Mary J. Byrne
The media could play my mother’s heartstrings like a harp, and when they really went at it (Christmas for example) she’d go mad altogether: mad at my older brothers for not coming home, mad at me for not being old enough to have left, mad at her ex for having left, mad at the world for being born in a one-horse town and not getting anywhere in spite of her good looks, personality and intelligence.
I don’t understand why I feel nostalgic for those times. When they did something at the brewery there was a sweet smell like spicy wet toast. Textile workers with fluff on their shop coats punctuated the day cycling home for lunch or dinner, discussing abortion methods. Three castles above which floated high wheat fields. Paradise was an afternoon on the railway line, taking turns to swing each other out over unused tracks on a small crane, until the guardian summoned the energy to hunt us away. Afternoon was circumscribed at the other end too: I always had to turn up for tea, my mother’s last scrap of structure before our world fell apart. I felt that all my brothers had abandoned me to this responsibility. But sometimes I needed the structure too.
The other rule concerned bars. Bars were secret places where women and children couldn’t—and wouldn’t want to—go. My best friend’s father owned a bar in the town and Mother didn’t like me hanging out with her. A bar had a taint that a lounge (where women and even children could go, although we never did, even before Father left) did not. I was warned every day to stay out of there and I did, until one day I needed to pee and there was only the men’s lavatory, because it was a bar. My friend said it was okay to use it, so I did. Then a man came in and roared at me to get out of there. This caused endless fuss in the bar and on the street—not to mention later at home—that my friend and I could barely understand. (We can now, although we’re no longer friends.)
In school it was all Oh! this and Ah! that, and Romantic poetry and Shakespeare (I enjoyed him, but my classmates mocked the Bard, sneered at the teacher and generally pretended to be retarded) not to mention French and Latin. All of that was part of some fop world we could hardly imagine. A guy in a corduroy suit gave us some philosophy talks. He seemed very hyped about the will to power, a bad translation of a phrase by someone called Nietzsche who went bonkers after seeing a man beat a horse. Corduroy Suit showed us a video Nietzsche’s sister took of him lying on what looked like his deathbed (where he retired after the horse beating), but if you watched long enough you could see his moustache twitch from time to time, poor bastard stayed like that for 10 years. Some sister.
Maths, physics/chemistry made more sense to us. Our science teacher was a tough woman from the North with long black hair and no fear of adolescents. She taught us stuff about DNA and research going on around the world. You could tell she fully expected to inculcate something (I can still hear that word in her accent). I’d have opened a notebook if it wouldn’t have lined me up with the fops. I read somewhere that teachers always teach in the way they themselves were taught, making education at least a generation out of date at all times. But she was the only member of staff who seemed modern in methods and manners, her classes so interesting that we forgot to mess about.
On foggy November mornings, boys from my class, wearing old clothes, waited for rattling old Mercedes and SUVs to collect them, to go and pick potatoes. When they eventually returned from the muddy fields to school, having earned money their families needed, they were teased by the other boys in the class, and bullied by the teachers—except our science teacher—because they were often already repeating a year, mainly because they’d missed classes for potatoes or for fruit in early summer. Even the other pupils—except me and the bar-owner’s daughter—suspected they might have been held back because they were also stupid. I said so to my mother.
She nodded. ‘Because being poor is a kind of punishment, isn’t it?’ she said.
She’d just lost her job.
She added: ‘There has to be some reason for being punished, doesn’t there?’
Not long after that, one morning in that season of icy roads and bad cars, we had barely thawed out and were still banging desk-lids and stomping our feet when the Director arrived with a long face that commanded immediate silence.
‘Your science teacher won’t be coming,’ he announced in heavy tones, ‘today or any other day.’ That stopped us rattling and shuffling. When he had total silence, he continued, ‘She was killed stone dead last night. A horse ran across the road in front of her car.’
We all nodded and pictured the shiny red Mini. I thought that what he called a horse would be one of those half-wild piebald ponies that the poor boys rode and treated badly. Then it occurred to me that Chance had played her ace card and removed the only lifeline to exam success that might have led some of us to better things.
No one was exercised about that, busy as they were with closing the school for a day, planning a procession, organising a wall of flowers and nightlights and all the kind of stuff people do these days so it will all look good on the telly and maintain the Dutch flower industry (heated with spot petrol), plus straining my mother’s heartstrings, now she’s at home alone with nothing else to do.