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Making a Mallon

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Making a Mallon

 

1. Martin and Deidre 

Martin Mallon is born in Derry on the 30th January, 1950. He is the third of seven children born to Brendan and Bridget Mallon, and the second of two sons.

He has what you might describe as a hard childhood. He's not a bad kid, but finds himself in trouble as often as not. His father is a harsh man, who's word is law in the Mallon house, and he rules with an iron fist. His temper is short, and he’s prone to bouts of fiery rage, particularly when he’s been at the bottle.

If Brendan gives his children a proper hiding once in a while, Martin bares the brunt of his older brother Jackie’s ill temperament on a much more regular basis. As the elder of the two brothers, Jackie takes it upon himself to be the enforcer of his father’s rules with glee. It’s for Martin’s own good, he tells him. He’s looking out for him, he says, if their da finds out about whatever alleged offence has taken place then Martin’ll be in for it. He’ll thank him one day.

The Mallon's are stout republicans, and Martin’s father, uncles, and their father before them are all members of the IRA. The expectation is that Martin and Jackie, as the two male children, will do the same when they are old enough, like it or not.

 

Deidre Maguire is born in 1956. She’s the fifth live child born to her strict catholic parents, her only sister being born a few years later, followed by another brother a year or so after that.

She never feels very close to her siblings; her older brothers are self-righteous pigs who have no qualms about tattling on her to her parents every chance they get, and her younger sister Kathy seems to be able to get away with murder. Kathy is precocious and spoiled, acting as though butter wouldn’t melt in front of her doting father. It’s only Deidre’s youngest brother, Niall, several years her junior, who she has a particularly good relationship with. He’s a sweet boy, largely ignored by his much older brothers, what with Deidre there to help their ma look after him. He tags along after Kathy much of the time, them being the closest in age, and she leads him into mischief every chance she gets. When they’re caught out in whatever it is they’re up to, as they usually are, it’s Niall who takes the fall. It never seems to deter him too much from joining in next time. He’s also kind, and thoughtful in a way that young children rarely are, and he helps Deidre with her chores without complaint.

 

Niall is six when he dies.

 

They are down on the banks of the Foyle; Niall, Kathy and Deidre. There’s a shallow spot with a little strip of sand and a rope swing attached to one of the tree branches that stretches languidly out over the water, it’s been there as long as she can remember. It’s a popular place with the local kids, and Deidre ushers them out early that morning so they can get the best spot on the ‘beach’. There’s no one else there when the three of them arrive. Niall and Kathy race for the swing as Deidre sets up. Niall narrowly beats his sister to it, launching himself onto the weather-bleached piece of driftwood knotted to the rope with a howl of triumph. Deidre smiles and looks away, spreading out her ma’s big towel she’d managed to sneak out with. She doesn’t see him alive again.

She has nightmares for a long time afterwards. Of Kathy calling Niall’s name. Of finally looking up as her sister’s cries become more urgent. Of the calm waters of the river flowing placidly on, empty and undisturbed. Of shouting and screaming his name until her voice is hoarse. Of her heart racing in her chest, and her breathing hitching in her throat until she can’t think straight. Night after night she sees him, tangled in the tree roots just downstream, cold and floppy and too white.

It’s the helplessness that stays with her. Of shaking him and screaming at him to wake up and the sound of Kathy’s hysterical sobs ringing in her ears, until an indeterminate amount of time later when feet pound across the sand towards them and rough hands shove her away, and someone bends down and opens his mouth and breathes life into him. Over and over.

It doesn’t work. His young brain was starved of oxygen for too long, she overhears the doctors say. Her parents blame her, she knows. They never say as much, but they look at her differently after that, without a trace of warmth. Her brothers are more open in their condemnation. It’s only Kathy, who knows the horror of that morning as well as Deidre does, who offers no judgement, but no absolution either. The tragedy binds her to Kathy without bringing them closer. A shackle made from the hardest steel, which neither of them will ever cast off.

It’s the knowledge that he could still be alive today, that hurts the most. If she had only known what to do.

She takes a first aid course the first chance she gets, and vows to God she’ll never be helpless again. That she’ll not let anyone else die on her watch.

 

It’s summer of 1971 when Deidre meets Martin for the first time, at a dance at the local community centre. She’s just getting into her rebellious phase, pushing back against her strict parents, and she’s persuaded a mate to sneak in with her. Martin can’t stop watching her across the room, as she spins with so much life and energy about the dancefloor. He’s twenty one and she fifteen, though she tells him she’s almost eighteen, after they’ve danced for three songs straight and finally stopped for a drink. Of course it doesn’t take long for Martin to find out the truth, but by that point he’s hooked.

They date in not quite secret. Jackie teases Martin relentlessly that he’s courting a wain, but then Martin’s seen the way his brother looks at Deidre, the way his eyes linger and how he doesn’t try to disguise his longing. The one time he mentions as much Jackie beats him black and blue. It only makes Deidre all the more appealing. That Martin finally has something his brother can’t have.

Martin’s a badboy, rough around the edges but with a soft side that Deidre struggles to resist. He’s got a reputation, or at least his family do. Her friends warn her off but giggle and blush when he meets her outside of school, and her parents outright forbid her from seeing him. It only makes her want him more.

 

It’s 1972, Martin’s birthday, a sunday, and they are supposed to meet to attend a march before going on to town for some drinks. Deidre’s parents somehow find out her plans, Deidre suspects Kathy purposefully let it slip to them, and instead she’s whisked away for the day on some dreary family outing. Martin attends the march without her.

Something about Martin is different after that fateful day. He’s angrier. There can be days on end where he seems stuck in some funk, when he’s sulky and despondent. He always treats Deidre well though, no matter what, and for the most part things carry on as they had before. There is one definite change however. Despite his family connections, Martin’s never really shown much interest in the IRA, but after the massacre, he becomes much more heavily involved with them, to his family’s delight. He makes a point to keep most of it from Deidre, but of course she suspects anyway.

 

They are on and off, for a while, until Deidre finds out she’s pregnant. It’s 1974 and she’s in her final year of school. She’s just been accepted onto a nursing program when it happens. She cries for about a week, tells Martin, then her parents. Martin takes the news well. In fact he’s ecstatic. He proposes there and then, and of course she accepts. After all, what else can she do? Her parents react with the disapproving stoicism she’s come to expect.

They wed almost immediately after she finishes school, and move into a small house at the top of a steep hill in the Bogside. Money’s tight, and Deidre starts her nursing training almost immediately, despite being pregnant.

 

2. The first several years 

Niall Mallon is born later that same year. Deidre works up until the last possible moment, and resumes her training shortly after. Niall is often looked after by his grandparents from the Mallon side, despite them having moved out to the small town of Cookstown a year earlier. Niall is the apple of Martin’s eye. A chip off the old block with dead straight hair like both his parents, and dark chocolate eyes and a crooked smile. Things aren’t always easy, but they get by. And Deidre may be shattered more often than not, and her and Martin have their fights, but her little family means everything to her, and she thinks that she wouldn’t change it for the world.

Deidre’s parents still actively disapprove of Martin, and he is effectively shunned from the family. However Deidre’s respectable nursing career, her dedication to the job, and the admirable way she’s bringing up her son has gone someway to improving their estimations of her. In fact, Kathy has long taken over the mantle of wayward teen, after her parents spoiled her rotten and let her run wild for years on end, and Deidre’s past misdemeanours are all but forgotten.

 

It’s 1977 and Kathy talks Deidre into going to her leavers ball. Mainly so Kathy doesn’t have to get stuck babysitting their weird cousin all night long, who for some unknown reason just happens to be visiting, and both sets of parents seem to think its a good idea for him to go along too. Deidre doesn’t really know why she agrees to it. Perhaps the chance for a rare night off from work and motherhood. Perhaps because she hadn’t attended her own a few years ago, what with being pregnant and far too caught up thinking about her future. Perhaps it’s the chance to put her hair down and recapture the carefree wild punk she’d once been - if only for the night. Her parents think it’s a good idea anyway, so she can keep an eye on Kathy. And so Martin takes toddler Niall to stay with his own parents, and Deidre has her night off. In the end Kathy gives the whole thing the slip, and goes to a party elsewhere with one of her boyfriends.

She has a surprisingly memorable night. She’s always been close with Mary and Geraldine. Ever since they were younger and friends with Kathy. They had stayed round Deidre and Kathy’s more nights than Deidre could count, and Deidre had often been tasked with chaperoning the younger girls about. As Kathy had got into her teenage years she’d grown apart from that set of friends. She’d thought herself above them. Fallen in with a different lot that Deidre hadn’t much to do with. But Deidre had remained friends with the girls. She’d never admit it but she enjoyed the way they looked up to her, how they’d always be in awe of one of her story’s. How she could drag them into mischief with her so easily. They’d grown apart, of late. Unsurprisingly with Niall and work taking all of Deidre’s time. It’s nice to reconnect.

 

Niall is five when Martin is arrested along with Jackie, and charged with involvement in IRA activities, including the planning of a bombing.

He’s been in prison nine months when Deidre’s second child, Michelle, is born.

 

Michelle spends the first several years of her life without a father figure. Deidre is now the sole breadwinner and therefore has to work all the hours she can. Often she doesn’t see her children for long periods.

