JOHN, BRENDAN & MOTHER
I don’t suppose you ever realised that I helped myself to some of your First Holy Communion money. Dear, trusting Brendan, resplendent in your new suit and your shiny knees, you were more than happy to hand it to me to ‘look after it for you’. This was after the ceremony when the likes of the Mrs Kelly and Mrs Cummins had patted you on the head and told you what a grand little fellow you were, whilst at the same time placing shining half-crowns in you eager little palm. You could see the other ould ones watching like hawks, to see what denomination coin exchanged hands – they wouldn’t give any more, but they certainly wouldn’t give any less. After about ten of them had passed you by, your hair was more tousled and the stack of coins in your fists much bigger – and my eyes more bulged! And while mother was distracted among the shiny perms and shawls I was able to transfer the load to my trouser pocket. What later came out was certainly less than what went in! And I had added to my stack of Johnny Mac Brown comics before the day was out.
You were seven years younger than me, and looked up to me in more ways than one. Well, you were the baby, weren’t you? Always tugging at my kneecaps, looking to be taken places and given things – and giving father a hard time. He was forever chasing you but could never catch you. You were faster than Master McGrath himself. Still he got his own back when you eventually came inside. Even then you crawled under the bed to get away from him. But he had the answer to that tactic too, didn’t he? Prodding away with the broom handle until you were forced to admit defeat.
I missed most of your formative years; you were only eleven years old when I caught the cattle boat to England, and for the next five or six years I caught only occasional glances of you during my spasmodic visits home. You were becoming a young man and I didn’t even notice.
Mind you, I was preoccupied myself during this period; several spells at HM pleasure meant I had other things to occupy my mind. And when that period ended there were other distractions such as getting married, starting a family and being busy with all that entailed. Before I noticed you were twenty-one and living in London yourself.
You got yourself a job working for British Rail and rented our spare room in Harlesden Gardens.
Do you remember that song you used to sing when you had a few jars?
In eighteen hundred and forty one,I put my shocking pink britches on.
The Kilburn railway had just begun, Working on the railway,
The railway, I’m weary of the railway. Oh Brendan works on the railway.
Your own version of the song I believe. You lasted a couple of years, but you never really liked London, did you? Anyway, you packed your bags and returned to the nest, never to leave again. At least you were never like me; yo-yoing between the two islands never quite making up my mind where home was. And I am still yo-yoing all these years later.
Course, John never left the country at all, did he? Not even for one day. Never set foot on John Bull’s Island. Never even ventured as far as the Arran Islands; those wet rocks in the Atlantic as Synge referred to them. I think I could name on one hand the places John has been to; Killarney, Cork, Dublin, Thurles, Kilkenny. I’d say that’s about it.
If you think he was bad in your time, you should see him now. You remember Lackendara the hermit who lived in a cave up in the Comeraghs Mountains? That could be John. What am I saying – that would be him if he lived a few miles nearer the foothills.
He went to pieces after you and mother died. Oh, it wasn’t apparent straight away; it took many years to manifest itself physically, but it had clearly been eating away at him for years without anybody realising it. I don’t think he even realised it himself. He took your death very hard; I think he felt that he had treated you very badly over the years – you know, the house being his, and making you feel you weren’t wanted – well, I think he wanted to tell you that he didn’t really mean any of it. But as is nearly always the case in these matters, the remorse came too late.
To say the house became a pig-sty understates matters; I am sure mother would roll in her grave if she could see the state he let it come to. Meamie did her best; but you know John, contrary is his middle name. The paper and paint was peeling in every room, nothing got thrown away, so that it came to the stage that you almost needed a shovel to get in the front door. One thing will amuse you; he used to get Spot, the dog, to lick the dinner plates clean. That way he didn’t have to wash them up!
I spent six months living with him in the winter of ‘96/97 and as fast as I tried to clean the place he dirtied it again. What was I doing there? Well, I came there to finish the writing of a book
oh yes, I am a writer these days (of sorts) – and thought the peace and quiet would be grand. I nearly froze to fucking death! John would be out all day working – yes, still on the County Council chain gang – and the house would be like an ice box when I got up. Lighting the fire and getting the place warmed up took most of the morning, so that it was near lunchtime when I was ready to do any writing.
