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Mr. Gallagher

By Jim Monaghan


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Mr. Gallagher always came past about half six.  He would slink up to us, shopping bags in both hands, drop the bags, then sprint towards us, trying to get the ball.  We were wise to his move by now, so we kept it off him until he gave up, laughed, and said – “See Yous Boys”.  What that was meant to mean we never knew, but we all liked him, he was always a friendly old guy, harmless.  His son, Michael, who often played with us, told us he had been a great war hero, a spy who brought down Hitler.  Most people thought that Mr. Gallagher was Michael’s Granddad, Michael hated that but Mr. Gallagher always thought it was funny.


One day, sitting on the roundabout, talking about nothing much, Michael told us about his dad – “He’s no sick, like dyin or anythin, he’s sick in his heid.”  “Whit ye mean he’s mental?” “Naw, it’s no mental, he’s just funny, but he’ll be better if he stays in the hospital”.


That always stuck in my mind.  Not mental just funny, we always thought he was funny anyway.  I think that Michael had as much of a clue about what was wrong with his dad as we had.  After that we didn’t speak about Mr. Gallagher and probably forgot all about him, we were too busy with the important things in life, like crossing the eeky voe on a raft we had been building all summer.  Four barrels tied to a door.  It didn’t take all summer to build because of the engineering intricacy involved; it was because it was only the most important thing of that summer sometimes.  Other times stealing apples, sneaking into the scrappy’s and, of course, football were far more important, but crossing the voe had to be completed before we went back to school.


We had tried and tested it twice on the burn and it seemed to float quite well but when we got half way over the voe it sank, just like that.  I don’t know whether someone moved and upset the balance, or the barrels filled with water, but whatever happened it just sank.  Josie shouted, “swim for the shore”.  It was like that when we were wee, even in times of crisis someone would be able to summon up a line from an adventure story or comic to suit the moment.  Like when we chased two Forgie boys across the park, only to run straight in to their big brothers and their mates and Kenny Scott yelled, “retreat lads, we’re outnumbered, two to one”.  We laughed at that one for months.


This time though, we weren’t laughing.  When we reached the shore, Michael Gallagher was nowhere to be seen.  We just didn’t know what to do we were only kids.  Josie started shouting Michael! Michael!  Over and over.  I started crying and my wee brother Frank just stood there silent and still.  It was Frank who made the move, running off towards the scrappy’s.  Josie stopped shouting, put his thumb in his mouth and joined me in the crying.  It seemed like a long time before the men from the scrappy’s arrived, jumping straight in to where the raft was still visible, the top of one of the barrels sticking out of the water.  Then came the police and then the ambulance.  They said he was still alive when they got him out of the water, that’s when Mrs. Gallagher arrived.


Of all the scary moments in my life, to this day I have never encountered anything quite as scary as the noise coming from Mrs. Gallagher.  It wasn’t a cry, nor was it a scream, or even a moan, it was just a low, horrible noise.  She stood over Michael’s body with that noise coming from her.  Michael’s wee sister held her mum’s hand and smiled at the policemen and at us, as if this was an everyday event in the life of a Gallagher.  He died, officially, in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.


Michael’s wee sister, Kerry, went away to stay with her auntie when they took her mum in to hospital.   “Pair wee lassie, her big brother deid and her ma and da in the asylum”, I heard my parents talking in the kitchen.  “It could have been us ye ken”.   “In the asylum? How dae ye make that oot?” “Naw, ya eediot, it could’ve been oor wee boy that was deid.”  “Don’t be stupit, oor boys can swim.”  My dad was like that, he never quite got the point of what people were saying to him.  I got the point though.  Up until then I knew I felt bad, but now I knew why – it could have been me that drowned instead of Michael Gallagher.


Three years later we were playing football in the park, nothing much changed from summer to summer (although rafts were definitely out and girls were definitely in), when Mr. Gallagher came past.  I didn’t recognise him at first, he had a beard and looked very old, he was always old, but he was very old now, like young Mr. Grace from ‘Are you being served’.  He had shopping bags in his hands like before, but he didn’t drop them and chase the ball.  He stopped and looked at us.  We stopped and looked at him.  It was as if he was trying to make sense of us, he knew us and what we were doing but he just seemed like it didn’t quite register, he screwed up his eyes like he was trying to see in the dark.  Frank passed the ball to him, “cross it in Mr. Gallagher”.  He smiled and curled a high ball to the back post.  Smokey Fraser met his cross with a volley that went in off the bar.  We all cheered.  Mr. Gallagher stood there with his bags still in his hands, he was crying.  We watched him as he walked away, back the way he came.  We didn’t know where he was going.  The Gallaghers didn’t stay here any more.  Mrs. Gallagher had moved to Ireland with Kerry when she came out of hospital and Josie’s big cousin stayed in their house now, with her baby and a biker.  I told my dad that night and he told me that Mr. Gallagher was staying in the sheltered housing now.  He was probably going to his old house that day, thankfully the diversion caused by the ball reminded him and he saved himself the embarrassment of turning up at Josie’s cousins house.


