The Starlings of Dunmore Died on the Eleventh of July | Dawn Watson | Granta

The Starlings of Dunmore Died on the Eleventh of July

Dawn Watson

July 1988


I heard them hit the ground like pound coins falling
out of trouser pockets. They must have followed me
home from Alexandra Park.


The noise woke me. I tottered to the window on stilts,
scanning the street for the source of the dings and stints.
It was too hot and too light for ten o’clock, even in July.
I pressed my forehead to the glass. My skin made a halo.
Outside, the dented street light was orange and fizzing.
The entry’s white-painted posts were dark blue. Ruptured
footpath slabs cast more than five shadows off kerbs
and cracks along Skegoneill Drive. Black was thrown
in all directions. I couldn’t see to the bottom of the street,
even with my cheek to the pane. I knew it was the birds.


I had spent the day in the park. I’d looked at the food
in Crazy Prices on the Antrim Road until I got cold,
then cut down Jubilee Avenue to the vast entrance.
The four stone gate pillars are giant. Small, startled
flowers are carved into the rock. The whole shebang
is a fearful wasteland of bricks, rust, prongs and spikes,
lined with heavy sycamores. Alexandra Park carries
the smell of old graveyard badness about it. It tips up a hill
and falls away to the Protestant end. An interface descent
over the strict white bridge into trees as stepped and steep
as the unsteady, brick-full stream slicing through it.


A couple of long summers back, wee Jim Benson fell off
the park’s metal hexagon climbing frame onto concrete.
His leg broke under him with a sound like a crisp packet
getting stood on. His aunt ran over, sprung from the row
of big Victorian houses set like overbearing maths jotters
opposite the stone gate posts. Her mouth, fixed in a square,
emitted a weary yow-ow-ow. In a panic, our mate Sam
had tried to climb the hard, green railings growing tall
out of thick border walls that forever pushed the park
below footpath level in its sunken north-east corner.
The railings had curved spikes like horns.


Today, I had summoned the birds without thinking.
Clock seeds blew over patches of melted tarmac, gravel
and tin cans where fires were set and settled in the park.
Not enough air, despite the cold sweeping down over
the houses from the Cavehill, where they crucified Jesus.
Green space left to be green when it shouldn’t have been.
Trails from an inner perimeter weaved down to the path.
Invisible ways in and out, gaps. Handsome pan-loaf bags
tied to the desperate railings round the lake. Paint peeling.
The flock of starlings was hovering over the water.


I hid on the secret lane and spoke over the marsh reeds,
over the concrete dock, to the cloud of blattering wings.
I said to them, What are youse doin’, what are youse doin’,
what are youse doin’?


Later, I sallied over the bridge to my granny’s house
on the Limestone Road. On to my aunt Marjorie’s house
in Mountcollyer. You say it Marjee’s. Every Eleventh,
she lit a kids boney in the burnt-out Castleton playground
on the York Road. Melted benches were more violent
than the cheerful swings on fire on bright metal strings.


On the way home, I cut past the park, up the worn, bent
concrete steps to Gainsborough Drive. The iron banister
had delicate, welded metal balls to stop you sliding down.
You can see the docks from the top; Samson and Goliath,
the gantry cranes, the old brown mill off the Shore Road,
all unfolded and creased into life like a pop-up Bible.


Before I went to bed, Tom Loudon was in the living room
telling my mum to do the double. He was a drunk man
with a long dog called Tiny. I decided to poison him
when I was told to make him tea. He was shouting
and so was my mum. He had a mole on his face
the colour of dirt. It moved up when he grinned,
like he was holding his teeth up for you to see.
I poured Brasso in the bottom of the cup.
He didn’t notice and neither did she.


Now, the house was empty. I listened for rumble voices.
The dada-dun-dun-dun of ‘Another One Bites the Dust’
had stopped rifling through the floor. The party was over.

Dawn Watson

Dawn Watson is a writer from Belfast. Her poetry pamphlet The Stack of Owls is Getting Higher (2019) is published with The Emma Press. She currently teaches at the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen's University, where she is completing her PhD. Her work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and has appeared in literary journals including Granta, The Manchester Review, The Moth, and The Stinging Fly. She was selected as one of the 2018 Poetry Ireland Introductions Series poets, is a former national tabloid sub editor of 15 years and lives in Belfast.

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