Geraldine, Mary and Sarah, by coincidence, all have children that same year. With the wains being the same age, and with Martin not being around, Deidre develops a renewed closeness with her old friends. Mary particularly, will regularly look after Michelle and Niall whilst Deidre’s working her long hours. She doesn’t like to put upon Geraldine so much. She’d had a traumatic birth with Clare, and her recovery has been slow. Deidre’s reluctant enough as it is, having to rely on the Quinn’s. She’s always been far too proud to ask for help.

When Niall is a bit older, Deidre often leaves him to look after Michelle, so she doesn’t have to ask the others so much. He’s a good boy, understands well enough that his ma needs the help now. He takes care of his sister in a way you wouldn’t expect a ten year old to do. He heats up potato waffles and beans for dinner, or helps her with the toppings for their DIY pizza’s. Making sure she brushes her teeth and goes to bed at a reasonable time. He grows up quickly; they both do.

As much as he takes his responsibility seriously, he’s still a kid, and so inevitably something goes wrong. One day after school Niall is talked into a game of football with some mates and loses track of time. Michelle is in her very first year. He’s supposed to pick her up everyday and they walk home together. So she’s left waiting on the pavement outside the school gates, scuffing her new painted shoes in the gutter until everyone else has gone and she’s completely alone, and her tummy is empty and painful and the sky is turning a burnt shade of orange. She’s eventually found by a frantic Gerry as she’s traipsing home, hopelessly lost but trying her hardest to be brave like her brother taught her. When they get back to the Quinn’s, Niall is there in floods of tears. Mary makes them both dinner and Erin and Orla refuse to let go of her all night.

Mary and Gerry look after the Mallon kids a lot more frequently after that.

 

3. A strange, frightening man 

Martin is released from prison when Michelle is six, and suddenly there is a strange, frightening man in the house, who's nothing like Gerry, or even Sean - Clare’s da - at all.

Martin swears to Deidre that he’s done with the IRA. She’s sceptical, at first, but he steers clear of his old acquaintances and their haunts, and seems to be sticking to his word. In fact he doesn’t go out much at all, instead preferring to sit in the house most of the day, peering over the racing post and glaring at the teletext results. He struggles to find any but temporary, casual work, picking up the odd shift working security here and there. And as time goes on he becomes more and more prone to bouts of drinking and gambling, and occasional fits of temper or extended moroseness. Deidre often thinks that he seems lost, a shell of his former self.

She’d hoped to cut down on her hours with Martin’s return, and regain some of the time she lost with her family. But with the gambling bills adding up and his sporadic contribution to the household finances, they struggle to make ends meet, and she finds herself picking up every shift she can. She hates to admit it, but she often feels thankful to get away from this man that returned in her husband's place.

They argue more than they used to. Sometimes they have furious rows, which Michelle and Niall sit listening to on the stairs, until Niall leads her away or occasionally decides to intervene. About the state of the place. About how he refuses to make dinner or tidy the house. How he won’t even think about putting a uniform wash on, or that one time when Deidre’s had to go into Michelle’s school to explain why the girl was falling asleep at her desk. About how Deidre can’t do everything.

 

Michelle doesn’t have a good relationship with her da. Even from the first day he’s home, he seems to take an active disliking to her.

There’s a doubt in the back of Martin’s mind, one that’s been there since she was born. An itch that says that Michelle isn’t his. It niggles away and grows until he rots from the inside out, riddled with distrust. There’s rumours, his brother whispers. The timing could be off. She was very small when she was born, his parents confided, are you sure she was full term? He see’s Michelle for the first time when she’s a toddler, from behind a smeared glass screen. She’s all thick bouncing curls and blue eyes and bundles of energy, and he can’t spot any of himself in her at all, no matter how hard he tries.

 

Deidre never tells a soul, even in the privacy of the confessional, that she too doesn’t quite know.

There was a new doctor on her ward in the hospital. Young and protestant, but sweet and kind, with a genuine smile and thick curly hair. She used to take the mick, her and the other nurses, tease him something rotten. But in the break room they would meet each other’s eye over a cup of steaming tea and a soggy biscuit half way through a manic shift. She'd tell him about her punk days and they’d laugh at a wobbly DIY tattoo on his arm.

It happened after Martin was arrested. When she was angry and scared, and sat on a bench in the pouring rain too tired and bone weary to walk down the road for the bus. When he had sat down right beside her, in the middle of the downpour, with understanding in his eyes and an umbrella in his hand. They ended up in an unoccupied side room, on that very first night. She knew she’d wanted it for longer.

It lasted several weeks. Several weeks of furtive looks and clandestine rendezvous. Of butterfly’s in her stomach, and of feeling young and free and attractive. And then she was late, and the fear hit harder than anything ever had. She called it off and then cried in his arms, and he begged her to run away with him. But she had a son, and a job, and Kathy had literally just hot-footed it to England as it was. She didn’t think her ailing parents could handle anything else. And the baby could yet still be Martin’s. She transferred to a different ward. The accident and emergency department where she could take advantage of all the extra overtime going spare.

She gave birth to Michelle 8 months later, in December 1979. The young doctor visited her, in her side-room on the quiet part of the ward so that she might finally get some rest. He brought flowers and a smile which widened in joy when he laid eyes on the wain.

He was shot dead two weeks later as he was walking down the street on his way to work.

 

Martin’s dismissive of Michelle more often than not, and when the mood takes him openly hostile. He doesn’t help with her homework and let’s the girl stay up far beyond a sensible bed time. Not through any desire to be a fun, cool father, but because he doesn’t care. As long as she stays out of his way or stays quiet, or makes herself useful.

There’s one day Niall’s out for tea at a mate’s, and Deidre’s called to say its chaos at the hospital and she’s having to stay late. It’s just Martin and Michelle in, and Martin snaps at her to make her own bloody dinner, when the girl tells him she’s hungry. She manages to get a tin of soup opened and into a pan to heat it on the hob. It’s almost successful, but she doesn’t realise the metal handle’s partially over the open flame, and when she comes to lift it off, the red hot handle burns her palm and she drops it instantly. The pan and all its contents clatter to the floor, large dollops of the steaming broth landing on her foot. She’s yelling out in pain and Martin’s on his feet instantly, storming over. He grips her arm roughly, shaking her and yelling at her to shut up, and that she’s a useless idiot, until she’s so scared that she finally quietens. She has to clean it up herself, and then limps up to her room before burying her face in her pillow and crying her eyes out. There’s blisters on her foot and it’s agony the next day forcing it into her shoe. She doesn’t say anything though. Just grits her teeth and tries her hardest to walk without a limp so no one will notice. She takes care to hide the small, fingertip size bruises on her upper arm as well.

 

Michelle continues to spend more time with Clare, Erin and Orla than she does at home, on account of Martin failing to be any kind of father. She loves being with the girls though. They always make her feel happy. But it also means she spends less time with Niall, which makes her sad, and she resents Martin for that more than his treatment of her. Deidre tells Mary and the others it’s because Martin works nights and irregular hours, - the reason why Michelle is always still round one of theirs. For why he never comes to parents evenings, or school plays, or any other myriad of things other parents do for their children. For why if there is ever a do or get together, he never goes with her. Her friends pretend they buy it. Deidre pretends that she can’t see that they know the truth - that he doesn't have a job, and that he's no man to be a father.

Erin and the others don’t really question it, at least not when they’re young. Why would they? After all Orla doesn’t have a da either.

Sometimes Michelle is quiet. When she’s round at the Quinn’s. Sometimes she sits there slouched at the table, when they’re having their tea, pushing her alphabet waffles around on her plate and doesn’t say a word. Most of the time she’s loud. A foghorn they call her. Laughing and running about with the other girls. Her and Erin both bossing over their little gang. Sometimes taking it in turns. Each secretly believing they are the true leader.

 

Martins relationship with Niall is somewhat better. He shows an interest in his son, and can be affectionate and even loving. It’s not perfect. There are times they have raging rows that become so intense that Michelle is terrified he might kill her brother. When Martin is steaming drunk, and Niall can’t hide the slither of contempt he feels at his da for leaving, or for the way he treats Michelle. There is a part of Niall that remembers, a ma and a da and smiles and outings in the sun, and how he thought that when his da finally came home it would all go back to that.

There is one time, when Deidre’s extra shift is cancelled at the last minute, and she is left with an unexpectedly free afternoon, and Michelle is already round at the Quinn’s playing happily with Erin, Orla and Clare. And Martin's in a rare good mood and he pipes up from his spot on the sofa that why don’t the three of them go out for a stroll. Its the closest they come to how it used to be. Until too many hostile stares and over friendly claps on the shoulder from old comrades start to wear the man down, and thoughts of Michelle missing out and a sliver of guilt start to intrude on Niall’s good time. They don’t go out like that again.

 

4. Jackie 

Jackie is released from prison two years after his brother. Niall is fourteen and Michelle eight. If Michelle dislikes Martin, then she despises Jackie. The first time they meet he looks her up and down with beady eyes that she can feel on her body, like sweaty hands over her skin. She recoils away, trying to blend in with the wall and he sneers loudly at her.

