Registering makes it easy to save your favourite writers, organisations and articles. You can also join over 250 participants in our online discussion area and contribute your expertise to the ILS conversation.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form
Paul McVeigh has written for radio, stage and TV. His short stories have appeared in journals and anthologies, and been on BBC Radio 4 & 5. He is co-founder of London Short Story Festival.
The Good Son, his first novel, won The Polari Prize and was Brighton’s City Reads 2016. It was shortlisted for The Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award and The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ Prize, finalist for The People’s Book Prize and in The UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature.
Paul won the McCrea Literary Award in 2015 and has been translated into 7 languages.
‘It was you that started them, son,’ says she, and we all laugh, except Our Paddy. I put that down to his pimples and general ugliness. It must be hard to be happy with a face like that. I almost feel sorry for him.
I spy a dirty, big love bite on his neck and store this ammunition to defend myself against future attacks. Steamy, flowery-smellin’ disinfectant fills my nose and joins the sweet tastin’ Frosties in my mouth as Ma passes with the tin bucket and yard brush. Ma only cleans the yard when somethin’s up. That would be Da, as usual.
‘Do you want a hand, Mammy?’ says me.
‘No, son,’ says she, disappearing out the back. She didn’t even look at me. I’m worried about her after last night.
‘D’ya wanna hand?’ Our Paddy says in a girl’s voice. ‘You wee lick.’
‘I’ll tell m’Mammy on you,’ I say. ‘I’m tellin’ Mammy on you . . .’ Paddy mimics me. I look at Wee Maggie and give her the We hate him, don’t we? look. She gives me the Yes we do, he’s a big, fat pig! look back. I was taught how to give looks by a monk on Cave Hill. I trained like a Jedi Knight but my lightsaber was my face. I became Look Skywalker.
My mission: To defend all weaklin’s and youngest ones in families against the evil that is older brothers. Wee Maggie is now my disciple. To test her telepathy training, I send – Don’t worry about him cuz he’s gonna be knocked down by a car then a lorry will run over his head makin’ his eyes pop out.
Wee Maggie smiles. She got it. I think we’re actually twins born years apart in some CIA super-genetic-test-tube experiment.
Paddy gets up, leavin’ his dirty bowl on the table like he’s King Farouk.
‘Don’t leave that for Mammy,’ I say.
‘Mammy’s boy,’ says he.
‘Shut up you,’ I say. ‘At least I don’t have a dirty, big love bite.’
Wee Maggie laugh-chokes and Frosties shoot from her mouth onto Paddy’s jumper, just like that wee girl in The Exorcist I saw at the Pope John Paul II Youth Club.
‘That’s your fault, you wee gay boy!’ Paddy slaps me across the head.
I try to kick him but my shin hits the table leg.
Paddy laughs, wipin’ his jumper. ‘And you’re supposed to be the smart one? Grammar School? Away on.’
‘I’m smarter than you, dumbo,’ I say. ‘By the way, does your girlfriend like suckin’ the pimples on your neck?’
Paddy dives at me and trails me off the chair by the jumper.
‘Mammy!’ I shout out the back yard.
‘What?’ Ma screams. The house trembles like when bombs go off. Paddy lets go. Not even Muhammad Ali would mess with our Ma.
‘Nothin’,’ I shout back. Paddy grabs his blazer from the back of the chair and heads off. I raise my eyebrows and smile at Wee Maggie. ‘Victory is mine!’ I laugh like the Count from Sesame Street.
There’s mess on Ma’s good table. I run to the sink, wet the cloth and rush back before Ma comes in and kills somebody. Somebody = me. Even though I’m the good son in the family, I get the blame if Wee Maggie does anything wrong cuz she’s the youngest and I look after her. Wee Maggie could set me on fire and Ma would kick my head in for lettin’ Maggie near matches.
Wipin’ the table, I see my reflection in the smoked-glass. I look like a Black Baby we do collections for at school. I usually give them creamed rice. We get free tins from the community centre cuz we’re poor and cuz somewhere there’s a place called Food Mountain made from tins of creamed rice and corned beef. I think it’s in Switzerland. One day I’ll be President of Ireland. I’ll be so kind and good. I’ll bring all Black Babies to Belfast where there’s free food for poor people and they can live in new houses like they’re buildin’ at the bottom of our street.
