Short Stories

Highgate 1956 by Fiona O’Rourke


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Memories gather like mourners at a wake

On the back is written the place and year: Highgate 1956. You are captured in black and white, natty-suited, shirt and tie. A white hanky alps your pocket. Above your head a sign says Guinness Time, confirms this is an Irish pub. You hold a rolled-up newspaper mightier than the cigarette that warms your other palm. A shy look of distrust about the eyes. The way your third daughter will stare at a school photographer. She’s got a name somewhere along with the others.

You’re a head-buried-in-a-newspaper type of man. Voice given to sudden song. High-pitched head shaking melodies plucked from spent decades.

The camera is owned by your cousin. Tall fella, sandy eyelashes. Communist, an antique dealer from Leitrim – you could not make it up. His wedding gift (a punch bowl) sometimes features in a pawn shop window, to help you pay some scandalous bill.

Your workmates are photographers. Or, like you, shorthand notebook men at football matches, council meetings, court cases, pantomimes where you must observe God Save the Queen. Imagine the wee Orange lads back in your childhood town wetting themselves laughing at you stood to attention. News and sports, horse race hunter gatherer for a career, it will be hard not to wager a bet or two.

Landladies can say No to Irish, Dogs and Blacks. Still, it’s a safe enough decade to sport Northern blether across the water. An NUJ card opens the heaviest of locked doors. You find a room (pretending to be the intended boarder) all the while lugging a suitcase for a friend of colour. Caribbean. Awful nice fella. His name long gone.

You try for a job back in Ireland. Only another reporter pours cold water on that prospect, then disappears to sail that boat. Your future wife goes: sneaky toerag, couldn’t trust a man with initials for a name. You meet again across a future desk. Two decades wiser (him two decades wider, tee-hee). You’re too lighthearted to bear a grudge.

Before all that, evening duty has you miss the last train home. You set up bed in graveyard grass. As silent as a headstone until woken by a bicycle cop, beaming a torch light invitation: accompany him to drink tea and play cards till dawn.

I try to borrow that memory: all along the policeman is a ghost and there is no station. It closed years before due to good behaviour. My recall of your recollections is as scattered as the telling.

I try to squeeze my fiction on your story but it will not fit the memory in the way that suits no longer fit. And trips to bookies yield thirty-five pence which may have been worth something back in Highgate 1956.

I dread that people will gather soon to drink tea and whiskey, and confirm all such antics, that the recognition will feel like the tail end of a morning dream.