Jackie is round theirs more often than Michelle or Deidre like. Deidre has never liked the man, and as for Michelle, well Jackie’s cruel, and seems to take great pleasure in humiliating her. She tries her hardest to stay away, and when she has to be there she keeps to her room and tries to think what she’s done to make him hate her so. She learns not to cry, refuses to give him the satisfaction.

Martin usually stays out of it, and occasionally laughs along. There is this one time though, when Jackie takes it further than normal and is being particularly cruel, and Martin’s wearing the sofa out in his usual spot with a burning cigarette between his lips and can of special in hand. He wipes his mouth with the back of his sleeve, and slowly stubs out his cigarette, rotating it one way and then the other until it’s nothing more than another blackened butt spilling from the ashtray. Give it a bloody rest Jack will ye. Let ‘er be, I’m sick of hearing yer voice. Martin’s back is stiff, and not once does he look up at Michelle. And for the first time she feels something akin to fondness stirring in her chest. It’s a small sickly thing that doesn’t take long to fade, but for the briefest of moments she’d wanted to hug him.

 

Like the boy's father, Jackie too takes to Niall, and they have a generally good relationship. It’s early on when Niall walks in on Jackie bullying Michelle and has at him good and proper, lamping him on the cheekbone as hard as his fledgling muscles allow. For his troubles he earns himself a broken knuckle, as well as a backhand across the jaw, a punch to the gut, and a proper dressing down that borders on ridicule that he would stand up for his pathetic sister. Michelle sees his lip wobble and his resolve start to crack. But then he stands up straighter and looks his uncle in the eye and doesn’t back down. Jackie leaves, but is back a couple of weeks later, just as Michelle had started to hope they had seen the back of him.

It seems that day had also earned Niall his uncle's respect. From then on Jackie tends to ignore Michelle just as Martin does, permitting her to move about the house without comment, but his slimy snake eyes follow her movements.

Yet the few times Niall isn’t around he makes up for it. One time he corners her, invading her personal space, and his cruel taunts become intimidating threats and vile promises, and Michelle can’t remember a time she’s ever felt so scared. It’s late and Niall’s with Martin visiting his grandparents and the house is supposed to be empty. And Michelle’s supposed to be staying over with Erin except Erin started to get sick and Michelle didn’t want to be a nuisance so she lied and said her brother would be home.

She flees the house into the dark streets which are terrifying in totally different ways and yet nowhere near as terrifying as being at home. She wanders until she comes to a boxy house that’s the exact replica of all the others on the street, with a light on in an upstairs room and the silhouette of a small figure bustling about behind the drawn curtains, and suddenly she feels safe. She heaves herself up a sturdy metal drainpipe until she’s balanced precariously on a narrow ledge above the front door and taps lightly on the window.

Clare jumps about a foot in the air when she looks out and finally spots Michelle perched there. Clare’s face is anxious and she keeps glancing nervously behind her as she tells Michelle to go away, but when Michelle ignores her and scrambles up anyway she grabs her arm and hauls her over the ledge into the safety of the bedroom. The irritation immediately fades from her face as she gets a proper look at Michelle, and is replaced by concern with a hint of panic. Michelle is pale and shaking, and won’t really talk except to tell Clare in a voice that couldn’t have sounded less authoritative that she was staying over.

Clare lends Michelle a pair of soft pink pyjamas which are far too small but smell like Clare, and Michelle huddles into them and finally feels herself stop shaking. Then Clare shushes her, and hides her under the duvet as Sean and Geraldine’s footsteps sound outside the door. They tell her off for being up so late and for her window being wide open, and for the mess of her room with clothes all over the bed. She ushers them out with a kiss to both their cheeks, before they can start trying to tidy it and accidently uncover Michelle hiding beneath.

When Michelle resurfaces she finds a light flush colouring Clare’s cheeks, which somehow helps to ease the tight feeling that started to constrict her throat during the family exchange. She manages to meet Clare’s eye and gives a small smile that doesn’t feel anywhere near as forced as she thought it would. Clare holds her all night long, but not before placing a little kiss to the crown of her head before they settle down to sleep. Michelle feels about as safe as she ever has.

Of course Clare asks what had happened, and Michelle tells her she had a run in with some scary man on the street. She doesn’t think to do anything but cover for her uncle. The lying and half truths come second nature to her by this point.

 

It’s not the last time that Michelle scales the drain pipe and clambers through Clare’s window late at night. Because, although they spend most of the time all together round at Erin’s, and she still sleeps over there on a regular basis, it’s Clare’s she goes to when things get too much and she needs to feel safe.

Eventually Geraldine and Sean sit Clare down and tell her it has to stop. There’s a key under the loose step for Christ’s sake. If she keeps climbing that bloody drain pipe she’ll no doubt fall and break her neck, and then won’t we have her father after us then. Sean shudders and Geraldine shoots him a look that says he’s said too much. He goes instantly shtum but Clare doesn’t notice, bounding to her feet with a massive smile and hugs both her parents tight.

 

The one silver lining to Jackie’s presence is that he gets Martin out of the house and down into a local boozer. Not every night but often enough. With the two men gone the house feels nicer and she finally feels like she can breathe there.

 

Jackie disappears from their lives from time to time. Sometimes for weeks on end. And when he returns his mood will either be triumphant or foul. Michelle hears whispers, rumours about him. Words she can’t quite (and doesn’t want to) understand. Sometimes the brothers will argue. It starts out as hushed clipped tones that quickly descends into shouting matches.

 

5. In these pre-adolescent years 

As time goes by and as Niall goes from childhood into being a young adult, he partakes more and more in their conversations. Jackie particularly encourages the young lad to sit and discuss things with them. Political things. It is the source of many more arguments between the brothers. Michelle doesn’t understand at first but she does in the end.

 

It’s when they are 11 and Erin acts strangely around Niall this one time.

Later that night, the girls push her about it, and it comes out that Erin fancies Niall, massive crush on him actually. Michelle laughs and teases her, and says it’s gross. But then she says how cool it would be if they got married, and then they could be actual family, and the gang spend the rest of the evening plotting how to get them together.

She asks Clare if she fancies any boys and Clare gets all nervous and stutters and says that’s gross and that she doesn’t fancy anyone. Orla says she fancies her Chupa Chups lolly. Michelle secretly agrees with Clare but the idea of Erin being more grown up than her is unthinkable, and so she says that she fancies Ian MacLoughlin, one of Niall’s mates. She calls him a ride because she heard her brother and his mates describe some hot girl that way, and even though she’s not entirely sure what it means, she thinks it makes her sound mature and kinda cool.

 

There’s a talent show later that year. When they’re in their last few weeks of primary school. The girls enter and decide they’ll do a dance to a Madonna song. They tape a copy of the music video from the TV, and get to take it home for one night each to learn the moves.

It’s Michelle’s night to have it, she’s at home alone sat staring intently at the screen, trying to copy each sultry step and gyration of the hips. At some stage she’s given up, and is just sat staring up at the sexy way the woman moves her body to the music, enthralled. It’s at that point Martin gets home, and she jumps away guilty, not quite sure what she feels guilty for.

He sees her reaction, and the half naked woman still pumping her hips about on the screen and loses it. Accuses her of being one of those filthy gay’s. Accuses her of having something wrong with her. He’s spouting off about it, how it’s unnatural, against gods will. That she’s disgusting. And she doesn’t really know what he’s on about, but she agrees with him anyway. Promises him that she’s not. He tells her that she better not be, and if he finds out any different then he’ll knock her into next Sunday, and then kick her out onto the street.

When Clare eventually comes out years later, Martin forbids Michelle from seeing her. He’s already drunk at the time. When Michelle tells him to go fuck himself he pushes her hard into a wall. James comes in to find Michelle crouched down on the floor and Martin standing over her. Martin quickly moves away and settles back on the sofa. Michelle is shaken but ultimately unhurt, just a slight bump on her head. When he passes out a couple of hours later she nicks a packet of his fags and almost a full bottle of whisky. She swears James to silence over what he saw, and although he wants to tell someone, eventually he agrees and they promise to never let the man anywhere near Clare. And of course she doesn’t for a second consider obeying him, and continues to see Clare and the others just as much as before.

 

It’s in these pre-adolescent years Michelle’s behaviour begins to change. It starts with the language, she’s becoming more crude and using a lot of swear words. She discovers sarcasm and starts to answer back in class. Her friends are normally exempt from her put downs, but not always. She’s the first to wear make-up and buys a push up bra. She likes the attention she’s starting to get from boys, it makes her feel special and big. In fact she’s starting to like more attention in general, to be the topic of conversation amongst her peers, whether for good or bad. She acts out a bit, often dragging the girls into it. Nothing major, but it sometimes lands her and the gang in a bit of trouble nonetheless.

Deidre has to become stricter with her. Laying down the law. It’s not something she had to do much with Michelle before, for either of her children really. She doesn’t like to be stern with Michelle, she knows she hasn’t had it easy, but as her daughters behaviour only seems to get worse, she gets tougher on the girl. She grounds her, they have shouting matches. Nothing seems to make a difference for long. It’s the guilt trips that prove most effective. It’s not like Michelle particularly enjoys getting shouted at by her ma, but then it’s more attention than she’s used to getting so not all bad.

