The Shandon Bells ring out midnight just as the arse falls out of the sky. Raindrops like translucent golf balls pelt my bald head but I stay rooted to the cobbled square. Through the wet haze I see the hands of the old clock reach to their full height and the bells sing out to the world that the New Year has just been born. Under the spire of the church, clusters of rain -soaked drunks armed with beer cans and cider bottles slobber about, mauling each other and hailing the arrival of the New Year.
But I’m home at last.
Back in the digs in Romford Ethel and Lily are blotto by now; belting out “AULD LANG SYNE” as if the future of mankind depended on it - the sherry bottles well and truly savaged. They would wear their black satin dresses tonight; they would don their shiniest jewelry. Mick would be seated in his favourite tatty old armchair by the window reminiscing about Achill, and Charlie would be toasting the charms of ‘the foxy lady’. Soon Ethel will have Bing crooning on the gramophone and the two Paddies will be cajoled and coerced into waltzing with their landladies. Ethel will present her bare neck to Mick to be kissed under the paper Chinese lantern, but Mick will misunderstand again unable to pluck up the courage to put his lips to her fake-bronzed neck. Lily will tighten her grip on Charlie and pull him to her ample bosom.
And so their night will drift on.
But my journey into the night is just beginning.
With the rain gathering even more venom I amble down Shandon Street.
How the place has changed. I close my eyes and wonder back.
I’m coming down that hill again only this time I’m running with Francie McGrath, and Sonny McCarthy is a few strides behind us, our chests busting as we try to escape the clutches of Mr Bernstein. I have the flash lamp firmly gripped and we hear Mr Bernstein shouting in desperation “robbers”, “ robbers” in a funny voice. Sonny tumbles an old woman in a black shawl behind us, and as we disappear down Shandon Street we can still hear her screeches rising in the morning sunshine. Mr Bernstein is unable to run because of the war and his old legs; so we reach Nosey Keeffe’s sweet shop at the bottom of Shandon Street armed with our grand prize. For weeks we leered at that flashlamp in the window of Bernstein’s Pawnshop and it took a monumental effort of courage to steal it on that day.
But it’s hard to find courage now.
Leaving behind my adopted family in Romford - a sad bunch of full - blown alcos stuck in a time zone long past gone. Leaving behind those boring red-bricked stony houses.
And leaving behind the all broken dreams of a wasted life.
Arriving in Cork with the knowledge that my Ma and Pa have well and truly passed on, and that burning word cancer rolling around in my head .
Did not even see the father or mother grow old – too busy in The Crown And Arms.
The rain is easing now, but the memories are flooding back. The wind is gathering strength again and the lingering bunch push further in against the big shinny door of Mulcahy’s bakery; while across the street Reilly’s pub looks dim and dusty. Tiny arrows of light are darting through moth holes on faded yellow curtains. Look! there is still a division in the half-door and strong porter fumes are pouring out into the night to assail and tantalize the bunch just across the road. I could swear I saw my uncle Charlie there with that bunch, his fag dangling from his lips, his expectation high as usual that he might pick up a bob or two for a few pints – Charlie was always on the make.
But this night is playing tricks with me. I gather myself together and scoop the rain off my head with my hand; I’m wet to the bone but relentlessly I stumble on down the hill like some kind of wild salmon returning home.
I see Lily Barrett now smiling at me from the top window – her blond curls swinging around like a carousel – she is waving to me now and blowing kisses my way; but it is too late now – too late for everyone. She was barely fourteen when she was killed by that lorry. How I cried salty tears that long night when I heard the news, and how I hid the pillow case from my mother the next day, for fear she would discover that I had being crying all night, and that I was in love with Lily. Lily herself did not even know of my deep passion for her and departed this world before I ever had the opportunity to tell her. I wave back to her but there is nothing there but a curtain swirling in the wind, on I go edging ever nearer to the sharp turn at Nosey Keeffe’s shop. I hurry past O Connor’s Funeral Parlor at North Gate Bridge casting a sideways glance at the wreaths in the window - all flowery and eerie this New Years night.
The river Lee stretches below me – my beloved Lee. It stinks to high heavens. Look at those two women coming from the tenements each carrying a pisspot; Christ, they’re carrying them over to the river and emptying them right into the river.
