Clare Ryan is from Cork and always dreamed of being a writer. After a varied career that included teaching, Adult Literacy Founder/Organiser, and Consultant to the Pharmaceutical industry, retirement finally provided the opportunity to follow her dream. Workshops by eminent writers at the West Cork Literary Festival provided the skills and the motivation to write a number of novels and short stories many of which have been published. She has taught Creative Writing here in Ireland and during her sojourns in Florida.
The Lucky One
By Clare Ryan
Hunger rumbled noisily in my gut as I bent to pick up the bundle of potato sacks. Watery soup and bread like bell-metal would plug the hole in my stomach for a while. Clearing my throat of dust, I dropped the sacks in the corner of the shed. As I rose, a shadow fell over me. The Brother. Then I heard it. The silence. It had replaced the sound of the other boys’ voices. They were gone up for the dinner. Bugger. I was alone with him. I made a move towards the door, but he stood in my way, his face almost invisible and his breathing crackly. My heartbeat quickened in panic. I’d managed to stay out of his way up to now, but this was not looking good. I tried to keep my voice steady. ‘It’s dinner-time Brother.’
‘Ah sur’ what’s your hurry, boy?’ His voice slurpy with spit. He moved a couple of steps nearer, creating a space for a shaft of light, full of dancing dust-specks. His hand reached out, hot and heavy on my shoulder. Leaning over, he sprayed my face with spittle. ‘You’re a bad boy aren’t you?’
Liquid from my heaving stomach scorched the back of my throat.
‘I’m starvin’, Brother.’ Fizzing fear scratched my throat.
Brother Gabriel was one of them. The kind you wouldn’t want to be stuck in a shed with on your own. One of those who came to the dormitory at bed-time to summon a boy with the crook of his finger. A boy who would later try to muffle his sobs under a threadbare blanket while the rest of us breathed with relief and slept.
The heat from his hand burned through my jumper. His forehead gleamed. He licked his lips, as though anticipating a tasty morsel. I tried to squirm away. He just gripped my shoulder more tightly.
Then from God-knows-where, a sudden scorching anger ran up my neck and face, fuelling my resistance.
‘Get away from me ya bastard.’ My screaming voice rattled against the tin roof.
His face flushed a deeper shade of red and his bristly eyebrows shot up, creasing his forehead. He eased his grip, to give me a clatter. I wriggled free, scarpering past and out the door. I had to get away. If he caught me now, I’d be dead. I could hear him panting as I hopped across the potato drills towards the stile in the ditch. We worked from morning ’til night, come rain or shine in that field. Out there in the world, people probably thought we got to eat the potatoes and vegetables that we planted, weeded and picked. The Brothers got their share alright. But not us, the unworthy sons of sinners. Most of the potatoes and vegetables were packed into sacks for sale to the English Market in town. We got watery soup, stale bread and on Sundays a boiled egg for breakfast and very rarely, a couple of sausages instead of meatless stew for the dinner. At the top table they got bowls of porridge and bread and jam for breakfast. Meat and vegetables and floury spuds followed by deserts of apple-tart and custard for dinner. They added sugar and milk to their cups of tea themselves. I’d always sit with my back to them. Couldn’t be watching ‘em gobbling their food like swine at the trough.
I threw a glance back. Still coming, despite the fat belly on him. I ran towards the rows of red-bricked houses a few hundred yards down the lane. At the end of the terrace I dodged left and then right. In blind panic I almost ran into the brick wall that suddenly loomed at the end of a cul-de-sac.
I jumped over the wall on my right hand side, into a garden, almost falling flat on my face. I kept low and close to the wall. The thunk-thunk of my heart was deafening. On trembling legs, I took a quick gander. No sign of him. I tucked myself in by the corner, waiting before popping up for another look through the prickly shrubs. I saw the black soutane first, then him. I hunkered down, making myself as small as possible. Then I heard a noise. The front door of the house was opening. I watched in terror as a small dumpy woman emerged. I caught a glimpse of her hair, scraped back off her face into a bun. With a quick swing, she disappeared under a big black woollen shawl. I was rooted to the spot, my face brushed by leaves.
