“Get those dishes done, I don’t want to hear a single word until it’s finished. You live like animals.”
A standard hello from my Dad. I don’t know wether he’d got it from the army or wether the reality of having five kids wasn’t what he’d expected, either way he hated mess and clutter and most of our free time as kids was taken up cleaning something or other. We would spend the whole weekend sometimes scrubbing the place, but it never seemed to look the way he wanted it to.
As he walked back into the kitchen you could tell, a certain friction in the air. It was coming. Suddenly it happened, the noise of every dish in the house hitting the tiled kitchen floor. Every one smashed to pieces. Whoever had washed up had neglected to dry them and put them away.
My dad always had a very short temper and a heavy hand. I don’t think that any of us for a second ever thought of it as abuse, but looking back years later it was certainly not rational behaviour either. There were times we’d be punished for something by being smacked, and my mum would have to step in and stop him because he’d lost control of himself. I remember my little sisters bum being black and blue once for days, I can’t remember why.
None of us were especially bad kids, my dad as I’ve said before was very religious, and he was very concerned with how we appeared to others. The postcard picture of the pastors happy smiling biblical family was always his goal, but we never quite acheived it. More than cheek, swearing or insolence – the biggest crime we could commit was to allow someone outside of our home, especially someone from church, to see us acting in an un-Christian way.
We were kids, we acted like kids did.
The biggest embarrassment for my dad was having the police turn up at the house. Giving the neighbours something to talk about – God forbid anyone realise we were only human.
Once me and my sister and a little girl called Amanda were playing in the street. My baby brother couldn’t say her name, he called her “Commander” and he had a bit of a soft spot for her. We were walking up that same giant hill next to the school when we found a wallet. I don’t remember who’s name it was, just that it was a young woman. It contained £80.
I had never seen £80. I was nine. In fact I had rarely seen any money, my parents were in no position to ever give us any. I don’t think they ever had any to begin with. Now, looking back, of course I realise that £80 at the time would’ve gone a long way in my house in the 90s. I also realise that what we did next was not the right thing to do, by anyone’s measure.
“I know that woman.” Said Commander. Me and Hannah looked at each other. We were onto this blag straight away. I decided to call her bluff.
“Cool. Let’s go give it to her together then.” I smiled, waiting. Commander swiftly backtracked.
After some deliberation on what to do with our newfound fortune – the most extravagant idea being that we could get a taxi all the way to *TOWN* (about £7 these days) – we decided we would first of all take the money up the hill to a house where a woman ran a tuck shop from her living room. We left the wallet where we had found it in the road. I hope she got it back.
As we swanned into the tuck shop, newfound lords of Tullycarnet, heirs to the wallet – the sea of children parted. A red bootlace here and a wham bar there, but they knew they couldn’t compete with us today. They could smell it in the air. Three small pig-tailed challengers had emerged to claim the crown.
We slammed our money down on her coffee table and ordered, in the end, about £40 worth of sweets. The woman looked us over, looked at the money and said “have yous had your Easter money?”
“Yes!” We cried in unison, grateful that the most exquisite explanation had been placed so delicately before us. This was a much better lie than the one we’d agreed on, which was that we had made it selling daisy chains.
I don’t know if this is a “thing”anywhere else, it certainly wasn’t when we lived on Merseyside as little kids. When we moved to Belfast we realised that these kids were showered in clothes and money at Easter. It didn’t matter how much it made us stick out, we weren’t. We were lucky if my dad allowed us eggs on this ‘pagan festival.’ To be honest after the year he cancelled Christmas I don’t know what we’d come to expect.
The woman picked up our money, put our bounty on the table and popped next door to get some change off her neighbour. She had obviously never encountered such affluent primary schoolers. Times were changing. We were coming up.
When she returned with our change we noticed nothing amiss. She was a little short as she handed over the dosh, but we’d done it. Transaction complete. So we left the way we’d come, planning to go home and stockpile our hoard.
I remember I was eating a long tube of rainbow coloured sherbert when I saw them. The colour drained from my face. My stomach flooded with dread and my knees almost gave way as the RUC meat wagon rolled towards me.