 

For her twelth birthday, Niall buys her a brand spanking new Walkman, as well as burning her a load of cassette mix tapes of music he thinks she might like. Most of them are a bit too old for her but she listens to them all anyway, over and over. She’s the envy of her friends, and she passes it round to them over lunch at school and they compare their favourite songs and artists.

 

It’s also Niall that gives Michelle her first drink of alcohol. Or at least one of his mates does. Ian MacLoughlin, to be precise, who’s going by Macca now.

Niall’s about to go meet a group of his mates down the park one evening when it all blows up at home. Martin’s had a heavy day of betting and lost more than normal. He’s stomping round the house spoiling for a fight. Michelle, with her Walkman glued to her ears, hasn’t noticed his mood, and is jumping loudly around in her room. It’s the excuse their da has been looking for.

He storms up the stairs and almost takes the door to her room off its hinges. He swipes the headphones off her head and snatches the Walkman from the waistband of her jeans. She’s fighting back, trying to punch him in the chest and grab the thing back out of his hands but its too far out of reach. She’s screaming at him - she’ll kill him if he doesn’t give it back, and he’s roaring all manner of things back at her. Niall somehow manages to separate the two. Martin smashes the Walkman down onto the desk and tells him to get his sister out of his sight, then slams the door and stomps back downstairs.

Michelle’s furious and holding back tears and Niall can’t remember the last time he saw her cry. He walks over to the desk and carefully picks up the treasured possession. The front loading compartment has come off, but with a little bit of fiddling about he manages to reattach it to the rest and miraculously it still plays. A bit wobbly, but otherwise good as new. She hugs it to her chest as though it’s the most precious thing in the world. And he knows there’s no way he’s leaving her that evening, so he brings her along with him down to the park.

The lads are good about it to be fair to them, but Niall knows he’s in for a ribbing later. Michelle just about manages not to be embarrassing but she’s still quieter than normal. They are handing around cans of cheap beer, and there’s also a bottle of vodka which they top up the beer cans with when they've drank a bit.

They are all leaning against some goal posts in varying states of disrepair and Michelle’s somehow got up on the top of the crossbar and is swinging her legs. They are chatting about girls and football. They are all pretty coarse, and Niall slaps one of them round the head when he gets just a bit too vulgar in his descriptions of what he and some lass got up to last night. But Michelle has heard a lot worse before from her own family, and she makes use of one of her legendary put downs without holding back on the language and it has her brother’s mates rolling in stitches. Niall pretends to be annoyed but he too is holding back a laugh.

When the topic of conversation changes to music she occasionally joins in with their enthusiasm or dislike. She’s sarcastic and witty and the lads genuinely seem to find her amusing. She learns of some new songs, and different kinds of music, which she mentally adds to her list of things that she needs to tape from the radio when she gets the chance.

Its getting late when Macca comes to lean against the goalpost that she’s still perched on top of. You’re alright kid, he says to her as he hands her a can that she’s just seen him top up. She accepts it because she doesn’t want to seem like a kid, and tries to pretend like she’s done it a hundred times before. She takes a gulp and it burns her throat and she has to work really hard not to choke. Macca sees through her charade and laughs. She finishes the can and there’s a buzz in her brain that she’s quite enjoying, and her balance isn’t quite right and she nearly falls from the bar before she’s helped off by her brothers strong arms. Fuck sake he cusses Macca out, how much vodka you put in there?

But Michelle feels good and she keeps laughing whilst her brother walks her back home. The thought of going home to him doesn’t even seem bad anymore, and she’s walking on a cloud and nothing can touch her. Deidre’s back home by the time they get there and Niall ushers Michelle upstairs before their ma can realise that anything’s amiss.

 

6. Niall 

Its a couple of weeks later when everything goes to shit. Martin’s ma - Michelle’s gran - is killed. Murdered in her own home by the Ulster Volunteer Force. Michelle doesn’t particularly give that much of a shit; they’d never had a close relationship, but Niall does. He’s sad, but most of all he’s angry. She’s never seen him like this before. She can see the toll its taken like a physical scar. Martin and Jackie are angry too. Niall spends more time with the two men, especially with Jackie, and they’re frequently seen talking and whispering together, even when Martin’s not there. He goes down the pub with them too and Michelle doesn’t like it. Doesn’t want him to be anything like them. And she knows that particular pub by now. Knows its reputation. And she doesn’t want him to get hurt.

 

He takes her with him to hang out with his mates again. Down the back of Cost Cutters this time. The atmosphere is different than before. Niall’s anger is palpable. He’s spouting off, holding court with anti-unionist, anti-protestant hate. Saying he’s gonna kill King Rat. The voice Michelle can hear coming from her brother belongs to Jackie, and it makes her want to boke. Macca doesn’t seem to like it either, and he tries to talk Niall down, but he’s got the rest of the gang riled up now too. The two almost come to blows, in the end. She leaves early, drowning her thoughts out listening to this new boy band that her and the girls can’t get enough of.

 

Its late 1992 and Niall has just turned 18. Jackie picks him up in a beat-up white van that Niall’s never seen before. It’s empty save for a large black holdall. They drive for a while, pick another man up and Niall’s never seen him before either. He’s scared now, and Jackie must sense it because when they finally stop and this strange man gets out to jimmy the lock on some car, Jackie pulls him aside and whispers in his ear, and Niall feels his resolve harden. They drive to Dungannon in the stolen car; Jackie, Niall and the holdall, with the strange man following some distance behind in the van.

 

Two days later Niall’s arrested for murder.

 

He’s not at home when it happens, and Michelle doesn’t see him. The first any of them know about it is when there’s a pounding on the front door like someone’s trying to break it down, when Michelle and Martin are sat watching some shite on the tele waiting for Deidre to get home with their fish and chips. The RUC force their way in, with smoke canisters and blinding lights and guns aiming straight at the two occupants. Michelle is frozen with fear and confusion and she finds herself pinned forcibly to the floor. Hands restrained behind her back and a booted foot pressing her painfully down when she starts to struggle. They ransack the house and then Michelle and Martin are hauled away. Deidre never makes it home, but gets intercepted by the RUC as she’s waiting in line at Fionnula’s.

At the station Michelle’s separated from her da and put in a small side room on her own and kept there for hours. No one comes in, no one tells her what’s going on, and she’s still scared and confused but now she’s getting pissed as well. She rattles the door and pounds on the windows and screams profanities as loud as she can. Eventually someone comes, when her throat is starting to hurt and her voice is hoarse. A man with a serious face and intimidating presence who looks at her as though she’s something he just scraped off his shoe. He tells her to sit down, and when she refuses he tells her that if she doesn’t he’ll handcuff her to the chair and leave her there to rot. She believes him when he says it. He asks her all manner of questions, about Niall and her da and uncle. He asks her about the IRA and some shitty little town miles away that she’s never even been to. And the officer isn’t happy with her responses and promises her he’ll keep her there until she tells him what he wants to know. But she doesn’t know anything, and she’s tired and hungry and hasn’t been given so much as a drink of water, and is just about at breaking point. She demands to know what the fuck is going on and that’s when he tells her. Gets real close to her face and tells her with a look of contempt in his eyes, that her brother is a murderer. She spits in his face and screams at him that he’s a liar.

Its much later and Michelle’s tears have dried up along with her strength and anger. She’s drained and just wants Niall to come and clear everything up. Or her ma, or Clare or Erin or Orla. Christ she’d even take Martin at this point. Her face is sticky from the tears drying on her cheeks, and her head is pounding and there’s a buzzing in her brain and she can barely think straight. The door to her room opens. It’s a different officer this time, one that looks kinder. They lead her out and the bright lights burn her retinas and her legs are so wobbly she can barely walk.

Mary and Gerry have been down at the police station for hours, since word reached their household of Deidre’s arrest in the chippy and the raid over at the Mallon place. Mary has been shouting and threatening them. How dare they hold a twelve year old girl, and Deirdre Mallon is a respected nurse and pillar of the community, didn’t they know? She hasn't let up, annoying the hell out of the desk sergeant until the Captain personally threatened her with arrest. Still, they refuse to leave until eventually a half-dead Michelle is lead out, who’d obviously been crying her eyes out, and Mary thinks she might just kill the police officer there and then. She hugs Michelle for a long time, not wanting to let her go, and the girl's shaking uncontrollably as she buries her head into Mary’s shoulder and grips her back fiercely. It's late and Michelle looks exhausted to the point of collapse, so Mary has Gerry lead her out to the car, his arm protectively wrapped around her shoulder. She doesn't want the wain to hear what she has to say to the RUC officer in charge. She's probably lucky not to be detained herself.

Michelle can hear Mary’s furious words to the officers before the door shuts behind them. It’s the early hours of the morning by the time they get her home. She downs several glasses of squash, and washes her face, then falls asleep in her plate of chicken nuggets that Mary insisted she eat.

The other girls rally round Michelle, but her tears are done. She’s convinced of her brothers innocence, that it’s all a misunderstanding or that he’s been framed. She’ll fight anyone who dares to say different.

