Charles Lamb, Tommy
Charles Lamb, "Tommy", ca. 1933
Chapter 2 — Section 4
Pages 45-5646-5637-47
POVMr Mack
WhereMacks' yard and house
WhenWednesday afternoon, May 5 1915
gogh peasant boy digging
van Gogh, "Peasant Boy, Digging", 1885

Mr. Mack kept a keen eye on the young lad shovelling out his midden. Vile job that. Vile smell. Murder on the lungs, day in day out. Never grow accustomed to a smell like that.

Sturdy fellow, though, beef to the heels. And would want to be. That job won’t last long. Way behind the times. Sewers will be here any day soon and no need of all this foostering. Funny that. The modern way means this fellow’s out of an employment.

Sucked cheeks dimpled to a smirk. They’ll always want a general stores.

Hair as black as the devil’s waistcoat. Could do with a scissors while we’re about it. Jaunty as muck and in muck he’s covered. Only white is in his eyes. Disease, all sorts you get with a job like that. “Careful with that bucket, now. Don’t be swamping it. Can’t have slops all over the shop.”

Wehman, Irish joke
... your business is our business
Wehman Bros. joke book, 1907

That’s a good one. That’s a good motto for the contractors. Your business is our business. Might send that in. Bit on the flowery side, all the same. Second thoughts, steer clear.

All the same, why wouldn’t they stick to the stated times? Sending the dungcart a day early, the commotion it causes. Poor Aunt Sawney, she’s on her last legs without the vexation of middens. Dung-dodgers, she calls them. Do they dodge the dung or what? Goo-wallahs it was in India. Shifting furniture, clearing a gangway, rolling up the oilcloth. Deal of commotion, up and down the street.

Tenniel Cheshire Cat
Tenniel, "Cheshire Cat" from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", 1866

Up he weighs now, great brute of a bucket on his shoulder. Fancies himself a taste. Likes to show his brawn. “Careful now, we don’t want any mess.” Is that a limp I see? Bit of a hop there. Tries to bury it, but can’t dish an old sergeant. Wait now, that face. Great big grin on him, width of Cheshire. Don’t I know that face?

He tramped back into the house after the dungman’s lad. Now would you look at that. Heap of mess on the floor, right below the Georgius Rex. Told him about loading that bucket. Straight up to the brim he filled it.

“Here you, young hopeful, I want a word with you.”

“Yes, Mr. Mack?”

Mr. Mack peered. “It’s young Doyler, isn’t it? You’re Doyle’s eldest.”

“That’s right.”

“Well, I’m glad to see you back in the parish. In work and all. Yes, I’m very glad.” Mr. Mack stroked the bush of his moustache. “I was only talking this morning with your father.”

“Is that right, Mr. Mack. Mr. Mack, could I trouble you for a drink of water?”

victoria diamond jubilee mug
... his own special
Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee mug, 1897

How germs are spread. Could risk an old jam pot? Uncharitable. In the end he brought water in his own special cup. The boy turned back the cuff of his sleeve and wiped his mouth on the inside. Mr. Mack was touched by the gesture, a courtesy he was sure addressed to him and his cup. “Thirsty work,” he said.

“A bit all right.”

“How long are you back?”

“Not long yet.”

“Your father is above with the papers now.”

“He is.”

“He might keep at that employment.”

“Hard to keep a job down, Mr. Mack, with his lungs the way they are.”

postcard 1906
songcard 1905

Mr. Mack let a grunt. The bellows, the bronicals, any shift you choose. If work was in a bed, that man would sleep on the floor. Consumption, my eye. Of spirituous liquors is what it is. Sure he’d sell his mother for a tuppenny wet. But that’s the way it goes with some of these fellows. They leaves the army, they wouldn’t know to sneeze without they’re ordered to. I’m glad now to see his son turning out a better class. “Not long at this work?”

“Not long,” said Doyler.

Knock the spirit out of you, this work would, give it time. He had the collar of his waistcoat turned up against the muck, and the inside of the lapel showed a badge with a red hand in it. What’s this, the Red Hand of Ulster? The Doyles is never northern folk. The father nobody knows where he hailed, the mother is out of the west some place. Though father might not be the appropriate sentiment in this particular case. Doyler Doyle: had to take the name twice to be sure of it. “Where was this they sent you? Clare, was it? Your mother has people that way.”

“Clare, aye.”

It struck Mr. Mack he had been wanting this morning in his encounter with Mr. Doyle. Never once thought to ask of the family: the wife nor the care. That was amiss now. Quickly he inquired of the mother, who was grand all right, and of his brothers and sisters, though as it turned out he had only sisters, but they too were grand. And were they still down the Banks, his folks?

