Clay Feet 

Billy was only a little boy when his mummy died; he was so little that he couldn’t remember what she looked like, except that she had a nice smell. Sometimes, in the evening, his daddy would take him on his knee and tell him stories about his mummy and how nice she was. Billy’s daddy’s name was also Billy but the grown-ups always called him Will. Billy called him Bill though because his daddy said he was too big a boy to call him Daddy. Billy liked it when his daddy lifted him up on his knees, especially in the summer when they would sit outside on the porch and watch the boats go by on the river. Billy’s father would drink a funny yellow—brown drink from a big bottle and after a while his breath would have a funny smell. The drink also had a funny taste and Billy was not sure if he liked it or not. Once when he had a pain in his tooth and was crying, his daddy came into his room and picked him up on his strong arms and sang to him and when that didn’t make the pain go away, he dipped some cotton wool into the yellowy brown drink and then put that on the sore tooth. That helped a bit and the next day he want to the dentist with his daddy and got a needle stuck into his gum but it didn’t hurt because his daddy held his hand the whole time. Later, when he got home, he put the bad tooth under his pillow and when he went back soon afterwards he found a shiny piece of money and his daddy told him the faeries had put it there because he was a big, brave boy and didn’t cry when the dentist stuck a needle in his gum. For a few days after that, he could stick his tongue into the hole left by the tooth and it felt soft and jellyish there. He couldn’t see it properly because it was in the back of his mouth and he wasn’t sure if he liked the feel of it or not. Billy could never decide if he liked new things or not. He liked his daddy though and he liked the house he and his daddy lived in. It was a nice house with a big garden with two trees in it. On one tree his daddy had made him a swing with a red seat and Billy liked to just sit there and look at the river which was at the end of the garden. He liked the river also and sometimes he and his daddy would go swimming there when it was very hot. Afterwards they always played football and Billy usually won because his daddy couldn’t run fast because he had hurt his leg when his mummy died and the motor car was taken away by the men in the truck with the crane in the back of it.

All the men in the boats that sailed up and down the river knew Billy and his daddy and they always waved when they saw him in the garden. Billy felt very proud then as he waved back and he sometimes wished he had friends to see him waving to the men in the boats. When he grew up, he and his daddy were going to buy a big boat and sail up and down the river as well and Billy’s daddy said he could be the captain. Billy never felt lonely except when he had no friends to see him waving to the men in the boats. Then he would go in and talk to his daddy. His daddy was always at home, tapping away with his big, brown fingers on a black box with letters and numbers written on little squares. It was called a typewriter and sometimes Billy would sit and watch his daddy working and listen for the little bell that rang every few moments and reminded his daddy to pul a little lever so that the letters would keep on coming in straight lines after lines after lines.

Once a man with a camera came to the house and took a lot of pictures of his daddy sitting beside the typewriter and then they talked for a long time in the living room and drank some of the browny-yellow drink that his daddy called malt and when the man went home, he shook hands with Billy and said the best of luck, Mr. Doyle. A few days later, Billy’s daddy showed him a picture of himself in the newspaper. Billy didn’t think the picture looked a bit like his daddy but he pretended to be pleased because his daddy was very pleased and he said that one day, Billy might have his own picture in the newspaper. Billy wasn’t sure if he wanted his picture in the newspaper if it wasn’t going to look like him. That night they had cake for tea and afterwards sat watching television and Billy’s daddy drank a lot of the malt and fell fast asleep in his armchair with his legs on a small stool and Billy saw that the bottle beside him was empty. Billy couldn’t wake him up when the television was over and the man on it said good night to him. His daddy was snoring very loudly and Billy could see the black hairs inside his nose move gently, just like the strands of river weeds move under water when the boats went by.

Billy didn’t really mind his daddy not waking up because he knew his daddy was very happy. The next morning when he got up for breakfast, his daddy was awake and didn’t mind him eating the rest of the cake, left over from the night before, for his breakfast. His daddy didn’t have anything to eat except for two cups of black coffee and two aspirin from the bottle in the cupboard because he said he had a splitting head. When Billy was a very small boy, he thought that people’s heads actually did crack open when they said that but now he was a big boy and he knew that his daddy only meant that he had a pain in his head.

