Ballymun Flats, Dublin - The Ghetto I Grew Up In
Short Story by Thomas P. Sheridan (1998)
Skello used to sit beside me in art class at the Comprehensive school. He was skinny, spotty and had a mass of curly brown hair. He was always annoying me and it was impossible to be near him, as he was constantly fidgeting. I actually hated the sight of him. He and I also played on the under-16's football team at school. Well, I played. He was always on the substitutes bench at every match because he was not very good at all. The only reason he was on the team was because of a general shortage of soccer players. Gaelic Football was all the rage in the school back then. It was the golden age of Heffo's Army and everybody wanted to be the next Brian Mullins or Fran Ryder.
Skello, or Paul Skelly as he was baptised, was hard to like. He was, in every way, the essence of a complete eejit, unable to fit in socially within the school or with other kids his age. He would spend his days following around thugs and other delinquent types, who only abused him anyway. He had one friend, a kid on my street called Micko Langan who was by any measure, a deeply disturbed individual. Langan used to throw himself under cars in order to get off school. I can remember once he had broken both his arms and legs when he fell off the back of a lorry he was 'scutting' on.
However, everybody wanted to go hang out at Langan's house because of his sister, Vanessa. She had the biggest breasts of any girl her age in school. Skello and Langan would walk around the estates together being either mocked or attacked by anybody who bothered to noticed them. The general consensus was that they were a pair of real losers.
One glorious summer's day, I was lying on the grass in front of my building, when Skello and Langan walked by. "Hey, ya prick!" Skello called out to me. I hardly noticed him and just barely acknowledged his presence by giving him the two-fingered salute in acknowledgment of his biological existence. There were also hundreds of women on the embankment sunbathing while their husbands were at work and I could see Langan and Skello trying to 'see a bit of tit' as was the common expression at the time for fifteen year olds.
I watched the pair of them for a while and then I noticed that Skello started climbing a high-tension tower that carried power lines nearby. He was about one hundred yards away and I remember thinking to myself, "Stupid eejit" as he ascended the tower. Langan stayed on the ground. Skello, because he was so light and skinny, managed to crawl around the safety wire and get on to the upper part of the tower. Soon he was right up there near the power lines themselves. He started swinging from the girders and making obscene gestures down towards Langan.
I laid back on the grass and tried to look at the sun by squinting my eyes. Then I heard a popping noise and loud clicking. I sat up on the grass and looked over and saw Skello falling in flames, like a meteorite from the tower, and bouncing off the girders before he hit the ground next to Langan. I could not believe what I was looking at, and neither could Langan, who kept staring at Skello, who was now in flames on the ground.
I ran over to the base of the tower along with a dozen other people, including kids on bicycles. When I got there, Skello was being covered in blankets that some man had soaked in water and placed on his body. "Stand back! Stand back and do not be looking at the kid!" shouted the man who was trying to help Skello. Another man and a woman started pushing us back and telling us not to look at the 'burnt boy'. Then I heard the siren of the Fire Brigade and this was followed by a Gardai car. The firemen got out of the truck and sprayed Skello with a yellowish foam that covered his whole body which was charred and to this day is the reason I do not like roast pork as the smell of charred human flesh is precisely the same. Then an ambulance came and took him away. It was no use, Skello was already dead.
The next day is school, I was standing outside the classroom and everybody was asking me about Skello and what the fire and the electric shock did to him. Then Langan came in acting like a superstar and boasting about Skello's accident. "He was all black and he had no bleedin' ears left!" Langan relayed to his audience. Most of the other kids were visibly sick and upset, except for Langan and the usual shower of scumbags whom Skello was always trying to impress. They were all laughing and making fun of Skello's tragic death. "If he had survived, he would have been like Iron Man," remarked some smart arse.
I went in to the art room and sat down. The art teacher, Mr. White, was crying and very upset. He requested that we all spend a minute praying for Paul Skelly, 'our friend'. As I bent my head down to pray, I noticed some graffiti on the desk next to me. It read, SKELLO WAS HERE.
words and image by Thomas Sheridan 2013
The chrome covered handle protruding horizontally on the large grey electrical switch felt even more colder now as Sinead's left hand gripped tightly onto it and pulled it downwards for the last time ever. The red indicator light on the Victorian loom—powered by an electric motor installed in the 1960's—was ready to weave its final lengths of tweed under the guidance of Sinead Sayer's pretty striking blue eyes. Flicking the on-switch with her dainty, elfish index finger, the machine came alive, slowly, like a giant wooden insect waking from a deep slumber. The loom then—as it had done so every Monday morning for over a century—began testing the bearings and pivots in anticipation of another week of weaving. The engineering which allowed the loom to animate into soulless life, felt more alive this morning than Sinead herself felt. She sat down at her station to begin the day, just as she had for the last six years.
