The Sheriff Street tenements where Jeremiah Byrne lives are two streets away from the Liffey quays. The buildings show grime-blackened brickwork and are hunched closely together, soaking up the daylight, forcing the autumn sun to fade its way up alleys, over chipped steps and onto the soft, grassless soil of fetid common yards. Jeremiah feels the chill of shadow as he shortcuts the warren of lanes leading to his home.
Like all Sheriff Street residents, Jeremiah knows every rat-run, every hidey-hole in the area. Residents pass through the open doors of neighbouring buildings and beat paths across what were once leafy gardens to access particular streets or dwellings. There is very little that is private in the tenements and, in this, Sheriff Street is no different from the rest of tenement Dublin. Outdoor toilets are shared, as are water pumps. Laundry lines are strung across lanes from building to building. Food, when it is scarce in one family and plentiful in another, is shared. Families of up to fifteen living in one room. Glass in less than half of all windows.
Jeremiah comes to the building that houses his family’s flat, and climbs the cracked and hollow-worn front steps, entering through the doorway that has been without a door since before he was born. On the coldest, wettest days of winter, sheets of scrap wood from dock pallets are sometimes nailed together and propped in the empty doorframe against the wind and sleet, and this is guarded by residents so that it will not be taken by neighbouring tenants for firewood. The fanlight at the top of the doorway is free from any pane of glass, and serves only to funnel winter winds into the building more efficiently. Years before, some resident had vainly stuffed rags in several of the empty gaps where now they sag like oily clots, blackened by time and smoke and cooking grease.
Sixty odd people share the Georgian house that had once been home to a single, wealthy family and several servants. Jeremiah’s flat was once a bedroom in this house. It is shared by his mother and her sister, his own four sisters and six male and female cousins and, occasionally, by his uncle. Of the children, Jeremiah is the oldest and the man of the family during times when his uncle, a carter, thief and opportunistic extortionist, is serving one of his numerous, if too short, prison sentences. Jeremiah knows that his uncle is free at the moment—has been for the past two weeks, though he has seen him only once briefly in that time—and says a small prayer. It is something he does rarely, and even then does it with the utter conviction that it is a useless practice, but he does it now; prays that his Uncle John Keegan has been lagged for something, anything and is not home and won’t be for a long time. He mimes a sloppy sign of the cross as he mounts the patchwork wooden stairs to his flat.
He fears his Uncle John. There are few in the tenements who don’t. But he fears more for his sisters when the man is around, and this is what has brought him home, if for only a few hours. It never occurs to him that it might not be safe to return home for any other reason.
‘Jerry! Ma, Jerry’s home!’ One of his sisters greets him as he reaches the first floor landing outside the flat.
The girl is six years old, as blonde as her brother and she hugs him tightly. Jeremiah hugs her back, something warm and liquid flooding his insides; the first touch of another human being since he’d stuck the knife in the fella in the laneway.
‘Sarah, pet. How’s me dote?’ he says, wondering briefly, as he has done in the past, if it was her hair, being so much like his own, that makes her his favourite. They are the only two of his mother’s five children who have blond hair, and Jeremiah also wonders if they share the same father. It is a question that can never be answered, and so is never asked, though many times, on the docks or on the streets of the city, Jeremiah will see a man with hair like his own and wonder, Is that me da? Mine and Sarah’s da?
‘I’m grand, Jerry,’ the girl says, pulling away from him and taking his hand. ‘We got a flitch of bacon! Ma got it. I don’t know how she got it, but she got it and she told me fuck off and don’t be asking questions but we got it. Bacon, Jerry.’
Jeremiah knows how she’d got the bacon, and the butcher knows too, he thinks, and so will the butcher’s missus when she gets the itch. He musses Sarah’s hair and then smooths it back into place, his fingers lingering for a moment on the faded, frayed ribbon in her hair.
The poor thing could have a new ribbon, for jaysus sake, he tells himself. Next time I’m out I’ll reef it out of the hair of the first girl I see. A young girl could have a new fuckin’ ribbon at least.
He pulls his sister back by the hand before entering the flat. ‘Is Uncle John Keegan in, Sarah? Tell us quick ’fore I go in.’
Sarah shakes her head, the joy of the coming meal and her brother’s return washing from her features at the mention of her uncle’s name. ‘No, he’s out, Jerry, but he’ll be back, he will. He’s carting on the quays. He’s not in jail no more, Jerry.’ She looks up at her brother, her grip tightening on his hand, fear and worry in her eyes. A lump rises in Jeremiah’s throat at the thought of the man. The thought of him harming a hair on her head, the bastard. Her or any one of his sisters, nieces or nephews. The way he had harmed him. The beatings were only the half of it.
The bastard. His mother and aunty—Jeremiah couldn’t give a ha’ penny ride for either of them. But the little ones. He wishes now that he hadn’t left his fish-knife stuck between the ribs of that fella in the lane the night before; thinking how he might have used it on his uncle, given half the chance.
He lets Sarah lead him through the tacked-up sheet that serves as a door into the one-room flat where his mother is sitting on the dwelling’s single chair at a table fashioned from a packing crate. She is drinking tea—Jeremiah thinks it is tea—from a cup with no handle. She wears her hair tied back, a thick swatch of grey at her crown from where her hair has grown since she last had it dyed the shade of brown she favours when she has the money. In front of her on the packing crate table, blood seeping through its wrapping of day-old newspaper, is the lump of bacon.
His mother turns as he enters, watches him as his youngest sister and two of his nephews now hug him and hang from his legs and arms, asking what he has brought for them. He smiles and tells them he has nothing for them.
Without speaking, his mother returns to staring out the open window at drying clothes dangling in the soft autumn air on a line that bridges the building across from their own.
