Civil Rights by Catherine Czerkawska

She liked everything about the city from the scent of fresh coffee and yeast buns that drifted out of Bewley’s in the mornings when she passed it on her way to work, to the sluggish Liffey reflecting the lights by night. She loved the quiet gallery where, on her days off, she could stand and stare at the jewelled panels of Harry Clarke’s stained glass.  She loved the smoky pubs and the voices of the people, those hard edged tones that were the same in all big cities where people had once had to make themselves heard above the din of machinery and traffic and politics.

But if she loved Dublin, she hated her work, a vacation job found for her by one of her father’s colleagues. She worked in a gloomy office, its windows so high that you couldn’t see out of them. The company dealt in animal feedstuffs and she sat at a desk in a room full of other girls. On each desk was a clumsy calculator that regurgitated a strip of flimsy paper. She would type tons, hundredweights, pounds and ounces into it. Then came prices in pounds, shillings and pence. And then she would do arithmetic and fill in complicated forms. It was 1969 and computerised calculators, if they existed at all, were so large that they filled rooms. Girls came cheaper.

Afterwards, it struck her that she must have got many of the calculations wrong. The job was so boring that getting the calculations wrong seemed like a necessity, staving off misery with small acts of revolution. She sat at the back and worked away with every appearance of diligence, and a man with a grim face sat in front, facing them, like a schoolmaster at his desk, watching them. If they talked he would shout at them, but she seldom talked to anybody and never got shouted at. She was an incomer and largely ignored. She didn’t mind too much. She just got on with creating arithmetical mayhem, and left at the end of the day for the hostel up at St Stephen’s Green, with its vapid statues in every alcove. It was part of a convent and it was run by the nuns. No men were allowed in the building, never mind in any of the rooms. Sometimes she would get dressed up and go out for the evening with the girls from her shared room and sometimes she would wander about the city all by herself.

Then, a few weeks into her summer, she saw a poster advertising a civil rights meeting in the centre of Dublin. The year before, her first year at university, she had started going to Irish civil rights meetings in Edinburgh. Everyone associated with the movement seemed to have a certain glamour about them, whether it was the handsome professor, who told them about Irish History or passionate Bernadette Devlin, or the friend of a friend who talked casually about the state of affairs at home and how something had to change sooner or later and it might as well be now. On her way to Dublin, she had travelled through Larne and Belfast. It seemed – as it undoubtedly was – another country, with its big bright King Billy murals and its union flags everywhere. She had never seen so many flags in all her life.

That Saturday in Dublin, she went to the meeting and mingled with the crowd.  She listened to speeches, and felt as if she was part of something meaningful and exciting. Somebody tapped her on the shoulder and when she turned round she saw that it was the friend of a friend from university. There were three of them: big, bold young men. They told her they had come down from the north and when they said that, they grinned at each other with a conspiratorial air. They said they couldn’t go back over the border just yet, because things were very hot for them up there. Things would be a bit safer for them down here. They hoped. People noticed their accents, their northern voices and stared at them.

Later, the speeches grew more inflammatory, and the police who were lurking around the edges of the crowd became uneasy. Before the afternoon was over,  the gardai  had baton charged the crowd and people were running in all directions and screaming, but she was safe enough because the boys from the north were much more watchful than the innocents from the south. They could see what was developing, could see what was about to happen and before the gardai made their move, one or them had seized her hand and said ‘run!’ They ran with her, pulling her down side streets, and they didn’t seem to be afraid, in fact they were laughing as though it were a bit of a joke, not the real thing at all.

They went into a restaurant somewhere down by the river, a good restaurant, busy and full of tourists. They sat there, the three northerners and herself, and she saw that it wasn’t the kind of restaurant she could ever afford to go to – her parents maybe, once in a while, but not herself on her student grant. She wondered who would pay, but she still belonged to an age when the man usually paid, especially if he was older, although not perhaps if he was a student. So she thought that they might pay for her, and if they didn’t, then she had just enough money in her purse to pay for herself, if she was very careful what she ate, looking at the prices on the menu and choosing the cheapest things. One of the three was a big red headed, raw boned man, older than the others, and he wore dark glasses. Even in the restaurant, he didn’t take them off and she noticed that he had bruises on his face. When he had tried to run, he had hobbled a bit, and the others had been laughing at him, saying ‘come on Liam, move your arse!’ He sat opposite her and smiled at her, but he had a broken tooth and he looked as though he was in pain. She felt very sorry for him.

‘What happened?’ she asked and the others frowned, but he told her that he had been beaten up, on his way home from a civil rights meeting, said that they must have been lying in wait for him, he hadn’t stood a chance even though he was a big man and quite strong. But they had jumped him, three of them, and although he had managed to inflict a few bruises of his own, they had got him down in the end and kicked him where he lay. After that, they had decided to come over the border because things were looking a bit too hot to handle in the north. But Cork was where they ought to be, he said, not Dublin. Cork was the place to be, and she wondered why.

