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Authors: Katie Flynn

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BOOK: Rose of Tralee
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‘There’s one and ninepence owed,’ he said in a singsong voice, hoping that the cook and this Biddy would think him a bit stupid ... anything, rather than leave here and be the one to blame because his mammy hadn’t been paid again. She herself had more than once not stood out for money owing and Colm always chided her when she told him about it. After all, he was the man of the house whilst his father was away and it was up to him to see that at least Mammy was paid for all the hard work she did.
So he looked hopefully up at Biddy and repeated, ‘One and ninepence owed please, Miss,’ in a slightly stronger voice. His mother had taught him to address the older ladies, like the cook, as ‘ma’am’, and younger ones, like the maidservant, as ‘miss’.

‘Cook says ...’ Biddy began in a slightly apologetic voice, but Colm abruptly decided that he could have none of it.

He knew very well that his father, whatever his other faults, would not have handed over the parcel and walked meekly away. If I’m standin’ in for him, then I’ve got to act like him, so I have, Colm reminded himself and spoke firmly across the other’s voice. ‘Then I’d best take me parcel back home again,’ he said. ‘Me an’ the littl ’un brung it along when Mammy said, but if there’s no money until tomorrer ...’

There was a flurry inside the kitchen and cook, who had been on the opposite side of the table, suddenly appeared at the door side, her face redder than ever, oddly stifled sounds coming from her mouth whilst her eyes almost popped. Colm realised she must be very angry and quailed inside, opening his mouth to add some more conciliatory remark, but before he could do so she was upon them, vast as a mountain, hands held out towards them. Startled, he took a step back but she ploughed onward, seeming not to notice as the maid hastily squeezed herself out of the way, and suddenly he saw that she wasn’t angry but was actually laughing, that the stifled sounds were mirth and not fury. ‘Well, well, young feller, your mammy’s taught you well, so she has,’ she said, mopping at her hot red face with the back of a huge hand. ‘I like a boy wit’ spirit. . . . One and ninepence, you said?’

She was fishing around in the pocket of her apron
as she spoke and produced a large and shabby purse, then looked at Colm again with enquiring eyes.

Colm nodded. ‘That’s it, ma’am. One and ninepence.’

‘Right. I’ll pay ye now and the housekeeper shall pay me back after I’ve done this dinner. You’re O’Neill’s boy?’

‘That’s right,’ Colm said, not quite liking to say that Mrs O’Neill would sound better. Besides, he knew that servants in the great houses were very often called by their surnames alone. ‘Thanks, ma’am.’

Cook fumbled briefly in the purse, then produced a two-shilling piece and handed it to him, taking the parcel, which he immediately held out.

‘I don’t have any change, missus,’ Colm said, flustered. ‘But me mammy will bring it tomorrer, so she will.’

‘Oh, and it’s all right for me to wait for me money, is it?’ the cook said, but with good humour. ‘’Tis only the likes of yourself which must have money what’s owed immediate-like?’

Colm hung his head but Caitlin was not to be so easily put down. ‘Sure an’ me big brother ’ud give you the money in a trice if he had it, missus,’ she assured the woman earnestly. ‘But we’ve done no messages today – we’ve been fishin’ in the canal down behind Polikoff’s.’

Cook laughed again and sighed, too. ‘Sure an’ didn’t me brother and meself fish down there when we was kids?’ she demanded. ‘Lovely an’ cool the water was to dangle your feet in . . . wish I were still nine or ten, an’ fishing on a hot afternoon.’ She sighed, then added unexpectedly, ‘As for the thrupence, you can keep it for makin’ me laugh. It takes somethin’ to mek me laugh on a day like this ’un.’

‘Janey, thanks, missus,’ Colm gasped. Three pence! He and Caitlin could go to the penny rush at the Tivoli and still have money over for sweets. Or if his mammy would give an eye to Caitlin he could go to the swimming pond on Tara Street – he could give the other penny to the little girl to spend. Since girls were not allowed in the first-class pond he could not have taken her anyway and as she could not swim she could scarcely expect to take part in that particular outing.

‘That’s all right, young feller,’ the cook said. ‘Here ... we’ve a dinner party in an hour so I was just goin’ to get the staff à snack ... will bread an’ jam suit you?’

Too astonished to answer, Colm and Caitlin stood side by side, Colm with the two-shilling piece safely stowed in his pocket, and waited whilst the cook cut and spread, and then handed them each a thick slice of bread and jam. ‘There you are,’ she said. ‘That’ll see you home. Now young feller, I’ve had a thought. You’ve got a head on your shoulders, that’s plain to see, and won’t be shuffled out of the money your mammy is owed by any means. But what if it wasn’t your mammy, eh? What if you was asked to collect money owin’ for someone else?’

