By Donal McLaughlin – No harm to Lizzy or anyone else, but it wasn’t the Queen they waited up for but: it was the late-night horror film. DON’T WATCH ALONE was the name of it, not that there was a hope in hell o’ that in the O’Donnells’ house – not wi’ a houseful of weans lik yon, there wasn’t.
The craic them Saturday nights was something else, right enough. They’d all be sitting there, sure, watching it in the dark – wee Orla and Cahal would’ve been cuddled up against their mother or father or some of the bigger ones – and there wouldn’t’ve been a cheep out of them, not a single one of them – until, that is, every time Dracula was about to bite neck, and their da would free himself from whoever he was sitting beside and creep up behind the settee that was pulled up in front of the fire, and drop his falsers out of his mouth and down the back of some of their necks. Ye want to have heard the screams out of them! Half the suspense would’ve been wondering which of them their da would go for next; and he would do it to ye even if he’d promised FAITHfully never to do it to ye again. Ciara, say, would be sitting there thinking she was safe, thinking he would keep his promise – she, after all, had been theonetomakehimamugoftea-andthenext thing she knew his slabbery oul false teeth would be tumbling down the back of her wee frock. Then
would come up – and it was strange going from that to the photo of Lizzy on her horse and
They never got past OUR- in the O’Donnell house- hold. It wasn’t even as if the Queen got zapped with the remote control, either. Naw, we’re talking the days before remote controls here, when you had to get up off your backside, cross the room, and press buttons or turn a dial. Not that the O’Donnell weans let that stop them but:
No matter how tired they were, sure -
No matter how late it was -
No matter how many o’ the wee buggers had dozed off on the floor or settee, claiming they were resting their eyes and refusing to go to bed -
Even if they were out for the bloody count, for Godsake -
Or if the wee-est ones were past their sleep and grumpy as hell -
I’m not jokin ye: when it came to the band striking up GOD SAVE LIZZY, the whole bloody clan of them would come back to life and race from whatever corner of the livingroom they were in and descend upon the poor television set, each desperate to be the one to reach the ON-OFF button first. ‘CHRIST SAKE, WEANS!’ Bridget would scream out of her as – yet again – holy hell broke loose. She’d visions every time of the TV set coming off the top of the trolley and down on top of one of them. No matter how much she looked at thon husband of hers for support but, he would only laugh – pleased to see he was succeeding in rearing his weans up properly.
In the early days, when the race to turn the Queen off was beginning to be a regular occurrence, one of the Big Ones would normally have beaten the Wee Ones to the button. Ye could normally have put money on Annette who was as determined and as swift as she was shy and quiet. Liam, the eldest, might’ve had a good head on him, he was no athlete but, no matter how much it hurt his pride not to win the race.
The same boy – ye have to hand it to him – could certainly produce the odd stroke of genius but. Even his father had to laugh the night the wee bugger sat within easy reach of the plug and – cool as you like – just whipped the thing out as the rest closed in on the set. Lousy shite: when the others realised what had happened and turned to face him, he’d his head back, laughing, was gloating and goading them: twirling the plug above his head, the bugger was, lik it was Mick Jagger’s mike. Another night, – Annette, hoping he wouldn’t notice, had already installed wee Orla and Ciara to defend the sockets – he stood up and left the room as the anthem was about to start. To look at him, ye’d’ve thought he wasn’t goney compete; that he’d decided the whole bloody thing was beneath him. Turns out he was on his way to the fuse-box under the stairs. The looks on the faces descending on the telly were a picture, apparently.
Rest of them were demanding re-writes of the rule book thon night, so they were. The wee chorus of ‘and se-ent them home-ward, to think a-gain’ from beneath the stairs was the final bloody straw. ‘Daddy, tell Liam he’s not allowed to do that, Daddy!’ ‘Mum, tell Liam that’s not fair, Mum!’ they chorused. ‘Think you’re a smart arse, do ye?’ was all Annette said when Liam re-appeared, looking pleased with himself.
Aye, Annette and Liam certainly had their moments of glory, no doubt about it. If ye study the form over the months and years this carry-on went on but, it was Sean – Bridget and Liam’s second boy and the reserve goalkeeper in the school team – who stopped Lizzy in her tracks most. The young fella could be flat out on his back on the mat in front of the fire – and he’d still manage to turn and glide through the air, finger and thumb extended to steal the moment of glory from whichever of his brothers and sisters might have been ahead of the pack this time. ‘Bonetti the Cat’ or ‘Pat Jennings the Second’ his father would call him, laughing as the young fella avoided the trolley and completed his victory roll in the kitchen, returning gulping from a pint glass of water, stopping only to hold it aloft. Ye had to marvel at the wee bugger’s agility; his courage. It’s a wonder, in fact, he never got hurt, the way the rest of them crashed down on top of him. Still, it was good practice for the penalty area on Saturday mornings, his father supposed.
