Eddie’s shoulder grazed the doorjamb as he left the pub; overcompensating, he lost his balance and stumbled into the path of a grey-faced woman who drew herself away from him in horror and hurried on. He paused to steady himself, took a deep breath, and focused on a straight line leading towards his bus and home. He hurried himself along: the last bus to Ballyfermot left at half-eleven.
Just before twelve, he pushed his way through the front door of his house, opening it a few inches, and slid into the hallway, listening to nothing. Satisfied, he made his way to the kitchen and set about getting himself a cup of tea and boiling an egg. Putting the pot filled with water on the stove, he lit the flame, dropped in the egg, and sat down to wait for it to boil. He let his chin fall onto his chest. The whip crack of his wife’s voice woke him up.
‘Are you tryin’ to burn the house down or what?’ she asked. ‘Do you want to kill us all in our beds?’
Silly bitch, he thought. He’d just dozed off. Couldn’t a man doze off in his own kitchen? He knew the smell that filled the room though; he’d smelled pots with their arses burned out before.
‘A fine state to come home in,’ she was saying, the flame turned off and the pot out the back door to cool down. The flex of the kettle had been touching against the side of the stove and was melted through to the wires almost. That went out the back too, into the bin. Maire moved around the kitchen taking care of everything, leaving a wide circle between herself and his chair no matter where she stood. There had been a time when he’d admired the way she held herself above everyone else.
‘Are ye not ashamed of yourself coming home in this condition? Isn’t it a good job the children are all in bed and not here to see their father too drunk to stand up on his own?’ In defiance of her, he stood up, knocking down the chair he’d meant to hold on to for support.
‘Who’s drunk, woman? If there’s anyone in this kitchen drunk, it’s not me.’
She snorted and bent to pick up the chair from the floor.
‘Are you comin’ up?’ She nodded towards the stairs.
‘No,’ he said, groping for his tie to loosen it. ‘You go on up, I’ll just sit here for a while.’ He wasn’t wearing a tie.
‘Well, mind you make no noise and wake the children,’ she said, leaving him alone.
Bloody children, he thought. That was all she ever thought about, herself and her bloody children. And what about him? After all, he was only the eejit who broke his back working to support them all. And what thanks did he get? She was teaching the kids to look down their noses at him the way she always did.
The first words she’d ever said to him were that her father had warned her not to be in this dance hall because it attracted a very low crowd. She’d had a blonde bubble-cut then, just like Kim Novak’s, and she was the best-dressed girl in the hall. She had a dress on her with a big, wide skirt, and navy dots on it the same colour as her shoes. Later on, when she let him walk her home, she had a handbag and gloves exactly the same colour, and she wore a little red jacket and hat. He’d never walked a girl home before who wore a hat.
Her name was Maire Kerrigan and she lived in the scheme of private houses just two streets away from the tenement where he’d grown up. She stopped at the corner.
‘I’ll be all right from here,’ she said. Her father was a very strict man.
He knew from the start that he wanted to marry her, and after a suitable period, she agreed. They rented two rooms over a shop on Clanbrassil Street and made a little home for themselves with their few bits of furniture; they were lucky, they had the three-piece suite her family had given them that was as good as new and the dining table from his mother would be grand with a tablecloth on it. The bed they bought new from Clery’s on the never-never. He busied himself putting up a fresh coat of paint and she scrubbed and polished the whole place, and everyone said they’d a lovely home. In the evenings they’d sit together and listen to the radio or maybe, if the weather was fine, take a stroll along the canal as far as Dolphin’s Barn and back. At night, he troubled her as little as possible and made no fuss about it when he did.
When the first baby came, he was delighted with himself altogether. On Sunday’s the two of them’d walk out, pushing the high pram in front of them. With her figure back, she’d dress up again in the fine clothes he’d always admired; he knew everyone who saw them had to envy them. Of course, with the baby and all they couldn’t go out together of an evening so much. He’d go alone, but there was no fun walking along the canal by yourself, so he took to dropping by Danny’s for a pint with his brothers and the lads. They’d slag him a bit about being hen-pecked and under the little woman’s thumb, but it was all good-humoured and he could show them how wrong they were by staying out as late as they did if he wanted to.
