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At Swim, Two Boysby Jamie O'Neill
At the corner of Adelaide Road, where the paving sparkled in the morning sun, Mr. Mack waited by the newspaper stand. A grand day it was, rare and fine. Puff-clouds sailed through a sky of blue. Fair-weather cumulus to give the correct designation: on account they cumulate, so Mr. Mack believed. High above the houses a seagull glinted, gliding on a breeze that carried from the sea. Wait now, was it cumulate or accumulate he meant? The breeze sniffed of salt and tide. Make a donkey of yourself, inwardly he cautioned, using words you don't know their meaning. And where's this paper chappie after getting to?
In delicate clutch an Irish Times he held. A thruppenny piece, waiting to pay, rolled in his fingers. Every so often his hand queried his elbow — Parcel safe? Under me arm, his hand-pat assured him.
Glasthule, homy old parish, on the lip of Dublin Bay. You could see the bay, a wedge of it, between the walls of a lane, with Howth lying out beyond. The bay was blue as the sky, a tinge deeper, and curiously raised-looking when viewed dead on. The way the sea would be sloping to the land. If this paper chappie don't show up quick, bang goes his sale. Cheek of him leaving customers wait in the street.
A happy dosser was nosing along the lane and Mr. Mack watched with lenient disdain. Any old bone. Lick of something out of a can. Dog's life really. When he came to the street Mr. Mack touched a finger to his hat, but the happy dosser paid him no regard. He slouched along and Mr. Mack saw it puddling after, something he had spilt in the road, his wasted civility. Lips pursed with comment, he pulled, squeezing, one droop of his bush mustache.
"Oh hello, Mrs. Conway, grand day it is, grand to be sure, tip-top and yourself keeping dandy?"
Nice class of lady, left foot, but without the airs. Saw me waiting with an Irish Times, twice the price of any other paper. They remark such things, the quality do. Glory be, I hope she didn't think — his Irish Times dropped by his side — Would she ever have mistook me for the paperman, do you think?
Pages fluttered on the newspaper piles, newsboards creaked in the breeze. Out-of-the-way spot for a paper stand. Had supposed to be above by the railway station. But this thoolamawn has it currently, what does he do only creeps it down, little by little, till now he has it smack outside of Fennelly's —
Mr. Mack swivelled on his heels. Fennelly's public house. The corner doors were propped wide where the boy was mopping the steps. Late in the morning to be still at his steps. The gloom inside gave out a hum of amusement, low mouths of male companionship, gathered by the amber glow of the bar. Mr. Mack said Aha! with his eyes. He thrust his head inside the door, waved his paper in the dark. "'Scuse now, gents." He hadn't his hat back on his head before a roar of hilarity, erupting at the bar, hunted him away, likely to shove him back out in the street.
Well, by the holy. He gave a hard nod to the young bucko leaning on his mop and grinning. What was that about?
Presently, a jerky streak of anatomy distinguished itself in the door, coughing and spluttering while it came, and shielding its eyes from the sun. "Is it yourself, Sergeant?"
"Hello now, Mr. Doyle," said Mr. Mack.
"Quartermaster-Sergeant Mack, how are you, how's every hair's breadth of you, what cheer to see you so spry." A spit preceded him to the pavement. "You weren't kept waiting at all?" This rather in rebuttal than inquiry. "Only I was inside getting of bronze for silver. Paper is it?"
The hades you were, thought Mr. Mack, and the smell of drink something atrocious. "Fennelly has a crowd in," he remarked, "for the hour."
"Bagmen," the paperman replied. "Go-boys on the make out of Dublin. And a miselier mischaritable unChristianer crew — "
Ho ho ho, thought Mr. Mack. On the cadge, if I know my man. Them boys inside was too nimble for him.
"Would you believe, Sergeant, they'd mock a man for the paper he'd read?"
"What's this now?" said Mr. Mack.
The paperman chucked his head. "God be their judge and a bitter one, say I. And your good self known for a decent skin with no more side than a margarine."
Mr. Mack could not engage but a rise was being took out of him. The paperman made play of settling his papers, huffling and humphing in that irritating consumptive way. He made play of banging his chest for air. He spat, coughing with the spittle, a powdery disgruntled cough — "Choky today," said he — and Mr. Mack viewed the spittle-drenched sheet he now held in his hand. This fellow, the curse of an old comrade, try anything to vex me.
"I'm after picking up," choosily he said, "an Irish Times, only I read here --"
"An Irish Times, Sergeant? Carry me out and bury me decent, so you have and all. Aren't you swell away with the high-jinkers there?"
Mr. Mack plumped his face and a laugh, like a fruit, dropped from his mouth. "I wouldn't know about any high-jinkers," he confided. "Only I read here 'tis twice the price of any other paper. Twice the price," he repeated, shaking his cautious head. A carillon of coins chinkled in his pocket. "I don't know now can the expense be justified."
"Take a risk of it, Sergeant, and damn the begrudgers." The paperman leant privily forward. "A gent on the up, likes of yourself, isn't it worth it alone for the shocks and stares?"