Colm didn’t quite understand the question, because he could not imagine having to collect money owing for a stranger, and he was about to say so when he thought of the people who came round the Liberties to collect money owing. Tally men. People who needed good clothes for some purpose could buy them a bit at a time and if they were short one week they were supposed to pay double the next. Then there were the shops which delivered their goods and sent in a bill every so often. They must send someone to collect, he supposed vaguely. Was
that what the cook meant? ‘D’you mean the ’surance men, an’ the tally men, ma’am?’ he asked politely. ‘I don’t think I’d like to be one o’ them!’

Cook laughed. ‘No indeed. But what I’d got in mind, young feller, was deliveries. It’s me brother, see? He’s got a butcher’s shop in York Street an’ he needs a young feller to deliver on a Saturday – his boy’s just left. If you go round there an’ tell him Mrs Emms sent you an’ give him a note which I’ll write, there’s a good chance he’ll tek you on, so there is.’

‘And would I have to collect money?’ Colm asked rather nervously. He could not imagine asking for money from all the cooks in the big houses to whom he would be delivering – it was one thing standing out for what was owed to his mammy, but to try to get money from total strangers was a different matter. ‘I don’t know as I’d like that, ma’am. It ’ud mean carryin’ money round wit’ me, an’ I’m only thirteen, bigger lads could set on me easy. An’ suppose I couldn’t get the money owed an’ your brother thought I’d put it in me pocket?’

Cook, who had gone to the table and was scribbling a note as she had promised, shook her head, folded the paper and came back to the doorway. ‘No, it isn’t done like that, young feller. When you take an order, there’s a bill in wit’ it. Then during the week the feller who delivers collects the money owed. All you have to do is hand over the bill, see? No messin’ around wit’ change, no fear of gettin’ things wrong. But it seems you’re a trustable young feller an’ me brother needs someone he can trust. Well? D’you want this note?’ She waved it at him. ‘It’s only Saturdays but you’ll mebbe get as much as t’ree bob if it’s a long day.’

‘T’ree bob!’ Colm said. His mind made itself up for
him at the very thought of such riches. ‘Thanks, ma’am ... I’ll go round there just as soon as we’ve tek the money back to our mammy.’

‘Good. Mind, I’m not promisin’ anything, because me brother might ha’ got someone else in the meantime. But you’re polite, tidy and well-spoken and because of me recommendation you’ve a good chance o’ the job.’

‘Right. Many thanks, ma’am,’ Colm said eagerly and turned away from the door. What an opportunity! Like most lads, he’d done his share of earning small sums of money by breaking up empty boxes from the quays and fruit markets, and selling the wood as kindling, or selling newspapers, or running messages, but delivering was a proper job, the sort that paid real money. And I’m only thirteen, he reminded himself as he and Caitlin hurried back along the way they had come. Mammy will be so pleased if I get the job.

He voiced the thought aloud to Caitlin, who said: ‘Mammy does her washing on a Saturday, Colly, so she can look after me an’ you won’t have to drag me round, devil a bit you will.’

‘That’s true,’ Colm said, forgetting to tell her that ‘devil’ was a naughty word not suitable for a young lady such as herself. ‘Shall we go round to York Street on our way home, alanna? Will you be very good and quiet whiles I talk to the feller?’

‘Quiet as a mouse,’ Caitlin said at once. ‘Oh, won’t Mammy be pleased when you tell her you’ve got the job, Colly!’

She was. ‘Wait until I tell your daddy,’ she kept saying when he told her he had the job, her eyes shining. ‘He wants you to go to England wit’ him
when you’re a man growed, but if you’re good, an’ do as you’re told, you’ll mebbe have a job in butchery for the rest of your life. Then you won’t have to leave Dublin.’

Being a butcher didn’t appeal particularly to Colm, but he did not say so. Indeed, he was so shocked to hear that his father planned to carry him off over the water to dig railway lines and such that he decided, over the matter of his future, to keep his own counsel. After all, he was only thirteen; there was time enough to think about it.

What was more, he liked Mr Savage, the butcher, and Mr Savage seemed to like him. At any rate he had not quibbled over giving him the job and had added that he would pay half a crown a day, with extra for overtime. ‘It’s good money for a lad of thirteen,’ he observed. ‘You can ride a bike? It’s quicker’n footin’ it.’

‘Sure it is,’ Colm agreed, for like most boys of his age, though he had never owned a bicycle he had had ‘goes’ on other people’s. ‘But the bike, Mr Savage . . . will I be hirin’ one from ole Whalen on North King Street? Only I don’t have one of me own.’