I wasn’t afraid of them, I had no reason to be where I lived. In Liverpool I had barely seen them and they weren’t often seen in the UDA stronghold of Tullycarnet either. No, I wasn’t afraid of them. What struck fear into my tiny heart was the image of this meat wagon rolling to a stop next to us, the door opening and my dad. My dad. My dad, he was going to fucking kill us. We were dead meat.
Tuck-shop’s neighbour had grassed us up, this was it. I knew I was too young for prison, but I also knew that bringing the plod to my dads door was probably the biggest public shaming he could imagine. My crime spree was over, and as I was bundled into the back to be taken home, I was sure my life was too.
We arrived home, we were about ten doors away from where they’d picked us up. I’m not sure what happened to Commander, I don’t think she was allowed to play with us again. My dad emerged from the house, red and seething. Shaking with anger he roared “GET IN THIS HOUSE.” We scurried, straight to bed, we knew better than to hang about. As the police talked to my mum and dad we buried our faces in our pillows and waited for him.
This was always the worst bit, waiting to be called. We were terrified. We knew we’d be battered for this, and we thought, rightly so. But it never came. We stayed there for what felt like hours until we heard the front door slam and my mum crept in.
“You’re to stay here until you’re told to come out.” She said, and closed the door behind her. Even at this young age I knew this wasn’t a pardon. Either my mum had stopped him, or he had realised that once he started he wouldn’t stop. For whatever reason my dad didn’t hit us that day. I realised for the first time that this was much more terrifying than being smacked and left with a sore backside.
Dad didn’t look at us or speak to us for days. On the second day, we could hear them all watching a film together upstairs. We lived in a split level house so our bedrooms were on the ground floor. We crept into the living room to ask if we could join in, and were swiftly dispatched back to the gulag.
Lying in bed again, I began to feel sorry for myself. Surely nobody deserved this. Even murderers got a trial. This was cruel and unfair, and I wasn’t standing for it anymore. In a flash I knew the answer. We would run away. We would break out and find a new life in this new country, we didn’t need them, we could make it on our own!
We packed some clean underwear in a bag and I helped Hannah climb out of the window, and we were off. Walking down the footpath with the sun on our backs we felt free, full of hope and adventure. We were sure we’d never be back, and we were excited to be on the road. We walked past the spot where the wallet had been. It was gone.
We arrived at a petrol station about a mile away, and being the elder sister I felt it my duty to provide. But how? I thought maybe we could find some lodgings and work for our dinners somewhere in the country. I’d obviously been reading too much. As we hung around outside the shop, suddenly I spied it. Our salvation.
Just there, down the grid, was some poor sods grubby fiver. It was ours, I just didn’t know how we could get it. Then it hit me. Full of butterflies I entered the shop and promptly burst into floods of tears, a talent I’d honed in hopes it might subdue the worst of my dads wrath. The poor fella behind the counter didn’t know what to do. A young girl alone in his shop crying her eyes out and him nothing to do with it.
“What’s wrong?!” He fussed, as I continued to bawl.
“I dropped my mums money down the drain and now she’s gonna kill meeeee!” I cried.
“Here, here, don’t worry!” He scrambled to open the till drawer. “Have this one, I’ll go and get it out later.”
I turned off the waterworks, and the poor lad visibly calmed. Success. I bought some bread, people always ate bread when they were being frugal, and just one or two sweets to keep us going. I exited the garage in a fanfare of triumph. Hannah sat on the kerb, bored, when I arrived. I presented to her the spoils, as expected she didn’t give a shit about my very clever bread. Nonetheless, I shared out a piece each explaining that the rest might have to last months as I wrapped it up and packed it away.
And that’s where my mum found us. Eating bread, sat on a kerb, drawing shapes in the dirt with a stick.
“That’s mums car.” Hannah announced, suddenly alarmed. I knew from her voice she was right.
Mum pulled over and we slid into the back seat of the yellow Volkswagen Golf. My big sister told us later that minutes after we’d left she’d been sent to fetch us to watch the film. Mum had finally relented, and we were gone.
This wasn’t my first great escape, but I knew this time there would be no tears of relief at my return. Dad hadn’t been home all day, so for once I wasn’t worried about that, and mum wasn’t nearly as terrifying. Still, we got our arses warmed with a slipper, and in a stroke of genius, all of our shoes were confiscated.
No more runaways.