Later in the morning, they got the little red bus into the village because Billy’s daddy had to buy some food and afterwards, as a surprise, his daddy bought him new ball because he had lost his old one a few days ago. Then they went into the front room of a house where there were plenty of small tables and chairs and a few men drinking. Billy’s daddy had a big, black drink with a creamy white head on it and Billy had an orangeade. Billy’s father laughed and said that the black and white drink was a hair of the dog that bit him. Billy laughed too but didn’t understand what his daddy meant and when he asked him where the dog had bitten him his daddy only laughed again and the man who gave them the drinks laughed too. Billy felt a bit silly then so he laughed too as if he had understood the joke.

*

The weather was very hot and it hadn’t rained for days and days. Billy lay in the garden all day and became very brow and he swam a lot. His daddy was very busy and said he only had time for one swim a day. Every night, after Billy went to bed, he could hear his daddy tap-tapping away on the typewriter and quite often when Billy came down for breakfast, he found his daddy asleep with his head on the table beside the typewriter and there were pages and pages scattered on all the chairs and on the floor as well. But there was no bottle of malt or anything else on the floor and when Billy asked why, his daddy smiled and ruffled his hair and said he had no time as he had to make a deadline. Billy had to make breakfast, dinner and tea for himself and his daddy but he didn’t mind. He was a very good cook as his daddy had shown him how to fry eggs and rashers, spooning the hot fat carefully over the yellow of the egg until he could see a pink tinge to the yellow. Tea and coffee were easy to make and it was simple to heat up tins of beans and spaghetti. Once he cut his finger when he was opening a tin of sardines for the tea, but he didn’t cry as he know his daddy was very busy. However, when his daddy saw the blood on his handkerchief, he kissed Billy and said he was a very good little boy but he must promise to tell his daddy immediately if anything that like that ever happened again. His daddy put a big bandage on his finger and kissed it better and said he didn’t know what he’d do if he didn’t have Billy to look after him.

After the tea, Billy’s daddy said it was time that he had a rest from work so they left all the dirty dishes piled in the kitchen sink and went out for a walk along the riverbank. It was nice in the cool of the evening to walk slowly along and watch the ducks floating quietly along. Billy knew the proper names of the ducks because his daddy had once told him their names and proudly now, he pointed out the brown and green mallards and the speckled widgeons and his daddy said he was the best boy in the world. After a while, they stopped for a rest as daddy’s leg was hurting him and Billy skimmed stones across the water. He could nearly always get a stone to jump over the smooth surface of the water at least once or twice but he could never make the stones jump as far as his daddy did.

On their way home they saw a man sticking up a big coloured poster on the tree beside the road and his daddy waited for him while Billy ran to see what the poster said.  It was a big orange poster with pictures of elephants, lions, dancing horses, clowns and lots of other things and the man told Billy the circus was coming to town next week for one night only. Billy stood staring at the picture of the elephant, balancing on one leg on top of a bucket while horse with girls standing on their backs galloped around in circles for so long that his daddy had to call him several times before he heard. When Billy ran back to him he was so excited  that he had to wait a few minutes until he got his breath back before he could tell his daddy the news.

Billy had never been to the circus or to a zoo and he only knew the animals through his picture books or through the television and he longed to really see all the strange animals. He was little bit frightened too, although he would never have admitted it to anyone, just in case the animals, some of whom were very fierce, ever got loose but he knew that if he was with his daddy he would be as safe as when his daddy tucked him up in his bed.

