a story by
An Irish Quarter Special Event
We often threatened to take the Boat on those wintery mornings after Christmas while we waited for the dole office to open. Huddled in deep doorways, sheltering from the spray blown up from the river, we shook our heads in despair. We were sentenced to another year's penance in the wind and rain. Another year in a world of shuttered shops.
There would be no market until the Saturday before Saint Patrick's Day and it was common knowledge that some shopkeepers bored and bothered by the stillness, would take to their beds for weeks at a time, only surfacing for the funerals that always followed the rain. There would be people in town for the funerals. The funerals, the Mass and the dole brought us together to complain and spend the government's money on cold porter. And the more we drank, the more pitiful our situation seemed grown men being paid by the government to remain on the census sheets and being despised for doing so.
But yet we stayed. For some obscure patriotic reason we lingered on in that place where there was neither hope of work or lover. We passed the year threatening to leave for England and retelling tales we heard from the Lads. There was another world on the far side of the water and the Lads were in the thick of it. They were our heros in those days. Altar boys who went to Camden Town wearing scapulars and came home with blue tattoos. Seven days a week they worked in the midst of rogues and ruffians, ripping up roads and pouring concrete so they could spend Christmas in Ireland.
They arrived the evening before Christmas Eve on a special train that brought them from the Mail Boat, and from early afternoon, that seldom-seen station was the liveliest place in town. Stalls sold hot soup and toffee apples and two women from Barranna hawked naggons of poteen for half the price of shop whiskey. The school choir sang carols and Father White collected money for a new church from a dwindling congregation. For the first time in almost a year, laughter and song drowned the sound of the roaring brown river and months of gloom vanished like the night.
Hours before the train was due, groups of young people walked up and down the windswept platform, cajoling with railway officials and shouting false alarms. The more anxious preferred to wait in the colder waiting room, or sit on icy grey platform benches. Cloaked in scarves and shawls, country women crunched clove sweets because they were too shy to smoke in public. Their husbands sucked pipes and looked up and down the rusty track, conferred with railway officials and reported home.
By four o'clock the gas lanterns were lit and hackney drivers arrived, muffled in coats and scarves. These shrewd men noted what parties were in attendance, what fares to expect, who to solicit and who to avoid. They only left their warm cars when excitement peaked and everyone swarmed to the platform, peering up the line and listening to the harassed rumblings of the approaching Steamer.
The Lads emerged from the dimly lit carriages to a rousing reception of cheers, waves and back slaps. Pink faced and closely shaven they looked angelic. Helpers and hackney drivers took their brown bulging suitcases and Father White's choir sang 'Come All Ye Faithful.' We all joined in. Parents shyly welcomed home their young with tears and we sang louder and marched around the platform. Gloria, Gloria, it was really Christmas.
But there was always someone or other who failed to return, even through they had written to say they were coming. Bewildered relatives put a brave face on grief.
"They'll probably arrive for the New Year," they said.
We nodded in agreement, even though we knew better.
The Lads passed their first night at home and were brought up to date with the year's happenings, the weather, the state of the country, church collections and other burdens the plain people had to bear. Old and new news was exchanged until the travellers showed signs of fatigue. Then they were urged to go to bed with a glass of hot punch and a sprinkle of Knock water.
On Christmas Eve they came to town with their parents and drank moderately in long-ago haunts while the old people did the shopping and attended confessions. There was no end to their money on that day, loans were offered freely and drinks were bought for everyone who wished them well, enquired about the sea crossing or asked "How're things Beyond the Pond?"
And things beyond were always good.
By Saint Stephen's Day all family dues and duties had been attended to and the Lads rambled to town after breakfast, packing the small bars and attracting hoards of hangers on. It was a day of banging doors, thirsty Paddys criss-crossing town in shoals of blue suits. Bars steamed with sweat, smoke and after-shave lotion. Floors were littered with charred Swan matches, Senior Service cigarette ends and bronze trupenny bits, left for late night sweepers. Pubs hummed every time the Queen's face decorated the counter -- no monarch had ever raised so many smiles in Ireland. And later when the Wrenboys descended on the town with flute, fiddle and tambourine, we jumped for joy. We had the best of all worlds then -- the Queen's money and plenty music, in our own backyard.
