Eoin Devereux is from Limerick. He studied in UCG from 1983-1988. His flash fiction story ‘Goodnight Scarlett’ was published by The Bohemyth in December 2012 and was commended in RTE Radio 1’s Arena Flash Fiction competition in 2012. His story ‘Press Button A’ was shortlisted for the Fish Publishing Short Story Competition in 2013. His story ‘The Auction’ was published by The Galway Review in July 2013.
LOAVES AND FISHES
By Eoin Devereux
William Murphy’s uniform was a khaki green fishtail Swedish army surplus Parka jacket. Embellished with the usual badges (Che, Connolly, Frank Ryan and the Hammer and Sickle), the Parka and William were inseparable as he campaigned for social revolution. He wore it like a magic cloak leading angry marches through Galway City, joining workers on the picket-lines and selling the monthly paper Revolution Now! If asked, he would describe himself at every available opportunity as being an unreconstructed Marxist and follower of Trotsky.
William was on the dole for a very long time but he did not consider himself to be unemployed. He was a full time organiser for Workers United, a non-violent Marxist group who wished to bring about revolutionary change by infiltrating the youth branches of the Labour Party. In his earlier life William had briefly studied for the priesthood and had subsequently worked as a scratch baker. He worked from midnight until 8am making batch loaves, long pans, Sally Luns, soda bread, doughnuts, yeast buns, Swiss Rolls, apple tarts, rhubarb tarts, éclairs, griddle bread and occasionally Russian Slices. Even back then, William had socialist leanings.
A poster with the slogan “We Make Bread Not Profits” hung over his kneading table. William enjoyed the solitary life of the scratch baker until the large supermarkets began to bake in-store and sell bread and cakes below cost. According to William, Marxism could explain (almost) everything and he readily applied Marx’s ideas to the rationalisation and ruination of the baking industry. He saw the decline of local bakeries as a microcosm of all that was wrong in Irish society and was not shy of telling people this.
Every Saturday, Workers United, The Socialist Workers’ Party and Official Sinn Fein would vie with each other to get the best spot on Moon’s Corner. The Legion of Mary also tried to sell their wares nearby. A Pro-Life group displayed posters of aborted foetuses. Sometimes the various slogans being called out by each group got mixed up in the morning air – “Justice for the Digital workers”, “Pray to Jesus and his mother Mary”, “Jesus was the first communist!”, “Abortion Kills Babies”, “Boycott Dunnes’ Stores” and “Dig Deep for the Miners.”
Selling Revolution Now! was an important part of Workers United’s recruitment strategy. Their stall had newsletters, posters, badges and petitions. Petitions were a source of names and addresses all of which would be carefully followed up by William and his comrades.
“Our plan” William would say, sounding very like one of his pamphlets, “is to radicalise the proletariat and to rid them of their false consciousness. Once that happens, all will be fine.” Outwardly, Workers United appeared to support the Labour Party’s idea of becoming a party of government through a coalition with Fine Gael. However, the real plan was to announce revolutionary change once in power. It was not the only thing that was not quite what it seemed. Although William was from Kilmallock, he had begun to affect a working class Dublin accent when he spoke and especially so when he made speeches rousing the working man (and woman) to rise up.
Concerned academics making their way to the nearby market to buy their weekly supply of goat’s cheese, hummus and organic vegetables would stop and buy the Workers United newspaper. The more conscientious of them not asking for change of out a pound note. “Keep the change” they would say “… it’s for the cause.” In addition to enthusiastic students who willingly signed the petitions there was nearly always an encounter with one or more of the city’s many eccentrics. Mad Mary carried a Child of Prague plaster statue everywhere and would tell William and his comrades that they were all doomed and going to hell unless they repented and followed Jesus. The comrades were probably even more disconcerted by Fonsie Moloney, who communicated solely through light opera and would sing snatches of Caruso or McCormack before ambling along Shop Street with his hands deep in the pockets of his fawn coloured threadbare top coat two sizes too big for him.