‘Ma,’ he says, ‘I’m back and all, I am.’
His aunt emerges from behind a stained sheet hanging from a rope that divides the flat’s sleeping and common space so that his mother and aunty might have a modicum of privacy when they have brought punters home. They usually work in the alleys and lanes, but sometimes they bring their work to the flat if the chap has paid for a warm roll instead of one up against a wall. His aunt delivers the greeting her sister has refused to give.
‘And do you be wanting a medal, so? For your troubles?’
‘Aunty Pauline,’ Jeremiah says, lifting one of his sisters, Delilah, aged four, from where she is clinging to his leg. He nuzzles her hair with his face and, as he withdraws, spots a louse—one of many hundreds—clinging to an unwashed strand of the girl’s hair. He takes it between his fingernails, drags it down the length of the strand and crushes it. He scratches the girl’s head for her, serving only to awaken the remaining lice, causing the girl to begin scratching herself. He sighs—Home—scratches and feels the stirring of the lice in his own hair, under his arms, in his pubic hair.
‘Gone how many days and come back with nothing but his goldilocks and no pot to piss in even,’ his aunt says, not looking at him as she speaks, bending to feel the tea kettle hanging in the fireplace, feeling it cold. Then, to his mother: ‘And you, it’s my day for the chair, Madam Jump-up. You had it only bleedin’ yesterday.’
‘Fuck off away with you,’ his mother says, not taking her eyes from the window. His mother is the younger of the sisters, but pays the bulk of the rent on the room, and is thus its mistress when Uncle John Keegan is away. When he is present, Aunt Pauline and her husband rule the roost.
‘And you,’ his mother says, finally turning to Jeremiah. ‘You out gallivanting and see fit to come back skint as you left us. You think the world and her mother’s here to put food in your gob? You may hump off with that hoor of an aunty of yours if you think so much as one hot drop of fat from this bacon will wet your lips.’
‘You can keep your bacon. You didn’t spend the money I brought in last week on bacon, I know bleedin’ well, but.’
His mother looks at him now as if noticing him for the first time, some fear in her eyes that fades as quickly as it has come, thinking herself mistaken in fearing this boy she has reared. Not a man yet, still a youngfella, her Jerry. ‘You’ll not be minding what I spend on what, sonny buck. I’ll skelp your arse soon as I did when you were a nipper, don’t you think I fuckin’ won’t.’
‘You’d want to rise up the lazy bones of your worn out arse first.’
His aunt raises her voice. ‘The two of ye shut it. The racket of yis’d peel the paper from the walls, what’s left of it. And it’s my turn in the chair, Janey. You may get up off it, like the boy says.’
Jeremiah sighs and swallows and sets down his youngest sister, telling her to run out to Sarah. He wonders if his mother will leave the bacon alone long enough for him to snatch it before she can go out into the lane and swap it for drink. He doubts it.
‘When are you boiling the bacon, Ma?’
‘Never you mind when. When I’ve the notion to is when.’
He softens his tone. ‘I’m only sayin’ you should cook it before Uncle John comes in if yis want any for yiselves and the kids.’ At times, Jeremiah has seen his uncle come in, a gallon of porter on board, and eat the family’s entire meal of the day himself, the women and the children left to go hungry.
His aunt crosses the room in three strides and juts her chin out at Jeremiah. ‘You’ll not be talking of me husband like that, not in front of Pauline Byrne, you won’t, you scut.’ She raises an open hand as if to strike him and he laughs, a snigger that sounds to his own ears much the same as the laugh his Uncle John Keegan laughs when one of the women makes an idle threat against him; the laugh sounding like the one his uncle laughs just before he throws one or the other against the crumbling walls.
‘Get up out of that,’ he says to his aunt. ‘It’s only true and you know it.’
‘You’ll not talk like that about him,’ she says again, and makes to strike him. As she does, she sees something in his eyes that is different to the last time she lashed out at him. Her hands stops halfway to his face.
Jeremiah’s voice is low and calm when he speaks.
‘I’ll beat you worse than he does if you don’t pack away that hand, Aunty Pauline. I will, by fuck.’
His aunt lowers her hand and steps away from him, muttering about her John and how he would see to youngfellas thinking they were lord muck of the manor and bullying poor Pauline Byrne about the place. The young cock-o-the-walk would see, so he would, what her man could do to a lad, when he got home.
Jeremiah ignores her, knowing she will be long drunk and the incident forgotten before his uncle returns.
His mother speaks up, still seated in the one chair, as if the confrontation between her son and sister has never happened. ‘I’ll cook it when I’m good and ready and no sooner. And no man will take it—no John Keegan and no Jeremiah Byrne who brings nothing to this house but empty fists and queer smiles.’ She smiles at the insinuation and Jeremiah’s face burns.
‘Get the pox, y’auld bitch,’ he says, turning to leave, shame flushing his cheeks, hatred roosting in his belly atop the hunger. Hatred for his mother. For his aunt. For his uncle. For the fact that he has no food or money to feed himself or the young ones and hatred for what his mother knows about him. Hatred for himself, the Molly, the queer. And this hatred bats its black wings and raids the place in his heart he keeps free for the love of his sisters.
Fuck all of them, every last one. He turns and leaves the flat, passing Sarah on the stairs, ignoring the hand she holds out to him and emerges onto the laneway, tears welling in his eyes. He needs to eat and he will swing it somehow on his own. He has done what he came to do. His sisters are alive, if not well. They will probably eat this evening. No, they will eat, because he decides now to ensure that they do, bacon or no bacon. He can do as much for them. Precious Sarah and his sisters. There are ways to scare up some coin. Ways. His face burns hot with the shame of it.