Jeremiah Byrne makes his way to the fruit and veg market behind the old distillery as darkness falls over Dublin. The last of the day’s lorries and horse carts bearing the produce of Ireland to its capital are being unloaded by men who will work through the night. Gangs of children and a few old women wrapped in shawls against the evening chill scour the cobbled streets and footpaths around the market for vegetables that have fallen from the wagons.
A small onion, a fine, fat parsnip in his pocket, and still Jeremiah takes three carrots coated with the rich earth of County Meath from a smaller boy who cries for an older brother. The brother comes, eyes up Jeremiah then takes the smaller boy’s hand and turns away. Even without a knife, Jeremiah Byrne has such an effect on other boys.
Around to the Smithfield side of the market and Jeremiah slips through a gap in the steel fencing that surrounds it and dodges behind a Bedford lorry to avoid a passing stockman. When the man passes, he reaches his hand between the slats of the Bedford’s wagon bed and palms six large, pink Rooster potatoes into his shirt. He slips back out through the fence and turns for home, taking what he has gathered for his sisters and nephews so that he can be sure they have eaten. This way, foraging, stealing, he will not have to do the other thing. Not tonight.
From Hambone Lane—narrow, dark even during the day, a damp artery between tenements—onto Lower Sheriff Street, Jeremiah comes upon a group of lads his own age. The Sheriffer Boys, in short trousers, patched jackets, flat or bulbous caps and two pairs of shoes between them. Boys he has roamed with since he was old enough to walk; old enough to run. Himself and Tommo and the lads, robbing, scavenging the docks, dipping pockets and fighting fellas from other streets. They had been as close as brothers when they were younger, but in the past year things have changed.
They are all poor, their families forced to struggle and stroke for food, for work, for heat and light and luck. But Jeremiah knows, and the lads know as well, that the Byrne family is different from the others. Other mothers did not work the docks for drink money. Other families did not have an Uncle John Keegan and thank holy God for that. Poor they might be, but every one of the families had given money, food, blankets and beds to the poor Byrne women and their children until they had had it up to the back teeth with doing it. Up to the eye teeth with the Byrne sisters and Uncle John Keegan and their carry-on and God bless the children.
And with this, distance has grown between Jeremiah and the Sheriffer Boys. He has grown harder, tougher, in street fights unafraid to use a blade and his savagery putting the fear of God up the others. For these lads, scrapping in the lanes is a lark. A bit of broken timber over a fella’s loaf, no bother. Hassling schoolboys for a few coppers, giving the odd one who baulks a bit of a hiding. But knives are a different story. No lad wants to kill a fella for living in a different lane. No few ha’pennies worth a hangman’s rope or a stretch in industrial school. Nobody wanted to stick a youngfella. Nobody but Jeremiah.
Finally, they have stopped calling for him—as afraid of Jeremiah as they are of his uncle. They have stopped telling him where they are heading and with what gang they fix to scrap. Their mothers are still kind, on the whole, to his sisters, but they too have grown wary of Jeremiah. Old for his age—wiser and not in a right way at all—none of them wants a son banged up or dead on the cobbles on account of Jeremiah’s madness. The blondie mad head on him. If handsome were manners, he’d be a gentleman. Not that any of it is the poor youngfella’s fault at all, they say to each other sometimes as they hang out washing or gather on tenement steps fingering cloth in the wake of the Indian ribbon and fabric monger. What young lad would be right in the head with the strange doings under his mother’s roof? The strange doings when Uncle John Keegan is about. But still and all, a mother can only look after her own as best she can, and Jeremiah Byrne is beyond looking after. Jeremiah knows this without ever having been told; senses it in the women and their boys.
Only Tommo—poor, soft-in-the-head, scared shitless and hungry—has stayed the course with Jeremiah. Loyal, like a beaten dog follows the boots that do the kicking.
‘Wha’s the story, boys?’ Jeremiah says, noticing one of them, Paudge Mullen, take a sneaky drag off a fag end and then conceal it behind his back. Sly, tight bastard, Jeremiah thinks, ignoring the meanness for the moment, his own shirt and jacket bulging with produce he has no intention of sharing, though he might, if one of the lads asked. Might, or maybe fuck them and let them muster up their own nosebag.
