Shergar ch 3

3.

KA-BOOM! goes my future as the Mayor of Ballytermin, but facts are facts and the fact is my home town will never be mistaken for Paris or even Malahide, where you can see the sea at least. No wonder Brendan couldn’t wait to escape. Watch me scarper when my time comes. You won’t see me for dust, no sir.

“Where will we go?” I said.

My mum did everything but push us out the door. “I don’t know,’’ she said. She rolled her eyes and looked at Jonathan, as if he understood the terrible agony of being my parent. “Show him the grotto.”

Ah, the amazing, stupendous Gallion’s Grotto — Ballytermin’s premier tourist attraction, where the sons and daughter of ye olde local blacksmith Pierce Gallion were visited upon by the Virgin Mary, mother of God. It was a dark and wintery New Year’s Eve back in Nineteen Hundred and something when two of the Gallion children were in the garden and a great light shone from a nearby bush. They were petrified, obviously, but when they ran inside they discovered their brother was cured from a terrible affliction and could walk again.

So they say.

People still made the pilgrimage every New Year’s Eve. I hadn’t been there for a while, not since I was bored and went with Sam, who for a laugh ate a couple of leaves from the bush to see if it would make his ankle better.

I had to talk to Jonathan because what else was I going to do? There was just the two of us walking along Kilbrannan Avenue.

I told him the legend of the Grotto.

“Sounds brilliant. Let’s go there,’’ he said.

“You being serious? It’s just a shrine.”

“Definitely,’’ he said. “I wouldn’t lie. Not to you.”

His accent wasn’t a typical London accent, the Cockney kind. It was less irritating and easier to understand, like the fella who reads the news of the BBC. And it turns out he wasn’t at all sarcastic. That ‘detecting metal’ thing? He was just nervous when he said that, was my guess. After all, he was a long way from London. Which by the way is another place Ballytermin will never be mistaken for.

THE Grotto was spruced up. The lawn looked like a freshly cut green carpet. The flower beds had recently been weeded and were in full bloom. We were the only people around. Just us, the birds and the trees swaying in the wind, whispering prayers to a congregation of two.

The religious mood was spoiled by the legendary bush itself, which was decorated with old socks and, I noticed, two or three pairs of old underpants.

“It’s a tradition,’’ I explained.

The theory was if you knew someone who was sick or crippled you placed an article of their clothing on the bush and they would be cured.

Jonathan nodded. “And does it work?”

This is going to sound crazy but maybe it does. I haven’t actually seen the proof my my own eyes but I’ve heard stories of sick people in America sending clothes over and having them hung on Gallion’s bush. Next thing you know, they could walk or talk or whatever it was they couldn’t do before. Sam missed out but that probably because he ate the bush instead of hanging a sock on one of the branches.

Even my mum believed in the Grotto, kind of. One time Brendan was grounded for a month for refusing come with the rest of us the New Year’s Eve pilgrimage. He called it a ‘corrupt Catholic fantasy dreamed up to keep the masses in line’ or something crazy like that, which sent my dad into orbit. Sacrilege, he called it. My dad goes to chapel twice a week. He’s pretty Holy. I thought he was going to throttle Brendan until my mum stepped in between them.

“That’s enough,’’ she said to my dad. “You of all people should understand Brendan’s faith is his own. You can’t tell him what to think.”

I wish you could meet my mum. She is pretty Holy, too, and intelligent.

I didn’t tell Jonathan about what happened with Brendan. It was private stuff and he didn’t need to know any of that. A family should have secrets. It part of what makes them a family.

IN THE end I sort of had to drag Jonathan away from the Grotto. He just wanted to sit on the wall, breath in the air and look at the trees.

“You’re lucky to have a place like this,’’ he said. “It’s so spiritual.”

I checked again for sarcasm. There was none. “Yeah,’’ I said, “but it’s not exactly London, is it?”