“Stop that at once, isn’t the river smelly enough for you”
But the women ignore me as if I wasn’t here, and they fade away into the dark landscape as quickly as they came into view. But the river continues to elbow its way to the sea as if in a hurry now to get away from the revelries of the city and head into the black abyss. Meanwhile a lone swan examines his distorted image in the water, casts an eye in my direction, shakes his head and continues on his way. The tenements on Bachelors Quay from where the two women emerged all lit up now. The gang in the tenements always knew how to celebrate; they even have flags hanging out the windows.
The wind has died away and an eerie silence fills the night. Ethel and Lily are sleeping by now; draped over the tattered sofa while the two Paddies could lift a thatched roof with the sound of their snoring. But all is peaceful here except for the gurgling sounds of the river. I cross over the Bridge and I see the slipway where I went on my first boat trip all those years ago. I was no more than six the time – I can still feel those ripples of excitement as I set foot in the shaky boat. The fisherman who owned the boat was Mr. Benson who lived next door to us in Kyle Street and I pestered him for weeks for a spin in the boat. I can see Mr Benson now in his boat in the slipway – he is waving at me, he still has the same old navy blue sweater on him, he is calling me down from the Bridge.
“I’m coming down, I’m coming down”
I race around the bridge and head for the slip but all I can see is a long reflection in the water - Mr Benson is not there. A pity, that first trip on the Lee was more exciting that any trip up the Amazon.
But I’m heading home, heading home for the very last time and I have not far to go; just half – way up North Main Street. As I pass Murphy’s pub I detect the faintest whisper of a gadget in the background. I move closer and put my air to the door; I can hear it now. The haunting sound of a slow air – as the curve of the sound rises and falls I’m spellbound and rooted to the spot. Gradually the light rises inside the pub and I can see Dinny Mac - his gadget lying sideways on his lap, his head to one side and his stare firmly on the ceiling. As he continues to draw out the magic from the gadget, I frantically wave at him but he ignores me, and just plays on. And the music dies in the gadget the lights fade and I’m left peering into a musty darkness. The smells of the street feels so intimate to me …. I start touching the walls… the doors… even the footpath – they are part of me. I know I am home now- back in my own little world. Suddenly the silence is cut in two by the clip-clop of horses. I stand to admire. Four magnificent black horses, all polished and shiny are pulling a Simcox bread van – the sound of their hooves beating out an everlasting tattoo on the cobbled street. Mr Cassidy is on board, wearing black tails and that funny tall hat.
“Five loafs and two fishes” I call out to him
He just smiles at me and proceeds up North Main Street and out of sight. I know I am truly home when I see Maggie Keeshan at the corner of Kyle Street. Her sing- song voice is still as strong as ever.
“ Six apples again for twopence ”
She is perched on her wooden box, all dark and hairy, her shawl hanging loosely round her fat body, her craggy hands falling out from under all that black. She smiles in my direction and points towards my old home.
Slowly I make my way up to 14 Kyle Street. All the lights in the house are switched on. I move forward slowly, my stomach churning, my breath heaving in my chest. I remember slamming that big red door all those years ago; a tattered old bag in my hand and my stupid young head full of anger and rage.
Now I’m back – back for the last time.
I peer through the large front window – there is a huge fire blazing. I see my Ma and Da – Christ they have not aged one bit. My mother is seated beside the fire and my father is putting a little boy onto a rocking horse. The little boy slips off the rocking horse much to the dismay of my father and with anger etched on my father’s face he roughly places him back on the horse again. I am so excited to see my father and mother again I rap frantically on the window – but they ignore me.
I cry out.
“Ma, Da, it’s me, your little boy has come home”
My mother continues to gaze at the fire, the small boy is laughing up at his father.
I’m still knocking on the window.
In desperation I shout out.
“Ma, Da, your little boy has come home to die ……. I’ve come home to die”
My mother's head moves, my father stops rocking the horse and suddenly the little boy fades away
My Ma and Da turn their gazes at me and both their eyes light up into that final smile while Ethel moves forward stretches her fingers and gently close both eyes.