Fiction: The Enlightenment

March 23, 2018 Fiction , Literature , POETRY / FICTION

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By

Clive Collins

 

 

 

Mammy did her washing on Mondays and when I remember those I spent with her before I was of an age for school and then when I was at school but at home because I was poorly, I remember the washing and I remember the rain.

We always had what seemed to me then like a stream of visitors on Monday mornings: the postman came twice in those days, then the milkman, the baker’s lad, and so it went on. There was as well Mr Black – young Mr Black as Mammy and Daddy called him, although he did not seem young to me.  He was our landlord’s son and came looking for the week’s rent, which Mammy always had sitting out for him, the single note and then the silver placed inside the rent book so as to mark the appropriate page for him to sign.  I knew enough to still my play when it was near the time for him to call and I would be underneath the dinner table before his first footfall fell upon our garden path, as much shut in as our dog, who was put in the cupboard under the stairs so as to muffle his growling.

For some years after their marriage, Mammy and Daddy lived with Mammy’s mother, Granny McNulty.  But it was an unhappy arrangement.  My mother was the youngest of twelve children.  Some had gone to marriage and two of the boys had died in the Great War, but enough remained to fill the two rooms up, two rooms down they all lived in.  Not that Daddy would have minded the crowding so much for his own last home in Dublin, before he enlisted in the army in 1916, had held himself, his younger brother, his father, his stepmother, her four daughters, a new baby and two lodgers – all of them living cheek by jowl in four rooms.  What made Mammy and Daddy’s early life together difficult was the loss of their son, who died before his first birthday, and Granny McNulty.  She had brought up her children with little help and less money from Grandpa McNulty, a shoemaker and drunk with a bad case of the wanderlust.  The qualities that had enabled her to do this were the same ones that brought Mammy and Daddy close to parting.

When I was older my sisters would tell me the story of Daddy and the military hospital in Brighton where he had been cared for after he was wounded in France.  Sometimes, when he found life difficult, he would go back to that hospital, which treated the mental as well as the physical effects of war.  More often, he stayed at the home of a Canadian nurse who lived in the town.  She had befriended him when he was first in the hospital and, Mammy believed, fallen in love with him.

It was with this woman that Daddy went to stay following a terrible argument between him and Granny McNulty.  He took my eldest sister – their only child, as she was then – with him.  My sisters always said Mammy felt this visit to Brighton was different to any of the others.  This time, she knew he was leaving her and so it was her suggestion that he take Peggy with him for Mammy thought possession of their child was the one thing that might bring him back to her.

Left alone with her own family, Mammy asked permission to take an afternoon’s absence from the garment factory where she worked as a seamstress.  This was granted after she explained the circumstances for her asking and she spent the hours when she should have been working scouring the neighbourhood for rooms to let.  She may have been looking for rooms, but what she found was a house, our house, the house in which my other two sisters and I were born.

Mammy was stopped her pay for that afternoon and she had to leave a deposit and a week’s rent with her new landlord in order to secure the tenancy of this house.  She also needed money to send to my father for his and my sister’s fare home.  One of the things my father most objected to with Granny McNulty was her requirement that he and my mother hand over their wage packets each Friday.  She then decided what she would allow them and kept the rest.  Daddy worked, when his health allowed him, as a handyman in the same factory as my mother.  He must have earned almost nothing but the boss was tolerant of his absences.  That he then had to give Granny McNulty the pittance he received as a wage rubbed against his pride and made it sore.

I never knew Granny McNulty, but in the few photographs I have seen of her she looks a very frightening person.  Certainly Mammy, who was afraid of very little, was terrified of her and I can only imagine the courage it took for her to say on the next Friday that she had no money to hand over and then explain why this was.  She was put out of the house on the instant and passed the night in an alley a little way along the street. Next morning, she walked into the town centre and began the long journey by bus to Brighton to reclaim her husband.

I don’t know what passed between Mammy and Daddy there, or, indeed, what passed between them and Daisy, the Canadian nurse.  But something was sorted out.  Mammy made the journey back.  She was able to stay with a woman friend during the following week.  One of her brothers, Jimmy, got her clothes to her.  A week later, Daddy and Peg also returned.  The tenancy agreement was signed and the key to the new house collected.  Mammy and Daddy and little Peg moved in without so much as a chair to sit in or a bed to lie upon.

They managed.  Somehow they managed. By the time I was born and had come to an awareness of my surroundings, I thought our home fine.  Well, it was all I knew.

Certainly, Mammy and Daddy cherished the house, poor as it was.  His family called their first home in England ‘The Haven’, which is what it must have seemed after the violence of the Anglo-Irish War and then the Civil War that followed it.  Our house never had a name, but I imagine it figured as largely in my parents’ survival as ‘The Haven’ did in that of Daddy’s family.  So why, after the raised voices in the kitchen between Mammy and young Mr Black, was she trembling and why did her face look darker than the rain clouds that lay across the sky beyond the window?  And why was I fetched out from underneath the table to have my perfectly clean face rubbed rough with a cold flannel and then put into my coat and cap?  Why were Mammy and I going out into the darkness of the day when the washing she had fetched in from the garden just before Mr Black’s arrival was still sitting on the table top where she had dropped it?

