Authors: Mark O'Sullivan
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark O'Sullivan is a writer whose work has won several awards in Ireland and France and has been translated into six languages. He is married with two daughters and lives in County Tipperary.
This edition published 2010
by Little Island
An imprint of New Island
First published in Ireland in 1997 by Wolfhound Press Ltd.
Copyright Â© Mark O'Sullivan 1997
The author has asserted his moral rights.
All rights reserved. The material in this publication is protected by copyright law. Except as may be permitted by law, no part of the material may be reproduced (including by storage in a retrieval system) or transmitted in any form or by any means; adapted; rented or lent without the written permission of the copyright owner.
British Library Cataloguing Data. A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Cover design by Fidelma Slattery.
Inside design by SinÃ©ad McKenna.
Printed by ColourBooks Ltd Ireland
Little Island received financial assistance from
The Arts Council (An Chomhairle EalaÃon), Dublin, Ireland.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For Joan, Jane and Ruth
Also by Mark O'Sullivan
Melody for Nora
Washbasin Street Blues
More than a Match
Young Adult Fiction
Angels Without Wings
I suppose you could call it delayed shock. It had been two weeks since I'd found the photo, and my life had gone on as normal. At least, that's how it must have seemed to OD, my boyfriend, and to everyone else. But inside I'd gone numb. I couldn't think, I couldn't study. I felt nothing. And then I cracked.
The child in the photo was me. I was certain of it. My brown skin, the tight black curls, something about the eyes. I don't know how long I spent there, gaping at the photo, before I put it back exactly where I found it; but, to this day, I can remember every detail of it. The impossibly blue sky, the lush green trees in the background, the bright colours of their clothes. There were five adults in the photo. My adoptive mother, May, stood young and fresh-faced between a man and woman, two real hippy types who looked like they hadn't slept for a month. But it was the pair in front who really grabbed my attention. I didn't have to look twice to be sure that here, holding the tiny black infant, was my natural mother. Then there was the man crouched beside her. Tall, and darker than I am, but with my eyes. My father. I was certain of it.
The strange thing about the photo was that none of them were smiling except for the woman who held me. This convinced me even more that she really was my natural mother.
Tom and May had always told me that they never knew my natural parents.
The first thing I felt, before I stopped feeling anything at all, was guilt for having discovered the photo at the back of Tom and May's wardrobe. It wasn't the first time I'd searched in there among May's old clothes, the kind of stuff that's back in fashion again â flares, Adidas wear. May never throws anything out. But, knowing I often went through her things, why did she leave the photo there? It's not the kind of thing you forget, is it? And the blonde woman in the photo, the woman holding the baby? I'd never seen her before, but I guessed she was the same one May had gone to Kenya with as a young teacher in 1975. Heather. Heather Kelly. May had only ever mentioned her once or twice in passing and I never asked questions. In fact, I rarely asked about that distant part of my life. I think I felt deep down that if I did, I'd discover things I wasn't ready to know.
Besides, I had no reason to doubt the story as I knew it. Tom had gone out to Kenya in 1977 and joined the staff at May's school outside Nairobi. They married early in 1979. A few months before they left for Ireland, later that same year, they adopted me. I was the child, they said, of a mixed-race marriage and my parents had died in a car crash.
More than once, OD had told me he was surprised I never wanted to find out more about myself. I just told him I knew who I was, but it always felt like a lie. And lies can be easy to live with if you bury them deep enough. I buried mine beneath a heavy schedule of study, sport â and going out with OD.
I didn't have much time left to think about how different I was. But whether I liked to admit it or not, I was different. I was the only coloured person in a town of seven thousand, which is as different as you can get, I suppose. But I was sure that was as far as it went. In every other way I was the same as everyone else, and I was rarely made to feel anything but one of the crowd. Whenever I was reminded, I never felt humiliated â why should I? What I felt was anger. And, besides, I had plenty of defenders if I needed them.
Like the time a gang of us were in the back room of the Galtee Lounge watching Ireland play in a World Cup qualifier. There were eight of us there but only a few were drinking: Johnny Regan â a pimply drughead and general rat â and, of course, OD. I still thought then that I could straighten OD out, that I just had to wait and be patient.
Johnny worked with OD on the FÃS Scheme, building the new town park. When Paul McGrath's bad clearance early on led to a goal, Johnny hit the roof.
âYou black bastard!' he roared. Everyone looked at me. Except Johnny, who was too smashed to notice.
I picked up his pint glass and emptied the Guinness over his greasy head. OD caught him by the scruff of the neck and, with his crazy pal Beano's help, bundled Johnny out the back door.
Johnny didn't hang around us after that, but he got his own back when things began to go wrong between OD and me.
But, as I said, these things didn't happen very often. When they did, I always ended up feeling people were on my side, so I could forget quickly. With the Leaving Cert coming up in less than three months I had even less time than usual to wonder about who I was. And there was OD to worry about. He was making a mess of his life, and I was wondering what I could do to make him see sense.
Then, on Monday, the fourth of April, I found the photo. I often think it should have happened three days before. The first of April. Fools' Day.
Two weeks later, I sat by a roaring fire in our sitting room. May and Tom had gone out, as they usually did on Sunday nights, to meet some friends. OD had been up earlier and wanted me to go out celebrating his team's win over St. Peter's in the Youths League.
Don't get me wrong. I like soccer. But when your boyfriend is on the town's Youths team and your father â your adoptive father â is the manager you can get a bit tired of football talk.