But she ignored me. It was like she didn’t see what was under her very nose. She nearly took my eye out with the sweep of her shawl as she leaned forward to rest her arms on the wall. The shawl reeked of smoky wool and blocked out the light. Shrouded in the shadows I could just barely make out the Brother’s words, ‘boy running loose’.
‘What was this fella up to?’ She asked.
‘A thieving little tearaway.’ The Brother’s lispy voice was full of contempt.
‘Sur’ God Bless the work ye do with those little gurriers, Brother.’ Her voice rang with melodious deference. ‘And what might his name be, Brother? Just in case I do see him.’
‘Ah, he’ll answer to Boy.’ His disdain extended to a mere ‘shawlie woman’ as well.
One of her black laced boots tapped the ground. Then she spoke, sweet as pie. ‘I’ll keep an eye out, Brother. God Bless.’
Then, she spoke in a low muffled voice. To me. ‘Stay put. He’s not gone yet. I’ll call ya when the coast is clear.’
The shawl dragged scratchily across my head as she shuffled off towards the door. She paused in the doorway, then pushed the shawl off her head as she backed in. ‘Hurry up lad. Get in here now.’
Keeping low, I darted across the garden and stumbled over the step, almost falling on my face in the hallway. She pushed the door shut blocking the sound of the Brother’s voice talking to a neighbour. ‘Bad cess to the bugger’. Scowling, she hung the shawl on a nail. ‘Come in lad, I’ll make us a cuppa tea’.
She poked at the fire in the big black range, making the flames shoot up and pulled the kettle over on its hook.
‘Sit down, lad. You’re safe now.’ She cut bread, buttered it and put it on a white plate with a blue rim. She scalded the pot, threw in a handful of tea-leaves. The fragrant smell of freshly brewed tea filled the air. I almost fainted with anticipation.
‘What’s your name, lad? I’m not calling you Boy no matter what his holiness says.’
Reaching for the bread, I managed to answer. ‘Joey Mullins, Mrs.’
‘Well, Joey, I’m Callie Joyce. You can call me Mrs Joyce or Callie whichever you like.’
I could feel my mouth filling with watery taste as I raised the bread to my lips. I tried to take it slow, but the first bite almost stuck in my gullet and I had to slug at the tea to wash it down. She cut a third slice. ‘Take your time Joey, there’s plenty more where that came from.’
I nibbled at the crust of that slice. Nothing I’ve ever eaten on this earth before or since tasted as good. When I finished eating, I took stock of my surroundings.
One room from front to back, with stairs rising on the left fitting snugly against the wall. A rear door to the yard. To its right, a square window that had a wooden box, with a domed lid and faded lettering, sitting on the sill. Over the range the mantle-piece was crowded with small statues, figurines, glasses and candlesticks. A basket filled with blocks and a scuttle of coal flanked the fireplace. On the wall on the left-hand side, the Sacred Heart glowered above a red gaslight.
She was holding a cup in her two hands, sipping the tea, her blue eyes fixed on me. Her hair, sprinkled with grey, was pulled back from a round, freckled face as though she spent a lot of her time outdoors.
‘Thanks Missus, thanks for the grub. It was lovely.’ I pushed at the chair.
‘Hang on now, young-fella-me-lad. Where are you off to?’
I had no idea where I was going. ‘I dunno, Missus.’
‘Why were you running from your man? Did he beat you or what?’
I nodded. ‘But I’m not a thief Missus, honest.’ I blessed myself and held her gaze. She nodded slowly, her lips pursed.
‘All right. I’ll take your word for that. Will you go back there?’
‘I can’t. Not now.’
‘Right, if you need somewhere to stay for a while, I have a room upstairs you can have.’ She nodded, like she surprised herself. I must have looked like a transfixed rabbit, starin’ at her.
‘Ah, sure Joey, you have nowhere to go. Anyway, you’re not going to murder me in me bed now, are ya?’
I sat back in the chair. Outside, talking to the Brother, she’d spoken just like a beggar-woman who called to the back-kitchen door for scraps. Now Callie’s voice was softer and had less of the sing-song about it. Standing, she said she needed to go out for a few messages. She took a satchel and strapped it across her chest. Vanishing into the woolly folds of her shawl and with a muffled ‘I won’t be long’, she left.
