The following is a story from Blank Pages, by Bernard Maclaverty. Maclaverty is the author of five previous collections of stories and five novels, including Grace Notes, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and Midwinter Break, shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. Born in Ireland, he now lives in Glasgow, Scotland.
She didn’t know what woke her. It must have been something. She switched on the bedside light and saw it was just after three. Switched off again and lay rigid in the darkness. The return room was silent. Its single window, open a fraction for summer air, overlooked the back lane and yard. Not even the bark of a dog in the distance. She didn’t usually wake in the middle of the night and thought there must be some explanation. Maybe it was in answer to a prayer. If Mammy, sleeping up in the front bedroom, had taken ill and prayed aloud, it was Molly’s duty to check on her. One short flight of stairs above. Put her head round the door. Maybe no need even for this. The old woman might be snoring and she could hear her from the landing.
It was one of the things she hated about being a widow woman, this feeling of being scared. Not that her husband, when he was alive, could have done very much about it, but at least she would have known he was there. Fear shared was fear reduced. She slept soundly the couple of nights her son came home from London.
But now she was a sixty-year-old, totally in charge. And yet she knew she was incapable of being in charge of anything, never mind her mother—all eighty-three years of her. She could deal with ordinary things, like putting meals on the table. Or walking her slowly round the corner to half-ten Mass on a Sunday. Or if the Hoover gave up, she could ask her brother-in-law, who had skills in that direction, to fix it. That kinda stuff was all right. But noises, enough to wake you in the middle of the night, in a town such as this, were a different matter altogether. She lay completely still, not to confuse the sounds of the bedclothes with sounds from elsewhere. Or the noise of the mattress as her body pressurised it. Then she heard a sound. Definitely. The smallest imaginable. That ‘s’ sound some people make when praying. A lisp. More a whisper than a voice. It sounded like it had come up through the barely-open window. Someone in the yard, maybe. Mother-a-God, what was it? She now lifted her head off the pillow to free both ears. Lay facing up to the dark of the ceiling. She’d noticed the cat, when she was alert about something, moving her ears like radar, following a sound. That was her now. It was not people talking, but it could be people whispering. And why would anyone want to be whispering outside—why not just talk? She couldn’t make it out. Then she definitely heard something.
Breaking glass. Jesus, Mary and Joseph. On two separate occasions her windows had been blown in by bombs, but here—now—there had been no explosion. And there was a clanging sound like it was big bits of glass that were being broken. It was coming from the front of the house downstairs. Somebody’s throwing bricks through the windows at three in the morning. But also bumping noises. Breaking sounds. Christ the night. She switched on her bedside lamp and got into her dressing gown. She was shaking. Her legs almost gave way beneath her. She hadn’t time to tie the belt of her dressing gown before the bumping sounds were coming up the carpeted stairs, getting nearer. Shouting voices. Fast footsteps, pounding.
‘Who is it?’ Her voice quavered so much she had to say it again. Louder. ‘Who is it?’
‘British Army, mam.’
‘Aw—thanks be to God.’
She opened the bedroom door a fraction.
The place was alive with soldiers carrying guns. They had taken the liberty to turn on all the lights downstairs. About five or six of them. The cat streaked away from them up the stairs with a kind of terrified speed. The big front door was just the way she had left it when she’d locked up earlier.
‘How did you get in?’
One soldier sprinted past her room on his way upstairs. She was aware of the grey-black gun in his arms and the gills along the side of it. The man in front of her, who seemed to be in charge, shouted into her face.
‘I want everyone in the house downstairs. Now!’
‘You’ll scare the wits out of my mother,’ she yelled at the squaddie running upstairs. He kicked open the back bedroom door with the sole of his boot and disappeared. Her mother was in the other room, the front room.
‘I’ll get her up,’ she shouted and jostled past the first soldier up the stairs. He made a vain attempt to stop her and direct her downstairs but he seemed to have no hands left. ‘Mammy, Mammy.’ The old woman’s bedroom door was always left slightly open—just in case. In case she called out in the night, in case she needed help with something, in case she had another attack. In case the cat needed a place of refuge.
‘Is that you, Molly?’
She hurried in the door. The light was on. Her mother was sitting up in bed with the sheets bunched up in her fist beneath her chin. The cat was nowhere to be seen.
‘What in the name of God is going on?’ said the old woman. ‘Who’s shouting?’
