This is a short story from my published collection, Postcard from a Pigeon and Other Stories. Since the recent anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis and an article by John Pilger in The Guardian, I decided to post my take on that historic event, as experienced through the eyes of some children in a small country village in Ireland in 1963
It was shopping day and Mammy wrapped me up well for the long walk across the border.
She put on her best coat, tied a scarf around her head and gathered her two shopping bags. Before we left the house she checked her list and her purse. She put on one of her gloves at the hallway door and paused long enough to splash us both with Holy water from the white china font of an angel carrying a giant seashell, hung by the door. Satisfied I had blessed myself, she muttered a prayer and said, ‘right, we’re away so…’
Our walk took us through the neighbourhood. She greeted neighbours cheerily as they went about their morning chores of sweeping and cleaning and scrubbing.
Every now and then she paused to lean across a hedge with her hands clasped as though one was supporting the other.
‘How’s Maisie?’ she’d say, ‘d’ye think it’ll rain?’
Weather was always a safe opening gambit. It allowed both parties to take up a position of comfort and an air of authority and opinion.
‘The sky’s full of it, Martha, and there’s a bit of a blow but with any luck it’ll hold ‘til I get some dryin’ out of it.’
Both of them stared at the sky that was an eggshell blue and dotted with great fluffy balls of cotton wool clouds. There wasn’t a hint of rain in it, as far as I could tell.
‘Are you over to the shops?’ Maisie asked, her own arms crossed beneath her pinafored chest.
‘Aye, I’ve a few things to get to have in the house, just in case…’
This last observation trailed off with ominous significance. Both women shared a conspiratorial look of long suffering.
‘The way they’re talking we’ll all be dead in our beds before they can get a war started,’ Maisie observed, her eyes, squinting and fixed on some point on the horizon.
‘Sure the whole world’s gone mad,’ Mammy replied in agreement, ‘it’ll just take one of them to press the button and we’ll all disappear like those poor people in Japan.’
‘Sure, it’s ten times worse now,’ Maisie rejoined, warming to her subject, ‘they called it the end of war but they forgot to tell us it’d be the end of the world too.’
Mammy flashed a swift look of disapproval at her as though she had broken some time honoured rule of grown ups that there were things best left unsaid in the company of children. She rearranged the straps of her handbag and shopping bags on her arms, touched her scarf at the hairline and took a step back. Then she blessed herself.
‘Please God it won’t come to that,’ she prayed.
Bowed, Maisie took a step back herself and lowered her eyes as though to concentrate on some hitherto undetected flaw in her garden hedge.
‘President Kennedy will see us right,’ she offered, encouragingly, ‘and all we can do is pray.’
But the damage was done. I heard it all. My trip was spoiled. Not even the lollypop I got from the barber who cut my hair that day, nor the sixpence Mammy’s friend, Mrs Ferguson, pressed into my hand when we went visiting, could distract my thoughts from the horrors in store for us all.
The next day we were staring at the sky.
We stood in a circle, the four of us, in furrowed concentration, staring at the sky.
“The Russians are comin’ t’ drop bombs on us,” I threw in the pot with as much authority as my seven and a half year old frame could muster .
“‘A’sright,” Hughie piped in, “but pres’dent Kennedy’s goin’ to protect us.”
“That’s shite,” Scratchy blurted indignantly, “my Daddy says the Russians don’t give a shite about us.”
But we didn’t believe him. For a start Scratchy’s Daddy was no authority. My mammy told Hughie’s mammy that he knew nothing except the drink and his bed. He had made a career of idleness, they both agreed.
Scratchy’s daddy was also well known for his poaching and smuggling skills and he had a way with greyhounds, it was said.
Scratchy was a tough kid and he was one of the gang. If you sat beside him in school you’d soon know where his name came from. He was good to have on your side in a fight. He could climb any tree and had no fear of diving in the river.