I remember the force with which my mother pulled me along the street, as I remember the slaps I had from her when I said that our dog was still shut in the cupboard beneath the stairs and went into a tantrum because she would not go back to let him out.  It was only later, after we had walked further from home than I ever remembered walking before, that she said we were being put out of our house and so we must find somewhere else to live before the end of the week or we would be on the streets.

This was not the first time Mammy had talked about us moving.  She was, in her own way, a restless woman who longed for better things and, I understood when I was older, blamed Daddy for keeping her from them.  She dreamed of new houses and the new life we would have in them.  Her dreams, when she gave voice to them, set me dreaming also.  There had been the country pub she thought she and my father might take the tenancy of.  She had plans for improving the gardens so that families might sit in them on summer evenings.  She would cater to coach parties.  My sisters would work as barmaids.  I would go to a new school and, ever a sickly child, thrive in the country air.

The pub was no dream.  I saw it.  An elderly gent with a car, who lived in a nearby street and was fond of Mammy, took us out to see the place.  The dream collapsed when Daddy said no.  This refusal caused some strife in our house.  I had seen the pub.  I only heard the row and it frightened me as much as I was frightened now, trudging along with her, looking for the signs that I could not read but knew meant a house was to let.

We walked so far that morning, the longest, darkest morning I remember of my childhood.  We found nothing we could afford.  We walked into the town centre, where my mother pulled and jerked my arm as we went along until I thought she should pull it off.

How long were we walking?  It could not have been so very long really because she had to get back home to prepare the midday meal: a couple of hours then?  Perhaps.  But that couple of hours seemed a very long time to me, child that I was, frightened, tired and in the care of a woman near to desperation.

Eventually, we started for home.  It was during this part of our morning’s journey that the small miracle, as it seemed to me then, occurred.  We were making our way along one of the main roads of the town, approaching a part where it was joined by three side roads, two of them coming together on the same side to create an odd little island of paving stones in the middle of which stood a pub.  Ahead of us a railway bridge road traversed the road.  To our right, a large thoroughfare called Needham Street led off from the main road.  Needham Street housed what I thought then were very tall buildings – factories, offices, warehouses – some five storeys high.  One of the office buildings had been faced in glazed brick.  The rain that had fallen through the day continued and we were wet, Mammy and me, soaked, drenched.  We were as well, and each of us in our own way, at the end of the tether.  Then, of a sudden it seemed, the rain ceased and the clouds parted just enough to let through a sliver of sunlight.  Pale it was, but with strength enough to light the sullen streets, make gleam the dark puddles and further shine the already glossy bricks of the office building across the road.  The light touched even Mammy and me.  She had on a raincoat coloured dark gold and as we crossed to the island where the pub stood, it seemed as if her solid figure was turned into an insubstantial blur, a shifting, golden iridescence that let go my hand.

Afraid, I stood still upon the wet paving stones and cried out to the yet proceeding light, “Mammy! Mammy!”

The moment passed. Mammy was herself again, snatching up my hand, yanking on my arm and asking what I thought I was about now.

“You’re hurting me,” I said and she began to weep, a thing I had never seen her do before.

I was a little child, but I knew I must comfort her if only for my own selfish reasons: turned once to light and back again, she was again becoming unfamiliar, dissolving now into the resurgent rain.  “There, there, Mammy,” I said. “It will all be all right.  You see, it will be all right.”

We walked the rest of the way to what would not be our home for very much longer in silence and she did not pull at my arm again that day.

She must have told Daddy what had happened because there was a long time of whispering in the kitchen between them while my sisters and I made do with a cold dinner.

The afternoon hours were dark ones.  The house was quiet save for the ticking of the clock, the shifting of coals in the fire, the dog’s breathing as, released from the cupboard, he dreamed doggy dreams on the hearthrug.  If I made noise in my playing, Mammy, inexplicably idle in her fireside chair, said I must be quieter.  Rain clattered the windowpanes.

Daddy was late home that evening, but when he got in would say only that he had spoken to old Mr Black and the business with the house was settled.  Whatever had passed between the son and Mammy had been a misunderstanding.  The tenancy stood.  We were not leaving.

There was no rejoicing that I remember.  There was only a continuation of the afternoon’s quiet.  The radio stayed silent.  I was put to bed sooner than usual.  The next day would seem like a Sunday.  This day, however, and all that it had contained, was done with and, as I had predicted during the moment of Mammy’s great enlightenment, everything was going to be all right.

 

 

 

 

 

Clive Collins

Born in Leicester, England, Clive Collins has spent the greater part of his life working as a teacher in Ireland, Sierra Leone, and Japan. He is the author of two novels, The Foreign Husband (Marion Boyars) and Sachiko’s Wedding (Marion Boyars/ Penguin Books). Misunderstandings, a collection of short stories, was joint-winner of the Macmillan Silver PEN Award in 1994. More recently his work has appeared in online journals such as Penny, Cecile’s Writers, Silver Birch Press, and terrain.org. He was a short-listed finalist in the 2009 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. A chapbook of his short stories is forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks.

Editor review

2 Comments

  1. Maria Nestorides April 04, at 12:34

    I loved this story. It transported me back in time and I could see the images flit before my eyes like a black and white film. Great job, Clive!

    Reply

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