Munch, melancholy
Edvard Munch, "Melancholy", 1894-96
Chapter 2 — Section 3
Pages 39-4541-4632-37
WhereGlasthule, the Sea-wall
WhenWednesday late lunchtime, May 5 1915

Jim propped the bike against a garden wall, took a handful of bills and went to the first door of a terrace of villas. He was sliding the handbill inside the box when the door opened and a boy stepped out. He wore the same cap as Jim, with the same badge: Dirige nos Domine.

“Who is it?” called a voice within.

“It’s a billing-boy from the Glasthule huckster’s.”

“What does he want at the front door? Tell him to mind his manners.”

“Mind your manners,” said the boy who was Jim’s schoolfellow, and the door closed in his face.

Some words you could really hate, and one of those was fellow. They used it all the time at college. His first day at Presentation, a boy had approached: “The fellows wanted to know, is it true you live in a corner-huckster’s?” Jim had said no, it was the Adelaide General Stores and some of these fellows sniggered. “Do you sleep at night in a bed?” Jim slept on a settle-bed made up in the kitchen, so he said yes, but they were up to that dodge. “In a bedroom?” He shook his head. Then, decisively: “The fellows wanted to know what name do you call your father?”

“Da,” Jim answered.

rugby faure
Lucien Faure, 1895
Victorian dunce
... the Grand Exhibit
Victorian trade card

Sometimes the jibes spilt over into rough stuff, like shoving when he queued for the water-fountain or hard scragging at football. In the end he claimed a fight with the ugliest fellow, a bullocky lad named Fahy. He could still feel the shock of the chatterer to his chin, the dizzy sway round the circle of honour as grassward he fell. But they left out the physicality after that. Whenever his hand went up in class, they chaffed him for the Grand Exhibit. When for lack of his own he shared a schoolbook, they goosed him, chiming, “For the scholarship boy is a needy boy.”

He mentioned it once to his father, and his father said, “What is it they call their own fathers?”

... papa

Jim shrugged. “Papa, I think.”

“That’s easy fixed so. You call me Papa in future, then you’ll be equal with your fellows.”

It might have passed but for his father’s interfering. He couldn’t keep away from the college, but was ever at the gates, offering his services for field days and bazaars. The school wouldn’t play a match but his cart rolled up with pop and sweets. Save the souls of piccaninnies! A shilling per guinea to the Presentation Missions.

Ballygihen Avenue ended at the sea and when Jim came there he rested on the sea-wall and stared out across Dublin Bay. The city lay under a haze, but Howth was sunny and clear, a sleeveless, sinewy arm thrown out while Dublin dozed.

Howth tram 1907
postcard, 1907

For years he had believed that Howth was England until finally his father took him there, him and his brother, on the two tram journeys across Dublin. They made a scratch tea in a heathery field and his father had him speak to a poor fisherwoman to ask was this still Ireland. He remembered the surprise of her answer. “Not since the Chief passed over, nor yet till he come again.”

“Curious old harp,” his father had said. “Did you mark how and she grabbed the boy? Would frighten a boy that way.”

“She was a witch,” said Gordie. “The old woman of the sea.”

“Queer old harp she was.”

But she wasn’t old, Jim didn’t think. If she loosed her shawl she was young and beautiful, like the photograph-portrait of his mother at home.

Renoir, Yport
Renoir, "Low Tide at Yport", 1883

The tide was half-way down and he listened to the lazy rush of its waves. Straggling rocks creamed in the sun, melting to tan, to umber in the sea. Dark weeds chained them. He smelt the breezy air that was like ozone through the school latrine. Farther along, towards Kingstown, urchinous boys were scraping for bait. Their cries mingled with the calls of gulls that hungrily wailed above. The sea glistened in the bay, a blue sheet that was hardly blue so sharply it shone, nor yet a sheet so spangled its surface. A calm upset by light alone.

You carry your weather with you, his father was fond of saying. Yet the day was glorious.

Renoir, Yport
J. Cunningham (fl.1920s), "Sandycove, Dublin Bay"

Sandycove’s beached harbour, the Martello tower on its cliff, its cliff improbably landward. Two figures strolled from the Point, towels slung over their shoulders. Bathers out of the Forty Foot, gentlemen’s bathing-place. There was a loneliness in watching them, for they were actors in the day’s glory, like the gabbling boys and the boisterous gulls.

Simkin, guard duty
Richard Simkin, "Inspecting the Guard", 1898

His father had a story about that Martello that when the Government decommissioned the towers, after the French scares, its garrison had been overlooked. “Twenty year and more,” he told, “they remained at their post, when all this land was back of God speed. They were the lost troop, a sergeant and two swaddies. And yet, at long last when the authorities caught up with themself, it was discovered from the books in all those years not one guard-mount, not one sentry-go had been shirked. There’s soldiering for you. That’s the spirit of the British Army.” And indeed it was not difficult to see his father there, reveille to Last Post, at spit and polish, jankers and Queen’s Regulations, counting in his quartermaster-sergeant’s English: boots, leather, pairs of, three.