The night before as I lay wedged by the wall in the double bed I shared with my brothers, the warm, greasy smell of chip van fish supper sneaked like a thief through the open window and wafted around the room. It was followed by the sound of Scratchy’s voice, singing a pop chart hit, ‘from a Jack to a King…”
“Wad’yethink?” Scratchy asked the fourth of our skygazing, group, Wee Phonsie. Phonsie was nine and would not have been seen with us of a summer’s day. There was nothing wee about him either. But that day none of his friends were about and the village was buzzing with rumours.
We reckoned Wee Phonsie was some class of genius who couldn’t express himself. He was not given to expressing his opinions or even talking at all at the best of times. He would giggle to himself as some thought occurred to him. This, as always, appeared to set off some internal debate which, quickly and quietly resolved, was followed by a shrug, another giggle and silence.
This time he pushed his thick blond fringe back from his eyes and stared at his shoes.
Scratchy, his left hand shading him from the summer sunlight as he squinted skyward, got suddenly agitated and began jumping up and down. “The Russians’r’comin’,” he roared, “heretheycome, the Russians’r’coming.”
High in the sky the telltale silver glint of a lone jet’s underbelly. Its twin vapour trails stood out in the blue of the summer sky.
The appearance of a jet in the skies of north Donegal in the early ’60s was as remarkable as a neighbour with Radio Telefis Eireann, or Free State tv, as my daddy called it. Our wee group’s agitation drew attention.
Mothers and fathers, children, babies, dogs and the postman, who had just appeared on his morning rounds, all stood with their heads tilted to the skies above. Rosaries rattled and a chorus of whistling prayer whispers hummed over the morning hush.
Mrs Gallagher began reciting the Sorrowful Mysteries as the entire community fell to its knees with her in a rustle and wheeze of beads and church trained coughs. Mammy crossed herself and fell to her knees on the other side of the tidy privet hedge separating their two gardens.
Mammy was a devout woman who attended Mass every day of the week, every week of the year. She went to Sodalities, prayer meetings, Stations, blessings and special Masses for the sick and dying. She picked flowers for the church and helped sweep the chapel clean after Sunday masses. But she would never start a rosary in the street.
Phonsie stole a furtive peak at his mother, frowned, swallowed, smiled and then giggled. He pushed the hair back from his forehead and stared at his shoes.
Scratchy reacted fastest. Faced and surrounded with this spontaneous outburst of communal piety, he dived for the cover of his own overgrown front garden. As the droning response engulfed us, we fell to our knees.
The sun slipped behind a big fluffy cloud and a dreary gloom joined the drone of prayer as an unseasonal icy chill made us shiver in our summer shorts.
It passed as swiftly as it came and the sun swept back the gloom, lighting the dusty, cricket worn sward of green and warming our bones.
“HERESTHEOTHERCROWDNOW,” Scratchy squealed breathlessly as he pingponged from his own garden, waving his arms and pointing skyward. And as he joined our huddled group of friends again, he added, “OHBOYSOHBOYSTHERESGOINABESOMERUCKUSNOW.”
His interruption ended the prayers as everyone, hungry for every scrap of news watched his eruption from his garden with interest and followed his pointing finger skyward.
Another silver gleam made them squint in that bright lunchtime sun. The same thin twin vapour trails…It appeared in the top right corner of the sky; the first, from the bottom right. Both were heading in roughly the same direction, left.
“That second one looks smaller and faster,” someone commented.
“Aye, he’s catchin’ up on the first fella,” said another. Neighbours began to emerge slowly from their own gardens and encroach the space of our circle on the tiny green.
Our circle had by now taken on a magical power. Our world, the village had spilled from its homes and everyone was on their knees praying. Fear made me shiver for the first time as I watched Mammy kneel in prayer in the front garden.
The men engaged in a murmur of sullen debate. Few would concede ground to others by dint of ignorance.
Standing in a circle in the green, clutching hands on either side, I began to think of death and remembered with a shiver the night I’d touched a cold corpse.
