It may have been in Ronnie Scott’s — Jack Bruce storming his way through a driving ‘Politician’— or it could have been in the Bricklayer’s Arms at a Curved Air gig where only the naked drummer was more drenched than myself but on one of those sweaty nights it had occurred to me to try to get in touch with Sean, my uncle, the navvy. He surely had to offer a London that didn’t just throb so beautifully, and damage my head so much.
The hallway with the pay phone was the coldest place in that cold house in North London where I lived in 1970. It was where the calls home were made, or the odd time, taken. A marmalade cat skulked in the gloom there. I had a number for Sean written on a fag packet from the day a few years earlier we’d spent at the Fairyhouse Races. Yeah, that day. Maybe it would work. It did. After the shrill landlady came the familiar Mayo-London accent, all hesitant and tuneful.
‘Hello. Who’s this?’
‘It’s Ger, Sean.’
‘Ger. Your nephew. Gerry.’
There was a pretty long silence. It was late evening so he would’ve been drinking at some stage. This could go anywhere. Nothing, and then finally after what might have been a sigh or simple exasperation, his voice came again in a lower register.
‘Yes. I know.’ A further long pause. ‘Gerry, yes. Where are you now?’
As soon as I hit ground level at Tooting Bec I sensed something different—more normal and somehow reassuring. I headed up towards the Common and the Rose and Crown. Sean had said the name of the bar in that shy sing-songy mumble. He rarely made complete sentences but I knew how to interpret his meaning from the fragments. As we sat up to the bar it was clear that he didn’t make much of my get-up.
‘Do you need shoes?’ He had boiled it down to that one but I knew he was asking a world of questions in that.
‘I’ve a bit of work in a hotel. Inside work.’ That would explain the shabby desert boots but even as I said it I was already involved in his reaction so I went on. ‘It’s ok for now but I’d like to get something, you know, better.’
‘What, like teaching? A teacher.’ He was looking over at the fruit machine as he savoured the word.
‘Your mammy said you…qualified.’ He liked the taste of that one too. Had his whole menu of words to chew on. I had to accept he might be pressing a number of different buttons. He might be trying to suggest something useful or he could well be putting me down. Sean was intelligent. I watched him look at the two pints settling on the counter. He reached for one with his shovel hand and took a big slug. I watched his dreamy blood-shot stare, looking out, away. Slow and easy with everything, worming his way back along the memory lines.
‘I did yeah a few years ago. You were talking to her since? My father?’ I knew the answer of course. He turned fairly sharply to look straight at me, right into my eyes, and lowered his glass – half-empty by now. He suspended the glass half way down to the counter and held the look. The glooky eyes could have been on a fish tray in Spitalfields. When he had finished saying whatever he was saying, without ever opening his mouth – which now was a sort of scowl – he finally put the glass down, his eyes, burning and pained, following it all the way. After a while he spoke quietly, not looking at me.
‘How is your mammy?’
It was amazing how fast the alcohol grabbed his levers. Took him not necessarily to drunkenness but to some other ethereal place where he operated best. More comfortably. The grimace and lip-licking after the swallow. The shrinking away of the body, like everything physical needed to be hidden. Leaving only the thinking – held together behind those urgent eyes – and the distortions of the mouth. He wore a stained light brown gaberdine coat and a grimy shirt collar fell away from the weathered grizzle that was his neck. His handsome leather shoes were planted on the brass footrail in an easy restful manner—workboots, like the blistering tools, were set aside after the day. He minded his feet like they were the only part of him that mattered. The greying hair was trim and was matched by the bristles on the heightening colour of his creviced face. How in the name of Jesus did I find any comfort in this? But I did. I did, because it meant something.
‘Mam’s fine. I spoke to her last week.’ I waited. ‘Dad hasn’t been well. You know about the MS.’
‘Are there any doctors in that country? Do they know their trade at all? Here you get the NHS.’ He sucked on those letters. ‘The National Health Service. Nye Bevan. You ever hear of Nye Bevan? Of course you did. You’re the clever one. Oh yes ! The National Health Service. The Road to Wigan Pier.’
