I grew up with my mother and her three sisters just outside the village of Coalbrook in the Slieveardagh Hills in County Tipperary. My aunts were unmarried, as was the case with my own mother. Nora was the youngest of the four siblings. The baby of the family as they called her. The one they were supposed to look out for. Then out of the blue, and to their considerable dismay, she was having a baby herself. It was 1980 and I can only imagine the shock my impending entry into this world – their world – caused them. Nora having a baby and her no more than in her early twenties they whispered. This wasn’t how her future was meant to be. What does she do with herself now? Who will look after her in this most exacting of predicaments? There were meetings and cabals on the subject and an eventual decision was reached. Nora, my mother, was to stay where she’d been her whole life up to that point. And I was to begin mine there as well. In Coalbrook. In the house left to them by their parents. The five of us together in their world. With the fortifications raised a few inches after what had happened to poor Nora.
The three of them took care of us both. It was their collective effort, their common cause. We wanted for very little during my early years. My mother looked after me every day as well as tending to house and garden. Lelia, Gertie and Una had occupations in the outside world. Monday to Friday they sallied forth to work and we had the run of the place to ourselves. It was an old country house that had belonged to my grandparents, both of whom had passed on before my arrival. Nora and I occupied ourselves with games in the morning time. Hide-and-go-seek was my own personal favourite and I insisted on it every day without fail. The size of our domicile lent itself greatly to my clandestine efforts. I hid under king-size beds, in old-fashioned wardrobes, behind ornate dressing tables, and in any other place I could find and fit. And not once did I play the role of seeker. Nora, on the other hand, was always it. She never asked to hide and I never thought to wonder why. She seemed perfectly content being the one to search. And naturally she always found me; sooner or later, no matter where I’d be, whatever new spot I might be in, how ever carefully I’d concealed myself. A plethora of hugs and kisses would then ensue. I’d laugh and squeal and tell her to give over. If time allowed a new game would follow on directly. More hugs and kisses inevitably and we’d do it all over again. We’d only stop as lunchtime approached and her disposition changed as it was required to. If I was still undetected, she’d tell me to come out right away.
”˜I have to get busy now Jimmy,’ she’d say, an expression of seriousness curled on her face, ”˜Aunt Lelia will be home after 3. You know how she gets if there’s nothing done. No more games until later son. Have a rest for yourself if you’re feeling tired. If you have the energy though, you could give me a hand with – ‘
I helped her whenever I could. Most of the time, I helped if I was the least bit able. The breakfast dishes would always need to be tackled. The kitchen floor might be due a good scrubbing. Bed sheets were constantly being changed. The vegetable patch would not weed itself. Nor would the roses rid themselves of the dreaded greenfly.
From an early age I understood the importance of keeping Aunt Lelia on side and in good humour. Lelia was the oldest of the four sisters and a primary schoolteacher in Lisnamrock National School. She was a sturdy woman with large grey eyes and long brown hair, had an unmistakeable glow of resilience about her and was highly-opinionated. Being a schoolteacher she prided herself on her powers of observation. She swore she could see things in people by the most fleeting of glances. That was all it took she maintained. It was like reading a cameo in a book. A short descriptive bit of text that encapsulated who someone was, and what they might likely do with themselves. When I heard her use those words – which I often did – I wondered how she encapsulated us: me and her younger sister. Especially if she knew about the games we played while she was out toiling; about the mad dash we had to make most afternoons in order to get household tasks complete.
Aunt Lelia had an intermittent flair for the dramatic, but for the most part she was kind and, I believe, encapsulated me favourably each and every time she had occasion to. Her two other sisters were much softer women and they were more voluble in their praise of me. Gertie, who was next in age to Lelia, was a small brisk woman with short blonde hair. She worked in a bakery shop and was a particular favourite of mine on account of the treacly treats she frequently brought home. Two years younger than her, Aunt Una was a gentle creature with a moon face and honeyed voice. She was employed in an insurance office in Cashel and travelled to work with Gertie every day, taking turns behind the wheel of the old Fiat 124 my grandfather had once driven.
My mother, Nora, in contrast to them, was a pretty slip of a thing. She had frank blue eyes, a little nose which jutted out pertly, and tresses of chestnut hair that curled like the tendrils of a vine. I called her Nora out of habit because everyone else did, and because she never objected to it. Aunt Lelia did of course. She told me it was shameful for me to address Nora as anything else but Mammy seeing as how she was the one who’d brought me into this world.
”˜A bit more respect on your part would not go amiss,’ she said one time, her nose wrinkling as it usually did when she was annoyed, ”˜it’s not polite to be shouting Nora this and Nora that. She’s your Mammy. Use the correct word for her. Mammy or Mam will do. Don’t let me hear you calling her by her Christian name again!’
At the time I considered this odd, especially since I hadn’t been shouting. It was August 1984 and we were watching the Summer Olympics. The South African and American runners had just collided in the 3000 metres final and I asked Nora if she’d seen it happen. She directed a leisurely smile at me.