There was no Kevin 'the maintenance fella' this morning to come around and check to see that everything was operating correctly, and naturally there was no Mary-T either sitting across from Sinead to tell her about her cousin in New York. The silence and muttering of the other staff at the textile factory could not be heard above the clattering of the looms. However, Sinead could still hear every word they said as they took a cursory and patronising glance at her now and again.
Half of Sinead's female relatives and most of her friends had all worked at this textile plant at one time or another since the time when her grandparents came to work there more than twenty years before. Now in the late 1980's, times were tough, with exports from the Far East putting the local weaving industry into decline. The sheep which provided the wool for the tweed shawls she produced did not seem to care, and everyone else under the age of thirty had left the village to seek work elsewhere. Today, it was just Sinead and the institutionalised old men who spent their lives working for such provincial companies as Kilternagh Woollen Mills. Caught in a world between rosary beads and red-nosed Pioneer Pin-wearing states of grace and fears, they fidgeted as they looked—more than was necessary for grown men— towards the direction of Sinead Sayers.
“Kevin and Mary-T are probably in New York right now!”
She heard one of the office women remark as she smirked in Sinead's direction while handing her the order and time sheet for the upcoming week. Mattered not; Sinead was done with crying over the debacle which took place in front of her. That was taken care of on Friday and Saturday. This morning, she was feeling a lot better—well, for the moment at least—these sensations come in waves and when you least expect them to. A broken heart is always waiting to ambush you with emotional turmoil and hopelessness when you least expect it to. She would just have to see what the day would bring inside the walls of this concrete factory, with its cobwebbed girders and smell of oil and cheap perfume.
Sunday had made her feel much better. Well, so far it had, even though she could hardly recall what went on last night except for the cold moss and grass pushing the dampness deeper into her bones as she wept in torment. She had now placed her destiny in the hands of the Cursing Stone on Tellybeg Mor. What was to happen after that, she had no further stake in. The curse she placed was in charge of her life now.
Still, she felt a pang of deep, recurring emotional pain when thinking back on Friday lunch time—when completely unexpectedly—Mr Teelan announced to all that Kevin and Mary-T had become engaged the night before, and were flying out to New York to begin their new life on Sunday. It seemed that everyone in Kilternagh and across the whole of Donegal was fully aware of the relationship and emigration plans except for Sinead Sayers. She just assumed that until Friday, Kevin and Mary-T were just friends. Even though Sinead never enquired, nor did she show any interest in their friendship beyond casually noticing that they both joked and laughed a lot together during work, Mary-T constantly confirmed from across the rattling tempo of the electric looms, that it was just all 'pals from school having a bit of craic.' Mary-T claimed she had no romantic interest in Kevin, and in some ways this was still true as far as Sinead was concerned. Now Sinead was fully aware that Mary-T was a confirmed liar, as well as the 'stuck up bitch' all the the other women in Kilternagh referred to her as being.
“Kevin didn't want you to know in case it upset you as he knew you always fancied him. He really liked you too Sinead, and thought the world of you. But he wanted a better life, and with Mary-T having so much family in America, he had to make a choice.
There was nothing for him here...[There was nothing for him here...There was nothing for him here...There was nothing for him here...]”
When her mother tried to comfort her with these words on Saturday morning, it only made Sinead feel even more devastated and heartbroken. That she—Sinead Sayers—was the “nothing” that was still here in rainy and windy Kilternagh. Even though both she and Kevin never had a relationship—other than a slow dance at school when they were both in their late teens—Sinead knew somehow that both she and Kevin were meant to be together. It just felt right, and she knew Kevin felt the same way in return. He just never expressed it. He didn't have to. She knew she was more loving, interesting and more attractive than Mary-T, but she also knew that Kevin was under pressure from his family to get a himself a real future before the mill closed its doors for good.