As time passed, old acquaintances were renewed and the Lads trusted us with tales about the parish's forgotten sons and daughters. These secrets were imparted in the strictest confidence and later retold with the same sentiments.
Every second year Rufus Ryan, a man who had emigrated long before I was born, had another wife. Jim Flynn was either in or out of jail. One year we heard in detail why Pat Browne left the priesthood and took up the shovel. And why Mary Scully went on the game after a tempestuous marriage to a Welshman. Hatchet O'Day met her in a boarding house and she cried in his arms and begged him not to tell. But he did, and more.
The Lads began to wither as more time was spent in the pubs than at home. By the fifth day of Christmas, the blue suits were creased and crumpled, white shirts were stout stained and London socks left unchanged. In the mornings, eyes were bloodshot and watery and the Lads resorted to drinking hot whiskey to line their stomaches. They were in topping form by the time faithful friends and professional listeners arrived.
Their stories and antics brought Kilburn closer to us. We quickly became familiar with the 'Tube' and knew the stops on the Circle Line, the Picadilly and the Jubilee. We heard about their haunts and habits. Wild sprees in Camden Town and dicey nights in the Galtymore. Saturday sessions in the White Hart, Quirke Road Church for Sunday's Irish papers.
Each year we discovered anew that there was little comparison between life at home and in London. The Lads pointed out that we had few comforts. No Soho. Or no Chinese caffs where waiters bowed and took your coat. And bowed again when they served you unidentifiable piles of food, at four shillings for two. We often had to sympathize with them for bothering to return home at all, and they always looked us in the eye and said --
"If it weren't for d'aul lad and d'aul lady, I don't think I'd bother."
And yet they spent little of their holiday at home. They preferred instead to entertain us with stories about subbies from Roscommon, granite hard gangers from Connemara and cute foremen from Cork. All tough men who were respected for their crookedness and cruelty to others.
As the days trickled away our heroes became slovenly, sometimes unruly, often drunk. The sessions were lengthy and sometimes in the evenings, a brother or sister might be dispatched to town in an effort to coax them home for dinner. But they preferred to linger on in the smoke-filled bars and chew dry turkey sandwiches at the counter, turning around between mouthfuls to quip
"You'll never go back, Scobie."
They regularly fell asleep beside pub fires, waking unexpectedly to startle us with songs from London juke boxes. Some got awkward when they were refused more drink, publicans were insulted, glasses were broken.
The last day or two of their holiday was spent at home with their families and on the Sixth of January they left again for London. Lonesome men with empty pockets and brave faces, seen off from the station by weeping women and stone eyed old men. There were no hackney cars, no helpers, no stalls, no hymns. The green train rolled into the rain and stole Christmas with it.
Ivy and holly were taken from the walls, the Crib and decorations were stored away for another year and there was a hush in the countryside. We heard the wind and the river again and felt the grey drabness of January that paved the days for Lent. It was a lonely period when even clocks refused to pass the time and their hands lingered between hours for hours on end, or so it seemed. Again we threatened to take the Boat, lonely for company and the spirit that had been whisked away from us. Weeks passed before we got into step with the year and then Christmas became a legend, one to be compared with previous ones.
But time passes, and when Christmas came around again the Lads dutifully returned home. They came every year until the government closed down the railway line, shuttered the station and sold the track to small farmers. Dublin turned its back on us and London slipped further and further away. Then the journey home became full of obstacles and hazards.
After a few Christmasses the Lads gave up the ghost. When they did come home it was for family funerals and then they drank too much and cried too much. Angry tears for stolen years. In drink-stained whispers they promised to come home the following Christmas, for old time's sake.
But we rarely saw them again. There was nothing left to return to and the Lads moved on. Life had set its course and school friends drifted away without warning. Time tricked us and it became too late to change, too late to take the Boat, too late to wake up.
We are still on the census sheets and still drinking pints of cold porter for the government, when we meet for the dole, the Mass and the funerals. But there is little life in the public houses, now colder than the station waiting room. Only postmortems are held here in these ghost-ridden rooms where jackdaws block smokeless chimneys. And yet they are our only refuge. It is here we are forced to shelter before moving through the Winter.
Time passes, but memories linger.
End of guest post.
Again my greatest thanks to Eddie Stack.