Give Them Stones
By Mary Beckett
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Mary Beckett is an extraordinary miniaturist of ordinary lives, lives of quiet despair sometimes relieved by quixotic gestures of defiance
“One thing I noticed if I was in a crowd at that time in Belfast - you’d never see any nice-looking men or boys. The girls looked all right but if the men had nice faces they were small and squat or if they were tall their faces were uncouth. So I wasn’t expecting to meet anybody handsome at the class and Dermot Hughes didn’t look much really - mousy hair, greyish eyes, not tall. But he had a clean collar even though it was a Tuesday. Most people that I knew in those days did with one clean shirt a week, starting on Sunday. One pair of socks too, it must be admitted. He was wearing a lovely soft shirt with green and white checks and a dark green wool tie. His clothes were shabby enough apart from that so I knew he couldn’t be rich. Most of the people in the class were from around the Falls Road, some from away up at the top of it where the houses were far better than Mary Brigid’s. They were nearly all in pairs or groups talking and laughing. I was alone. When I said to the girls at work would they come to learn Irish they said, ‘Is your head cut, Martha Murtagh? Are you mad?’ Dermot Hughes was on his own too and when I smiled at him he came over and sat beside me. When I asked him why he had come to the class he said, ‘My mammy told me,’ making fun.
The teacher was an old man in a tweed suit and a little gold ring in his lapel to tell people he would like to talk to them in Irish. The cloth round the ring was all pricked and plucked because he kept pulling the ring in and out on its long pin. He spoke in Irish the whole time so I understood very little and he had old charts with pictures on them of a man or a woman or a child or a table with writing in Irish underneath. He’d point to the picture and say the words over and over and then he’d ask somebody, ‘Cad e sin?’ and we were expected to say ‘Is tabla e’ or ‘Is bean i’. I couldn’t see how we’d ever learn to read a book in Irish but Dermot kept me laughing with the remarks he passed about the pictures. At home-time it turned out that he lived about ten minutes away from our house, in the next parish. It was a warm September night with a half-moon and stars so we walked home and I told him about the Yeats plays and he didn’t make fun of me. He asked where I worked and he said he was out of a job. ‘But I’ll get one soon. I’m bound to. I can drive a van. There’s always work for anybody that can drive a van.’”
Excerpted from Give Them Stones by Mary Bennett © 1990
An account of one woman’s struggle against poverty and oppression, recounting the life of Martha Hughes. Martha, like many of Beckett’s characters is a strong woman failed by weak men. So she has to fall on her own resources to make enough money to feed her family.
The novel shows how the Troubles eroded family life. Martha’s father has neglected his family for political loyalties. Her brother, another hopeless case, is killed by the IRA. And her efforts to survive by baking bread bring her into conflict with the IRA when she refuses to sell to them.
“The unusual quality of Beckett’s writing lies in the sharpness of her discreetly conveyed perceptions. Nothing is stated directly; everything is suggested by artful juxtaposition of images or the unexpected twist of a sentence.”
Miranda Seymour, The Sunday Times
“Mary Beckett has succeeded admirably in capturing the voice of this ‘perfectly ordinary’ woman of Belfast.”
Anne-Marie Conway, Times Literary Supplement
“For Mary Beckett is an extraordinary miniaturist of ordinary lives, lives of quiet despair sometimes relieved by quixotic gestures of defiance.”
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