I’ve only ever seen black people on TV. Apart from the ones starving in Africa, there’s ones America stole to make slaves, which isn’t very nice, but at least they gave them some clothes. You wouldn’t be allowed to walk around America with no clothes on. Or Belfast. Maybe if they lived with the Protestants. I’ve only seen Protestants on the TV too.
‘Mickey, stop spacing out,’ Wee Maggie tugs me. ‘You’re going to be late for school.’
I throw the cleaning cloth in the sink and run through the living room and up the stairs. I tip toe into my room cuz I don’t want to wake Da. Ma took him back in when he hammered the door in the middle of the night. He brought men with him. I listened from the top of the stairs. I told Paddy I heard Da cryin’ and they were talkin’ about money. The men said they’d come back today. Paddy thought Da wasn’t comin’ back this time. But Da always comes back. I don’t know why Paddy even bothers trying to think. I grab my schoolbag and run down the stairs and into the kitchen.
‘Ma, I’m away on,’ I shout to the yard.
‘Did you get washed?’ Ma shouts back.
‘Aye,’ I look at Wee Maggie through the doorway, pretend to pick my nose and wipe it on my jumper. She laughs into her hand. She thinks I’m like one of them from the TV. Like Laurel and Hardy or Abbot and Costello. We play them sometimes. She says it’s not fair that we don’t play any girl funny ones but I say it’s not my fault that girls aren’t funny. Cuz if they were, wouldn’t they be on the TV?
I get on my horse and ride him, dodgin’ the chair and table, swerve round the half-open door into the livin’ room, sideward round Da’s chair and past the sofa.
‘Cham-p-ion The Won-der Horse!’ I sing, salutin’ the TV. I gallop out the front door, Wee Maggie running after me.
‘Don’t be doing that in the street, Mickey,’ Wee Maggie says, like she’s the one who looks after me.
‘I’m not stupid,’ I say. ‘Go on you.’ I push her back into the livin’ room.
The waste ground in front of the house becomes an open prairie and the aul half-knocked-down houses to the right now an abandoned Gold Rush mining town in the Wild West. I ride Champion off into the sunset.
‘Mr Donnelly, what time do you call this?’ says Mr McManus. I’m in the doorway lookin’ at my feet.
‘Sorry, Sir.’ He’s a funny frigger Mr McManus, cuz he’s sayin’ that, but I know he doesn’t care, due to my telepathic abilities. A power like mine comes in very handy so you know when someone’s really bein’ real. He’s just pretendin’ to be annoyed, so I’m pretendin’ to be sorry.
‘Go and sit down, Donnelly,’ Mr McManus says, goin’ back to readin’.
‘So what’s happenin’, Fartin’?’ I say, slidin’ into my seat.
‘Shite,’ says he.
‘Well, now we’re all here,’ Mr McManus gives me the side eye, ‘I thought we could have a little competition. Some creative writing, one page in length, on any subject and there will be a small prize for the winner. If you’re not taking part, you can read quietly at your desk.’
The room groans. Since we finished our 11+, ages ago, it’s been singin’ and stories and everybody hates it. Not me. I love singin’ and stories. I’m gonna write somethin’ but I’ll have to hide it from the Hard Men who would love to kill me cuz I’m smart and not hard. Thank the Lord, His Holy Mother and the Little Baby Jesus, I’ve got my mate Fartin’ Martin. Fartin’ is cool and hard but not one of them. Without him I’d’ve been murdered about seventeen times.
MY DOG KILLER
My dog Killer, he is great.
My dog Killer, is my mate.
I take him walks about the street and he stays right beside my feet.
Because he does what he is told and he’s never, ever, bold.
He knows what to do because he’s dead cool though he’s never even been to school!
He’s my dog and he’s the best I bet he could even do a test.
Late at night he likes to bark because he’s scared in the dark.
He sits in my Da’s chair and he covers it with hair.
Then my Mammy goes mad and tells him he is bad.
It’s not one of my best but it’s only for fun. Are you allowed to tell lies in a poem? They’ll all be dead jealous if they think I have a dog.
‘Have those of you who’re entering the competition finished?’ asks Sir.
