Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Mad Fathers and Ferrets

1968 - In working class Belfast the real sages and gurus would meet daily in little backstreet dens, and the more they drank the wiser they became. There were many in the pubs who knew everything there was to know about life.

When I was four years old I developed whooping cough. My father was told a story in a pub about a ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’ who had mystical healing powers.

Take him to see that fella. He’ll sort him out.”

My da’ put his faith in what his wise drinking pal had told him. His entire philosophy about life came from what he heard in bars and clubs.

It was a fine summer’s afternoon when I was bundled into the car by my da’ and driven out to the back end of nowhere. I hadn’t a clue where he was taking me to and all my da’ would tell me was that “we’re goin’ to get that cough of yours sorted out.”

We drove along many winding country lanes and into the driveway of a white farmhouse. Chickens and dogs scurried around the car and greeted us with a cacophony of barking and clucking. The front door of the house opened and a man stepped out. He gave a slight smile and a nod as he waved to us. He was a large stocky man with thick dark hair, most of which was stuffed beneath a dark green woollen hat. To a skinny city boy like me the man looked exactly like how I imagined a large beefy farmer would look. He spoke with a deep-voiced country twang.

“You find the place alright? It’s easy to get lost round here.”

My da’ and I were brought into the farmhouse. The smell of dampness and home-cooking hit me. In his kitchen, the mysterious farmer told me to sit in a chair in the middle of the room. I gave my da’ a “Help me! What’s going to happen to me?!” look and he gave me a reassuring nod to follow the man’s instructions.

Without saying a word, the farmer slowly poured some milk into a saucer and placed it on the large wooden table. He disappeared for a few minutes and came back into the room holding a ferret. I was terrified and wondered what on earth he was going to do to me. The big Farmer held the wriggling beast who was making loud chattering noises over the saucer and let it lick the milk. Then he poured the ferret-licked milk from the saucer into a glass.

"Drink it –ALL!"

I took a small, repulsive sip and wretched.

"Go on! Drink it – ALL!" said the farmer again. My father echoed his words. I held my breath, closed my eyes and swallowed the lot.

"Good lad! You’ll be right as rain in no time!"

My father slipped the farmer some money, thanked him and we drove away. The farmer was still nursing the ferret in his arm as he waved us goodbye.

The thing about this weird encounter was how it all seemed perfectly normal to my Father to ignore the option of getting a qualified doctor’s advice and instead put his trust in what his drinking cronies told him - even when his child was suffering from whooping cough, a potentially life-threatening illness.

To make this tale just that little bit stranger, the whooping cough soon disappeared. Perhaps the thought of more visits to the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son and his magic ferret scared the illness out of me forever.

Or maybe the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son really did have magical powers and the wise old men in the pub really do know everything…
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A Day Out in Millisle

1973 - When the weather was good my ma’ and da’ would bundle me into the car and drive to Millisle, a little seaside town adopted by the working-class as a holiday resort. This spot on the North Down peninsula consisted basically of one street containing a couple of amusement arcades, chip shops, sweet shops, and a pub. On a glorious summer’s day many would flock from Belfast to Millisle to get a break from life in the city. The North Down coastline and the little towns dotted along it like Newtownards, Bangor, Greyabbey, Donaghadee, Groomsport and Millisle. These were the places Protestants would go for a day out. Catholics would travel to different holiday spots along for their days out. The two cultures remained separate, even on a glorious summer’s day.

My folks and I would set off at about eleven o’clock in the morning and by the time we arrived in Millisle or ‘little Shankill’, my back and bum would be roasting and virtually stuck to the car seat as the sun blazed in through the car windows. When we finally came to a stop I would open the door and dive out of the car panting for breath in the blazing hot sunshine. And so our family day trip to Millisle had begun.

My folks would give me some money, order me to not stray far and off they would go into the First and Last pub for an afternoon's drinking. Great. I was alone in Millisle, with £1.50 to spend and drunken parents to look forward to dealing with. Things just can’t get better than that.
The first stop for me would be to buy an ice-cream, sit on the pavement outside the pub and watch the people go by. It was a thing I liked to do, not by choice, but by circumstance. With my parents spending most of their available time in pubs and clubs I had become used to being by myself. I got to like my own company and enjoyed watching the strange shapes, sizes and demeanour of other people. Each one, a separate universe of their own, had come to this little seaside town in an attempt to escape the grey of Belfast for just one day. They passed by me in streams of families. I sat back in the hot sunshine eating an ice-cream, watching the parade of men and boys in football tops and mothers shouting at their kids. I slowly licked and savoured each icy mouthful of ice-cream, trying in vain to make it last forever, like it was the last one on Earth.

All good things must come to an end and when my ice cream and people-watching was exhausted I walked to the amusement arcades. There I would pass time unsuccessfully trying to win prizes from the stalls. I watched groups of kids having fun together and wished I could join in with them. I never did. It wasn’t worth the risk of asking them “can I play too?” only to be ignored, laughed at, told to “piss off” or given a punch on the face.

After I had occupied myself for around four hours while May and Angus were having a great time in the pub sinking drink after drink, I decided hat was it. I finally couldn’t stick the boredom any longer. I stormed into the ‘First and Last’ pub, and began continually tugging at my da’s belt while begging him to take me home.

"Sit down son, we're enjoying ourselves..." he would usually say.

Realising my folks were not going to move for a while I would admit defeat and sit amongst them and their drinking cronies. A few of the people in the company bought me soft drinks and give me a few coppers from their pockets. In return I had to listen to drunken waffle, banter, songs and stories. I would drift off into the canyons of my imagination to escape the sound of the drunken ones warbling an off-key rendition of ‘Mexicali Rose’.

Finally my ma’ and da’ would decide it was time to go home. They would say their goodbyes to their company with drunken hugs, handshakes and long-winded farewell speeches which seemed to last forever.

Eventually my ma’ and da’ waddled off to the car with me following behind. I would help my very drunk mother into the car, who was as limp as a sack of potatoes. My da’ would drive us back home to Belfast in his orange Vauxhall Viva while very drunk. When he drove in this state, he would become extra cautious and would hit the brakes continually. The drink was making him hallucinate and he would slam the brakes on because he thought a dog had run onto the road. By the time we arrived home I was feeling sea-sick with being thrown about the back of the car each time my da’ panicked and brought the car to a violent stop.

Our car eventually reached Ravenhill Avenue. The orange Vauxhall Viva bounced along the street and came to a screeching halt at our house. My folks left me off at the house and told me they were going out for an hour. Off they rode into the sunset towards the Parkview bar. The taste of the drink was now on their lips and they needed more…

…and so ended another grand day out with May and Angus.
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