She didn’t like him coming home with drink taken; she said she couldn’t stand the smell of it off him. That rattled him a bit, and he wanted to show her the lads were wrong so he told her to stop bleedin’ naggin’ him. She said, ‘All right then, if you prefer the company of those bowsies to your own wife and child—carry on. Don’t let me stop you.’ She’d a hard face on her at times.
Little Peter was only fourteen months old when she got caught again. This time she had a little girl, Sheila, and from the first this one demanded more attention than Peter ever had. Where he would sit quietly in his pram watching everything with his mother’s huge blue eyes, Sheila would scream until she was picked up and minded. She seemed to catch every infection going as well. He hardly ever saw Maire any more without a child on her hip and he hardly knew what to say to her when he did.
But he loved his children. Everything he did, he did for them. He worked all the overtime he could get to make sure they were never short of anything. And on Saturday afternoons he never came home from work without a couple of apples or oranges, and maybe a few sweets for them. On Sundays, if the weather was fine, he’d take them for a stroll up as far as Stephen’s Green or, once in a while, to the zoo. Peter was a very solemn child, but quick—Maire had him reading a few little words before he went to school. And Sheila, when she wasn’t screaming, had a face on her that was the image of his mother. As soon as she could walk, she was into every bit of devilment she could find. Maire didn’t like him taking them into Danny’s, but all the lads brought their kids down on an odd Sunday for a glass of orange. Everyone down there was married now; all the single lads, including two of Eddie’s own brothers, had gone to England to work.
But still and all, no matter how much he loved the kids, he wasn’t pleased when she said she was expecting again.
‘Ah, Maire, for Jas’ sake, we can hardly feed the two we have.’
‘Well, I didn’t do it on me own, y’know.’
That was true, but still he blamed her. He couldn’t be expected to worry about that sort of thing—that was her department.
She was sicker on this one than she had been with the others, and she blew up like a balloon, even her hands and face. ‘Water retention,’ she told him it was, and he thought that sounded safe enough. So he wasn’t ready when he came home from work one day and found old Mrs O’Brien from upstairs in with the kids.
‘It’s your wife, Mr Kearney; she’s been taken sick. She’s in the Coombe Hospital.’
It wasn’t anywhere near her time, and he must have looked like a fool standing there in the doorway with his mouth hanging open.
‘You’ll be wantin’ to go and see her,’ the old woman told him. ‘You’ve no need to worry about the babies, I’ll sit with them ’till you get back.’
By the time he got there, she’d lost the baby. A doctor explained there’d been nothing he could do, that she’d left it too late to come in. He was shown to a ward and pointed to a bed surrounded by screens; Maire was in there, curled up in the bed with her back to him. He touched her shoulder and said her name; she hadn’t been asleep. She turned and looked at him. He couldn’t think of anything to say. Looking down at his empty hands, he eventually said, ‘I didn’t bring y’anythin’—I was in such a hurry . . .’
‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘I don’t need anything. I’ll be all right.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. But he didn’t think she believed him. He thought she blamed him for not wanting the baby. In his heart of hearts, he thought she was right.
In the week or so before she came home, he left the children with his mother while he went to work and spent his nights painting and wallpapering their little flat. And he went out two nights helping to deliver coal so that he could put ten shillings down on a television set. When she saw what he’d done, she nodded and smiled and said, ‘Very nice.’ And when he pointed out the television set in the corner, she laughed and said, ‘Jesus, aren’t we posh?’
For some reason, she never lost the weight she’d gained, and she had to cut down her maternity clothes to wear around the house. Her hair was brown now and he couldn’t remember when that had happened.