”˜Of course I saw it Jimmy,’ she answered with gentle tolerance, ”˜it looks like the poor American girl is out of the race. And to think she probably spent years getting ready for this day. Her whole world must be in bits.’
”˜She’s crying now Nora. She looks very very sad…’
Aunt Lelia’s sharp drone floated over our analysis.
”˜Jimmy! You must learn to call Mammy by her proper name,’ she said.
”˜But that is her proper name,’ I meekly protested, ”˜it’s what you and Aunt Gertie and Aunt Una call her…Nora. Nora is her name.’
Aunt Lelia delivered her lecture then on the need for respect and courtesy. At the end of it Nora sneaked a wink in my direction. We giggled later as we replayed the moment. Then a more cautionary tone crept into her voice.
”˜You’ll be starting at Lisnamrock in next to no time,’ she said, ”˜promise me you’ll be good for Aunt Lelia. She won’t be your teacher there for a few years yet, but she will be keeping an eye on you. Be a good boy, won’t you Jimmy. Keep out of mischief.’
”˜I promise Nora,’ I said.
”˜No more hide-and-go-seek like we used to play,’ she exhaled, gripping her bottom lip between her teeth.
”˜Don’t they play it in school too Nora?’
”˜Yes, Jimmy, but it’s different in school. It’s not like here. There are fewer places to hide. You’ll be found easier.’
A few weeks later I started at Lisnamrock. Nora didn’t accompany me on my first day, but I didn’t mind. I didn’t give it a second thought if the truth be told. I felt this was a new world opening up to me. I wanted very much to grasp it. To have it as my own. Even with Aunt Lelia just a room away. There were boys and girls from different parts of the locality, but I’d never met any of them. The closest I’d come was at mass once a week. And even then I’d noticed how Nora seemed anxious to get away as quickly as possible. The recessional hymn would be barely over and she’d be tugging at me to go. Out the door we’d hurry and into the back of the Fiat 124. What puzzled me the most though was why none of the aunts ever remarked on this mad dash of hers. Not even Aunt Lelia, who normally had a comment to make on everything.
I don’t know how Nora would have handled that first day of mine at school. I was relieved she wasn’t there if I’m to be honest about it. I saw other Mammys leaving in tears despite the best efforts of Miss Ahern. There were a few Daddys in attendance as well, but to me they appeared ill at ease, not really wanting to be there. One or two of them attempted a reassuring beam as if it were an obligation. For the most part though they wore bland expressions which betrayed no content or reaction. I wondered what are they thinking, what are they feeling. Why did they come? What is their purpose in being here?
I decided to ask one of my new classmates. His name was Paddy Byrne. He looked at me as if I had two heads sprouting out of my neck.
”˜They came for the same reasons that the Mammys did,’ he said racing his eyes up and down my face, ”˜my Daddy would have come too ”˜cept he got called away on a job this morning. Where’s yours?’
”˜Where’s my what?’ I asked innocently.
His eyes widened and he performed a double take. Boyish curiosity quickly rose to the surface.
”˜Your Da of course,’ he said focusing raptly on me.
His face grew mottled as if with excitement.
”˜Or are you the boy they say has no Daddy? Is that you? I heard there was someone like that. It must be you. Else you wouldn’t be asking why the Daddys are here. My name’s Paddy. You can come play at my house if you like. On Saturdays me and my brothers watch Sports Stadium and kick football after it. You can join.’
Needless to say, we became fast friends.
My first few months at school passed in the blink of an eye. I made friends with other fellas in my class. I went over to Paddy’s house most Saturdays. Nora wasn’t exactly thrilled about this, but Aunt Lelia told her it was good for me. I needed to develop she said. My social skills, as she put it, were still a bit wanting. I arrived into 1985 with my life in a good place; as far as I could tell at least. I was turning five that June. A significant milestone it seemed. My first four-and-a-half years on God’s green earth had gone by with little bother, and even far less incident. But there were undercurrents, and I was gradually becoming aware of them. For one thing I noticed how Nora wasn’t as dutiful in her responsibilities around the house. At the outset I assumed it was because I was no longer there to help her. Many hands make light work she’d often joke as we scurried to beat the clock in the afternoon. But now my absence during the day seemed to be having the opposite effect. Which seemed very strange to me as she surely had more time on her hands. No games of hide-and-go-seek to distract her. And yet the evidence of her inattention was mounting bit by bit. The dishes from breakfast were added with those from dinner more and more. The beds, including my own, were changed less and less. The rose bushes at the bottom of our garden were badly in need of a springtime pruning. The vegetable patch close by was not an issue just yet, but the signs for it were not promising. Everything appeared to be on the long finger all of a sudden. Nothing was urgent to Nora. Things which had been of paramount importance to her a short time before were now of no great concern. Her apathy began to contaminate relations in the house. There were long silences between the sisters. Prickly discussions would take place if I did not appear to be within earshot. Ghostly, shrill, undersea voices became the order of the day. These conferences ceased abruptly if I showed my face. Nora and Aunt Lelia were especially at loggerheads. Even by her own considerable standards Lelia was more outspoken than usual. I began to overhear her make snide remarks about 1979. And there were numerous mentions of, ”˜that fella…that blackguard.’ I tried to imagine who she might be talking about. The references became ever more pointed and she cared less if I was around.
