The novelist recalls growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness and the impact of the Birmingham pub bombings as the child of an Irish mother and Afro-Caribbean father
At Waverley Grammar School we have music once a week, but in the autumn half-term they bump this up to three. Christmas approaches. We are learning the Hallelujah chorus for the Christmas concert.
The music room is near the assembly hall, a massive room with a high ceiling and wooden floor, 30 chairs circling a grand piano. There’s no blackboard, no desks, just light and space and the feeling, as you walk through the door, that some part of you might be brought alive by the music. You might learn the opening chorus of the operetta Robin Hood or be one of the “three little maids” of The Mikado with Mr Martin bouncing up and down on his spongy Nature Trek shoes, poking his baton at “You!” now “You!”, and your heart swells and you rise to it and sing with your chest out, curling your tongue around The Modern Major-General. “And again!” Mr Martin shouts as we near the end. “And again!”
I wait by Mr Martin’s desk at the front of the music room. The whole class is quiet. “Yes?” he says.
“Mom says I can’t learn any hymns, sir.”
Mr Martin frowns and smooths inches of lank red hair over the top of his bald head. He stands and adjusts his black gown, chalk-marked and creased, scruffier than every other teacher’s.
“Hymns? Hymns?” he says, as though I’ve spoken a foreign language. “Does your mother believe in God?” Everyone is listening.
“Yes, sir. We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
“Listen,” he says and walks to the piano. He bangs his fingers on the keys and bellows at full strength.
“‘For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth!’ Do you believe that God is Lord?”
“Yes, sir, but—”
“And that the Lord is omnipotent, all knowing, all seeing, and reigns over the heavens and the earth?”
“Yes, sir, but —”
“Then this is not a hymn, is it, girl? It is a statement of fact. Tell your mother you are announcing statements of facts set to music. Go and sit down. You are not excused.”
Oh, the beauty of it. The sweet release. I am not excused. There’s nothing I can do about it. He passes round sheets of music and goes to each child.
“For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth! Sing it, boy! … Tenor. Next! You, yes, you,” he says to Queenan, the only boy who’s shaving. “The same. Sing!”
He listens with his eyes closed. “Bass. Good. At least we’ll have one. Next!”
And so it goes until, after a short solo, he decides I will sing alto.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
I learn my part, practise my part, guard it in my heart. My sister Kim, a soprano, has had the same talk from Mr Martin, that we are singing Handel’s statement of fact that God shall reign forever and ever, accompanied by a little orchestral support, and we sing in harmony at the bus stop, on our walks home, in bed when the others are asleep. We sing until we are perfect, until Mr Martin has Kim in the front row, soprano, and me right behind her, and the concert is set for a Tuesday night. A Tuesday night. Meeting night. A Christmas concert.
After rehearsals one day, we are on the first of the three buses we take from school to home.
“She won’t come, will she?” I ask Kim about Mom because Kim knows how she thinks.
“We could tell her it was just a play or something, or just a rehearsal for something.”
That’s the other thing about Kim, she won’t lie. She says nothing. She wants this as much as I do. It’s a whole-school concert and she’s in the front row. She could have been in the orchestra with her violin, but her voice is so pure and piercing that she’s right in front of Mr Martin, and when he digs the baton in the air, he digs it straight at her with joy.
“What shall we say?” I ask.
Later that same night, we are walking home from the bus stop after a house meeting. It’s late. We are cold, we are tired. As usual, Mom’s talking to Kim about what we’ve learned.
“Isn’t it interesting that the Greeks have so many words for love?” she says, holding Karen’s hand and looking up at Kim for instruction, as usual overawed by Kim’s intelligence and grasp of complex doctrine. She asks Kim about stars, maths, kings, prophecies, dynasties, dinosaurs, poets, painters, and Kim always has an answer, delivered with the authority of the old and wise.
“Yes, Brother Christou said there were seven,” she answers, “but agapé is the love Jehovah has for us.”
Tracey, Dean and I, by wordless agreement, slow down, hang back, careful not to get drawn into yet more religious instruction after two endless hours of it.
Kim continues. “We should take every opportunity to praise him, shouldn’t we?”
“Yes,” says Mom, assuming the role of pupil.
“We’re learning about it at school. Something written in the 18th century, about the role of public praise in worship.”
My ears prick up. She couldn’t be so clever, could she?
