Bloodbath (a poem)

I spent my summer sliding
Slippery livers into polythene bags
Barely big enough: sometimes those beef livers
Would turn and waltz right out again
And on the table, or the floor: awkward bastards.
Warm summer of seventy-eight, but chilly in the chills –
Warm blood.

We killed a thousand cattle and a thousand sheep each week;
Someone said ‘You students should be taxed like us’ –
We knew nothing; could have otherwise retorted
That we didn’t earn as much as the tax-free allowance
In one whole long year,
And had a high level of expenses –
Chiefly beer to lubricate our often singing throats.

Trimming headmeat and thin skirts;
Trimming membranes and kidneys
And thick skirts, lugging sixty pound boxes of oxtails
In and out of those big freezers,
And beeftails too, beefhearts.
Sliding in the bloodbath, falling on our arses
Carrying cows’ heads round on hooks
In the heavy afternoon –
Even pared those heads were heavy too,
But their eyes did not accuse us.

We wore white coats and aprons
All covered in blood and fat and the contents of stomachs.
Sliding sides of beef along the rails;
Covering them decently in stocking nets
And lifting nice light lamb in the refrigerated trucks;
Clearing chutes of fat, aiming steam-hoses,
Pushing big barrows full of every kind of shite;
Cycling home for lunch and back;
Forever sharpening knives on steel.
Six in the morning, starting overtime –
You can bet those chills were chilly
For eleven meat factory weeks.



Filed under Poems

80 responses to “Bloodbath (a poem)

  1. Cymbeline

    Shades of a certain type of Spanish film. Cinéma fantastique – not sure how to define that genre in English. Perhaps your daughter will know.

    No mention of the smell. This surprises me.

    How exactly were the knives sharpened?

  2. Cymbeline

    Before I mastered the French language, I once walked into a butcher shop in Toulouse, and asked for faith.

  3. helpmaboab

    In my opinion, there is nothing as heavy as a forequarter. I was young at the time, but I would never have gotten used to that.

  4. Cymbeline


  5. Cymbeline

    And yes we ALL know that it is Elizabethan English etc etc. But it is Yank now.

  6. helpmaboab

    I must apologise for my unconscious Ulsterism.

  7. Good capital letters in ‘ALL’, Cymbeline. 🙂 One must keep an eye on British officers and Ulster neanderthals.

    I posted this on MyT once. Stefania liked it, and said if I could write a poem about this I could write about anything.

    An unconsciously poetic gesture to ask for faith in a butcher’s shop, Cymbeline … I hope the butcher appreciated it.

    Yes the smell was very bad in parts … the worst were sheets of fat from the freshly killed carcases, gathered in barrows below the line, which I had to empty down a chute. The fat was used to make tallow, I think.

    Knives were sharpened, as hmb will know, by grinding the edge quickly along along a kind of hand-held metal rod called a ‘steel’.

    Yes, the forequarters were heavy. Some of the older, stronger guys used to lift them off the hooks and hang them in the refrigerated containers. A lot of the meat went to France and further afield … Libya, probably. Libya bought a huge amount of Irish beef at the time.

    Once when I was in the pub with my friends on a Friday night, one of the foremen came in and asked any of us who worked in the factory to come with him. A refrigerated unit had gone over on its side near Rosslare … perhaps 100 miles away. A group of us, some not entirely sober, went down in cars and loaded it onto another container, which was hard work as the meat was on its side rather than swinging. It had to be done before the meat thawed.

    I remember that a hotel opened early to give us our breakfast. I also remember that the factory manager fell asleep at the wheel on the way home.

  8. Cymbeline

    Yes, I know about the rough-surfaced steel rod. Were there no men there who could sharpen a knife on another knife? My father swears by a whetstone and fairy liquid. His knives are very sharp.

    Stefania forgot about the next step, and so have you – making this sort of subject beautiful. That is what Baudelaire did.

    Great anecdotes.

    • ‘Were there no men there who could sharpen a knife on another knife?’ Probably. I used to sharpen knives on doorsteps sometimes. A lot of guys in the factory were experts at sharpening knives, of course.

      Yes, not much in the way of beauty. It’s something I dashed off quickly some time back; reflects whatever mood I was in at the time.

