Stephen Moran

 

Telling Time

Anthony Murphy used to be a Dublin socialist, a communist actually, back when communists really wanted to shoot you. Only if you were a capitalist lackey, of course. Or a running dog, that was bad too. Even fellow travellers had to watch out.

He lives in one of those system-built blocks with concrete walls that won't take a nail. The basement is flooded and the stairwell stinks. But once you pass through the locked doors on the landing, it's a different world. There are flower pots and all the lovely domestic bits and pieces that people organise for themselves.

His son, Jude, was over from England for a week. The rusting iron doors overlaying the entrance from the street were usually open in the daytime, but this morning they were still padlocked from the inside. Twenty-five years had made Jude a stranger to the local urchins. They were quick to volunteer and call somebody to come and open the door for him. His father was too deaf to hear the entryphone or anyone calling.

A bloke looked out from one of the windows, 'Who do you want to see- Tony, is it?' There was a lot understood, not like in London. The little gurriers knew to help, instantly. The bloke at the window understood that Tony on the first floor was a bit deaf. The question itself was wary, because if the answer had been Mr Murphy, he'd have thought Jude was a cop or a debt collector.

Tony and his son sat at opposite ends of a small table in the kitchenette, drinking tea. They talked freely, and there was no tension between them, even though they were as different as stone and water. Jude had no fixed opinions, but had many transient ones that seldom seemed to last, even to the end of a sentence. It was one of those occasions when the old tell the not-so-old, but not too young, things that have to wait till such a time, till the telling time.

'You were in with the Young Socialists, weren't you, Dad?'

Tony had already started sending mementoes, yellowed newspaper cuttings, ancient photos, tattered relics to Jude for safekeeping. It was easier to part with things that held painful memories, a small sepia picture of his own mother smiling before her breakdown, his own father carousing with friends. He held onto those he still liked to look at, things that held good memories, a local newspaper picture of the works football team in their prime, his friends, fading ghosts now.

'Would you not be thinking about going back to all that now, starting a revolution?'

Jude was thinking about the time he stayed overnight in the flat, woken periodically by fireworks going off outside and not squibs either, those were heavy, bomb-like mortars. The state of the buildings too, the dereliction and lack of amenities.

'Ah I don't know. You can change nothing. If you can think just one thought "outside of the box" every day, I reckon you're doing all right. Most people just spend their time thinking about what they have to do to survive, to get by.'

Tony had always wanted to go to Russia. It was unlikely he ever would, now he was too ill, not able to walk fifty yards without stopping for a breather. How far would he get in Red Square? The only place he'd ever been abroad was to see Manchester United, with the lads from the pub. They'd talk about the trip for the rest of the year, before the next one. About what their drollest comrade who was no longer living said to a copper. 'Oh, the Master.' 'The Master,' they'd murmur in agreement.

'It was yer' man Stan that got me into it, I don't know if you remember him. Met him at something your mother took me to, a ceilidh, in the Mansion House it was. Stan explained to me about Marxism and the union movement. I was very gung ho. I read all the books and all.'

Tony took off his glasses and shined them. He did that when he was thinking.

'I was a trainee at JimmyMac's, the raincoats place, up in Aungier street it was. The gaffer was a bloke called Hannigan Drip we called him, because he always had a dewdrop waiting to fall from the end of his nose. He didn't want the union in there at all. But I stood up to him.'

Jude nodded and murmured for his father to elaborate, and ate one of the fig rolls he'd brought with him. Tony had a strange feeling, which he couldn't place at first, and then it came to him, it was a feeling of being interrogated, like a criminal.

'Somebody was vandalising coats in the storeroom, and because I had a penknife in my pocket, and with me being the shop steward, Hannigan decided to blame it on me. Thinking he'd get rid of me, y'know. He brought in the cops and all. So they call me in and he asks me to hand over my penknife, and gives it to the copper.

'"So this is the knife, is it?" says the copper, and makes for a rack of coats that's standing there. You could see Drip panicking in case one of his precious coats got damaged. "Let's see, shall we," says the copper and proceeds to try and slash a coat with it. Of course it made little or no impression on the gaberdine.'