Was that last bit meant as a gibe, an irony – my father now the comfortable middle class man? Or was he saying something about his own disillusionment. He hadn’t spoken to my father in twenty years, not since I was a small child. He used come and stay with us then, on his way back to see his mother in the west. Ballykelly, near Knock. Their father, an old RIC constable, had lived peacefully until he died in the forties. My grandmother (and her hat-pin) was gone less than ten years now but Sean still made that long trip by boat and train every year to see his sister who lived on, alone, in the small, terraced family house. In that damp grey place where small birds sang plaintive songs within earshot of the cold hammering and chiselling from a stonecutter’s yard. He continued.
‘MS. Your mammy is a good woman. Her people are from Wales. Railway people. Working people. Cardiff Arms Park. Big yellow daffodils.’
He phoned my mother every so often but would hang up if my father answered. They had no number for him and he made me swear not to have them contact him when he wrote the number for me on the fag-packet that day. I had been living at home studying for my final exams when he had called one evening and out of the blue asked to speak with me. We met and went to the races, drank ‘porter’—he liked words that sought to find me out— and helped to push cars from a mirey field of a car park. Then we did a crawl around his favourite Dublin pubs and ended up at Harkin’s, my pub, but Sean was barred as soon as he burst in the door all a-song, the county Meath mud caked on his new Oxfords and splashed over his swinging gaberdine. Stopped in his tracks so, he looked in despair at the crowd of long-haired students and turned on his heels and left. That was the last I saw of him until that night in Tooting.
That first night with him in London descended into a dim slur of alcohol. I woke up on a hard linoleum floor in a room with a rumpled bed and the smell of fried meat. I was in his digs and he was gone to a site. His shoes were placed neatly under a chair. There was a cooker in the corner. Dry pots sat with some cold floury potatoes and a half a turnip. A sooty pan displayed a burnt rasher and a limp pink sausage. On a table there were two greasy plates, a dozen or so empty stout bottles and a note with the word “Sunday” and the name of another pub on the Common.
‘How do yeh know Knocky?’ The man with the dark grained features spoke over the din without looking at me as he leaned in and left down an empty pint glass on the counter. I had felt his taut body find the gap and force me to face him. He struck me as animal-like – the raven sheen of hair on the tanned muscular arms jutting from the rolled up sleeves of the white shirt. They all wore white shirts at this end of the bar. Bri-Nylon dazzling in the early afternoon light. Knocky Gilvarry and his mates. Cleaned up for Easter Sunday.
‘I’m related to him. Knocky? This place is mad.’
‘Mad? There’s nothing mad in here. Are you some sort of a student or what?’ He was staring at me now, at my long brown hair and pink cheesecloth shirt. His black eyes stormy.
‘Tipp. Take it handy with the lad now. This is Gerry, my nephew.’ Sean had nudged in. ‘Tipp here is from –
‘Donohill. Plasterers. Dan Breen country. You’ve never heard of it I’d say.’
‘I’ve heard of Dan Breen. He was a gunman?’
‘Careful what you say about gunmen here.’
A clatter of thoughts hit me. I looked around at the milling whiteness. There was one lean looking character a little apart. He had a lily-emblem pinned to his shirt.
‘Don’t mind that Gerry. We’re just working men here. Honest labour.’ Sean had watched me take it all in.
‘Labour my hole.’ Tipp man was in like a shot at Sean.
‘They’re better than the other lot. Heath. A choirboy.’ Sean towered over the din.
‘Haven’t done much for the North.’ The lily-man joined in—with a thin North of Ireland accent.
And so it went on. The darkness and the garbling and the jibing as this bunch of McAlpine’s men went about their holy remembrances with an alcoholic fervour. The frothy, harrowed, celebrants vested in cut-off albs. I had noticed that the far end of the bar, beyond the whirring, tinkling, bananas, oranges and lemons, was taken over completely by dark-skinned men. West-Indians.
‘Nice blokes. But you wouldn’t want to get in a scrap with them. Fight dirty. Blades.’ Sean was in good form and home hadn’t been mentioned. He was reciting the names of the Irish rugby team in my ear. He added my name. For some reason he did that.
‘W.J. McBride…K.G. Goodall…R.A. Lamont…C.M.H Gibson…A.J.F O’Reilly…G.M.F Gilvarry. Twickenham. Yes.’
