"...stories birling through my mind..."
A literary journey
Irish culture & folklore
"...stories birling through my mind..."
Another wee children's story:
I live at number one Greenland Grove and wee Harry lives at number three.
Harry is the best in the world at everything. He’s the best at BMXing, the best at kerbsy, the best at British Bulldog, the best at football and the best at up-against-the-wall-tennis.
He’s the best at pots and pans drumming, the best at marching, the best at playing the dummy flute and the best at tossing the red, white and blue band stick.
Harry has asthma, but he’s still the best at everything.
Last year, Harry’s band stick turned in the air five times. It wheeled and and it whirled and it cut through white woolly clouds like a shear, and all the children in Greenland Grove watched with tilted heads and bleating hearts.
I was sitting in Harry’s driveway footering with my red, white and blue duct tape when Harry said to me, ‘Gary, I’m going to enter the band stick competition and this year, and I’m going to turn it six times.’
Six times, I thought. You havenae a hope, I thought. I said nothing and I concentrated on my band stick.
My band stick is made from my mammy’s kitchen brush. Harry had to use an old yard brush. He hoked in the shed for an hour for it. Last year, there was a carfuffle over a missing kitchen brush. We both got a good clip in the ear for that.
Harry is my best friend. They call us Harry and Gary, but we like to be known as the A Team, the crack commando band stick unit of Greenland Grove, soldiers of fortune of the red, white and blue.
Except on Saturday, when Harry wears his green and white Celtic shirt.
Harry doesnae have a union jack flag hanging from his upstairs window. I felt right and sorry for Harry, so last week, I planted two wee plastic union jacks flags in his mammy’s plant pots. Harry was wile happy about the flags. His mammy must have been wile happy too for she cackled and laughed about them with my mammy for an hour.
Harry’s daddy was checking under the car later that day. He shouted, ‘Thanks for the wee flags, Gary.’
He’d no need to be checking his car, because Harry and I have the entire street covered by eight in the morning.
Last summer, we invented a machine to check under cars for suspect devices. We took my mammy’s bathroom mirror and attached it to Harry’s mammy’s Ewbank sweeper. Harry’s mammy wasnae too happy about us taking her Ewbank sweeper. We got a clip in the ear for that too.
When you make a band stick, it’s important to have the right wood. You need to pay particular attention to its thrust, drag and lift.
A heavy band stick can turn like a tornado, but will fail to get off the ground fast enough, and you’ll get a quare auld gunk if a yard stick lands on your heed!
A light kitchen shaft is ideal. It can soar like a bird and whistle like the wind.
A quintuple-spinning-top-flight band stick requires steadfast preparation. Two tennis balls are secured at each end. The secret is to bind the ball piercings with a bicycle puncture repair kit.
The next step is the winding of the red, white and blue duct tape. Sometimes, I tremble as I wrap the tape around the stick, for it’s hard to breathe knowing that you’re creating the best band stick in the whole wide world. A slight shoogle can make a bubble in the tape.
I didnae tell Harry, but my wee sister has a wile steady hand, and when Harry was at Saturday night mass, she helped me wind my tape.
There are a wheen of key moves with the band stick.
First, there is the figure eight. You lift your left leg, feed the stick through with your right hand and retrieve it with your left. You bring the left hand over the head and pass the stick back to the right. It can be a dangerous move. If you walk away without an injury, you’re probably a girl.
Then there’s the two-finger finger twirl. This is hard to master with a yard stick. You twirl the band stick between your index finger and your middle finger. You hold out the stick with a straight arm and you twirl it continually for at least a minute. If you stop after two twirls, you’re probably a girl.
The third key move is the toss. You need a strong forearm and good hand-eye coordination, and if the sun’s cutting the clouds, a pair of sunglasses. The aim is that the stick should twirl in the air at least three times. If your stick touches the sun, you’re good enough to enter the band stick competition. If your stick twirls five times, you are the winner of the band stick competition. If your stick only twirls once and reaches the roof of your house, you’re probably a girl.
Harry came home from mass last Saturday night and he said, ‘Snot fair!’
I’d had an hour extra to practice that night, but Harry had nothing to complain about. He gets to stay up past nine. I can hear him outside when I’m in bed. I can hear his band stick whiz through the air and it’s like someone is plunging a bicycle pump into my heart, pumping it hard and then sealing it with my puncture repair kit so that I can no longer breathe. It’s the same feeling I had when I clapped eyes on the girl at number sixteen.
And so, I lie in bed with the bright sun cutting through the crack at the side of the Venetian blinds, and I dream of being there on the street with Harry, whistling the choruses to the tunes and watching our sticks jettison through the air.
We only know one line to one Orange tune. It’s called The Sash. ‘It is old but it is beautiful, and its colours they are fine.’
Most of the time, we march to tunes from the Wednesday night Mission Hall instead. Deep and Wide is a good yin for the figure eight. You capture the stick between the legs on ‘deep’, swing it behind the back on ‘wide’ and call ‘Hallelujah’ as it soars through the air.