Forlorn hope is from the Dutch for lost troop. How sad the words and beautiful. All love does ever rightly show humanity our tenderness.

... acme of swell

Bills, two gross, local populace, delivery thereto. When he watched the horny hands with veins like rhizomes in the flesh carry up the onion box, he had believed it was his birthday present. His father would often confound surprise with suspense so that, even when faced with the bills, Jim had needed to rummage through to the bottom to be sure there was no mistake. Whatever else, there was no long trousers. Last in his form to be still in breeches with a cake from Findlater’s for after. Acme of swell.

... sealace and thongweed
Anne Stahl, "untitled 9", 2001

The breeze brushed the sweat on his forehead. It would be good to take off his cap, feel wind in his hair. There were other actions he could envisage performing: loosening his tie, slipping out of his boots and stockings, unbuttoning the knees of his breeches. He imagined padding out to the edge, toes bunched against the jag of rocks. The way the weed would slither beside you, sea-lace and thong-weed. The water grew chiller as it climbed. Or he might venture as far as the Forty Foot itself, strip off and plunge headlong to the deep. He had never swum in the Forty Foot, he had never swum in the sea, but he could conjure the charge of the waves all over. Like those two bathers strolling down, he too would have acted. Involvement, not witness, would mark the day.

If you carry the weather with you, then character is determined by the prevailing wind.

edwardian smut
... bit of—jam

In his pocket he found some sweets; Lemon’s, he remembered. The crinolined lady on the wrapper looked light and gay with her parasol, very much like Nancy would look if she wore Aunt Sawney’s drapes. Nancy made him blush and he believed she always would now. His brother had rarely mentioned her before he left for England, but on the last night at home he said, Nancy’s a bit of—jam, he called her. When Jim remonstrated, he grew coarser still. Don’t come the green with me. I know the sniff of the glue-pot. Then—Is it Nancy you think of when you fetch yourself off? How could his brother say such a thing? How dared he utter those words. Jim couldn’t look at Nancy since without the blood rising, and the blood rose now to his ears as he thought of it.

He crushed the wrapper and let it fall behind.

swim 1912
Collier's National Weekly, 1912

The breeze died and the heat was suddenly material, like a cloak that dropped on his back. The wall made him conspicuous. What might a watcher suppose was his purpose? He counted the clues to his identity: school cap, shop name on bike, bills in the pannier. His availability to interpretation intimidated him. He saw that his arms were hugged round his knees. He sniffed the muggy flocculent smell, then let go his legs. In his mind a formula impersonally repeated: he has never swum in the Forty Foot, he has never swum in the sea. Of a sudden he leant forward to check for the Muglins, but the rock of course was obscured by the Point.

It was time to be gone, but a murmur of voices cautioned him. The bathers from the Forty Foot had rounded the bend and were nearing the promenade below. The younger was a shock-headed black-haired lad, Jim’s age, though bigger-built. He tossed his cap in the air as he walked and as he walked he lurched slightly, weak of one leg. For all he had been swimming, he had a filthy look about him and his towel was a rag of threads. The other, by his tweeds and tone, was of the quality.

gogh young peasant
van Gogh, "Head of a Young Peasant in a Peaked Cap", 1885

Jim believed he recognized the lad. He was not sure but, delaying to see, he left it too late to leave. Movement now would draw their attention.

They halted at the private steps that led to Ballygihen House. The toney man, who had his back to Jim, said, “I might show you still, if you’d a mind.”

The lad shook his head. “Due back for work. Already late as it is.”

“Another time, perhaps. I believe you’d take to it. Don’t think about the leg. You’re quick enough off the mark.”

“Another day maybe.” He had the usual Dublin drawl, but with an open edge, like a kick, at the end of it. Breath of the west, Jim thought.

The man made a sudden motion—“Here,” he said—and silver spun in the air. A fist shot out and nimbly the lad caught the coin.

“For your trouble,” said the man.

Ivory flashed between thick dirty lips. “No trouble at all.” The smile, like the face, was familiar. Then the lad’s gaze lifted and he saw Jim watching from above. His eyes were dark as night, not dull, but gemmily shining. The smile broadened as though in invitation, as though the rocky shore and the birds and the blue were his to share.

stanfield gulls
William Clarkson Stanfield (1793–1867), "Study of Seagulls"
Goncharova, cyclist
... what curious cheer
Natalia Goncharova, "The Cyclist", 1913

What cheer, eh?” he called.

Jim found himself smiling back. And long after, while he scorched down Glasthule Road, well late for school, he was smiling still. What curious cheer.