His daddy was nearly as excited as Billy was and he said that it had been a very long time since he had been to a circus. Billy looked up at his daddy’s face  and realised that he was an old man, far, far older than Billy himself was. Now that he thought of it, on his daddy’s birthday cake last month, there were no birthday candles because, Billy now supposed, there was not enough room to show all the candles needed for his age. As they walked back home, his daddy told him stories about circuses which travelled all over the world and were welcomed wherever they went. Billy half closed his eyes and held his daddy’s big warm hand and listened to the descriptions of all the strange and exciting sights he would see himself next week. He decided that, first of all, he would like to be, when he grew up of course, a captain of a big boat on the river. Then, if he got tired of that, to be like his Daddy who knew such an awful lot about everything and then, perhaps he would like to be the circus ringmaster dressed in a big black coat with a shiny topcoat, cracking a long whip as all the horses danced around him. He was still thinking about the circus when his daddy came into his bedroom later that night to tuck him in.

At breakfast the next day his daddy told him he had a nice surprise for him. Billy couldn’t think of what could surprise him after all he had seen and heard about the circus the previous night. His daddy put down the letter he was reading and told him that his Auntie Fran was coming to stay a few days and that she was especially looking forward to seeing Billy since she hadn’t seen him since he was a tiny baby. Billy wasn’t quite sure if this was a nice surprise or not. Certainly, it was not as nice or as exciting as the circus but it might turn out to be just as good. Billy couldn’t remember Auntie Fran; in fact, he didn’t know any of his uncles or aunts although his daddy had told him he had three or four. A long time ago, Billy didn’t remember when, as he was only a little boy, but his daddy had said it was after the time his mummy died, all his uncles and aunts had stopped coming to visit them. Billy certainly hadn’t missed them and he didn’t think his daddy had either. When he asked his daddy if he were happy Auntie Fran was coming to visit, his daddy gave him a small smile and ruffled his hair and said of course he was, but Billy couldn’t make up his mind. While he was eating his toast and marmalade, his daddy told him about Auntie Fran. She was his mummy’s sister and she lived in Dublin. Her husband was dead and she was very rich. She lived in a very big house with a very small garden with no trees in it at all  near the centre of the city. There was river near her house too, but his daddy said it wasn’t the same type of river that ran past their garden. It was a very big river and the water was dirty and you couldn’t swim in it where Auntie Fran lived. Billy had never been to Dublin and had never seen the big, dirty river  but it didn’t sound very nice. His Auntie also had a large, black car and a man called a chauffeur to drive it but she wasn’t coming down in her big car, his daddy said, but by train instead. When Billy asked why she was coming to visit them, his daddy scratched the side of his face and said that was a very good question but that he didn’t know the answer.

*

Billy had taken his shirt off and was sitting on the swing because it was too hot to play when the taxi drove up to the gate and a fat woman in a long brown coat got out. Billy suddenly felt shy and ran to hide behind the hedge before she could see him. She looked very fat and she had four brown cases with her, three of them were  very big, and the other was quite small. She had a very loud voice and Billy could clearly hear her telling the taxi man not to scuff her cases as he carried them up the path to the hall door. Every few moments she said she wondered where in goodness Will could be and the taxi man didn’t say anything. Then Billy’s daddy came out of the house and gave some money to the taxi man  and Auntie Fran said well it has been a long time Will, and his daddy first of all looked up at the sky and then down at his shoes and said something that Billy couldn’t hear.

When he came in for his tea a while later, his Auntie was saying that the house was like a hovel. Billy didn’t understand what hovel meant but he guessed his Auntie was annoyed about something, maybe because their house had a bigger garden with trees in it, but he wasn’t sure. Then he saw that she was pointing at the kitchen sink with all the dirty dishes piled in it as well as the empty tin of steak and kidney pie they had had for their lunch. His daddy was leaning against the wall with his arms folded and was saying nothing. His Auntie stopped talking when she saw him and they both continued to look at each other for what seemed to Billy to be the longest time. He meant to say something polite to his new Auntie and his daddy had earlier suggested that he ask her if she had a pleasant journey down from Dublin but Auntie Fran was so big that Billy felt a little afraid of her.

His Auntie Fran smiled at him then and asked if he had lost his tongue and was he not going to say hello to his Auntie? Billy didn’t know what to do then and he decided she didn’t have as nice a smile as his daddy had but he said hello without looking at her. He looked at her shoes instead which were brown and seemed to squeeze her fat feet.