”˜Were you out meeting him again yesterday morning?’ she asked during dinner one evening. The five of us were seated around the kitchen table. Nora’s face flushed crimson at this question. She tilted her head off to one side as if trying to escape my gaze. Her shoulders stiffened.
”˜It’s my own business if I was,’ she replied, her voice quiet and tentative, ”˜who’s been talking? Was it you Gertie? Or you Una?’
”˜It was neither one of them,’ Aunt Lelia said answering for the other two, ”˜Andy Gannon passed a remark to me about it. He was asking who is Nora’s ”˜fancy man.’ Aye, that’s what he called him. A fancy man.’
”˜Andy Gannon is a nosey old curmudgeon.’
”˜But he has eyes in his head sis,’ Gertie interjected.
”˜Aye, and a robust auld tongue in his mouth,’ Lelia added.
”˜I don’t care what Andy Gannon says,’ Nora asserted defiantly, her eyes briefly locking on me, ”˜he’s not the boss of me. I’ll do as I want and the Andy Gannons of this world can take a running jump.’
”˜Nora!’ exclaimed Una.
”˜Sis!’ said Gertie.
Aunt Lelia cocked an outraged eye at Nora. She pushed forward grimly.
”˜Andy Gannon is not what’s of significance here,’ she said, ”˜the point is you’ve been going behind our backs to see that divil. You’ve had too much time on your hands since Jimmy here started to school and you know what they say about idle hands and the divil. That fella snakes his way back here after all these years and it’s like you have memory loss. Don’t you remember the state he left you in? Have you overlooked that entirely? He’s the reason you haven’t been able to find a real loving man for yourself, God forgive me for saying it opposite the child.’
Nora took umbrage at these words. Leaning forward, she gave vent to her exasperation.
”˜Tis five years ago,’ she said crossly. ”˜Let the past be the past. And besides he has a right to come around. It’s to be expected that he’s interested. It’s not going against nature. I can’t deny him his right. A grown man has a right to see his own…’
She decided it judicious to withdraw at these words. Catching my eye again, she fell silent and pushed back in her chair. Aunt Gertie and Aunt Una swivelled glances at each other. Neither one spoke. Aunt Lelia threw her eyes up to the heavens as if imploring for guidance. Returning then to the argument, she offered up her own two cents’ worth.
”˜A word to the wise girl,’ she said to Nora, ”˜and take heed of the advice I have to give. You shouldn’t encourage that fella, because he’s the kind of divil who preys on any little opening, any moment of weakness.’
She shook her head disdainfully.
”˜You made that mistake before when the Pope visited Ireland. It was a great occasion his holiness coming to this country, but I’m thinking that he has something to answer for as well. Especially when he told the young people of Ireland he loved them in Galway. Unfortunately, certain individuals got carried away with the whole love thing that day. The rest of the story we know only too well.’
She looked at me then and a contrite expression shot across her face.
”˜I don’t mean to be unkind Nora,’ she said, ”˜God knows this house would be so much the emptier if he wasn’t here.’
An incline of the head implied she was talking about me. I wondered what connection I had to any of this. Especially the part about the Pope in Galway. I’d heard he’d visited in September 1979. There were pictures of him kissing the ground at Dublin Airport. And the mass in the Phoenix Park. There were some cups in the dresser commemorating the event, but Aunt Lelia had strictly prohibited their use.
Her matter-of-fact voice brought me back to the moment just then.
”˜I’m only trying to help Nora,’ she said. ”˜You understand that, don’t you? I know it’s lonesome around here; especially now that Jimmy’s gone to school. But stick with it girl. Don’t make any rash decisions. You have more than yourself to think about. Not just himself, but the rest of us as well. Gertie and Una couldn’t bear if you left us.’
She paused for a moment to let this sink in.
”˜And neither could I,’ she added for heightened effect.
But Nora was resolute about it and soon afterwards the talk in the house was about the impending visit of this friend of hers. She was certainly excited about it. The others most definitely not. The day before he called on us she told me a little bit about him.
”˜His name is Eddie,’ she said, ”˜he’s from Passage West in Cork. Do you know where that is Jimmy? It’s right on the coast…where the sea is. I’ve never been there myself, but I bet it’s a lovely place.’
She gripped her bottom lip between her teeth.
”˜Are you looking forward to meeting him?’ she asked with a smattering of apprehension in her voice.
”˜I suppose so,’ I answered with no great gusto, ”˜but can I not go to Paddy Byrne’s? There’s a big match on Sports Stadium and we…’
”˜Jimmy! You go to Paddy Byrne’s every Saturday,’ she said, her eyes quick and nervous, ”˜just this once stay home on Saturday. It’s important to me. I want you to meet my friend. I want you to meet Eddie.’
