I shared a room with my brother until I was sixteen. We were room mates for ten years. Through his infancy, my childhood, his childhood and my puberty. Through two housemoves and the birth of two younger sisters. Through five family cars and seven family holidays to the same drafty caravan in Ballybunion.
He was born when I was five. I can remember he was a sick child with weak lungs and a mop of curly hair. I don’t remember much from my early childhood but I can remember everything from David’s childhood. I can remember his continual bouts with whooping cough, the cough sounding too harsh, too elderly for someone so small. I can still see my mother steaming up the bathroom with Vicks Vapo Rub to relieve the phlegm from his congested lungs. The entire house stank like a hospital. My clothes stank medicinally. My schoolbag stank of illness. My meals masticated menthol in my mouth. We all wandered around the house in a dizzying high, sinuses painfully clear, our eyes watering like an onion chopper’s union. The older children on the estate we lived in called me “Losenge.” I didn’t really care, I could play football, run fast, make jokes and quite liked having a nickname.
But I worried about David. We all worried about David alot.
Dad often returned home with a collection of cures from local faith healers. Candles were lit. Holy medals were slept with. Blessed bottles of milk were drank and burped back up. Holy water was crossed on foreheads. Prayers were said.
Once Dad arrived with a bag of, supposedly, magical buns. Mam tried feeding them to David but he was toothless and the desertly dry desserts just stuck in his throat. Not liking to see waste my Dad and I ate them in the vaporub haze watching Soccer Saturday that afternoon.
I can report that neither of us ever developed whooping cough.
As he grew up David’s lungs started solving their own problems as did his curly hair which miraculously turned straight after his first haircut.
We moved from our terraced house in Dundalk in August. We were moving to Cavan. It was a hot day, the hottest of the year. The concrete and pebbledash of the estate shone white and could blind you on those days. I was 9 and David was 4. We were not given an option. I protested about leaving my friends. I hatched a proposal with my next door neighbour Thomas Grimes to move in with him. His parents did not like the plan, my parents were too busy packing to hear it.
Dad arranged for the Fyffe’s Banana lorry that delivered fruit to his shop to ferry our furniture and belongings west. When I saw the enormous yellow vehicle reverse onto our street I was immediately swept up by the glamour of it all. Everyone from the street came out to watch us load the lorry, some helped. I started spinning a web of deceit to my friends about the kind of life I had to look forward to.
“Schools are really easy in Cavan, they don’t have to do maths at all….. I’ve already found out I’ll be captain of the football team when I get there…. My new house is going to be as big three of our houses put together…. The food is better there too!”
Packed, we said our goodbyes. Mam cried and hugged Valerie, Thomas’ mother. The day before Mam had dug up a plant that had been in the front garden since we moved in. It had waxy leaves and deep pink flowers. She didn’t trust the new tenants to look after it. She gave it to Valerie. They exumed it and replanted it together in Valerie’s garden.
Dad was tired and impatient. He told people he would see them soon.
David liked drives and had been waiting in the car for over an hour. The hot car had clearly made him sleepy and he was struggling to stay awake despite the excitement.
As we pulled away I waved regally to my friends. I registered the resignation on their faces. They wished they could move too. The lump in my throat choked me. I wanted to stay. The old estate was a wonderland of concrete and tarmac, grazed knees and puddles, overpopulation and friends. We would not be back much and I’d miss it.
We moved into a strange red wooden bungalow built by the Italians that owned the local bandage factory. It was about a mile outside of town. The house was surrounded by more countryside than we had ever seen. Fields, farms, cattle, horses, ditches, wooden fences, electric fences, hills, a continual rumble of farm machinery and an unending supply of chestnut trees and conkers. The house itself offered us a larger bedroom, mechanical window shutters that could block out the light in a room completely and a huge freezing cold basement that we could play football in if it rained. Mam and Dad bought us a set of bunkbeds and a 6 by 3 foot snooker table for the basement. David and I were left to decorate ourselves.
When the 256th liverpool poster was securely bluetacked to the wall we both agreed I should have the top bunk. It seemed we would be happy.
Dad had been working in the supermarket for a year before we moved to Cavan. He used to commute from Dundalk some days and stay in a Bed & Breakfast on other days. He had made friends locally and he arranged for some of the local kids to call over.
The Carraghers arrived and announced themselves to my mother.
“Hey there missus, do Percy and David French live here?”
“Is dis where the French kisses live?” I heard snorts of laughter from my room and gulped.
“Will you tell them the Carraghers are over to play football. Mr French sent us.”
Three boys: Jim, Declan and Paddy. They all looked the same. Brown hair, brown eyes, button noses, sallow skin, tall and slim. Jim aged 12, Declan 10 and Paddy 8. They were noisey, cheeky and constantly fighting with each other. They all wore different Tottenham Hotspur jerseys. I had never met Tottenham Hotspur supporters before, all my old friends either supported Liverpool or United. Tottenham Hotspur never won anything.
They stayed and played football for a while. They were funny but frightning, good footballers especially Declan. They invited us up to their house the following day.
There were 12 children in the Carragher family. Paddy was the youngest but the oldest Tina was 30. As old as my Mam, I couldn’t believe it. There were 7 boys and 5 girls. And their Dad, Jim Senior. The Carragher’s mother had died of cancer when Paddy was 3. I had never met anyone without their Mam.
It made me think a lot about what I would do if my Mam died. I was more worried about having to rely on my Dad. My Mam always answered the non-football related questions. I was always very careful about mentioning my Mam around any of the Carraghers. I didn’t want to rake up bad memories for the lads.
Jim Senior was great. He smoked like a chimney and had a deep voice that sounded like he was always trying to hold in a burp. He worked in the bandage factory and always wore his blue work jacket even when he was mowing the lawn. I never heard him speak a sentence that didn’t contain a swear word.
“Fuckin’ hell lads, are ye playing football on my good grass. I’ll bate yis, play out on the fuckin’ road ya bollixes!” He loved his lawn.
David fell in love with Jim senior and used to follow him around. Jim Senior treated David like his mascot. He took him to GAA matches and fed him sweets. Jim Senior always let David sit in the front seat beside him. As a result David started to swear a lot.
“I’m not eating those fuckin carrots!” he’d often proclaim.
Everyone thought it was adorable except my Mam.
Jane Whelan was the Carragher’s neighbour and cousin. I met her for the first time on that first day I called to Carragher’s.
We were setting out our jumpers as goalposts on Jim Senior’s lawn when her and her brother John hopped the wall.
“Can we play too?” she said.
I had to hold in a laugh. The boy kicking around was fine, but a girl playing football with the lads? It never would have happened on the old estate and I couldn’t imagine it would happen here. It wasn’t my place to say so, I glanced from Jim to Declan to Paddy to see who would break it to her.
“Sure, these lads is the French’s,” said Declan.
I nearly choked on my own exasperation.
“The teams are Carraghers against the rest,” said Jim.
Insult to injury. I considered mounting some kind of protest. Bad enough she was allowed to play, but then I had to be on her team, with my asthmatic younger brother and, with her brother who I had never even seen play. I wanted to just go home. I could feel myself going red. I hated to lose.
“Right, we’ll tip off then,” said Jane. “Gimme the ball.”
Declan passed it to her and she started to juggle the ball. Right foot, right foot, left foot, knee, left foot, right foot, knee, head, knee. Then she caught it. She turned around to me.
“So are you any good then?”
“I’m alright,” I squeezed out. “David’s a good keeper too.”
I would need to be at my best. I couldn’t be upstaged by a girl.