Harry likes the wee Mission Hall. You earn a sweet for a verse, and every once in awhile they fire a sweet into the middle of the congregation. My sister has butter fingers at kerbsy, but when it comes to sweets, she has hands like treacle. My mammy said that she’s a wee skitter and that if sugar was a passport to heaven, she’d fly through the pearly gates.
My sister doesnae eating dinners, so she doesnae. I keep telling her that if you slather HP sauce on your dinner, it takes the taste of food away, but she doesnae like HP sauce either. She said it smells too much like food.
On the last day of school, I learned my sister’s secret.
Wee Harry was playing in our back garden. We had been busy scrubbing the spokes of our bikes with Brillo pads when my mammy called me in for dinner. We get our dinner at five. Harry gets his at six when his daddy comes home from work.
There’s a strange thing about Harry. He likes food. He even likes food without HP sauce.
So, there he was sitting beneath my mammy’s kitchen window on a sunny night in June with purple Brillo bubbles all over his hands when he heard a fissle. He told me that was praying to win the band stick competition when suddenly a sausage wrapped in kitchen roll came tumbling down from heaven, a piping hot sausage that was clarried in Heinz tomato sauce. He thanked the Good Lord for his offering when another fissle alerted him to a second delivery from on high. A spud happed in kitchen roll appeared in his lap. God had truly delivered. Harry ate my sister’s dinner at five o’clock and then dannered next door to eat his own at six.
Harry’s maybe the best eater in the world too.
There’s a boy on our street called Billy. He doesnae follow the bands and he doesnae like bikes. He goes to Donegal every year on holiday. Donegal is a place down south, but I looked it up on a map and it’s in the north of down south, right beside the city of Londonderry, which Billy calls Derry. Adults have quare and funny ideas about place names.
Harry’s mammy calls the place down south ‘Down South’ or Éire. My granny calls the place down south ‘The Free State.’ My teacher calls the place down south ‘The Republic of Ireland.’ My daddy calls the place down south ‘Over the border.’ My American aunt calls the place down south and Northern Ireland ‘Ireland.’ The man on TV calls it ‘The thirty-two counties.’ You’d think someone would be smart enough to come up with one name.
I asked Billy about Donegal and it doesnae sound anything like Portrush. There’s no ghost train, laughing clown or Big Dipper. I dinnae undersand why anyone would go on holiday to a place with no Big Dipper, especially when you’re in P7 and can go on it without an adult.
Billy’s mammy pays £5 an hour for flute lessons with a lady from Ballygally. Ballygally is like Larne, but it’s no as big. It’s got a beach, a castle and a giant cliff called Ballygally Heid. Ballygally Heid has eyes and a nose and everything. I towl Billy that it’s free to learn the flute in the Chaine Memorial Flute band in Larne and you get to walk in the parade on the Twelfth day of July. Billy said his mammy said, ‘We’ll think about it.’
Harry’s in the Chain Memorial Flute band, but he doesnae walk on the Twelfth. He stays on the street to man the driveways with the Ewbank sweeper.
The first two weeks of July were right and busy. I called in for Harry at half seven every morning to build the ramps on the street for the BMXs.
Greenland Grove is a cul-de-sac that was designed to a high specification. The wide area at the bottom is a BMX bike course until the daddies who have cars come home from work.
The narrow part of our street was designed for kerbsy. Kerbsy involves bouncing a ball off the opposite kerb.
The wider part of the street is also for British Bulldog. It’s is a game where two teams hold hands. A team member is sent forward to break through the barricade on the other side.
British Bulldog is wile annoying when you have to hold hands with a girl.
Then there’s rounders. Somebody always makes up a new rule and then everybody falls oot!
The only flaw in the design of Greenland Grove is the abundance of flowers in front gardens. The adults dinnae like the balls in their gardens.
I want to be a street designer for children when I grow up. I’ll ban flowers and make all the windows bullet proof for kerbsy.
After BMXing, Harry and I work on our band sticks in the wide part of the street, while the girls do handstands and Irish dancing.
Irish dancing is mostly for girls, except for wee Billy with the £5 flute lessons. He goes to the Andrews School of Dancing at the Town Hall with my sister. She sez he sits at one side of the hall with his legs dangling off the seat, and all the girls sit at the other side. It must be wile hard for Billy being alone at the dancing and the fluting.
I go down to the wee park after lunchtime to help collect for the bonfire. Harry stays with Billy and tries to teach him how to be a crack commando band stick master, but Billy has butter hands like my sister and he’s lacking a bit in gumption.
On the Eleventh night, I’m allowed to stay up until after midnight because of the bonfire, but Harry gets called in at half ten.
It’s a wile nice feeling standing by a bonfire if you’re behind the fence on the Old Glenarm Road. The flames tingle your face and tickle your heart. We have to stand behind the fence because of the men and women with the Harp tins near the fire.
The bonfire has got something to do with King Billy, who once won a big battle on a River called Boyne. The Boyne River is situated Down South in Éire close to The Free State and The Republic of Ireland, just Over the border, in the Ireland that’s made of Northern Ireland and Ireland with thirty-two counties.
