by Eileen O’Donoghue
The lads were up early to get the good conkers. They were on a mission. It was a September Saturday in all its glory, balmy at ten in the morning. The sky was a stretched blue canvas, containing all below it in the rising heat of the day. Will took no notice of the denim sky or the red to gold autumn palette of the neighbourhood trees. He had told the boys last night to make fast work of the breakfast in the morning and to be ready when he called for them. There were scores to be settled from last year when it came to conkers and he had a title to keep.
Will, the big man at eleven, was accepted as their leader without thought of dissent. Having no brothers of his own, Eamon and Ted from four doors down were the closest thing. Ted’s real name was John Anthony but nobody called him that. His Mam always called him her Teddy bear, him being the youngest, but he was eight now and the lads left him alone about that baby stuff and called him Ted instead. He had already proved himself against the Doody’s and had earned his adult name in that epic battle. Will would never have admitted it but he pretended they were his brothers. They were alright as far as younger lads went.
They saw him coming through the kitchen window, and came out the back door finishing their toast and wiping their hands on their t-shirts.
“Lads, we still okay with the plan?”
Two heads nodded, while Eamon picked up his fishing net from outside the back door.
“Where are you going with that thing?” Asked Will.
“You said it was the field beyond the graveyard, the one going down to the river. We might have a bit of time for fishing.”
“For feck sake, will you leave it there. We need to concentrate on the conkers. That’s a dangerous part of the river and anyway, you’ll give us away with the net! That’s one sure way to have the mothers after us.”
“Right. Sorry Will. Didn’t think of that. But it could be a weapon. What if the Doody’s are there before us?”
“We could check the forts on the way up to the graveyard, instead of going on the road?” said Ted, who often had a good idea for a small lad.
“Right,” said Will. “We’ll give the passing through signal to see if they’re there and then we’ll know if they’re not. Good plan Ted.”
“And I made a sign for our fort, Will,” said Ted, revealing the reason behind his idea. “Hang on a second until I get it from the turf shed. I left it there last night, didn’t want Mam to see it. After the last time, she said there was to be no more fighting. She’s blue in the face from Mrs Doody calling to the door over nothing.”
“Fecking Doody’s,” said Will, turning to Eamon while Ted scampered off to get his sign. “Their mother thinks they’re angels. If she saw them jumping out from behind their wall ambushing little girls walking their dolls, she’d have to think again!”
Will was still pissed off about that time the Doody brothers beat up his sisters, when they were just walking down the road with their dolls in their prams. The girls stopped at that gate ever since, looking anxiously to see if they were hiding again. There were four Doody boys. The oldest one was in the class above Will’s in school, a right rat. The mothers had given up trying to make friends out of them at this stage. Will hated their guts and he felt his stomach tighten at the thought of them. But, today was about the conkers and getting to them first. It was getting hotter. Where was Ted? They didn’t need a fecking sign!
“Look!” said Ted, emerging from the shed and proudly holding up the sign he had made out of the back of a cornflakes box. It had two holes near the top, roughly made and not lined up properly, and a greying shoe lace looped through the openings and knotted. The knots looked like spying eyes above the warning. Letters in large red crayon, like daubs of dried blood, proclaimed:
No boobys aloud! By law of 1979.
Eamon snorted back a laugh, raising his hand to point out the problem. Will pushed it down and elbowed him in the side.
“Ow! Feck off, will you!”
“What’s wrong with it?” asked Ted.
“It’s grand, Ted. I used to mix up my bs and ds as well. Bring it anyway and can’t we fix it up there?”
They walked up the narrow tarmac footpath past Donovan’s, Healy’s and Cotter’s. They saw Will’s Mam standing at their front door, talking to poor old Sheila Callaghan who, according to his Mam, had neither chick nor child. The women were deep in conversation, talking about the Pope’s visit to Ireland, no doubt, and paid no heed to the lads casually slinking by. Will had forgotten his beach bucket for the conkers. He wasn’t going in for it now. They could make pouches with their t-shirts, then put the conkers in a good hoarding place and run back with the bucket after dinner.
At the last house, the footpath petered off to one level with road. To the left was a wide opening onto a grass passage that led up to John Murphy’s farm. He was the farmer who owned the big field behind all the houses on the road. They had long since stopped worrying about getting into trouble for moving his bales around the field, playing Apache Forts, because he had never complained about it. He would just put the bales back, like the elves from the shoemaker story. That made him a sound fellow.