And then a funny thing happened; I had come over to finish one book, but I wound up writing a completely different one. I called it ‘Confessions of an Altar Boy’ and it was about my childhood growing up in Ballyhussa, ending on the day I got on the boat train for London. To be honest it wrote itself; I just sat there and typed as this stuff poured out of me. It was like being in a room and opening a door, going into that room and finding another door…and so on. And in all the years since, I have to admit I have never found anything that gives me more pleasure than writing. Not even sex! Well, these days that doesn’t give me any pleasure at all, because I don’t have any! But that’s more to do with my own physical ailments than anything else. But that’s another story…
Anyway, back to John; it would be a few years more before he finally hit rock bottom. To be fair there were a number of external factors that added to his troubles; the house was broken into several times and stuff taken. The first time it was his shotgun – his pride and joy –, which turned up for sale in Dublin a few weeks later. He got it back but I think it was the invasion of his privacy that hit him hardest. The second time it was a brand new stove that he had bought a few weeks earlier. It was cast iron and must have weighed as much as a tractor! No one was ever caught, but I think it is a sure thing that it was someone local either doing themselves or tipping the wink to somebody else.
No one is quite sure what actually happened to John; he says himself that he felt a bit weak going to bed and grabbed at the wardrobe to save himself from falling. This, he says, brought the wardrobe down on top of him, trapping him underneath for most of the night. Knowing how heavy it must have been with all the rubbish he kept inside it, I suppose it could be true. Anyway, he says he managed to get out sometime in the morning, got dressed and went off to work. Whatever the truth, the other workers found him at the depot, wandering round in a daze, not knowing where or who he was. He was taken to hospital, where he had a complete mental and physical breakdown. And by that I mean unable to speak or move, or recognise anybody. I don’t think he even knew who he was himself.
Meamie had to sign papers to have him committed to the mental section in Ardkeen Hospital, and he was there for months having all sort of treatment, including Electric Shock Treatment. He himself stills believes he only had a couple of sessions of that, but Meamie says it was much more. And she should know – she sanctioned them! He was eventually discharged, but only on condition he went to live with Meamie. They wouldn’t allow him back to the house because of the condition it was in. The County Council retired him on health grounds and gave him a lump sum, which he used to do up the house. You wouldn’t recognise the place now; new kitchen, new bathroom, new bedroom, all mod cons. Mother would be in her element. You wouldn’t though – your old room is the new bathroom!
I am chuckling a bit now as I recall how you christened the boreen Elm Street. I guess you loved that ould place. And Newtown. I know you had divided loyalties as far as frequenting Nugent’s or Micky Kent’s. I suppose you balanced things out like you always did; a few bottles here, a few whiskies there – and sure aren’t that what makes the world go round!
I still call it Nugent’s, even though they are long gone. I suppose I have a soft spot for the place; after all they kept me supplied in reading material on many a dark night in those far-off days. Samuel Johnson and Gulliver’s Travels by candlelight – and the ould fella shouting up from the bedroom ‘put out that feckin candle before you burn us out of house and home’. Sure how else could I travel the world except by books? It was more than worldly travel; to me it was a form of time travel; sneaking into that old outhouse and coming away with all sort of treasure under my jumper. I wasn’t interested in anything else, only books and magazines. Dusty, fusty, musty instruments of time travel.
Later on, you got the bug too. I saw stacks of old literature and comics hidden away under your bed; well thumbed and well loved. And from where did you get them except from similar sheds and outhouses to Nugent’s scattered throughout the locality? And what harm did their removal do to anybody? In a few years they would have been harrowed into the soil, lost forever as the buildings were sent toppling to the ground
in the relentless pursuit for progress.Micky Kent’s almost met that fate itself. It might have been a shebeen, but it was the most civilised shebeen in the country. ‘The intellectual’s shebeen’, you called it. And so it was. Many of the best brains – and worst drunkards – frequented it. Doctors and bank managers, paupers and poets, they came in their droves. From all over the world, many going out of their way to make second and subsequent visits. The postcards on the walls were testimony to that. Micky didn’t stand on ceremony; there was no running water – glasses were washed in cold water from the village pump, if you wanted piss you had to go into the orchard, and bottles of stout and beer were pulled from their hiding places with the dust still rising off them.
But the place had character. And Micky was the biggest character of all. And told the tallest tales! Some true and some not. But what did it matter. He was a born seannachai.
And the world is sadder for his demise.
After he died the pub became more and more derelict – if that was possible – and lay empty for years. It was rescued by Maurice Lenehan of all people, and has now been renovated and extended to such a degree that it has all but lost its unique selling point. Whatever that might have been! There has been one saving grace though; it has been officially named the Donncha Ruadh Bar. I am sure Micky would be pleased, seeing as he christened it that many moons ago.
Talking about Donncha; a festival in his honour was organised a couple of years back – John was on the committee – and yours truly was invited. I was the only ‘famous’ ex-pat they could think of… be jaysus they were scraping the bottom of the barrel there – but it did mean mingling with the elite of Kilmac and Newtown at the PP’s house. He even dished out a drop of Diesel.
