Tom MacAuley, youngest son of Martha and Joe MacAuley, was nineteen years old. Joe worked in the office of a Derry shirt factory and he, Martha and Tom lived not far from the Strand Road.

Tom, who had Down's Syndrome, had been born ten years after his four brothers and three sisters, and when they had all left home to get married or to seek work abroad Tom had remained to become the center of his parents' lives. Already in her late forties when Tom had been born, Martha's health was starting to fail by the time he had reached his teens. But when he wasn't at school Tom rarely left his mother's side.

"Poor Mrs. MacAuley," the neighbors would say when she and young Tom passed by. "She never gets a minute to herself. That young Tom is a handful, God look to him. Morning, noon and night he's always with his mother. She never gets a break."

Tom attended a special school and when he was sixteen, the year his father retired from the shirt factory, he graduated to a special project at a day center on Northland Road. A bus collected him each morning at the corner and brought him back each evening. His father escorted him to the bus and was there again in the evening faithfully awaiting his return.

Tom loved the day center. He called it work and it was work of a sort; each week he was paid £3.52 for framing pictures. He also had many new friends and was constantly falling in and out of love with a number of girls who worked with him. Geraldine was his special favorite but he was forced to admire her from afar; she never gave any indication that she was even aware of his existence. His relationships with the others never really flourished, but at least with them he wasn't as invisible as he was with Geraldine. He could enjoy their company and one of them, Margaret Begley, wasn't a bit backward about letting him know that she had a crush on him. Tom gave her no encouragement: his heart was with Geraldine. Anyway, he was too shy for Margaret's extrovert ways.

Tom's parents knew nothing of all his feelings towards the girls, but they knew that the work was good for him. At times he would return home excited or annoyed by something which had occurred at the day center, and when this happened Martha knew the instant she saw him. When he was excited, perhaps from having had a trip to the pictures or when his supervisor praised his work in front of everyone, he radiated happiness. When he was annoyed, he stammered furiously.

On these occasions he rarely volunteered information and Martha and Joe soon learned that is was useless to question him. Under interrogation he would remain stubbornly non-committal and if pressed he became resentful and agitated. Left to his own devices, though, he would reveal, in his own time, usually by his own series of questions, the source of his discontent. Tom's questions followed a pattern.

"MMMM Ma," he would say, "DDD Does Mick Mick Mickey BBBBradley know how how how to dddddrive a cacaacar?"

"No, son, Mickey wouldn't be allowed to drive a car."

"Hhhhehe says he cacacan."

"He's keeping you going, Tom."

"If we had a cacacar could I drdrdrive it?"

"Of course," Martha would smile. "Your Daddy would teach you."

"Right," Tom would say, and that would be that.

Work gave Tom a small but important measure of independence and his experiences at work rarely impinged on his home life. Martha and Joe's relationship with him remained largely as it had been before. They still never permitted him to go off alone, except in his own street. Tom didn't seem to mind. He collected postcards. When he was at home he spent most of his time counting and recounting, sorting and resorting his collection in scrapbooks and old shoeboxes and writing down their serial numbers in jotters which his father bought him.

He also did small chores around the house. It was his job to keep the coal-bucket filled and he always cleared the table after dinner. Occasionally he helped with the dishes and he fetched dusters and polish or things like that for his mother when she did her cleaning. Most mornings he also collected the paper in the corner shop while his mother prepared the breakfast. Seamus Hughes the shopkeeper always delighted him with his greeting.

"Ah, Tom, you'll be wanting to catch up on the news. Here's your paper."

Tom would be especially happy if there was anyone else in the shop to hear Seamus's remarks. He would beam with pleasure and mumble his red-faced and affirmative response.

His father and he went for walks regularly every Saturday and Sunday afternoon and Tom loved these outings. His usual facial expression was blandly benign but when he smiled he smiled with his whole face, and during the walks with his father the smile rarely left him. Everyone knew the pair and had a friendly greeting for them both. Usually they walked out the line where the doggymen exercised their greyhounds, and on one memorable Sunday they took the back road across the border and went the whole way as far as Doherty's Fort at the Grianán of Aileach in Donegal. The following day was the only occasion on which Tom missed work; he was so tired after their outing that Martha couldn't rouse him from the bed. His father joked with him about it afterwards.