      Thanks for the poem … I haven’t read it properly yet, but will do. You’re a great woman for the ‘several translations’. 🙂

  9. Cymbeline

    ‘Charogne’ with several translations :

    Une Charogne

    Rappelez-vous l’objet que nous vîmes, mon âme,
    Ce beau matin d’été si doux:
    Au détour d’un sentier une charogne infâme
    Sur un lit semé de cailloux,

    Les jambes en l’air, comme une femme lubrique,
    Brûlante et suant les poisons,
    Ouvrait d’une façon nonchalante et cynique
    Son ventre plein d’exhalaisons.

    Le soleil rayonnait sur cette pourriture,
    Comme afin de la cuire à point,
    Et de rendre au centuple à la grande Nature
    Tout ce qu’ensemble elle avait joint;

    Et le ciel regardait la carcasse superbe
    Comme une fleur s’épanouir.
    La puanteur était si forte, que sur l’herbe
    Vous crûtes vous évanouir.

    Les mouches bourdonnaient sur ce ventre putride,
    D’où sortaient de noirs bataillons
    De larves, qui coulaient comme un épais liquide
    Le long de ces vivants haillons.

    Tout cela descendait, montait comme une vague
    Ou s’élançait en pétillant;
    On eût dit que le corps, enflé d’un souffle vague,
    Vivait en se multipliant.

    Et ce monde rendait une étrange musique,
    Comme l’eau courante et le vent,
    Ou le grain qu’un vanneur d’un mouvement rythmique
    Agite et tourne dans son van.

    Les formes s’effaçaient et n’étaient plus qu’un rêve,
    Une ébauche lente à venir
    Sur la toile oubliée, et que l’artiste achève
    Seulement par le souvenir.

    Derrière les rochers une chienne inquiète
    Nous regardait d’un oeil fâché,
    Epiant le moment de reprendre au squelette
    Le morceau qu’elle avait lâché.

    — Et pourtant vous serez semblable à cette ordure,
    À cette horrible infection,
    Etoile de mes yeux, soleil de ma nature,
    Vous, mon ange et ma passion!

    Oui! telle vous serez, ô la reine des grâces,
    Apres les derniers sacrements,
    Quand vous irez, sous l’herbe et les floraisons grasses,
    Moisir parmi les ossements.

    Alors, ô ma beauté! dites à la vermine
    Qui vous mangera de baisers,
    Que j’ai gardé la forme et l’essence divine
    De mes amours décomposés!

    — Charles Baudelaire

    A Carcass

    My love, do you recall the object which we saw,
    That fair, sweet, summer morn!
    At a turn in the path a foul carcass
    On a gravel strewn bed,

    Its legs raised in the air, like a lustful woman,
    Burning and dripping with poisons,
    Displayed in a shameless, nonchalant way
    Its belly, swollen with gases.

    The sun shone down upon that putrescence,
    As if to roast it to a turn,
    And to give back a hundredfold to great Nature
    The elements she had combined;

    And the sky was watching that superb cadaver
    Blossom like a flower.
    So frightful was the stench that you believed
    You’d faint away upon the grass.

    The blow-flies were buzzing round that putrid belly,
    From which came forth black battalions
    Of maggots, which oozed out like a heavy liquid
    All along those living tatters.

    All this was descending and rising like a wave,
    Or poured out with a crackling sound;
    One would have said the body, swollen with a vague breath,
    Lived by multiplication.

    And this world gave forth singular music,
    Like running water or the wind,
    Or the grain that winnowers with a rhythmic motion
    Shake in their winnowing baskets.

    The forms disappeared and were no more than a dream,
    A sketch that slowly falls
    Upon the forgotten canvas, that the artist
    Completes from memory alone.

    Crouched behind the boulders, an anxious dog
    Watched us with angry eye,
    Waiting for the moment to take back from the carcass
    The morsel he had left.

    — And yet you will be like this corruption,
    Like this horrible infection,
    Star of my eyes, sunlight of my being,
    You, my angel and my passion!

    Yes! thus will you be, queen of the Graces,
    After the last sacraments,
    When you go beneath grass and luxuriant flowers,
    To molder among the bones of the dead.

    Then, O my beauty! say to the worms who will
    Devour you with kisses,
    That I have kept the form and the divine essence
    Of my decomposed love!

    — William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

    The Carcase

    The object that we saw, let us recall,
    This summer morn when warmth and beauty mingle —
    At the path’s turn, a carcase lay asprawl
    Upon a bed of shingle.

    Legs raised, like some old whore far-gone in passion,
    The burning, deadly, poison-sweating mass
    Opened its paunch in careless, cynic fashion,
    Ballooned with evil gas.