Anyway, after that we all trooped down to the chapel to pay homage to Donncha. I never got to say my piece; Sean Murphy (Sir Sean!) started spouting about the Newfoundland connection, and then began listing all the local surnames prominent out there. He could still be listing them for all I know; I had a reeling in me head and had to go outside for some fresh air. There was supposed to be a festival in the pump field the next day; parades, marching girls, bands, the whole works, but it lashed out of the heavens all day so they had to cancel it. It must have cost the committee a fortune, because everyone had to be paid. We all spent the day – and the night – getting flutered in the bar. (Poor Micky, he would have loved it, god rest him). Lar was there bawling his eyes out, the PP was pissed out of his head, and some little gurrier was walking out wearing my leather jacket when I caught him by the scruff of the neck. And then the little gurrier had the cheek to say he thought my jacket was his. He then started rooting around looking for the ‘missing’ jacket – and everybody knowing he had come in wearing a gansy. I said to him ‘maybe someone stole it!’ To be honest in the end I wound up buying him a pint. He reminded me a lot of another little gurrier of thirty years earlier! No prizes for whom guessing that might be! Ah, glory days
Like I said before, you looked up to me – and I honest-to-jaysus don’t know why. Because I was a right bastard. I stole your money – and I don’t mean your communion few shillings, as you well know – but that three or four hundred you had under your mattress. All English notes, and all hard-earned from your occasional forays across the water with that flooring company who occasionally hired you. Do you want to know what I did with it? I blew it all in a couple of weeks at various Ladbrokes and Hills betting shops around Paddington. Like all gamblers I was full of optimism that this time I was going to crack it, but at the end of the two weeks the only thing that was full was the bookies satchel. And I had to come crawling back to Limerick and try to patch things up with everybody. I know you got your money back eventually, but do you know who paid most of it? Mother. I was full of good intentions of course, but after a few moths I was back to my old, selfish, ways, with the result that she wound up footing most of my bill.I thought I had learned my lesson then. But when did I ever learn from anything?
Let me tell you how it was. I was brassic (skint) and sleeping rough in empty houses along the Harrow Road by Kensal Green cemetery at the end of the two weeks, freezing my nuts off every night, wondering how I was going to get back to Limerick. And then it struck me. Vince Power. Yes, old pal Vince. Except we weren’t pals anymore; not since he had stitched me up good and proper over that picture he had sold at Sotheby’s. The last time we had spoken – a couple of years ago – we had almost come to blows.Anyway, he now had several second-hand furniture joints on the go, and had, I had just learned, recently bought Terry Downes old nightclub in Harlesden High Street. I figured he was rolling in it.
I walked the four miles from Kensal Green to Cricklewood Lane early the next morning, knowing that he was likely to breakfast at the café adjacent to his shop there, and waited for him to turn up. Sonny and Christy were with him (minders?) and I managed to catch Sonny’s eye. Sonny was the best of them – a bit too like myself for my own comfort. I say was, because he died a few years ago. May he rest in peace.Anyway, he took my message to Vince, who came out to see me. After listening to my tale of woe, he took out a roll of notes that would choke a horse and peeled of forty quid, telling me he never wanted to see me again. I thought it was a bit rich him lecturing me about gambling considering his track record on the subject. Talk about the kettle calling the pot black! Anyway, fair dues to him, it did get me out of a hole, and probably saved my marriage as well.
You dying like that was hard to take. I mean who falls of their bicycle and dies as a result? I mean look at me; I crashed off my Honda and suffered head injuries like you. We both wound up in Ardkeen Hospital – admittedly almost thirty years apart – probably in the same ward – maybe even in the same bed for all we know. The only difference is I woke up you didn’t. Did you feel anything – know anything- as you lay there? I didn’t, and I hope to God you didn’t. If dying is like that then sure there’s nothing to it. I was going to say it’s like riding a bicycle, but perhaps not eh?
My guess is you had a few drinks? But even so, a slight collision with another cyclist, in which he gets up and dusts himself off and you suffer massive head injuries, must be odds of many thousands to one against that particular outcome. You were only thirty-nine, and I remember thinking at the time ‘what a waste of a young life’. What was the point of it? What was the point of anything? Coming only a few months after mother’s death, it was hard to take. But there was one slight consolation; she, at least didn’t have to mourn the loss of her youngest.
I should have gone home for your funeral I know, but I couldn’t honestly face another so soon after mother’s. And anyway, I did my grieving for you in my own way. I can say this now; you were my favourite brother. And if you are residing in a graveyard with the likes of Donncha Rua and Micky Kent then it can’t be all bad!
Your loving brother, Tom
LETTERS TO MY MOTHER AND OTHER DEAD RELATIVES is available to buy on http://www.amazon.co.uk