“Where else would have us?” the boy replied.

ww1 poster employment
WW1 propoganda poster

Indeed. “Still, you’ll be glad to be back in the parish. In work and all.”

“To be frank, Mr. Mack, there’s little enough for me here. The contractors has us on short time.”

The advancing sewers, didn’t I say?

“Most the men they laid off. Employed a grush of boys in their place. Half the wages and the same blow they proves their loyalty to the Crown.”

“Crown?” said Mr. Mack. “How’s this about the Crown?”

“Sure what hope has the men but they list in the army? The contractors is held for a great example.”

This was serious talk and close to, if not beyond of, politics. And Mr. Mack was not at all sure it fitted his dignity to be argufying with the dungman’s lad. “Do you not see,” he said, “’tis the sewers is the problem?”

Scientific American sewers
Scientific American, "A great sewer built by an improved method", 1885

The boy shovelled in silence a while, then said, “There’s sewers in it all right. But the fact remains the men as used be working is soldiering now. Can see them camped on Tivoli Fields. God knows, I’m thankful for the work. But it’s hard taking another man’s job. Harder still at half the pay. But that’s the times that’s in it, Mr. Mack.”

The times that were in it indeed. He might mention three square meals a day, smart uniform, healthy living, separation money for the women at home, pension at the end of it. Satisfaction of fighting for King and Country. Glory to be had and to spare. Travel far and wide.

“Though I was thinking of joining the band.”

But down the Banks where this one lodges there’s scant notion of glory. Hard-scrabble place, the Banks. Mean cottages, rotten thatch, entire family cramped into—“Joining a band?”

“Flute band.”

“But Brother Polycarp out of the college takes that.”

“The very man. I saw him this morning only. The new curate as found me this employment gave me the word.”

“Curate? You mean the band is not restricted to college boys?”

“So far as I know, Mr. Mack.”

“Well, I’ll go bail.”

“Have to get me flute back first, though.”

“Don’t tell me,” said Mr. Mack. “Ducie’s window.”

“’Fraid so.”

Mr. Mack puckered his lips. Abstractedly, he said, “I have a son in that band.”

“Jim, is it?”

Northcote, school leaver
... James is a college boy now
James Northcote, "Portrait of a School Leaver", c.1770

“James, my son James. James is a college boy now.” His voice had risen above the ordinary, so in token of fellowship, he jerked his head and said, “Oh, easy street for some, I suppose.”

Doyler set his shovel squarely down. It made a rasping noise on the tin base of the privy. “Mr. Mack, I’d never hold it against a man that he tried to better himself.”

That’s right, thought Mr. Mack. Comes back to me now. Same time Jim won his exhibition, they had one gave out to young Doyler too. Sure what would that man care for a scholarship? Hunted his son down the country instead. Always grafting. Half-timer at school. Late-to-come and soon-to-go. Wonder he learnt his readamadaisy.

Poor lad to fetch up down the Banks. That’s where you go when you can’t keep up the rent. Demon drink, curse of Ireland.

nightsoil collector 1805
"Night-soil man", print from "The Costume of Great Britain", 1805

He watched the boy shovelling muck with his steady muscular rhythm. His dowdy clothes were all in fits, the seat of his pants so often patched it was a puzzle to tell the material. You’d be all day putting that shirt on, avoiding the tears and repairs in the sleeves. Wretched muffler pulled up round his nose. Mr. Mack was overcome with pity, at a boy’s life stunted by the failings of a father. He waited till he was leaving with the last bucket of filth and thrust a bag of broken biscuits into the crook of his free elbow.

“Take these now and don’t say a word.”

“That’s kind of you, Mr. Mack.”

“Not a word now. And eat them all yourself.”

“I couldn’t do that without sharing them.”

“No, of course you couldn’t. That wouldn’t be Christian at all.

But mind you keep your puff up. That’s a man’s job you’re at.”

The gaffer appeared at the shop door. “Hey you, you little Larkinite. Put some beef into it. You’re close to the door as it is.”

Larkinite, Mr. Mack pondered. Now why in the world would he call young Doyler a Larkinite? Wasn’t that an agitator of the blackest variety? When he came to the kitchen Aunt Sawney was on her knees with soap and scrubbing-brush. “Would you like me to help with that?” he asked.

“Get away out of my way.”

“I’ll tend shop so. There’ll be a rush on soap and soda after the dungmen.”

“There will, but ’twill all be on tick with your lordship at the till.”