    On this putrescence the sun blazed in gold,
    Cooking it to a turn with eager care —
    So to repay to Nature, hundredfold,
    What she had mingled there.

    The sky, as on the opening of a flower,
    On this superb obscenity smiled bright.
    The stench drove at us, with such fearsome power
    You thought you’d swoon outright.

    Flies trumpeted upon the rotten belly
    Whence larvae poured in legions far and wide,
    And flowed, like molten and liquescent jelly,
    Down living rags of hide.

    The mass ran down, or, like a wave elated
    Rolled itself on, and crackled as if frying:
    You’d think that corpse, by vague breath animated,
    Drew life from multiplying.

    Through that strange world a rustling rumour ran
    Like rushing water or a gust of air,
    Or grain that winnowers, with rhythmic fan,
    Sweep simmering here and there.

    It seemed a dream after the forms grew fainter,
    Or like a sketch that slowly seems to dawn
    On a forgotten canvas, which the painter
    From memory has drawn.

    Behind the rocks a restless cur that slunk
    Eyed us with fretful greed to recommence
    His feast, amidst the bonework, on the chunk
    That he had torn from thence.

    Yet you’ll resemble this infection too
    One day, and stink and sprawl in such a fashion,
    Star of my eyes, sun of my nature, you,
    My angel and my passion!

    Yes, you must come to this, O queen of graces,
    At length, when the last sacraments are over,
    And you go down to moulder in dark places
    Beneath the grass and clover.

    Then tell the vermin as it takes its pleasance
    And feasts with kisses on that face of yours,
    I’ve kept intact in form and godlike essence
    Our decomposed amours!

    — Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)


    Darling, do you recall that thing we found
    (“A lovely summer day!” you said)
    That noisome carcass where the path swung round
    A sprawling pebble-covered bed.

    Its legs raised like a whore’s in lubric play,
    It burned, oozing rank fetors there,
    Shameless and nonchalant, it offered day
    Its belly. Poisons filled the air.

    The sun beat down on this putrescent mold
    As if to fry it to a turn,
    To give great Nature back one hundredfold
    All she had gathered in her urn.

    The skies watched that proud carcass, lax or taut,
    Bloom like a flowery mass.
    So pungent was the stench, my love, you thought
    To swoon away upon the grass.

    Horseflies buzzed loud over this putrid belly,
    Whence sallied column and battalion
    Of sable maggots, flowing like a mucose jelly,
    Over this live tatterdemalion.

    Waves seemed to rise and fall over this mass,
    Spurting with crepitation,
    As though this corpse, filled with breaths of gas,
    Lived by multiplication.

    This world uttered a curious melody,
    Like waters, wind, or grains of wheat
    That winnowers keep stirring rhythmically
    In the broad baskets at their feet.

    The forms, fading into a dream, grew fainter;
    Here was a sketch of misty tone
    On a forgotten canvas which the painter
    Completes from memory alone.

    Hiding behind the rocks, an anxious bitch
    Stood, watching us with angry eye,
    Poised to regain the olid morsel which,
    Hearing us come, she had laid by.

    — Yet shall you be like this ordurous blight,
    You, too, shall rot in just such fashion,
    Star of my eyes, sun of my soul’s delight,
    Aye, you, my angel and my passion.

    Such you, O queen of graces, in the hours,
    When the last sacrament is said,
    That bear you under rich sods and Iush flower
    To molder with the moldering dead.

    Then, O my beauty! Tell such worms as will
    Kiss you in ultimate coition
    That I have kept the form and essence of
    My love in its decomposition.

    — Jacques LeClercq, Flowers of Evil (Mt Vernon, NY: Peter Pauper Press, 1958)

    A Carrion

    Do you remember the thing we saw, my soul,
    That summer morning, so beautiful, so soft:
    At a turning in the path, a filthy carrion,
    On a bed sown with stones,

    Legs in the air, like a lascivious woman,
    Burning and sweating poisons,
    Opened carelessly, cynically,
    Its great fetid belly.

    The sun shone on this fester,
    As though to cook it to a turn,
    And to return a hundredfold to great Nature
    What she had joined in one;

    And the sky saw the superb carcass
    Open like a flower.
    The stench was so strong, that you might think
    To swoon away upon the grass.

    The flies swarmed on that rotten belly,
    Whence came out black battalions
    Of spawn, flowing like a thick liquid
    Along its living tatters.

