sugary; in summer it shades us. We straddle the wall, sheltered by spreading branches green-heavy. We slurp ice-pops, blow bubbles into soda bottles through straws. Swing our legs. Look down on the world.
In autumn we pick the best apples. It’s not our tree. Frank worries. Stealing’s a sin
“Tell the bloody priest then, ye wee shite.”
He shakes his head, presses his lips hard together. He’s known from no age that you don’t tell around here.
I’ve tried for a pattern. Like the even random flecks and peaks of the woodchip wallpaper at home. Some days it’s the right consistency. Others it’s too runny. Depends what they feed us. I keep hoping for sweet corn. Add a dash of yellow, so it would. Sunlight, golden leaves: undigested vegetable matter.
“I’ve telt yous ‘til I’m sick. Don’t be climbing that wall.”
Mammy is yelling. She saw us up there. She yelled my name. Sian, Sian, Sian. Ordered us down. Frank goes, tumbling but safe. I’m safer up here.
“Get yeself here now, Sian Frances Murphy.”
I look down on her. She grabs my ankle.
“Sure, I’ll bloody pull you off.”
I doubt it. Still, there’s no escape.
My red plastic sandals hit the pavement with a slap. She twists my arm.
“I’m sick of telling you, so I am. You weans’ll be the death of me. Especially you, ye shite.”
She shakes me. When she gets me indoors, behind the burnt yellow nets, she’ll smack my arse ’til it’s red.
I look up at the wall. The tree. I’ll be back tomorrow.
The door clangs open, splitting my ears. The routine: unlock; bang back full force; slam into wall, cutting a vertical trench there, old man blue sliced in brown and red. They do that ‘cos once I stood behind it. Letting them come in, thinking I’d turned to smoke and got out from under it in a thin wisp of vapour. Then I leapt onto her back. She screamed in fear. Me in rage. A battle cry. Her mate whacked me and whacked me and whacked me. I felt the wind go. The rib break. The skull squelch. Gave in. Scorned myself later for not clinging on for the end.
It’s her again, nervous as ever. She blocks the doorway with her square arse.
In my mind: Yer nerves are wasted. I’m not for trying it today.
But she can’t trust me since my flying leap. One day I might stand behind it again. Let it clang into me. It wouldn’t make a clang hitting into me. A crunch, maybe.
I refuse to eat. Egg, chips and beans, thick with cold grease, sour in front of me. I fold my arms over my chest, press down on the two small lumps that are swelling there. Stare at the food; prove to it that I’m not going to submit. Not even for egg, chips and beans.
“Eat yer tea,” Mammy says.
In my mind: Feck you, I will not.
“If yer da was here, he’d be making you eat it.”
He’s not here. I don’t think he’ll ever be here again. I’m not afraid.
She huffs and puffs.
“Fine, starve, ye wee shite,” she says. She jerks the plate away from me. Sure, I’ve won again.
The priest comes. He avoids my walls, ignoring my attempts at woodchip papering. More time wasted.
We stand. There’s nowhere to sit. He doesn’t shuffle on his shoe. Takes only the steps he needs, keeping contamination to a minimum. I don’t shuffle on my feet. I’m almost spent, needing to save every drop of energy I’ve got to keep myself from surrendering.
“Sian, for Jesus’ sake,” he pleads. His voice warbles like a thrush’s. I wonder if it’s spring yet.
He’s all in black. Excepting the white slash at his throat. It hurts my eyes, that slash of white. So brilliant. So clean. I long to touch it with my fingers. No, lick my tongue along it. Cold and soothing. Like ice-cream.
“You’ve no need to be doing this,” says he, “If it must be done, leave it to the men.”
In my mind: What did they do to for the right to martyr themselves alone? What about me?
“Will you say a prayer with me?” he pleads.
“Oh Lord, give me sweet corn.”
I turn my back to him. Let him stare at the long matt of red clumped with brown that brushes my bare shoulders. I’m thinking about dropping my blanket. We’re all naked in the eyes of the Lord.
“Mammy says we’re not to.”
“Mammy says, Mammy says. Chicken shite,” I hiss.
Frank’s eyes tremble.
I crane my neck. Way up on the branches apples, swollen, full grown, bend boughs with their juices. I want a shot of those apples.
“Look, Frank, at the apples. Don’t you want a shot of those apples?”
“Aye, ye do. I’m going, so I am. You stay here. Baby.”
I tuck the soda bottle into the back of my jeans. Cold glass wet on my skin. I swing up onto the bin. Hard metal rattle in my ears. Slot my fingers into the groove above my head. Bring one foot up, then the other. Reach for the next hand-hold, toe-hold. Leg up. Leg over. Straddling the wall now.
I look down on Frank. Pull the soda bottle from my waist band and point it at him like it’s a gun.
He scuttles for the bin.
I give up on woodchip. Try plastering it flat as a mirror. Remembering my da, before Frank was born, when he was still working. Watching him plaster the wall in the baby’s room. Swishing his float over and over in fluid arcs. Waves on the sand. Clouds across the sky. When he was done that wall was flawless. I want these walls flawless now. Flawlessly brown and flawlessly red. They’re my only colours here.
We sit on our wall. Mounted on Irish Ran Away and Brits Out. Everyone is going somewhere. We’re staying here. On our wall.
