WW1 parting
WW1 recruitment poster
Chapter 3 — Section 4
Pages 79-8676-8167-72
WhereMacks' kitchen
WhenFriday night, May 7 1915

When Jim came in his father had the Soldier’s Friend out and was polishing his medals. The table was a rainbow of ribbons, blues and greens and reds. He looked up, glazed from his painstaking. “There you are at last. Home from the spit and dribbles. What kept you?”

“I was at the devotion with Brother Polycarp.”

“Oh, keep in with the brothers,” his father said wisely. “The brothers won’t see you down. Is that a new flute we have there?”

Surprised at the ease of it, Jim answered, “The brother wanted me to try it for him. He wasn’t sure with the tone. He said to keep it by me for the time being.”

He climbed on a chair to fetch the cleaning rod from atop the press. When he looked down, his father wore a doubtful look.

“If you say so,” he said. He watched a while, then added, “No wonder he’s worried with the tone. That wood looks cracked away. You’d be all day fetching a tune out of that. Mind now, see what happens when you don’t look after your instrument.”

Jim swabbed his flute and Doyler’s, then laid them together inside his sock with a piece of precious orange-peel to keep them humid.

“There’s bread and jam for those that wants it.”

“Thanks, Papa.”

‘’Twon’t break the bank. Hungry work at the spit and dribbles.”

WW1 poster

Under his father’s gaze, Jim thinly spread the jam. He wondered vaguely what Doyler would be eating. The brawn had looked pitiful scant. Though they wouldn’t be eating brawn of a Friday. A gratitude filled him as he ate for his own home and he regretted having lied about Doyler’s flute. Why had he done that? An impulse he could not readily explain. He watched his father the way he worked. His lips moved with his concentration and the wings of his moustache blew up and down each breath he took. He frowned at the medal he was polishing, breathed on it, rubbed. “Do you know this one, Jim?”

Khedive’s Star.”

“Dull old thing it is. Hard to get a shine off it. Bit of brummagem really, not regular British. Sandstormers, we called them. Khedive gave it us for saving his bacon. There.” He tried it against his chest. “Will I pass muster? Hangs awkward too. Three rings on the clasp where, correctly placed, one would suffice.”

“I like it, Da.”

... dull old thing it is
Khedive's Star

Even the ribbon was dull: plain dark blue. Yet it was Jim’s favourite. Arab script like the scrawl of time, the exotic symbols, star and crescent, and a rather jolly Sphinx who smiled before the Pyramids. More than any the others, for all their dates and inscriptions, it begged to tell a story. When he had asked what tale that might be, his father had looked nonplussed. “Sure we all got one. Nothing pass remarkable.”

“Is there some occasion, Da, that you have your medals out?”

“I was thinking about your brother and I thought—never can tell when you needs your medals. There’s a war on, don’t you know.”

... aetatis a nipper
Boy soldier, Royal Fusiliers, c.1893 – from Soldiers of the Queen

He dabbed the cloth in the Soldier’s Friend, chose a fresh medal, then set it down again. “I’ll be up with the owls at this.” Cloth redabbed, medal up, rub. “That was a turn-up, I don’t mind me saying, a son of mine parading through Dublin with my old regiment. It was always a shame to me that I never got to parade with the Dubs in Ireland. Oh, we paraded when we left, right enough, but I was only aetatis a nipper then. That was eighteen, that was eighteen-seventy, that was eighteen-seventy-nine. The barrack rat, they called me. Well, they called all the boys the barrack rat, that was the name they had for us. Barrack rats it was. Chuckaroo in India.”

Medal down, change cloth, medal up, shine.

“But I always regret that I never paraded through Dublin as a man. Of course, we paraded through many a town in our travels from the Rock to India and back, and very pleased they were to have us. Power of cheers we got from the assembled populace, venture wheresomever we may. But to march through Dublin as quartermaster-sergeant, now that had been the cheese. In charge of the stores of the fair city’s regiment, marching behind the Colours and the battle honours waving, now that had been the Stilton. But we never came home till after I left the army and I never got my wish.”

... before the rivers of Ireland
Cigarette silk, 1914 – Battle Honours of the RDF

Arcot, Condore, Wandiwash, Pondicherry ... Jim knew the battle honours by heart. Guzerat, Sholinghur, Nundy Droog, Amboyna ... a rote that in his mind came before the rivers of Ireland, before the kings of England, before his two-times table even. The names were beautiful and told of isolated scenes, little gardens of Eden, where stepping-stones forded spuming streams and cherry-trees hung overhead. Once in a while a cherry dropped in the wash, a burst scarlet cherry.

He was leaning at the table with his head on his palm, lazily watching his father. How meticulous he was, yet disorganized with it. The way he tidied away the medals, each in its place, then each removed, returned, adjusted.

“Why was that, Da?” he asked.

“Why was what is it?”

“We came home to Ireland before the regiment.” He knew, of course. The parish knew. And once at college when Jim muffed at football he heard a brother say to another brother, “Quakebuttock for a pater.”

“Oh sure don’t you know that was your mother.” His father was silent a while then he added, “Heaven be her bed tonight.”