Come school on Monday of course rumours are flying. The girls make a pact to try and shield her from the worst of it but it’s an impossible battle. She gets into two separate fights that first day alone. She falls out with Clare on the second day, when the smaller girl dares to suggest that he might’ve done it. She holds herself back from physical violence but snarls in her friend’s face before stomping off.

Clare thinks Michelle’s being unreasonable, she only said what if, and her parents said he’ll be guilty. Its Orla, funnily enough, who gives her an unexpected pearl of wisdom. Because sometimes it’s the people we are closest to that don’t really see us at all. It’s a sentiment that rings so true to Clare that for a while she wonders if Orla were talking about her and not Michelle. But she thinks she understands now, that Michelle is seeing what she wants to see. Who is Clare to ruin that illusion? She vows to be there for her friend if it all comes crashing down. It’s surprisingly grown up of her.

Clare says sorry to her the very next day. The thought of Michelle hating her had kept her up all night, and her anxiety was feeling pretty bad, so when Michelle punches her in the shoulder and tells her to say no more about it, Clare almost cries with relief. Michelle casually slings her arm around Clare’s shoulder, its heavy weight so familiar, and Clare doesn’t even pull a face at being her taller friend’s leaning post as she normally would.

At school it doesn’t take long for the other kids to grow bored of the talk. That or they were genuinely frightened of Michelle. Either way the talk and the rumours stop, much to everyone’s relief.

 

Deidre is held for three days, down at the RUC station. Martin a week beyond that. There’s no evidence to charge him. The same can’t be said for Jackie, and he’s charged with conspiracy to murder and perverting the course of justice. Later several counts of terrorism are added to the initial charges.  

On his release Martin looks haggard and gaunt. He’s aged about 20 years. The first thing he does is go on a bender and Deidre and Michelle don’t see him for days on end. Even when he returns, he’s blind drunk most days. Raging about the place or snoring on the sofa. Michelle avoids him as much as she can.

 

Michelle is neither here nor there really, when it comes to religion. She goes through the motions of saying prayers at school and goes to church on special occasions, or when her ma makes her. But other than that she really can’t say she gives religion much thought at all. If pushed, she’d say she were the least religious of her friends.

After Niall’s arrest, she prays to God and the Virgin Mary every night. She promises she’ll be good. She promises she’ll try, at least. And every Sunday without fail she attends Mass, with her mum on the rare occasions she’s not at work or sleeping off her night shift, or otherwise with the Quinn’s or Devlin’s. And every Sunday she sits in the confessional and confesses all the sins that she couldn’t quite seem to avoid that week. She does her Hail Mary’s. And she tells herself it’s worth it. That Niall will come back. He’s innocent, he has to.

 

Its a few week’s later. Michelle is round at Erin’s for the evening. Deidre comes home from work to find Martin already steaming drunk, up to his eyeballs in screwed up betting slips with a can emptying its contents onto the carpet and days worth of dirty dishes mouldering in the sink. And Deidre is bone weary exhausted, and the numb daze which has kept her going through this whole ordeal is starting to wear off. And she’s worked so hard for such a long time, she’s been passed over for promotions she more than deserves all because she happened to be born into a family that has one set of beliefs rather than a different set, she’s worked every hour god’s given her, and it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Something snaps inside of her and she suddenly can’t do it anymore, any of it. Not alone.

She grabs a bowl from where its sat down by the sofa and throws it across the room with all her might. It shatters into a thousand pieces against the far wall of the kitchen, like some physical manifestation of her broken heart. Martin starts awake from his drunken stupor. His face is as dark as thunder as he gets up and steps into her space. But for once she doesn’t care, and she yells all the truths at him she’s been longing to (but not that one truth. That goes with her to the grave) and he’s yelling back at her, but suddenly he’s quiet and his posture turns rigid and Deidre’s suddenly scared. He’s in her space and there’s nowhere left to retreat.

 

Its late when Mary’s phone rings. She’d just been considering sending the girls back home, since they showed no sign of willingness to leave of their own accord. Its Deidre, asking if it wouldn’t be too much bother for Michelle to stay the night. Apparently Martin’s at work and Deidre’s come down with a God-awful migraine. She sounds horrendous, her voice is strained and she’s having trouble sounding out the words, and Mary’s worried. She tells her of course, and that she’ll come over to check on her, but Deidre tells her not to. Mary has half a mind to go anyway, but it’s late and maybe her friend does just need a good night’s sleep.

The next day she’s still worried, she feels something isn’t right, though can’t for the life of her put her finger on what it might be. She makes some stew, puts it in a big bowl and walks round to the house. There’s no answer when she knocks at the door. She tries again and is just about to concede defeat when she sees the twitch of an upstairs curtain. She tries waving, but the curtain remains still, and there’s still no answer when she shouts through the letter box. Once again she thinks about leaving, it might be Martin in there, trying to sleep after a night shift. But the nagging feeling is still there, and so she retrieves the spare key from under the plant pot. She removes the key twice from the lock before berating herself for being a chicken and finally turning it.

She finds Deidre in an upstairs bedroom. It’s a good job she thought to leave the bowl of stew downstairs because it would have undoubtedly slipped from her grasp to shatter all over the floor. Deidre’s face is raw. One side is so swollen that her eye is forced closed. Angry purplish bruising fans out from her cheekbone. Her lip is fat and split and it makes sense why she seemed to have trouble talking. Mary is aghast. She tries to get Deidre to go to the hospital, and when that fails begs her to come stay with them. She finally agrees to Mary coming round to check on her again the following day, begrudgingly like. Mary cuts Deidre off before she can begin to make excuses. - don’t try giving me any of that fell down the stairs crap. Where is he now? She asks when Deidre doesn’t try to deny it. Gone, Deidre replies. She doesn’t know where. But he won’t be stepping foot through that door again, she promises.

Mary doesn’t mean to tell anyone else, she really doesn’t. But Joe and Sarah walk in when she’s bawling her eyes out later that afternoon, and she sort of just blurts the whole thing out. And of course she was always going to tell Gerry. They are all devastated, but none so much as Joe. He swears he’s going to kill the man, and Mary says she thinks he’s gone. Joe promises he’ll get people on it to find him.

Joe isn’t lying. He enlists Jim from next door, to be his eyes and ears at Martin’s pub. To let Joe know if he’s spotted in there. It’s over a week, before it trickles back to Joe that Martin’s back in town. Its Sean in the end who passes on the news. He doesn’t know the significance at first. He’s picking Clare up, or supposed to be but the girls are out and must have lost track of time, so Mary invites him in for a cuppa. He happens to mention Martin, and Joe starts spouting and Mary and Gerry fail to calm him down, and of course the whole tale comes out then.

It’s later that night when Joe, Sean and Jim beat the living daylights out of him as he staggers out of the boozer. Gerry having wanted no part in the violence.

 

Deidre takes Martin back in the end. Lord knows she’d rather see the back of him. But she’d made vows. For better or for worse. And she’d been brought up to be a devout Catholic. She’d already made one grave sin, and not confessed it. Her son being locked away for murder was her penance. God’s divine retribution. She couldn’t risk another. So she let’s him back, and for a while, things are better. He works more, and isn’t drinking or gambling as much. She’s no fool, she knows it won’t last.

 

7. In the matter of a few hours 

Its 1993. Michelle somehow convinces her ma to let her come to Niall’s trial. Deidre buys them all smart clothes and Gerry offers to drop them off at the courthouse. It might take days, perhaps even a week. Michelle wants to be there for every single minute.

 

In the end, its over in the matter of a few hours. Niall is lead in, and he looks so young, and he can’t seem to meet anyone’s eye. Michelle stares at him and wills him to look at her, but he doesn’t. And then the judge comes in, and the court is silent, and the defence solicitor stands up and asks to approach the bench. And suddenly Michelle can’t breathe, and her ma and Martin are shouting out next to her and the judge is hammering on his desk trying to get order. Niall has changed his plea to guilty.

The solicitor reads a statement to the court. Michelle hears bits and pieces... First offence. Cooperation. Regret. There’s a ringing in her ears, and her fists are curled so tightly that her nails digging into her palm are starting to hurt. She can’t seem to make sense of the words. Niall’s innocent. She knows he is. He has to be. This trial was supposed to clear it all up. He was supposed to come home.

The judge calls for a recess whilst he deliberates on a sentence. Michelle sits in silence on a bench just outside the chamber, whilst Deidre and Martin exchange clipped, furious words with the solicitor. Martin’s getting angry so goes outside to chain-smoke on the steps, and Michelle wants to join him but she can’t get her legs to work and she thinks she might be about to boke. At some stage they get called back in. Michelle wonders if she passed out because she has no notion of time having elapsed.

The judge is giving his sentence. But Michelle still can’t hear anything. There’s a pain blossoming in her chest and the buzzing in her head is louder than its ever been, and Niall still won’t look at her. And suddenly it’s too much. She needs to get out. She’ll die if she spends just one more moment in the stuffy room. She clumsily stumbles along the row of people sat between her and escape, causing a bit of a commotion. Niall looks up and finally she meets his eyes. If there is still any doubt in Michelle’s head it’s banished by what she can see in them. She turns away and pushes her way out of the room.

