“Yes, you are. You’re dead. I shot you in the head.”
“No, you didn’t. I got hit in the shoulder.”
“The head Gerry.”
“The bleedin’ head.”
“You missed Jason. I got shot in the shoulder. And when I fell, I shot you in the head. You’re dead.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are. Tell him Stephen.”
Stephen shakes his head, then shrugs.
“You’re dead, Fatty.”
“Don’t call me that,” Gerry says. “I’m not.”
“Yes, you are, Fatty.” Jason prods Gerry in the stomach.
“Leave me alone, Belsen.”
“Belsen,” Gerry barks.
“I’m fed up. Let’s play something different.” Turning round, they see Stephen clambering over the wall.
“No, Stevie.” Jason turns around to Gerry, “look what you did. You ruined the game.”
“No, I didn’t. You ruined it. You’re dead. I’m not playing this game ever again.”
Gerry walks away in a huff. Jason watches him struggle to lift himself onto the wall of the ruined house they have been playing soldiers in. The house sits on the edge of Ganley’s waste ground. Jason smirks derisively when he sees Gerry’s Who Shot JR tee-shirt bunch up about his midriff showing his distended stomach. With Stephen having disappeared, and Gerry struggling to ease himself off the wall, Jason looks around the ruins and, deciding the game is finally over, climbs the wall and lets himself down on the other side by way of several planks which they had left there so as their feet did not end up in a puddle of muck. It was Jason who had proposed this game of soldiers having watched Kelly’s Heroes on television earlier that day. Much to the annoyance of his granny and aunts with whom he lived. Gerry and Stephen had also watched the movie and were playing with Star Wars figures in the stairwell of J Block enacting scenes from the film when Jason had come up to them. Gerry did not like Jason whom he called, behind his back, ‘Belsen’ on account of how skinny he was. Stephen was a little wary of Jason too. Stephen’s parents forbade him from hanging around with Jason or any of Jason’s friends. Gerry’s parents were of the same opinion. It was only when they were needed to make up the numbers for football it seemed Stephen and Gerry interacted with Jason and his friends.
“Want to play football instead?” Stephen asks openly, as the trio with their arms raised like surrendered soldiers make their way tentatively through a forest of dandelions, white goosefoot, and shepherd’s purse. They take care to avoid the many stinging nettles that line the route to the gap in the security fence through which they had earlier gained entry to Ganley’s. When, in a clearing, Jason leans down and picks up a stone and, with no warning, as a bus passes by on Ushers Quay, takes careful aim and flings the stone with an upwards underarm trajectory. Above the din of traffic, the crack of stone on metal is distinctly heard like the peal of a bell from Adam and Eve’s or John’s Lane.
“I know. Let’s go down to the brewery and play hide and seek,” enthuses Jason, without answering Stephen’s question about football and behaving as if he did not just throw a missile at a passing bus much to Stephen and Gerry’s mortification. “Come on, let’s?” Jason says excitedly as he lifts the wire fence to let Stephen and Gerry clamber onto the pavement outside. Gerry scrambles through first and, as he waits for Stephen, he nervously watches the bus which has stopped at the traffic lights ahead.
Jason loves to play soldiers. Of all the children who live in I, J and K Blocks, Jason has the most Action Man figures. Jason even has the Action Man Tiger Tank along with other military vehicles in the Action Man range. Sometimes the boys in the flats race these vehicles down slopes using their feet as brakes should they encounter danger such as a stationary or worse, moving car. Jason loves everything military. Every week he gets pocket money from his granny and aunts with whom he lives. With the money he buys Battle or Commando comics. In school, Jason was asked by a teacher what he wanted to be when he left school and Jason replied, a German soldier. Brother O’Hare did not respond to Jason’s answer. In Ganley’s, Jason got Gerry to play the Germans. He and Stephen would be the yanks. Jason had wanted to play with gats, but Gerry was wary of this. He knew Jason’s fondness for games that have risk. And, with Jason’s gat being made from the curved leg of a chair on which were attached two wooden pegs, the curvature of the leg giving Jason an impromptu handle, he would be a crack shot with launching the steel springs the gat fired. Both Stephen and Gerry had no gats, their parents having forbidden such dangerous weapons. So, Jason’s initial game was ruled out. Now, walking back towards the flats they are unsure about playing hide and seek in the old Anchor Brewery. Walking past Egan’s Newsagents Gerry attempts to dissuade Jason arguing that there is only the three of them, and like football, they need more players.