Narrowly Mr. Mack considered his man. A fling or a fox-paw, he couldn't be certain sure. He clipped his coin on the paper-stack. "Penny, I believe," he said.
"Thruppence," returned Mr. Doyle. "Balance two dee to the General."
Mr. Mack talked small while he waited for his change. "Grand stretch of weather we're having."
"'Tisn't the worst."
"Grand I thought for the time of year."
"Thanks be to God."
"Oh thanks be to God entirely."
Mr. Mack's face faltered. Had ought to get my thanks in first. This fellow, not a mag to bless himself with, doing me down always. He watched him shambling through the pockets of his coat. And if it was change he was after in Fennelly's it was devilish cunning change for never the jingle of a coin let out. A smile fixed on Mr. Mack's face. Barking up the wrong tree with me, my merry old sweat. Two dee owed.
At last the paperman had the change found. Two lusterless pennies, he held them out, the old sort, with the old Queen's hair in a bun. Mr. Mack was on the blow of plucking them in his fingers when the paperman coughed — "Squeeze me" — coughed into his — "Squeeze me peas, Sergeant" — coughed into his sleeve. Not what you'd call coughing but hacking down the tracts of his throat to catch some breath had gone missing there. His virulence spattered the air between, and Mr. Mack thought how true what they say, take your life in your hands every breath you breathe.
He cleared his own throat and said, "I trust I find you well?"
"Amn't I standing, God be praised?" With a flump then he was down on the butter-box he kept for a seat.
Bulbous, pinkish, bush-mustached, Mr. Mack's face lowered. He'd heard it mentioned right enough, that old Doyle, he was none too gaudy this weather. Never had thought to find him this far gone. That box wouldn't know of him sitting on it. He looked down on the dull face, dull as any old copper, with the eyes behind that looked chancy back. Another fit came on, wretched to watch, like something physical had shook hold the man; and Mr. Mack reached his hand to his shoulder.
"Are you all right there, Mick?"
"Be right in a minute, Arthur. Catch me breath is all."
Mr. Mack gave a squeeze of his hand, feeling the bones beneath. "Will I inquire in Fennelly's after a drop of water?"
"I wouldn't want to be bothering Fennelly for water, though."
Them chancy old eyes. Once upon a time them eyes had danced. Bang goes sixpence, thought Mr. Mack, though it was a shilling piece he pulled out of his pocket. "Will you do yourself a favor, Mick, and get something decent for your dinner."
"Take that away," Mr. Doyle rebuked him. "I have my pride yet. I won't take pity."
"Now where's the pity in a bob, for God's sake?"
"I fought for Queen and Country. There's no man will deny it."
"There's no man wants to deny it."
"Twenty-five years with the Colors. I done me bit. I went me pound, God knows if I didn't."
Here we go, thought Mr. Mack.
"I stood me ground. I stood to them Bojers and all."
Here we go again.
"Admitted you wasn't there. Admitted you was home on the boat to Ireland. But you'll grant me this for an old soldier. That Fusilier Doyle, he done his bit. He stood up to them Bojers, he did."
"You did of course. You're a good Old Tough, 'tis known in the parish."
"Begod and I'd do it over was I let. God's oath on that. We'd know the better of Germany then." He kicked his boot against the newsboard, which told, unusually and misfortunately for his purpose, not of the war at all but of beer and whiskey news, the threat and fear of a hike in the excise. "I'd soon put manners on those Kaiser lads."
"No better man," Mr. Mack conceded. Mr. Doyle tossed his head, the way his point, being gained, he found it worthless for a gain. Mr. Mack had to squeeze the shilling bit into his hand. "You'll have a lotion on me whatever," he said, confidentially urging the matter.
The makings of a smile lurked across the paperman's face. "There was a day, Arthur, and you was pal o' me heart," said he, "me fond segotia." The silver got pocketed. "May your hand be stretched in friendship, Sergeant, and never your neck."
Charity done with and the price of a skite secured, they might risk a reasonable natter. "Tell us," said Mr. Mack, "is it true what happened the young fellow was here on this patch?"
"Sure carted away. The peelers nabbed him."
"A recruitment poster I heard."
"Above on the post office windows. Had it torn away."
"Shocking," said Mr. Mack. "Didn't he know that's a serious offense?"
"Be sure he'll know now," said Mr. Doyle. "Two-monthser he'll get out of that. Hard."
"And to look at him he only a child."
"Sure mild as ever on porridge smiled. Shocking."
Though Mr. Mack could not engage it was the offense was referred to and not the deserts. "Still, you've a good few weeks got out of this work."
"They'll have the replacement found soon enough."
"You stuck it this long, they might see their way to making you permanent."
"Not so, Sergeant. And the breath only in and out of me." An obliging little hack found its way up his throat. "There's only the one place I'll be permanent now. I won't be long getting there neither."
But Mr. Mack had heard sufficient of that song. "Sure we're none of us getting any the rosier." The parcel shifted under his arm and, the direction coming by chance into view, Mr. Doyle's eyes squinted, then saucered, then slyly he opined,
"Stockings," Mr. Mack elaborated. "I'm only on my way to Ballygihen. Something for Madame MacMurrough and the Comforts Fund."
