Two months after I was born, my parents bundled my brother Michael and me onto a plane and flew home again, back to Northern Ireland. My mother's three sisters and three of her four brothers already had children and all of them still lived close to home. It made sense that she would want to be closer to them.
After working for a year in England, my mother in a Laundromat, my father in a tea factory, they had little money saved. Once the plane tickets had been paid for and their furniture shipped home they were penniless, back where they began.
With no money left to pay for a place of their own, they were forced to live with my mother's father again for a spell while my father went looking for a job. It didn't take him very long. If there was one thing you could say about my father, it was that he was a divvil for the work. You'll never be the worker your father is, the neighbors would remind me as I was growing up. With any sort of luck, I would reply.
Within months of being back in Ireland, my father had secured us a new home to live in and a car to get around in. My brother Brendan was born a year after we got back from England, which meant there were three young boys in our house, or four if you count my father, who was still only a lad himself at twenty-five. My mother was housebound with Irish triplets at twenty-three, not more than a stone's throw from the farm-house where she grew up right in the heart of Altamuskin.
Altamuskin is almost not a place at all. It's nearly too small and too out of the way to merit geographical definition. It's a stretch of road, with a handful of farms, a small three-room primary school, and a post office. Or, at least, it was back when I was young. The post office has since closed; so it's not as cosmopolitan as it once was. But when I was a boy, Altamuskin was the world. We were home.
Home was a tiny semidetached three-bedroom bungalow — a government-built council house right on the Altamuskin Road, next to St. Brigid's Primary School. To live in a semidetached cottage meant that you shared a wall with your next- door neighbor. The wall that separated us from our neighbor in this particular house was the living-room wall, and because the row house was originally built as temporary government housing the wall that separated our homes was only paper thin and without any insulation to buffer the noise, which meant that we were practically living with our next-door neighbors.
There were strips of these little cottages all over Northern Ireland — four small nondescript bungalows in a row. We were on one end of the strip and my mother's sister Sue lived in the one at the other end with her husband and children. So we were surrounded by family.
On the other side of our living-room wall lived the Mullin family. Sheila Mullin, and her sons, John, Damien, and Christopher. Sheila's husband had died young, so I have no memory of him but perhaps it was because there was no father in the house to keep order that the rest of the family became so memorable. To my brothers and me Sheila Mullin was the friendly witch who lived next door. She was rake thin with long bony fingers and wild, unkempt hair and a toothless maniacal cackle that would collapse into a coughing fit that could only be remedied, it seemed, by getting another cigarette shoved into her gob as quickly as possible.
My parents smoked too back then. Everybody did. It was good for you they said, calmed your nerves, and with armies of hungry, noisy children to be fed and clothed and not enough money to feed them, nerves needed to be calmed.
When my mother would run out of cigarettes, she would bang the living-room wall to get Sheila's attention. That was how they signaled to each other that they were out of some- thing; sugar, milk, bread, or a few tea bags to keep us going until my father got back home with the car. We lived three miles from Sixmilecross, the nearest village, so you couldn't just pop out to the store. The wall was banged three or four times with a fist and then my mother would lean out our front window and Sheila would do the same and they would shout to each other like that across the garden fence.
"Do you have any fags?" my mother would yell.
"How many do you need, pet?"
"A few will do until Machil gets home from work." Machil was what my mother called my father to distinguish him from my brother, so my father was Machil (pronounced Mack-hill) and my older brother was Michael.
"Put the kettle on, pet, I'll be 'round in a minute," Sheila would call back.
All day long tea was drunk and cigarettes were smoked. The women gossiped and laughed, and then they would fall silent as Sheila would read their fortunes in the tea leaves in their cups. My brothers and I were raised at a time where little children were to be seen and not heard, so were hushed and chased outside to run and play, climb trees, dig holes, and play tag. You're it. No, you're it. We were generally ignored unless there was blood spilled.
"Mammy, Mammy, Michael pushed me and I cut my knee real bad."
"Let me see it. Sure it's only a scratch. Here, I'll kiss it bet- ter. There now, run along."
"It's still sore."
"Your ear will be sore if you don't get out that door and up that field to play with your brothers right this minute. Will you have another wee drop, Sheila? "
"Ach now, I should be away home to get dinner ready for the boys."
"Sure you'll have another wee drop of tae before you go." "I'll have one more wee cup."
It is true what they say about the Irish and their penchant for tea drinking. The tea drinking went on morning, noon, and night. The kettle in our house never cooled. Though in the North of Ireland we didn't drink tea, tea was something highfalutin English folks sipped out of delicate china cups with upturned pinkies. We drank tae, T-A-E, buckets of it, reservoirs and oceans of the stuff, we drank tae till the cows come home. We were lucky that the English were not an incredibly intelligent bunch or they could have ended the whole trouble with the Irish centuries ago. All they really needed to do was cut off our tea supply and the women would have organized a complete surrender by lunchtime.
Everyone drank tae, constantly, even the little babies were encouraged to drink tae from the moment of birth. The baby's bottle was filled with tae, lukewarm of course, with milk and sugar because the wee babies love the sugar in their tae. And when the babies were big enough to handle a spoon all by themselves they were set at the table with a cup of bread soaked in tae as their very first meal.
And with the tae came bread and butter and jam. Our diet was simple; if you sat down at the table to eat there was either potato or bread on the plate in front of you. But because the choices were so limited the women took such extra special care in the presentation of those two very basic staples. As a result we became a nation of spud and bread connoisseurs.
Nearly every house you entered carried the bouquet of a freshly baked loaf, each one with its own unique aroma and taste. But it was my mother's older sister Nan who made the best loaf of bread. Her treacle bread especially was a source of envy among every housewife in Altamuskin. Nan's treacle bread could not be replicated. Many tried. They could record the exact ingredients, measure it spoon for spoon, retrace every motion, every degree and minute in the oven, and still never come close to that level of perfection. I am convinced that the missing ingredient was some deeply personal secret that she held; a fusion of pain and love that she unknowingly folded into the bread with her bare hands as she worked, the flower of it bloomed in the cooking and dissolved on your tongue like a mystery.
The pace of life in a close-knit rural community could be slow and monotonous were it not for the elevation of the mundane. Bread was important.
From That's That by Colin Broderick. Copyright 2013 by Colin Broderick. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc.
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