He laughed but in a sad way. “Thankfully.”

“But London’s great, though. Big Ben and all that other stuff.”

“It’s a rat hole,” he said, standing up.

“Shall we go?”

My mum had given me ten Euros to buy ice cream. The Spar closed early on Sundays.

It was ten minutes into town. We walked quickly. I asked him about London, which turns out to be living hell on earth. Russian gangsters on every street corner. Rich brats driving Ferraris down the streets at 100 miles per hour, knocking over old age pensioners. Garbage everywhere. Pickpockets in the underground, tripping over each other in the rush to steal your money. Nobody ever says ‘sorry’ or ‘excuse me’.

“They don’t in Ballytermin either,’’ I said.

It cost ten pounds for a sandwich on Oxford Street.

“That’s about fourteen Euros,’’ Jonathan said.

I thought I was going to be embarrassed by the smallness of Ballytermin but already Jonathan was happy to be here. I could read it in his face, the way he really paid attention to everything.

We walked past the Gardai station. “What are the cops like?’’ he said.

I honestly had no idea. I had heard things like they were all thick and they slapped people around the head when they got them back to the station. But then you hear all sorts of things when you’re my age and most everybody you meet is trying to make out like they’re tough guys. The truth is I knew a couple of Guards because they were friends of my dad.

I didn’t want to sound like a goody you-know-what, obviously, so I said, “They’re worse than the criminals.”

Jonathan liked my answer. “Just like London,’’ he laughed.

Aine D’Arcy was behind the counter at the Spar. She was in my art class, one of the few girls in my year who was just about bearable. She didn’t talk to me a lot but when she did it was always about something sane, about how much she liked my collage or did I think she used too much red in her latest painting? I liked her hair. It was cut short and fitted her head like a soldier’s helmet. That week it was dyed pink.

I never got much of clue if she liked me or not so her smile when we approached the counter to pay for our ice creams took me by surprise.

“Howya Cillian,’ she said. “Having a good summer?”

“Okay,’’ I said. “I didn’t know you worked here.”

“Today’s my first day.”

I acted like this was world-shattering news, just to make her feel better. Then I showed her the chocolate sandwich and the Solero we had taken from the fridge and said, “I’m really happy for you. Can I pay for these?”

I handed her the ten euro note. She opened the till and placed it in a tray, then took two five euro notes from another tray and handed them to me.

‘Your change,’’ she said.

“Thanks,’’ I said. I gave her a secret smile but Jonathan saw it.

We walked out of the shop. “Look at you, the master criminal,’’ he said. “You better watch or the cops will have you for being an accessory to an ice cream heist.”

That made me laugh but inside I didn’t feel so good. He was right. I hadn’t paid for the ice creams. Technically, I’d committed a crime — the first crime of my life.

HERE’S something I think about when I’m bored and have nothing better to do than just live inside my own brain. What if I had done ‘this’ instead of ‘that’? And what if X had happened and not Y? What if I had asked my mum instead of my dad if I could play video games? She definitely would have said yes. Or what if I got a B in geography inside of a C, and if I had gotten a B would my dad have so crazy that he made me do extra schoolwork on Saturday morning instead of going to the pitch and putt? What if my dad was somebody else’s dad instead? What if John Fiachra McCann wasn’t my grandad? And if he wasn’t my mum’s dad? Let’s face it. Then none of this would have happened and I wouldn’t be sitting here telling you this story.

SAM was at Tallerin Park with his brother, Christy. I thought he might be. They live across the street and their dad is bit crazy sometimes and the park is where they went to escape.

I was glad he was the first of my friends to meet Jonathan. He’s nice to everybody, even strangers. Even people with accents. I think he’s that way because of his foot. He knows what it’s like when everything and everybody is against you.

He couldn’t have been friendlier if I’d paid him a thousand Euros. Christy is an idiot — everybody and their pet hamster knows that — so when Jonathan said hello to him he said hello back in a stupid voice that didn’t really sound like anything.

