No one caught the bus out there, it wasn’t that sort of area. He’d catch glimpses of people getting into cars at the retail parks or moving behind the plate glass windows of the car showrooms, but never a soul at the bus stops. The pavements had disappeared along with the pedestrians, Dermot wasn’t sure which had gone first. Now there was just a strip of neatly mown grass between the dual carriageway and the perimeter hedges of the car parks, but the bus stops clung on. An empty bus suited him well enough. Eamonn Rooney was doing Irish Country hour on Radio Shamrock and Dermot listened on his battered Bush radio. He tapped his big hands on the steering wheel in tight rhythmic counterpoint, occasionally bursting into song when he knew the words.
As it was now, the road reminded him of visiting Michael and the grandkids in Houston, and the ghostly walks he had taken along the highway there each morning trying to find somewhere to buy a newspaper. But he could recall a time before the BMW dealerships and the supermarkets, when the buses were packed on Summer Sundays with families heading out to the Pick-Your-Own strawberry fields. He and Bridie had taken Geraldine there a few times when she was little. She had found it hard though, all the bending and stooping. All she had really wanted to do was eat the strawberries and all Dermot had wanted to do was let her.
Once the bus reached Shirley the passengers started to flood on, pensioners mainly, taking last minute short hops before the off-peak curfew sent them scurrying indoors. Dermot had only twelve months left till retirement. He looked at the small, neat men in their cream caps, pale grey windcheaters and stone coloured trousers. They blended in with the pavements. Some of them had women’s shopping trolleys. He imagined their wives sending them out for things they didn’t need. He saw a man emerge wide-eyed and empty-handed from Iceland. Dermot looked away and sang a chorus of Catch Me If You Can.
At 3.30 everyone over the age of sixty vanished. Their replacement by schoolchildren was so rapid and so complete that there were times Dermot had the notion he was seeing the same people at an earlier stage of their lives. It sometimes made him feel more tender to the school kids, to understand why they should make so much noise, why they should be anything but invisible. Only sometimes though, most of the time he felt murderous towards them.
‘You’re not getting on with that.’
‘You blind? It’s a daysaver.’
‘I know what it is, son. It’s a week out of date.’
‘Nah I bought it this morning mate. Machine’s bust, ain’t my problem.’
‘You can pay £1.20 or you can get off the bus.’
‘Fuck you man. I bought my ticket.’
As the bus moved in from the suburbs to the inner city the school uniforms gradually disintegrated, from blazers and ties to sweatshirts and hoods, but the attitude remained the same. At the stop ahead he saw a jostling mass of boys – Nike bags and razored haircuts pushing each other into the gutter. As the doors opened all he saw was their teeth.
A riot was in full swing on the top deck. He heard the hammering of feet, shouts and howls. The boys charged off the bus in their twos and threes, thundering down the stairs, calling to friends and victims. They hurled bags of chips and empty coke cans at the side of the bus in salutation or threat at those still on it. Dermot wondered how the small terraced houses the boys returned to could contain them, he wondered how they didn’t burst apart at the seams. Neither Geraldine or Michael had been any trouble as teenagers. Michael had been busy with his athletics and before him Geraldine had always been quiet. She spent most of her time in her room drawing pictures of horses. It was only a modest semi but it had always seemed too large for the four of them. Dermot remembered his brother Jack visiting from Cork, big and loud as ever. He’d said that it was like they had mice in the house not youngsters. Bridie had left the room upset.
In Sparkbrook the bus’s progress was slowed by the surrounding traffic before finally grinding to a halt. Dermot’s shift was over when he got to the city centre. He was hungry already and wanted to be home with his tea and his paper. He remembered the café that used to stand on the corner ahead of him. It did decent sized breakfasts with white pudding and soda bread and the strongest tea he’d ever tasted. He remembered the smell of the bacon. Now he wasn’t sure what it was – some kind of place for making phone calls abroad. Every other window was one of those, the rest were barber shops. Some seemed to combine both functions. Why did they need so many barbers? Somedays the area seemed unrecognisable from the place he used to know, on others he looked right through the new signs and strange languages and saw the street as it was when he arrived fify years ago. He’d got off the coach at Digbeth station and headed for the address of the boarding house he’d been given. He remembered walking along with his big suitcase sweating in his woollen suit. He looked at the block now and saw where Murphy’s bar used to be. Beyond that had been the Roscommon Lounge, then O’Rourke’s the grocers, and Frank Sweeney the bookie. What a gobshite that man had been. Above Murphy’s was a big room where Dermot used to box and had got his nose broken by his friend Frank Tumelty.