We swig our sodas. I tip my head right back, squeeze the last drop then wait for the very last drop and the final, last-of-all, never-be-another drop. Then, ‘cos I’m so far leant back, I go all the way, lying along the wall. Hard red brick, warmed by Indian-summer sun, seeps through my T-shirt.
The sky. Pure blue. Baby blue. Cornflower blue. Faded denim blue. The colour of Frank’s bedroom walls.
“Clean and bright, pure and white. That’s my homeland for ever,” I sing.
“What’s with you?”
“You can’t sing, Sian.” He laughs harder. Soda dribbles out of his nose. He wipes at it.
“Least I’m not a baby, snotting everywhere.”
He goes quiet. Mammy’s right. I am a shite.
One apple is overhead. Larger than all the others. Redder. Riper. I’m going to have that apple. Get a shot at it; crunch into it and feel the juice spurt through my lips, the creamy white flesh pulped in my mouth, crushed between teeth, choked down throat.
I stand up.
“What yer doing?”
“Sure, I’m getting that apple.”
“Sian, you might fall.”
“Don’t be a dafthead. When’ve I ever fallen?”
Never. Neither has Frank. I tightrope it over to the trunk. Reach up for the apple. My fingers slide on its smooth-as-wet-plaster skin. I clutch. Tug.
“Got ye, ye begger.” I hold it aloft for Frank to see.
“Sian, get me one,” he says.
“Get yer own.”
I use my forearm for the plastering. I wish I could cut it off, hold it in my other hand and skim it float-like. Maybe the tea tray’ll do it better. I’m impatient for the five o’clock feeding and make one neat handprint in the corner. Like Da had me do when he’d finished Frank’s walls. My ‘hello baby’ wave.
Frank chooses an apple. Low down, easy to reach. I shake my head. Point out a harder one. Crunch my own temptingly. He stretches up, the pads of his toes, then the tips then just the nails baring his weight inside his sneakers. The red globe of sweet juice is within his grasp.
He over balances. Arms whirl about his head like a windmill gone wild. His hips jive back and forth, thrusting in some obscene dance.
I’m on my feet, grabbing him. He steadies; the whirling subsides. It takes a second, maybe two. Then he’s laughing at me and we’re both safe. I step back. Proud saviour of my wee brother. Kick my empty soda bottle and it falls to the ground, explodes, air breaking out of glass.
Shots, more than one. Bullets dive-bombing like livid hornets. They slice the no-wind day with zip and crack, buzz and sting. I drop down, instinct driving me back into a hole that isn’t there. Frank drops too. Not under the shelter of the tree but backwards, over the wall. Out of sight. The apple in my hand shatters, spattering me with fleshy fragments, apple-white and blood-red. I scream and scream and scream...
Screw, not Square-arse today, some other, barks, “Visitor.”
In my mind: Bejesus, what’s this? I’m not allowed a-one, so I’m not.
“Hello,” he says. Some middle aged, middle class stranger. Looks middle management. Thinks middle minded. Steps into the middle of the room until he’s surrounded himself in the brown and red walls and surrendered himself to the stench. Screw stays in the corridor. Guarding. “And how’s yourself?” he asks like an old friend would. Holds out his hand for mine. It’s pink: unpolluted.
I step back.
“Sure, it’s alright,” he says, coaxing the animal in its cage.
In my mind: You’ll not be thinking that when you’re trying to scrub the shit off.
I shake. Feel the tiny knot of paper pressed into my palm.
“I’m a journalist,” says he, “I’m looking at how things are.”
“They’re brown and red,” says I.
He nods sagely round the room, paying his respects to each wall in turn.
It’s a comm, the paper-knot. I wait a long time to open it, worrying about what it says. Eventually I crouch in a brown and red corner to read it.
An order. No, an offer. From a man I’d forgotten about. OC. To stop now, I’ve done enough. There’s word it’s all going to change. They’ll send me back if I stop, let me wear the pair of faded 501s that are locked away for my own good, remit me, even let me out. He believes it’s happening. I hope it’s not. I swallow the paper. Tomorrow I’ll be adding it to the wall. I’ve decided to give up plastering. Art’s the thing. A mural.
I never saw the patrol. Didn’t hear the boots marching up the road nor the armoured sloth beast on wheels trailing them.
“Mammy, I didn’t know they were there.”
They didn’t know we were there either. Thought it was the Ra. Rained their deaths on our heads.
“Mammy, sure, we shouldn’t’ve climbed the wall.”
That’s what they say later. It was the Ra. Not two kids picking apples.
“They shot my wee brother, so they did.”
“So yous’ll let me join?”
OC shakes his head.
“Ah, Sian,” he says, “You know where ye’ll be ending up? Jail. Or the cemetery.”
“They shot him.”
My heart’s fixed. Sure, he can’t afford to turn away willing volunteers. Or desperate ones. Or crazy ones. Even knowing why he still wouldn’t turn me away. I’m here for revenge. That’s what he knows.
In my mind: I’m here to die. A life for a life.
If later they ask, “Sian Frances Murphy, why did you join the IRA?” I might be telling them the truth.
In my mind: Go on, yer fuckers, fucking shoot me.
Trust me to get the jail. Slow agonies that never die instead of quick ones gone in a heartbeat. Sure, I’ll have another shot at it?
The mural looks grand, drawn in shit with my finger. There’s the wall, the tree, me and Frank: the apple hanging over his head. In nine days I’m due red; I’ll colour it in bright. Then I’ll sit back and watch us standing on our wall forever. Looking down on the world.