For a while, he’d sit in with her in the evening and watch television; she loved Lucille Ball and they watched all the westerns. After a while he started making an excuse so that he could slip down to Danny’s for the last hour. She didn’t seem to mind any more; she didn’t say anything about it.
Then, when they got the house in Ballyfermot, everything was grand. ‘What am I going to do with all this space?’ she asked, walking through empty rooms and laughing at her own echo.
He was proud of the way she fixed the house up; she’d a nice touch when it came to decorating, and he gave her a free hand, interfered as little as possible. Neither of them liked going so far out of the city; Maire said she’d never had to get a bus to her mother’s in her life, and he had a long haul to work every morning and back again at night. But it was good for the children to have their own little bedroom and a garden away from all that traffic, so they told themselves it was just the job. He brought a bike up from his mother’s that had belonged to his brother Peter before he went to England and fixed it up with a bit of oil and a lick of paint. That got him to work and back just grand and after that he was as happy as Larry. She contented herself with her babies and keeping her home immaculate, and the kids were delighted altogether. Sheila ran wild in the new space of their own back yard and Peter spent hours helping his mother cultivate the little vegetable patch she’d started. It was his job to keep Sheila off it when his mother wasn’t looking. Eddie thought Maire was getting a bit of her old sparkle back, and he kidded her about the country air putting colour in her cheeks. And, when it happened, he didn’t know how to tell her the job was gone; the company was closing down.
As it turned out, she took it well, said she’d thought things were going a bit too smoothly lately. At first, he got by doing nixers for an oulwan who owned houses in Rathmines and rented out rooms to youngwans up from the country to work in the Civil Service or the hospitals. But that came to an end when she said she didn’t like his attitude because he told her she’d overlooked paying him for a job he’d done.
After a couple of months and no job, he was nearly driven mad. They were up to their eyes in debt with the furniture payments and the rent due and Peter starting school, until he had to admit there was nothing else for it—he’d have to join his brothers in England. They’d said they could get him a start any time he wanted. He told Maire it’d only be for a short time, until he got a few bob behind him. She said she’d have everyone keep an eye out for a job at home for him. He told the kids he’d be back soon and he’d miss them and he was on his way to Birmingham.
He didn’t like Birmingham when he saw it; it was dirty and closed in and he wondered where all the good times were that everyone’d said he’d be having over there. He was working on a building site for the first time in his life and he didn’t like the foreman, who called everyone Paddy. He didn’t like the landlady either in the digs where he lived with his brothers; she fed them on the cheapest of everything and never changed the sheets unless they kicked up a fuss.
But he got used to it. You can learn to like pints of bitter and the people weren’t that bad when you got to know them. He kept to his own for the most part; the Irish had their own pubs and dance halls they frequented. Not that he saw any dance halls himself—he was disgusted with the married men he knew there who were carrying on with women. English women were different. Even the Irish girls who lived there and came into the pubs he drank in had lost the run of themselves.
Every Saturday night at seven o’clock exactly, he’d go up to the phone box on the corner and call another phone box in Ballyfermot and Maire would be there waiting to answer. He’d ask her if she got the money he’d sent her last week and she’d say yes and she’d ask him how he was doing and he’d say fine and then he’d talk to the children. Peter told him he liked going to school and he was being a good boy for his mammy, and Sheila would cry because she didn’t understand where the voice was coming from, so Maire had to stop bringing her. And it would break his heart because they were as well off without him as with him there.
Saturday night was a great night for getting drunk. The landlady never minded as long as they didn’t make a mess, and they’d all day Sunday to recover. During the week they’d sit in the local over a couple of pints all night because there was nothing else to do except listen to the landlady’s television through the floorboards.
During the three years he was in England he went home every summer and a week at Christmas and, if he was lucky, a few days at Easter. It must have been during that time that he became middle-aged because that was when he first felt out of step with everything around him. He told himself it would be different when he went back home for good instead of just for holidays, but it wasn’t; Dublin had changed and so had the people. The youngwans were wearing their skirts up to their arses like the English wans, and the youngfellas grew their hair down their backs like nancy boys. They’d pulled down the tenements where he’d been reared and all the people had been moved out to Ballyer, or over the north side to Cabra or Finglas.