At Christmas there was a pantomime at Tom's work. Tom had a small part as Aladdin's servant. All the parents and families along with various agencies and local dignitaries were invited to the center for an open night. Samples of handicrafts were on display and photographs of their projects adorned the walls. On the night of the performance when the audience were milling around in the main corridor sipping tea and lemonade while they waited for the show to start in the main hall, one of Tom's workmates, a young man from the Brandwell called Hughie, suddenly started yelling and bawling.

At first everyone just looked away and pretended that nothing was amiss but as Hughie's parents failed to pacify him the commotion increased. One of the supervisors intervened but that only seemed to make Hughie worse. Apparently this was the first year that Hughie had not had a part in the pantomime. When rehearsals had begun earlier in the year he had insisted that he didn't want a part. Now when he saw the gathering and the excitement of his friends as they prepared for the evening's performance and when it was too late for him to do anything, he had changed his mind. He wanted to be in the pantomime and nothing would satisfy him except that.

His parents were distracted and as Hughie continued his bad-tempered hysterics their consternation spread to the audience. Some of the pantomime players come from the big hall, where they were nervously finalizing last-minute arrangements, to see what the racket was about. Tom was among them, dressed in an oriental-type outfit made by his mother from old curtains and an old dressing gown.

No one paid much attention when Tom left his costumed friends and made his way through the throng to where Hughie stood bawling in the corner, surrounded by his distraught parents and two of the day center supervisors. Then to everyone's surprise Tom intervened.

"Ex-cuse me," he said to Hughie's parents, and without waiting for a reply he pushed his way past them before stopping with his face close to Hughie's.

"Shughie, ddddddon't be be ge ge gett-ing on like th the this," he stammered.

Hughie ignored him. Tom looked at his friend beseechingly. Hughie still ignored him and carried on bawling.

Tom leaned over and whispered in Hughie's ear, then stopped and looked at him again. Hughie continued to bawl but less stridently now. Tom leaned over and whispered again in his ear. Hughie stopped. Tom looked at him once more.

"All rrrright?" he asked.

Hughie nodded.

Tom turned and walked back to his friends. As they watched him Martha and Joe were as pleased as Punch, especially when Tom's supervisor came over and shook their hands.

"That's a great lad you have there. He's a credit to the two of you the way he handled Hughie."

After the pantomime Hughie's father was equally lavish in his praise.

"I'm really grateful for the way your Tom quieted down our Hughie. It's wonderful the way they can communicate with each other in a way that the rest of us can't. Your Tom's the proof of that. The way he was able to get through to our Hughie. None of the rest of us could do that. It never fails to amaze me. Tom's a great lad."

On the way home that night Joe asked Tom what he had said to Hughie. Tom was pleased with all the attention he was receiving but he was noncommittal about his conversation with Hughie. When Joe pressed the issue Tom got a little edgy. Martha squeezed Joe's arm authoritatively.

"Leave things as they are," she whispered.

Joe nudged Tom.

"I'm not allowed to ask you anything else!" he joked.

Tom smiled at him.

"That's good," he said.

Over the Christmas holidays all Tom's brothers and sisters visited home. Tom especially enjoyed his nephews and nieces and the way they brought the house alive with their shouting and laughing, crying and fighting.

A few days after Christmas Martha's sister Crissie came to visit them as she always did. During her visits Tom spent a lot of time in his room sorting his postcards. He was in the living room when Aunt Crissie arrived--his mother insisted on that--but after the flurry of greetings had subsided Tom made his escape. A retired schoolteacher and a spinster, the oldest of Martha's sisters, Aunt Crissie tended to fuss around him, and this made him uneasy. Joe shared his son's unease in the presence of Aunt Crissie, thinking her a busybody but all the same marveling at her energy and clearness of thought.

"I hope I'm as sprightly as that when I get to her age," he would say to whoever was listening.

Crissie hugged Tom and held him at arms' length for a full inspection. "Tommy's looking great, Martha," she said.

She was always calling Tom Tommy. He shifted from foot to foot and gave her his best grin.