It was not always so busy at the stalls however. During a lull on one of these Saturdays William rolled a cigarette and drank a mug of Campaign Coffee (in solidarity with the Nicaraguan Workers). William began to fret about his name. He was a committed socialist whose middle name was Martin. He believed that he would lose all credibility with his compatriots if it became known that he shared the same name as the man who caused the 1913 Lockout. William resolved that if anyone asked him, what his middle name was, he would say that it was Mary. It helped that he was born in 1954 – a Marian Year – and that his mother had a special devotion to Our Lady.
William took his revolutionary activities very seriously. He organised public meetings in the Atlantic Hotel. He pasted posters on the town’s electricity poles. He stood on the unofficial picket line with striking fitters in the local paint factory. He leafleted Smokey Joe’s Cafe in the university while the students ate brown bread and cheese washed down with mugs of instant coffee topped with yellowing whipped cream.
The university branch of the Labour Party was of major importance to the struggle. William convened weekly evening meetings amongst the student members in one of the empty tutorial rooms. The meetings always began with a ‘lead off’ in which one of the students would read a prepared speech on how Marxism could help them throw light on the latest social or economic crisis. If someone did not understand something, William would always refer to the concept of Dialectical Materialism “It’s all there in Marx’s writings” he would say without really explaining anything “we just need to read him very closely” nodding slowly to himself.
When the meetings were over many of the comrades would head for the College Bar. William never went, usually excusing himself by saying that he had another meeting to attend. In truth, William avoided the College Bar because he was unable to make small talk about anything other than the revolution and baking. This always stood in the way of William having any success with women. While the others were off to drink until the early hours, William trudged to his shared house in the Claddagh where he lived in an old council house with three arts students.
The highlight of Workers United year was a week by the seaside under canvass. To the inner circle it was known as a Cadre School, but most people simply called it the Workers’ Summer Camp.
William looked forward to the summer camp so much that he decided to grow a beard. Each day he checked its progress and trimmed it in to shape. He soon concluded that it added a great deal to his revolutionary image. The girl in the local L&N store told him that he looked a lot like Che Guevara as he was paying for his cheddar cheese and coleslaw sandwich at the deli counter. Such was William’s ignorance of popular culture he did not get the Bowie reference.
It was before the Workers’ Summer Camp that William’s troubles really started. In order to make some extra money, he took a job working on the lump. A friend hired him to labour on a house extension project with the building firm of Messr’s Brendan and Joseph Flood. William worked for four months digging foundations, fixing steel, pouring concrete and mixing plaster. His soft baker’s hands soon hardened. He found it impossible to shift the cement stains which now resided in the cracks of his palms. Over tea breaks and lunch he tried to interest the two builders in class struggle. Brendan and Joe were more interested in racing their greyhounds at the track on College Road or taking half-days to attend the coursing in Loughrea. After a while William stopped trying to bring the conversation around to Marxism. Instead, he tried without much success to talk about football and the women who walked past the site.
“Would you ride her?” William asked.
“No, I’d call you…” Joe said as he skim-coated the kitchen wall.
“I see where Millwall did well at the weekend…” William would begin.
“Their fans are a shower of fuckin’ thugs. I’d have nothin’ to do with them. I wouldn’t cross the road to see them play. C’mon, we have work to do.’ Brendan replied impatiently.
And there the conversation would end.
One Tuesday afternoon when the extension was almost finished William was given the job of clearing out the building site. He filled a skip with rubble, off-cuts of timber, broken bricks and blocks. As he was shovelling up the rubbish in the kitchen he came across a sealed cardboard box. It had been covered by a roll of roofing felt.
The box measured 2 foot by about 14 inches. ‘Best Organic Smoked Salmon’ was printed on its four sides. Closer inspection revealed that the box contained twelve sides of smoked salmon and that it was well past its sell-by date. William put the box to one side and continued with the clean up. As he shovelled and swept and filled the skip he continued to think about the box and he began to hatch a plan.
For at least six weeks one of his housemates had managed not to pay any rent. William believed her excuses for the first few weeks and had covered the shortfall when the landlord called to collect his money. William soon realised however that he was being conned. Every Thursday O’Brien drank her rent money at either the Oasis or Warwick nightclubs. What bothered William more than the rent not being paid was that he discovered O’Brien’s family were very rich and well connected in Fianna Fail.