Anyway, Jonathan didn’t care. “Are you Norwegian?” he said. “Kristoff from Norrkoping?”

That shut Christy up. He didn’t where Norway was, never mind Norrkoping.

We talked for a while about this and that. Sam asked Jonathan a whole bunch of questions about London and what he was going to do while he was in Ballytermin. Sam was getting a phone for his birthday. Jonathan said he used to have a phone until his dad had taken it away from him but he knew a bunch of cool games he should download and he’d write him a list and Sam happy about that. Jonathan must have noticed Sam’s foot but he didn’t say anything.

I don’t how long we had been there when Eoin Leonard and his pals turned up. We were sitting on the swings with our backs to the main street so we didn’t see them walking towards us from that direction. Jonathan was standing up and facing that way but he didn’t know who they were so why would he saying anything?

The first I knew was when a stone landed behind and rolled through my legs.

I turned round just time to see Leonard lob another stone in my direction. Actually, this one was more of a rock than a stone. I don’t think he intended to hit me. Just as well, otherwise I’d have been dead.

“Look, it’s the Ballytermin dweebs,’’ he said.

If you ask me, the best way to deal with Leonard is just to let him say what he wants to say and do what he wants to do and then get away from him as soon as you can. Sam knows this too.

“Actually, we’d better be going. C’mon Christy, I think I heard my da’ shouting for us,’’ he lied.

“Aye, on you go, spas,’’ Leonard said.

He pulled his arms up to his chest, let his hands flop down and started walking with a stupid limp. He did that kind of thing all the time, the clown. Leonard’s two little sidekicks started laughing but they didn’t get very far before a voice told them to shut their shitty little fucking mouths.

I didn’t recognise the voice at first because there was an accent but then I did. It was Jonathan of course and now he was talking Leonard.

“I’d very much appreciate it if you would stop behaving like an arsehole and apologise to my friend here,’’ he said.

Leonard wasn’t exactly Oscar Wilde so there was long pause before he thought of a response.

“Are you English?”

Jonathan rolled his eyes. “Well spotted, Einstein.”

He stepped towards Leonard. He had this look on his face, not a look you have when you want to shake someone’s hand.

Leonard was a bully but he wasn’t a normal bully, the kind who talked a lot but never did anything about it. I’ve actually seen him kick and punch people just for the fun of it — proper punches, too, just like on TV.

Sam could sense what was going to happen. So could I. “Just leave it Jonathan,’’ he said.

Leonard stepped towards Jonathan. “Shut it, ya …”

I can guess what Leonard was going to call Sam but I’ll never know for sure because before he got the words out Jonathan took two rapid steps towards him and kicked him right in the nuts. I mean kicked him.

Let me explain what I mean by that. When we’re waiting for soccer practise to start we play this game where we boot the ball as high into the sky as we can and see who can catch it when it comes back to earth. How we kick the ball — that’s how hard Jonathan kicked Eoin Leonard in the nuts.

He fell to the ground like he’d been knocked over like a truck and gasped like it was his last ever breath. Then he folded himself into a ball and gasped again and again, quicker and quicker.

Sam and I looked at each, then at Jonathan, who shrugged as if what had just happened had nothing to do with him. Then we all looked at Leonard, who wasn’t moving and wasn’t gasping any more. Honestly, I thought he was dead. Just when the horror welling up inside of my stomach, he flinched and then rolled on to his side. His body started to uncurl. He whimpered.

“You okay, Eoin?’’ Sam said

Leonard took a deep breath and whimpered again. At least he was alive.

Jonathan said flicked at Leonard’s backside with his foot to get his attention.

Leonard eyes opened, slowly at first and then quicker. They were filled with terror as Jonathan bent over, bring his face nearer until it was close enough to smell his breath. “Don’t ever go near my friend Sam again or the next time it’ll be even more painful.”