I stayed put, not sure what to do with meself. I almost jumped out of my skin when I heard footsteps. Then I realised it came from next-door. Once my heart returned to normal, I tip-toed upstairs to have a look around. There was a half open door into a bedroom. I peeked around the doorjamb. There was a real comfy looking check quilt in shades of blue on the bed and two bulging white pillows. By the wall was a stand with three drawers and on top of it there was a statue of Our Lady, a hairbrush and pins and two little pots with pointy lids. On the windowsill a blue china jug sat in a matching bowl.
On the other side of the landing was an open space with a brass bed and across it lay a black great-coat with brassy buttons. A striped pillow lay on the bare mattress. I could see the sky through a ceiling window. Nothing else.
I went back downstairs. The lavatory was a lean-to in the yard and there was a tap on the back wall with a bucket below it. Above it, hanging from a black hook, a tin bath with two handles. Suddenly bursting to go, I slowly opened the door and darted across to the lav. It reeked of Jeyes’ fluid. The toilet bowl sat in a wall-to-wall wooden seat that was almost white from scrubbing. Cut squares of newspaper were impaled on a hook on the white-washed wall.
Back inside, I sat on the floor, leaning against the basket of blocks wondering what would become of me. I wasn’t as scared as before. It seemed to me that Callie, with her shawl and her wheedling ways was a bit of an outsider too. Between the heat and a full stomach, my eyes start to droop.
‘Are you all right Johnny?’ My head snapped up and I rubbed the crick from my neck and blinked my way back to wakefulness. I knew by the scent that she was the nurse with the curly hair and the funny laugh. I keep forgetting their names. Old age is a curse.
‘Were you dreaming?’ I leaned forward so she could plump up the pillows. ‘I suppose. Although it was more like a memory. It was long ‘go when I was just a young lad. The day I escaped.’
A laugh barked out of her throat. ‘Sounds like you were in jail.’
She poured juice into a glass and put it on the wheelie bed-tray along with a little plastic tub of tablets.
‘Take these when you’re ready, like a good man. Any rubbish?’
She scrunched the envelope and indicated the letter I’d received that morning.
‘I’ll hang onto that.’ I said.
She left, and I washed down the tablets with the watered-down Cranberry juice.
My head was still full of the past. I hadn’t thought about those days for ages.
‘Thanks be to Jaysus Christ.’ I spoke aloud, to nobody.
‘Talking to yourself is a bad sign, you know.’ Eddie pushed the Zimmer-frame through the open door. Slow but at least he still has his two legs. Not like me. Hop-Along Cassidy.
‘Sure don’t I have the best audience when I talk to myself?’ I laughed.
‘That’s true. And you can always believe what you hear. How about a game of cards?’
He pulled a pack from the pocket of a woolly cardigan which had seen better days.
‘What else have you in there, just out of curiosity?’
‘Well.’ He said, peering down. ‘I have a snot-rag, three or four mints, a pair of dice and…’ He concluded the inventory check with a flourish. ‘half a bar of Cadbury’s Fry’s Cream which I might be persuaded to share.’
‘Ah, no I wouldn’t like to take your last bit of chocolate. Especially since it’s in such close quarters to your snot-rag.’
‘Oh well, be like that.’ He retorted.
I handed him the letter. ‘What would YOU make of this, Ed?’
He pushed his glasses further up on the bridge of his nose and unfolded the letter.
‘Jaysus, Johnny, where did this come out of?’
‘The clear blue sky, boy. I never heard of ‘em. Don’t know where they got my name, not to mind where I lived. Imagine it was forwarded after all this time.’
‘They must have got the name from the Brothers or someone who was there at the time.’ Eddie said.
‘Is there no such thing as privacy?’ I wondered.
‘Whatya goin’ to do about it?’ His eyebrows raised.
‘Absolutely nothin’. I think they have an awful cheek. At first, I was thinking I’d write and say so. But I figure that would only be drawing ‘em on me. So, let them think I never got it. Or I’m dead.’
Eddie knew the story. How Callie had passed me off as her grand-nephew, whose Ma and Da had gone to England for work and been tragically killed. A story she deliberately left vague. Gossiping neighbours would assume I was some unwanted poor divil of one of her wandering relations. She called me Johnny. The initial is the same, she said. Didn’t matter a damn to me. I’d no papers anyway.