Naw, there wasn’t oncet, not a single once, the young fella shed a tear, no matter how often or what way the rest of the mahoods landed on him. Naw, if it ended in tears, it was more likely to be one of the Wee Ones, inconsolable at not being the one who’d turned the TV off. Sometimes, to pacify them, their mother or father would’ve had to turn it back on again for wee Cahal or Orla to switch off – and ye’d get a snatch of REIGN – O-VER – US before Lizzy was cut off in her prime again. Their mother or father intervening would put an end to the waterworks, alright, normally; ye could see deep down, but, that even wee Cahal and Orla, God love them, knew that their mother or father setting it up for them wasn’t the same as getting to the set first in the first place.
It didn’t help, of course, that one night, Ciara, the wee bitch, spelled it out to Cahal who she was in a huff wi’ at the time: ‘Don’t know what you’re looking so happy about, ya wee cry-baby,’ she’d sneered. ‘Jist cos your daddy turned it back on for you to turn off again doesn’t mean you stopped the Queen first. It was still Sean first, even if you got to do it, too!’ That had started Cahal bubbling again so Ciara got a cuff round the ear, was sent to bed, and was told in no uncertain terms it would be a long bloody buckin time before she’d get staying up long enough to see the Queen again.
It was a different story, of course, when they were listening to Radio Eireann and the Soldier’s Song came on. The fact the reception was rotten on their tinny wee tranny was neither here nor there. Their da had picked the thing up for something like 20 new p. at the school jumble-sale, and it stood on the mantlepiece with the aerial fully extended. Big Liam, whoever saw him, would’ve been footering about all night with it, trying to get decent reception: trying tricks like having the aerial leaning against the clock or touching the mirror. ‘Ye wouldn’t think it was just across the Irish Sea -’ was what he usually said. ‘God’s my judge: we got better bloody reception the night the Tic played Ujpest Dosza in buckin Hungary!’
Rotten reception or not, the Irish national anthem was allowed to play right through. It was rousing stuff, wi’ bits where ye could join in. All ye had to do was sing ‘God – bless – them!’ between the lines sometimes – as if it was a rugby or a football song. Not that Wee Liam, for example, did, but. Not bloody likely! Even at that age, the young fella was allergic, sure. No way could he’ve listened and, in his own mind, seen, say, footballers lined up, chewing gum and having a good scratch to themselves. Naw, even at that age, visions of raised rifles and men’s heads in balaclavas would’ve got in the way.
The surprising thing is that the young fella can’t mind the words no more. What he does mind is his da always getting to his feet in his tea-stained vest: he’d still’ve had his mug of tea in his left hand and a fag in his right, and he would’ve pestered the rest of them to get up off their arses, too. ‘Show some bloody respect, would yis!’ he’d say, tugging at their sleeves. There was something comical, right enough, about their da standing there, saluting the tranny, and trying to drag Liam or Sean up to do the same. Sometimes, but, he’d totally lose his temper and claim they’d a buckin cheek calling themselves Irishmen – or even Celtic supporters! ‘The macaroon bars and spearmint chewing-gum – that’s all yis bloody go for! That’s the only reason yis bloody go. Buckin macaroon bars and spearmint chewing-gum! Don’t think I don’t know!’
There was hardly a night they were up late, nevertheless, passed, but, without the odd one or two of them joining in – for the final chorus, if no- thing else. The Wee Ones didn’t know any better, and even they could recognise when the orchestra was coming to the end. The bigger ones would or wouldn’t’ve, depending on the mood they were in. Annette or one of the other girls might’ve, I suppose, – if only to please their daddy. Certainly, if any of them had got into trouble during the day, it was well- known that joining in – or offering to make him a cup of tea – was a short-cut back into the good books. As for their mother: there was no way on this earth ye would’ve got Bridget O’Donnell singing. She was totally browned off wi’ the whole thing, was past finding it funny, and normally just disappeared into the scullery. Not that it mattered, right enough: sure when it came to the last line, it didn’t matter how many were singing: they always took the roof off with that one.
There came a time, of course, when the older ones would’ve joined their mother. The fact their father cast it up to her, calling her a traitor and claiming she’d spent too long in England as a wean, wouldn’t’ve stopped them.
