All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers. I wouldn’t have thought, being honest, that that merited a showdown with her brothers.
I tried to explain. She’s a bit on the chubby side, Kathleen, which I like. Not a grotesque fatty; just a bit of a plumper. Real fatties, I don’t care for. I’ve got a pic I took of a thumper sitting on one chair when three would not have been too many. I took it from behind, which is the only way you could really bring yourself to look at her. Great blue denim bulges hanging down on each side. You’d wonder how anyone could let herself get like that.
Jessica made me leave that one out of the exhibition. ‘It’s an interesting eye you have, Billy,’ she said, ‘but it wouldn’t please everyone.’
I said, ‘That’s not what the instructor told us in Young Offenders. He said you should nurture your own unique vision.’
Jessica’s eye twitched. She didn’t like being argued with, and she had this ambivalence towards my time inside—it was what made me a celeb but she said it was her job to publicise it and not mine. Which is all very well, but if I hadn’t been in Young Offenders I’d never have got into taking pics. They’d run this course on digital photography (and how stupid is that? To do digital photography you need a digital camera and how did anyone think a Young Offender was going to get one of those once he was back on the street?) and I’d signed up to deal with the tension of not knowing whether I’d get out. I’d loved it.
No, with Kathleen I’d pictured her sitting on a bed in nothing but a pair of those knickers Marks & Sparks had in their adverts when they were going after the smart young people who wouldn’t be seen dead in Marks, you might as well ask them to shop in Milletts. Everyone remembers those knickers. Every man, anyway. Lot of lezzies, too, I should think. The ones coming a couple of inches down the leg and cut square. Nice patterns, interesting colours and a dark edge to waist and leg. And the models they used hadn’t exactly been short-changed in the upper body department.
Lovely. Kathleen would be sitting on the bed in these and nothing else, one leg pointing straight out in front and the other drawn up under her, arms crossed at the elbow and hands clasped so that you saw nothing more revealing than a bit of flesh squeezed each side of the arms. And she’d be looking straight at the camera and smiling. That’s one of the things I liked about Kathleen—that she was always smiling. That and not being skinny. She had a lovely smile, Kathleen.
Jessica said I had a fantastic eye for a pic, “a real intuitive grasp for composition,” which was exactly what the instructor at Young Offenders had said.
And that’s all it was.
But I’d said it out loud and some mischief-making twat had told Kathleen’s brothers and they were offended. Or pretended they were. They wanted me to explain myself. I suppose they thought, being two of them, they could take me on. Big mistake. I’d tried to leave my reputation behind when I’d been brought to this street. ‘Make a new start,’ the Education Officer had said. But you can’t always do that. People won’t always let you. It was 2004, I was sixteen years old and at the start of what I hoped was going to be a different life from the one I’d been living up to then, and here I was trying to talk myself out of trouble – a route I’d never taken in the past.
I told the brothers I’d just been thinking about a pic, didn’t have any designs on their sister’s luscious body. I suppose I can’t keep calling them the brothers, you don’t know who I’m talking about. Harry and Tommy Doyle, they were. First generation English, the father a copper who’d lived here since he was six but the Doyle boys still came on like they were born in Tipperary. My foster parents were called Howard, but PC Doyle knew I had an Irish surname so he’d stop me in the street and talk about Ireland, what a grand place it was and did I know where my family came from? Which I didn’t. My grandparents were born here so if the call had ever come from Lansdowne Road I’d have had to say I wasn’t qualified but if you’ve got an Irish name the paddies always want to co-opt you. He was all right, Mister Doyle. He even asked the Howards if they wanted him to take me to Mass with his family when they went on Sundays. The Howards said they’d leave it to me, I didn’t have to go but I could if I wanted to but if I didn’t I needn’t.
Which I didn’t.
I’ve never been to Mass in my life.
Or any other kind of religious service, far as I know.
(Except in Young Offenders, of course, where you went to anything that was going just to get out of your cell).
But I liked it that he’d thought enough of me to ask.
You’d wonder sometimes why, when the father’s all right, the son has to be a dickhead.
(Another thing you’d sometimes wonder; if Ireland is such a grand place, why do so many Irish people come over here and never go back?)
Harry said, ‘You keep your hands off our sister.’ He stuck his finger in my chest as he said it. I’ve always hated it when people do that. Even then we could still all three of us have walked away, no harm done. That’s certainly what I wanted. I said, ‘I told you. I was just imagining a pic.’ And then I told them the stuff about liking to see a girl who wasn’t as thin as a rake, smiling. And about how I’d compose the pic.
Harry said, ‘You calling our sister fat?’ He had an English accent, same as I did, not a touch of the paddy about him, but it takes at least a generation and usually two to get people to realise that they’re English and not Irish. (If they’re American, they never seem to grasp it). We had about four Irish families in the street. They’d all troop off to Mass on Sundays and they didn’t do their socialising locally but in the Hibernian Club downtown. Didn’t have as much as they’d have liked but intended their children should have more. The aspirational working class, I learned to call them in Sociology. The English version has disappeared, apparently. Anyone who aspired has made it and those who are left have given up. Live off the State and what you can nick. Like my mother and the Creep. But there’s still plenty of immigrants who aspire.