“Let’s get Liam and Robbie then.” Jason says, “They’ll play.”
Without waiting for a response, Jason rushes across Usher Street shouting he’ll get Liam and Robbie and will see the other two in the brewery. Stephen and Gerry watch Jason disappear under the gaping mouth of the Romanesque style arch.
“I’ve never liked him,” Gerry says, “If my parent’s see me walking around with him, they’ll kill me.”
“Then let’s do something else?”
“I don’t know, anything. But I don’t want to play with Belsen.”
“Do you have to keep calling him that?”
“My dad does.”
“Doesn’t mean you have to.”
Stephen knew Gerry’s discomfort with Jason extended in equal measure to Liam and Robbie. Gerry, being fat, was an easy target for other boys in the flats. He was the last picked for just about everything. Stephen was his only real friend. Stephen had been surprised when Jason wanted to play with them. Jason’s usual crew involved Liam and Robbie. Both these boys were older by a year than Stephen, Gerry, and Jason. Being older, they were seen as cooler than others. For Jason to want to hang out with Gerry and Stephen meant the world to Stephen. Who, considering Gerry his best friend, still wanted to hang out with Liam and Robbie just as much as anyone else did apart from Gerry. While Gerry tried tempting Stephen with going up to his parent’s flat and resuming their game with Star Wars figures and Lego on the balcony Stephen had already made up his mind he wanted to go to the brewery.
Between the derelict brewery and Stephen and Gerry there lay a large tract of waste ground. The building sits menacingly in the shadows of the surrounding flats. There are disused oil drums, along with a few burnt-out stolen cars abandoned by joyriders among the usual Dandelions, Quackgrass, White goosefoot, Ribwort Plantain, and stinging nettles. The waste ground is a trash can. Stephen and Gerry climb through the gap in the fence onto the waste ground. Long abandoned to time, the brewery’s roof is missing. Its lead slates long auctioned off by its owners. The building is open to the elements. Gerry thinks the place creepy. His parent’s flat looks across at it. Anytime he leaves his flat he sees it. Old, and grey concrete, all colour washed away from it, like an old man on his death bed. At night, it is a known haunt for drug users and tramps seeking somewhere to sleep. The structure skulks from behind the walls that cordon it off from the flats, an ever-present danger watching, waiting, like some beast hidden among tall grass waiting for its prey. Stephen is indifferent to it. From J Block, where Stephen lives, the ruins cannot be seen. He has played here often enough. But only in daylight. Agile children easily scale the walls whenever a soccer ball is kicked too high and lands like a volunteer among the weeds that surround the building. Stephen has often climbed over this wall, sometimes using the drainpipe at the front of the yellow bricked caretakers building to gain access to the flat roof to see where the ball has landed and then, hanging six feet above the wasteland dropping down off the wall, finding it and kicking it back over the wall for the game to resume. Then running back through the wasteland and around to the flats. If a ball is not quickly reclaimed it will be lost forever.
“Best put your trousers in your socks.” Stephen tells Gerry, hunkering.
“I heard a rat ran up someone’s leg the other day. Bit him.” Stephen points to his crotch.
Gerry looks uncomfortably around at the overgrown vegetation surrounding them.
“Don’t be such a pansy. Come on? I’m sure a rat won’t find yours.”
Gerry watches Stephen trundle over masonry, iron girders, pass the stolen cars long rusted, blackened by fire, and sees him make his way up the ramp which, like a tongue, leads into the brewery where Stephen, turning round to see where Gerry is, waves him to follow on and jumps down into the darkness of the ground floor and disappears. Gerry considers leaving but knows he will be called all manner of names for doing so. He looks around and sees the remains of a fire nearby. Large parts of the waste ground lie in the growing evening shadow. When he hears a rustle among some yellow archangels near him, he quickly crouches and, putting his trousers into his socks, runs towards the ramp. Stephen, by now having navigated through the dark and dank ground floor and climbed the stairs at the back of the building to the first floor is watching Gerry run towards him. Picking up some stones he starts to throw them overarm in Gerry’s general direction. The stones land a few feet away from Gerry.