The following day he pulled up outside our house in a Renault 18. It was his father’s car. He’d borrowed it for the day. I watched from my bedroom window as he got out and stretched his legs. He was wearing a short brown leather jacket and a smart pair of jeans. He was tall and clean-cut and I noticed how his stride had a sort of elasticity to it. Like he was an easy-going sort, but also had a certain self-possession about himself. This composure of his was quickly tested as Aunt Lelia approached him on the gravel. She spoke to him for only a few moments, but I could tell how it was about something of import. Aunt Lelia rarely did inane or trivial. Nora’s friend seemed to realise this too. He nodded earnestly and sucked in his cheeks as he paid close attention.
I was told to come downstairs by Aunt Una. They were waiting for me in the sitting room; Nora, the aunts, and him. The first thing that struck me about him up close was his smile. It was broad, vigorous, and warm; not the kind that seemed in the least bit hollow or measured, and I liked him for it right away. He had a pink round face and sky-blue eyes that glistened with good humour. In spite of his youth, there were some patches of grey in his mop of fine dark hair. I had never seen a man his age with such silvery interlopers on his head before. It made me wonder what caused them to be there. Not because of his time of life surely. I decided I would ask if I got to know him better. His benign expression made me hope I would.
There was no formal introduction, at least he did not see the need for one, and he extended me a big square hand.
”˜So this is Jimmy,’ he intoned leisurely. ”˜Well Jimmy! How goes the struggle?’
I took a seat next to Nora and was given a glass of Dwan’s Red Lemonade and a packet of Taytos to keep me occupied. The adults drank tea and picked from a plate of sandwiches. Eddie improvised with formalities at first and then made some attempts to enliven the course of the conversation with some levity. He was particularly amused by the contents of some of the sandwiches and beamed like the Cheshire Cat.
”˜I never in my life had ham and cucumber sandwiches before; or cheese and pickle,’ he said with a mischievous inflection. ”˜Who was it made these delicacies?’
”˜That was myself,’ Aunt Lelia replied crustily, ”˜we try to make our guests feel welcome. They may be out of the ordinary, but then so are many other things.’
Eddie choked on a small courtesy laugh at this. He decided it wise to return to the more structured chat and talked rapid-fire about topics close to his heart. Cork hurling was one of these. Another was pop music. There were tentative casual-sounding questions from Gertie and Una. They asked Eddie about his time at UCC and what he’d studied. Gertie observed that Jack Lynch was a notable alumni having studied law there. Una mentioned Seà¡n à“ Riada’s association with the university, saying it was a terrible misfortune him dying so young. Aunt Lelia, on the other hand, ran true to form and was more direct in her line of cross-examination. She was mostly inquisitive as to what Eddie was doing in the here-and-now as she put it. Did he have a job? Was it good steady work? Were there prospects in it? Where did he see himself in a few years’ time? Was it true that Passage West suffered from high unemployment? She’d heard that somewhere. Did he have a back-up plan if, say, he found himself laid off and on the dole? The questions were incessant and I imagined what she must be like as a teacher. Secretly, I dreaded the day I would begin with her in fourth class. But at least she knows enough about me already I thought. Unlike poor Eddie here who she’s bombarding with all the whats, whys and hows. He was still wearing his smile, but it was not as full-bodied as earlier. I longed to see it again. I hoped Aunt Lelia would soon leave him alone. We weren’t getting a chance to talk to him at all, neither me nor Nora. I looked at my mother and saw how rigid she was in her seat. She was silent and watchful. On edge to put it mildly. The room was feebly lit, but I could sense how she was feeling for him. Eager that he would put in a good performance with Lelia; willing him to say the right things so that he might rise in her sister’s estimation. But past experience told me this would take some doing. And some time as well. I began dreaming up a way the three of us might escape the room and this third degree of my aunt’s. I could propose a game of hide-and-go-seek I thought. With Aunt Lelia as it. I’d take Eddie and Nora to one of my favourite places to hide. One with oodles of space. We’d get to talk freely then, just the three of us. I’d tell him about the Summer Olympics and my friend Paddy Byrne and playing football after Sports Stadium. He’d like talking about those things I figured. A great deal more surely than the state of joblessness in the country; or proposals by the Minister for Education to introduce a transition year in secondary school.
But it went on ad infinitum and I realised there would be no hide-and-go-seek games today. Or chats at close quarters. Resting my head against Nora’s shoulder, I began to drift off as the room sank into a cool greyness. I slept for a few minutes, perhaps half an hour. The last snatches of conversation fizzled out and I felt Nora patting my hand. She told me it was time for Eddie to go. It was getting dark and he had a long drive back to Passage West.
Outside the house we said goodbye. He said he looked forward to seeing us soon again.
”˜We’ll see about that in due course,’ Aunt Lelia said, ”˜an appropriate time and place I think. Something that suits one and all.’
Eddie recognised the fiat and concurred with this. Before leaving he gave me a present of a Warlord magazine.
