Posted on March 23, 2021
After school, I have to play outside. Mammy’s at the factory and Daddy’s in England looking for work. I’m not allowed in the house on my own because I can’t be trusted.
Me and my best friend, Rosemary, sit on the pavement, poking sticks in the soft tar. It’s getting all over our hands and we’ll be in trouble, but we’re bored.
“What would you do if you were rich?” Rosemary asks.
“I don’t know. How do you get to be rich, anyway?”
She thinks about it for a minute. “I guess if you were famous you’d have lots of money.”
“But how do you get to be famous?”
We both stab furiously at the tar for a few minutes, neither of us quite sure how to go about being famous.
Then Rosemary says, “Well, if you got your name in the paper you’d be famous, wouldn’t you?”
“Yeah, but only important people get in the paper.”
We wander round to the backyard, where there’s a cold water tap. It doesn’t wash the tar off but we manage to get our socks and shoes wet.
I have a good idea. “What if we gave money to the hospital like Mr. Brown did? He got his name in the paper.”
“Yeah, but Mr. Brown’s not rich, is he?” Rosemary objects.
“He’s richer than us, though, because he’s got a car and a job.”
“My daddy has a job.”
“But he doesn’t live with you and he hasn’t got a car.”
“You’re right.” Rosemary sees the sense of what I’m saying. “But where will we get the money to give to the hospital?”
I look at Miss Barr’s apple tree in the garden next door and the branches which hang over the hedge into our garden.
She goes mad if we pick her apples and I’ve been told time and again not to touch them.
“We could sell apples on the corner to the people coming out of the factory.”
Rosemary follows my gaze and gasps, “Susie, that’s stealing
“No, it’s not, because they’re already in our garden. So, really, they belong to us, don’t they?”
She always believes me and I always get my own way. Rosemary’s pretty but I’m the smart one. Too clever for my own good, Mammy says, which is very nice of her.
I climb on the dustbin, with Rosemary hanging on to my legs, and pick the apples I can reach, hitting the far-off ones with a stick so that they fall to the ground. Some of the apples have marks on them.
That’s all right. We can turn them upside down.”
We find a cardboard box in the shed and carry the apples to the corner. It’s throwing out time at the factory. The women frown at us and hurry past. The men laugh as if we’re funny and give us pennies. Sometimes they don’t even take the apples.
One of the men says, “You’d better watch out, your mammy’s coming.”
All the apples are gone anyway and we trail behind Mammy as she heads for home. Rosemary decides she’s in charge of the money and counts it. “Two shillings and thruppence. It’s not much, is it?”
It seems a lot to me.
“They’ll be delighted with that at the hospital. We’ll take it up on Saturday morning.”
She looks doubtful and I have to give her a pep talk.
“We have to make a start, or we’ll never be famous. Wait til our names are in the paper, everybody will be talking about us.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
Rosemary clears off for her tea and I go in to wash the dishes from this morning while Mammy cooks.
The lady at the hospital on Saturday morning is very smiley and laughs a lot.
I nudge Rosemary. “See, I told you they’d be delighted.”
“And what are your names, may I ask?”
The lady has her pen out. This is it, we’re going to be famous!
We split up at the corner of my road. Rosemary’s going swimming in the Bann this afternoon with her brother, Adrian. I’m not allowed to go to the river, because I can’t swim. But it’s all right. I’ve got an Enid Blyton book from the library and I get sixpence on a Saturday for sweets.
I help Mammy with tidying up and peeling potatoes for dinner,
even washing the dishes afterwards without being told to.
When I’m famous, she’ll be saying how good I was about the house.
I’m a good way into The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters and the Famous Five are showing the police how to do their job when there’s a knock at the door. I ignore it, until Mammy shouts, “Get the door, are you deaf?”Sighing loudly, to make sure she hears me, I make my way to the front door. Norman, from across the road is outside. I know from the look on his face he’s got something he’s just dying to tell me, but I won’t ask him and put on my patient face to stare him out.
It’s a waste of time, anyway, because he blurts straight out with it. “Your friend, Rosemary – she’s drowneded!”
He’s so stupid, the same age as me and he can’t even read yet. I tell him, “First, it’s drowned, not drowneded. And, second, if she was drowned, she’d be dead.”
His mother (he doesn’t say Mammy like ordinary people) comes running across the road after him and grabs him by the arm.
“Come away, Norman,” she says and looks at Mammy, who’s come up behind me. They do that thing grown-ups do, talking without saying anything.
I feel sick, like I’d eaten too many of Miss Barr’s apples.
Mammy brings me back into the house and talks to me ever so soft. It’s true. Rosemary got drowned in the river.
“But, she can swim. It’s not true. We’re going to be famous.”
I shout at Mammy and slap at her arms. When she cuddles me instead of scolding me, I know it’s true.
The Chronicle comes out on Friday. There’s a list of people who made kind donations to the hospital. Me and Rosemary are at the bottom of the list with two shillings and thruppence. Over the page, in among things about people who got born or married or died, there’s a picture of Rosemary in her school uniform. Underneath it are lots of nice things about her and how sad it was she got tangled up in the weeds. I find a bit that says how much her friend, Susie, misses her. I expect Mammy put it there.
Anyway, Rosemary is more famous than me because she got a picture in the paper as well as her name printed twice. I don’t mind.
Being famous isn’t at all like I thought it would be.
Posted on March 20, 2021
Well, here it is – new title, new design, new back cover. I’m going to miss Ashes on the Tongue, having lived with it for nearly a year, but I think Twice Broken is more appropriate to the story as it has evolved.
Posted on March 19, 2021
Ashes on the Tongue is no more.
Laid to rest 18th March 2021
Posted on March 18, 2021
With a publication date of 1st June firmly established, I really need to settle my mind on a cover. This is the latest (not the last) version and has a (sort of) blurb. Although I love the picture of the old farmhouse, I had quite a bit of feedback saying it wouldn’t have any impact at thumbnail size.
One person said she’d love to read the book but would have passed over the thumbnail. So I’ve reintroduced Devonn, who is so like Fen in my mind’s eye.
Posted on January 29, 2021
A few initial ideas for the cover of Ashes on the Tongue. I lean towards the centre one, followed by the far right, although I grieve for the bits of the painting I had to chop off. The orange text is a big mistake! That will definitely go. The font is Optima which was designed in the 1950s, the era the book is set in.
Posted on January 28, 2021
I’m blown away today by the arrival of this image to be used on the cover of Ashes on the Tongue, due for publication around Easter time this year. It is an original painting by Northern Irish artist, George A Gourley, showing a derelict house on the Tirkane Road, Maghera which is near Londonderry. I’m not quite sure how I’m going to use it yet – there are lots of ideas buzzing round in my head. Many thanks to George Gourley for giving me permission to use his painting.
Posted on January 16, 2021
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.