‘Say hello properly, Billy’ his daddy said and, with an effort, Billy tore his eyes away from her feet and looked up at her. He meant to ask her how she was but instead blurted ‘When are you going back to Dublin?’ Later his daddy told him that  it wasn’t a nice question to ask someone who has only just arrived.

Auntie Fran didn’t say anything to him but turned to his daddy and said, ‘I declare to my judge, Will, I don’t know what kind of little boy you have here. He doesn’t seem to have any manners on him at all.’ 

Billy wanted to say that he wasn’t a little boy and that he did have manners but his daddy caught his eye  and shook his head slightly so Billy didn’t say anything.

‘Aren’t you going to give your Auntie a kiss, like a good boy?’

Billy slowly went over to the chair where Auntie Fran sat and pressed his lips against her cheek. His lips came away powdery and he rubbed them with the back of his hand.

‘Isn’t he a real man?’ his Auntie Fran said, laughing.’He takes right after you, Will. I must say, however, that hair is much to long for a little boy. If you saw him from behind, you’d think he was a little girl. We’ll have to see about getting it cut nice and short, won’t we?’

Billy was horrified by the idea. He liked his hair long and his daddy often said he looked like the picture of Cu Chulainn that Billy had in one of his books.

“The child likes his hair the way it is, Fran and I see no harm in it’. Billy’s father said quietly from the corner.

‘Nonsense, we’ll have to get it cut in the morning. That’s the way all the corner boys are now in Dublin with long hair and spitting out of them.’

After tea, Auntie Fran said she would make a start on cleaning up the mess and after she had gone into the scullery, Billy’s daddy frowned at the wall and said nothing. Billy excused himself and ran into the living room to watch television but occasionally, when the draught from the open window blew the door into the kitchen open a few inches, Billy could hear his daddy and Auntie Fran talking. Later they both came into the living room and Billy’s daddy offered Auntie Fran a drink. She said she’d have a small sherry but Billy’s daddy only had Malt in the cupboard so she didn’t have anything. For a long while they all sat in silence watching a cowboy film on television but when Billy’s daddy reached for the malt bottle to give himself another drink, Auntie Fran said quietly, ‘Easy Will, remember the last time you had a few drinks’.

Billy didn’t understand this as his daddy had a drink every night and nothing ever happened. Even if something had happened last night or the night before, Billy reasoned, how could Auntie Fran know, seeing as she had only arrived that afternoon.

‘For God’s sake, Fran, don’t rake up old memories. That was more than five years ago. Things are different now.’ his daddy said, a little bit annoyed, Billy thought

‘Even so,’ Auntie Fran insisted. ‘Even so. Anyway, it’s a bad example to give to the child. These are the formative years you know.’

‘He’a no longer a babe in arms, Fran, as you can see and he doesn’t mind me taking a drink. He is quite used to the idea. There is no harm in a man having a drop or two after his tea.’

‘But that’s just the point, he’s not even seven yet and to see you, every night, I suppose, could have a very serious effect on his life later. Anyway, I think you know who is listening so we will talk later.’

‘Fran, there’s no point in …’ Billy’s fathers voice tailed off and Billy looked up but his daddy was looking into the glass he held in his hand.

When the cowboy film was over, Auntie Fran looked up and Billy asked her if she wanted to watch the other channel instead. 

‘Off to bed now, love, aren’y you? I’m sure you have had a tiring day for a little boy.’ Auntie Fran smiled. Billy was going to say that he never went to bed until the television shut down for the night and sometimes he even stayed up later, on Christmas and on his birthdays but his daddy looked over at him and said, ‘Just this once, Billy, like a good man’.

As Billy was going up the stairs, he could hear Auntie Fran saying, ’Will, this has got to stop. You’re spoiling the child. I’m warning you, you’ll get no thanks for it. He’ll turn into another cheeky little monkey. As it is, he looks a disgrace with the length of the hair on him.’ 

For a long time after Billy got into bed, he could hear voices downstairs and sometimes he could make out parts of a sentence – ‘ … got to be firm …’ ‘… advice … him … boarding school … ‘Nothing wrong … Billy …quite happy … ‘ … wreak and ruin … ‘ … naturally a quiet boy …’ ‘ … needs … some manners … ask me …’.