”˜You’ll like this Jimmy,’ he said with a huge wink, ”˜keep your eyes open for Peter Flint especially. He’s a sort of a James Bond character. Courageous and well turned-out. A bit like myself if you know what I mean.’
”˜Good with the ladies as well, is he?’ Aunt Lelia interjected with a glaring degree of sarcasm.
Eddie smiled again, but the muscles at the corner of his eyes did not contract like earlier. He chuckled a little, but kept it short.
As he was leaving, he lowered the electric front windows of the Renault 18 and waved to us.
Nora shifted her gaze onto me.
”˜He’s nice, isn’t he Jimmy?’ she said. ”˜Did you like him?’
She sounded wary, testing.
”˜I did,’ I replied, ”˜he has a nice smile.’
Nora’s tone lightened when she heard this.
”˜Yes, he does,’ she said, ”˜I always thought he had a nice smile.’
Aunt Lelia, however, had the last word.
”˜That fella has a wolf’s grin,’ she declared austerely, ”˜he’s more than a bit hairy at the heels if you ask me.’
This assertion of hers went over my head, so I occupied myself with Warlord. The comic book was filled with adventure stories and colourful characters such as Bomber Braddock, Union Jack Jackson and the indomitable Lord Peter Flint. I studied the panels in his story most of all. I was pleased to see he had a smile like Eddie’s.
A few more visits from Eddie came to pass and before long it was summer and time for my birthday. He didn’t appear on the day itself, but came the following one with a present for me. And a proposition.
”˜How about a trip or two to the beach while he’s off school?’ I heard him say to Nora as I played with my new Tonka Truck in the garden.
My mother pursed her lips in thought.
”˜I’d like that,’ she answered. ”˜We both would. But Lelia hasn’t quite come around yet. She’d have an objection to it no doubt. It’s a small wonder she’s letting us talk here alone.’
Eddie threw his eyes up to heaven and brushed it aside as something pesky and unimportant.
”˜She’s not your mother, you know,’ he said, ”˜you’re a free agent. You can do as you want.’
He paused for a theatrical beat and continued.
”˜And besides, it would do the two of you good I’m thinking,’ he said. ”˜You’re stuck here in this old landlocked place 365 days a year. I bet the young fella hasn’t even seen the coast yet.’
He upped his voice somewhat so that it would carry.
”˜Have you ever been to the seaside Jimmy?’ he asked.
I told him I hadn’t.
His face dropped in an exaggerated fashion.
”˜Ah well now that’s a crying shame!’ he said, ”˜I was just saying to your Mammy that maybe the three of us might make a day of it next month. What would you think of that?’
My heart gave several great leaps and I felt like dancing a jig on the spot. But there was not just myself to consider. I looked to Nora for the right response. Her kind expression guaranteed it would be my decision.
Lelia and the others had to be consulted at any rate. They were not keen on the idea. There was the familiar rush of protectiveness which I still could not understand. The expected confabs took place. They quietly tried to dissuade Nora. ”˜Not so soon,’ I heard them say to her in controlled whispers. Even Aunt Lelia was more restrained than usual. Carefulness was now her mantra. To me she seemed in low spirits.
When all was said and done though, Nora managed to persuade them. She told them how I’d been so excited when I heard Eddie’s suggestion. There was also the irrefutable fact that I’d never been to the seaside before which reinforced her argument. I was of an age whereby it was only correct and proper that I should see new places, be exposed to different experiences she reasoned. Moreover, all the other children in my class had been there at one time or another. Aunt Lelia knew this perfectly well from the school. Even she could not advise against it. This was for my development, for my benefit. I was five years old now. It was high time I saw the sea.
Eddie was thrilled to bits when he heard of their acquiescence.
”˜We’ll have a right old time of it Jimmy,’ he said, ”˜you can bring your Tonka Truck. We’ll scoop up the whole of the beach in it. Build some sandcastles, just the two of us.’
Nora informed him that her sisters were insisting on a neutral venue for this first outing.
”˜They don’t want us going to Cork,’ she said. ”˜They suggested Tramore instead.’
Eddie gave her a knowing look. He shrugged his shoulders then, dismissing it as of no great concern.
”˜Tramore is as good a place as any,’ he said, ”˜there’s sand and sea there like every other beach in Ireland.’
He chuckled to himself, pleased.
Leaning in closer to me, he said, ”˜Have you ever heard of the Metal Man Jimmy? He’s in Tramore.’
”˜I haven’t,’ I replied, feeling suitably awe-struck by this, ”˜is he some big fella that lives there?’
Eddie burst into disarming fits of giggles at my question.
”˜Deed no Jimmy,’ he said reassuringly, ”˜you needn’t worry about him. He’s not a real man. He’s made of metal and they have him there to warn seamen about the dangerous waters. I’ll take you up to see him.’
”˜Ok,’ I said.
Nora went into the house for some lemonade for us.
While she was gone, Eddie crinkled his eyes in thought.
