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In 1962 England, despite observing his father's illness and the suffering of the fire-eating Mr. McNulty, as well as enduring abuse at school and the stress of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bobby Burns and his family and friends still find reasons to rejoice in their lives and to have hope for the future.
It all starts on the day I met McNulty. I was with my mam. We left Dad at home beside the sea. We took the bus to Newcastle. We got out below the statue of the angel, then headed down toward the market by the river. She was all in red. She kept singing "The Keel Row" and swinging my arm to the rhythm of the song. A crowd had gathered beyond the market stalls but we couldn't see what held so many people there. She led me closer. She stood on tiptoes. There were bodies all around me, blocking out the light. Seagulls were squealing. It had been raining. There were puddles in the joints between the cobblestones. I kicked water across my shiny new black shoes. The splashes turned to dark stains on my jeans. The water splashed on her ankles as well but she didn't seem to feel it. I tugged her hand and wanted to move away, but she didn't seem to feel it.
His voice was muffled by the bodies, and at first it seemed so distant. "Pay!" he yelled. "You'll not see nowt till you pay!" I tugged her hand again. "Are you not listening?" he yelled. I raised my eyes and tried to see. And she put her hands beneath my arms and lifted me and I teetered on my toes and there he was, at the center of us all. I looked into his eyes. He looked back into mine. And it was as if my heart stopped beating and the world stopped turning. That was when it started. That moment, that Sunday, late summer, 1962.
He was a small, wild-eyed, bare-chested man. His skin was covered in scars and bruises. There were rough and faded tattoos of beasts and women and dragons. He had a little canvas sack on a long stick. He kept shoving it at the crowd.
"Pay!" he yelled and snarled. "You'll not get nowt till you pay."
Some of the crowd turned away and pushed past us as we moved forward. They shook their heads and rolled their eyes. He was pathetic, they said. He was a fake. One of them leaned close to Mam. "Take the lad away," he said. "Some of the tricks is just disgusting. Not for bairns to see. It shouldn't be allowed."
McNulty's hair was black. He had pointed gold teeth at the front of his mouth and he wore tiny golden earrings. There were deep creases in his cheeks. The bridge was high behind him. The sun shone through its arch. Steam and scents from the hot dog stalls and popcorn makers drifted across us. Mam held me against her.
"Reach into my pocket," she said. "Find him a coin."
I reached down and took out some silver. When I looked up again his little sack was right before my eyes.
"Into the sack with it, bonny lad," he said.
I dropped the coin in. He held my eye with his. He grinned.
"Good lad," he snarled.
He took the sack away.
"Pay," he yelled, shoving the sack at other faces. "Get your money out and pay!"
She pushed my shoulders, helping me forward. I squirmed through, right to the front of the crowd.
"Bonny lad!" he muttered when he saw me there. He looked through the crowd. "Bonny lady."
The stick and the sack were on the ground. He flexed his muscles. A cart wheel lay on the cobbles beside him. He stood it on end, in front of him. It had heavy wooden spokes, a thick steel rim. It was as high as his chest.
"Could McNulty lift this?" he hissed.
He took it in his hands, spread his legs, bent his knees and lifted it to his thighs and let it rest there.
"Could he?" he said through gritted teeth. "Could he?"
There were tears of strain in his eyes.
He groaned, lifted again, a sudden jerk that took the cart wheel high. We gasped. We backed away. He leaned his head back and rested the wheel on his brow so that it stood above him, with the sun and the bridge...
Posted December 8, 2012
Posted December 1, 2011