She buys a pack of cigarettes and sits on the steps outside the courthouse. She’s halfway through her fourth one by the time she bokes up her guts into a nearby bin. It’s not much after that when people start spilling from the building. Her ma’s face is blank. There’s a muscle twitching in her jaw, and her brow is set into a scowl that won’t leave it for a long time. She seems pinched and older and her eyes are dull. At least twenty-five years. Michelle’s face crumples all over again. Well what did you expect, that he’d be coming home with us? Wise up. They should throw away the key, with what he did. Ach, this is why I told you to stay at home, she says as if it makes the blindest bit of difference where she is when she hears the news. Her ma’s words are like a stinging slap to the face and she doesn’t quite know what to say back, and she’s left standing there with her mouth agape and suddenly she hates her. She hates her ma, and Martin. She hates Niall. But most of all she hates god. And she’s so fucking angry. And she wants to scream, she wants to scream at the top of her lungs and in the faces of strangers and tear the entire town down around her, but her voice won’t come, and her ma is already walking away and she has no choice but to follow because they are all getting the bus back to Derry and somewhere in the back of her mind she knows that she’s in no fit state to navigate the world of public transport alone. So she follows blindly and sits in silence and she can’t imagine ever speaking again. Next to her Deidre is also silent. Her back is rigid and she stares straight ahead for the entire journey. On the seat in front Martin has his head in his hands and his shoulders are shaking.

Michelle runs straight up to her room when they get back home. She lays on her bed with her head buried in her pillow, and she still wants to scream but it still won’t come and so she holds her breath inside her chest until her lungs start to burn and her thoughts swim, and then she holds it some more. Again and again. She’s interrupted by Martin’s angry voice hollering up the stairs. He’d come back and immediately slouched down in front of the TV, staring with unseeing eyes and shaking fingers clenched around a large glass of whisky. 10 minutes later the thing turns itself off along with all the rest of the power in the house. Michelle had meant to go top up the electricity yesterday, but with everything else to think about she’d completely forgot. She storms downstairs, grabs the electric key and swipes a couple of notes out of the pot on the side which is almost empty itself. Martin’s calling her a useless shite and her ma must be upstairs but Michelle doesn’t think she could stand to look at her ma’s face anyway. She slams the door shut behind her on the way out.

Her voice cracks as she croaks her way through asking Dennis for a tenner on the electric please. Trial didn’t go well then? He points out, and she wants to punch him in the face or swipe all the containers of sweets off the shelf, but she can feel the tears threatening to fall and mostly she just wants to run out the door and keep on running. When she gets home Martin’s gone. Down the pub, Deidre informs her in that emotionless tone that Michelle can’t stand, her face still stony and hard. She’s going for a lie down, she tells Michelle. And then she’s alone, the stupid bloody key still clenched in her hand and she suddenly feels like she’s suffocating again. Because this is it, and Niall isn’t coming back, and all them stupid twats at school were right after all. She nicks a bottle of whisky from Martin’s stash. Takes a large swig. It helps. The house feels wrong. Foreign almost. The walls feel like they’re closing in on her. She needs to get out.

 

A couple of hours later Deidre wakes up to the shrill ring of the phone. Her head feels tight and she just wants to go back to sleep. She calls out to Michelle, telling her to answer the damn phone, but the blasted thing keeps ringing. Cursing her daughter she forces herself out of bed. It’s Clare Devlin on the line, asking for Michelle. She calls out once more, hollering up the stairs, but there’s still no answer. No doubt she’s got that bloody music player fastened to her ears again, she tells the nervous girl on the other end of the phone. The door to Michelle’s room is ajar. She pushes it open, not bothering to knock; if Michelle hasn’t heard her calling out already then... The room is empty. The Walkman’s on the floor, cassette compartment wide open and wires tangled. Deidre frowns at the sight, something uneasy settling in her gut. She’s not in the bathroom either, and Deirdre rushes back down the stairs. The lounge and kitchen are dark. She switches the light on - and thank God the girl went out and put the money on the key - she half expects her daughter to be lying in a heap on the floor. It’s deserted. She runs round the house, checking each room again, calling out Michelle’s name, before remembering Clare waiting on the phone. Getting her rising panic in check, she tells the girl Michelle isn’t there. Maybe she’s at Erin’s. But Clare is already at the Quinn’s. Perhaps she went to Clare’s first? Clare stutters and stammers down the phone, already panicking herself so Erin grabs the phone. She reassures Deidre that Michelle will be fine. She’s probably just on her way over now. They’ll have her call when she arrives.

 

After Erin hangs up, the three girls look at each other with concern. Orla asks if her cousin really thinks Michelle is on her way. Erin doesn’t know.

In the living room the TV is on with the local news just starting. Joe is sat in his comfortable armchair, and Mary and Sarah are chatting animatedly away at the table, gossiping about Eileen O'Kane's new toy-boy when the girls walk in. They look shiftily about, thinking perhaps they should tell the grown-ups about the call. Of course Mary notices instantly somethings up, and she starts interrogating them, but then Joe is shushing the lot of them and turning up the volume on the old TV set.

Our top story tonight is that local teenager, Niall Mallon, on trial for killing protestant George Hamilton in November last year, has pleaded guilty to murder. He’s set to face up to 25 years in prison after being given a life sentence.

'Oh Christ.' Mary exclaims putting a hand to her chest. That poor family. She says she’s going to ring Deidre right away, and then Clare in a panic let’s slip they’ve just spoken to her, and then the whole story comes out. Mary agrees to let them go out and look for their friend, but tells them they better be back no later than seven, and if Michelle still hasn’t shown up they’d have to call the police. She then goes straight away to call Deidre.

They start by checking the park. Michelle has bragged enough times that she hangs out with Niall and his mates there, but there’s just a group of kids having a kick around when they arrive. They are starting to panic. Clare won’t shut up about all the terrible things that might have happened, and it’s starting to rile Erin, and Orla isn’t even dancing around so she must be feeling the seriousness of the situation too. They check the bridge, cos that’s sort of started to become their place, now they are obviously far too cool to sit in Erin’s bedroom or downstairs with Joe. She’s not there either and they’re starting to lose hope. It’s Orla that suggests the church. Erin scoffs but then they are running out of places to look, and it’s already getting on for seven, and Michelle’s been the picture of a good Catholic these last few months so it’s worth a check.

They find her stumbling around the outside of the ancient brick building. She can barely stay on her feet, and more than once before they get to her she ends up sprawled face first into the dirt. She’s still gripping a bottle of something and takes a messy swig from it, slopping more down her once smart shirt than she gets into her mouth. When she trips a third time she leaves the bottle where it is, instead scrabbling around in the dirt until she picks up a large rock. They watch in horror as she throws it at the stained glass window of the church. Luckily it falls short of its mark. Michelle’s still on her knees on the floor when they reach her, there’s tear marks on her cheeks and her eyes are red and swollen. They are also glassy and unfocused, and as they approach she stumbles back away from them. Her posture is wire tight, despite the obvious intoxication, and she looks like a wild animal, either preparing to pounce or to flee.

You were fucking right. She slurs up at Clare, and anger and hurt permeates her words. And Clare feels tears in her own eyes as she tries to comfort her friend. But Michelle pushes her off and backs away again. And she’s screaming profanities, not at Clare or the girls, but up to the heaven’s, at God, and Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Demanding to know why they didn’t help her, why she prayed, and was good, and went to mass every fucking week and they just ignored her.

The girls manage to tackle her down as she picks up another rock, and she’s struggling against them, still swearing and raving but now her words don’t make any sense at all. And suddenly the fight leaves her and she’s sobbing on the floor with the arms of her friends holding her up, great wracking sobs and heaving, hiccupping breaths, and fat tears streaming endlessly down her cheeks.

After a while Erin untangles herself from her friend and pulls Orla with her. They’ve both got tear tracks running down their faces. Its well past 7 and her ma will be fuming by now. Orla is the fastest runner so she sends her home with a message. That they found Michelle and she’s OK but sad. And whatever happens to not mention that Michelle’s drunk. Then Orla’s away and Erin turns back to Michelle, who’s now got her head buried into Clare’s chest, and Clare has one arm wrapped around her, holding her tightly against herself and the other hand stroking Michelle’s hair comfortingly. Erin reinserts herself behind Michelle, close, and rubs soothing circles on her back, still feeling the tremors of grief running through her.

They sit there for ages. At one time Clare and Erin try to get her to stand, but Michelle’s a dead weight in their arms and they can’t get her more than a couple of paces. It’s pretty much dark now, and she’s worried the priest might come to lock up the church and find them. A car pulls to a stop just up the road, the headlights switching off as the engine splutters to a stop. Four people pile out and head towards them.

Its Mary, Joe, Sarah and Orla. Mary shoots Erin a look that makes her feel that it’s somehow all her fault, but then her gaze shifts to Michelle, all but passed out in Clare’s arms, and there’s a soft, sad look there which Erin cant remember seeing before. Mary tells them to get her up. The girls say they tried but its impossible. Erin wants to be mad at her cousin for blabbing, but then she looks at her ma taking charge of the situation and she feels nothing but relief that the grown-ups are there to help. In the end they manage to get her into Joe’s arms, and into the back seat of the car. She lolls over so her head is nestled into Erin’s lap. Mary takes the front passenger seat and the rest are left to walk home. They put Michelle into Erin’s bed, and Mary sends Clare home under protest from the girls. But they have school tomorrow which they will not - she gives them all a stern look - be missing, and so that’s that and there’s no more arguments on the matter. Erin sleeps with Orla, and Mary had already phoned Deidre the minute Orla rushed in, breathless, and told them they they’d found Michelle throwing rocks at the church, drunk, and that she’s not supposed to tell them that Michelle’s sad but Orla couldn’t remember why she’s not supposed to say. Mary had told Deidre that Michelle was fine and would be staying the night at theirs. She’d ask God for forgiveness for the lie at a later date.