”˜You know it’s said that if a woman hops barefoot around the Metal Man three times, she’ll be married within the year,’ he said. ”˜Do you think that might work for your Aunt Lelia?’
My expression answered his question, but I did not put it into words. He nodded perceptively.
”˜Neither do I Jimmy,’ he said. ”˜Neither do I.’
We set off for Tramore on the first Saturday of July. Eddie had use of his father’s Renault 18 again for the day and he arrived on the dot of 10 in the morning. The aunts packed sandwiches and drinks for our expedition and warned us to take care of the water and the sun. The last thing we’d need would be to get sun stroke they said. It had happened one time to Aunt Gertie and she hadn’t been right for two weeks. Aunt Una reminisced about helping her bathe in a cold tub after it. Aunt Lelia said it had been her own fault since she’d been silly enough to fall asleep in the garden.
The three of them saw us off as we left. A strange clarity filled out their features. They waved timidly as if uneasy about something. As if some dreadful premonition had taken place in their minds. Are they still concerned about me getting sun stroke I wondered. I heard myself talking down their fears as the car pushed forward down the road. I won’t get sun stroke the way Aunt Gertie did I said. Nora will look after me. And so too will Eddie. I’ll come back this evening without a mark or blemish. You’ll see. Mammy and her friend will take care of me. I promise.
There were lively bursts of conversation between the two of them on the journey. Eddie talked excitedly about the upcoming Live Aid concert the following Saturday. He said he was going to watch it for the whole day because of the performers that would be playing. We listened to some of these on a cassette he had. There were songs by Tears for Fears and Dire Straits. Phil Collins regaled us with Sussudio; Madonna with her Material Girl. The lead singer from A-ha implored someone to take him on; Bruce Springsteen made it clear that he was Born in the U.S.A. I peered out the window and watched the world go by. Small rich fields were ripe in the sunlight. There wasn’t a speck of cloud in the sky. I felt certain it would be the same at Tramore. At the seaside. Where I’d never been before. A great flutter of excitement stirred in me as I considered this. First time at the sea for me. Ever. It would be a momentous occasion just like Eddie said. And I had him to thank for it. He was the one who’d put forward this wonderful idea.
When we got there he paid special attention to my every movement. He asked me about my first view of the large strand.
”˜Well Jimmy,’ he said, ”˜can you see it? What do you think of it? Isn’t it magic looking?’
Then we got on to the beach itself and I took a few cautious steps in the sand.
He chuckled and reached out to caress my arm.
”˜There’s a different feel to it, isn’t there?’ he said. ”˜There’s no bit of ground in Tipperary that feels like that, eh?’
I took my first dip in the water with Nora and he watched us from a short distance. He shouted with a sort of crow of laughter as we returned and asked me how I found it. I told him I liked it. I liked the water. It was colder than I’d expected, but not so cold that I wouldn’t tackle it again. This gave him great pleasure. His lusty face broadened with contentment and he nodded in affirmation.
”˜That’s the spirit Jimmy,’ he said with great gusto, ”˜I remember my first time. I felt it a bit nippy too. But I didn’t let that put me off. And now I’m a great swimmer. Almost the equal of Johnny Weissmuller.’
His eyes shone rapturously. The great beam I was becoming used to played about his lips.
Nora flitted him a sardonic look.
”˜Well in that case Mr. Weissmuller, you won’t mind getting us a few cones,’ she suggested eyeing an ice cream van further up the beach.
Eddie’s mouth twisted into a rueful grin.
”˜Course I won’t,’ he said with no mock merriment, ”˜I’ll be back in a jiffy. Tarzan see, Tarzan do.’
I decided to intercede on his behalf.
”˜I want Eddie to stay here so we can start making sandcastles,’ I said to Nora, and with that I produced my Tonka Truck. ”˜You get the ice creams. We got to get busy, right Eddie?’
I duplicated his huge wink as best I could.
This produced an explosive burst of laughter from him.
Nora gave a jiggling shrug of her shoulders and accepted my instruction.
”˜I can take a hint,’ she said, ”˜the boys want to be alone. Only keep an eye on the sun the two of you. It’s high and brave now. That’s when it’s at its most dangerous.’
”˜We’ll be careful,’ Eddie assured her. ”˜Get us 99’s. I like the flake. And speaking of Tarzan, make sure they put lots of the monkey’s blood on it.’
Nora shrugged again and walked away patting the palms of her hands.
”˜The two of you are full of orders today, aren’t you?’ she said as she left us.
There was a long queue at the van on account of the fine weather, so I imagined she’d be gone for more than a few minutes. I felt oddly happy about this. It was just me and him now. All by ourselves. With no women about and scores of sandcastles to make. We’d have a citadel built by the time she’d come back. I reached for my Tonka Truck and started in on the excavation works.