*

The next morning, Billy was playing in the garden with his football when his daddy came out and sat on the swing. After a while he asked Billy how it was going. Billy didn’t have to answer and instead threw his ball at his daddy who caught it and threw it back at him, He jumped up into the air to catch it and then fell into the long, dewy grass and rolled over. He liked the feeling of the wet grass and he liked to see the drops of dew shining in the sunlight. He threw the ball then quickly and his daddy missed. Billy shouted ‘D for Donkey, D for donkey.’ 

His father picked up the ball and sat down again on the swing and, instead of throwing it to Billy, turned it over and over in his  hands.

‘If I asked you, Billy, as a favour to me, would you get your hair cut?’

Billy stopped rolling in the grass and looked at his daddy ‘Why?’

‘Because that old … because Auntie Fran thinks you’d look like a much older and bigger boy if you did.’

‘I don’t want to look older and be bigger. I want to stay like this for always. Anyway, I like my hair.’ Billy said stubbornly.

‘I know you do, Billy, but it’s just this once and then you can grow it again when Auntie Fran leaves. She’s only staying a few more weeks. Besides, it’s good for your hair to have it cut now and then, like the grass in the top paddock. It makes it grow all the stronger. However, if you don’t want to do me a favour … that’s all right.’

Billy waited a while to see if his daddy would say anything else but when he didn’t, he got up and took the ball from his daddy.

‘Alright,’ he said carelessly, ’I will get it cut!’. He kicked the ball the length of the garden and ran after it.

*

The back of Billy’s head felt cold and bristly and when he ran, he could no longer see the shadow of his hair bouncing up and down against the ground. He didn’t like getting his hair cut but, as his daddy said, it was a special favour to him and his daddy very rarely asked him to do  him a favour. Anyway, as a treat, when they left the barbershop, which had an oily smell Billy didn’t like, they went to a café while they were waiting for the bus. Billy’s daddy bought him a bottle of red lemonade which he mixed up with vanilla ice cream in a big glass.The ice cream fizzed and bubbled when the lemonade was poured on top. The mixture was cold, creamy and lovely. Billy thought it was the nicest drink in the world.

When they went home, Auntie Fran said that Billy looked like a nice boy now instead of an old cissy. Billy decided he didn’t care what Auntie Fran thought he looked like and he made up his mind to avoid her as much as possible while she stayed with them.

However, whenever she saw him, at mealtimes and at night when he was watching television, she always had something to say to him about having dirty fingernails or eating his food too fast. He went to bed early every night now and he noticed he was sent off to bed a little earlier than the night before. He didn’t really mind all that much because his daddy had asked him as a favour.

Sometimes, when Auntie Fran was washing the dishes in the scullery and his daddy was in his armchair in the living room, Billy would run to him and sit on his knee and it would be just like before Auntie Fran came to stay. Once she came in when he was on his daddy’s knee and she called him a big cissy.

His daddy frowned but didn’t say anything so Billy got off and sat in his own armchair. Later that same night Auntie Fran told Billy to stop fidgeting in his chair and for a while he stopped but in a few minutes he forgot and started again and Auntie Fran leaned over and smacked him on his bare leg. It wasn’t a hard slap but it was the shock of being slapped in the first place that hurt because Billy’s daddy had never smacked him.

Through the prickling tears that made everything look blurry and far away he could hear his daddy saying if the child needed punishment, he himself would do it and no one else. Auntie Fran said a good slap every now and then did a child a world of good. His daddy didn’t say anything but Billy knew he was annoyed with Auntie Fran.

The next day the circus arrived and in the morning Billy ran down to see the men put up the tents. They all took off their shirts as the sun got hotter  and Billy could see the muscles in their backs and bare arms working as they pulled on the long ropes and suddenly, as if by magic, the big grey tent mushroomed up. People hurried by, shouting and hammering iron spikes deep into the ground but there was no sign of the animals. However, when he asked a man, he was told all the animals were arriving after dinner.