"Thhhh tank th thank thank you, Aunt CiciciCrissssie."

"I've-brought-you-a-little-something-for-your-stocking, Tommy."

When Aunt Crissie spoke to Tom directly she did so very slowly. She also raised her voice a little. She always brought him two pairs of socks.

"Thhhh tank th thank thank you, Aunt CiciciCrissssie."

"Away you go now, Tom" his mother said.

Tom and his father usually went off together for a while before their dinner, the highlight of Aunt Crissie's visit. By that time Crissie and Martha were in full flow on a year of family gossip. This continued through the dinner of tasty Christmas leftovers until, appetite and curiousity satisfied, Aunt Crissie turned her attention again to Tom. She had poured the tea and was handing around the milk and sugar.

"Does he take sugar?" she asked Joe.

"Do you, Tom?" Joe redirected the question to his son.

"Nnno, Da," Tom replied in surprise.

Martha looked sharply at her husband. Aunt Crissie saw the glance and apologized quickly.

"I'm-sorry, Tommy. Of-course-you-don't. I-remember-now. Your-mother-tells-me-you're-getting-on-very-well-at-the-day-center."

"Ayaayye, I am."

Joe intervened. He was anxious to smooth things over.

"Tom was in the pantomime. It was a great night. They've a great team of people involved with that center. And all the kids love it. Tom really likes it down there. And he has plenty of friends."

"It must be very rewarding work for the people involved," Crissie suggested. She, too, was anxious that the awkwardness be forgotten.

"Tom's supervisor says she wouldn't work with any other kids," Martha said. "We were talking to her after the pantomime and she said that Down's Syndrome cases are the easiest to work with."

"They retain the innocence and trust that the rest of us lose," said Joe, "and you know something, they are well able to communicate with one another in a way the rest of us will probably never understand. Isn't that right, Tom?"

Tom looked up from his tea and smiled blankly at his father.

"Wait till you hear this, Crissie," Joe continued. "Before the pantomime another lad, Hughie, a friend of Tom's, threw a tantrum and the only one who could calm him down was Tom. It just goes to show you. Nobody else could get through to him; then Tom spoke quietly to him and the next thing Hughie was as right as rain. Isn't that right, Martha?

Martha took up the story from there and recounted the pantomime night episode. When she was finished Aunt Crissie turned to Tom.

"Well done, young man. It's wonderful that you were able to do that. What did you say, by the way?"

Joe chuckled.

"That's something we'll never know. Eh, Tom?"

"Och, Tommy, you can tell us," Aunt Crissie persisted.

Tom lowered his head and shifted self consciously in his chair.

"C'mon, Tom" his mother encouraged him.

He looked up at them. Aunt Crissie was smiling at him.

"Is he going to say something?" she asked.

Tom looked towards her. He was frowning. Then slowly, his face smiled as it was taken over by one of his huge grins. He looked at his father, as if for encouragement, before turning to Aunt Crissie.

"I told him I would knock his balls in if he didn't stop messing about," he said slowly and without a single stutter. "Shughie'sss spoiled. All he needed was a gggood dig. That's all I sa sa said to hhhiim him."

Martha, Joe and Aunt Crissie were speechless. Tom looked at each of them in turn, a little hesitantly at first. Then as his father winked slowly at him the bland, benign expression returned to his face. Joe started to laugh.

Tom's anxiety vanished and his face lit up at the sound. He looked again at his mother and Aunt Crissie and began to laugh also as he watched the looks on their faces. He turned again to his father and winked slowly in return.

Gerry Adams is the President of Sinn Fein, and was the elected Member of Parliament for West Belfast from 1983 to 1992. He never took his seat in London, however, in protest over the British occupation of Northern Ireland. He has lived in West Belfast all his life, except for the years he was interned by the by the British. He described prison life in his other book of short stories, Cage Eleven. He is also the author of The Politics of Irish Freedom, A Pathway to Peace, and Falls Memories.

Copyright © 1992 by Gerry Adams. Reprinted with permission from Sheridan Square Press in New York and Brandon Book Publishers Ltd in Ireland. Special thanks to Peter Malone.