    All this rose and fell like a wave,
    Or rustled in jerks;
    One would have said that the body, fun of a loose breath,
    Lived in this its procreation.

    And this world gave out a strange music,
    Like flowing water and wind,
    Or a winnower’s grain that he shakes and turns
    With rhythmical grace in his basket.

    The forms fade and are no more than a dream,
    A sketch slow to come
    On the forgotten canvas, and that the artist completes
    Only by memory.

    Behind the boulders an anxious bitch
    Watched us with angry eyes,
    Spying the moment to regain in the skeleton
    The morsel she had dropped.

    — And yet you will be like this excrement,
    This horrible stench,
    O star of my eyes, sun of my being,
    You, my angel, my passion.

    Yes, such you will be, queen of gracefulness,
    After the last sacraments,
    When you go beneath the grasses and fat flowers,
    Moldering amongst the bones.

    Then, my beauty, say to the vermin
    Which will eat you with kisses,
    That I have kept the shape and the divine substance
    Of my decomposed loves!

    — Geoffrey Wagner, Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire (NY: Grove Press, 1974)

  10. Cymbeline

    Nobody has to make the next step though.

    Just that I never could bear the ‘People’s Friend’ code of writing.

  11. Cymbeline

    Your poem was seen as a daring step beyond the ‘People’s Friend’ code of writing.

  12. Oh, I see. Phew. 🙂

    I’m sure I should be making a joke about fairy liquid.

  13. Cymbeline

    Yes; I hesitated about associating my father with fairy liquid, but honesty got the better of me.

  14. I was thinking in terms of magic, leprechaun lotion, etc.

  15. Cymbeline

    So was I.

  16. How are your parents these days?

  17. Did you ever read Jean Genet? Lines in the poem remind me of Our Lady of the Flowers.

    I enjoyed that. Less so Querelle of Brest.

    My mother-in-law, when staying with us, once chose QoB to read in bed. Not sure what she made of all the rampant French homosexuality.

  18. Cymbeline

    They are fine thank you. Both in Wales at the moment. My father has still not retired, and my mother has just finished a degree in Welsh.

  19. It also reminds me that by the lake last night, someone had dumped something in a plastic bag. I couldn’t see what it was, as it was completely covered by thousands of squirming maggots.

  20. Cymbeline

    I don’t know much Genet – although I am supposed to. Am not familiar with any of your references, alas.

  21. Cymbeline

    Ah maggots. Very Andrew Marvell. But Marvell started off with the woman he wanted to take to bed. Baudelaire started off with the stinking carcase, and he had already taken the woman to bed.

    Very different.

  22. Cymbeline

    You should write a poem about the lake and that bag of squirming maggots.

  23. Perhaps I will, Cymbeline. Thanks for all your comments. Have a good day.

  24. Cymbeline


  25. Cymbeline

    You too.

  26. ‘carcase’ is OK too.

  27. helpmaboab

    There was a steel in the background of a pic on one of my posts, now lost in cyberspace. A knife is sharpened on a powered wheel, then by hand on a stone. A joiner or mechanic or tinker can do it. Then stroke with a steel or the back of a knife to keep it fresh. All wasted if you have kids.

  28. It’s a long time since I’ve had any need to sharpen a knife.

  29. helpmaboab

    How so? We have quite a selection and all of them blunt.

  30. We tend to use a couple of small ones for nearly everything. A couple of the larger ones seem to stay reasonably sharp.

  31. helpmaboab

    When I was in Surrey the other year a tinker came round the estates in a white van. He had a powered wheel in the back, running off a tiny generator.

  32. They used to do that kind of thing a lot. Lawnmower blades and shears too.

  33. helpmaboab

    Anyway, Cymbeline, he lost me at ‘noirs bataillons, De larves’, only Campbell refused this faux pas, though LeClerc made the effort to obscure it with ‘sable’, which still jarred somewhat. Wagner did better with ‘spawn’.

  34. Cymbeline

    Helpmaboab. The Campbell chap could have spoken about soupy effluent.

    Brendano, I think that your concern with ‘balance’ has stopped you from becoming a great poet.

  35. Cymbeline

    There are other things in the world, apart from poetry. And they are fine too.

  36. Cymbeline

    It must be very hard to control yourself in the way you do. I admire you.

    Sometimes your self-control tries to control others. I like that less, but I understand; without excusing it.

  37. Cymbeline

    I doubt that I will be online in the months to come.