His own thing. That and his socialist heroes. The line on which he held his beliefs. I kind of got the irony in it all. The others had descended into litanies of Gaelic players, parishes, matches, scores. Now and again particular names or phrases could be heard among all the shouting.
‘Boy Mick O’Connell boy. Valentia Island. Joe Fucking Corcoran Sean. G’wan ya boy ya. Some boy’.
There was something close to a scream from a very drunk little man with a strong Dublin accent, who obviously lacked self-awareness. ‘Charlie George. Gunners for the double.’ It disrupted the general hullabaloo; turned it into an embarrassed silence that lasted a good few seconds before the rumble of noise got back on its feet, a little uncertainly. Every one of those men managed to corner me on my own at some point and hit me with questions about home. They would drop their guard as I gave them answers I thought they might like and then, for a moment or so, they would have a forlorn look that you might see on a beast lost on a country roadside.
The “Caribbean” quarter was all pearly broad smiles and laughter. One of their number came over. He moved in a kind of happy shuffle.
‘How are the Irish boys today? You men are so-oo sad. Give up a happy face. Ey mon?’ He picked me out and held up a slap-hand. Tipp went to move in but Sean gripped his shoulder and held him back.
‘No hassle man.’ I slapped his hand high. It was the first time I had used any of that jive language in Sean’s company and I saw that his eyes clouded over and he seemed to sink a bit.
Later the place quietened down. The light outside the massive Victorian glazing had faded as a pink evening sky came on, the two of us side by side at the bar. The conversation inevitably turned to home. Sean wasn’t drunk as such – he had massive capacity – but he wasn’t sober either. I had slowed down a bit and was hanging in. Sean turned to me, away from the two empty glasses on the counter. He’d gathered himself.
‘You know I don’t go with all that jazz.’
‘What jazz do you mean?’ I really hadn’t a clue.
‘You know…your…father.’ He was neither soft or hard on the word but I could see he was having difficulty with it. Jazz and my father? I didn’t think so. Couldn’t put that together.
‘I mean he’s done okay I suppose. For himself. Your mother. You. I just…really can’t forget….Look I…what I’m saying is his life, the way he lives.’
‘What about the way he lives? You mean he’s not like you. He didn’t choose to live in the ditch?’
‘Hold your horses there. He left his own class. Turned his back. All that dinner-dance stuff and fancy carpets. And golf. We were never like that. At home.’ He held his hand up to the barman, flustered.
‘What? You’re not going to tell me by any chance that you were working-class people? That’s a laugh. Your mother was from the big shop.’
I could see pain through all the bluster and it was trying me. I had wondered was there jealousy – sure there had to be – but I also remembered the family lore. Sean: the eldest, the brightest, working after school to bring in a few more shillings to help look after the younger ones; falling in with an older, dandy, crowd – the doggies and the beer; paralysing him so couldn’t move beyond it all. Finally he packed up and left for the big world. There were rumours he had been in the RAF, in Rhodesia, but he never said it to anyone in the family. What we did know is that he had put in a bit of time in Lancashire, or somewhere north, as a union organiser and he wasn’t shy about telling anyone that. I liked that about him. His sense of what was right. Beneath it all there was, had been, a really smart man. The man with me now though was a bit of a beaten docket. And bitter. Yeah there was that bitterness in everything he said. Those rugby mantras were just ironic incantations. Meant to gibe and to hurt, but they were weak and meaningless. Self harm. Sad stuff really. He didn’t reply, just sank his lips around another drink. Now he was getting drunk. I had a short window.
‘I don’t mean to upset you. I know what you are Sean. Call it working class if you like, although maybe there was a touch more of peasant in it then really? But now. You. Sean. You are nothing if not working class yourself. Now. Right here. But what does that do for anyone? There are no heroes. Fuck John Lennon.’
‘Yes…fuck him for sure…fuck the lot of them.’ He was hitting the maudlin buttons too.
‘But don’t take it out on your brother. No matter what his…his jazz? He’s sick Sean. Maybe you should go and see him.’
He began the hiccuping routine.
‘Gerry, you are a smart boy. Take me home alright. Home to Leicester Square…home to Wi – g – an…home to…to Bal…Bal…aw fuck home…fuck Duh…Dub – lin. Is your mammy well? Take me home. You will.’
