A chapter from my novel CRICKLEWOOD COWBOYS; available on Amazon.
‘Bannaher? There’s plenty more like him around this town’, Larry remarked as we watched the subby heave Jonjo’s meagre belongings into the boot of his Mercedes.
‘One battered suitcase, not a lot for a lifetime, eh?’ Chris rubbed more dirt from our kitchen window as we peered into the street.
‘I’d rather starve than work on the effing buildings again’, said Larry as we watched the car pull away.
‘Again?’ I laughed. ‘Refresh my memory’.
‘Feck off, Byrnes. Anyway, working is bad for your health. Look what happened to Jonjo’.
Jonjo had lived in a tiny box room sandwiched between our couple of rooms and the bog. A small, wizened man, his face gleamed like polished leather. The sort of colour I had last seen when my ould fella was soling our shoes in the spare room back home in Croagh.
Jonjo was up and away by six thirty every morning. Hail, rain or snow. Six days a week. He returned around seven every evening, the Evening News, two small bottles of Guinness, and a parcel of food under his arm. He cooked his food in the communal kitchen, then retired to his room with his paper and his drink. You could always tell when he was in; his working boots stood on a sheet of newspaper outside his door.
We had got to know him quite well. He told us how he hated the building trade, and the lump system it had spawned. The subby attracted the worst of his criticism; ‘work, work, work…that’s all he wants. Sticks you down a hole in the morning, and expects it to be an underground car-park in the evening. And pays you nothing at the end of the day…’
‘Why do you do it?’ I asked him one night.
‘Because It’s all I know. And it’s not as bad as it used to be. When we were building the motorways years ago we lived in camps you wouldn’t keep a decent dog in. And you had fellas like Elephant John and Harry the Horse dogging you day and night. Ah, if you could survive that you could survive anything….’ Then his voice became hard. ‘Besides, it was better than working for those bastards in Lincolnshire’.
He revealed he had emigrated from Leitrim during the war to work on farms in the Lincolnshire area. Many of these farms had been specifically bought by wealthy Englishmen, for their sons ,to keep them out of the war. ‘The bastards didn’t know the first thing about farming, so we were brought in to do the work. They treated us like dirt; we had to live in stables and haylofts. Working all hours; picking spuds, muck-spreading, harvesting. We had no names; it was Paddy this, Paddy that, Paddy you thick c–t. The prisoners of war were treated better. A year of this slavery was enough for me. I took off for London and got a job with a subby working for McAlpines. I was always looking behind me though…always on the move…’
His conditions of employment required him to report to the local police every three months, otherwise he could be deported. Technically, he was still a fugitive.
‘Feck ‘em all’, he said to me one evening. ‘I’ll be fifty next year and I’ll have enough put by to get me a little farm near Drumshanbo. And maybe a decent woman to go with it’.
Now he would get neither. Buried alive in the hole he was digging. Three days ago – and nobody missed him. That’s how much his departure meant to the world. The absence of his boots had puzzled us a little, but it was only when Bannaher turned up that we learned of his fate. He was arranging for the body to be flown home after the inquest and wanted to send his belongings with it.
‘He was too old for this game, anyway’, he’d said before he left us. ‘Digging is a young man’s sport. Do any of yous want a start?’
‘A start! Did you hear the bastard?’, Larry raged as we watched the Mercedes vanish along the Harrow Road, Jonjo’s meagre belongings barely filling the old suitcase now resting on the back seat. ‘Jonjo isn’t even in his grave yet, and all he can talk about is a start. His kind will bury more than that place over there can hold’.
‘That place’ was Kensal Green cemetery, which ran parallel with the Harrow Road for some way, and was fronted by a high, ivy-encrusted wall. A wall so grime-ingrained that black might have been its original colour had not the sporadic repairs to the brickwork over the years given the game away.
Not that the view from our front windows bothered us unduly. Dead people were the quietest of neighbours. It was the trains to our rear, rattling our windows at all hours, which had us cursing. The railway embankment sloped up so close in places you could reach out and almost touch them as they rattled by.
‘I suppose his next port of call will be Mulligans, telling them all what a great man Jonjo was, before getting some other eejit to take his place’.
We knew Mulligans well. It was one of a litany of pubs we drank our way through. Big and boisterous, it was always packed. It was said you could buy anything there; tax-exemption certificate, dump truck, sticks of dynamite – even a job. You could also cash the likes of Bannaher’s cheques. Mulligan was onto a good thing; not only did he get his five percent on the cheques, most of the remainder found its way over the counter too.