Likewise, Sinead did not hate Mary-T for taking Kevin away, as much as she hated the culture of this parochial, defeatist small town for forcing him to make this choice. It was not Kevin's choice; it was a decision foisted upon him and which he worked upon in a clandestine manner without Sinead's knowledge of what was taking place, as he knew he would not be able to convince himself, let alone her, that he was following his own heart's desire. Sinead recalled Kevin's pathetic and forced smile when he looked for a split second in her direction as that 'fat bastard Teelan' made the announcement. Teelan was just glad to have two less staff on the payroll so his own bloated wage bill was safe for a while longer, as one of the local well-to-do's. She also knew that Kilternagh Woollen Mills was still in profit, while Teelan and the other managers were in the local papers and on the radio constantly crying poverty in the hope of getting grants from the government so they could build conservatories onto their already big houses. Life in Kilternagh never changes; the surprises which manifest out of the blue just become more depressingly obvious after a while.
“Its lunchtime Sinead; take your break.”
Teelan, trying to appear like a good boss, put his nicotine encrusted spade-like hand on her shoulder.
“This is the first order for the Ye Olde Blarney Shoppe on Long Island. The Yanks can't get enough of our tweed. Your old comrade Mary-T has agreed to work as our rep in the States while Kevin looks for a job, and this order has to be out of here by the end of the month and on a ship to America before they get their credit cards out for Paddy's Day shopping. The Chinks and Pakis are trying to rob our business over there now, so for fuck's sake. make sure the 'Kilternagh Handmade Quality' label stands out so the Irish-Americans can see it's not 'Kung Fu Curry' or some foreign shite like that. Our name and location is all we have these days.”
As Teelan walked off to his Mercedes parked outside the main office, and the other staff made their way back to their homes for their half hour-long lunch break, Sinead tilted her head back and howled like a banshee in grief and sorrow. This explosion of anguish came out of nowhere. The torrential turmoil in her soul had breached through her otherwise stoic performance that morning, and she could not restrain the outburst. With no one looking except the old, badly painted statue of the Virgin Mary above the time clock, Sinead became overwhelmed in anguish and sorrow once again. Holding tightly onto the silk 'Kilternagh Handmade Quality' label, she pined for Kevin and cursed Mary-T for having stolen him, and this town for making it all happen. With tears rolling down her face she imagined the happy couple holding hands while getting off the plane at JFK, and then being greeted at the airport by Mary-T's American family. Would Kevin even think of Sinead ever again? Did she even exist in his mind any more? Would Mary-T make fun of Sinead as she lay naked in Kevin's arms? Has this already happened?
“OUR NAME AND LOCATION IS ALL WE HAVE THESE DAYS!!”
Sinead, shouting this out—in a shrieking and visceral scream which bounced off the concrete walls of the now empty factory—echoed Teelan's platitudes from within the deepest subterranean pits of her broken soul. While Kevin and Mary-T were flying across the Atlantic on Sunday evening, Sinead was driven to the pathetic extremes of visiting the Cursing Stone to place her left arm frantically through the ancient, moss-covered opening begging for her to be with Kevin, while cursing Mary-T and Kilternagh.
She now felt ashamed and embarrassed at having done this. Looking back on it now, her performance on Tellybeg Mor was only a reflection of how hopeless and pointless Sinead presently deemed herself to be in her own eyes. That while others were finding love and new lives for themselves, she was reduced to undertaking a superstitious ritual on a rainy, windswept and bleak mountain top which her grandmother told her about as a child. She felt so small, useless and obsolete and wished there was a factory in China or India which could make another version of her to replace the current incarnation of: Sinead Sayers, Loom Operator, Kilternagh Woollen Mills, County Donegal, Ireland—with something more desirable and appealing.
Now, in the moment of her self-evaluation and perpetual rumination—just thinking back on her having visited the Cursing Stone out of sheer desperation—the large clock on the factory wall ticked away the lunch break's minutes and seconds as it had done for all the years she had worked there. Sinead Sayers then hung her head down like a wicked child guilty of being a 'wicked child', and gently sobbed at a more restrained and socially acceptable level. Her condition had officially migrated from fleeting convulsive emotional turmoil to permanent moderate heartbreak. A tear from her eye fell onto the 'Kilternagh Handmade Quality' label which she was still gripping intensely in both her hands.
A sensation similar to pins and needles started to move through her fingertips. She tried to wipe the tears from her eyes to have a look at her hands, but the now completed roll of tweed destined for New York moved along with her hands as she lifted them up. Instead, she used the underside of her arms to dry her eyes so she could determine what was causing the maker's label to stick to her fingers. Looking closely, Sinead noticed her fingertips were the same colours and patterns as the tweed cloth she was weaving. She became concerned that she had somehow caught her fingertips in the loom and that the machine had stitched the cloth into her fingers. However, this was impossible, and there was no sensation of pain and she wasn't panicking, either. She had hardly any emotional energy left now to be overly concerned with the high-strangeness of this new situation.