Mom has her head bowed. She sniffs. “I wish I’d been good at school. I was too busy looking after my brothers and sisters and I never got the chance to —”
Kim is not so easily distracted and, anyway, we’ve heard this lament a thousand times. “It was written by someone called Handel.”
“Handel,” repeats my mother, hoping it will bed down in her underused brain.
“It’s very interesting, actually.” She half turns so I can glean her intent. “And we’re going to a concert about it the week after next.”
“The importance of public worship, Mom. Exactly what we were learning about at the meeting. The necessity of having a response to agapé and its role in our service as Christians. The omniscience of the creator, Hebrews, chapter 1, verse 8. Christ’s reign over all the earth as in Luke, chapter 1, verse 33.”
One too many concepts for the uneducated Irish girl from the misty green fields of Wexford. She falls to silence.
“It’s the first week in December, a Tuesday,” Kim pursues. “Me and Mandy [Kit] will be going.”
I’m on the bus to school the next day and realise something has changed. The conductor is talking to everyone about the bomb and all the buses are being diverted away from town. There are traffic jams everywhere and a scary sort of feeling in the air.
By the time I get to class the register has already been taken and I have to explain to the teacher why I’m late.
“You live in Moseley, don’t you?” says Mr Ellis.
“Did you come through town?”
“Digbeth, sir, so yes, nearly.”
“Right, OK. Sit down.”
Everyone looks at me. I haven’t been told off and don’t know why. We have to go straight to a special assembly.
Mr Mills stands and there is an immediate hush.
“Children,” he says, “many of you will already know that there was a bomb in the city centre last night.”
Murmuring and shuffling.
“Quiet! As far as we are aware, no member of staff nor any pupils of this school are missing nor were in any way involved. Nevertheless, we are aware that this is an extremely distressing event. Many young people lost their lives last night and no doubt there are many more fatalities yet to come.”
All the teachers are on the stage behind the headmaster. They look shocked and pale. Mrs Heatherington looks like she might cry.
“We will say a prayer.”
I do not move. I won’t walk out while the whole school watches and not be part of this, so I put my head down and see Kim do the same.
By lunchtime the news is everywhere. It’s the IRA. There are huddles of children talking about what they know and who might have died and how their cousin nearly went to that pub and their dad knows someone who knows someone who could have died but didn’t.
One girl crosses her arms and screws up her face. “My mom says the Irish are like that. They just want to kill us all. They’re murderers and they don’t care who they hurt.”
“Yes,” says another, “the bombers will be hiding in a dirty Irish house right now, but the police will get them. I mean, Irish people are so thick and stupid they’ll get caught.”
I stand and listen then walk away but all week it’s the same. Every day someone else dies and the IRA are condemned by someone new. Every day there’s a victim’s mother or brother or sister or son interviewed on telly or in the newspaper and every day the Irish are worse than the day before — terrorists, murderers, evil, stupid. No one knows I’m Irish. I’m the black girl at school and unless I stand up and declare my Irishness no one will ever guess. I say nothing.
One night there’s a knock at the door. It’s the police. “We’re looking for Mr O’Loughlin,” they say.
Dad gets up and joins Mom on the doorstep.
“Mr O’Loughlin?” says the copper.
“Yes,” says Dad. “What’s it about?”
“You’re Mr O’Loughlin?”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Oh!” says the copper “We’re looking for someone… else.”
The other copper steps in. “It’s about the bombs, sir,” he says, “sorry to trouble you, just following up on a lead. Not to worry. Enjoy your evening, sir.”
We watch them leave, disappointed not to see a panda car parked outside the house.
“They should have talked to you, eh, Sheilo?” says Dad, but Mom’s face is like thunder.
“That’s not funny, Arthur. No Irish person can hold their head up in Birmingham any more. Don’t joke about it.”
And so the concert comes and goes. We stay after school that Tuesday with no packed tea like the other children bring. We have no extra money to go to the shop under special dispensation to get sweets, but we are used to the hunger.
The hall fills up with parents. Neither one of ours. We sing and we are applauded and afterwards the headmaster smiles and says: “Very good, both of you.”
We manage to get two biscuits each from the plates that are set out for the adults and as we nibble them on the number 17 bus we relive our moment in the spotlight, the crowds of teachers and parents, the sweet harmonies and soaring chorus. Hallelujah.
‘Without Warning and Only Sometimes’ by Kit de Waal is out now from Tinder Press