Monday mornings at Mulligans were a sight to behold. Bleary-eyed and broke they gathered there; survival the only thing most of them had in common. A days work would assure them of a sub, and that would tide them over till the next pay-day. Then the sad cycle would begin again. Bannaher and his cronies had them by the balls alright – and they were in no hurry to let go!
By now I had been in London for almost a year, and very little of that time had been devoted to work. There were occasional early-morning forays to Mulligans when funds were low, but generally, signing on at a couple of Labour Exchanges, using Fergus’ name at one of them, brought in a steady income. Well…what Fergus didn’t know wouldn’t bother him…
Catching the eye of a subby in the early-morning fog wasn’t too difficult; some of the hopefuls looked as if they might struggle to lift a pint never mind a pick and shovel. The mystery tour we called it; you never knew where you would wind up once you plonked your arse in the back of that Transit van. One day you might be digging holes all over Watford, the next pulling cables outside Birmingham. Better than pulling you wire all day, Chris was fond of saying. Only just, boy. Only just.
Larrry never took part. The time of the first race usually dictated what time he got out of bed. If he wasn’t in the betting shops trying to relieve William Hill of some money he was dreaming up ways of relieving shopkeepers and other business people of their hard-earned cash.
The three of us had drifted together in the way that casual acquaintances tend to after a while. The group was fluid by nature, the faces constantly changing, but retaining a nucleus of half a dozen or so. Chris and Larry shared a double room in a rundown house off the Kilburn High Road and had secured a basement room for me. It had a picture of a tropical island painted on the front wall in place of a window, and a permanent smell of stale cabbage and greasy pans lingered in the air. McGinty, the landlord, appeared once a week to collect his rent, ignoring the fact that his pride and joy was falling down around us, complaining that he couldn’t afford repairs on the money he was charging. We decided to get out before they had to dig us out; hence our arrival in Kensal Green.
Chris, Larry and me, three friends with little in common except our gambling and thieving. There was our Irishness of course; though Chris reckoned he was London-born. He had spent his first couple of years in the East End until his mother had tired of his father’s beatings and left him. She had kept his step-sister and sent him to an aunt in Limerick. He had remained in ignorance of his true identity until the aunt confessed on her death-bed. He was seventeen at the time. Within a week he had stolen fifty three pounds from the local creamery and fled to London.
Larry had originated in the Ringsend area of Dublin. His mother still lived there and he visited her occasionally. These visits were very secretive, and I suspected there was a warrant out for him on some charge or other.
As for me, my story wasn’t much better. Ever since I could remember, I was a rebel. As Fr Maguire put it the night I tried to burn the school down; ‘that young man is going places, all the wrong ones’. Since being kicked out of school I had tried a variety of jobs, and had being kicked out of most of them. By this time my father had given up on me. His only comment when he found out I was headed for London was ’good riddance’. Mother cried and gave me ten pounds, a bottle of holy water and a picture of Blessed Martin. Fergus had chipped in with another tenner.
Living in London hardened me. Work became a dirty word – the only kind of work I was qualified for anyhow. I saw what too many days down damp holes had done to scores of my countrymen. You only had to walk down the Kilburn High Road or Cricklewood Broadway to witness it. In the cafes and pubs, in the clubs, in dingy little rooms that passed for home, old and bent before their time. And nothing to show for it. All pissed up against the pub walls or left in the clubs and betting shops.
I grew to hate the sight of a pick and shovel. Hate the blistered hands and the aching back, the company of loud-mouthed navvies with their passion for the pub at the end of every shift. Beery evenings in damp and mud-caked clothes, then back to a squalid room in a squalid house to consume pie and chips…Jasus, it was the stuff of nightmares. To contemplate doing it for the rest of my life….
‘This town is full of Jonjos’, I said now as we downed a few pints of the black stuff in his memory. Naturally, the venue was Mulligans. Mulligan himself was behind the bar on this occasion, lining up pints with all the finesse of an orang-utang.
‘Look at that ape’, said Larry. ‘He’d look more at home shovelling shit in a slurry pit. A bog man right up to his eyebrows’.
‘You can take the man from the bog but you can’t take the bog from the man’, said Chris.
Mulligan hailed from the wilds of Kerry, Killorglin I believe, and was famous in a minor sort of way. He had once been a strongman in Duffy’s Circus, and toured Ireland performing feats of strength. Later, he attracted a lot of publicity at shows all over England, pulling buses with the tow-rope held between his teeth, and taking on – and beating – tractors in tug-o-war contests. Or so the legend had it.