Christian Brothers did the teaching at Saint Simeon’s, which is where the boys went, and they were known for their discipline. Maybe the treatment they handed out was what made the Catholic kids think they were so hard. It was a mistake, but most of them made it. Either that or it’s just part of the Culture for paddies to prance around pretending to be hard. They told us in Sociology never to underestimate the power of the Culture. Capital C.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m not saying your sister is fat. I’m saying she’d make a lovely picture.’
I think I’d realised by now that Harry was determined to bring this to a fight and nothing I did was going to change that. But, I had to try. When you’re in jail for an offence like mine, you never actually do your time. The best you can hope for, and this is what had happened to me, is that you’re released on licence. What that means is that if you commit any kind of offence they can take you back inside to finish your original sentence. Even if the new offence is shoplifting a Snickers bar and the original sentence was life imprisonment, they can still take you back to serve it. And as it happens my original sentence was life imprisonment, because that’s mandatory in this country for the offence I’d been found guilty of. Although, because of my age, they didn’t call it that, they called it detention at the pleasure of Her Majesty. But life imprisonment is what that means, at least in my case. The judge made that clear when he sentenced me. And I wouldn’t be going back to Young Offenders. I was an adult now, and it would be adult jail I went to, and I’d had some of that already and I hadn’t liked it. At all. So I wanted to stay out of trouble if I could and if that meant seeming to back down in front of the Doyle boys, back down is what I’d have to do.
There are limits, though. Which Harry Doyle overstepped when he called my foster mother an ugly cow. I dropped him.
He went down with a satisfying thump and didn’t move. I looked at Tommy. ‘You can have one, too,’ I said. ‘But you don’t have to. It’s up to you.’
Tommy was younger than Harry, younger than me in fact, and he was looking seriously nervous. All the bombast he’d got from standing beside his big and rather stupid brother had left him.
‘Do you think he’s all right?’ he asked.
‘He went down a bit hard.’
‘Maybe we should get help.’
‘Maybe you should get help,’ I said. ‘I didn’t want this in the first place.’
‘Me neither,’ said Tommy. ‘He makes me go along. If I don’t do what he wants, he beats me up.’
‘So,’ I said. ‘That’s what they teach you at Catholic school, is it?’
Harry had started to make noises. He rolled over and tried to sit up. It took him three goes.
‘Our Dad likes you,’ Tommy said. ‘Our sister likes you, too.’
‘I doubt she’ll let you see her in her knickers, though.’ He grinned at me. ‘That’s not what they teach you at Catholic school.’
Mister Doyle stopped me in the street the next day. ‘Harry’s concussed,’ he said. ‘He’s going to miss a few day’s college.’
‘I’m sorry. It wasn’t my fault.’
‘I know whose fault it was. I’ve heard the whole story. They won’t trouble you again.’ He looked as though he was going to move on, but didn’t. ‘They have a youth club,’ he said. ‘At the Hibernian. Dancing on Saturday nights.’
‘Kathleen goes there.’ He looked at me closely. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘Just a thought.’ He looked back as he walked way. ‘Harry told Kathleen you said she was fat.’
‘I didn’t say that.’
‘I wouldn’t be talking to you if I thought you had. Tommy told her what you said. I think she’s flattered. You can forget glamour photos, though. Her mother would kill her. And then she’d kill you.’
* * *
He’d talked to my foster parents, too. Mister Howard asked me into their sitting room when I got home. You only got there by special invitation.
‘Billy,’ he said. ‘Why do you always refer to us as your foster parents?’
I didn’t answer.
‘We’re not your foster parents, Billy. And this isn’t your foster home. This is a hostel, and Missus Howard and I are wardens.’
They had a wooden clock with a little plate on the front. There was an engraved message on it, but I couldn’t read what the message said. I sat and listened to the tick.
‘It’s no good staring at your hands, Billy. We need to talk about this.’
As far as I could remember, we hadn’t had a clock at home. There was a digital on the video, of course, and another on the microwave. The one on the video was always right because it came off the television signal. That clock ticking in a quiet room was the most comforting sound I could think of.
When they’d been doing their tests, I was asked to write down the three nicest words I could think of. I’d put “comforting” at the top.
Missus Howard made one of those little gestures at Mister Howard, and he shut up. ‘Billy,’ said Missus Howard. ‘When you first came here, you said you liked trees, and gardens, and parks. Do you remember saying that?’
‘There’s an arboretum near here. Do you know what an arboretum is, Billy?’
I shook my head.
‘It’s a tree place. Like a zoo, only where zoos have animals, an arboretum has trees. I like to go there sometimes. I’m thinking of going on Saturday. Would you like to come with me?’
‘We could take a picnic. So we didn’t have to hurry back. Would you like that?’
‘Are you still collecting five new words a day, Billy?’
‘Yes.’ I had to say it twice because it came out a bit too quiet the first time.
‘Well, that can be one of today’s five. Arboretum. A tree collection.’
‘All right, Billy. Why don’t you go and wash now, and get ready for dinner?’
I went to my room. I’d heard from some of the others who had been there longer than me that the Howards had a daughter who sometimes came to visit and stayed for dinner. Some people had a mother like Mrs Howard. And I had one like mine. It didn’t seem fair, somehow.
But life isn’t. Fair, I mean. All you can do is keep slugging away until you see a chance. Then take it.