Chapter 1 In the graveyard
BILLY CARSON BECAME accustomed to graveyards since he had started visiting them every week for the past year. It wasn’t a morbid fascination that lured him to these peaceful places but rather, their therapeutic faculty to help him meditate on what was taking place in his life. Death still frightened Billy but everyone here was dead, they’d all taken the giant step over that threshold into the unknown and the Irish lad could feel an appeasing communion with the deceased as he strolled past their tombs, reading their epitaphs or dates of death and wondering what they were like or how they had died. Since Christopher and Brendan had crossed over to wherever it is that dead people go, Billy was feeling as though part of his spirit was already in that other world, eternity didn’t seem so unfamiliar to him anymore and he was almost impatient to stride over the great unknown frontier and join his comrades.
Those dead friends were two of the people that Billy loved the most, he couldn’t get used to being left in the land of the living without them and it had almost been a year since Christopher and Brendan passed over into the other dimension, where everyone in this churchyard now resided. They were two young men in the prime of life, with everything to live for, one was a Protestant and the other was a Roman Catholic and both had been brutally plunged into infinity as innocent victims of the absurd Northern Irish conflict. Coming to the graveyard made Billy feel like he was stepping onto the threshold of this endless cosmos, it was like entering a place from where he could call out into the vast obscurity and attempt to make connect with his departed friends.
Billy’s cousin, Christopher, committed suicide at the age of nineteen. His short existence was a happy one, until alcohol took hold of his father and the poor man’s domestic-life began decomposing as rapidly as his liver. Christopher’s parents eventually separated and his mum moved her four boys into a council housing estate in a Protestant area on the outskirts of Belfast, where, like so many other young men, Billy’s cousin was recruited by the Protestant paramilitaries. The two years age difference between Christopher and Billy had never mattered because there was a curious harmony between the two cousins that had bound them together as natural soulmates.
In those troubled times in Northern Ireland, young Protestants enrolled in the Ulster Defence Association for the same reason that young Roman Catholics enlisted in the Irish Republican Army and that was to defend their clan from the adversaries. Billy still didn’t know what his cousin had done wrong but Christopher was eventually arrested and interned in the Maze Prison, where he spent three months in the company of hardened political prisoners. Those three months changed the gentle young man dramatically and caused him to grow older, harder and sadder and it was only a short time after his release that Christopher took his own life. Apparently, the paramilitaries were putting pressure on him to do another job for them and that would undoubtedly have lead Christopher straight back to prison so he was trapped and there appeared to be no other way out. Only six months later his father followed him to the grave, his son’s death being the last drop that ultimately caused his ever full glass of beer to finally overflow.
Today was Wednesday 19th July 1989 and one day before the first anniversary of Christopher’s death.
A gust of wind ruffled Billy’s bearskin crop of remarkably shiny, straight and uncontrollable jet black hair that floated up with every breeze. He was letting it grow over his ears and the fringe fall down his forehead in the early Beatles’ style, which was convenient because it only took a shake of the head to get any rebellious strands quickly back into place again. When things were better in his life, Billy used to put Brylcreem on the glossy black strands and keep them combed up behind his ears and parted at the side but now he’d lost interest in his appearance and he didn’t care anymore. The Beatles’ style may have looked cool on Paul McCartney but on Billy’s head it was more akin to an upside-down floor-mop. Christopher and Brendan had been violently snatched out of Billy’s life but not out of his heart, they had left him here to tread all alone through the Northern Irish Death Valley, in the midst of the daily shootings, bombings and killings, carrying a heart full of grief and he was fed up and sickened by it all. The Irish lad had had his fill of the Ulster troubles, which seemed to be embodied in the low grey clouds, constantly floating overhead and the endless rain showers that they continually emptied over him. A dark shadow covered him there and then, like someone had dimmed the light, making him glance up at a massive cloud rolling in front of the sun and think that it was going to rain soon.
Looking back down at Christopher’s fine grey marble headstone, he sighed heavily and thought, “There’s not much that I can do for you now Chris, I wasn’t there for you when you needed me, nobody was there for you, nobody even noticed that anything was wrong. It’s all very well bringing you a bunch of flowers now that it’s too late, if only we’d been able to talk, perhaps I could have helped, maybe you’d still have been here today.”
A cool breeze brought a tear to Billy’s stunning chestnut coloured eyes, that were a remarkable feature of his very attractive face and capable of stealing the hardest heart away with the simplest smile, then after sniffing and wiping his nose with the back of his hand, he bent down and pressed a potted miniature rose bush into the layer of white granite gravel covering his cousin’s tomb.
Depression isn’t rare in adolescents but it was especially out of place in the life of this good-natured young man whom birth had endowed with attributes fit for a prince, such as a witty intelligence, an alluring personality, remarkable good looks and an inherent sex appeal, to mention but a few, however, in spite of all these, deep down inside Billy was miserable and no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t snap out of it. He sighed again as he remembered the long walks he used to enjoy with his cousin Christopher and how they could sit in silent communion beside a country stream or in the shade of a tree, simply appreciating each other’s company and even though Billy knew that Christopher wasn’t in this grave, he liked to imagine his cousin walking at his side as he strolled through the graveyard, recalling the precious intimacy they used to share. It was as though that communion hadn’t died, as though they could still communicate and as though his cousin could still hear what Billy was thinking.