 

8. A cape of no-fucks and a blazing sword of witty put downs 

After that things at the Mallon house aren’t good. Deidre has always had an iron streak, she’s had to, but after the trial it’s like she encases herself in it. She goes back to work almost immediately. Her demeanour is cold and hard, and she rarely laughs anymore. She rules the house with an iron fist, shouting at Martin and Michelle, because God forbid she’ll let her daughter turn out to be a murderer as well. She all but erases any trace of Niall from their lives. His room is shut up, and she doesn’t ever venture into it. She removes any photo’s and the picture she’d had up on the fridge that he made when he was 6, of him and his parents and his little baby sister, and they all had bright glowing smiles. It all goes in a big black bag that’s taken away with the following weeks rubbish. She absolutely forbids any mention of her son’s name. Her and Michelle have blistering rows about it at first, and after a while she just leaves the room whenever Martin or Michelle talk about him, and doesn’t speak to either of them for the rest of the day, until eventually her husband and daughter give up altogether. She can see the hurt it causes Michelle, she’s not blind. And yet it’s nothing compared to her own devastation. She knows that if she thinks about him, or talks about him, or acknowledges what he did or how he was such a beautiful, caring little boy, it will break her completely. And so she’s selfish because she’s no other choice.

(one time she does go and see him, and never tells a soul, it hurts even more than she’d thought, laying her eyes on her own blood behind bars. Filled with love and disgust in equal measure. She leaves early and doesn’t return.)

 

Martin slides deeper into depression. Like how he’d been after he was released from prison when Michelle was six, and yet impossibly worse. He barely has a sober day. He mostly sits on the sofa in a catatonic stupor, even his gambling forgotten. Other days he spends so much that Deidre starts hiding the money. And they spend a good deal of time with no TV or radio after he has to pawn them to pay for his debts. Sometimes his mood is so mean that Michelle hides in her room, or turns back round and leaves out the front door only minutes after she gets home. She will never admit it but he’s started to scare her - and she’s not been scared of him really since she was a kid - on these particular days when he’s menacing and threatening and she’s not quite sure what he’s capable of.

 

And Michelle, she pretends to be fine. After that first, agonising night. She gets up, puts on a uniform, goes to school. Her face of makeup is immaculate. She wears her cocky, carefree attitude like a coat of armour, with a cape of no-fucks and a blazing sword of witty put downs. She answers back, she swears like a Provo and smokes like one too. Sure her grades slip, but she’s still passing. She’s done with church, and being good, and having respect for anyone in authority. She’s been there, done that, and it’s got her nowhere.

She lives in the moment, for fun and mischief and making out with lads. And she makes out with a lot of lads. Of course she exaggerates a bit to the girls because she enjoys their reactions. She says they are all rides, and some of them she does even fancy. It makes her feel good, attractive and desirable, and like she’s not the daughter of an alcoholic loser or sister of a murderer, or that her mum seems to be treating her as though she’s the one that killed someone. She never let’s any of them get close though, never let’s anything develop into the realms of remotely serious. She drinks more than she admits to. Sometimes swigging from a bottle in the school toilets at lunch when things just feel a bit too dull and she doesn’t quite think she can make it through the afternoon lessons without it.

Somehow the girls keep her toeing the line of being on the straight and narrow. Keep her in check just enough that she doesn’t get herself expelled or arrested. There are times she knows that she pushes the limits of their friendship. Other times she enjoys the exasperated huffs and put-upon eye rolls she receives. But they still love her regardless, and she doesn’t think she could possibly put into words what that means to her. (And she loves them back, probably more than they know.)

 

One afternoon she finds Macca hanging around outside the gates of the school. Several weeks after the trial when she’s still adjusting to this new reality. When she’s still trying to perfect the art of being fine. She doesn’t clock him at first, too busy moaning loudly with the girls about the unreasonable amount of homework they’ve been given. He waves her over, and her friends sidle up too. Orla is openly staring at him and she can see Clare and Erin exchanging side glances with each other nervously. Other students are starting to take note now too and the attention makes her feel better than she has in ages. She doesn’t introduce him, it would mean she’d have to mention Niall, and his name already feels foreign on her tongue, and she’s not quite sure she’s strong enough to do it. She tells the others she’ll catch up with them later. Who was that? They ask the next time they see her. Macca, she answers and then changes the subject.

It’s slightly awkward at first, like he doesn’t quite know what to say. He lights up a cigarette, then belatedly thinks to offer her one. She’s got a pack in her bag but takes one from him anyway. He looks different. Older. There’s a healing scar under his left eye, his cheek still slightly swollen from it. Boxing, he tells her when she asks. He’s joined a boxing gym down in town. He had too much energy, too much anger after Niall was arrested. This gives him a way to focus it. He spoke to Niall, he says to her. He’s doing alright. Michelle digs her nails into her palms at the casual way Macca talks of her brother. That he can say his name like its not forbidden. He’s asked Macca to keep an eye out for her. To make sure she’s okay. He’s awkward again, when he says it... if you ever need anything. He hands her a card, it’s got a name on and an address. He’s down at the boxing gym most days, if she needs to get hold of him. Or she can find him down the park. Niall’s like a brother to him, he says. Family. His own brothers are a lot older, and Michelle knows Macca’s dad is even more of an arsehole than Martin. They walk in silence a bit longer, having run out of things to say. Before he leaves, she asks if he’ll buy her some vodka. Because she can’t keep nicking Martin’s booze, he’ll notice eventually. Macca nips into an off licence and comes out with a plastic bag, a few bottles clinking together inside. He’ll get her a fake ID, he says looking her up and down, she should be able to pass for 18 soon, in the right shops.

She sees him occasionally, after that first time. Sometimes when she just needs to get out of the house or when she’s sick of drinking alone. There are new faces in the gang, some younger lads she doesn’t recognise. She enjoys the way their eyes rove over her figure as she flirts with them. She tries it on with Macca one day but he’s having none of it. Another time she’s snogging the face off one of the lads and she peeps an eye open to find Macca’s dark eyes watching her. When the lad gets a bit too handsy, his grip possessive as he works his way just a bit too high up her thigh, then Macca is there, throwing him roughly to the floor. Giving him a warning kick to the ribs for good measure. The lad grumbles but backs off. None of them mess with Macca.

As the months slip by, she sees less of him. He starts to spend more time down at his gym. She hears he’s into bare-knuckle now, fighting in underground matches. She hears he’s pretty good. She thinks maybe it's that he’s outgrown his little gang. She wonders if he still misses Niall as much as she does.

 

She doesn’t stay over at Erin’s so much anymore. When Mary’s having a rough time with her pregnancy and can’t have the girls underfoot. A couple of times she even has them round at hers, when Deidre’s working all night and Martin’s off god-knows where, perhaps at his family’s or just off on some bender. Working, she tells them before they can ask. She rushes home whilst they get their things and tries to make the place look presentable.

She manages to persuade them to have a couple of her da’s tinny’s. Well Orla’s always up for anything and it doesn’t take long to convince Erin. Not when she thinks it will make her seem grown up. Clare’s a different story, and Michelle starts to think her friend is just gonna sit there with a face on her all night, but in the end she relents and Michelle gives her a sloppy side hug which only causes the short girl to pull a face. It only takes them a couple and they’re all tipsy. Of course Michelle’s couple are slightly different, having been topped up with vodka whenever she goes off to the ‘loo’.

Orla’s dancing all over the house. They all are but Orla particularly seems to have endless bounds of energy. Clare, she finds, is possibly the most amusing. Her meek, anxious friend is suddenly loud and unreservedly opinionated, but also soft and affectionate, and Michelle enjoys seeing that side of her. She invites them over again after that first time, only when she’s certain they’ll have to place to themselves. Of course she doesn’t tell them that they’re not really drinking her da’s stash. With that many gone he’d be bound to notice. She buys them with her new fake ID that Macca came good on, and money she pilfers from the housekeeping, and skipped school meals.

From time to time she still stays over at Clare’s. But she’s taken to climbing in through the window again. She turns up glassy eyed and Clare always huffs and tells her that she can’t be there but ultimately ends up conceding and Michelle ends up snuggling up to her in bed just like they always have.

 

9. James 

It’s the following year, summer holidays and Michelle’s about to become a fifth year. Finally about to become a fifth year. And she cannot fucking wait. The four of them are going to absolutely rule the school, she can feel it. They are hot property and she’s gonna make the fuck sure everyone knows it. She’s just got to endure some lame family party for her gran’s 75th birthday first.