‘No story, Jerry, how’s it hoppin’?’
‘No bother at all, boys, not a bother on me.’
The boys’ eyes stray in various directions, searching the ground, scanning the sky to avoid meeting Jeremiah’s. Paudge Mullen has burned his fingers, Jeremiah sees, trying to pinch out the lit fag behind his back.
‘Any of yis seen Tommo? Philly, you seen him?’
The oldest lad, Philip Beatty, speaks for the group. He has been called Philly for as long as anyone can remember. He is a year older and half a head taller than Jeremiah. In a straight scrap, Philly would have Jeremiah for his breakfast and tea, but it has been a long time since Jeremiah fought straight. Philly is as leery of Jeremiah as the rest of them, but has his face in front of the boys to think about.
‘Haven’t laid eye on him in days, Jerry,’ he says. ‘Sure, isn’t his aul’ one cryin’ down the streets of town lookin’ for his whelped arse as well.’
Jeremiah wonders on this for a moment. Tommo is soft on his mother; his father is as dead or gone as Jeremiah’s own, but his mother is a kind-hearted, steady woman, rearing Tommo and his six siblings on her own, scrubbing bankers’ floors at night and fretting on her children during the day. Tommo always checked in with her, without fail, never wanting her to worry about him.
As much to himself as to the lads, Jeremiah says, ‘Musta been lagged, so.’
‘How do yeh reckon?’ Philly asks.
Jeremiah has an urge to tell the boys what has happened. He had been one of these lads once. The safety and warmth of their company like none he had ever had at home. He wants that now, suddenly, like hunger, but something inside him warns him not to tell them about the man he’d stabbed. No good will come of it.
‘I don’t reckon. Just he told me he was going on the rob is all.’
‘On his own?’ Doubt cuts through Philly’s voice.
Jeremiah takes Philly’s disbelief as a challenge. ‘So fuckin’ what of it?’
‘Nothin’ of it. Turn down the gas, Jerry. I was only sayin’.’
‘Sayin’ what, Philly? You don’t believe me?’ Jeremiah knows he should let the challenge die, but in his isolation he feels a sparking rage against the boys who had once been like his brothers.
‘’Course I believe yeh. So Tommo’s gone on the rob on his tot. Grand. Fine. All God speed to him and may he only find purses stuffed with fuckin’ gold. Don’t take the hump, Jerry.’ Philly smiles, palms out, smoothing things. He is the bossman of the Sheriffer Boys as much for his smarts as his fists. A fella who knows when to say when.
Jeremiah relaxes a little, and with this a sadness douses his anger. These had been his friends. Had been. Now they want him away. The spuds feel rough and lumpen against his skin inside his shirt. ‘I swear he told me, lads, on me aul’ fella’s grave. He even asked for a lender of me blade.’
Philly’s face shows nothing. ‘Tommo the swordsman.’
Jeremiah smiles. ‘I know.’
One of the younger lads speaks up. ‘He’s prolly up in bleedin’ Jervis Street Hopsital with the point of it stuck up his arse.’
The gang laughs and Jeremiah joins them, a sad guffaw to cloak his lies. ‘You’re right, you are,’ he says. ‘So …’ He turns to go, awkward, his eyes avoiding theirs. ‘I’ve to go bring some grub to the sisters.’
‘Grand so,’ Philly says, his face again betraying nothing.
Jeremiah steps away from the group and then wheels around. ‘Mully,’ he says to Paudge Mullen, startling the boy. ‘You’d peel an orange in your pocket, you would. Gi’s a bang off that burner you’ve got behind your back, yeh hungry cunt, yeh.’ He smiles as he says it. Paudge Mullen’s face blossoms bright red.
‘Here, grand, Jerry. Take it, it’s yours.’
Jeremiah takes the half-smoked fag. ‘’Course it is, Mully. ’Course it fuckin’ is. What’s yours is ours, Mully, right? And wha’s mine is fuckin’ mine, wha’?’
He feints a head-butt at the boy, and laughs as he crosses the street to his building. The Sheriffer Boys could run and fuck themselves. Every last one of them. Except Tommo—once he managed to keep his gob shut to those trenchcoated boyos, about who had gone and carved up their pal.