“Great, a deformity and the dole. Yep, that's all I need now.”
She wondered if the curse was backfiring on her. She once spoke to an English woman who lived near Killybegs who claimed to be a Wiccan, and she told Sinead that one should never put a curse on an innocent person, as it finds nowhere else to go except back to the person who placed the curse to begin with. Now Sinead was getting worried. Perhaps the Wiccan woman was correct? Sinead did not even expect the curse to work. It was just a stupid and childish act of revenge and desperation, and now she was concerned that it might be real after all and she made a terrible mistake and cursed herself out of her selfishness and immaturity. Then, and with increasing concern, if not a rising sense of terror, she noticed that the pattern and design of the tweed cloth was now moving up her hands like a red, green and black interlaced skin virus spreading over her body. Within seconds, her lower arms were now tweed as her intense blue eyes opened wider in terrified realisation.
Holding her arms up closer to her face, she could see they were not just tweed-coloured skin and flesh. They were actual tweed fabric! For some reason, Sinead stopped being frightened, and like a person being told they are dying of cancer, upon reaching that stage of dignified acceptance. Considering that she might be going insane, this realisation seemed almost comforting to her. The effect of the tweed engulfing her body was now reaching up to her shoulders and chest with increasing speed. There was no pain; there was no fear. What was happening to her felt almost ... natural.
Looking down again, Sinead noticed that her hands were no longer a part of her body, and the edge of the tweed cloth was at her wrist. Looking closer still, she could see her hands and now her lower arms were unraveling like threads, and the loom was now running in reverse by itself. She was being literally being sown into the cloth following the design's original pattern. In a catatonic daze, Sinead Sayers looked up towards the fluorescent light above her work station and then, she and everything else that her five senses could detect went away into a blue radiant mist which dissipated into blissful nothingness, while accepting the liberation of eternal dignified oblivion.
For weeks afterwards, the rumours around Kilternagh were rife with frantic, excitable gossip and almost sociopathic speculation rather than any genuine concern for what may have happened to 'Young Sinead'. She had just vanished from the village at lunchtime on that Monday afternoon, and no one saw her leave. There was no trace of her on the evening bus to Derry, and nobody saw her in any car leaving the one road from the village to the outside world. In a village such as Kilternagh, there is always someone who sees something. Nobody had seen Sinead Sayers after leaving the factory on their lunch break that dismal and windswept Monday afternoon.
The concensus—among the whispering factions in the village—was that she either somehow sneaked out of town with the help of a friend who wasn't saying anything, or she was at the bottom of the lough after having killed herself. The silence of her family also aroused suspicion. Posters were put up around bus and train stations and airports as far as Dublin and Shannon. 'HAVE YOU SEEN THIS WOMAN?' with a picture of Sinead smiling and looking as beautiful as most of the women in Kilternagh resented her for being. Envy and jealousy in the village were as much a local industry as weaving and sheep farming.
Nobody in Kilternagh had any idea what happened to Sinead Sayers, and after a few weeks many in the town were silently thinking to themselves that they shouldn't care too much—as either as a result of suicide or a secret escape plan—she left without saying goodbye. The locals loved a mystery, but only as long as it was solvable. Otherwise, they would prefer it remain with the jurisdiction of the gossiping women at the factory and in the church hall. The Gardai did their best to solve the case, even though they had nothing to go on. It was as if Sinead Sayers just vanished off the face of the earth, and the acceptance that perhaps she was at the bottom of the lough was looking like the only possible conclusion to this mystery of the pretty blue-eyed girl from the woollen mills.
However, Sargeant Phelan, who was in charge of investigating the case locally, found the silence of her family more than a little worrying. They were behaving more like they knew she was still alive but were saying nothing. Yet her movements were hidden from all. Sinead's family—'the Sayers'—were always considered a 'strange shower' within the environs of Kilternagh. Her grandfather and grandmother were not locals. Well, at least not in the Kilternagh sense of what they would consider a local to be. The Sayers family had literally come down from the mountain valleys around Tellybeg Mor back in the 1960's to seek work in the woollen mill which was expanding their business at the time. They were seen as 'different'.