After a while, I emerged into the world wearing clothes that Callie bought for me second-hand in the Coal Quay. Hair had grown on my shaved head. I had a bit of colour on cheeks that had filled out a little from good grub. So even if one of the Brothers did pass by, he wouldn’t know me. Within months I gained a couple of inches in height and would have been utterly unrecognizable to anyone from The Home. But I still made sure to avoid even the merest glimpse of a black soutane. That was a habit I never lost, despite my poor wife’s best efforts to get me to the Chapel.
Eddie frowned. ‘They’re going after compo for lads who were abused by the Brothers. You could get a few bob. No?’
‘I don’t want their bloody money. I don’t want people talking about me either.’
‘Can’t say I blame you.’ Eddie folded the letter. ‘I wouldn’t want my past jumping up to bite me in the arse either.’
‘Ah, go away with ya. You had it easy. A Ma and Da, and six, was it or seven brothers?’
‘Seven, God be good to them all.’ He smiled, ruefully. ‘When I was a nipper, they’d always be trying to duck me. Didn’t want the baby hanging out of ‘em. They’re well away from me now.’
‘You’re a hairy baby.’ I laughed.
Eddie rubbed his white hair, proudly.
‘Jealousy.’ He intoned. ‘At least I HAVE a bit of hair. Not like some I could mention.’
‘I do have my memories.’ I stroked my bald pate.
Eddie shuffled the cards. ‘Are you sure you don’t want to do anything about that.’ He asked, nodding at the letter. The faded watery eyes that fixed on mine were full of concern.
With Maggie gone this last ten years, Eddie was a good buddy to have met. Neither of us had children to be minding us at this age of our lives and we’d hit it off from the first day we met in the day-room watching a hurling match on the telly. Both cheering for Cork, naturally. It was an on-going slag that we were from opposite sides of the city. Callie’s house was on the south side, near the South Chapel where she’d sell her shamrock on Patrick’s Day and the miraculous medal and things throughout the year. I’d help her set up a little makeshift counter, actually just an empty orange box. Her voice rising and falling in what I came to think of as her ‘public voice’.
Eddie was from up near Shandon, on the other side of the river. A Norrie.
But the Cork county hurlers and footballers drew loyalty from all sides.
It was always a sadness to Maggie that we never had a child. The one cloud in her sky. It didn’t feel so much of a loss to me. Maybe it’s different for men. And anyway, how could I ask for more after being taken in by Callie, treated like her own son and then had the good fortune to meet Maggie. Pure chance. She dropped a fiver when she was leaving the counter in the Post Office. I had to run to catch up with her to return it. Always in a hurry. I used to call her ‘Kitty the Hare’. It was only when I lost the leg a couple of years ago that I finally came to terms with the way she died. A massive tumour and just enough time to say good-bye. She’d have hated even more than I do now, to be slowed down like this.
I can hardly recall a bad word between us in the thirty-odd years living in the little house on the terrace, although I suppose I did annoy her a bit. Along with me not goin’ to Mass, I wouldn’t hear of planting potatoes in the back garden. Carrots, cabbage, lettuce, spring-onions. Anything but potatoes. I’d eat them cooked but the sight of potatoes in or just out of the ground would make me want to vomit.
I flapped the letter at Eddie. ‘Why would I want to drag all that shit on me at this age of my life?’ I ripped it in two. ‘Ya know, I was dreaming ’while-ago about the day I escaped from the Brothers.’
He grimaced sympathetically.
‘And do you know what Eddie? I think I should look on it as the first day of my life. Callie taking me in that day saved me from a fate worse than death, as they say. So, I’ve decided that it was my start in life. The day I was really born. If it hadn’t been for her, I’d have either died out there on the streets, or been taken back to those buggers and they’d have surely killed me, one way or another, fast or slow. I was one of the lucky ones.’
Eddie’s head nodded slowly, his lips curling upwards in a broad smile. ‘Well, that means that you’re not as old as you thought you were, so you can stop calling me young-fella-me-lad.’
He dealt out the cards. ‘Now let’s see if you can beat your old buddy today.’ He chuckled.