Billy walked home slowly for his lunch but decided he wouldn’t go to the field that afternoon to see the animals arriving because he wanted to see them at their best, parading under the bright lights of the tents. He was so excited about the coming night that he could hardly eat his dinner and Auntie Fran kept asking him what he was smiling at.

After lunch, he didn’t know what to do so he went out into the garden. It wasn’t a nice day any longer, the sky had clouded over with big black clouds and it was very warm but it wouldn’t rain. Billy thought it might thunder and lightning and he hoped it would because he loved to watch it when he was safely tucked up in his bed and could see the trees wildly tossing their heads about in the sudden short flashes of sharp blue light.

The afternoon slowly dragged on and Billy counted each moment of it. After a while, he got tired of rocking on the swing and went in to watch his daddy work. The steady tapping of his father’s fingers on the typewriter, punctuated by the little bell which he could never see, calmed him and before he knew it, he fell asleep, curled up in his armchair. When he woke up it was tea time and immediately after it was all over, Billy wanted to set out for the big field. His daddy, however wasn’t ready as he had to finish off some very important business and besides, he said, they had all the time in the world. Billy was so anxious not to miss a thing that he made his dad ring a man up on the phone and find out the time of the last show that evening at 9:30pm. Restlessly Billy walked up and down the hall, his coat hanging ready on the bannisters.

Then it got very dark and Billy heard a tremendous crash and a noise as if someone was throwing stones on their tiled roof. The thunder began and, pleased with the distraction, Billy ran up to his bedroom and lay on the bed beside the window. It was raining very heavily now and the river was being whipped into a grey and white foam. The next time the thunder roared, Billy was ready and he had only counted three when the room was brilliantly lit with an electric blue light that remained in his closed eyes long after the flash had gone. Sometimes the huge forks of lightning seemed to be coming directly at him and Billy shivered with a terrified pleasure and sometimes they seemed to be running through the sky away from him.

Finally it was time to get ready and Billy ran downstairs for his coat on the bannisters, calling for his daddy. Before he reached the hall, the living room door opened  and Auntie Fran came out. ‘What’s all this noise for Billy, your daddy and I were just ….’

She broke off as she saw Billy struggling into his coat. 

‘I hope you don’t think you are going out into that storm, mister, do you?

‘We’re going to the circus in the field and … 

‘But it’s already well past your bed time  and I am most certainly not allowing you out in this weather, no matter where you think you’re going,’ Auntie Fran said firmly. ‘Will, what’s this nonsense about going to a circus on a night like this?’

Billy’s father came out into the hall and looked at Billy, all dressed and ready to go.’Well’, he said, ‘it is a circus and I did promise the boy …’

‘Are you mad?’demanded Auntie Fran.‘In this weather? Do you want the child to catch his death of cold? Anyway, it is long past his bed time. I really don’t understand you, Will. Just listen to that rain. I’ll tell  you this much – not one or the other of you will leave this house tonight unless it is over my dead body.  There’s more important things than circuses, you know? I’m sure Billy understands, don’t you, love? You can always go to another circus.’

Billy’s dad hesitated and Billy’s heart stood still.

‘I want to go to the circus, Bill, I don’t care,  I want to go. Daddy, you promised’

‘Your Auntie’s right, you know, Billy. Not even a dog would go out in this weather. We can always go to another circus and … ‘

‘You promised’.

‘Besides, Billy, it’s very late and the only place for little boy like you is wrapped up nice and snug in his bed,’ Auntie Fran added.

‘But daddy …’

‘Now Will, you have got to be firm with the child. I told you something like this would happen. You have spoilt him to such an extent that he can’t take no for an answer.’

‘I promise, Billy, I’ll take you to the next circus that comes and that’s a genuine promise, cross my heart, but your Auntie is right, we can’t go out tonight.

For the first time in a long time, Billy made no attempt to hide his tears which flowed freely down his cheeks. Turning, he ran blindly up the stairs, the lightning searing his eyes. 

‘I hate, you, I hate you, you promised me, I hate you.’