Just a week before I could recall the stuffy iciness in the neighbour’s house the night they laid him out before his funeral.
The bedroom smelled like Mass of a wet November, all sweat, damp clothes, cheap perfume and incense. The sombre neighbours, used to ordering pans and baps from the man before them as he used to drive a bread van, filed in their turn to his bedside, leaned over and touched the body before blessing themselves and filing out.
I ran away that night. Shot down the stairs, out the garden and across the green past the two boys sitting waiting in the garden and didn’t stop until I reached the comfort of home and the arms of Mammy.
Running was not an option this time. Now death, that I had already touched or, more truly, had touched me, was on its way back to feast on our wee village.
The second plane, it was suggested, was clearly an American Air Force fighter bomber, lighter, nimbler and faster than the missile laden Russian craft.
It arrived, pundits maintained, from a North Atlantic patrolling aircraft carrier to honour the promise President Kennedy, himself of Irish Catholic extraction, made to protect Catholic Ireland from the invading Communist hordes. Its mission, as the two vapour trails approached each other miles above us, was clearly to thwart the Russians and save us all. It was scary.
The praying resumed as a lone voice speculated this could be the end of the world. But the rosary ripple had barely begun before Hughie’s daddy erupted.
He was an educated man and a senior manager in the county council. This warm Saturday morning he had stepped from his home without his customary suit jacket. His shirt unbuttoned, the sleeves rolled up, he sat down in his own front garden on a kitchen chair to read his morning paper.
The scorching noon day sun pinkened his bald pate. He wore a neatly knotted linen handkerchief to protect himself.
He observed this public outcry of piety and fear with curiosity and amusement. He even doffed his knotted hanky and murmured a response to Mrs Gallagher’s prayer lead.
But when he heard the phrase, “the end is upon us”, he exploded.
Waving his angrily scrunched up Irish Independent he shot through his garden gate into a knot of men gathering in the road in front of his house to hear what he had to say.
“YE’RE ALL TALKING SHITE,” he declared. His anger was enough to quell the crowd’s clamour but the profanity, spoken from a man with as much clout and respect and fear in the community as a man of the cloth, a man in a uniform or anyone else in a suit for that matter, stopped them all. It shut them up so they almost forgot how to make a sound.
In our circle, Hughie, scarlet with embarrassment, giggled with secret pride.
“These jets are just regular transatlantic traffic and they’re either on their way to or from America or the European mainland,” he explained with bored indignation, “one is much higher in the sky than the other and arrived in our bit of sky long after the other. They could be both on their way to Shannon airport to refuel.”
Mr McGinley turned about after his outburst and returned, unravelling his by now shredded newspaper, to the garden seat to resume his Saturday leisure.
Silently acknowledging his unspoken signal people receded into their own while giving him looks like he’d just burst the ball in an important match. Everyone kept their eyes peeled on the sky. Just in case.
The men were pointing at the sky and arguing amongst themselves. Scratchy’s daddy emerged blinking from his own bed, a rare and remarked upon sight before noon. A fervent murmur of prayer rose from a knot of women.
There was irrefutable logic aplenty. Everyone had, as Mr McGinley angrily pointed out, seen the paths of two planes intersect in the sky above the village before.
But this was different.
Both planes appeared from different corners of the sky. One, (the Russian, some believed) came from the north east and was heading south. The other, (the American saviour) followed from the northwest. Both were heading south and their vapour trails, high in the sky, were on the point of touching.
“OHSACREDHEARTOFJESUSMOTHEROFMARYGODSAVEUS,” someone shouted. The praying resumed again, even louder. We gripped each other’s hand tightly in our magic circle on the green. Phonsie giggled nervously through grinding teeth.
And as we stared, the vapour trails crossed in the sky and a warm trickle of pee ran down my leg, soaking my shortlegged summer khakis. I cried at the sky and peed on my shoes that day the world nearly ended.