‘Tony’ is a snapshot of a working class Catholic life in 1960s Northern Ireland. Told from the perspective of the title character, the story offers a sensitive unpacking of day-to-day existence amid a climate of anxiety and religious persecution.
Tony sat at the kitchen table, his blank homework sheet out in front of him. Sinead, his younger sister, sat doodling on her own sheet beside him. She was eager to get finished up so that she could join her siblings playing. They were the lucky ones, not yet old enough to be worried about things such as homework. She could hear them upstairs, a constant stream of giggles, interrupted only by the odd bump or crash.
But Tony was content where he was. His dad had announced at dinner that it was to frost over that night, and so the kitchen fire had been lit, bathing the room in a warm golden glow. Tony’s mum also sat at the table with them. He watched her long fingers as they effortlessly fluttered a paintbrush across a canvas, bringing to life a warm summer’s day by the beach. She never paused between strokes, never waiting long enough for conscious input from her brain to interfere with her instinct. She began to dab a silvery colour onto the water, and Tony could feel waves ripple over his toes. From her left hand, a long cigarette dangled, sending twirls of smoke dancing into the air.
The thud of heavy boots announced Tony’s dad’s arrival home. His job as a plumber provided him many an emergency evening call in this frosty weather. Swinging the kitchen door open, he strode over to his wife. He placed a hand on her shoulder, examining her latest creation and stealing a puff of her cigarette.
‘My God, Josie. I can smell the sea just looking at that.’
‘Did you manage to fix Miss McCann’s pipes?’
‘For now, the frost tonight might do them in for good. I’ll call round again in the morning.’
Pulling out a chair, he joined them at the table.
‘Not really feeling like doing homework tonight, are you, Tony?’
Tony’s guilty eyes darted up from his empty page, and a thrill of relief washed over him as he realised his dad was joking. A smart remark was forming on his lips, but was never voiced. It was interrupted by three loud, crisp knocks on the door.
‘Are you expecting anyone?’ Tony’s mum asked his dad, as she stubbed out her cigarette.
He gave a small shake of his head.
In his thick work boots, Tony’s dad left the kitchen, closing the door behind him. Eyes wide with worry, Tony’s mum fixed her gaze on the door. Tony wanted to ask what was going on but being the oldest of nine children gave him a keen intuition. He kept his questions to himself. Instead following suit, he listened intently to the noises from the hall. He could make out the low rumble of his dad’s speech against the harsher tone of a stranger’s. But no words could be understood.
Minutes crept by and the tension in the kitchen rose, as did the noises from the hall. If it weren’t for the scribbles coming from oblivious Sinead, Tony might have been able to pick up the odd word. His mum had sat very still this whole time, but rose abruptly, as if responding to some cue that Tony had missed. She tiptoed over to the door, opening it and peaking her head out to the hall.
When her head returned to the kitchen, her face had drained of colour and her eyes were glazed over.
‘Mum? What’s wrong?’ Tony broke the silence.
‘Nothing,’ she replied, reaching for the crucifix that hung around her neck, a reflex Tony had seen many times before. She did it a lot when Tony’s dad pointed out certain stories in the newspaper, or sometimes when the police pulled over and searched their car on the way home from mass. It did little to convince Tony that nothing was wrong.
‘Go upstairs, you two.’
‘But I haven’t finished my homework,’ Sinead blinked in surprise.
‘That’s ok, I’ll sign it off for you.’
Barely believing her luck, Sinead bolted upstairs to join her merry siblings, but Tony held back.
‘Please tell me what’s going on,’ he begged, taking his mum’s hand.
She bent down and hugged him, tighter than usual.
‘Please Tony, go and make sure your brothers and sisters stay upstairs,’ she whispered, still embraced in the hug.