I joined the Youth St Vincent De Paul in much the same way as I had become an altar boy.  Father McGrane mentioned at mass on Sunday that the parish needed teenagers to assist the St Vincent De Paul in their works of charity, and my mum duly volunteered me.  I didn’t mind though, Karen Brady and Angela Benedetti went to the meetings and I would have joined the brownies to spend some time with them.


All my mates thought I was the business when it came to girls, all the girls talked to me, laughed at my jokes, listened to me when I spoke and, best of all, they told me things.  The things the girls told me were secrets, I never told the other boys, not because I didn’t want to, it was because I was embarrassed to talk about things like that with my mates.  Apart from that these were secrets, my secrets, me and the girls.  Back then I was the only one of us who had realised that women liked men to listen to them and seem interested in all their affairs, no matter how stupid they might appear.  I also knew that girls were older than boys were.  We were all about 13 or 14.  At that age girls were going out to discos at the community centres all dressed up and snogging (and more) with the bigger boys from other towns.  My mates thought that the girls in my class all fancied me, but I knew different.  They thought I was a nice wee guy that they could talk to, I became like an agony aunt and quite good I was too.  I read my big cousins and my mums magazines and picked up tips. “He’s always wanting more.  Last night I let him feel my tits and then he started to try and get my jeans off, when I told him to stop he went in the huff.  Charlotte lets that Jimmy finger her, I want to but I think he will just want more again.”  Auntie says, “It’s your body, don’t do anything you don’t feel comfortable with, if he loves you he will respect that.”  “Aye, you’re right, thanks Danny.”  “Nae bother, you look after yourself, right?” I would go away, pleased at myself, then lose yet another nights sleep pumping my poor wee todger to a pulp.


At the second meeting we were given a list of old peoples addresses and split in to teams of two, one girl and one boy, and sent off to visit.  Mr. Gallagher was on our list.  Karen Brady came round for me after school and we headed off to the sheltered housing.  “Are you still seeing that guy fae Forgie Karen?”  “Naw, ah chucked him, aw he wanted wis ma body.” Smart guy, I thought, Karen Brady’s body was about all I could imagine life could offer anyone, short of playing for Celtic.  “Wanker”, I offered my support.


I was surprised that Mr. Gallagher knew me, I wished he hadn’t.  “Daniel Foley, you were with my Michael when he died, you and your brother?”  “That’s right Mr. Gallagher,” I was frightened, I didn’t really talk about that day and every time I did I could still hear Mrs. Gallagher’s noise.  “She blamed me you know”, I was embarrassed, it was as if he had caught me thinking about her.  “She said if I hadn’t been a fucking loony Michael would have been out flying a kite with his dad instead of drowning in the voe.”  I was even more embarrassed now.  I looked to Karen for support and she jumped to my rescue.  “How do you like this place Mr. Gallagher?” She spoke loudly as if he was deaf.  “I’m not deaf, just old, so ye can talk quieter hen, you’re Jimmy Brady’s daughter, from the Waverley Road?”  “Aye, that’s right, dae ye ken ma faither?”  “Yes I do, I hate the man.  He’s a communist.  Men like me saved this country from the Nazi’s while your dad and his kind hid down the pits.  He would have liked the Nazi’s to win, they’re just like the communists.  If it wasn’t for me you would all be speaking German now and if your dad had his way we would all be speaking Russian.  He makes me sick your dad.”  There wasn’t much left to say after that, there was a silence for about 5 minutes.  Karen managed to keep her tears, or anger, I couldn’t work out which, at bay.  I stood up and said “we have to go now Mr. Gallagher, do you want us to come and see you next week?”  “No I do not, you can tell that Father McGrane that I don’t need his sanctimonious catholic sympathy”.  We left and went to visit old Mrs. Gordon.  She sang to herself and gave us biscuits.


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