Just inside the opening, there was an old iron gate that was so rusted it was always left open. There was a working gate at the top of the passage to keep the cows in the top field. The lads had been up there before, to the two big horse chestnuts for conkers. Next to the old gate, at the road entrance, was the spot that marked the start of the woods, which spanned from there, all the way up to the graveyard wall, running parallel to the main road, a journey of about five hundred yards. They often swung off the old gate or just sat on the top of it, eating penny bars or black-jacks when they had them, but there was no time for arsing around today.
Today’s plan was to go beyond their customary boundary of the graveyard, across the road and down into one of the river fields, where there was an enormous tree laden with green spiky conkers and the ground beneath carpeted in heaps of the large brown nuts. Will had seen it the Sunday before, when he went with his Dad to Nana’s grave. They had crossed the road to talk to some old lad in a car and Will had plenty of time for looking into the field. He had been thinking about it all week at school.
First though, they had to go through the woods and check the first fort for their old enemies. They climbed the ditch on the right side of the passage. Will jumped down off the ditch and the lads went into formation behind him. This was Doody territory. They would have to pass through here to get to no man’s land and on, into their own wood, home to Fort Broken Arrow.
Will took a few steps in. The ground crunched underfoot with dried twigs and dead leaves. Everything was so parched, that there was no chance of silence. The smallest step announced their arrival. The lads were always outnumbered, four against three. It didn’t matter that Mikey Doody was only five. The older ones had him trained to pull the legs from under you, to flatten you for a good beating. Will felt beads of sweat where his hair met the top of his forehead and on his upper lip. He scanned the trees in front of him and either side. Nothing.
Without looking backwards, he beckoned the lads behind, with his hand. To be on the safe side, he cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted:
This was the passing through signal and could be relied on most of the time. It was not, however a guarantee of safe passage. There was no response. The lads moved forward but kept an eye all around, until they were safely through. All quiet on the Western front. No sign of the feckers this morning.
Relaxing a little, they passed through no man’s land and when they got to their own wood, Will hung up Ted’s sign on the oak tree that marked their main headquarters.
“You know, Ted. I think it’s fine the way it is. Booby is a better name for them anyway.” He grinned.
Standing solemnly still, he gestured to the boys to stand in front of him and like a town crier, he raised his head skyward and shouted,
“Henceforth, the Doodys will be forever called The Booby Brothers, by Law of 1979!”
The lads sniggered their approval and the three of them savoured the moment until Will decided it was time to get on with the business of the conkers. Delighted with himself, Ted rambled on with his usual forty questions, walking alongside Will. Eamon was bringing up the rear, keeping a lookout. Ted was a strange one but he was no eejit. The worst you could say about him, was that he had a few wires in the wrong plugs and liked to go his own way to work. Will found him funny and let him natter away, only paying attention to a real question.
“You know the way it’s nineteen seventy nine?”
“But why is it nineteen seventy nine?”
“That’s stupid!” hissed Eamon from behind. “Will you stop with the questions. You’d annoy the head off a saint!”
“It’s not actually,” said Will. “It’s because some Pope made a calendar and said what year it was, counting up from when Jesus died on the cross. Or something like that anyway,” he finished, not wanting to be a know it all.
“See!” said Ted back at Eamon. “Was it the Pope that’s coming in a few weeks that made it, Will?”
“No! Some lad way back. Why d’you want to know anyway?”
“I just don’t know why today is in nineteen seventy nine.
Not having an answer to that one, Will was glad they had arrived at their destination.
“Right, well we’re here anyway. Mind that bend in the road!”
All clear on the traffic, the lads ran across the road arriving at three different spots in the ditch. Without discussion, they began searching for the best way in. Apart from the ditch itself and the thicket of hedge and scrub, there was some barbed wire about ten feet inside the ditch. The trick was to find a spot where it was good and straight and roll under it, watching out for cow dung.
“Over here!” shouted Eamon and they were in over the ditch, in a spot where the branches were easily pushed apart, through the scratchy bushes and then rolling under the wire like stuntmen from a western. Like John Wayne, they stood, legs hip-width apart, surveying the horizon. There in front of them, the golden field sloped down to the black river below. It would be perfect for watering their horses, in a game for another day. The river, at low ebb in the Indian summer, curved like a snake moving on, minding its own business. About fifty yards away from them, half way between themselves and the river, was the biggest horse chestnut tree they had ever seen. Thick and top heavy with leaves, it was a wonder it didn’t topple over its too short trunk. Wide and left of the tree, was a group of about twenty cows, whose heads went up in unison to regard the boys.