‘Yes, Sir.’ Everyone tuts and stares at me and the two brainers who answered. I always get too excited about things. Why can’t I just keep my big mouth shut until I get to St. Malachy’s and away from this school?
‘Who would like to read first?’ asks Mr McManus.
‘I will, Sir,’ The Blob says. Everybody looks at each tuttin’. That’ll distract them from me. You can depend on The Blob. He’s always first. First with his hand up, first to offer things and first to get his head kicked in. But I won him in the exams cuz I didn’t get some wrong on purpose like I do in class. The Blob clears his throat then reads with his put-on voice of a somebody not from here. Mountains and the sea and somethin’ about beauty. I mean, who talks about those things in Ardoyne? You’d think he’d know by now what to hide from the Hard Men.
The Hard Men starrin’ Wee Twin McAuley, Big Twin McAuley – co-starrin’ Ma’s-a-Whore and Monkey McErlane. It’s a filim about stupid people – how they do bad at school and beat the shite out of everybody that’s got a brain cell. Comin’ to a cinema near you.
Wee Twin is starin’ at me while chewin’ a straw from our bottles of milk. He must’ve nicked it cuz we haven’t had our milk yet. That’s the kind of bad thing he does. He’s shootin’ pure hatred at me from his good eye. The other is pointin’ towards our display of Carrickfergus Castle. The bendy eye followed a bullet that grazed his face and decided not to come back. So would I, if I was his eye. Havin’ to see that face in the mirror.
‘Thank you, Mr Campbell, that was a great effort, well done,’ says Sir. ‘Now, who’s next? Mr Close?’ he says.
Status Report: Sean Close – AKA Helmet Head – under observation – moved into my street last month – posh – therefore probably a Protestant double-agent as who’s ever heard of a posh Catholic – has no mates – thinks he’s great. Conclusion – I hate him.
Helmet gets left alone cuz somebody tried to beat him up on his first day and he kicked their head in with Karate. Definitely suspicious. A Protestant child spy trained in Kung Fu? I wouldn’t put it past them.
‘This is a story called “Monty the Fly”,’ says Helmet. I snigger the loudest. ‘Monty was from Surrey and flew Spitfires for a living. He was a short-sighted fly, so he had to wear very large spectacles.’
He’s talkin’ but I can’t hear. I already know how brilliant it’s gonna be. Some things you just know right from the word go. If it had been homework, I’d’ve said his posh Da must have helped him. It’s not enough he’s moved into a new house near me and into my class, but he’s movin’ in on my action too. It’s me that comes up with brilliant stories in here. I could never think of somethin’ like that though. Never. Maybe if I didn’t come from Ardoyne, but from a place where you’re allowed to learn things. But I’m goin’ after the summer. St. Malachy’s Grammar School, here I come! I’ll learn to write brilliant stories like his.
He’s gonna win me today. I can’t let him. Never let them win. I put my jotter down the back of my trousers.
‘Toilet, Sir?’ I stand up. ‘You shouldn’t interrupt someone, Mr Donnelly, it’s very rude,’ says Sir.
‘I’m desperate,’ I squeeze my dick like pee is about to explode out. Like when you should’ve gone ages ago and now it’s killin’ you. Like that. Oh, I’m in agony. Oh God, I’m goin’ to die. Hold on, I’m only actin’. I actually believed myself there, I’m that good. I should be an actor.
Sir waves me out like a bored king. In the corridor the class doors are open and the teachers look out as I rush past. At Mrs O’Halloran’s I slow down and look in. We have a secret, me and Mrs O’Halloran. She looks up and smiles.
‘Well, if it isn’t Michael Donnelly. Come in a moment,’ she coos like a dove.
I’m in love with Mrs O’Halloran. I was the only one she got to take her notes to Mr McDermot. She used to call me her Wee Currant Bun. Her Wee Pet. She said I was different. Not like the other boys. I bought her a necklace on my last day in her class. It cost one whole 50p. It had a little golden heart and on the back it said I Love You.
‘Now class, I want you all to have a look at Mr Michael Donnelly,’ she says, her arm on my shoulder makin’ my skin fizz. ‘He is one of, in fact, he is the finest pupil ever to come out of Holy Cross Boys.’ I’m completely scundered. I take a massive redner, my face burnin’ like a slapped arse.
