The Purple Hills

The boy sneaked another look, fascinated by the way the slight wavy bits in the old glass pane made the hills – purple and blue in the distance – shift and ripple with the merest head movement.

The chalk dust trapped in the afternoon sunlight seemed to shiver in time to the chant of next door’s multiplication tables. But he knew it was really the headmaster, Slugger Sullivan, beating his hand against the supply cupboard. A cough from behind the copy of the Irish Times made him remember where he was and he sighed, returned to his exercise book. He was good at most subjects; geography, arithmetic, history, English, his catechism and the six precepts of the church. But Irish translation was beyond him, he just couldn’t get the hang of it. And at home his Da was no help.

“Irish, is it? I tell ye, it’s a waste o’ time…total! A dead language, like Latin, but at least there the doctors have some use for it – even if it’s on’y to baffle the patients, haw!”

His Mam would mildly chip in, as always, trying not to upset one by denying the other.

He slowly turned the pages, counting how many in Exercise Six: Donachie’s Dog. Oh, Janey Mack, four of them! I’ll never get through this lot before the bell. What’s the stupid animal got up to this time? He began laboriously to pick at the words, doubly difficult for him after a late night spent under the bedclothes following the adventures of Jimmy and his Magic Patch or The Shipwrecked Circus.

…chuir se dhe…he made off…brog…that’s shoe…oh, the eejit, think I can guess the rest.

The loud, hypnotic TICK of the clock lulled his unwilling senses once more, the same clock whose pendulum Mashie Reilly had so hilariously stopped once with a paper pellet from his finger catapult until the teacher announced that “…as time now stands still we can all remain here until the culprit comes out to restart it.”

The hills drew him back, as they always did, seeming to recede if you stared too hard. The old lead mine with its ruined smelter chimney was up there, derelict and deadly dangerous, as they were forever being warned. But where else could you pretend you were on the trail of Blackbeard’s treasure, with its echoing tunnels and crumbling walls? He dreaded the thought of maybe having to sit in a different seat next week and not be able to see that far horizon, shimmering in the distance like some mirage from his favourite book, Beau Geste.

Beeswax O’Hair – who had precious little of it and what there was only a sort of gingery colour and always smarmed down with something his Da called pomade – had this notion that if they all changed places every week it would equip them better for the ‘vicissitudes of life’…whatever that was. Nobody ever had the nerve to ask him…even if they could say it without tripping over their tongue.

His Da scoffed at this one, saying a person should “…always know his place in the scheme o’ things, be it life, work or wimmin, and not be forever driftin’ around like bits o’ flotsam an’ jetsam.” The bit about women got Mam really angry till even his Da gave in with a mumbled apology. But he winked at the boy as he went over to the Sunday Express wall map of Europe, there to move some flags with swastikas and Union Jacks from one place to another.

This got his Mam going again.

“When that ungodly war is over that eyesore will go in the dustbin where it belongs and all those pinholes in my best anaglypta filled in by you-know-who!”

He loved his Da. His Da could fix anything, make anything. He would sit and watch as he mended their shoes; after soaking the leather to soften it, then tracing the sole and cutting the correct shape before nailing it on – all the while talking with a mouthful of nails. And fretwork! He could hardly wait till the weekly magazine arrived with the latest pattern, always hoping it would be a sailing ship or an aeroplane but more usually a farmyard scene. Then his Da would get out his pipe, study the plan before placing the plywood on the jig and starting with his amazing little saw, carefully following each curling line. Or maybe a letter rack that actually said LETTERS when he’d finished. Not that they got that much through the post but still…

Frankie Loveridge, the itinerant who arrived each summer season with his family to plague the tourists, hissed at him but the boy tried to ignore it. He was always getting the others in trouble whilst somehow avoiding it himself, with his ideas and wonders – like the ‘world’s largest ladybird’ he brought in for a bet that turned out to be actually a painted dung beetle. Or the ‘Mexican Jumping Bean’ made out of silver paper and ball bearings.

Frankie leaned over and nudged him. “Look, Sean, this is how they useta make fire in the ould days,” he whispered. He had some cotton wool in a matchbox and was chipping at a piece of flint with a horseshoe nail. His grunted efforts alerted Squibbles Murphy, who twisted round and grinned. To Squibbles everything was great gas.

“Hey, Frankie, d’ye wanta match, haw?”

“Please, sir, someone’s spit in me inkwell an’- an’ me copybook’s all –“

“Oh, go and get another from the cupboard, you stupid boy!”

Beeswax signaled his displeasure by elaborately opening and closing the newspaper pages with a great flapping sound…just like the sails in ‘The Sea Hawk’ when Errol Flynn tells the crew to ‘bring her about, lads, and we’ll give them a taste of their own medicine.’

They all tittered at the antics of Paudge Farrell but it wasn’t enough to keep them from Donachie’s Dog for long. The scratching of pen nibs sounded like an army of pigeons working their way through a stubbled wheatfield. The boy went back to his exercise. The dopey thing’s gone and knocked over a buttermilk churn now. The farmer who would put up with such an omadawn of a dog deserves to lose his buttermilk. Why can’t they make it more interesting…maybe about Hopalong Cassidy or The Cisco Kid. Everybody at the Saturday matinee lapped them up.

I wonder what Mam will have for my tea? Hope it’s soda bread anyhow, with lashings of salty butter. It was the best part of the day, running in from school, out of the bright sun and into the warm, smelly dimness of their back kitchen. She would always be there, nearly invisible in her dark clothes and head bent over the table, her flour-dusted forearms ghostly white as she kneaded and rolled the dough. But then she would look up and smile, tired but happy to see him home safely.

Y’know, if I squint ju-u-ust so, them hills –


The boy looked up in alarm. Beeswax was standing over him, the smooth high brow and sneering expression looking just like the Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon except for the starched collar and black tie.

“Finished already, are we, Mister Rooney? I wasn’t aware we were so proficient in our native language. Last exam we got…what…seventeen percent? Someone coaching us at home, hmm? Rooney senior, perhaps? I believe he’s something to do with the council. Is that right? Been making sweeping changes, going to clean up our town, et cetera…”

The blackthorn stick, shiny with the fear-sweat of a thousand palms, slammed down on the copybook.

“What’s his official title again…road sweeper?”

The boy looked away, his eyes stinging, the hurt so deep it seemed to drag him down. And the hills…he couldn’t see them anymore.


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