    Do not think it a form of sulking. I shall be with my husband; this is a level you do not seem to understand in your thanks-for-all-your-comments-have-a-good-day panic.

    How you insulted me, and how you insulted poetry.

  38. helpmaboab

    Cymbeline, would you believe me if I told you that this is the first time I have heard that ‘soup’ witticism?

  39. Cymbeline

    Blame Andy Warhol.

  40. Cymbeline

    I only like the Roberts.

  41. helpmaboab

    I’m not sure that the neighbourhood children where I grew up had heard of Andy Warhol. In fact, at that time, I don’t think that Andy Warhol had heard of Andy Warhol.

  42. helpmaboab

    They (west Belfast) used ‘doubt’ in quite the opposite sense to you, and used it quite a lot. The young boab found it confusing.

  43. Cymbeline

    Always been interested in escape outlets.

  44. Cymbeline

    I am a fpy, after all.

  45. helpmaboab

    Agent Haverfham, the ‘efcape outletf’ went straight over my head.

    Anyway, why are you being cruel to Brendano?

  46. Cymbeline

    I am not being cruel to Brendano.

    I am simply ironing out his 23.

  47. Cymbeline

    And making it perfectly clear that I do not play games with married men.

  48. helpmaboab

    Mmmm. He never thanks me for my comments (sniff).

  49. Cymbeline

    Perhaps you will have a tip a bit later.

  50. Cymbeline

    You have done an excellent job, Mr C.

    I was EXCEEDINGLY pissed off by the 23.

    Great diplomat. Thank you. I remember when we first met at the Tudor window. And how you made me laugh with the balloon idiot.

  51. helpmaboab

    Je vous en prix Mme B.

  52. Cymbeline

    Je vous embrasse avec passion et intelligence, Monsieur C.

  53. Cymbeline

    I am not smiling though. I feel quite sad.

  54. Cymbeline

    Terrible things have happened and been seen.

  55. helpmaboab

    This is the place to share your sadness with a hundred other strangers.

  56. Cymbeline

    As long as there is a bit of bingo.

  57. Cymbeline

    Actually I am not sad at all. I am about to have what will probably count as being one of the most enjoyable few hours of my whole life.

  58. helpmaboab

    Errrr… Cymbeline…

    Wait, someone is going to take you to a woodturning demonstration? With complimentary sloe gin? And a free spurtle or pulkikka?

  59. Cymbeline

    Six months, Mr C.

    No wonder I seem strange.

  60. helpmaboab

    Nothing compares in value to relationships. Nothing else even comes close.

    Your family reunion mirrors a similar separation in my youth. When my father arrived back he seemed a stranger. I was the eldest. He brought me a present. It was a good present, a bit exotic, but I always wished that he hadn’t.

  61. Cymbeline

    Why? Did you see the present as a symbol of distance?

  62. Cymbeline

    Nothing comes close to the man/woman thing. You only realize that when you don’t have it. And when you don’t have it, the non-having of it saps you.

    That is my experience.

  63. helpmaboab

    Yes. I wished that he hadn’t considered that his homecoming could be improved by a mere thing. But, of course, I never asked him, I was only six.

  64. Cymbeline

    You were cross with your father before he even gave you the present.

  65. helpmaboab

    He had been away before, though I hadn’t noticed. This was for more than six months, perhaps nearer a year. There were no phones, of course, and even air mail was a week or so.

  66. Cymbeline

    Was he a sailor?

  67. helpmaboab

    No, not cross in the slightest. I understood fully the need for money. Just having him back was enough for me.

  68. helpmaboab

    A fitter. He fitted things together when they didn’t work as the designers had hoped. He worked in textile engineering, but also got work in shipyards abroad.

  69. Cymbeline

    Yes. I see. No need for presents.

  70. Cymbeline

    There is a terrible place in my mind called ‘chin-up’.

    It really is a terrible place, and I also think that it is behind the British Empire.

  71. Cymbeline

    Anyway, helpmaboab, I am quite amazed at your chattiness. You disliked me and refused to speak to me for a long time – something to do with my irritating deletion habits, I believe.

  72. Hello Cymbeline and hmb. I was out till around 4 … too much beer; quite hungover. The launch of a charity triathlon. That’s how we do things.

    Cymbeline, after I posted comment 23 it occurred to me that you were probably the one person in the world that could take offence at it … so, I got that right. I meant that I’d be concentrating on work for a few hours and hoped to talk to you later (I have far too much work at present).