Gerry quickens his pace. “Stop it, Stephen.” Gerry shouts.
When he reaches the ramp, Gerry peers into the darkness of the ground floor. “Stephen.” Gerry says softly, as if afraid to wake something or someone his imagination believes might be prowling within. Gerry calls Stephen again. But Stephen doesn’t answer. Gerry eases himself down onto the ground floor. The floor is wet and the water black. The air is fetid. “Stephen, stop messing. Where are you?” No answer.
Using the large rectangle gaps through which goods were once hoisted between the floors, Stephen follows Gerry from above making ghostly noises and lobbing stones down the openings which splash or clang on the detritus below, the sound echoing about Gerry causing him to lose his footing.
“Stephen?” Gerry shouts. His foot wet from stepping in a puddle.
Another stone is dropped down by Stephen some distance from where Gerry is standing. It makes a loud splashing sound.
“Stephen!” The shout is more forceful. In the cavernous dark of the ground floor, the voice booms, and echoes about the place. “LOOK.”
“What is it?”
“It’s the others.”
Stephen walks over to the front of the building and, looking out across the waste ground sees Jason, Liam and Robbie running towards them. Stephen, smiling with excitement, descends the concrete steps to the rear of the building and entering the ground floor makes a ghoulish noise. In the gloom of the ground floor, it takes a while for Stephen’s eyes to focus, but he can’t see Gerry. When his eyes settle to the gloom, he sees Gerry standing by the open window nearest the ramp. “Look,” Gerry says, turning to Stephen, his voice panicky, he is pointing in the direction of the waste ground. Making his way over to him, avoiding puddles and other debris, Stephen looks out and sees, not only Jason, Liam, and Robbie, but others running behind them. Stephen realises they are being chased. Suddenly, a stone cracks against the wall sending up a small dust cloud. Jason jumps through the window near the ramp. Liam and Robbie enter the building through the side door and take cover behind some pillars.
“They’re from Cook Street.” Robbie shouts. Liam is frantically picking up stones. More projectiles enter the ground floor space smashing against the concrete pillars. Gerry is cowering beneath the open window. Stephen picks up stones, rocks, and starts to throw these at some of the Cook Street boys who are nearing the ramp. Jason has positioned himself near another window and is busy flinging missiles at the same group Stephen is taking on. Having seen other Cook Street boys make their way around the side of the building, Liam and Robbie have positioned themselves near the side entrance and are holding them back with an arsenal of pebbles and stones.
“Gerry.” Jason shouts, “get me some stones.”
Gerry starts to fondle about the wet, dirty ground for stones but there are few available. And in the dark, and pell-mell that surrounds him, he only manages to collect a few stones which, keeping low to the ground, he passes up to Jason who, taking careful aim, spins these under arm, so as the missiles climb at an angle rather than rain down. Gradually, the Cook Street boys begin to fall back from the ramp and take cover behind a burnt-out car.
Meanwhile, Liam and Robbie are not faring as well. Parts of the iron clad door are still intact. Liam has managed to squeeze through, but Robbie has not. Liam is busy passing stones out to Robbie who, from a position on the stone steps, is flinging stones at a group of three boys hiding in the shadows among overgrown weeds. Robbie calls out that he is running out of stones. Gerry says the same. Stephen tells them there are stones up on the first floor. At the back of the building, at the opposite end to where the side entrance is, there is the other doorway. Stephen tells Jason that they should make a move upstairs by that route. Jason agrees, telling them he will give covering fire, as Gerry hands him a meagre crop of rocks and stones. Stephen shouts across to Liam who is busying himself trying to collect missiles thrown by the Cook Street boys which have landed inside the doorway. Liam relays the message to Robbie who immediately sprints up the stairwell amid a hail of rocks. Jason, seeing Liam run for the rear doorway, starts to back away from the ramp while still flinging missiles towards the car, Stephen and Gerry having made their way towards the rear already.