It was then I noticed that Eddie was no longer quite with me. His attention, so thorough up till now, had been diverted. Movement and colour had caught his eye, and he’d reacted to it. Or, more exactly, to them. A group of young women from Waterford City were passing and Eddie had extended them his wide-eyed grin. Duly impressed, they’d stopped to talk. Eddie asked them where they were from and how often they came to Tramore. The charm flowed unabated as he recommended them a number of beaches in County Cork. They giggled at his debonair tone and the way his hands closed and opened convulsively as he spoke. But he was making headway with them no doubt about that; and doing so with insolent skill. A few times he glanced at me carefully, and then towards the ice cream van in the distance. That gave me an idea as I listened to their high-pitched titters and saw the captivated expressions on their faces. As Eddie passed yet another mischievous remark, in a voice like a rolling drum, I decided that the fun should not all be his. It was time I had a game too I resolved. And what better than hide-and-go-seek. With four of them to search for me – Eddie and his three new friends from Waterford City.
I discarded my Tonka Truck and slipped away when I knew he wasn’t looking. There was still no sign of Nora returning and he was immersed in conversation with the women. I made a mental note of their faces and what they were wearing. One was blonde, one had dark-hair, the third had strawberry-red curls. If I see them during the game, I must remember to hide I told myself. They were it now also. Themselves and Eddie. And Nora too; when she’d return with strawberry-red 99’s.
My game was not long in progress though when I realised they were not trying to find me. I grew impatient at this, with them, with Eddie most especially of all, and made up my mind to carry on in the direction I was headed. This isn’t how hide-and-go-seek is supposed to be played I thought. There’s not much point in one fella hiding and no one else seeking. What kind of game is that meant to be? In my annoyance I kicked out at an empty can of RC Cola. So what if they don’t find me I figured. I can be brave about this just the way I was brave about my first dip in the water. Maybe Eddie will be impressed by that. Maybe it’ll cause him to act like he was with those women; full of sweet talk and auld plaumausing. I remembered that Aunt Lelia had observed how good he was at this. She said it was his particular gift. I could well believe that now. Except I wanted to hear it from him. I wanted him to direct some of that blarney towards me. I wondered then why he wasn’t coming toward me. Why wasn’t he looking? Why wasn’t he playing this game of mine?
After some time of this pacing and ruminating, I abandoned the bravado which had first impelled it. A much more pressing matter overcame me. I was lost. There was no mistaking the fact. Nothing and no one was familiar. There were strange faces all around me. With rose-tinted skin and, in some cases, hairy legs and chests. Their movements were grotesque, their forms horrible. Just looking at them made me woozy. The sound of splashing water in close proximity jarred my nerves. The sand beneath my bare feet seemed to be making a tearing, crackling, grinding noise. In an effort to distract myself from it all, I stared upwards at the azure-coloured sky. But it didn’t help. I felt a reeling sensation in my head and had to lower my gaze again. The large strand appeared interminable. No end to it as far as I could see. I longed for someone I knew to draw near. Nora most of all. I wondered if she’d come back with the 99’s yet. She probably had I guessed. She’d been gone a long time now. I’d been gone a long time too. Half an hour I thought. Or possibly even longer. The beats of my pulse became rapid. Every muscle tautened. I felt my whole body racked and wrenched with a terrible anguish. I tried desperately hard to work out how I might find my way back, but my mind went round and round aimlessly like an overturned car. I could not see clearly. Only the uneven contours of figures surrounding me. The din of their laughter and frolicking grew incessant in my head. I could take it no more. My lungs engulfed a great draught of air which I expelled with a shriek. My scream was needle-sharp. My voice supported it in a protracted howl. Several heads jerked around to the noise and some of the bodies came running towards me. Concerned voices shot up in the breezy air. They asked if I was ok; what was troubling me. I made no effort to control my tears.
”˜Where do you suppose his parents are?’ I heard one of them say.
”˜He must be lost,’ another voice suggested. ”˜Is that it son? Are you missing from your Mammy and Daddy?’
I tried to answer, but my blubbering got in the way.
”˜We’d better find someone in charge like a lifeguard,’ an older woman proposed, ”˜the parents might have fallen asleep and he wandered off.’
”˜Well that’s mortification on them,’ another woman said to her, ”˜they should be more vigilant in this day and age.’
The older woman threw her a covert look in response.
”˜Shhh!’ she hissed. ”˜Don’t be making it worse on the poor child!’
The debate and deliberations as to what would be proper to do continued in this manner until, finally, I saw a face that I knew. It was Eddie’s. He looked weighed down. His splayed fingers raked nervously through his hair as he approached. He moved with little running impulses and moments of pause. There was no sign of his trademark wink as he crept in amongst them, stating that he was acquainted with me. His expression was pinched. His voice diluted, whispery.
”˜Yes, I know the lad,’ he said. ”˜His mother is a friend of mine. I’ll take him back to her now. She’s looking on another part of the beach. Out of her mind with worry. It was my fault. I took my eye off him for…a second.’