The Sayers children were all beautiful and bright, and even when members of the clan grew older, they remained strong and healthy, with thick heads of hair and bright blue eyes. They were considered generally decent and hard-working people who kept to themselves, but still, they were considered distinctly different in other ways from the general population of Kilternagh. In some respects, the Sayers were more outsiders than even the local English and Scottish families, not to mention the marooned hippies who drifted into the village over the decades. Even though the Sayers were only from the next glen over, and they were certainly no blow-ins as such, they were not from Kilternagh in ways that others found difficult to put their finger on.
Sergeant Phelan made all the formal missing persons reports and files available to other police around the country as well as Northern Ireland, and then went back to the job of being a country Garda, letting off footballers with drunk driving offenses so they wouldn't miss a inter-parish game, and turning a blind eye to late night drinking in local pubs. He always put his own sensibilities as a community servant, above that of the law of the land, as long as no one was getting hurt, and the locals understood and respected this mutual arrangement. However, when lying in bed at night and staring at the ceiling, the face of Sinead Sayers and her mysterious vanishing continued to haunt him until he drifted from the mundane world of filing reports and court statements and into the nocturnal expeditions of his dreams and nightmares.
“What the hell ever happened to that young Sayers girl?”
While basking in the smell of the freshly painted white walls of her new home in Woodside, Queens, Mary-T opened part of the latest consignment from her old boss Mr Teelan back in Kilternagh. She smirked as she thought about Sinead still working at the loom in the cold and depressing factory filled with its 'gobshites and eejits'. She told Teelan she would deliver this to Ye Olde Blarney Shoppe in Little Neck as soon as she took the delivery—well, at least that's what she told him—she no longer works for the 'fat bastard' now. Mary-T was now far too busy feeling giddy and excited to be wasting her time getting on the Long Island Railroad and lugging a roll of tweed on a gloriously, sunny early spring afternoon. She was waiting for Kevin to come home from work and take her shopping.
Looking at Teelan's handwriting on the label and recalling how he was too cheap to even invest in a computerised shipping system, she opened the box. Mary-T, or 'MT' as she was calling herself now in the USA, examined the 'Kilternagh Handmade Quality' label, thought for a second about the promise she made to Teelan to deliver the tweed as soon as she received it, and then, with a wry smile— followed by a condescending laugh—said to herself:
Mary-T then diverted her delighted attention away from admiring the material success of her large, Queens brownstone apartment interior towards a strange tingling sensation which was happening in her fingers. Changing from a smirk to a puzzled expresion, a couple of months in New York and she was already developing the trademark hypochondria, thanks to watching endless pharmaceutical commercials during the breaks in the daytme soap operas she was devouring with relish. Wondering if she had one of those fashionable 'conditions' which afflicted the women at the office where she worked as a cleaner, she noticed that the tweed cloth was somehow stuck to her fingers.
When Kevin came home a few hours later and saw Sinead Sayers standing in the living room of the Queens apartment wearing Mary-T's clothes, he ran over and kissed her in a manner in which he never kissed Mary-T. They devoured each other with intensity and unbridled passion and bliss.
“You did it! You got here! I have the tickets for Australia; we leave tonight and begin our new life as soon as we are packed and ready to go. Then we never have to think of Kilternagh ever again.”
Before making their way to the bedroom, Sinead placed the roll of tweed into the garbage bin for collection by the sanitation company the next day.
A “Sinead Sayers” was finally found in New York by the NYPD on July 4th 1990 after she was spotted incoherently wandering around a landfill in New Jersey surrounded by sea gulls who dived and swooped down on her for encroaching into their kingdom. A truck driver discovered her crawling among old dumped washing machines and illegally disposed medical waste and called an ambulance. After a medical examination and being declared healthy but in deep psychological shock, she was then taken to the Irish embassy in Manhattan, who could not determine how she managed to gain access into the USA. There was no record of her leaving Ireland, no record of her arriving at US Immigration, and no airline had her named as a passenger.
After contacting the Sayers family in Kilternagh, the embassy issued her a new passport with the name “Sinead Sayers” and made arrangements to have her returned to a psychiatric care facility in Ireland which the Sayers family insisted upon. As she was taken to the airport—heavily sedated, and under the supervision of a doctor for the trip back to Ireland—she kept repeating the same sentence over and over again.
“I am not Sinead Sayers, I am Mary-T...I am not Sinead Sayers, I am Mary-T...I am not Sinead Sayers, I am Mary-T...I am not Sinead Sayers, I am Mary-T...I am not Sinead Sayers, I am Mary-T...I am not Sinead Sayers, I am Mary-T...”