‘St. Malachy’s Grammar School. It doesn’t surprise me at all. You see, class, this is what you can achieve at this school with hard work and determination,’ she beams at me. It’s supposed to be a secret, but I guess it doesn’t matter if these wee ones know. She’s right too. I am determined. I’ve got a plan. Get away from this school. Get smart. Get to America. Get Rich. Bring Wee Maggie and Mammy over to live with me in my penthouse.
‘Thank you, Mrs O’Halloran,’ says me, in my good-boy voice, to prove to her class she’s right. ‘You’ll be sorely missed around here,’ she says, smiling. She whispers: ‘Make sure to come see me before you leave today, won’t you?’
‘Yes, Mrs O’Halloran,’ says me, now completely on fire like a human petrol bomb. I kick the leg of her desk, smile and speed-walk out.
I do want to grow up and make all my dreams come true, but mostly I just want to be back in P3 with Mrs O’Halloran.
In the toilet, I take out my jotter. I rip out my poem and tear it up, throw it down the toilet and flush it away forever.
Everyone looks at me when I walk into class so I put my head down and go to my seat. I hide under my desk, pretendin’ to tie my lace.
‘Ah, Mr Donnelly. We’ve been waitin’ for you,’ says Mr McManus.
‘What, Sir?’ I say, like I’m completely thick and really stupid and cool. ‘You said you had something for the competition?’ says he.
‘No I didn’t.’ That came out cheeky. ‘Stand up, Mr Donnelly,’ he says. I’ve crossed the McManus Line. Whisperin’ and oohhs around the room.
‘Are you now saying that you don’t have something to read out?’
‘Aye, he does, Sir. I saw him writin’ it,’ Fartin’ says, and hides his head in his arm on the desk, laughin’.
‘Well?’ says Sir.
‘No, look.’ I hold up blank pages. ‘See.’
‘You are being very irritating today, Mr Donnelly. First you’re late and now this. What do you think will happen if you behave like this in St. . . . in secondary school? Why don’t you stand there for a while and perhaps you’ll remember what you did with your writing.’ Mr McManus goes for a fag at the door.
Why does he even care? I love Mr McManus, but sometimes he gets on like someone shoved a duster up his arse.
‘You’re for it, now,’ Fartin’ laughs.
‘What did you do that for?’
‘Cuz I saw you write one. I thought you were only messin’. You don’t have one?’ he says, in complete eyebrow-raised disbelief.
I don’t want to fall out with Fartin’ cuz he’s my best friend in school. My only friend. We don’t knock about after school cuz he lives at the other end of Ardoyne near the Prods and I’m not allowed up there cuz of the riots. We won’t see each other much after school finishes next week. And after the holidays I’m goin’ to St. Malachy’s and he’s goin’ to St. Gabriel’s with everyone else. I wonder where Helmet Head is goin’? He thinks he’s great with his blonde hair and blue eyes and Oh, look at me with my brilliant stories and clean uniform.
Mr McManus comes back in, followed by Mr Brown, the Head.
‘Donnelly, come here,’ says Mr Brown, and I do cuz he’s one scary specimen.
I’m never in trouble in school. I’m a good boy. Can’t be about the writin’. Must be about St. Malachy’s. Mr Brown said it was best not to tell the other boys and finished the sentence with the look If you want to get out of here alive. Mr Brown is whisperin’ to Mr McManus, lookin’ very serious. Mr Brown puts his hand on my back and pushes me into the corridor. I stand by the windows lookin’ out at the tarmac playground covered in glass and splats of colour from the paint bombs the Hard Men throw over the walls at night.
Reflected in the window I see Mr McManus, hand over his mouth, starin’ at his feet. Mr Brown has one hand in his pocket and the other is rubbin’ his baldy head. Somethin’s wrong. It’s like one of those scenes in a filim where someone’s bein’ told bad news while the music plays and we know what they’re sayin’ even if we can’t hear the words. Usually the hero is being told he’s terminally ill or his parents have died in a car crash. We don’t have a car, so . . .
‘Follow me,’ says Mr Brown. I do, but look round at Mr McManus who’s still at the doorway smilin’ at me like . . . I’ve got leukaemia! I did have a nose bleed last Christmas. I feel a bit dizzy.
