It was Margaret who told us that Mary had gone.
It was a Saturday morning, one of those we all remember, blackbirds singing in the hedges, sunlight pouring down into our small back garden. I was at the back step, eating toast. Catherine had taken some breakfast to Mam, who was still upstairs. God knows where Colin was.
Margaret was on the swing, pushing herself sluggishly back and forward. I saw the tears on her face, how she’d used her hair to try to dry them.
‘What’s up?’ I said. I looked around the garden. ‘Where’s Mary?’
She sobbed helplessly, then caught her breath.
‘Mary’s gone,’ she said. ‘She’s run away to join the Fusiliers.’
The Felling Fusiliers. They were a street band from the bottom end of town, one of the hundreds of bands that existed in those days, gathering each Saturday at festivals and fêtes, pouring out of double-decker buses in tunics and glittering helmets to march through our towns behind their banners. They were led by girls with long pale legs throwing maces, and they filled the air with the rattle of drums and the squeal of kazoos. Mary’d been begging all summer to join them. She’d wrapped a broom handle in silver foil and practised for hours, spinning it and catching it. She had her own kazoo and gave us endless renditions of ‘Z Cars’ and ‘Colonel Bogey’ and ‘She Loves You’. Back and forward she would march across the lawn, lifting her knees so high, holding her arms so stiff and her head so still and determined. She persuaded Margaret to join her sometimes, but the youngest sister was still awkward in her movements, she tripped and stumbled and couldn’t keep up, she kept dodging away from the flying broom handle, she complained that the kazoo’s vibrations stung her lips, and so often she ended rocking on the swing in tears.
‘The Fusiliers?’ I said. ‘But when?’
But Margaret’s voice had gone. She just stared helplessly from streaming eyes.
Catherine came to my side. We listened, and we heard Mam’s slow footsteps creaking on the stairs.
‘Her legs are awful this morning,’ she said. ‘We can’t let her know about this.’
‘Tell her we’re going for a walk,’ I said. ‘Tell her we’ll be back in half an hour.’
I stepped down into the garden. I called Margaret from the swing and took her hand. Catherine went in and came out again. We heard Mam calling after us to enjoy ourselves, that it was a great day for walking, that she’d be out with us herself if only she could.
We went through the gate. Catherine dabbed Margaret’s eyes with a handkerchief and took her hand. We turned down the hill towards Felling Square.
I knew as we went down the wide road towards the square, with the town spread out below us and the river shining far below, that each of us was thinking of the sister who had truly gone: Barbara, the sister after Catherine, who’d been too good to stay with us for long, and who’d been so quickly taken back by God. That had been before Mary and Margaret had even arrived, but even they shared the joy of her short life and the pain of her absence. And I knew too that we thought of Dad, who’d died as well with such suffering once all of us were gathered, and whose disappearance haunted all our days. We walked down hand-in-hand and gripped each other tight. We said nothing. We knew that another loss might cause a pain that was unbearable.
As we came to Felling Square we saw Colin. There he was in his combat jacket, inside Dragone’s, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and tapping his fingers on the table with his long-haired friends. The noise of the Rolling Stones poured through the window. We stood and watched, and for a moment in my fascination I forgot my runaway sister.
Margaret tugged my hand.
‘Should we get him?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘He’d know what to do.’
He didn’t see us. We didn’t go in. Too young, too timid, too shy.
‘I know what to do,’ I said. ‘Come on.’
And we pressed on across the square, past the fountain and the flower beds, headed further down through the steep High Street, where many times men and women called out to us, their bright greetings filled with affection and tinged with familiar sympathy. We paused once more, outside St Patrick’s, where we crossed ourselves and said a silent prayer that God would lead Mary safely back to us.
At the bottom of the hill, we took the footbridge across the railway line, we walked through the terraces towards the Fusiliers’ field, we began to hear them, and then at last we saw them, marching across the green. The banner, the long-legged girl throwing the mace, the ranks of children in perfect formation with kazoos at their lips or drums at their waists, lifting their knees so high, holding their heads so still and so proud. At the edges of the field parents leaned on the fences and applauded, dogs yelped, boys kicked footballs across pitches marked with shirts and pullovers. Toddlers stumbled like Margaret had, trying to imitate the band. On the road outside, two red double-decker buses waited.
Stupidly, as if she’d already be dressed in purple with a white helmet, I stared into the Fusiliers, seeking her. I tugged the girls forward, urging them to peel their eyes, and felt my own eyes turning time and time again to the girl with the mace. It was Catherine who saw Mary, of course. She was sitting all alone beneath a hawthorn tree with her broom handle on the grass beside her and the kazoo gripped in her fist. She looked up as we went to her, and though her lips were trembling, her eyes were filled with rage.
‘They didn’t want me,’ she said. ‘They said I couldn’t come.’
She thumped the grass and stared with longing towards the Fusiliers, who played a final chorus of ‘She Loves You’, then tugged off their helmets and began to climb into the buses cheered on by the parents.
