Black-Jack and the undercover exhumation

WordSmith by Gerard Smith

Descending Cockhill, I passed a young mother on the ascent. She walked with a purposeful stride; while a young boy dallied behind her, transfixed with the treasure he carefully carried in a tightly knotted plastic bag – a goldfish.

This sight transported me back. Aged eleven my life’s routine flipped, I now lived in Cavan and spent summers in Manchester. In my first Manchester Summer I felt free from the difference that shackled me in Cavan, I sounded the same as everyone else. That Summer flew by. All too soon Mam arrived for my final week. That week worried me; I bothered about Black-Jack.

He was a goldfish that I won at a fun-fair; I loved him dearly. Black-Jack was a black-moor- goldfish, hence my calling him after my favourite toffees. Watching him swim and swoon in the bowl at my bedside soothed me into sleep. But on my last Manchester night he kept me awake – I couldn’t leave him behind. But I had to.

The day before our departure Mam asked, “Who’re you giving that fish to?”

“A friend,” I instinctively lied.

You see, I’d hatched a plan. That night, I put Black-Jack into a carefully customised margarine tub and packed him into the bottom of my bag – he was coming to Cavan with me.

What I was doing was illegal. I sweated anxiously the entire time on what was then an arduous journey, involving buses, taxis, trains and overnight boat.

Throughout the boat journey, I feigned toilet trips to check on Black-Jack in the luggage hold, “Have you the runs?” asked Mam, concerned.

“No, I went to the shop after the toilet.”

On arrival at Dublin port, a sign screamed – NOTHING TO DECLARE. I watched Mam walk through, truly innocent. I paused, my ears pulsing to the beat of my heart. A Customs man caught my eye, he knew I was guilty, I saw it in his face. I readied to declare Black-Jack, when he shouted, “Young fella, are-ya coming or going?” Relief catapulted me through customs – we’d made it.

I floated with elation on the bus; I’d brought Black-Jack back to Cavan.

But I had a final hurdle to clear - my Becher’s Brook. My smuggling Back-Jack into Ireland would incur Mam’s wrath (never nice) and I didn’t want that tornado on our first night back. I had to get him out of his margarine tub and into a bigger bowl without Mam discovering my secret and lie.

She caught me sneaking upstairs, “Where you going with the casserole dish?”

I stalled. “It’s to wee in,” I said.

Mam put her fag down (never a good sign) and rose from her chair, “Then why’ve you got it full of water?”

There followed my tears and a snotty nosed confession; whilst Black-Jack circled our casserole dish, delighting in his new lake-land home. Mam threw her head back and laughed. She wasn’t a hugger, but that night her laughter was the best hug I ever had.

Black-Jack eased me back into Cavan life; he was my good-night and good-morning. Sadly, he died during my second year at school.

I put him in a tobacco tin and covered him with pink toilet paper, placing plastic flowers on top. I buried him at the bottom of the garden. Black-Jack was gone, but not forgotten.

A life time later and Mam was gone. Dad was selling the house.

I thought I’d have time to go back and dig-out all my memories hidden within. But no, my old sanctuary sold too quickly.

I flew back one weekend, eager to get back in. I couldn’t get into the house, but I had access to the garden. Under the cover of darkness I exhumed Black-Jack.

I was a 36-year-old professional man, who’d returned home to dig up a dead fish (I know).

In the new house, I readied to return to the big-smoke, “Dad, remember that goldfish I smuggled to Cavan when I was a kid?”

He nodded, “I do, did you come back for him?” he asked, knowingly. I put Black-Jack into the bottom of my back-pack, “I did, I’m taking him back to London.” Dad shook his head, and laughed.

I still have him. I treasure a dead goldfish – and that’s alright in my book.

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