He flexed his muscles now as he placed our drinks in front of us.
‘What do you think, lads? Fifty next birthday and still fit as a fiddle’.
‘Jonjo would have been fifty next birthday, too’, I replied.
‘Is that a fact? Ah, poor fella. God rest him’. He blessed himself. ‘He didn’t come in here much. Only the weekend. To change his cheque. He wasn’t a one for the diesel’.
No he wasn’t. Not that there was any shortage of those, I thought, looking around. Some of those here could do without clothes, without food, without women: the one thing they couldn’t do without was drink. The diesel. I remembered Jonjo’s words to me once; ‘I like a drop of the diesel, Terry boy, but only now and again. Isn’t the craving an awful affliction? I do see men in the morning and they on fire for a sup of the craythur. That fire do be burning all their lives; it’s what keeps them down their damp holes, and in their squalid little rooms, their dream of going home just that – dreams. There’s men I know haven’t been home for twenty years. They’ll never go back now, or if they do it’ll be the one-way ride in the ould pine box. And many of them won’t even afford that’.
.’No, he wasn’t one for the diesel’…Mulligan was still talking. ‘Not like yourselves, eh? Still, it’s an ill wind. Mind you…’ He lowered his voice an octave and looked over to where Bannaher was holding court…’I heartell it was all getting too much for him. Couldn’t pull the socks off a dead man anymore…’ He shook his head and moved away to serve someone else.
‘You wait’, Larry raged, ‘before the week is out, they’ll have him dying of natural causes’.
‘Or committing suicide’.
The swing doors to our right crashed open as Chris spoke. A wild-eyed barrel of a man swayed in the opening momentarily, then stepped inside. His red beard contrasted sharply with the darker hair on his head. There was a momentary silence, then Bannaher stepped forward and tried to urge the newcomer towards the group. The other man shrugged the guiding hand away, and there ensued a heated discussion, although in voices quiet enough to prevent them being overheard.
‘Duggan’, said Larry. ‘Tanked up as usual’.
Mick Duggan, Dougie to most of us who knew him, was a one-man demolition gang who demolished buildings that were only one step away from falling down. Big Bertha, a fourteen-pound sledgehammer, was his favourite tool; he wielded it like a cutlass, scaling structures that lesser mortals feared to tread, and flattening them with his mighty swipes. Who needed a wrecking ball when you had Dougie! Besides, he was a lot cheaper. Bannaher was currently using him to flatten a street of terraced shacks to the rear of Willesden Lane.
Whatever the dispute between the two men was, it was quickly settled. Bannaher took a wallet from his pocket and passed some notes to Dougie, then patted him on the arm before returning to the group.
Dougie weaved his way in our direction, calling for a pint, before turning to us.
‘The three musketeers themselves! Well now, we don’t see much of you at the pick-and- shovel saloon these mornings’.
‘Ah no, we’ve given it up’, I replied. ‘It’s bad for your health’.
‘It was for Jonjo’s anyway’. This was Larry.
‘And what would you know about work? About as much as my backside knows about snipe-shooting’.
He drank deeply, almost half emptying his glass before replacing it on the counter. ‘He was packing it in, you know. A few more months. Goin’ back home in style, he said’. He gave a dry laugh. ‘Some style now, eh?’ The pint was raised to his lips again. ‘I could have saved him’. A pause. ‘I should have saved him’.
‘You were there?’
‘I was there, boy. Saw the whole thing. From the roof of the old school across the way. He was digging out around the footings of an old wall when the whole lot went in on top of him. Ah Christ, it took me five minutes to get to him – when it should’a taken two’. He waved the pint. ‘Too much of this, I suppose. That and the fact that I tripped over something and nearly broke me fucking neck. Anyway, when I got there it was too late’. He shook his head. ‘He shouldn’t have been down there at all. There wasn’t a bit of shuttering to be seen’.
‘Since when did the likes of Bannaher let a little matter like that bother him?’ This was Larry again. ‘Everyone around Cricklewood knows his slogan; ‘I’m paying you to dig holes not put up shuttering‘’.
Dougie’s grip on his glass tightened.
‘I wouldn’t go repeating that if I was you…’
‘No, you wouldn’t. But then, I don’t work for the bastard’. His glass banged on the counter. ‘Come on lads, there’s a bad smell in here – and it isn’t the drink’.
A few says later, none of us were very surprised when the inquest returned a verdict of death by misadventure.