“I understand how you felt Chris,” he thought, “God knows, I feel the same way now but I don’t want to end up like you, I wouldn’t have the courage, I want to be happy, I want to enjoy life, I want to beat this demon of unhappiness that has taken possession of my heart and kick it out of my life for good.”
Billy was away in France when Christopher died, it was the first time that he had ever been away from home and going to France was by far the most exciting thing that he had ever done but now he couldn’t help feeling guilty about being absent when it happened and feeling like he’d abandoned his cousin. Christopher had only been released from Long Kesh when Billy went to see him a few days before leaving for France and Billy could remember how distant Christopher was on that visit, when the young political prisoner had become the centre of everyone’s attention because he was someone who had suffered for ‘the cause’. Billy had sensed the false, frightened, charade in Christopher’s behaviour, he had known that something was terribly wrong and he had tried to talk to Christopher about his own imminent plans to go to France but the reluctant political hero had other things on his mind and if the truth was told, Billy hadn’t given his cousin a second thought as he selfishly jumped at the opportunity to head off to the continent where he met Brendan and where Christopher had immediately been dethroned from the primary place in Billy’s heart.
Meeting Brendan was like a fairy tale come true, it was the kind of encounter that doesn’t exist in real life, the stuff you read about in books or see in films, where two people fall so deeply in love that their relationship completely changes everything in their lives. Brendan was ten years older and very different to Billy but in spite of all their differences the two young men had bonded from the very first day that they set eyes on each other. Brendan came from Andersonstown which is a Roman Catholic housing estate near Belfast and only about five miles away from where Billy’s family lives but in Ireland they would probably never have met, mutually imprisoned in their incompatible communities. Music kept Brendan smiling all through those dark troubled years in Northern Ireland because he was a talented musician from a musical family that was popular all over the Province. While he was playing in a Belfast pub, Brendan had met a pretty French girl called Claire, who he fell in love with and subsequently followed back to France.
Billy and Brendan’s friendship was instant from the first day they met, theirs was a true case of love at first sight, in spite of the many barriers that society and religion had built between them and meeting Brendan was also the first relationship that had caused Billy to seriously question his own sexual preferences and to start considering the fact that he might be gay.
Over in France, none of the Irish nonsense mattered and the two compatriots met up every day, eventually becoming so devoted to each other that people began referring to them as ‘Billy and Brendan’, ‘Brendan and Billy’ or ‘the two Irish boys’. They were like two refugees enjoying a new life under the sunny blue skies of France but when rain clouds gather in France they usually drift down from the British Isles and there were clouds on the horizon for Billy and Brendan, two heavy dark ones, travelling all the way down from Northern Ireland to the French town of Bagnols-sur-Cèze. Two IRA men were on their way, looking for Brendan, coming to spoil everything, just like they were doing in Ulster, polluting the environment with their evil schemes. What happened next became a deep dark secret that Billy shared with Brendan and his French girlfriend Claire, it was a secret that he couldn’t tell to anybody and a millstone that would burden his heart for the rest of his life. Brendan had taken it to his grave and Billy was most certainly condemned to do the same.
Bail from Northern Ireland was limited to the two summer months of July and August after which Billy had been doomed to leave Brendan in France and return home. Leaving Brendan was like leaving life and returning to Northern Ireland was like a condemnation to purgatory. It wasn’t until the end of September that Billy got a letter from his friend announcing that Claire was expecting a baby and that they were coming home so that she could meet the family and arrange to have the wedding in France.
Brendan wrote, “Now, for the really exciting stuff, Claire’s expecting a baby, I’m going to be a dad, at least I hope it’s me! What do you think of that, can you imagine me a dad? Now, I hope that you’re sitting down and that you’re ready for this, if not then take a seat because we’ve both agreed that if it’s a boy, we’ll call him William Brendan Scully! He’ll be the first Roman Catholic from Andersonstown to be called Billy!”
This news had brought tears of joy to Billy’s eyes because Brendan couldn’t have given him a greater testimony of his friendship but there were many more tears to come, unbearably sorrowful ones because on Brendan’s first night back in the province two masked IRA men burst into his parent’s home in Andersonstown and shot him in the head in front of Claire and his family and that’s when the bottom fell out of Billy’s world.
Saint Hilda’s Church of Ireland cemetery lies around a quaint ivy covered, granite-stoned edifice which serves the Anglican parishioners as a place of worship and the slanting lean-to of many of the headstones testifies to the church’s longevity in the community. Warm rays of sun beamed back down on Billy as the heavy cloud rolled on its way across the sky and Christopher’s granite headstone began to glitter in the bright light then Billy’s melancholic reflections were disturbed by a conversation near the church door.
