This is what I remember:
Your cheeks didn’t sting. I pitied the children who had to hug bearded, itchy-stinging men good night. You smelled of strong tobacco and sweet pot, not bitter sweat, like the miners, or spicy, like Joe. You laughed a lot. You had long legs that never tired, and a voice that could shout for hours at end.
«Stop – business as usual – no oppression, no destruction, no capitalis-m!»
«Maggie out! Maggie out! Maggie out!»
«Suppooooort the miners! Coal not dole!»
«No – arms for South Africa! Free – Nelson Mandela!»
You could keep it up for however long we marched, and though you waved your fist in time to the chants and pushed your eyebrows together to look angry, you smiled whenever you looked at me to let me know it was all for show. You were happy, and your throat didn’t hurt like mine.
«Don’t pitch you voice so high,» you advised me, «make sure the words don’t scratch your throat coming out.» I did my best, but I was still hoarse before we were half way there.
You never told me where we were going. You just put a ten pee in my pocket and made sure I remembered the phone number for Joe’s office in case I got lost. I still remember the number. I tried to call it every time I was left alone in the big house, our house, for years after. Joe never picked up, probably because you forgot to teach me about country codes.
But when we marched, I never got lost. I held on to your trouser leg or jacket or hand until I’d used up my voice and feet, and then I rode your shoulders, clinging to your hair or cap.
You told me I came from Sainsbury’s. «Fund you between the canned tomatoes and the wine», you laughed. Mom later explained that was where her water broke, but I found it easier to belive your version. I was far to big to fit in her belly, and mom could lie sometimes, I knew that. She told me you had gone to sleep at Joe’s place when you were really being arrested like a real hero in that clash with the nazis. She told me the scratching within the wall behind our bed were butterflies and ladybugs.
Later she said that you’d come back home.
You showed me your broken finger and black eye, and you proudly told me that you’d smashed a bottle over a skinned head and almost outrun the police dogs. You caught a cockroach in a jar for me. When you left, you didn’t say a word.
You didn’t tell fibs.
I can’t remember why me being from Sainsbury’s had to be kept a secret. I understood that you were both ashamed of being in there, and that you only went because mom craved something you couldn’t get in the stores were we usually shopped. Were you shopping for meat? Or South African wine or Israeli oranges? Was it considered politically incorrect to shop in a capitalist retail like Sainsbury’s at all? Was there a boycott against that particular store? Mom claims she can’t remember, but she also claims to have forgotten that eating meat was disgusting and barbaric and that boycotts were serious stuff.
I can’t remember your history. Did you ever tell me that the very special beauty in your voice came from Belfast? Was I ever told that I had eleven aunts and uncles and two living grandparents? Your youngest sister Mary wrote me a letter once, that’s how I was informed of your death. She claimed none of them ever knew I existed. She said they’d all like to meet us. I didn’t understand her handwriting at the time, and even when I got old enough to read cursive, I didn’t answer. I couldn’t, because I don’t remember why you never told them about us. Were they capitalist pigs? Did they support the unionists? Were you afraid they’d get into trouble for being your family if you kept in touch with them? Did you ever do anything that could get your family into trouble?
I read up about the conflict and the troubles, when I was in high-school. Then I asked mum what organisation you were both in, back then.
«Different ones,» she answered, «I cant’t really remember anymore, there were groups for this and groups for that and it’s not like any of them had regular members.»
«What about the big organisations? IRA? INLA?»
«What does it matter?» She shrugged. «Where did you even hear about INLA? I can’t remember, and you should’t care.»
I never stopped caring about you.