Friday 20 September 2019

Roddy Doyle's Charlie Savage: Being spotted on the top deck calls for an immaculate deception


Illustration by Ben Hickey
Illustration by Ben Hickey
Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle

I still get a bit of a buzz when I'm going up the stairs, even when the legs are protesting. My mother warned me never to go upstairs on the bus. So, of course, I did.

- Only corner boys go up there, she told me. - And girls who should know better.

What my poor mother didn't know was that her older sons were the corner boys she'd warned me about. They went upstairs, past the conductor, and colonised the upper deck. I was straight up after them, up each big step, thrilled to be in their company. I was only eight but I really wanted to see the girls who should have known better. That was a disappointment. There were no girls upstairs that first time, not even a few of the ones who did know better. But I was with my big brothers. Even if they didn't want me with them, it didn't matter; I was one of the big boys, upstairs on the bus. I listened to them giving cheek to the conductor.

- Keep the change, Mister. Buy yourself a hat.

I watched them walloping each other with their kit bags. I looked at them shouting out the windows, at people down on the street.

- Here, Missis! Mind your tights!

That first time when I went upstairs with the brothers, we were coming home from football. The second time, I was on my own. The bus stopped in Raheny village, where SuperValu is now. I looked down - and saw my mother looking up. At me. Just as the bus was moving off.

My first thought was: "That wasn't Ma." My second thought was: "Yes, it was." My third thought was: "I'm dead." I walked up our road slowly from the bus stop in the hope that she'd be there when I got home, that she'd been there all along, that it had been a different woman in Raheny who just happened to be wearing my mother's coat and looked exactly like my mother. She wasn't home and I sat on the step, and waited. Then I had an idea. I ran across to Leggy O'Leary's house and shouted up at his window.

- Leggy?!

He was in there; Leggy never went anywhere. He had the longest legs in our class in school but he never used them.

- What?

- Come down a minute.

- Why?

- I'll tell you - come down first. It took him about two days to get down the stairs and I heard him groaning when he was opening the door. I kept looking down the road to see if my mother was coming. The timing was vital.

- What?

- Give us a jumper, I told Leggy.

I'd taken my one off and stuffed it into our hedge.

- Why? said Leggy.

Even speaking, he was a lazy get; it took him half an hour to get the word out. But I told him; I explained the problem, and my plan. With a different jumper on, I could insist it hadn't been me.

- Go on, I said. - Get us a jumper. Not blue, but.

I pointed at his jumper. It was grey - it might have been white.

- Give us that one.

- No way, said Leggy.

He went in, and came back - surprisingly fast - with a jumper, a red one. I grabbed it and ran. It was tight but I had it on and I was sitting on the step, only gasping a bit, when my mother came through the gate.

- There's Charlie, she said.

- Where were you? I asked her, very cheerfully. - I've been waiting here for ages.

- Is that right? she said.

- Yeah, I said. I smiled.

- How was school? she asked.

- What?

It was the week after Easter, I think; I hadn't seen the school or thought of it in ages.

- It's the holidays, I reminded her.

- But you're in your uniform, she said. - And look, you've changed schools.

I looked down at the jumper, at the crest. I was wearing Leggy's sister's school jumper. Mary of Immaculate Conception. I blamed myself. I blamed Leggy. I blamed his sister. I blamed Mary and her immaculate conception.

- Would you prefer to be a girl, Charlie?

She was years ahead of her time, my mother.

- No, I said. I was the same colour as the jumper.

- Good girls don't go upstairs on the bus, Charlie, she said. I saw my chance.

- What about good boys? I said.

She smiled.

- That seems to be more complicated, she said.

She put her full net bag on the path.

- You're the divil, Charlie Savage, she said. - Come on, you can carry the bag to the kitchen. You're my slave for the day.

She went to open the door. She patted my head as she passed me.

- Red's your colour, by the way, she said. - And get your jumper out of the hedge before you come in.

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