He covered the box in crimson wrapping paper and left it with a note outside O’Brien’s bedroom. The scribbled note said “Brenda, we were in town for the races. Sorry we missed you darling. This is just something to keep the wolf from the door.” It had an indecipherable squiggle as a signature. O’Brien however did not fall for the trick. She realised almost immediately that William had left the box in revenge for failing to pay her way and deposited it in William’s bedroom.
William could not bring himself to dump the box of smoked salmon. He worried that a homeless man picking through the rubbish in their bin or at the dump might eat the smoked salmon and die. The smoked salmon would be traced back to William. In a panic he placed the box at the bottom of his wardrobe and tried to forget about it.
In July William went to the Workers’ Summer Camp. Held in Curracloe, It was judged to be a great success. Their tents were set up in the sand dunes next to the Winning Post shop. Everyone agreed that the revolution was imminent and the writing was on the wall for capitalism. The newly bearded William told the gathering with confidence “There will be an autumn of discontent. Working class communities, trade unionists and unemployed will all unite and fight the common enemy. It will be a grassroots, bottom-up movement. We will nationalise the banks and create work for everyone. It’s only a matter of time.”
After the summer camp William continued to agitate and organise. He still wore his Parka in spite of the clammy summer heat. The university was quiet except for a few PhD students, chronic repeaters preparing for exams and the odd faculty member. William didn’t mind. He was preparing the ground to recruit new students for the promised revolution. The house in the Claddagh was quiet as the others were in the United States working on J1 Visas.
It was Race Week that brought matters to a head. With less than a week’s notice William’s landlord announced that he wanted the house emptied. He had a long-standing commitment to let it to some friends who came to Galway every year for the races. At first, William refused to leave citing his legal rights as a tenant. However, when the landlord offered him the use of a bedsit nearer the university he agreed to move for two weeks. Smirking, the landlord thanked him and said “You’d never know William being nearer the university you might score with one of those revolutionary sociology students…” William just blushed at the suggestion.
William cleaned the house from top to bottom. As he gathered armfuls of clothes from the wardrobe he saw the box of smoked salmon. It brought back the sense of panic he felt earlier in the summer when his prank on O’Brien backfired.
William knew that the box of salmon had to go. Using his house key he ripped the top of the cardboard box open. There were four layers of three smoked salmon in their individual pouches inside. He prised one of the salmon pouches out of the box. Inside the salmon was a sunset orange.
William thought of the ways he could get rid of the salmon. He had already decided that binning it was out of the question. He considered walking the promenade after dark and depositing the salmon one at a time in the litter bins. William realised that he would have to do this twelve times. After midnight the bins would already be crammed with kebab wrappers, cold chips, used condoms and cider bottles. He decided against this as the promenade would still be busy given the late night summer heat.
In the end William decided to bury the salmon. He waited until after 4am and carried the box down the narrow stairs and out to the small back garden. He removed his Parka. The light sandy soil was easy to dig. William quickly dug a rectangular bed between the compost bin and the dahlias. When he had dug to a depth of three spade lenghts, he placed the box in the ground covering it with sand and the grass turf. The cover of darkness which shielded the burial only added to William’s sense of isolation.
William went to the front of house and stood in the porch. The Claddagh was eerily silent. Nimmo’s Pier stretched out in front of him. The Long Walk’s limestone wall curved off to the right towards Grattan beach and the promenade. In a few hours the middle-class housewives would be pounding the promenade trying to rid themselves of the extra pounds gained in Tenerife or the Canaries. They would kick the wall at the diving boards to prove to themselves they had walked the three miles.
William gazed across at the manual lighthouse on Mutton Island. Its signal warned a waiting ship that there was an insufficient depth in the docks. He thought for ages about the forces within himself which compelled him to act as he did. He realised that he had hidden behind the collective. He had replaced one form of dogma with another. William now knew that neither political ideology nor religious belief could help him. Both were a mirage from which he had to escape if he were ever to be truly free.