'It was fairly blunt.'

'It was only a Mickey Mouse thing. So anyway, afterwards Drip says, "I want you out of here. I'm sacking you." "Go ahead," says I, "I'll shut you down. I'll have pickets out there tomorrow, and nobody will cross the line." He backed down.'

It felt good to tell his son that his father had been a firebrand, that he hadn't always been a boozehound and a physical wreck. He could see that Jude was impressed.

'That was about '53, after I married your mother, and we rented a room over Clancy's. I remember we had a hooley there for our first wedding anniversary. Kate hung a curtain across the room to hide the bed. She was pregnant with you at the time. They were all there, the chairman of the party and the whole committee, writers, professors, the lot.'

'The first place I remember had more than one room. I remember a brand new yellow table and chairs with chrome legs.'

'That's right, after you were born we rented that three-room place just across the road from the other one. I worked overtime to pay the rent on that flat and furnish it on the never never, like. Then there was the child we lost, and about a year or two later, Breda was born.'

Jude was astonished, it was the first he'd ever heard about a lost child. A weight on the scales of relationship that he hadn't even known was there, for all his smartness.

'That's right. That one never made it. We were in the new flat, so it must've been about '56 or '57. It was a desperate business. I still don't feel right about it, in meself.'

'What happened?'

'The labour was taking a longer time than it should've, like. Whatever way it was the midwife couldn't cope on her own, so she sent for a doctor from the hospital very nice chap, black fellow he was, when he came.

'After a while the doctor stepped out of the room and asked me if I could go and buy him some cigarettes, just a certain brand he wanted, y'know. It was late and everywhere was closed, winter it was too, dark, but I was determined I was going to get him those cigarettes, even if I had to search all over town. I walked across the bridge, up past Christ Church and along by the Castle. And I did, I got them. But when I got back there was an ambulance and they were just shutting the doors, taking the babby away. A girl it was. I could've nearly seen her, if I'd moved myself. Somehow or another I missed the whole thing, I never even saw the babby. I think that's what bothers me.'

Tony shrugged and forced a smile, but Jude could see that there was a storm of emotion battering inside him.

'The doctor was in the street. He said he wanted to have a word with me. Clancy the barman was standing outside to see what was going on, and he opened up and told us to come into his bar. We had a pint and the doctor opened the cigarettes I'd got for him. He told me the infant had something wrong with it, I forget what he called it. It'd be something where it would be deformed to look at, I'd say. He said the hospital would look after it, but the outlook wasn't good, like. Clancy the barman wouldn't let me pay for the drink. An old fascist he was, a Cumann na nGael man, but you'd never think it, he was that nice.'

'Did you go to the hospital?'

'I didn't. I phoned them up afterwards and they put me onto the nurse in charge of the ward. She said the child had passed away. They could take care of all the funeral arrangements, she said, so I said okay. "That will be three pounds, ten shillings," she says. She might as well have said a thousand pounds, compared to the few shillings in my weekly wage.

'I didn't know what to do. I went to see my friend Stan he was a big wheel in the party, and fairly well off. It was out in the Navan Road, a semi-detached place. But I found it hard to tell him when I got there. I don't know if I even explained properly about what happened. Then his wife what's this her name was? Dora...a fat woman, that's right. She started to talk about how hard it was to get over bereavement, and it suddenly sort of hit me, like a wave, and I never told them the exact situation. I tried to change the subject. Stan started to say, "Are you okay for money " as if he'd guessed but then the wife puts her oar in. "Neither a borrower nor a lender be," she says. And of course he just said, as I was leaving, "She's the boss."'

'How did you pay?'

'What could I do? That night I went into Clancy's for a pint, and I told him what happened. He took three pounds ten out of the cash box and gave it to me. He just said, "Say no more about it." I don't know why, but I never felt right about myself from that day on.' He shook his head. 'I never saw the babby, just to sort of say goodbye to her. No reason really.'

'Maybe that's when you jacked in all the communist malarkey.'

Tony puffed out his cheeks and stood up. He looked into the blackened teapot and emptied it out in the sink, then put the kettle on.