The Things They Carried

Last Friday Tar Anall gave out certificates to those, mostly the children or relatives of ex-prisoners, who had completed their courses in various fields. Mairtin O Muilleior opened the proceedings and, as fortune would have it, he sat beside me so that he would stand out, to use an oxymoron.

“What am I going to write this week, Mairtin?” I asked. “I’m sick of writing about the Ulster Unionists and their Saturday crisis meetings.”

“Have you ever thought of dying your hair, Dan?” he said, as he ran his fine fingers through what used to attract overhead pigeons.

“I’ve never been more comfortable with it,” I replied, staring at two-bottles-of-Vosene-a-week. “What did you think of my piece last week about that poor guy Tsafendas, in South Africa?”

“Never read it.”

Yeh, well I never read your book about the City Hall so that’s us quits, I thought.

“Did you hear Barry McIlduff on ‘Talkback’?”

“Is he suing you?” I asked.

“Nice club, the Felons,” he said.

“Barry McIlduff had a piece about the weight of schoolbags,” said Mairtin.

The weight of schoolbags. Fascinating, I said, imagining that Mairtin was a pigeon, sitting above me, smiling, looking down on me, lifting a foot.

But something about his demeanour, as he combed his silken hair, convinced me that he was being nice for a change.

Heavy schoolbags! Now, there’s an idea.

Phoned Sinn Fein press officer at Stormont. Have you Barry McIlduff’s statement on heavy schoolbags?

“Not really.”

Not really?

It’s in Monday’s ‘Irish News’.”

“Have you his phone number?” Mighty hesitation. “I was once connected,” I added quickly to the young, upwardly-mobile. “Was there myself, you know. Did time. Been on TV. Wore the flak jacket.”

“Oh right! No prob. Here’s ten numbers. He’s hard to get, you know.”

First number. Barry’s house in Carrickmore. Wife answers. “Here he is, Danny.”

Barry comes on the phone. Fills me in. He has formally tabled a motion to the Education Committee about the health and safety implications of kids carrying heavy schoolbags. It was in response to Reg Empey, Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, who said that bad backs cost the economy £200 per annum, per employee. And there I was thinking that it was not heavy schoolbags but partition and the Ulster Unionists that caused my generation to walk around with one shoulder lower than the other.

I began to think about it.

The Things They Carried – to school.

St Teresa’s Primary School, 1957-64; books etc.; warts; farts; scabies; rickets; ringworm; eczema; asthma; fleas; head lice; dirty feet; chapped thighs; Bazooka Joes, Blackjacks and Walker caramels; nuts; newts; pocket dust; sprazzies; real hankies; jam jars; dead bees; black baby money; baps; Brylcreme; marlies; ‘Beanos’ and ‘Toppers’; paper planes; Dan Dare Sets; little sisters; Vatican Two notions of wanting to become alter boys, sleep on beds of nails whilst being thrashed by a hooded nun (without knowing why) and, later, dying at a stake whilst singing ‘Faith Of Our Fathers’, posthumously making it to Number One; notions of being the first Irish boy on the moon or, live on Saturday afternoon television, wrestling and pinning Mick McManus to the canvas with the Boston Crab.

The Things We Carried To School? The milieu of beautiful Andersonstown, 1957-64! The soft rain of Black Mountain. The Horsey Field. The steam rising off the ground after the sun came out. The familiarity with every neighbour and every neighbour’s child, warts and farts and all, in Corby Way. The peal of the bells of St Teresas’s.

The Things We Carried To Glen Road CBS, 1964-1969: Stephenson’s ink and pens; a Latin book about Scipio; compasses, protractors; the Bible; flasks; ‘Cry The Beloved Country’ which introduced us to blacks; forty-five records; a chess set; mutton dummies; white mice; toilet roll; dinner money; bladder balls; transistors; cheek –  “Teacher, didn’t my mother once go out with you?” (With undertones of, I Could Be Your Son And Your Wife Might Be So Displeased That She Needs To Talk To Herbert Lom Out Of ‘The Human Jungle’); umbrellas; LPs; fear; charm; lies; hope; insecurity; ambition; girls’ underwear; scrumpie; detonators; the ‘United Irishman’.

I said to two friends and my wife over dinner on Friday night that I was going to write about heavy schoolbags. It is amazing what you can learn from talking to people. My wife told me that in Toronto kids don’t, as a rule, carry school bags. In Junior High and High Schools they leave their books in lockers and only take their notebooks home.

My friend Anne said that she was always being stabbed by her compass that fell to the bottom of her bag and that one June she discovered a Scotch Egg that had been in her bag from the previous October. Not so, Anne. That was that day’s lunch. Her husband, Gerry, went to school in Palestine and introduced John The Baptist to the Man from Nazareth. Anyway, Methuselah passed his Eleven Plus and was slagged by other kids for being “a Quallie”.

“You could always chat up girls by asking to carry their schoolbags,” he said, in front of his younger wife with the carving knife.

“Fort William and St Dominic’s school bags were the heaviest,” said the man who had clearly done his homework in the Ministry of Weights and Measures, 3 AD.

Finally, to Maureen from Coolnasilla, on whose silver comb on the day that Russia invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968 I carved my name, and whose mother shopped in McGivern’s butcher’s on the Glen Road when I was the delivery boy and who received bargain quantities of pork fillet and rib steak, I would just like to confess that in order to impress you, Maureen, my love, I, in September 1968, bought a really cool leather zip-briefcase, into which I forced various text books, broke the bindings and lost several crucial chapters.

And as a result of this,  I didn’t get to University, ended up writing for the Monday edition of the ‘Andersonstown News’, and it had no effect whatsoever, you bitch, on the rest of my life.