O’Keefe steps off the tram in Rathmines. He thinks of a pint of stout, saliva flooding his mouth, and he wishes himself back in the cool, soothing gloom of Slattery’s. The creak of the barstool as he sits, the hanging swirls of tobacco smoke in the odd shaft of evening sunlight admitted through a propped door. It takes him a long moment but he crosses the road and buys a quart bottle of barley water and a loaf of batch bread from Tumulty’s Grocers and Hardware before making
his way up the Leinster Road to the basement flat he rents from Mrs Cunningham.
Arriving at the two-storey redbrick house, he descends the steps to his basement room, checking first under the stairs that his Triumph Trusty is still safely tucked up under its oilskin cover.
He finds that everything is as he had left it the week before: his towel hanging to dry on a wire rack before an empty fire grate, his wash-basin empty and dry, his few shirts, his trenchcoat and a single pair of heavy corduroy trousers hanging in the wardrobe. It occurs to him that he owns very few clothes for a man of his age, having spent most of his adult life in uniform. He had intended to buy a jumper some months ago, some casual wool trousers and stylish brown brogues that men were wearing now instead of boots, but had never bothered. It is as if the very act would symbolise the end of his life as a policeman, and he is not yet ready for that. Nearly six months a civilian and still not ready to believe it. He shakes his head, opening his dresser drawer, placing his wallet and keys within; his underwear and socks are neatly folded where Mrs Cunningham had placed them more than a week before. It reminds him that he must go upstairs to her and pay the rent he owes and for the laundry she has done.
Never once has he been so much as a day late with his rent, despite the aimless chaos of the past months, and here he is, he thinks, more than a week late. You’re a disgrace, he thinks, feeling the word. In this country, sure, better to be called a murderer than a disgrace.
He sits down on the bed, however, exhaustion overcoming him. He will go up to Mrs Cunningham in a moment, he tells himself, shrugging off his suit jacket, tie and collar, hanging them on the chair, tossing his hat onto the desk beside the bed. His stomach rumbles, and he recalls the few tins of beef stew and beans he has stored in a press above the single-ring gas burner. He has to eat, he knows, and he tears off a hunk of the bread he’s bought, washing it down with gulps of barley water. Send one of the Cunningham boys back to the shops for a quarter pound of butter, heat the beef stew. In a minute he will do this, but first lie down. For a minute only ….
Sleep gathers him in and opens its store of nightmares. The beach in Turkey and turquoise water running red. A man now, in a suit and flat cap, yards ahead of him, starting to run, as if in terror from O’Keefe, the hunter. Now the salon room in Ginny Dolan’s kip, the contorted face of a woman, a wad of pound notes .…
Loud banging on the rear door of the flat that leads to the back garden. O’Keefe sits bolt upright and checks his watch, his heart pounding, the morass of his dreams leeching into his waking, fear driving him. He searches frantically for a gun he no longer carries before he gets his bearings, recognising his room, his hat on the desk. Heart slowing, he checks his watch. Seven twenty. In the evening? Morning? He thinks it is evening. He feels as if he has slept for only a short time, and the panic he feels begins to drain away. He stands and goes to the door. Nothing to fear now as he recognises the voices at the door.
‘He is there. Ella saw him go in.’
‘And how do you know?’
‘’Cause she said so is how, thick-as-a-plank.’
A sharp slap resounds, and O’Keefe pulls open the door to find the youngest Cunningham boy, Henry, returning the slap to his older brother Thomas.
‘Lads,’ he says.
The two boys leap back from the doorstep, startled. The younger regains his composure quickest and greets O’Keefe. ‘You’re back!’ He turns to his brother. ‘See, I told you he was bleedin’ back.’
‘It was Ella told me he was back, yeh sap!’
‘What’s the story, lads?’ O’Keefe says, blinking away the last of his sleep.
The boys look up at him. ‘Hiya, Mr O’Keefe. We done a show. You want to see our show, do yeh?’
‘A show.’ O’Keefe pats his pockets. He is an experienced audience to the Cunningham children’s shows. He finds a few coppers in his trousers and thinks he will need to carry more—like his new associate Just Albert—if he is to continue living in the Cunningham house.
‘It’s a lovely show. Ella’s in it and I’m in it and it’s got songs.’
‘And I’m in it!’
‘Of course you are. Look,’ O’Keefe says, taking three pennies from his pocket and handing them to the older of the boys. ‘That’s one each, right? I’m busy now but there’s a penny each for you two and your sister. Well done on the show. I’d say it’s only smashing.’
The boys appear crestfallen. ‘But you haven’t even seen it.’
‘How do you know it’s smashing if you haven’t seen it?’
‘Or heard the lovely songs?’
‘Yeah, or heard them an’ all?’
O’Keefe cannot help himself and smiles. A show, so.
