Caught by the River

Bird’s egg (smashed)

15th March 2020

An extract from Darran Anderson‘s astonishing Inventory, recently published by Chatto & Windus.

A peregrine falcon used to soar above the school. It nested somewhere on the cathedral spire, up by the stone crucifix. I would watch it – noisily at first, trying to get other pupils to look, and then silently, sullenly – high above the playground and the hopscotch squares. I was intrigued by the spire, and the idea fostered in my mind by the teachers that it was somehow a celestial transmitter and receiver. It was a holy space, and yet a mason had been killed in its construction, as often happened in those days. Was it cursed then? Haunted? Our teacher claimed it was all the more holy because there’d been a martyrdom. The mason’s name went unremembered, though.

The spire seemed impossibly high, surely one of the tallest buildings in the world, given that there were days when it was above the clouds, though I could find no mention of it in my books. I watched the bird orbit. It would dive astonishingly fast, its wings pointed, sharp as blades. All the noise around me – the chants and handclaps and haggling over silver football stickers, the talk of Bruce Lee’s one-inch punch, whether sharks ever slept and whether astronauts explode in the vacuum of space – would fade away into a bubble of silence. Occasionally small dead birds would be found, spattered across the playground. The children would circle around them, nudging each other to prod them with a stick.

The girls were chanting and clapping some elaborate  memory feat. The boys were kicking a crushed tin can around, in lieu of a football. The cool kids boasted patches on their jackets, pinched from older brothers, of bands they’d never actually heard, like Iron Maiden, Slayer, Anthrax. I was smart or dumb enough to hang around with the kids who were ‘bad news’. It allowed me to be bookish but protected. You might be near the last to be picked for football, but they weren’t even allowed to take part. They’d be given their own  ball and you’d look over  at their pitch and they’d  be lighting fires or hurling rocks at each other. It seemed more interesting than teams competing for silver jugs. Their activities were ludicrous. They would raid the nature table for frogspawn, firing tadpoles through straws at each other. They would bring in actual ninja stars, to embed in the wood of cubicle doors to freak out those inside. One of them, an expert shot, had become a legend by launching an orange over the height of the school, after a seemingly impossible dare, and while he was being carried around the playground on the pupils’ shoulders in triumph, the orange had kept going on its trajectory. It fell out of a clear blue sky and into the face of an elderly lollipop man, who retired and declined shortly thereafter. They were innocent japes until they weren’t.

I had proved my mettle to the gang by getting into fights on knee-scraping gravel pitches, straddling the chests of other boys, before being hauled off by the scruff of the neck by teachers on their route home. The pièce de résistance, though, was kicking through a reputedly haunted window in a school basement cloakroom, in a misjudged attempt at ‘ghostbusting’. I ended up alone in the empty school with the stern headmistress-nun, while the rest of the children went  to  the circus, but I knew it would give me kudos; already thinking of strategy over tactics. The nuns were particularly merciless, however, with my ma as they assumed she was a single mother, given that my father – through shyness or distraction, or working every hour God sent – never came to any parents’ meeting, and thus I’d  hailed from a broken home, or my parents were ‘living in sin’ or some lifestyle that did not fit the endlessly narrowing world-view of the puritan. The walk home was heavy and fraught with silence, and I felt hollow when I realised my mother was on the point of tears. I thought, suddenly and for the first time, how young she looked.

Back in the playground, one of our group was holding court in the midst of a circle of pupils, carving with a key what he claimed was a ouija board, on the wooden steps to the Portakabin classroom. A girl leaned over their shoulders and told them they were idiots, and how she had recited the ‘Hail Mary’ backwards at midnight facing the mirror, and Satan had appeared and offered her three wishes; and, having gained the other girls’ attention, she recounted her wishes in great detail. Meanwhile I silently watched the falcon orbit the spire. In other parts of Ulster, right then, children our age were walking unbeknownst into crime scenes, led in by the sickly-sweet smell of cadaverine. A game of hide-and-seek uncovered the brutalised corpse of a young man, gagged and hooded. Kids playing near a cricket ground found two men shot dead. Other bodies were discarded directly into playgrounds. What do children dream of, after these discoveries?

The falcon kept orbiting the spire.


Read Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s review of the book here.

Inventory is available here in our shop, priced £16.99.