"Didn't I say you was up with the high-jinkers? Give 'em socks there, Sergeant, give 'em socks."
Mr. Mack received this recommendation with the soldierly good humor with which it was intended. He tipped his hat and the game old tough saluted.
"Good luck to the General."
"Take care now, Mr. Doyle."
Parcel safe and under his arm, Mr. Mack made his way along the parade of shops. At the tramstop he looked into Phillips's ironmongers. "Any sign of that delivery?"
"Expected" was all the answer he got.
Constable now. Sees me carrying the Irish Times. Respectable nod. Little Fenianeen in our midst and I never knew. After hacking at a recruitment poster. Mind, 'tis pranks not politics. Pass a law against khaki, you'd have them queueing up to enlist.
The shops ended and Glasthule Road took on a more dignified, prosperous air. With every step he counted the ratable values rising, ascending on a gradient equivalent to the road's rise to Ballygihen. Well-tended gardens and at every lane a kinder breeze off the sea. In the sun atop a wall a fat cat sat whose head followed wisely his progress.
General, he calls me. Jocular touch that. After the General Stores, of course. Shocks and stares — should send that in the paper. Pay for items catchy like that. Or did I hear it before? Would want to be sure before committing to paper. Make a donkey of yourself else.
A scent drifted by that was utterly familiar yet unspeakably far away. He leant over a garden wall and there it blew, ferny-leaved and tiny-flowered, in its sunny yellow corner. Never had thought it would prosper here. Mum-mim-mom, begins with something mum. Butterfly floating over it, a pale white soul, first I've seen of the year.
Pall of his face back there. They do say they take on worse in the sunshine, your consumptives do. Segotia: is it some class of a flower? I never thought to inquire. Pal of me heart. Well, we're talking twenty thirty years back. Mick and Mack the paddy whacks. We had our day, 'tis true. Boys together and bugles together and bayonets in the ranks. Rang like bells, all we wanted was hanging. But there's no pals except you're equals. I learnt me that after I got my very first stripe.
He looked back down the road at the dwindling man with his lonely stand of papers. A Dublin tram came by. In the clattering of its wheels and its sparking trolley the years dizzied a moment. Scarlet and blue swirled in the dust, till there he stood, flush before him, in the light of bright and other days, the bugler boy was pal of his heart. My old segotia.
Parcel safe? Under me arm.
The paper unfolded in Mr. Mack's hands and his eyes glanced over the front page. Hotels, hotels, hotels. Hatches, matches, dispatches. Eye always drawn to "Loans by Post." Don't know for why. What's this the difference is between a stock and a share? Have to ask Jim when he gets in from school.
He turned the page. Here we go. Royal Dublin Fusiliers depot. Comforts Fund for the Troops in France. Committee gratefully acknowledges. Here we go. Madame MacMurrough, Ballygihen branch. Socks, woollen, three doz pair.
Gets her name in cosy enough. Madame MacMurrough. Once a month I fetch over the stockings, once a month she has her name in the paper. Handy enough if you can get it.
Nice to know they're delivered, all the same, delivered where they're wanted.
His eyes wandered to the Roll of Honor that ran along the paper's edge. Officers killed, officers wounded, wounded and missing, wounded believed prisoners, correction: officers killed. All officers. Column, column and a half of officers. Then there's only a handful of other ranks. Now that can't be right. How do they choose them? Do you have to — is that what I'd have to do? — submit the name yourself? And do they charge for that? Mind you, nice to have your name in the Irish Times. That's what I'll have to do maybe, should Gordie — God forbid, what was he saying? God forbid, not anything happen to Gordie. Touch wood. Not wood, scapular. Where am I?
There, he'd missed his turn. That was foolish. Comes from borrowing trouble. And it was an extravagance in the first place to be purchasing an Irish Times. Penny for the paper, a bob for that drunk — Jacobs! I didn't even get me two dee change. One and thruppenny walk in all. Might have waited for the Evening Mail and got me news for a ha'penny.
However, his name was Mr. Mack, and as everyone knew, or had ought know by now, the Macks was on the up.
The gates to Madame MacMurrough's were open and he peered up the avenue of straggling sycamores to the veiled face of Ballygihen House. A grand lady she was to be sure, though her trees, it had to be said, could do with a clipping.
He did not enter by the gates, but turned down Ballygihen Avenue beside. He had come out in a sweat, beads were trickling down the spine of his shirt, the wet patch stuck where his braces crossed. He mended his pace to catch his breath. At the door in the wall he stopped. Mopped his forehead and neck with his handkerchief, took off his hat and swabbed inside. Carefully stroked its brim where his fingers might have disturbed the nap. Replaced it. Size too small. Would never believe your head would grow. Or had the hat shrunk on him? Dunn's three-and-ninepenny bowler? No, his hat had never shrunk. He brushed both boots against the calves of his trousers. Parcel safe? Then he pushed inside the tradesmen's gate.
Copyright © 2001 by Jamie O'Neill
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