A window slides open from above in the house. ‘Boys, leave Mr O’Keefe alone and don’t be bothering the man, for the love of God.’
The boys look up to see their mother, leaning from the kitchen window. Thomas acts as spokesman. ‘But he already paid us money to see our show.’
Mrs Cunningham shows her own smile now. She is a handsome woman in her late thirties. She has dark hair worn in a bun and large, soft brown eyes and pale skin. Her sad smile is cut with good humour and O’Keefe wonders has it always been so, or is it the recent death of her husband that has sewn her every small joy with a thread of grief.
‘Mr O’Keefe, you’ll have those two ruined and you’ll get no peace from them. Like feeding stray cats, giving the pair of them pennies every time they pester you.’
O’Keefe steps out of the flat into the garden and looks up at his landlady in the window. Hens peck at the gaps between flagstones. ‘Sure, it’s not every day, Mrs Cunningham, do you get to see a show for a penny in this town.’
The woman laughs. ‘I wouldn’t know, Mr O’Keefe. It’s been so long since I’ve been to one.’
Too young to be a widow, O’Keefe thinks. But there are more young widows in Ireland now than at any other time since the Famine perhaps. Women like Mrs Cunningham, who’d lost her husband—an officer of the Leinster Rifles who had left his arm at the Somme—only two years before, in the last blast of the Spanish Flu to ravage the country. It is not an uncommon story—men surviving years of the worst fighting the world had ever seen, only to be snatched from life by the Spanish Lady on their return home. A disease that took the young and fit, those strong or lucky enough to survive the worst horrors of war, were some of the first to die. This is but another proof to O’Keefe, if any further proof were needed, that there can be no God in the heavens who would play such a terrible joke on the world of men.
Having lost her husband’s handsome income—he had been a solicitor, before enlisting in Lansdowne Road with his rugby team-mates in a Pals Battalion—Mrs Cunningham has been forced to rent out the ground floor of the house that she and her husband had bought before the war. To supplement this meagre income the woman keeps hens and sells the eggs to local shops and neighbours, takes in ironing and laundry and makes dresses to order with her mother-in-law and ten-year-old daughter as helpmates.
‘You’ve not missed much, from what I read in the papers,’ O’Keefe says.
‘I’ve enough drama in my life with those two, Mr O’Keefe, sure.’
He laughs. ‘These two lads? I don’t believe it for a minute.’
‘You’ve been warned, sir. I’ll leave you to it. Boys, leave the poor man alone now.’
‘They’re grand, Mrs Cunningham. And I’ll be up shortly with last week’s rent. I feel rotten being so late. I was laid up … ill.’
‘Sure, take your time, Mr O’Keefe. I’ve always known you were good for it. You’re well now, I hope?’
Unconsciously, he touches the back of his head. ‘Never better,’ he says.
The rear kitchen door, next to the window out of which her mother is leaning, opens, and the oldest of the Cunningham children, a daughter, skips down the steps into the garden.
‘Are you watching our show, Mr O’Keefe?’ she asks.
‘I am, of course, Ella. I wouldn’t miss it.’
Smiling, the widow says, ‘A short show, you lot. And then in and leave Mr O’Keefe in peace.’
The show has a pirate theme, O’Keefe suspects, though is not entirely certain. The two boys have swords made with slats from a packing crate—at one stage O’Keefe is forced to stop proceedings to remove a nail protruding from one of the swords—and Ella Cunningham sings Green Grows the Rushes, O in a high, sweet voice. When the song finishes, the boys return to scrapping, eventually abandoning their swords, ending up in the dirt, fighting for real until O’Keefe pulls them apart. Her role in the drama complete, Ella makes to go inside. The boys again begin fighting.
‘That was a grand show, Ella,’ O’Keefe says. ‘Did you get your share of the ticket sales from your brother?’
For a moment, the girl appears confused before realisation dawns and she goes to the boys and wrenches them apart. ‘Which of you has my penny?’
The youngest lad, Henry, points to his brother. ‘Thomas does!’
The girl clips the older boy around the ear and jams her hand into his pocket, coming out with her spoils. ‘You were going to filch it, you filthy caffler!’ Another clip, the boy crying out this time. She turns now and smiles at O’Keefe.
‘Thank you for the penny, Mr O’Keefe. I sincerely hope you enjoyed the show. We’ll be doing another one tomorrow for you and Mammy. Perhaps you can watch it together?’
O’Keefe smiles at the girl. Ten years old and no flies on her. ‘Well …’
‘Lovely, we’ll let you know what time in the morning. Ta ra!’
O’Keefe laughs and turns to go inside, the poison of his nightmares sluiced away by the manic, belligerent joy of these children. His father’s illness. The job for Ginny Dolan. All gone for the moment. It has been months, he realises, since he has smiled as much as he has in the past half-hour. Sincerely. He is blessed, he thinks, in ways he’d not expected, to have a flat in the Cunningham house.