The soldier-in-charge stepped into the room behind her. He apologised for the disturbance, but said it was necessary. And that he wanted everybody in the house downstairs, where he could keep an eye on them. Molly heard someone run past her mother’s room and pound up the stairs to the top of the house. Loud voices with no laughing. That was scary. She knew what they would find up there. Because she alone knew what she was guilty of.
‘Excuse me,’ called Molly and she opened the door wide and followed whoever it was who had gone upstairs. ‘Oh, merciful hour.’ She knew every tread. Every squeak and creak. Her heart was pounding and her breath came in gasps as she climbed as quickly as she could.
The soldier-in-charge had come out onto the landing. He was shouting up to her that he wanted the occupants downstairs. Now. Where he could see them. Molly thought he was just afraid to be left alone with her mother in the bed.
The squaddie ahead had pushed the front top bedroom door open. Molly followed him in. The curtains were not pulled and the street lights dimly lit the place from outside. She switched on the bedroom light. The soldier was down on his knees at the bedside. He had his arm thrust beneath the rumpled covers of the unmade bed.
‘What are you doing?’ She was breathless, after the stairs. He withdrew his arm, ignored her and stood. He lifted the ashtray on the bedside table. There were a couple of cigarette ends in it. Her son had never been able to give them up. The soldier smelled them, touched them with his fingers. He was only a boy, really, but his face was streaked with blackening. He looked up to the ceiling. He stood like that for a while. When he spoke with his head back, his Adam’s apple moved. It was white. He had not blackened it. His voice was shaky.
‘I don’t understand you. And I don’t understand what you’re doing.’
He pointed up as if she was a child.
‘An atch. In the ceiling. An escape atch.’
‘No. Only in the bathroom. For the water tank.’
The soldier-in-charge came into the room. He too looked up at the ceiling. Then at the bed. ‘Who’s been sleeping here?’
‘Where is he?’
‘He went back to London.’ ‘When?’
‘Two weeks ago.’ The soldier-in-charge slid his free hand into the bed.
‘Why’s the bed not made up?’
‘For two weeks?’
‘I’m so busy with my mother… just never got round to it. It’s at the top of the house. What business is it of yours?’
He also became interested in the ashtray, which was just a white saucer. He smelled and felt the cigarette ends. Then he left the room and went downstairs. The other, younger guy nodded and walked to the wall cupboard. He wrenched it open. She knew what was in it—it was where she stored anything and everything useless. An old radio that didn’t work, picture frames with broken glass, her son’s cricket pads—he always said he was a better bat than a bowler—roller blinds, bamboo canes, threadbare rugs that it would have ashamed her to put down on the floor. The soldier toppled some of the things out to look behind them.
‘How dare you! Have you no manners?’
The soldier boy said something under his breath but she couldn’t make out what it was. It didn’t sound complimentary. He walked past her out of the room and went down the stairs two at a time. Into the bathroom. She watched him go. He pulled the light-switch cord and looked up at the ceiling. Before she followed him down, she turned her attention to the bed. She straightened the undersheet and tucked it beneath the mattress. Then the blankets. Then the pink-satin eiderdown. All the time she was making a moaning noise. ‘Aw no, aw no.’ She left the mess the squaddie had toppled out of the cupboard, stepped over it all.
She followed him down to the bathroom, holding tightly onto the banister. He had closed and bolted the bathroom door. God knows what he was up to. The soldier-in-charge was elsewhere.
She continued on down to her mother’s bedroom.
When she came in, she clasped her hair to her head and said, ‘I’m mortified. Utterly mortified.’
‘What’s wrong? Are they still here?’ the old woman said from the bed. ‘I can’t hear them.’ Molly nodded. ‘But then I can’t hear very much anyway.’
She saw her mother’s hands outside the sheets, thumbing through her beads.
‘I’m saying the rosary, so’s they’ll go. And go soon.’
‘What are they looking for?’
‘It’ll be somebody on the run.’
‘That sounds very old-fashioned.’
‘Like the twenties,’ said her mother. ‘When we moved in here we were told the roof space runs the length of the terrace.’
‘Would you like a cuppa tea?’
Her mother thought about this. Then nodded her head—yes. ‘It’ll put me off my sleep. But then so will all this.’ In the faint light of the table lamp, the skin on the back of her mother’s hands shone.
‘Up here or downstairs?’ said Molly.
‘Maybe we should go downstairs. The man in charge seems very insistent.’ Molly helped her mother out of bed.