She knew Cork well, had worked in West Cork as an au pair, the summer when she was sixteen. ‘Why Ireland?’ somebody had asked and she had said it was because her grandmother was Irish which seemed reason enough. She thought of the place chiefly as a warren of fuchsia fringed lanes, mostly leading down to the sea. She had been looking after two year old triplets for an Irish family. They were holidaying in a flat in a run-down farmhouse. The rooms were dusty and her bed, in what had once been the maids’ quarters, was lumpy and uncomfortable. Mice partied in the attics all night long. The little girls were funny and sweet but difficult. You could walk about with one under each arm, but then you would have to stagger after the third, who was always toddling off somewhere with great determination. Besides, there was a pig that would come crashing through the overgrown gardens, baring its yellow teeth, scaring the life out of you. The farmer’s wife, Mary, took a liking to her and would invite her into the big kitchen for tea. She would cut thick slices of corny bread, made with flour and soda and dried fruit, buttering the cut end of the loaf first, holding it in close against her chest and sawing at it with the bread knife. Her nana had made the same thing and cut it in the same dangerous way but she had called it teacake.

When the girls were asleep, she would go out to the dancing in the village. A long driveway threaded through  the neglected gardens of the house, between a profusion of  buddleia flowers that drooped in the soft rain. For ever afterwards, she could never smell the honey scent of buddleia without remembering a boy called Michael who had kissed her on the driveway in the dark.  All these things came into her mind at once, the scents and sounds and the remembrance of physical pleasure, when the red headed man talked about Cork. But she couldn’t see why Cork was the place to be.

‘A good place’, repeated the red headed man. ‘Plenty of the lads down there.’

Not long after this, they got up from the table. One of them told her to head for the door, so she did, expecting that he would pay, wondering if she should offer to give him the money for her meal. But when they got to the door,  the red headed man took her hand and said ‘now we run!’ and yanked her almost off her feet. Then they were running down the stairs and out into the street, and the other two were running after. They didn’t stop until they were many streets away, leaning on each other and laughing. She was genuinely shocked and afterwards, for the rest of her time in the city, worried about it, worried that somebody would recognise her, wondered if she should go in and offer to pay, but it seemed an impossibility. Not her fault. And so she just let it go.

After that, they got a taxi, all chipping in for the fare. It stopped outside an old stone building that seemed to be divided into flats. They went up a narrow stair and knocked on a door. After a muttered conversation between the friend of a friend and somebody inside they were admitted to a shabby room. There was an ordinary wooden table and the smell of petrol was in the air, sickly and strong. She saw that the table was stacked with ranks of glass lemonade and wine bottles and funnels, like when her dad made wine on the kitchen table, but the bottles were full of something else. There were pieces of paper stuffed into the necks of them and trailing down the sides. She should have been afraid but she wasn’t.  There was an odd sort of excitement about it. But they didn’t stay there long.

‘Not safe’, the red headed man said. ‘They don’t know what they’re doing. And besides I need a smoke.’ So they went out of the flat and down the stone stairs that smelled of pee and potatoes, and all the time they took her with them, as though she were one of them, as though she were part of the group. But still none of it seemed in any way real. Afterwards, when she came to look back on it, it was as if she had been watching a character in some art house film. And then they were walking through the empty streets of the city, which was very art house as well, and a thin rain was starting. The red headed man in his suit that was dusty and creased, as though he had slept in it one too many nights, pulled on the very end of his cigarette like a drowning man sucking in air and said ‘oh shit.’ She said that she would have to go because the nuns locked the doors of the hostel before midnight.  The friend of a friend said – as if the idea had just occurred to him – ‘maybe we could hire a car between us or borrow one and you could drive us down to Cork.’

 Taken aback, she said ‘But I can’t drive. I haven’t learnt yet.’

The red headed man, with his bruised face, who had suddenly bent double because the deep breathing seemed to have hurt his ribs, stood upright again and pulled off his glasses, and she could see that he had two black eyes, all bruised and raw with the whites shot through with red veins. He put out his hand and took hold of her arm, and stared at her, really stared at her. She felt a frisson of something that might have been fear or pity or something else altogether.

How old are you? he asked.

‘I’m eighteen,’ she said and he said ‘Sweet fucking Jesus Christ almighty! I thought you were twenty five at least.’ He looked at his friend and said ‘What is she doing here? What the fuck is she doing here?’

The friend shrugged. She realised that she was very frightened. There was a pause, a space of a few seconds, then the red headed man sighed and shook his head. He took her gently by the shoulders.

‘Listen to me. Go home now. This is not for you,’ he said.

He turned and walked off down the empty street. He seemed very angry all of a sudden.  They followed him,  the friend of a friend remonstrating with him. She trailed after them feeling faintly embarrassed, and they walked until they were back on Grafton Street.

‘You know your way from here?’ asked the friend of a friend.

‘Yes but what about him?’

‘He’ll be fine. Won’t you Liam?’

The red headed man turned towards her but he had put his sunglasses back on again and she couldn’t see his eyes. His smile was a grimace.

‘Oh yes’ he said. ‘I’ll be as right as rain. You go home now. Go home.’

She went back to the hostel. She was almost late. A tight lipped nun was waiting in the hall, rattling a bunch of keys. There was a marble font of holy water to one side of the door.

‘Goodnight sister.’ she said.

She dipped her hand into the water, crossed herself and went up to bed.

(First published in The Edinburgh Review 2009)

Award winning playwright and novelist Catherine Czerkawska has been living and writing in Scotland for many years. Catherine is an experienced writer, with a good track record in traditional publishing, fiction and non-fiction, and with many professionally produced (and published) plays to her name. She has taught for Arvon at Moniack Mhor and held a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellowship for some years. She is currently on the committee of the Society of Authors in Scotland and on the board of the Ayrshire Arts Network. 

Visit Catherine’s Festival Page and her Amazon Author Page