Liam was in there, exchanging looks with her, the night the police turned up at the door. It was the night Northern Ireland beat Scotland one-nil in
a friendly at Hampden, wi’ George Best scoring the only goal. It was their mother’s first-ever football match, and her and their father had gone along wi’ another couple – from Limavady, originally. Bridget had been so busy talking to the other woman but, she missed the bloody goal. ‘Never mind, sure I’ll see the replay!’ she’d said, as Georgie and the rest of the boyos danced their way back to their own half. Their da had loved telling the weans that one. ‘Never mind, sure I’ll see the replay!’ he kept repeating, tears of laughter flooding out of him.
Anyway, thon was the night the police turned up at the door, and the O’Donnells were still so over the moon at Northern Ireland beating Scotland, ye’d’ve heard them back in Derry. No way were they goney settle for singing the Soldier’s Song just once that night: naw, even as it was playing on Radio Eireann, sure, their da looked a single out which had it on the B-side – and he kept the arm back on the record player so as it would play over and over again. Wee Sean – trust him! – was killing himself when he realised, and turned it up full blast, the rascal.
It’s not a bit of wonder they didn’t hear the bloody police! Liam and his mother wouldn’t’ve heard them, for chrissake, if they hadn’t been in the kitchen. Saying that, the two of them weren’t even sure it was a knock, so Bridget had asked Wee Liam to go to the door with her. She nearly bloody passed out when she saw the two policemen – managed to say ‘Go and get your Daddy, son’ before they said anything but. Strange thing was: the police had actually waited for the man of the house. Must’ve seen the shock written all over the poor woman’s face.
It was pandemonium, of course, when Liam opened the livingroom door. He’d to shout ‘THE POLICE WANT YE, DA!’ twice, for Godsake, before the rest of them began to calm down. His da said, ‘What?’ and Liam repeated it again. ‘They’re at the front door wi’ Mum,’ he said, then marched over to interrupt the record. There was a terrible scratching kinda sound the way he did it; not that his da said anything.
The weans watched in silence as their da pulled his shirt on, quick. He was on the verge of leaving the room, when he stopped to put his tie on after all, and used the mirror above the fireplace to straighten it. Only oncet he was satisfied did he go out to face the music. The poor youngsters could only look at each other, terrified. Finally, wee Orla, God love her, couldn’t take it no more and bursted into tears, thinking her mammy and daddy were going to be arrested. Annette had to comfort her.
Ye could’ve heard a bloody pin drop. Not a word was spoken as they tried to hear what was happening. All they were able to make out, but, was their daddy using his polite voice to do the apologising and explaining. ‘I can assure you two gentlemen it won’t happen again,’ he said, then a policeman said, ‘That’s fine then, Sir. Good night then, Sir’, and they heard the front door shutting.
Their mother and father came back into the room.
‘Bloody buckin bitch next door!’ was all their father said.
‘May she roast in buckin Hell!’ he added, after a minute.
He was raging, crying, nearly, and was still shaking his head as he sat down, so livid was he at what had happened. Ciara, her wee eyes filling up, God love her, was on her way over to fling her arms round him when suddenly he looked up and started giving the woman next door the vicky. Ciara stopped in total shock: She couldn’t believe her daddy would do a thing like that. Michael Duffy had got four of the belt at school, sure, four sore ones, for doing that. She looked over at Annette; Annette just shrugged like she was helpless, but.
‘One-nil, ye bitch ye,’ their da was jeering.
The more he did it, the more the colour was disappearing out of Annette, the quiet one’s face. Her daddy was just making things worse by cursing. That was two sins on his soul.
There was no stopping him, but. Their mother couldn’t do nothing either. The stupid big lump was waving his fingers at the dividing wall, and he just kept doing it – with both hands, too – until his two arms tired.
‘Buckin-one-buckin-nil!’ he hissed, finally. Bridget saw her chance.
‘That’s enough of that, Liam O’Donnell, in front of the weans!’ she said.
Their da didn’t take her on.
She turned to them instead. ‘Right, folks, BED!’, she said. ‘NOW!’
It was only after the last of them had left to go upstairs, with their mother following after them, that their da noticed the cackle and hiss of Radio Eireann after close-down. He was damned if he was going to stand up but and go over and turn it off.
‘Knock that off for me, love, would ye?’ he said when Bridget came back down.
Donal McLaughlin’s short stories frequently draw on Irish-Scottish experience. His ‚Liam O’Donnell’ stories cover a period of about twenty years, move between the West of Scotland & Northern Ireland, and use the languages & voices of both these places. Background material on ‚An Allergic Reaction to National Anthems’, produced by the British Council, can be found online: www2.britishcouncil.org/slovenia (see ‚OUR PREVIOUS TEXTS AND AUTHORS’ under ‚READING GROUP’)
© Donal McLaughlin
Bild: Martin Zelmenis, Riga
ensuite, Mai 2004