Try Writing

Extract - taken from the opening of Herself Alone in Orange Rain

Dublin – 8th March, 1966

Explosion Destroys Nelson’s Pillar
Mixed reaction as imperial monument falls

An explosion on O’Connell Street has destroyed Nelson’s Pillar, causing minor damage to surrounding businesses. The incident, thought to be the work of Republicans, reduced the nineteenth century monument to rubble late last night.
No one was injured but falling masonry caused some damage, including crushing a parked taxi. The driver, Steve Maughan (19), escaped injury, having got out of the vehicle prior to the explosion. No group has yet claimed responsibility. The area has been cordoned off and will be inspected later by structural engineers.
The Pillar, erected in 1808 to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar, has been the source of controversy, with many calling for its removal on practical, aesthetic and nationalist grounds. One local resident, Mr Patrick Finnighan (66), commented, “It was an insult to 1916.”
There is speculation that the IRA bombed the Pillar to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, due to be commemorated next month.

***

The boys called to see me, making sure the ould fella was keeping well and letting me know the scéal•.
“Mr Finnighan, how are you?”
“Grand. Yourself, Frank?”
“Fine. How’s the wee ’un?”
A floorboard behind me creaked. It was herself, coming to investigate and wordlessly answer Frank’s question.
“She’s such a fair thing,” Frank crooned as she came to me, one soft fist clamped over the ould silver locket I let her wear, the other slipping into my leathery palm, sharp eyes seeing us and quick mind knowing us.
Caught in her gaze, Frank ruffled his hair in that frazzled gesture of his. Bursting to laugh, I watched the pair of ’em battle once again to get the measure of each other, certain Frank’d crack first, as always. And so he did, reaching into his pocket for the usual truce token, a lollypop.
She thanked him with the Irish I taught her, “Go raibh maith agat,” put the lolly away for later and went to her room to play.
With her gone Frank set to telling me how they planned to commemorate the fiftieth. I thought it a grand idea. Decided I’d be there to watch and her wee self with me. See, I knew by then she was going soon. I had to pack her off with something more valuable than that useless silver trinket. Sure, she loved it, loathed to take it off, but it was worthless now, engraved with initials that had amounted to nothing. I needed a better bequest. Taking her to watch the boys at work was just the job, chance to show her that life’s a struggle, let her see the truth of what I’d been teaching her about fighting what’s not fair. I went to wet the tea. When I came back the tray shook in my dothery codger’s hands; the boys took it for ould age but ’twas the thrill of my secret plan, making me slop muddy pools onto the doyley.

Three nights later I had her ready, muffled in winter boots and red duffle coat; the locket sat against the scarlet like a medal. As we stood in the hall, an odd pair, she clutched my hand, wondering, I bet, at the to-do. We shuffled out into the night as the hall clock chimed twelve.
She held my hand the whole way. As we closed in on the GPO I clung harder to her. I was afraid, in that darkness, of what was there, buried under a heap of time. I saw the bodies, heard the shots, felt the burning end of that unfair fight coming on me again. She musta sensed my fear, kept squeezing my twisted fingers with her mittened hand. I swallowed tears.
We tucked ourselves out of sight in Henry Street. Peering round the corner I saw Nelson, waiting on us, leering down. The eejit thought he’d seen us off in ’16. He should’ve known we’d be back. And so we were, me shivering in the shadows, the boys out there laying the charge. They knew what they were about sure enough but I didn’t much like the look of them in their Army clobber; heavy boots, blue jeans, dark jackets: balaclavas. I thought of what I’d worn: a kilt and a brat, pinned with a pierced sun brooch; a green uniform topped by a slouch hat; a fedora and trench coat, the length of it hiding a rifle. We’d no need of masks in my day.
The boys by the Pillar were set. I clocked Frank by that daft hair ruffling habit of his; even masked up he couldn’t stop hand from patting head. But then they got down to it, Frank pulling a sheet of paper from his pocket and reading it aloud. The night carried the words to me: the Proclamation. But it wasn’t the same as when I’d heard it read there before. The speech wasn’t his and your man’s words were too big for Frank’s mouth. Then they held a minute’s silence for fallen comrades, praying like the good wee Catholic boys they are. I bowed my head, thinking of poor Mick Collins, how we’d jigged in the street, ducking British bullets as we laid the charge, trying our damnedest to blow ould Nelson to hell. God and I never had any time for each other but Mick and me were solid, until the treaty.
At last one of them produced a lighter, sparked the flame. Rusted joints groaning, I crouched down to the wee ’un, pulling her in close.
“Watch!” I told her as he lit the fuse.
It burst like a star and fled into the blackness. We traced its flight, breath held. There was one almighty bang and one dazzling flash. I felt the sharp snap of shock fired through her, a gun’s recoil, but not a peep of fear passed her lips. The street lit up in furious orange; her green eyes shone, eager and alive. Down came the bollocks, in a rocky, rubbly rain. The boys cheered, punching their fists in the air. In our hidey-hole I murmured, “Éire go bráth!” before turning us to the long walk home.
It was late when we got in. She’d said hardly a word. I put her to bed, tucking her in tight. One hand closed comfortingly over the locket, she stroked my crinkled cheek with the other.
“Why did those men break that wee man, Daideo?”
“Sure, it wasn’t fair, him being there, so they were doing something about it. Like I’ve always told you to, Caoilainn.”
“Was he a bad man?”
“He was.”
“Silly Daideo, he wasn’t real.”
“I know, love, but you mind what I say: if things aren’t fair you fight ’til you make ’em fair. Do you understand?”
She puzzled it out a moment then nodded.
“Good girl. Now to sleep with you.”
She curled up. I reached the door but she wasn’t done with me.
“Why was Aidie’s daddy wearing a mask tonight, Daideo?”
Jesus, thinks I, she’s a smart one, clocking Frank like that.
“Sometimes it’s better if people don’t know it’s you doing the fighting, love.”
“Why?”
“So they don’t try to stop you.”
She nodded again. “Are there lots of bad people?”
“Some, but they won’t hurt you as long as you don’t let ’em. Remember that.”
I’d said my piece, too much of it maybe, but I couldn’t let her go without being sure she understood.
“O.K., Daideo. Can we go to the park again tomorrow and see the ducks?”
“We can, unless it’s raining, then we’ll get the colouring books out, eh?”
“Can Aidie come?”
“We’ll ask his da.”
“Aidie says if you feed them too much bread they explode.”
I cursed myself for letting her play so often with Frank’s youngest, little bugger, filling her head with nonsense when I had important lessons for her.
“Does he now?”
“Why do the ducks eat bread if it’s bad for them?”
“Because no one’s told them they shouldn’t.”
“That’s not fair, is it, Daideo?”
“I suppose not.”
“Someone should tell them, like you tell me. That’s fairer. They’ll know not to be eating it. I’m going to tell them. I’ll tell the ducks they’re not to eat any more bread. I won’t let the ducks explode.” She sat up, her wee angel’s face screwed down with the fight in her. I saw the past and the future in that look she gave off.
“You do that, a chailín bhig.” I kissed her goodnight. Left her lying in the darkness, planning a grand wee speech to the ducks. Aye, it was time she went.

Two days later the Free State army were in town to tidy up, demolishing what was left of the Pillar. That was the day the Ryans came to take what was left of me. It was best for her. She drove off with them, wrapped in her red coat, sucking the IRA lolly she’d saved for later.

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