It was the late sixties when the area started to change. Strange ramshackle shops set up selling gaudy fabrics and vegetables that looked fearsome to him. One by one the old names went and were replaced by restaurants selling curry and soon there was no bacon to be had anywhere. As each new wave of immigrants arrived at the coach station and drifted up the road, the neighbourhood would change again. Dermot looked out now at the current uneasy hybrid of Mogadishu and Krakow – ghettos within a ghetto.
The bus inched along under the shadow of the Holy Cross, the one landmark unchanged through the years. It was an ugly building resembling a factory more closely than a church. It had somehow lasted through the long, lean years with a parish consisting only of the handful of derelict old drunks and penniless widows that never managed to move out with everyone else. On Sunday shifts Dermot had sometimes seen men he recognised from the old days as he drove past. He remembered one with whom he’d shared a room. When he’d seen him again he had the ruined face of a drinker, his nose swollen, hands shaking, making slow progress along the road towards the church, followed by a lame dog. Dermot imagined him still living in the same boarding house feeding the dog bacon rind and whiskey on the cracked brown lino.
Now the church car park was full again every Sunday, the pews swelled with the Polish. Dermot didn’t know who the priest was anymore. He wondered if he too was Polish. Back in his day the priest had been Father Dempsey who’d been a great one for arranging parish dances and socials. Dermot remembered some great St Patrick’s nights, everyone in a charabanc travelling off to other parishes for the big night. He could recall very clearly the first time he’d seen Bridie, laughing with some other girls whilst Tommy Fitzgerald’s Showband thumped their way through ‘Black Velvet Band’.
Father Dempsey wasn’t like the priests Dermot had known back in Ireland. They had been all sin and penance and bare knuckles on the back of your head when you spoke out of turn. You could have a joke and a pint with Dempsey. He’d spent all his time organising social events, helping out families, setting up youth clubs and promoting community spirit. He was dead now but there was a mural of him done by local children on the wall of the Church car park many years ago. Dermot passed it each day on the bus, the peeling paint revealed patches of dark brick in the priest’s face.
The bus moved forward thirty yards and then came to a halt again. On a scrap of land between the side of the church and the petrol station was a single cherry blossom tree. Yesterday there had been nothing much to see, but the tree had bloomed overnight and Dermot stared into its branches.
For their tenth wedding anniversary he and Bridie had booked to go to Brean for the weekend. There was more to it than a simple celebration. It had been eight years since they’d had Geraldine and they couldn’t understand why they hadn’t had another two or three since then. Bridie had thought it might do them good to go away. Dermot was beginning to think that Geraldine might be an only child, but he was more than happy to have a break with just the two of them. Bridie’s sister Peg was going to look after Geraldine but fell ill at the last minute. Father Dempsey heard of this somehow and phoned them up. He insisted to Dermot that they should go, he said it was important, and Dermot wondered just how much Bridie told the priest in the confessional. Dempsey said that Geraldine could stay in the Presbytery for the weekend and help Mrs Connor the housekeeper. Dermot and Bridie decided to cancel, but Geraldine got wind of the priest’s offer and was delighted at the idea. She’d not long made her communion and was going through what Dermot termed her ‘Holy Joe’ phase, to such an extent that Bridie was worried her daughter might have a vocation. In the end they went.
They’d arranged to meet at the station on their return. Dermot and Bridie got off the train and saw them in the distance waiting beyond the gate, Father Dempsey with his hand on Geraldine’s shoulder. Bridie and he were still in high spirits, giggling about the woman they’d sat opposite on the train, as they walked along the platform. As they drew closer to the gate Dermot looked up and stopped walking. Beside him Bridie’s laughter trailed off and she too stood quite still by his side. Dempsey tried to get Geraldine to wave. She was dressed from head to toe in new clothes.
At the next stop the passengers snarled at Dermot as they got on, blaming him for their wait. He’d be home in an hour. He closed his eyes for a moment and the image of the blossom tree beside the church was still there waiting for him. It was the tiny pink flowers fluttering against the black branches that took his breath away.
First published in The Feminist Review, 2011