He broke away, prepared to fight his corner, but one look at him mum’s face told him not to add to her strain. He raced upstairs and peaked in on his younger siblings, playing in the boys’ bedroom. They were settled, happy they had gained a new playmate in Sinead. Leaving them to it, he paced into the girls’ bedroom and over to the frosted window with the best view of the road. Standing on Sinead’s bed to get a better view, he peered out into the street. At first, everything looked normal. He stood on his tip-toes, forehead pressed into the cool glass, damp with condensation. From this view he could see down into their front garden and the police car parked right in front of their house. It was nestled in among other cars lining the street but stood out boldly from the rest. Tony’s heart instinctively skipped a beat. To him, the police meant fear. They meant standing in the cold while their car was searched. They meant keeping your eyes to the ground when you passed them in the streets. They meant only bad things, and scared parents.
As Tony processed the presence of the infamous car on his very own street, he saw three figures emerge from his house. It took a few seconds for him to recognise two of them to be his parents. The third was wearing a black uniform with a black peaked cap. He watched as the figure, which he now recognised to be a policeman, opened the back door of the car. His dad got in, while his mum stayed on the pavement. She held herself at a funny angle, half bent over to the side, leaning on their garden wall for support. The policeman got into the front of the car and started the engine. Within seconds, the car was gone, taking his dad with it. He watched his mum stay on the pavement for a long time, still holding herself at the strange angle. It was cold, and she wasn’t wearing a coat.
Leaning away from the window, Tony twisted back down to sit on the bed. He sat, and he thought, struggling to make sense of what he had just witnessed. In his mind, it was like one of the blurry paintings his mum sometimes did. The scenery could be made out, but no details were clear.
Finally, when his heart stopped racing and his breathing returned to normal, he pushed himself off the bed, and tip-toed downstairs. Fingers crossed behind his back, he quietly prayed that he had dreamed what he saw, that his dad had was still there.
When he entered the kitchen, his prayer was shattered. His mum was bent over the sink, with her back to Tony, no dad in sight.
‘Mum,’ he whispered. Her whole body was shivering, and she looked so fragile, he was scared that a loud noise would shatter her.
She didn’t turn around. He tried again.
‘Mum, please tell me what’s going on? Why did Dad go away with the policeman?’
‘Tony, I need you to go upstairs and put your brothers and sisters to bed.’
‘Tony, please.’ She still had her back to him, but he could see tears drip into the sink.
‘You’re my big boy now. Your dad’s away for tonight, so I’m going to need your help.’
Tony didn’t respond, and silence hung heavily over the pair.
Tony’s mum finally broke it with one more, quiet ‘Please.’
Tony ran around the kitchen table and over to where his mum stood. He hugged her tightly around the middle, a silent promise that he would do what he could to help.
That night, Tony couldn’t sleep. He exhausted his mind by trying to repress horror stories he had heard about people being taken away by the police. Yet no sleep came, and it was a relief to finally see the first rays of sunlight illuminate the bedroom he shared with his three brothers. He got up and followed routine, washing and dressing himself and his brothers. The others raced down to breakfast and Tony took the opportunity of an empty room to offer another pleading prayer for his dad’s safe return.
He was the last down to breakfast, and so the last to see his dad’s empty seat at the head of the table. His mum was busy packing lunches as usual, while his brothers and sisters made a mess of the tablecloth with milk and jam. His dad sometimes took early morning house-calls, and so none of them seemed to notice his absence from breakfast. Except Tony.
‘Dad’s not home?’ he asked his mum, as she busied herself cutting sandwiches.
‘No, Tony, but I’m sure he will be soon.’
She turned to him with a bright smile, uncharacteristic for first thing in the morning. It did nothing to hide two bloodshot eyes, encased in heavy dark lids.
‘Go to school, and don’t let it worry you.’
Her advice fell on deaf ears, and Tony could think about nothing else all day. Not even a rap over the knuckles by Mr Mullan for his lack of maths homework could distract him. After the longest school day of his life, the final bell rang, and Tony could race back home.