Jim Larkin
Seamas Culligan, "Jim Larkin", 1997 – from an iconic photograph

Under the picture of King George the pile of mess had risen. Odd how he managed to slop his swill at that place every time. Could almost be on purpose. Wait now, hold on to yourself. Was that young gallows taking a rise out of me? Wasn’t there something last year about agitators employing the Red Hand? Business about sharing, was that Christian sharing or red-flag Larkinite? I hope now my Jim won’t be falling into bad company at that band.

There was a moral to all this but Mr. Mack could not immediately catch wind of it. That evening, while he made out the orders in the shop, he said, “I met an old accomplice of yours today.”

His son looked down from the steps where he was dusting a stack of jars.

mancini poor schoolboy
... was at the national school with
Antonio Mancini, "The Poor Schoolboy", c.1876

“Remember that Doyle one, was at the national school with you? He’s back now and he’s the dungman’s lad.”

“Doyler?” said Jim.

“What’s this the smile’s in aid of?”

“Only I saw him myself and I thought I recognized him.”

“Where was this?”

“Down by the sea-wall.”

“And what were you doing by the sea-wall?”

“Delivering bills.”

“To the sea?”

Brown, Taking a Break
... and look where his son has
John George Brown, "Taking a Break", 1904

Smile gone and capital T for Tragic in its place. “Was catching my breath is all.”

In a shake Mr. Mack discovered the moral of the day. “Now that lad’s father is a shaper and a hook, and look where his son has fetched up. If now I was to fritter my time catching my breath by the sea, where would that leave you? Not to mention your brother. Not to mention Aunt Sawney. On the ash-pit with young Doyler is where. You want to catch on to yourself. Have you done with them jars yet?”

“Yes, Da.”

“Did you deliver them bills like I told you?”

“The most of them, Da.”

Mr. Mack squeezed his moustache. “Papa,” he said.

Meszaros feast
Anna Meszaros, "A Veritable Feast", 20th c

When Aunt Sawney called them in for their tea, he stopped by the door, surprised out of himself by the sight. A groaning board of a feast. Cured ham, the tongue of a sheep, buttered shop-bought bread. And there was more. She was carrying in a jelly now that wobbled alarmingly before her face. “Glory be,” he said, “that’s a grand spread you’re after fixing, Aunt Sawney. I had no notion you was going to such trouble. Did we, Jim?”

“’Tis no trouble to me,” said she, “not to be the clutching hand.”

“Well no, I didn’t intend—”

“There’s some I know afeared to sneeze, they might give something away.”

“Well yes—”

“There’s others too mean to join their hands, leave out to pray for a soul.”

“That’s surely true—”

van Gogh, "Prayer before Meal", 1882

“But there’s one I know has two poor boys. The one he hunts away to die, th’other he keeps to slave on his birthday.”

This final turn was accompanied by a thump on the table as she banged his plate in front of him. He looked down and in the heel of the hunt he knew what was her game. The same doling of cabbage and bacon that had outfaced him at dinner. The spread was for the boy alone.

“Bless Thee, Father ...” But his heart wasn’t in it and he quickly signed the cross. He picked up his knife and fork. “Happy birthday, Jim.”

uhlemann, head of old woman
... incorrect to say she was a
Karl Uhlemann (d. Ireland 1992), "Head of an Old Woman"

He could feel her grinning gummily at him. Incorrect to say she was a malicious old witch. The wits aren’t your own at her vintage. Besides, she was only over the bronchitis. And the house was her own to do with as she pleased, the house and the shop and God knows, don’t we know it. But this new rigmarole about Gordie, hunting him away. As though ’twas I invaded Belgium.

He heard her now, a horse-whisper to his son. “I have a treat to go with the splash, little man.” And from out the press she produced a parcel.

Mr. Mack felt the blow like the homer she intended. Before the boy had the paper unwrapped he could tell it held the finest long black broadcloth trousers a young man could want or wish for.

“Look, Da.”

“Why, I must say, that’s handsome in the extreme, Aunt Sawney.”

“Handsome be damned,” she answered, the gullets of her cheeks agitating. “Is it handsome to keep the little man in breeks all his days? He’s been wanting of them a twelvemonth and more but ye, ye’re too thick to know and too grasping to get them him.”

Mr. Mack grinned delicately. “Now now, Aunt Sawney.”

“Can I try them on, Da?”

“Say thank you first.”

Eatons catalogue 1917, US.

She lifted her chin and he lipped her skin then, turning his back, slipped out of his breeches and into the longed-for legs.