When we play King Billy in Greenland Grove, we let Billy be Billy and Harry be Jimmy. The Boyne River is marked out in chalk across the the narrow part of the street. The aim is to ride the BMX up a ramp and over the river. The problem is that King Billy always falls off his bike and loses the battle. One day Billy asked if he could Irish dance over the Boyne. I sez te Harry, ‘What do ye think, Harry?’ Harry sez to me, ‘Snot fair that Billy always loses the Battle of the Boyne.’ Sez I to Billy, ‘Ay, alright then. Ye can Irish dance over the River Boyne.’
I was feeling tense. I wanted Billy to win. Not just the Billy from the battle, but I wanted Billy to win something because he was the worst at everything.
I watched. Billy tucked his hands into fists by the sides of his body. He did few one-two-threes on approach to the line. Before King Jimmy had even got onto his horse, King Billy’s legs flipped up over his head and he galloped across the river in one stride. Billy landed on the other side of the Boyne with a wide smile.
My mammy yeuched and laughed about King Billy when I told her about it later. Sez she to my daddy, ‘Did ye ever hear anything like it in your life?’
I knew that something was wrong on the Twelfth of July.
I got dressed as fast as I could into my stripy red and white T-shirt and I slipped downstairs. ‘The poor wee cretter,’ sed my mammy to my daddy. ‘And there he was meant to be tossing the band stick this morning.
I stepped outside the front door and looked up the street. There was a blattering of my heart against my chest and the right and quiet sound of the wind. The wee flag in Harry’s garden was on its side on the grass and the big flag on my wall was flapping against the pebble dash. Harry’s curtain was closed.
I heard my mammy’s voice again in the hall. She was calling me. ‘It’s wee Harry,’ she said with long eyes. ‘He’s in hospital. He had an asthma attack in the night.’
I couldn’t hear the words she was saying because of the blatter of my heart in my ears.
I went back outside and sat on the step. I walked to Harry’s house and lifted the wee flag from the garden. I took the other out of the flower pot and I wound them up and held them tight to my heart. Harry’s house was empty. I walked around the back. The bikes were still lying on the grass. I opened the shed door and put them away so that Harry’s shiny spokes wouldn’t rust.
I didnae know what to do after that. My mammy came outside and sed we’d just go to the wee feeder parade at the Factory in case there was any news. She sed, ‘Och it’s a wile shame. Harry liked the wee parade at the Factory.’
Harry did like the wee parade at the Factory.
After the feeder parade at the Factory, my mammy sat on the coal bunker outside the house. ‘Let me see ye with the band stick,’ she sed.
I nodded as my heart blattered in my throat. I walked to the shed and lifted Harry’s band stick. I twirled it around with my fingers and looked up to the sky. I sez to mammy, ‘God’ll take care of wee Harry, won’t he?’
Sez she, ‘Ay. God will take care of wee Harry. He’ll be home soon.’
I gripped Harry’s band stick with my right hand and looked through the sun to heaven.
With one stroke, the band stick swept up into the sky. I shielded my eyes with my hand and I asked God to take care of Harry.
The sticked twirled. Once. Twice. Three times. The stick was twisting into a blur of red, white and blue circles before the sun made me blind and the sky turned white.
‘Six times,’ my mammy said, as she stood up from the coal bunker. I held out my hands and waited for the stick to fall. It fell through my open arms as my hands melted into butter. I lifted it from the grass and I cradled it against my chest.
Six times, I thought. There’s hope, I thought.
That night, Harry came home. He was sitting up in bed when his mammy let me into his room. I reached my band stick over to him. ‘This is for you,’ I sez. ‘But this is yours,’ he sez.’ ‘But you can have it,’ I sez.
I didn’t sleep that night. I stayed awake to check wee Harry was breathing. I tapped the wall with Harry’s band stick and Harry tapped the wall with mine and I knew that wee Harry was the best at beating the asthma in the whole wide world.
Angeline King is the author of A Belfast Tale and Snugville Street. Click the links below to learn more:
A Belfast Tale: Troubles and misplaced passions course through rivers and oceans in this beautiful transatlantic story and uniquely Belfast Tale.
Snugville Street: A tapestry of love and loss is woven through humour and heart-ache as we move from Belfast to Brittany on a journey of shame and redemption.
Scene from Snugville Street
The Wedding Wisp
82 Waterloo Road
The Teacher Voice
The Children of Latharna
The Band Stick
The Bully up the Brae
History & folklore
Language Blog I
Language Blog II
Language Blog III
Language Blog IV
The linguist behind Ulster Scots.
Kailyard & Dusty Bluebells
Jean Park of Ballygally
Fiddles and Melodeons
Martha Taylor's diary
Jean McCullagh at 104
Ballymena & the McConnells
Arms in Irish Dancing
Catholics & Protestants in Irish dancing
Irish Dancing: The Festival Story
The Protestant in Irish Fiction.
The Protestant in Irish fiction II
Ulster-Scots in Irish Fiction
An author in Wonderland
Dancing in Victorian Ulster
Learning the Irish Language.
John Hewitt Summer School
Lesley Allen & Helen Nicholl