‘The History Man’ by Annette Sills

Annette Sills was born in Wigan, Lancashire to parents from Mayo. She lives in South Manchester with her husband and two children. Her short stories have been longlisted and shortlisted in a number of competitions including the 2103 Fish Short Story Prize and the Telegraph Short Story Club in 2012. Her first novel, The Relative Harmony of Julie O’Hagan, was awarded a publishing contract by Rethink Press as part of their New Novels Competition 2014.  She is a member of Manchester Irish writers.

Joint third prize winner in 2016 Books Ireland magazine short story competition:


The History Man


He always visited the week before Christmas. He turned up at six on the dot and never left later than ten. He drank no more than two neat nips of Powers whisky and ate a Red Leicester cheese sandwich made with my mother’s home-made soda bread. Without fail, my sisters and I were presented with a carrier bag filled with joy: Love Hearts, Cola bottles, various flavoured bonbons and large bars of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut. We never had the heart to tell him we disliked nuts, but the minute he’d gone we clawed at the silver wrappers and nibbled the chocolate off like three desperate mice.

He looked out of place in our cramped front room with its weary floral three piece, three-bar gas fire and chipped ornamental Irish cottages. The deep velvet and dark oak of the Garrick or Trafford Conservative Club would have suited him better. A short, compact man, he had an unruly hedge of hair well into his seventies that was probably held down by a battalion of barbers on a regular basis and tamed and brylcreamed to perfection. In his later years he wore tweed and corduroy and cashmere pullovers in autumn shades and aftershave with a hint of apple. I was once sent into throes of ecstasy by a well-cut double-breasted grey pinstriped suit, a lavender silk tie and gold cufflinks in the shape of a military crest.

Known as Breaffy Jim, he was my father’s uncle and he lived at the other end of the world in North Manchester, where he worked as a foreman on a building site. Presumably there was another Jim in the family somewhere in Ireland who did not live in Breaffy, but no one seemed to know whom.

We were given a couple of hours with him before bedtime, and he would swing one of us onto his knee while the other two sat cross-legged at his feet gazing at their reflection in his Italian leather shoes. There were some jokes but he mainly told us stories, conjured up from every nook and cranny of history, dusted off and brought to life with humour, suspense and an array of funny voices. Under his spell I was a time-traveller, transported out of our dreary Levenshulme terrace to other worlds: the Easter Rising, both world wars, Tudor times and the Civil Rights movement. His accent was Anglicised, with very little of my father’s harsh Mayo brogue, his voice soft and fluid, like water trickling over stones. As we got older the sweets were replaced by books, glossy illustrated hardbacks with one or two still retaining a library stamp on the back page. I’d sneak them into my room away from my sisters, who were far more interested in their Jackie annuals at that point anyway. I was devastated when he didn’t return after the argument. Christmas was never the same again. Some of the glitter and sparkle had gone from it.

Mother and Breaffy Jim did not get on. Wide of hip and sharp of tongue, she was a pragmatic woman from County Clare who kept a picture of a young De Valera in full military uniform hanging above the fireplace next to the Sacred Heart. Jim was deferential in her presence but distant. She sniffed at his stories and his ‘fancy ways’ and objected to cleaning up the nuts off her carpet after his visits. But I felt very drawn to him, though I could not articulate why until later. ‘He’s like me,’ I used to tell myself. ‘He’s just like me.’

I was thirteen at the time of his last visit, struggling to make sense of the world and looking for my place in it. I was in bed with my head stuck in his latest offering, an illustrated history of the Black Panther Movement, when I heard raised voices in the living room followed by the front door slamming. I jumped out of bed and pulled back the nets to see his red Vauxhall Victor bouncing down the cobbles.

I could hear my parents arguing in the kitchen, so I crept downstairs, sat down halfway and listened. My father sounded very upset.

‘For Christ’s sake, Tess. Why did you have to tell him?’

‘He had a right to know.’

‘You should have left well alone.’

‘He had a right to know his brother is dying. How was I to know he’d want to go back? The cheek of him. After all these years. Sure he never even went back for your Mammy or Daddy’s funeral.’

I strained to hear what my father said next over the scream of the kettle.

‘Never forgave them for giving my father the home place. He worked the farm for five years when Da was in America, then he was turfed out on the street when he came back and married my mother. And purely because Da was the first-born. I wouldn’t mind but they all said Jim was by far the better farmer.’

He cleared his throat.

‘But everyone knows that is the reason he isn’t welcome. ’Tis only an excuse.’

‘What he did was disgusting. It brought shame on to your family.’

‘Ah, give over, woman. You’re as bad as the bigots over there. He wasn’t the only one. There were plenty more did what he did.’

‘It doesn’t make it right. Your mother and father had to live with it for years afterwards. People talking behind their backs and making snide comments.’

I heard the scrape of a chair and footsteps.

‘I’m not listening to any more of this shite. I’m going to bed. People—you included—need to cop on and move with the times. The past is the past. There’s many did far worse and Jim doesn’t deserve to be treated like a leper for the rest of his days.’