“Come on Jason.” Liam screams from the rear door. Jason is now midway between the ramp and safety; the Cook Street boys are on the ramp throwing stones in. Jason, giddy with excitement, throws the last handful of rocks he is holding towards the ramp, which shatter around the frame of the entrance like shotgun pellets and runs for the rear doorway. Rocks smash into the ceiling overhead and, just as he is about to turn up the stairwell he grimaces in pain when a stone catches his hand.
Having given up the ground floor Gerry asks what happened. Why, he wonders, are the boys below attacking them.
“I don’t know. We were walking around here with Jason when these lads seen us from the Post Office down at Church Street bridge. As soon as they seen us, they ran towards us shouting. We just legged it in here. Brilliant, isn’t it?” Liam says breathlessly, picking stones off the ground floor.
“I don’t think it’s brilliant.” Gerry says, looking about. “I don’t think it is.” But no one is listening.
“I got hit in the hand,” Jason says proudly. He holds up his left hand for all to see. It is bloodied.
Jason tells Stephen to stand by the rear doorway. “Anyone comes up that stairwell you know what to do.” Then he turns to Liam and together they look over the holes, stones in their hands, extra stones in their pockets, watching the shadows below for any movement. Robbie does not need to be told what to do. He is standing by the side entrance. He is watchful. Like his comrades, he is holding an assortment of stones, more in his pockets, and a small pile by his feet. Gerry keeps away from the holes. He remembers well, during a game of hide and seek here not so long ago, Danny Crosbie falling through one of these holes and smashing his front teeth out on impact below. Gerry hovers by Stephen’s side.
“Get me some stones, will you?” Stephen says, seeing Gerry is holding none. Gerry does as he is told.
“Here they come.” Robbie shouts, as a tennis ball sized rock lands among them and bouncing a few times it smashes into the wall near Gerry who throws himself against the wall with fright, dropping the stones he had been collecting.
Stones and rocks shoot up from the darkness of the ground floor and Jason, in answer, responds in kind. Liam is assisting him. Robbie is manning the side entrance to the first floor. Stephen is at the rear doorway. An assortment of detritus shatter about the floor space. Screams and shouts are loudly punctuated by rocks shattering against the walls or ceiling. Gerry, unable to cope with the melee of sound and stone, cowers close to Stephen. When a rock smashes above his head he runs along the wall facing the flats and, passing one of the numerous window openings, throws himself to the ground.
Stones and rocks continue to smash against the concrete about them.
“How many are there?” Robbie shouts.
“Millions.” Stephen calls back.
“There’s about seven.” Jason says, keeping low and away from the openings while making his way over to Robbie.
“GERRY. IT’S TEATIME.”
Gerry looks around unsure what to do. When he hears his name again, he peers over the exposed windowsill and sees his dad on the balcony outside their flat.
Gerry ducks when his dad looks in his direction. He looks at Stephen and silently mouths, ‘my dad,’ while pointing overhead in the general direction of his dad.
“Who cares.” Stephen says, giving a shrug to emphasise his indifference. “Keep throwing stones.”
“No. I must go. If he sees me here, he’ll kill me.”
“If any of our dad’s see us here, they’ll kill us.” Stephen says, lobbing a few well-rounded stones towards Gerry. “Start firing.”
“Well, he doesn’t have one,” Gerry says, throwing a glance in Jason’s direction, “he’s safe.”
And it was true, of all the boys who lived around the blocks near the old brewery, Jason was the only one who didn’t have a dad. At least, not a dad who was ever around. Jason lived with his granny Beatty and his two aunts in a two bedroomed flat. Stephen had noticed before how, when anyone mentioned their dad in passing, such as ‘my dad did this,’ or ‘me and my dad went here,’ Jason would go quiet and slip into the background of the conversation. If the talk got too much for him, he would try and change the subject to something else. Jason has vague memories of his dad. The last time Jason was anywhere near his dad was when, a few years earlier, when he had turned seven years old, his dad had called down to see him in Oliver Bond and, while Jason wanted to see him, he was sent to the bedroom by his granny and told to be quiet. His granny, along with his two aunts, then proceeded to harangue his dad and threaten him with the police if he did not leave them alone. Afterwards, when all was quiet and order had been restored, and Jason had cried so much he had no more tears to shed, his aunts took him to town where they bought him toys and took him to McDonald’s for his birthday. No one asked about Jason’s mother. It was taken for granted she was dead. But everyone still noticed how, whenever dads where mentioned, Jason would go quiet and retreat into the background of those conversations.