But as he threw himself through the kitchen door, he found it empty. Dinner passed, and still his Dad did not arrive home. His mum’s cheery mood from earlier had melted away, and she served her seven children potatoes and beef without a word to any of them. Tony knew there was no point quizzing her further. Instead he busied himself by taking on his mum’s usual jobs; cleaning the dishes after dinner and making sure the little ones were behaving. For a while it helped distract him from the mystery at hand, but by the time bedtime had arrived again, his mind was back to painting scary pictures of his Dad in a lonely grey cell.
The previous sleepless night, combined with his mind working over-time all day had exhausted Tony. He had crawled beneath the covers of his bed and was waiting for sleep to relieve him of his troubles, when he heard the snap of the front door clicking shut and the familiar thud of his dad’s heavy boots. His heart felt lighter than it had all day, as he gently peeled back his duvet and tiptoed out of his bedroom and down a few stairs. The stairs led right into the kitchen. From the third step down, he was still hidden from view, but could hear his parents’ voices. He paused there for a minute, torn between the instinct to eavesdrop and the desire to hug his father.
‘They can’t do that Christy! Not giving you any food? Stopping you from sleeping? That’s torture!’
Tony just about recognised his mother’s voice, an octave higher than usual and loaded with concern.
‘They can, Josie, and they did.’
At the sound of his dad’s voice, tired and gruff, Tony could wait no longer. He thundered down the remaining stairs and into the brightly lit kitchen. His father was sitting there, in the chair at the head of the table. He was wearing the same clothes as when he left, a cigarette between two fingers, a plate of sandwiches sitting in front of him.
Tony ran to his dad, who pulled him up onto his lap with his free hand. He smelled like the neighbour’s dog when it rained, but Tony didn’t mind. As long as he was home safely, Tony would never mind anything ever again.
‘It’s past your bedtime, Tony.’
‘Let him stay up,’ his dad bargained. ‘He’s old enough to hear what we’re talking about.’
‘I suppose he has done a good job of being the man of the house since you’ve been away,’
Tony’s mum flopped into a seat at the table. He had never seen her look so tired, but there was a genuine smile creeping over her pale lips.
‘I saw you go away in the police car,’ Tony chirped, desperately wanting to get to the bottom of his dad’s disappearance.
‘Yeah, they took me to the police station, that’s where I’ve been.’
‘Someone got hurt, Tony. A man from the other side of town.’
Tony nodded in silence, urging his dad to continue.
‘That’s why the police took me away. I was arrested for hurting that man.’
‘But you didn’t…’ Tony trailed off.
‘Of course, I didn’t, Tony. Of course not. They don’t know who did it.’
‘Then why did they take you away?’
‘It’s all a big show. The police need to look like they’re doing their job. If someone gets hurt, they need to arrest someone for it. Even if they had nothing to do with it. Do you understand?’
‘A little,’ Tony replied slowly. ‘But why did they pick you?’
‘Because…’ His dad paused and looked at his wife. A sad smile on her part was all he needed to continue.
‘Because we’re Catholics, Tony. We’re easy targets.’
‘But there are millions of Catholics.’
‘Yeah,’ his dad laughed bitterly, ‘and this time, they picked me.’
‘What did they do to you?’
‘Not too much. They just held me for a day and let me out, didn’t even bother questioning me.’
‘But why?’ Tony’s exhausted brain was scrambled trying to comprehend the workings of the adult world.
‘So they can print it in the newspaper tomorrow, tell everyone a man from Drumbeg Estate was arrested for hurting that man. People will assume it’s dealt with, so the police get another gold star.’
Tony sat quietly, mulling over this new information, while his dad eagerly tucked into his plate of sandwiches. His mum sat quietly too, watching the father and son. Eventually, the events of the last twenty-four hours took their toll on young Tony, heavy eyelids drooping closed over tired eyes. His father carried him up to his bedroom, and tucked him under the covers. With a kiss on the forehead, he said a silent prayer that when Tony grows up, things would be easier for him.