At the creak of the door handle I scampered up the stairs and slid into bed. I lay awake the whole of that night going over and over what I’d just heard, thoughts racing around my head like a greyhound on a track. I was filled with terror and self-loathing and I tossed and turned until dawn, fearful for the life ahead of me.

Breaffy Jim was never spoken about in our house again, but my father continued to meet with him. He suffered a stroke in later life and went into a home, where he lingered until his death at the age of 94 in 1984. My father informed me when I was home from Oxford for the weekend. Jim’s stories and books had left their mark on me. I had just completed a BA in Modern History at Trinity College and was about to embark on a Master’s, for which I’d been awarded a scholarship.

My sister Clare was pregnant with the family’s first grandchild at the time, and on the Saturday morning I gave her and Mother a lift into town to shop for baby gear. Mother was puce-faced and puffed with the heat and all the extra weight she’d piled on over the years, and I secretly wondered whether she was actually about to self-combust at the prospect of the new arrival. She’d talked of nothing else in wearing sentimental tones since I got there the previous evening, and Clare and I were stifling laughter as she threw a number of ridiculous names at us from the back seat.

‘I don’t think Clare’s keen on Brian or Deirdre, Mother,’ I said, as my sister snorted in the passenger seat.

‘It’s about time you were thinking about settling down and having children of your own,’ she replied in that barbed tone she had that used to cut me to the core as a boy.

I said nothing but Clare stepped in.

‘Don’t be daft, Mum. He’s but a wee lamb.’ She threw me a warm smile and patted the Morrissey quiff I sculpted every morning that attracted so many curious looks in the college quads. ‘He can’t possibly be a Daddy with a barnet like this.’

Mother sniffed.

‘Well, he can’t spend all his life doing his hair or reading books either.’

By the time I got back, Dad’s flushed face indicated that he’d been drinking, which was unusual as he wasn’t a daytime tippler. He was sitting in the back yard that could no longer be called that as it had recently acquired a small lawn, flower-beds and two aluminium garden chairs. It was a glorious June day with cobalt blue skies and a soothing breeze that quivered through Dad’s carefully tended carnations and roses. I sat down next to him, helped myself to a can from the cooler box by his side and stretched out my legs. In my five-hole Doc Martin’s, black levis and black Smiths T-shirt, I felt like a streak of charcoal slicing through a floral landscape.

Dad took hold of a carrier bag hanging from the side of the chair and put it on his knee, his hands trembling slightly.

‘Do you remember my uncle that used to come and visit when ye were small?’

‘Of course,’ I nodded, my stomach churning slightly. ‘Breaffy Jim. I remember him well.’

‘He passed away in the home a couple of weeks ago.’

‘Yeah? Sorry to hear that.’

He shook his head and laughed.

‘The poor fella was an awful handful at the end. Completely gone, telling the nurses to kiss his hole in Irish and re-enacting scenes from the war. He’d yell military orders at the top of his voice when they were all sitting down for tea and he’d wake in the night drenched in sweat, shaking and screaming. God love him. The nurses said a lot of the veterans are the same.’

‘Veterans?’ I threw him a blank look and he reached into the plastic bag.

‘Breaffy Jim was in the Great War, son. He fought at the Somme with the Dublin Fusiliers.’

The silvery voice, the gold cufflinks with the military crest, it all came back to me. I shook my head slowly.

‘All those stories . . . he never once mentioned it.’

‘He was told not to. Your mother, well, not just her but a lot of Irish people, nationalists, were ashamed when one of their own joined the British Army back then. They were seen as traitors and they didn’t like to talk about it. Many soldiers never returned home. They weren’t welcome and they were shunned and denied work.’ He hung his head. ‘Your mother didn’t want any of you to know about Jim.’

I thought back to the night of the argument and the conversation between my parents in the kitchen, and the true meaning of what I had heard dawned on me. I felt a sharp pang for the confused boy I was back then and my innocent misinterpretation. I lost something that night. I never forgot my parents’ words and I carried them with me throughout my turbulent teenage years.

Dad pulled a palm-sized red velvet box out of the carrier bag and handed it to me.

‘Jim left you this.’

I opened the box. Inside was a medal. I took it out, turned it over in my hand and read the simple inscription. ‘For War Service. James Corley. Royal Dublin Fusiliers.’

‘He was very proud of his great-nephew. He always asked after you when I wheeled him round the gardens of the home. “How’s the History Man doing?” he’d say in his lucid moments. His eyes always lit up whenever your name was mentioned.’

He looked at me shyly, then nodded down at the medal.

‘Jim’s friend Ralph gave it to me in the club after the funeral. He and Jim were very close, friends for over fifty years. I don’t think he stopped crying the whole of the service. He visited him every day in the home. He said Jim wanted you to have it.’

I looked up and locked eyes with my father, startled by the blue of the sky reflected there. Then I realised he was trying to tell me he knew. He knew the secret I had kept locked away from him since I was twelve years old for fear of rejection and exile.

I was suddenly filled with love for him and I clasped my fingers around the medal, the silver cooling my sweating palm. As I pulled my gaze away, it rested on a small swallowtail hovering on the back of his chair. I watched as it lifted above his shoulder, hovered, then opened its wings and soared.

 

 

By Annette Sills


Published online January 2017


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