“GERRY. COME UP HERE NOW FOR TEA.”
“Can you ask them if I can go?” Gerry says to Stephen.
Gerry points down the opening nearest him.
“You ask them. You put your head over that and ask if you can go home.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Liam asks.
“His dad is calling him. It’s teatime.”
“Is it that time? I’ll have to go myself.”
Gerry sticks his tongue out at Stephen, who gives him two fingers in reply.
“Who’s Barry?” Robbie asks.
There is a collective shrug.
“Must be one of the lads below.” Jason says.
The volume of stones which had been colliding with the wall and ceiling become a trickle before ceasing all together.
“BARRY. YOU GET HOME NOW OR MUM SAID SHE’LL KILL YOU.”
A lull descends across the brewery. The boys continue to remain in position, unsure what is happening. They hear Barry’s name being called again. It is a girl’s voice that is calling. Robbie sees the boys he has been aiming at retreat. Jason hears footsteps beneath him fall away. Liam walks over to one of the windows out front and sees a girl with a pram. A baby is inside the pram.
“Look.” He says, pointing.
All four boys walk over to him.
Seven boys are moving towards the girl. Jason, still holding a rock in his hand, steps back to fire it but is cautioned by Robbie who tells him he might hit the girl or the baby in the pram. Jason lets the rock drop at his side.
“CHICKENS.” Jason laughs. He shouts the word again and starts prancing about mimicking a chicken’s call.
The Cook Street boys turn round and, in response, shout abuse. But there is no more fighting. They follow the girl with the pram and soon disappear.
“It’s teatime.” Liam says, “I’m famished.”
“That was great fun.” Robbie says.
“Let’s stay,” Jason says, attempting to hold Liam and Robbie back, “let’s play hide and seek.”
“I have to go home for tea.” Gerry pipes up.
“No one asked you fatty,” Jason says angrily.
“Leave him alone,” Stephen says. “Let’s go home.” He says, moving to follow Liam and Robbie. “We can always do it again next week.” Gerry follows Stephen, leaving Jason alone on the first floor. Then he too follows the others out.
But something like this never did happen again. The Cook Street boys never again ventured into the Anchor Brewery. This set of boys: Gerry, Stephen, Liam, Robbie, and Jason, never again played together as a group of five. Afterwards, there would be others with them, sometimes even girls who now began to become more interesting to them. But, in that space and time, in that moment, those five boys took on a larger group of boys from St Audeon’s House and won. Walking around to the entrance on Usher Street, walking behind everyone else, Jason replays the battle in his head. He is proud of his accomplishments. He had organised their defence. He gave the orders and the others, his troops, obeyed.
“See ya,” Liam says, walking over to the nearest stairwell for K Block. Robbie walks on to the other stairwell for the same block. Stephen gives a nod to Jason and, with Gerry, walks around to I Block. Alone, Jason stands in the square of I, J and K Blocks. There are no other children about. It is teatime. All around the flats the squares and playgrounds are deserted and silent. Children will be eating their evening meal and watching Knight Rider in the company of their parents. Walking over to his own flat Jason is smiling contentedly. Half remembering some of the shots he made he is satisfied with himself. And, walking into his granny’s flat, Jason only wishes his dad was there so he could tell him the story.
Derek Kelly was a student at the Creative Writing course run by Carlow College where he was mentored by Dr Eoghan Smith. Derek previously studied music at university only writing fiction in his spare time. Work and family commitments meant he was unable to devote as much time to writing as he would have wanted. Prior to the recent pandemic, and having made some lifestyle changes, Derek undertook a Creative Fiction course with Kevin Curran at the Irish Writers Centre. Derek is originally from Dublin.