    Some of your comments are hard to understand, but I won’t ask for elaboration. I am what I am; I try to do my best. I hope you’ll enjoy meeting your husband again. And I hope you’ll find the time to talk to us online … I would certainly miss you if you didn’t.

    What was the story about smashing a toy – a model of a castle or some such – in Belfast, and who told it? Ah yes, I remember. It was in a book I worked on … Why Aren’t We Saving the Planet?, by Geoffrey Beattie … a television psychologist. His father had given it to him, I think. They lived on the Shankill Road or thereabouts.

  73. helpmaboab

    There was no dislike or refusal. Though it is irritating to return seeking a possible response to your latest bon mot only to discover that you have been blithering incomprehensibly to yourself.

    A sort of involuntary and demented Shirley Valentine.

  74. This is Geoffrey Beattie’s story (unedited version).

    “My attitude to my possessions has always been there as far back as I can remember, indeed one of my earliest ‘flashbulb’ memories of my childhood centres around the destructive aspects of this attitude. Like all flashbulb memories this is something that I cannot forget, and I do try to forget it because it is an image and a narrative associated with shame, but my conscious will to forget cannot undo what has been stored unconsciously and involuntarily, and it would seem, for a lifetime. The memory concerns a visit to my uncle and aunt’s house. They lived in Lesley Street in Ligoniel, at the edge of Belfast, and some Saturdays I would take my box of Corn Flakes folded over at the top, and my pyjamas, and go up there to sleep between my aunt and my uncle in a house that smelt different from ours. In the morning they would sometimes let me go and play on the steep hill at the end of the street, the steep hill where my fort ended up.

    My father made a fort for me at work. He was a motor mechanic for Belfast City Corporation and worked on their buses in the Falls Road depot. He told me that he was bringing something for me and I waited for him for an hour at the bus stop at the top of Legmore Street. It wasn’t my birthday or anything like that; it was just a present. I saw him in his oil-stained overalls with his glasses on, getting off the bus with something large wrapped in newspaper. He was a slight man and he could hardly carry it, but he was smiling, because he knew that I would be very pleased when I saw it. He tottered as he held it in front of him. He wouldn’t open the present until we got into the front room. Our dog Spot was jumping all over the furniture, sniffing the paper and barking, shredding the paper with his sharp teeth, too excited. The package was soon opened by the dog and me. I stood staring at the present. I had never seen anything like the fort before. It had brown metal ramparts with zigzag steps shaped out of a single piece of aluminium and a hardboard base. The whole thing was solid and well put together. It must have taken months to make in his spare time at work with every bit of metal had been shaped by hand. I had received an expensive Christmas present that year – a rocket and missile base, in which the rocket and the missiles both fired. But the fort was different. In these rows of identical mill houses all crouching in that hollow below the hills that ring Belfast, street after street of them as far as the eye could see, all with their cheap identical flowery settees bought on credit from the same shops at the bottom of the Shankill, and the same pictures on the wall of foxes, fawns, infants, in fact anything with big eyes professing innocence and adoration, there was something individual and unique about the fort, made in and for love. And made for me.

    I had hundreds of soldiers in a large rusty circular tin that stayed in the damp back room – cowboys and Indians, Confederates and Yankees, knights whose legs and arms moved and could be swapped over, called ‘Swap-its’, Russian soldiers with a red star in the middle of their grey winter hats. I had bought the six Russian soldiers in Millisle and played outside Minnie McFall’s caravan in the sand. The knights on horseback were so intricate and such a delight to look at that that my mother put them on display with all the best china in the China cabinet. Two knights, the Red Rose of the House of Lancaster and the White Rose of the House of York, were on parade on the top shelf. We weren’t allowed to go near the China cabinet, or feed the gas meter which was just behind it. And when you wanted to play with the knights you had to ask for the key and remove them with a very steady hand from the glass cabinet, which always seemed to tremble and shake with all that china. I can still remember the smell of the china cabinet. All the smells that I have experienced in this life, the lavender in the quiet fields beyond Sainte Maxime, the close-up smell of drying sea weed on those wild gull squawking shores north of Santa Barbara, the fragrant smell of leather in the market in Hammamet with mint tea in the background, but I can still smell the inside of that cabinet with greater ease and with greater clarity than any of them, as if I have just leaned into the cabinet and breathed again. Don’t ask me to describe the smell; it must have been some kind of cleaning material that had evaporated in a glass container over many years.