But otherwise, things were looking up in Ireland and he’d no trouble getting a job loading biscuits onto the vans at Jacobs. At home, Maire was as nice to him as he could want and made him very comfortable. The kids kept their distance at first, but he told himself he’d get over that. He told himself as well that he’d get used to being the man of the house again before long. A few of his old mates worked in Jacobs with him and he used to go in for a drink with them before he started on the long trek home to Ballyfermot. Maire never said anything about it and after a while he got the impression she was glad to be rid of him. He was awkward around Maire nowadays—he could never think of what to say to her. He told himself that would pass too.
Peter was ten when young Donal was born. Eddie always thought this one was a sullen child and he told Maire that she babied him too much, that he was spoiled.
‘If you were home more often, then maybe I wouldn’t have to try and be both mother and father to him,’ she said. There was no talking to her; she always knew better than he did. Whenever he tried to talk to one of the kids or to chastise them she’d stand in the way and they’d hide behind her back and laugh at him. So he stopped interfering with the way she reared them. When young Sharon and Catherine came you’d hardly know he had anything to do with them. The fellas in Danny’s said that was women all over for ye, that as long as you brought home the money on Friday night, they didn’t give a shag what happened to ye the rest of the week.
Sheila’d always been the only one who had any time for him. His own mother used to say she was the only Kearney among the crowd of his kids—the others were their mother all over, only ever went to see their granny on sufferance. He didn’t like to admit that about the kids, though it was true enough about Maire, and she went to no trouble to hide it. She never drank a cup of tea in his mother’s house or sat down properly to relax; she’d just perch on the edge of a chair and sip at the tea a bit before she put it to one side. And the kids’d hang out of her the whole time they were there, frightened to let themselves go and enjoy themselves for fear of what she’d say.
Sheila was the only one who ever paid any attention to him or listened when he talked. As far as the others were concerned he was just the oulfella; they’d no interest in anything he had to say unless it was ‘here’s a few bob’. No matter how he was feeling, though, Sheila always gave him a laugh, and it used to delight him to watch Maire’s mouth tighten up when the youngwan told her stories. When she started work, she’d always slip him a few bob if he was stuck; and if he came home with a few on him, she’d take care of him and see that he was all right. But Sheila was in London now. He’d no worries about Sheila; she was a good sort and she could take care of herself.
Maire worried about Sheila. She said she was headstrong and irresponsible and no good would come of her gallivanting.
‘Ah, leave the girl alone, why don’t ye,’ Eddie told her. ‘Y’know, your trouble is you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be young. She’s no worries or cares to tie her down, so why shouldn’t she enjoy herself while she can?’
‘Well, you’d know more about that than I would,’ was all he could get by way of an answer.
If Sheila was a cause for concern for Maire, then Peter was her pride and joy. He’d been the first one in either of their families to get himself a university degree and had a job teaching in a girls’ school in Walkinstown. He’d taken a flat over there for convenience sake and Maire always sent him Christmas cards or birthday cards addressed to Mr Peter Kearney, BA. Eddie was proud of him too, but Peter still saw the world through his mother’s eyes and he could be very hard to talk to sometimes.
The three younger ones Eddie had always thought of as their mother’s children; they were spoiled and impudent and never listened to a word he said. It was for their sakes’ now he’d been warned not to make any noise—well he felt like making a bloody big noise to waken them up and remind them who their father was. But what’d be the use? Maire’d only come down and cut the ground from under him with her usual few words, and he’d have to lose his temper and shout over her and then they’d all just say he was a drunken blackguard and go off into their own rooms and shut the doors on him. The kitchen was getting cold. He wished he hadn’t burned the shaggin’ kettle—he could do with a cup of tea.