“What did I tell ye!” said Will.
“Jesus!” said Eamon, “Fecking brillo!”
“YEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAWWWWWWW,” roared Ted breaking the pulsing silence of the heat. He took off at top speed in the direction of the tree, shouting back over his shoulder,
“Last one there is a Booby Doody!”
The other two let out their own screeching battle cries and were off after him.
Halfway to the tree, Eamon and Will realised in the same second that the cows were charging. They had seen them moving but suddenly, out of nowhere, there was real danger. The cows were picking up speed, hooves punching the ground beneath in a lurching rhythm. They were grouped in a moving triangle, with a coal black beast, nostrils flared, pointing the front of the formation. Harmless one moment, murderous the next.
“Stampede!” roared Will, “Ted, get up the tree! Quick!”
Will and Eamon had almost caught up to Ted when he heard the shout and turned, slowing down. Running past him, Will grabbed him by the arm and dragged him the last few yards to the tree. They were just steps ahead of the cows when, between them, the bigger two, pulled Ted up the tree with them, in a flurry of arms and feet, kicking and scraping the rough bark of the tree. They were up, Will and Ted on the lowest branch together, Eamon slightly higher and nearer the trunk. The leaves were all over them, still thick and green with a fringe of gold at the edges, where the season’s turn was doing its work. Breathless, they held tight, pulling up their legs close to their chests.
They were surrounded. The cows were in a heaving circle below them, a few of them pawing the ground with their hooves. The leader was butting the trunk of the tree with her head, not far below the branch holding Will and Ted. The smell of them, pungent in the heat, invaded the back of Will’s dry throat.
“Jesus, Will! What’ll we do?” Whispered Eamon.
“Just be quiet. They’ll go away in minute.”
“I don’t like the way their snorting out through their noses. I’m scared, Will.”
“Ted, you okay? What are you doing?”
Teds lips were moving furiously and his eyes were closed tight.
“I’m praying” he whispered, opening one eye.
“Maybe we all should, together like,” said Eamon, his voice breaking slightly. “We could say a decade of the rosary to Our Lady to help us.”
Will rolled his eyes but given the situation and that horrible, hollow sound the lead cow was making with her hoof, he conceded.
“Right. You start it so, Eamon”
“Ah no, sure I’m not good at public speaking. You do it”
“Hail Mary...” volunteered Ted, to settle the argument.
“No, you eejit! There’s a long bit at the start that you have to say to make it official! Something about The Lord opening his lips. Mam always says it. Will, you were an altar boy. You know it!”
“For feck sake,” said Will and launched into “Thou Oh Lord Shall open my lips and my tongue shall announce Thy praise.”
Without any conscious thought to their responses, the three of them ploughed through the first Sorrowful Mystery. By the time they finished, the snorting and the butting had stopped, but there was no budge on the cows. Another decade failed to move them but the third one seemed to improve relations, at least to the extent that the cows, quieter now, seemed more curious than cross.
“Feck this for a game of soldiers!” Said Will and standing on the branch, reached above him and broke off a slender young branch. It was thin but the top of it splayed out into four new branches, with several leaves on each. He shouted at the cows, hitting the branch in his hand off the one he was standing on.
“Go on now! Go home. Go home, will ye!”
The cows shuffled slightly and the hangers-on at the back of the group started to turn slowly, their tails swishing flies away from them. Braver then, Will jumped down into the space around the trunk and started to hit the cows with the branch. He kept his voice steady, saying,
“Go on, go home now” over and over while the hitting downgraded to pushing and directing.
Eamon and Ted watched in awe and relief. You could always rely on Will.
Down from the tree and walking home on wobbly legs that felt like they had just learned to walk, Ted started up,
“The praying didn’t work.
“Are we going back through the woods?”
“What about the Doodys?” Asked Eamon, not sure he was able for another encounter, with any species.
“Fuck the Booby Brothers,” said Will, graduating from feck, “there’s worse things than them.”
“Would you think that the Pope and Father Brennan might be wrong about the praying and all that stuff?”
“Maybe, Ted. I dunno.”
“So, what if that old Pope was wrong about the calendar too? Maybe it’s not nineteen seventy nine at all?”
“Ted, all I know is that today is today and we just survived a stampede.”
Back at Fort Broken Arrow, the lads sat a while and were quiet. They were thinking about the conkers. Will got up and brushed himself off. It was still early in the day.
“What about John Murphy’s field for the conkers?”
The lads got up, ready to follow him anywhere. He nodded at them.