    All the soldiers eventually found their way into the fort. It was a generic sort of fort though it looked like Fort Laramie, from the Wild West on the black and white television. But my mother told me that her daddy had been to a fort like that in India. George Willoughby, she called her daddy, just in case I thought it was George Bell my cousin, Myrna and Jacqueline’s brother. My father knew of George’s days in India and this might have given him the idea that guided his craftsmanship.
    British soldiers of the Raj patrolled that fort at night in the corner of our front room, but no shops seemed to sell models of the enemy whoever the enemy were. But that didn’t matter to me, a boy with a fertile and vivid imagination, in a damp, crumbling mill house, who could spend hours on the floor and not be bored. I often didn’t want to go out. I was happy in there, sometimes my mother had to make me go out and play on the street.

    But one Thursday in July when I was about eleven we were going to my Uncle Terence’s and my mother told me that I was now too old for the fort and the soldiers. She was tired of cleaning my kneecaps with Vim because of the amount of time I spent on the floor. ‘You’re too old to be on your hands and knees all the time. You’re too old for that sort of childish nonsense.’ It was all done in a matter of fact sort of way, as if it was no big deal. The fort got in the way in such a small house. We kept it in the back room, where the wallpaper hung in great damp swathes from the slimy green wall with the damp running down in rivulets. The fort was going rusty like the metal container with the soldiers, like the tools we kept there, like everything else in the house. It had to go and it was loaded into our car. I don’t know who loaded it into the car, perhaps my brother. I was told that the poor children up Ligoniel would love it. I was told that I had had my enjoyment. It was somebody else’s turn. I was assured that the children up in Ligoniel weren’t as well off as we were. They had no missile sites, or garages with lifts that could be wound up, or forts made at work by their fathers in good jobs. I knew that they were from big families, families sometimes with no work, Roman Catholic families. ‘Too bloody idle,’ our neighbours liked to say when Big Terry wasn’t about (I learned later that my Uncle Terence was himself a Catholic, and that, of course, was a big issue in those days in Belfast, although some days looking back now I can’t really understand why).

    There was a steep hill at the end of the Lesley Street; we called it ‘the dump’. I suspect that it wasn’t an official refuse site. I remember old settees with rusty springs sticking out and bags of open tin cans with large black crows picking at the bags. My mother told me to leave the fort out on the dump. She told me that it would be found, and that one of the boys from Ligoniel would have a childhood filled with imagination because of that fort, the fort that my grandfather had fought in, and my father had made.

    My uncle came with me as I laid the fort out in the middle of a hill of refuse. Dust and hairs, human and dog, filled the cracks, ingrained and dense like thread. But it was well looked after. That’s another expression my family liked. The fort, the car and the front step that my mother would wash every couple of days on her hands and her knees, a white froth on the pavement outside the house swept away by basins of cold water. All well looked after, all cared for. Loved, if you like. It was a very Ulster Protestant way of thinking about these things.

    So I carried the fort and left it in the middle of this long slope filled with human debris. A beautiful handcrafted artifact that had been at the centre of my childhood that still was at the centre of my childhood. That perhaps was the problem.

    My mother decided that at eleven I shouldn’t be in the front room on all fours with cowboys and indians and Russians with the Red Star on their caps. I walked back up the slope with my uncle who talked about our dog being humiliated by a rat in Barginnis Street. ‘That dog of yours can’t bloody well fight,’ my uncle said. ‘It’s embarrassing. It’s not a dog at all.’

    We all sat in my uncle’s front room, my Aunt Agnes, my father, my mother and Terence’s mother. There was a crucifix on the wall as you came in. I had only ever seen one in the Rocks’ house. I never understood what it was doing in my Uncle Terence’s house before Kevin Rock explained. My mother always said that it was something to do with Terence’s mother. I didn’t know what though. But I couldn’t stop thinking of the fort. I was always told that I was spoiled compared to some of the boys in my street, and especially compared to the boys at the top of the Ligoniel Road. I always thought that meant Catholic boys with their big families and their crammed houses, the same size as ours but packed with five or six of them to a bed, where they would sleep top to tail. They would run into their own house in the afternoon to dip dry bread in the sugar bowl that stayed in the cabinet in the front room, or they would nick a few spuds from the back of the potato lorry to roast in an open fire up the fields, they would beg food. ‘You are spoiled rotten,’ my mother would say in our backroom with water running down the walls, ‘and don’t forget that.’ Deprivation is, after all, always a relative concept. I knew that I had more toys than any of them but I didn’t want to give the fort away.