She’s never even been that close to her gran, or any of her uncles or cousins, and now she’s got to spend the final few days of her holiday holed up in Strabane, which as far as she’s concerned might as well be the fucking arse end of nowhere, pretending like she gives a damn about the old bat’s birthday. She doesn’t even know why they have to celebrate it anyway. She’s old, she’ll still be old. There isn’t a lot more to it as far as Michelle’s concerned. Her gran and uncle’s are pretty devout Catholic, and she’s done with their pious, sanctimonious lectures almost the moment she walks through the door. Luckily she managed to smuggle some of her vodka stash in with her, and there are a few bottles of Smak Limeade that are now heavily diluted. It makes things more bearable.

Deidre's something of an outcast in the family. Michelle gathers this from overhearing snippets of conversation. It seems to stem from her da being involved in the IRA all those years back. Or more the fact that it became public knowledge when the man went to prison. It's no surprise then that he’s ‘working’ that weekend. Its not like he’d have come with them anyway, Michelle thinks, taking a healthy swig of her bright green juice. No one mentions Niall, but its obvious the thought is there; like father like son. Its almost surprising that her and Deidre weren’t patted down before being allowed through the front door.

But if her ma is persona non grata, then her aunt Kathy is definitely the black sheep of the family. No one has quite forgiven her for running off to England to get an abortion, or then for not getting one, and marrying an English fella. For the shame she brought to the family. No one has forgiven her for not asking for forgiveness, for not appearing repentant in the slightest, and for casting off the shackles of her Catholic upbringing to live loose and free. Or to put it another way, she’s a slapper.

Michelle quite likes her Aunt Kathy. She admires her short skirt and low cut blouse, her flawless makeup that somehow manages to look both elegant and like it was applied with a trowel. She admires the fact that she’s still a massive ride even though she’s old. Her cousin James is there with her. Standing awkwardly around trying to blend into a wall.

He opens his mouth to say something to someone not long after they arrive and half the room stops talking and turns round to stare at him. Michelle has to suppress a snigger, a small spiteful part of her taking joy in his misery, and that finally someone is being treated like more of a leper than her. But then that doesn’t stop her being stood on her own like some loser, not that she even wants to talk to her ball-sacks of relatives anyway.

But she’s bored and half cut by now so she thinks what the fuck. He shrinks back as she approaches him, as though he’s scared she might be about to physically attack him, and she rolls her eyes. She’s met him before, just the once that she remembers, at their granda’s funeral when they were wains. He must be about the same age as her, she thinks as she studies him up close. He might be a ride, she decides, or has the potential to be, if he got rid of the look from his face that says he’s cacking his knickers the entire time, and stops staring after his ma like some pathetic kicked puppy. There’s also a look that says he thinks he’s too good for this shit, and she wants to slap it off his face, but then she’s probably wearing the same look.

She offers him a drink, which is pretty damn nice of her, considering she’s down to her last half bottle. She alludes to the fact its half vodka, but she’s not exactly gonna announce it to the room, and so she’s not sure he gets it. But he still eyes it suspiciously before taking a gulp and then spits it back into his glass and spraying half across the table. Several annoyed glances are cast their way but obviously no one really wants to come speak to them to tell them off.

What the hell? He hisses at her, incredulous, when he’s stopped choking. What’s your fucking problem? She hisses back. You’ve just wasted good vodka. Because she can’t touch that glass now, it’ll have all kinds of English germs in it after that. He gives her another look like he can’t believe what he’s hearing. But then some great uncle so-and-so comes over looking annoyed and nabs the remainder of the noxious green juice. Apparently granny dearest has had a wee bit too much sherry, and she needs something soft to drink for a bit.

The two cousins watch in horror as he pours the last of the grog into the old woman’s glass. Michelle more because the bitch is drinking the last of her booze, and James because he’s genuinely worried the stuff might do her in. In the end the horror turns to amusement as their gran is up, dancing, swaying, spinning, and spilling all the family secrets. Michelle happens to catch James’s eye and they share a knowing smirk.

Deidre and Kathy spend quite a lot of time in conversation, and Michelle doesn’t think all that much of it at first, after all, it’s probably for the same reason she’s ended up sat with James. But after a while she notices that something doesn’t quite seem right. The conversation is getting heated and it looks as though they’re having a disagreement.

 

They’re back in Derry a couple of days later when Deidre drops the proverbial bomb. James is coming to live with them for a bit. Not only that but he’s going to have to go to Michelle’s school, it would be far too dangerous to send him to the boys school without anyone to look after him.

Michelle’s jaw hits the floor. She looks to Martin, there is no way in actual hell he can be okay with this. His face is thunder when he tells her to stop disrespecting her ma. Besides, Kathy is giving them more money than it’ll take to look after the lad.

Michelle’s heart drops in her chest. No, there is no way this can happen. And where the fuck is he going to sleep anyway? She looks to her ma and realisation sets in. No she rages as loud as her lungs allow. No actual fucking way.

Deirdre’s face is set in stone, dismissive and Martin is back to staring at the TV set they’ve just managed to get back. She knows how now, she supposes. She can’t remember the last time she was this mad. She wants to throw the TV to the floor. How can they do this to her she screams as she storms her way up the stairs and slams her door, twice for good measure. But its not satisfying enough, so she punches the wall. Its hard, and doesn’t make her feel better at all, but now her knuckles are sore and bruised and she’s so mad she can’t even bring herself to go meet up with the girls. Doesn’t know how she’s supposed to tell them. The stupid English twat is gonna ruin everything for them.

 

Kathy drops him off on their doorstep the next day. He’s carrying two suitcases and a forlorn look. Michelle thinks he’s about to cry as his mum walks off. She rolls her eyes. He seriously needs to grow a pair or he won’t last a sweet minute in Derry, girls school or not.

Deidre has to work. She apologises to her nephew, but she couldn’t get the time off at such short notice. But Michelle will look after him. She gives her daughter a stern look and Michelle mumbles her reluctant assent. Now it’s first day of school the next day, so they’re not to be up late, her stare pierces Michelle again. Yes Mammy. Yes Auntie Deidre. James looks to Martin who’s sat smoking on the sofa and wonders why all this needs to be said, if Michelle’s dad is going to be there with them.

Michelle makes them the nicest meal she knows how; ham, egg and chips - and proper thick gammon too, none of this wafer thin shite - and then wonders why she even bothered when all he does is push it round his plate with a sour expression on his face. Martin puts some film on. Some pirate video he got hold of the other day. The quality isn’t great. Michelle lights up a cigarette and she can see her cousin turn his nose up at the smell and give a prissy little cough. In that moment she hates him. She goes to sit by her da, rather than sharing the other couch with James. She never does that. For some reason she wants to give the illusion that her and her da are close. She doesn’t quite know why she bothers, maybe because she knows James doesn’t have one.

At some stage James makes some mumbled comment about whether the film is appropriate for the two teens to be watching. Martin puts down his beer and slowly looks at him. What did ye say? Even to Michelle, who’s suffered years of mostly idle threats, he sounds menacing. She thinks James might’ve cacked his pants. He gulps and pushes himself as far back into the sofa as he can. Nothing. I didn’t say anything, sir he finishes. For a minute Michelle can see the wheels turning in Martin’s head. The rusty cogs of decision making. He makes a jerky movement and for a split second she thinks he’s getting up to beat the living daylights out of him. Da, can I have a beer? she intercedes. He rounds on her instead. Catch yourself on you thieving wee shite. Don’t think I don’t know you're in my cupboard every chance you get. Now the both of you shut your holes and watch the fucking film, else get the fuck out. There’s a vein popping in his forehead. Both teens keep their mouths shut after that.

It’s late and the film is still rolling on and James is having trouble keeping his eyes open. He mumbles that he’s going to bed. Michelle snaps at him that no one gives a shit then her eyes are once more glued to the box. She’s on the edge of her seat. She grins widely as Samuel L Jackson calls someone else a ‘motherfucker’, instantly forgetting her cousin’s presence. There’s a couple of cans of empty larger in front of her. Different from the ones Martin has been supping. Apparently her dad only cares about her underage drinking when it concerns her drinking his own supply.  

 

Martin looks across at this boy who would live under his roof. This English boy with his mop of dark curly hair. The man is already looking away when he thinks it, gazing at the grainy picture on the tele. Martin’s head snaps back to his nephew, who freezes halfway out of his seat, and the older man gives him a hard stare with suddenly clear eyes. Examining his face. His thick curly hair so similar to Michelle’s, that no one else in the family seems to share.

Something passes across Martin’s face. Something that wouldn’t even have a name, a long buried doubt and anger. A ‘what if’. What if his parents had been wrong. What if Jackie hadn’t known what he was talking about, all those years ago.

For a second a spark of unimaginable agony burns in his eyes. And then it’s gone. His face disappears into shadow and his clouded eyes rove back to the screen. Somewhere in the murky recesses of his mind a voice that sounds like his brother tells him it’s too late. He chose his path a long time ago. He unscrews a bottle, pours too much into a dirty mug in front of him and takes a drink. His cigarette is burning low. The images on the screen are blurry. At some point the mug slips from his hand, dirty brown liquid trickles down his chest, pooling in the swell of his belly. He can just about make out a head of dark curly hair. It’s the last thing he sees before he passes out for the night.

 

The beginning...