The car was very quiet on the journey back to Coalbrook. The sun was still burning up the world, but our day together had come to an early end. Eddie drove much slower than he’d done just a few short hours before. He didn’t talk about pop music or Live Aid or Munster hurling clashes of Cork versus Tipperary. As a matter of fact, he didn’t talk about much of anything at all. His mouth and eyes were narrow lines. From time to time he gazed at the sky as if seeking distraction in the few combings of cloud. His rich smile for the time being had disappeared. He drew in his breath in sinking solicitude.
A few miles from home, Nora breached the silence.
”˜Why did you take your eye off him?’ she asked. ”˜How did you manage to do that?’
”˜I told you already,’ he answered in a hacking whisper, ”˜those girls stopped to ask me for the time. We got talking then about Passage West because one of their mothers is from there. I didn’t spot him slipping away.’
Nora shook her head sceptically.
”˜They were right about you,’ she said, ”˜you have a roving eye in your head. That’s why you took your eye off him. Do you realise you’ve undone all the effort I was making? Every bit of goodwill I’d built up on your behalf.’
”˜Why should they have to know anything about this?’ he said. ”˜Why do you feel it necessary to tell them?’
She looked at him full and square.
”˜Because I do,’ she said. ”˜Because you were in the wrong. All you had to do was be responsible for those few minutes I was gone. But you couldn’t do that. And now it’s hopeless. Now everything is set back. Maybe for good and all. I can’t trust you. And I no longer have faith in that promise of yours to give us a new life. I’m thinking that would break down very quickly. Lelia and the others warned me of it.’
He exhaled noisily at this.
”˜You listen to your sisters too much,’ he said. ”˜I wouldn’t be for telling them anything if I were you. I made a mistake. I’m only human. It won’t happen again.’
Nora rejected this.
”˜Even if I wanted to keep it quiet, the truth would come out,’ she said, ”˜Lelia would know something was up. She’d get it out of me. She did before. That time when I found out I was…’
She stopped in mid-sentence and glanced back at me. Reaching out, she patted my knee gently.
”˜We’ll be home soon love, never you worry,’ she said.
Her head sloped as she turned back in the car seat.
”˜Home soon,’ she repeated.
The easy cadence in Eddie’s speech had returned as he dropped us off outside the house.
”˜We’ll do this soon again, the three of us,’ he said.
Nora looked away and said nothing. Eddie handed me my Tonka Truck through the window.
”˜We wouldn’t want you forgetting this Jimmy,’ he said good-humouredly, ”˜the next time we’ll give it a proper try-out on the beach. It better be up to scratch for the work we’ll be doing, right?’
”˜Sure Eddie. For all that sand.’
His chuckle constricted to a rattle and he focused on me more intently.
”˜Sure it was just a game of hide-and-go-seek you were playing Jimmy, and I didn’t know it,’ he said. ”˜The next time I’ll play it proper and coming looking for you. There’s no place where I won’t find you. Mark my words.’
”˜Sure Eddie. Next time it’ll be more fun.’
His eyes glazed with a little regret.
”˜I’m sorry it wasn’t more fun today Jimmy, but I’ll make it up to you,’ he said. ”˜We’ll go the whole hog the next day. Sandcastles and ice creams galore. Lots of dips in the water.’
”˜Sure Eddie. Thanks.’
He smiled one last time and then rolled up the window. As he left, I felt a pang of guilt myself. If only I hadn’t been so fixed on playing that silly game of mine I thought. If only I’d stayed put like I was supposed to.
Nora told Aunt Lelia and the others about what had happened. The truth would have come out at any rate like she said. A few years later I had Aunt Lelia as my teacher and I saw first-hand how she had a knack for getting at the truth of things. She had the same particular effect on both adults and children. There was no one impervious to her. Aunt Lelia was Aunt Lelia – straight as an arrow. She was forever making sure that others were similarly inclined.
We didn’t see much more of Eddie, and heard from him even less. There were a few more visits to the house, but these were mannered affairs back in the sitting room. Nora and he said very little to each other. The sparkle between them was gone. Eddie’s sheen had worn off. I could see no matter how hard he tried he would not get it back.
In time these sporadic calls to the house came to an end as well. After that we didn’t hear from him again. Because he was gone for real. Gone for good.
It was Aunt Una who told me about him emigrating to Australia. Or was it New Zealand she wondered. Either way he’d left these shores she said. His job had gone and he had a hankering to travel.
”˜I always thought he was a bit unsettled in himself,’ she said. ”˜He could never sit still for long. Even when he was inside there in the room with us.’
By then I had a fair idea of who he really was. Eventually I asked Nora and she told me the whole story. She cried her eyes out and apologised for not telling me sooner. They all felt I was too young to be told the truth she explained. And he’d agreed with them. Even as he left that very last time knowing he’d probably never return.
I think of him every now and again. Especially when I see sand or hear the sound of splashing water. I wonder at these times if he’s happy in one of those places. Australia or New Zealand. Sydney or Wellington. Wherever he chose to lay his hat. I wonder if he still picks out combings of cloud in the sky. Or if the sun streams on his face. And if there’s someone, or possibly even a few, in that part of the world, who know him now as The Man Who Smiles.