Billy lived alone in a corridor and wore blue silk drawers. On wash day, Mammy closed the curtains on our kitchen window so she couldn’t see them on Billy’s clothes line. He had a matching vest, a bit frayed at the edges, but without the faint brown stain on the drawers.
He was a Roman Catholic and we were Protestants, but Mammy did her duty and sent me round to Billy’s house every Sunday with a bowl of stew. I had to go out of the front door, which opened directly on to the street, because what was the point in doing a good deed if nobody knew about it?
It was only a few steps to Billy’s front door, just enough time to shove a couple of spoonfuls of stew into my mouth and return the spoon to the bowl. Sometimes, he was waiting behind the net curtain and opened the door before I could kick it.
“Hurry up, get in. I can see Ma McCracken’s curtains twitching.”
“Mammy said can you wash the bowl before you give it back.”
She didn’t, but I never missed a chance to practice my dumb insolence.
“Off you go, out the back way.”
I liked going through Billy’s long, narrow house, surely some kind of architect’s mistake. The narrow living room, barely wide enough to accommodate the front door and the window, led into the bedroom. A glowing Sacred Heart adorned one wall, above a dresser with dusty vials of Holy Water.
Billy was going to Hell, but I wasn’t quite sure why, only that it was something to do with the Pope. His window always got smashed on the Twelfth of July, but he never told the police. No point. My Da fixed it for him and Billy slipped him a bottle of whiskey when Mammy wasn’t looking.
A tiny scullery beyond the bedroom opened on to the communal garden. A quick hop over the dividing wall and I was home again, job done for another week.
One Sunday in November, after taking Billy’s dinner to him, I overheard a conversation between Mammy and my older sister, Frances, who was getting married in a few weeks. Frances could whinge for Ireland.
“Do we have to invite Billy to the wedding, Mammy?”
“Yes, we do. What would the neighbours think if we didn’t ask him?”
“But he’s – you know –”
“I know, but maybe he won’t come.”
But Billy did come, in spite of being “you know –”. His hair was freshly permed and his overcoat had a velvet collar, which proved to be quite the talking point. I watched him like a hawk all day, but couldn’t work out what “you know –” could possibly mean.
January blew in with sleet and snow. Mammy stepped up Billy’s dinners to twice a week. Well, it was the Christian thing to do. The snow was too deep for me to walk a mile to school, so I was left alone in the empty house while Mammy and Da went to work.
The letterbox thumped and a handful of letters shot through on to the floor. I picked them up and had a quick shuffle. We didn’t get many letters as such, usually just bills, but today there was a lavender-perfumed envelope addressed to Mr. W. McParland of number 22a, Reilly Street.
Well, this was interesting.
We were number 22 and, for the briefest of seconds, I considered walking next door and poppng it through the letterbox. But, lavender perfume? Maybe it was a love letter. Maybe it had stuff in it about ‘you know –’.
No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than I had the envelope ripped open. The writing was flamboyant and written in purple ink with lots of curlicues. I could hardly contain myself, even as I struggled to read it.
My dearest William,
It seems so long since I last saw you, when we ran naked through the grass together.
Boy, this was good.
Unfortunately, that was the best bit. The rest was just a lot of boring arrangements to meet, so I skimmed over it until I got to the bottom of the page.
Yours, in loving friendship,
Harold? That wasn’t a lady’s name. Why would a man write that stuff to another man?
I was so engrossed in this conundrum that I didn’t hear Mammy come home.
“What’s that you’re looking at?”
She held out her hand “Let’s see nothing, then.”
I didn’t have to wait long for a reaction.
“Where did you get this filth?”
Unseen, I stuffed the envelope into my pocket.
“Uh, it was in the dustbin. It was on top when I took the rubbish out.”
Without further ado, Mammy turned on her heel and stormed out into the street, hammering on Billy’s door and shouting for him to come out.
He opened his door and, before he could speak, Mammy was in his face.
“You bloody pervert! You’re not fit to live near decent people! And leaving your filth where a child can see it, you’re evil.”
Billy stood open-mouthed, without a clue what she was talking about.
An interested crowd of neighbours were unashamedly gawking at the spectacle, which lent fuel to Mammy’s ire.
“Yes, you can all look! You don’t know what he’s been up to. Things with men!”
Things? What things? Running in the grass?
She caught sight of me, taking everything in and dying to know more.
“And you, get back inside. You’ve seen enough for one day.”
Back to Billy, now ashen-faced and trying to get his hands on the letter.
“Oh, no. This is going to the priest, he’ll know what to do about it.”
There was much, much more as the neighbours felt it was only right that they had a say in the matter. But I didn’t hear it, as the door closed behind me.
After that, there were no more dinners for Billy.