‘They’re off to Hebburn Fair,’ she said. She thumped the ground again as the engines started. ‘They’re going to win a silver cup. They said Mam would have to come with me if I want to join.’ Each of us looked down and thought of Mam, who hadn’t been out for weeks because of her legs.
‘And she can’t do that!’ said Mary, lifting her broom handle and getting up to join us. ‘She can’t do that.’
The buses drove away, the parents left the field.
‘Maybe I could come with you,’ I said reluctantly. ‘Or Colin. Or . . .’
But she just looked at me, and we knew it was hopeless, that none of us had any understanding of her fascination, that it was only Mam who’d ever give up time for such a thing. I shrugged, and Margaret took Mary’s hand, and Catherine comforted them both.
Now there were only the footballers, the dogs and us, and the high sun pouring down.
‘Let’s go,’ I said, and back we went through the terraces and over the railway line and on to the High Street. At St Patrick’s we prayed again, this time in thanksgiving, though we could see that Mary still wished she was in the double-decker bus, and that she scowled when we said she’d have to tell the priest in confession what she’d done today.
In Felling Square we paused and drank at the fountain and splashed our faces and kept on smiling at the folk who greeted us.
‘You’ll just have to keep on practising in the garden,’ I said.
‘Till she’s strong enough to come with you. You understand?’
Mary shrugged, spun the broom handle between her fingers, flicked it from one hand to the other.
‘They wouldn’t even let me show how good I am,’ she said.
As we headed on, Colin came out from Dragone’s towards us.
‘Where you lot been?’ he said.
We said nothing. He stared at us.
‘What’s been going on?’
Margaret’s tears started again.
‘Mary ran away to join the Fusiliers,’ she said. ‘We’ve been to get her back.’
Colin pushed his hair back from his eyes, took his cigarettes from his combat jacket. His friends were watching from Dragone’s door. He lit a cigarette. We watched the smoke seething from his teeth.
‘Bad girl,’ he said at last. He wagged his finger at Mary.
‘You’re a bad bad girl.’
Mary hung her head. The others looked at me.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘You’ve been a bad girl, Mary. You must never
do it again.’
I bit my lips. This was what it was like to be fatherly, then.
‘Bad girl,’ I said again.
Colin nodded in approval.
‘Don’t do it again,’ I said. ‘You understand?’
Margaret nudged her.
‘Yes,’ she muttered. ‘I understand.’
Colin held his cigarette towards me.
‘Want a couple off ?’
I stepped forward, sucked the harsh smoke, coughed, sucked again and quickly blew it out. The girls stood hand-in-hand, watching and waiting.
‘It looked bad,’ I said. ‘But I sorted it out.’
I looked at the smoke curling from the cigarette between my fingers, at the old boys gathered at Dragone’s door, heard the distant Rolling Stones.
‘Nice fag,’ I said, drawing again, letting the smoke out through my teeth, then passing it to him. ‘I’d better take them back now.’
‘Go on, then.’
‘Maybe I’ll come down later,’ I said.
He pushed his hair again and looked at me.
‘Aye,’ he said. ‘Maybe you will.’
We headed back up the hill.
‘You could start your own band,’ I said. ‘You and Margaret and Catherine.’
I stared at Margaret and Catherine, saw the looks on their faces. I raised my finger. ‘Yes. You understand?’
Inside the garden, I said, ‘Go on, then, Mary. Show them how it’s done.’
She hung her head and for a moment just stood there beside the swing and looked despairingly at the grass, but in the end she spun the broom handle once or twice and she blew through the kazoo.
‘That’s great,’ I said. ‘But let’s have more life in it. Think of those Fusiliers.’
I put them in order, Mary with the broom handle, Margaret with the kazoo, Catherine clapping her hands like a drum, and though at first their marching and music were stumbling and distressed by the morning’s events, and though I knew that Margaret would soon be sitting on the swing, and that Catherine would lose patience, for a time the knees were raised and the heads were held high and the music really did sound for a short time like ‘She Loves You’.
I stood beside them in the sunlight and felt the joy of being there and of having brought our sister back unharmed. I tasted the enticing bitterness of the cigarette on my tongue. My thoughts kept turning to the long pale legs of the girl with the mace. Then I saw that Mam was at the window, looking out and smiling.
‘Look!’ I called to her. ‘Aren’t they great!’
I saw the joy in her, saw her mouth say, Yes.
‘Go on, girls,’ I said. ‘You’re doing great! Look, Mam. Aren’t they wonderful . . . !’
It was all so long ago. Now Mam’s dead, and Dad died all those years ago, and Barbara was taken before two of us were even born. We who are left still come from all parts of the country to gather together near our old home. Often we tell our children about the day Mary ran away to join the Fusiliers. Sometimes we persuade her to perform for us, and then she hitches up her skirt and holds her arms so stiff and her head so still, and she marches back and forward through the room, tooting the old tunes, and we laugh and laugh, and the children giggle, and point in fascination at the tears in our eyes.
Enter The Competition