The old woman pulled her nightdress as far down as it would go. Molly stripped a cover off the bed and draped it over her mother’s shoulders. ‘Next time I’m in town I’m buying you a dressing gown.’
‘I’m like a shawlie coming outta the mill,’ her mother said. Molly took the opportunity to tie the belt of her own dressing gown. A quick whirl of her hands, a tightening at her waist.
‘That’s us. Ready for the road.’
But her mother turned back for her black trunk of a handbag.
‘Oh, Mother, will you come on.’
The old woman handfulled her rosary beads into the bag and snapped the clasp shut. She hung it over her right forearm. On the stairs she kept her balance with her other hand on the banister. Molly preceded her going down, broadened her own back in case her mother should fall. The sitting-room door was open and she felt the cold draught coming from the room. She looked in—the window was smashed, including the frame, a rectangle of tilted wood and broken glass. Her good net curtains ballooned, looked like they were torn to bits.
‘How in under God am I going to get that fixed?’ she said.
In the hall her mother stood waiting. Soldiers weaved around her.
‘Come on, Mammy.’ Molly led her to her armchair and sat her down. A soldier was standing on a wooden stool, going through a high cupboard. ‘You’ll find damn all up there.’
There were two other soldiers outside in the yard—one was in the coalhouse, the other was bent over searching through a bin with a torch. At that precise moment the kitchen was empty.
‘Would you like a cup of tea now?’
The soldier on the stool looked round. ‘Thank you, mam. Very nice of you,’ he said.
‘Catch yourself on. I was talking to my mother.’
The soldier pulled a face, which admitted he’d made a mistake—a kind of Oops.
‘Maybe hot milk would be better for you,’ said Molly to her mother. ‘Help you sleep.’ Molly half filled a small saucepan with milk and put it on the gas. The soldier-in-charge came into the room and nodded a greeting towards the old lady in the armchair. He seemed to have calmed down a bit. He went out to check on the two guys in the yard. Light from the torch fell on the etched kitchen window now and again. Voices from the yard were indistinct. The soldier-in-charge came back in again. The squaddie, still standing on the stool, looked round.
‘Look what I found,’ he said and tossed something across the room. The soldier-in-charge caught it expertly with one hand and held it up. A cricket ball—red as a cherry. With a white sewn seam. He rubbed it on the front of his fatigue pants as if he was shining it in the middle of a game.
‘Hey,’ he said. ‘Like the day it was bought.’ His face lit up. He looked between the women for some explanation.
‘That’s my son’s,’ said Molly from the cooker. ‘Put it back, if you don’t mind.’
‘Does he play?’
Molly nodded. She seemed reluctant to become involved in a conversation. But the man’s voice was very posh—it lured her in. Like something from the BBC. He brought the cricket ball up to his face and smelled it, and a look passed over his blacked features.
‘Who does he play for?’
‘Just a local team. He used to go up the Cliftonville Road.’
‘Does he still play?’
‘I believe so. I’ve a photo of him somewhere, wearing whites. And the pad-things.’
The man-in-charge continued polishing the ball. He shook his head slowly, as if in disbelief.
‘Who does he play for in England?’
‘Is this an interrogation?’
‘No, it’s a conversation. Who for?’
‘How would I know? West Ham? Fulham Wanderers? God knows.’
There was a loud hissing noise as the milk foamed up and boiled over.
‘Now look what you’ve made me do.’
Molly moved the saucepan away from the heat. She poured the hot milk into a cup, then added a little cold milk from the bottle.
‘Here.’ She carried it to her mother. ‘That’ll not keep you awake.’
The old woman beckoned her down with her eyebrows. Molly leaned close. Her mother whispered, ‘Why are you talking to him so much?’
‘Och,’ Molly said and straightened up.
Her mother blew on the surface of the milk and sipped it cautiously. Molly went back to the cooker to clean up the mess.
‘I thought Roman Catholics didn’t play cricket,’ said the soldier-in-charge as she passed him. He was still polishing the ball slowly on his trousers. He held it up to look at the shine, then laid his index finger along the seam as if he was going to spin the ball.
Molly hesitated. ‘That shows you how little you know,’ she said.
And then they were gone. Just as suddenly as they’d arrived. And over the following days and weeks, no matter how hard she looked, she could never find her son’s cricket ball.
Excerpted from “Searching: Belfast 1971” from Blank Pages: And Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty. Copyright © 2022 by Bernard MacLaverty. 2022 by Bernard Maclaverty. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.