Mr Savage laughed. ‘I keep a delivery bike wit’ me name on it,’ he said cheerfully. ‘’Tis a big ’un, but you’ll manage, I don’t doubt.’

So on the Saturday following Colm started his new job and by the end of the day he had done well, big bike and all. The basket on the front made it a cumbersome vehicle, but when it was full and too heavy for him to ride he pushed and as it emptied he began to cycle, at first very slowly, and gradually faster and faster. He took care, furthermore. He made sure that the right parcel and the correct accompanying bill in its brown envelope were handed in to
each house, and whenever he went back for more orders he slid between the customers waiting to be served with a murmured apology. He wanted to keep this job. To his delight and surprise he was frequently given something at the kitchen door when he delivered a parcel.

‘You’re a little feller for that gurt big bicycle,’ a cook said, ’and it’s a good way you’ve cycled wit’ me leg o’ mutton. Here’s a cut o’ bread an’ jam to keep you goin’ as you cycle back to Savage’s.’

At first, when this happened, he pushed the food into his mouth as he wheeled the bike back onto the roadway, but later he learned to give enthusiastic thanks and put it in his pocket. No need to ask his mammy for a carry-out when the rich were so generous.

When he mentioned this to Herby, who had been the delivery boy until Mr Savage had promoted him to working in the shop, Herby said he shouldn’t take it for granted that such generosity would continue.

‘’Tis because you’re only a chiseller,’ he explained. ‘When you’re older they’re not so free wit’ their grub. Still an’ all, make the most of it. Time enough to bring your own food when the hand-outs stop.’

So it was no wonder that Colm headed home that night warmed by the exercise, the thrill of having a whole half-crown in his pocket and his full belly. And when he got home, the thrill of handing his mother his wages, like any other man of the house, and of being sat down at the table before a big plate of mutton stew, whilst Caitlin, long abed, called out to him to come in and tell her if he’d had a nice day, now, could not be bettered.

What was more, as soon as he’d finished the stew, for he was ravenously hungry, he produced a present
for his mammy. Mr Savage had let him buy at a specially low price a nice piece of pork which would do them fine for Sunday dinner and when the mammy saw it she had been as delighted with it as with anything else he had given her. ‘Sure an’ haven’t I the best son in the whole world?’ she had said, her eyes shining and the joint pressed to her bosom. ‘Not only did ye hand me your wages wit’out taking a penny piece for yourself, Colm O’Neill, but you managed to buy me such a lovely present! How did you do it, son? Don’t say Mr Savage paid you over the odds?’

‘He said I could have another sixpence, or the piece of meat,’ Colm told her. ‘He’s a dacint feller, so he is. Will we have it for our dinner tomorrer?’

‘We’ll have it for supper,’ his mother decided. ‘If it’s fine tomorrer I’m takin’ you an’ Caitlin down to Killiney Strand. We’ll catch the train an’ take our food wit’ us . . . now you’re a workin’ man you deserve a treat now an’ then. Will you write a letter to your daddy tellin’ him all about it?’

But this Colm did not intend to do. Sometimes he added a couple of lines to the ones his mammy wrote, but even that much he did grudgingly. ‘You’re better at letters than me, Mammy,’ he said at once. ‘You’ll make a good story of it, much better than I could. Besides, it’s nice for you to have somethin’ different to write about.... I’ll put a couple o’ lines on the end of the page.’

‘I thought you might enjoy tellin’ your daddy about the new job an’ the day out be the sea,’ his mother said a little reproachfully. ‘Still, letter writin’ was always a labour to me when I was a young wan, so I dare say it’s the same for you. Now you’d best go an’ tell Caitlin how ye got on before she bursts a lung wit’ shoutin’.’

Colm obeyed, but he had barely begun to tell his sister of the huge bicycle, the basket laden with parcels of meat and the kindness of the staff in the big houses, when he saw that she was asleep. And so he was able to go thankfully off to his own bed, where he followed her example very quickly, worn out by his day and by anticipation of the morrow.

After her children were in bed, Eileen made herself a cup of tea, smeared margarine on a cut of soda bread and sat down by the open window to relax for a moment or two before she, too, went to her bed. I’ve a good son, she told herself again, leaning out a little so she could see into the dark and deserted street below. And a good husband, for all he’s so far away. But why in the name of God don’t they love one another, my two good men? Sean tried, but he expected too much, was too critical of the lad, and Colm, sensing this, responded by showing a sort of jealous contempt for his father which not only hurt Sean, but Eileen, too.

BOOK: Rose of Tralee
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