At the end of the corridor, Mr Brown’s office door is open. He walks in. I wait.
I’m in my hospital bed, the whole family kneelin’ by me cryin’, I raise myself to say, ‘I forgive you all. Even you Paddy.’ I smile, touching his head, then die.
‘Come in, Michael,’ says Mr Brown, which is the first time in seven years he’s called me by my first name.
Holy Shite! Ma and Da are here. In their Sunday clothes. This is gettin’ too TV.
‘Sit down, son,’ says Da, all nice. Hopefully Mr Brown can’t smell last night’s drink under Da’s Polo minty breath. I sit in the empty chair.
‘Michael, I know we’ve spoken about the offer from St. Malachy’s, and I want to assure you that we’re extremely proud of you here at Holy Cross,’ says Mr Brown, fidgetin’ with his papers. ‘You’re a big boy now, Michael, and there are certain things you have to understand.’ He folds his fingers like a cat’s cradle and taps the knotted bunch on his desk. He takes a deep breath. ‘Michael . . . your mum and dad have asked me to talk to you, to help you understand that . . .’ Ma coughs, shifts in her chair and looks at the floor. ‘. . . unfortunately . . . Michael, you’re not able to go to St. Malachy’s.’
Mr Brown’s mouth moves but there’s no sound. Concentrate Mickey – don’t space out! I hear somethin’ about ‘five years . . . trips . . . uniforms and books . . . two buses there and two buses back.’
‘But I love buses,’ I say, lookin’ at Ma to back me up, but she’s starin’ at Mr Brown who gets up from his seat and plays with the blinds, all the while talkin’. My breathin’ is loud in my ears. I keep missin’ what he’s sayin’, like when Our Paddy turns the sound up and down on the telly to annoy me.
‘Your mummy and daddy can’t afford it, Michael. They feel terrible,’ Mr Brown says.
Ma’s face is purple. She’s not goin’ to say anythin’. And whatever is jammin’, the sound in my head is messin’ with my powers. Is it the aliens? Or the Russians? Protestants! ‘Now you’ll be able to go to St. Gabriel’s, just like Paddy,’ Da smiles, puttin’ his disgustin’ orangey-brown, fag-burnt fingers on my shoulder. He means wear Paddy’s old uniforms like I’ve done my whole life. Paddy’s old everythin’. Even his bloody trunks.
I look at Da and know with absolute certainty that this man is not my father. Just as I know, by the smallness of his eyes, this is all his fault. Everythin’ bad that ever happens to our family is because of him.
‘We’ll see ourselves out, Sir,’ says Da, holdin’ out his hand, actin’ like he doesn’t want to cause any trouble when that’s all he’s ever done.
‘You can take Michael home with you, help him through the . . . transition,’ says Mr Brown.
‘No, I’m sure he’d rather be here playin’ with his friends. Wouldn’t you, son?’ says Da.
Frien-dah! One friend. That’s how much he knows. And no . . . ‘Actually, I would like to go home,’ I say.
‘No problem,’ says Mr Brown, lookin’ pale and walkin’ fast out the door. ‘I’ll get your schoolbag.’
Silence. We stare out the window and watch the sun come out from behind a big Fuzzy Felt cloud. All three of us squint and turn our heads makin’ sure we don’t catch each other’s eyes.
‘I . . .’ starts Da, ‘Mickey . . .’ he sighs into the sandpaper shuffle of his hand along his stubble. ‘I’ve got a big surprise for you. It’s comin’ tonight.’
I look at the stupid grin on his face. I check Ma; she hasn’t a clue. He’s a big liar. Ma nods to me, then towards Da, her eyes openin’ wide. This means Please Mickey, play along with your Da. For me. You know what’ll happen if you don’t.
OK, Ma. For you. I know we have no money and I would never scunder her about it.
‘A big surprise? Wow,’ I say, like some kid on TV. I look out the window. Then it descends upon me like the Holy Spirit.
‘It’s a dog, isn’t it? Oh, Daddy, I’m so happy, that makes up for everythin’.’
Ha. I won him. I smile at Ma like I’ve no idea what I’ve just done. She’s said no to a dog since I was five. She’s gonna break every bone in my body. At least then I won’t have to go to St. Gabriel’s.