OD was on a high. St. Peter's had been two points ahead of them going into the game and he'd scored the winner.
âCouldn't we go to the pictures?' I said.
I knew something was going to happen that night because I'd started thinking again. I was feeling things I'd been avoiding for two weeks. I didn't want to talk to anyone or pretend everything was rosy. OD should have realised I wasn't myself, but he let me down. I needed the comfort of silence; he wanted the comfortable blur of noise. It was the beginning of the end.
âYou want to see
,' he sneered unpleasantly. âAgain!'
It was an old joke â white boy saves black girl â and I didn't like it.
âWe could get a video and stay in.'
âTom can't stand the sight of me, you know that. He'd freak out if he caught me here.'
âWe've stayed in before and he never complained.'
âMaybe he doesn't say anything, but I know how he looks at me. He couldn't wait to see the back of me out of that dump of a school. Soon as he gets a chance, he'll have me off the team, too.'
âYou didn't need any excuses to leave school, OD.'
Then the usual vicious argument started up â me telling him he was throwing everything away and him telling me that anything was better than the hassle from teachers, especially Tom, who's the vice-principal at our Community College.
OD had never been what you'd call the studious type. Always too busy with soccer, rugby, hurling â and messing. Still, he'd always managed to be in the top five in our class, and in the Junior Cert his results weren't far short of my seven A's and two B's. It seemed to come so easily to him. But in fifth year he started to slip. Then I started going out with him and found out what was up.
His parents hadn't been getting on. His mother had just gone to England and left OD and his father, Jimmy, in a state of disbelief that soon turned to anger on OD's part â anger not towards his mother but towards Jimmy and everyone else around him. And towards himself, of course.
Soon, he packed in school. I couldn't get him to see he was punishing himself for someone else's mistakes. But I couldn't walk away from him, not at a time like that. And besides, I liked being with him. He was tall, dark and wide-eyed, and something was always happening when he was around. If it wasn't, he made something happen. He could be funny when you wanted a laugh and serious when you were in a mood to talk.
When he got drunk it was a different story. I don't know whether it was a case of me being blind or him being careful, but it was months before I realised he drank too much. Maybe it was the fact that instead of getting rowdy, like you'd expect, he'd just go quiet. As time went on, he drank more and more when I was around, as if my silence was some kind of acceptance, and I began to notice that this quietness had nothing to do with calm. More and more I could sense this aura of nervous, pent-up energy in him, like he was clenching his brain as hard as he clenched his fists. That was when the bitter jokes, like the
one, came out. And there was something else too. The tension I felt when he got like that was exactly what I felt after a dream I'd had, from time to time, ever since I can remember.
In the dream I seem to be very young and small and I'm hiding in a dark place. I can see nothing but I know something bad is happening outside my hideaway. I can hear the sounds of an argument but can't recognise the voices. The dream ends with a loud bang. When I wake, the sweat is pouring from me. The same fear hit me when OD got like that. That's when the real doubt began to set in and I realised that I'd never really get inside that muddled head of his.
Beano â Brendan Doyle, OD's friend â had his own theory.
âHe reads too many books,' he'd tell me. âI saw him reading a poetry book one time. Not for school, like. He actually bought the thing!'
But back to that Sunday night. We ended up, as usual, with a few last taunts. âWhat's on telly, anyway, only crap,' he said. Then, another cut: âCrap like
The Cosby Show.'
Another bitter old joke â I was the comfortable middle-class black, just like the Cosbys; he was the poor white boy.
âSo, what programme do you fit into?
Home and Away
?' I asked dismissively.
I should have known he'd have a smart answer ready.
Only Fools and Horses,'
he said. âWithout the jokes.'
âGet lost, OD. Go and drink yourself silly. Pretend you're alive.'
âDon't talk to me like that.'
âYou like talking tough, don't you?'
âIt's your fault. You're driving me to it, Nance.'
âIt's always someone else's fault with you, isn't it?'
His mind was working overtime but there were no more smart answers coming through. He gave up trying.
âI'm out of here,' he muttered and swayed a little as he went to the sitting-room door.
Out in the hallway, his hand somehow got tangled in the telephone cord as he passed by. When he tried to get free, the phone fell to the ground.
âSee what you made me do,' he said. He didn't even bother to pick it up.
I closed the front door behind him without a word and went back into the sitting room. I opened the geography book I'd been studying before he'd called. OD had given it to me when he'd walked out of school. His initials were still on the front cover.
I flicked through the pages. I got to the chapter on Africa and my finger slowly followed the outline of that continent until it came to Kenya. I tore out the page with venom, crumpled it up and threw it in the fire. I did the same with every other page in the book. Then I ripped the cover to pieces and watched as the flames encircled the initials, âOD', and swallowed them up, and the frail black remains fell asunder among the red-hot coals.
The maths book came next. I love maths â you can find such predictable, tidy answers â but maths wasn't going to help with this problem. European history followed, then Irish history, accountancy, every textbook I could find. The last one was an English book. Tom was my English teacher.
Then I started with my notes.
the poetry â¦ and the chimney began to roar out with a deep bellow I could feel in the pit of my stomach.
Great lumps of steaming black gunge fell on to the hearth. I ran outside to the front lawn and saw flames shooting out of the chimney pot. Curtains moved in the houses opposite and I screamed out, âMind your own business!'
I went back inside and rang the fire brigade.
âWhat's the problem?' the woman at the other end of the line asked.
âFire,' I said foolishly. âSend someone to help me.'