“Good morning Reverend Allen, lovely day, isn’t it?”
“It is fine weather for the garden Vera and by the look of those flowers yours is in full bloom.”
Vera blushed, she looked like a younger version of the Queen and the minister’s compliment was visibly greatly appreciated. Billy observed them from a distance and thought, “Why do people who go to church always look like people who go to church? Why do people dress up to play different roles in society? Just like him, he looks so much like a minister, the way he holds himself when he walks, the way he talks, as though he was someone very important.”
The gloomy mood he’d been in all year was making Billy more and more critical of everything and everyone around him. Heaving yet another heavy sigh, he felt annoyed at himself for being so negative, he was tired of being so glum, he wanted to be happy and carefree again but a seed of grief had been sown in his heart and just like Christopher and Brendan would never come back so that hefty burden of sorrow would never disappear.
Vera continued her banalities with the minister saying, “We could do with a little more sunshine and a little less rain.”
“Oh, if it’s the sunshine you’re looking for you’ll need to head off to somewhere like sunny Spain.”
Billy listened impassively to what they were saying but his thoughts were not in sunny Spain, they were in sunny France, where, apart from a few storms, there had hardly been a drop of rain during the two whole months that he’d spent there. He loved the sun and he had enjoyed wearing T-shirts, Levi’s jeans and sandals with no socks.
Looking down at the heavy brown shoes he was wearing today, he thought, “I hate wearing socks and shoes. I wish I could live on a sunny island where I could run about barefooted all the time, better still, an island where I didn’t have to wear any clothes at all. A nudist island, that’s what I need, I wonder if people wear clothes in heaven, I wonder if Christopher and Brendan are wearing clothes now.”
It was impossible for Billy to think about France without thinking about Brendan, they went together like France was heaven and Billy had visited it once and met Brendan there. A cruel dart of anguish pierced his heart and made it ache.
Vera lifted an armful of flowers out of the boot of her car and said, “It’s so unfair, why do they get all the sun and we get all the rain?”
It was like reading a book with the radio on, tit-bits of the distant conversation kept diverting his train of thought and making him react. “Unfair” he thought, “What do you know about unfairness? You probably live in a comfortable middleclass house where you’re surrounded by your loving husband and well educated children and judging by your car you most likely have enough money to pay for the odd trip to Spain whenever you feel in the need of a little sun. I’ll tell you what’s unfair, who put that bullet in Brendan’s head? Where’s the killer today? What’s he doing now? Does anybody care about that? Will he ever be caught and brought to justice? Is anybody even looking for him? If they do find him he’ll probably be considered a political prisoner and be released after only a few years behind bars, there’s something unfair for you to complain about!”
Sighing deeply again, Billy couldn’t help thinking about how Brendan would have reacted to these thoughts, “Brendan wouldn’t walk around moaning all the time.” he thought, “Brendan would get on with enjoying life because all Brendan needed was a song to carry him along.”
Vera turned towards the church porch with the heavy bunch of flowers in her arms and said, “OK, Reverend Allen, I’ll see you on Sunday.”
“Goodbye Vera, I’ll look forward to seeing your arrangements.”
Then something hilarious happened when a button burst on the waist of Vera’s flowery silk skirt and the flimsy garment flopped down around her ankles, leaving her standing in front of the Reverend Allen in her white nickers! There was a short moment of hesitation when the world appeared to come to a standstill and nobody seemed to know what to do. Vera’s arms were full of flowers so she couldn’t grab the skirt and pull it back up again and the minister was obviously in a dilemma about what he could do to help her or where he should look. Should he take the bunch of flowers out of Vera’s arms or should he pull her skirt back up? It was an embarrassing situation for both parties to say the least then Vera, who had her back to the minister, calmly placed the flowers on the ground, pulled the light textile back up and buttoned the waist band back in place before glancing over her shoulder to see what the Reverent Allen was doing but he was hurrying down the path as though he hadn’t witnessed the scene at all, only betrayed by his shuddering shoulders as he tried his utmost to retain the flood of uncontrollable laughter that had taken possession of his whole body.
As for Billy, he was sitting on top of Christopher’s headstone, holding on to it to keep himself from falling on the grave, then he lay across the monument and hugged it like it could help him to stop laughing, before twisting himself around behind his cousin’s memorial and sliding down it into a sitting position where he leaned his back against the back side of the granite slab and sat breathing like someone who’d just run a mile and wiping the tears of laughter from his eyes. All of a sudden, Christopher and Brendan had joined him, they were there, laughing with him and he could sense their presence clearly as he thought, “Oh, you guys, you did this, I know that it was you, you’re together up there somewhere giving me a laugh because you want me to die laughing so that I can join you! Well I’m not ready for that yet but you’re right, it’s time for me to stop moping around and to get on with enjoying life while I have it.”
On this note Billy followed the minister down the path and out of the graveyard in a similar state of hilarity, only Billy didn’t try to suppress his happiness, instead he let it flow freely through his body, roaring and stamping his feet and enjoying the liberating sensation of a good fit of laughter.