Aunt Sawney drew her blanket closer round her shoulders; said, “I’ll mind shop now while ye and your lordship has your feed. And don’t mind the rule on your birthday, little man. Speak your fill, if there’s any worth speaking to.” Out she went and soon enough the Joyful Mysteries came moaning through the door.

“Da, what’s wrong?”

“No no, nothing wrong.”

“Papa, you can have some of mine to eat.”

“No no, ’tis your birthday, I wouldn’t dream. Well, maybe one slice of tongue, no more. Go on then. I’ve a cake if you’ve space for it after.” In truth he was verging on tears. He took out his handkerchief and dabbed an eye then, disguising the gesture, blew roughly on his nose. “How are the trousers on you?”

“They’re fine.”

song card, so you want to be a soldier, little man
Song card, 1911

“That’s the hookum. Bit wide in the waist. I’ll put a tuck in them for you after. Could maybe turn them up a patch too.” Why was he so sad? His son was his son no matter his breeks. But he looked so grown-up in his trousers. Had he tried to keep him a boy and why had he tried it? I wasn’t being thick, nor mean, he wanted to say. It’s not the time for a boy to be a man. Wait till the war was over.

“That’s grand to have something best for Sundays, isn’t it, Jim?”

“For Sundays, Da?”

“Best take them off now. Don’t want them creased.”

Later on, while Jim did his homework, Mr. Mack returned to his Irish Times. He was still trying to put flesh on the bare bones of the London communiqués. Hard to work out where the Dubs was fighting. Only chance was to glean it from the death notices. Foolish secrecy that wouldn’t give out the names of regiments. Headlines full of British gallantry, but did British include Irish? Why wouldn’t they be done with it and say Irish gallantry? Do the world of good for recruiting. Gallantry of Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Old Tough’s Heroism. World of good ’twould do.

All over the world they were fighting, from the steppes of Russia to the African plains. Well, not America, granted not America. But in the seas around, they were fighting everywhere. From Canada they came to win glory in France, from Australia and New Zealand to knock out the Turk. If you looked at the map you saw the corners folding over, returning the blood of the young dominions to stand in defence of their motherland. It made you feel grand to be a part of it, this great empire at war, its fighting men sent forth not for gain but for honour, and Dublin its second city.

But one son was enough.

When he looked up, he saw that Jim had arranged the settle-bed and was already lying in it. He heaved up from Aunt Sawney’s chair, disremembering having got into it, rubbed his eyes. The only sound was Aunt Sawney above coughing and the low hiss of the gas.

“Have you said your prayers?”

“Yes, Papa.”

“That’s not your good shirt, is it?”

“No, Papa.”

“Goodnight so.” He lit a small candle from the Sacred Heart vigil, signing the cross as he did so, then opened the door to the box-stairs. He was preparing to turn off the gas, when Jim said,


“What is it?”

“I’m worried about Gordie.”

“What are you worried for?”

“If they send him to France. They’re using poison in France.”

ww1 gas poster
WW1 poster

Mr. Mack sat down on the edge of the bed. The candle was wasting, but that didn’t signify. “He’s in the army, Jim. And the British Army is the finest-trained and best-rigged army the world over. Look at me sure. Nobody knows what happened my mother and father, may the earth lie gently on them. But the army took me in, fed me, clothed me, made the man I am today. It’s a great body of men he’s joining. They wouldn’t send Gordie in with a damp cloth on his face. There’ll be respirators and all sorts, then nothing can harm him. Take my word. He’s safer in the army than crossing a road in front of a motor. All right, honour bright?”

“All right, Da.”

Tuke study for summer dream
Henry Scott Tuke, study for "Summer Dream", 1918

In the bluey light he smiled down at his son. He found himself touching his forehead, momentarily checking for temperature, then sifting his fingers through the fall of his hair. How well he looked, how rude in health. Both his sons looked well, for they lacked the pallor of Dublin. They were born down the Cape and their first few years had been spent in the warm. A memory of that sun glowed in their faces, in the high colour and the brownish skin. Or maybe it wasn’t that at all, was the Spanish blood rumoured on their mother’s side.

van Gogh, man praying
van Gogh, "Man Praying", 1883

Yes, both boys had their mother’s face, thanks be to God for that. But Jim positively sang of her. They lose it, you see, age coarsens it from them. But say what they will, I’ve reared two goodly boys.

On his padded way up the stairs, he said under his breath, You’d be so proud, if you saw them, you’d be so pleased. God rest you in peace everlasting. God rest you in peace, my dear.

In the bedroom, above the bockedy prie-dieu, hung a photograph-portrait of his wife. I’m so so sorry, he told her.