‘I will. I will. I’ll take you home.’
I didn’t take him home that night. I just went back to the soaring axes at The Roundhouse. And Zeppelin. If you’re going to get your head wrecked….I didn’t see him in London again. I went back to Dublin before that year was out and got a job teaching. He never did visit my father but he phoned my mother now and again, but never after she let rip at him when he called her, drunk, one evening after my father died. She only ever hinted at what he had said.
I called him a few times after that but he was either not in or he wouldn’t take the call. The best part of twenty years passed before I knew much about Sean again. My mother was gone. So was Sean’s sister in Ballykelly; he had made a few furtive trips to her over the years but she wasn’t wont to tell me much. I often thought of him as I made my own mind up about the world. County Clare’s Moira O’Brien and I had got married and settled into a very modest lifestyle in what was fast becoming the Irish fat-cat republic. I was on the executive of my teachers union and worked hard. One evening the phone rang in our house in Fairview. Coins dropped at the calling end. It was an oldish voice asking if Gerry Gilvarry lived there. The London–Irish strains were unmistakeable.
‘Yes that’s me. Sean?’ I said it with a little excitement. ‘Is that you Sean?’
The voice at the other end waited, allowing me to settle.
‘No. This isn’t Sean. I’m sorry to have to tell you but Knocky…eh Sean has died.’
Another bit of a pause, allowing me to take it in.
‘I met you once over this side, with Sean. Tipperary. Dan Breen?’
I hadn’t forgotten that Easter Sunday.
‘Sure. Of course. Thank you for calling. Sad news. How did you find me?’
Turned out they had remained good buddies and that Sean often spoke of me so he traced me through directory enquiries.
‘Knocky always said you promised to take him home.’
‘I did? I mean I did.’ I could hear Sean’s stuttering drunken repetition of that request echoing through all the years. Told many times to this Tipperary man and who knows how many others. Sean’s holding on. His grip.
‘So what’s the plan. He’s in the morgue over at Wandsworth. You know they don’t rush things here. Not like at home.’
“At home”? That man must be away for over fifty years. “At home”! Clearly I had a funeral to organise. It made me feel a bit happy.
It was a Good Friday and the jet roared up a mighty rumpus as it appeared beneath the low black ceiling of the sky. It gripped the runway on the boggy plateau and came towards us in a wail of engine vanes. Knock airport and the heavens had opened. It was bucketing down. The crew and a few passengers scuttled in as we waited under three black brollys. Moira, the kids, myself and the undertaker’s man. A forklift appeared and went to a cargo door whose hydraulics had begun moving. Suddenly there it was, high on the forks: Sean’s box. The forklift operator was in “where do ye want it?” mode as he lined it up and I helped manhandle it into the dryness of the hearse. Moira placed a daffodil over the brass plate. I checked that the people on the “other side” had used the words I had sent. They had. Now all we needed was to get down to the village and the church.
There was a small attendance at the funeral mass: the rotund, fumbling priest, a woman in a headscarf sitting beside a much older woman also in a headscarf and a few old men. The older woman cried. I remembered the Litany of the Saints. The village was grey with a colouring of sodden primroses and daffodils. We got to the graveyard and the rain had stopped. The sky lightened to a dirty yellow. The two men who had opened the grave leaned on their shovels, their grubby shirts open at the cuffs and sacks over the shoulders of their filthy coats. There was a strange vacancy beneath their brows. One was short and stumpy, the other wasted-looking and lanky. They both tipped their caps to sympathise. We got the box down and the priest recited a fast decade of the rosary. We left to the slurping of the shovels and the spatter of pebbles on wood as the succulent Mayo earth was poured back around Sean. There were pink streamers deepening in the sky to the west and that made me happier.
‘Can we open an egg? Just one, pleee-ase?’, our six year old boy asked as we reached Athlone.
‘Ssssh Sean. Dad tell us the story again about the Sean who was in the coffin and how he and grandad didn’t say much to each other.’ Katie, the older one, had been worrying about that. I could see the smile spreading on Moira’s face.
‘Well you see uncle Sean didn’t like grandad’s jazz that much and….’