    I don’t know where I got the hammer from; it must have been from the toolbox in the backroom of my uncle’s house. I must have had to search for it. It was a big heavy claw hammer. I hid it up inside my coat and said that I was going out. The fort was still there, just as I had left it, in the middle of the dump. No deprived child had got there yet. I sat down on the slope beside it. I suppose that it was almost like playing again. The first blow flattened two or three of the metal ramparts. The second removed one section of the metal steps. I sat on the dirty stones amongst the piles of rubbish and hammered away. I wasn’t emotional about what I was doing. It was a cold act. I was just determined that no child, no matter how deprived or how needy or how hungry, would get my fort where my grandfather had fought for the British Empire, where Davy Crockett, whose father came from County Londonderry, had held out against the Mexicans at the Alamo, where my dreams of lands far away from cold damp mill houses that turned everything to rust had been nurtured.

    I was obviously engrossed in my little frenzy of destruction because what I remember next is my father and uncle standing over me. They must have wondered where I had got to. My father looked almost puzzled, perhaps a little hurt that he had a son who could be like this. I looked up at them. I felt ashamed and embarrassed. I needed to explain my actions, to justify myself. I remember what I said quite clearly. ‘It’s dangerous,’ I said. I remember those very words just coming out. ‘Those sharp metal ends, they could hurt somebody. You can’t just leave it here. Somebody might cut himself on it. I was just making it safe for them.’

    I was led away by my father and my uncle, who didn’t say anything or even look at each other. ‘Let’s just leave it here the way it is,’ said my father eventually.

    ‘But it’s ruined now,’ I said. ‘It’s ruined.’ I was crying by now, sniffing loudly, wiping my nose on my sleeve. I remember looking down at the trail of smeared, green, thick mucus along my sleeve and thinking that there was just so much mucus. My voice as it sounded then is clear even now. It was a whining, imploring sort of crying that accompanied my excuses. But why I was crying I don’t really know, perhaps it was being caught red-handed, the guilt of the whole thing, the fact that there was no way to hide my shame. Or perhaps it was just my way of showing them that I was still a child, who needed to dream, whose time had not come to leave these particular things behind.”

  75. Sipu

    Quite brave of him to tell such a story. I imagine we have all done things in our childhood about which we are deeply ashamed and which we hope that no one will ever discover. It is interesting too how some events that may be considered trivial by others are ingrained in our memories, while others, apparently more traumatic, are dismissed and forgotten.

    My attitude to possessions was pretty much the opposite. With a few exceptions, I found and still find them to be a burden. When I was about 6 or 7, my godfather sent me £20 from England. My mother was determined to buy me something with it. Living on a farm without TV, we were unaware of what toys were available, so we did not miss them too much. In any event she returned one day from Salisbury with a huge box. Inside was a brewers wagon with beer barrels and 4 Shire horses with intricate harnessing. It was a beautiful work of art, but I remember looking at it and thinking ‘what is the point? I can only roll it up and down the veranda so many times and then what?’ I am sure my poor mum was deeply disappointed that I did not appreciate it, but as it was my money I felt ok in asking her to return it. A couple of years later the money was used to buy a canoe for the farm dam. That was much more fun.

  76. Thanks, Sipu … interesting story. I’m tempted to ask what a horse would do with a canoe, but will resist. 🙂

    I think the presents I liked most as a child were books. My mother used to go to Dublin by train several times a year. We would meet her at the station on her return, and she would always have bought me various books in the second-hand bookshops along the quays. I loved almost all of them.

    The most disappointing present was a football. When I was about 10 I started to play football with my friends in the field behind our house. I let it be known that I would like a leather football for Christmas, and my parents bought me one, but it was a size 4 rather than 5, and was rejected and derided by my friends. I was ashamed of it.

  77. Cymbeline

    Brendano. You need to realize that the ‘have a good day’ mantra annoys intelligent people.

    Helpmaboab. Grand spécialiste du théâtre de Liverpool, je vois. Fabuleux. Quel bijou, ce monsieur.

    Sipu. Annoys me to say it, but you aristocrats (albeit dusty African ones) are often so delightfully honest and free of PC crap. Whiffs of The Spectator and the Best of British in all you write
    , and you do it unconsciously.

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