“Did she not like Africa?”

His father looked him a caution. “You have your fill of questions tonight.”

“Was wondering only.”

Moise Kisling, "Mimosas", 1939

Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, "Mimosa, N. Transvaal", 1927

“There’s enough of your wondering now.” The box of medals went inside in the press. His hands remained on the open doors and he stared at the interior dark till in a tone of revelation he announced, “Mimosa.”

“Mimosa, Da?”

“Mum-mim-mom,” he said. “I had a smell of it the other morning walking up toward Ballygihen. Mimosa it was.”

“What’s mimosa?”

“I never thought ’twould prosper in this weather. She’d have been right pleased to know.”

“Do you mean my mother?”

“Who else would I mean? She did always favour the mimosa. We had it in the garden when we were quartered there. Wait-a-bit thorn, the Boers called it. Strange class of people.”

Jim signed the word with his lips. Mimosa. What book at school would he look that out in?

Punch, August 1915

“Whatever about that,” his father said, stretching his back for a heat by the range, “’tis Gordie we must look to now. Deo volenting, he’ll come home to Dublin with the regiment and they’ll march with the Colours in triumph.” He reflected a moment, his face clouded, then charity found his better side. “No, fair dues. He signed up, so he did. Upped his age and took the man’s part in the end. Albeit behind my back.”

“Aunt Sawney misses him, Da.”

“Aunt Sawney?”

“She came down in the night looking for him. She wanted to know why wasn’t he home. I think she thought it was morning.”

“Did she give you a stir?”

“A bit all right.”

“She forgets sure. It’s her age. They were very thick together. Never knew for why, for he was ever on the tease with her. With her and the world and his wife. That’s all that boy ever needed, a taste of army discipline. Sure wasn’t he first chop the last time he stayed? The changed man. I always said if the army don’t drill some sense into that noddle, then the devil’s not in Ireland. If only now he hadn’t let that drapery miss to spoil his parade.”

Jim couldn’t but smile. A week back, they had marched with Gordie’s battalion from the barracks, along the quays, up Dame Street, College Green, O’Connell Bridge down to the Custom House, a grand tour of the city’s princely centre. And everywhere they passed, the flags were waving and handkerchiefs and hats, and from every window the hurrahs came till the panes rattled with the roar. He could feel his father set to burst with pride. And when the band broke into the regimental song, his voice joined lustily with the ranks:

A credit to the nation
A thousand buccaneers
A terror to creation
Are the Dublin Fusil—
Dublin Fusil—
Dublin Fusiliers!

... proper drapery miss
WW1 poster

But the occasion had been marred by the sight that greeted them at the dockside. There was Gordie, fine, manly, with his good-conduct badge and his skill-at-arms badge, and his hands that seemed suddenly as large as his father’s, save his hands were wrapped round Nancy from Madame MacMurrough’s. Nancy in her Easter bonnet and Sunday finery, “looking a proper drapery miss,” said his father. And his father made Jim turn away, for she was kissing Gordie in the street.

“Well, Gordon, I trust and you won’t let us down.”

Spectamur agendo, Da,” and he shook his father’s hand.

The regimental motto made his father’s eyes water, and he said, muttering and turning aside, “Thanks son. Thank you, son.”

Then Gordie scuffed Jim one final time on the neck, but his hand lingered there and rested almost gently on his nape. Thick coarse cloth enveloped his face, and Gordie was whispering, “Look after the old man for me. And look after Aunt Sawney. And look after Nancy too. And look after yourself, young ’un. Remember me.”

He straightened up. “Mind this fella keeps to his books, Da. He’s beggar all use else.”

... has the dustman passed?
van Gogh, "Wheat Field with a Lark", 1887

A final salute to his father, a wink at Jim, and he returned to Nancy. Arm in arm they walked to the gangplank while the gulls above were calling. And it struck Jim that maybe his brother had been on his side all along. Had protected him from his father’s ways by all the time bringing damnation on himself. A great remorse rose in him and he wished desperately to speak once more with his brother, to share one more night the narrow bed at home. But the band had faded into “Come Back to Erin” and the ship pulled out from the quay, and all the hands waving were as wheat that shifted in a wind.

“Has the dustman passed?”

Jim realized he must have yawned.

“Time for Last Post so.” While Jim readied the settle-bed, his father lit his candle from the Sacred Heart lamp. “I don’t seem to find the time these days. What with knitting the socks and polishing the medals and totting up the club-books for the tally fortnights. Tonight was First Friday. We might have found time to go.”

“I had my devotion with Brother Polycarp tonight.”

“But this is something we might do together. Father and son.”

“Yes, Papa.”

“The Sacred Heart has promised great things.”

Jim nodded.

“Or we could find something to do with the Virgin Mary. There’s a better class of people goes after the Blessed Virgin. I did always think that.”

“My devotion with Brother Polycarp is to Mary.”

His father blew at the edge of his moustache. “Perhaps you’re right. Keep in with the brothers.”

The gas went down, the stairs door closed, and Jim lay down to sleep.