Entering his building, Jeremiah is halfway up the stairs, spuds bouncing against his chest, when he hears the voices of strange men. He stops, and above these voices hears the voice of his Uncle John Keegan. Fear electrifies his scalp under his cap.
His sister Sarah, hearing footsteps on the stairs, sticks her head through a broken gap in the banisters on the landing, her head emerging at eye level to Jeremiah. Her eyes are wide with panic.
‘Jerry, don’t go up! He’s back and he’s talking to some fellas.’
He puts his finger to his lips to shush his sister and listens, locking his gaze on the curtained doorway to the flat at the top of the stairs. The men’s voices are raised now, cut with threat, and his Uncle John’s words are angry at first in response before twisting to a plaintive mewl that sends a lance of pleasure jabbing through Jeremiah’s fear. He has heard his uncle use this voice before, but only to Peelers who have come to arrest him.
He whispers to his sister. ‘Are they going to lag Uncle John?’
Her eyes dart to the doorway of the flat and back to Jeremiah. She shakes her head and whispers back. ‘They’re wearin’ suits. With ties and all and their hats tipped back on their heads.’
‘But what do they want, Sarah, dote?’ He feels the urge to flee, to be on the move. Part of him knows what Sarah will say before she says it.
‘They’re askin’ about you, Jerry. They say you done something on a fella and they need to find you. And Uncle John ate all the bacon. It was only half cooked, and he ate it on us.’
Jeremiah’s heart, already turning over at the sound of his uncle’s voice, kicks up a gear, pistoning against his ribs like a diesel engine. He lifts his shirt and hands the vegetables and potatoes to his sister.
‘Quiet now. Put them in your dress and take them to Mrs Fitz. She’ll boil them up for you and the rest. Go now, and don’t tell Mam or Uncle John you got them.’ His whispered commands sound loud on the stairs, and he realises the men in the flat have stopped speaking. He quickly shoves the last of the spuds between the banisters at his sister, who hikes her dress to gather them. Jeremiah sees that the girl is naked under her dress.
‘Where are your knickers, pet? You’ll catch your death of a cold, Sarah, running round with no knickers.’
His sister’s voice is matter of fact, and too loud on the landing, as if she has forgotten about the men in the flat. ‘Uncle John Keegan told me I’m not allowed to wear them when he’s home. He always says it …’
Revulsion, rage rises in Jeremiah’s chest and overwhelms his fear. He is going to gut Uncle John Keegan if it is the last thing he ever does. His legs move involuntarily and he takes a step up, towards the flat. A stair creaks underneath his weight, and heavy boots shift on the bare floorboards of the flat.
His uncle’s voice, a bellow: ‘Who’s out there, to fuck? Is that Jerry? Get your arse up here, you little …’
He does not hear the rest. ‘Go to Mrs Fitz’s, now, Sarah. Run!’
And he is gone, bolting down the stairs, leaping out into the light of day and slamming into a fishmonger as he lands, upending the man’s basket of piled ray and plaice. The fishmonger goes down shouting, his flat catch of bottom fish slinging out in a salty arc onto the cobbles as Jeremiah keeps his feet and turns, left, then right. Kids on the lane are onto the fish like ravening gulls. Boots pound down the steps in pursuit, more shouting, barked orders. Jeremiah’s bare feet slap the stones as he sprints across the street, vaulting the stone steps and into the dark hallway of another tenement, moving fast down the hallway and out, crossing the dead-grass garden and through a hole in the wall, onto Hambone Lane.
He does not see one of the hunters emerge from his building into the street, gun in hand; does not see him step on a stray plaice and slip, crashing down onto the cobbles amidst the grasping hands of tenement children reaping fish and the fish man’s curses.
Breathless, Jeremiah reaches Talbot Street and slows to a fast walk, blending in with the crowd of late evening shoppers and travellers making their way to Amiens Street station. He ducks into a shop doorway and tucks his hair under his cap, leaning against the shop window to catch his wind.
Tommo, he thinks. Tommo must have gabbed. The only loyal one of the whole shower of Sheriffer Boys not so bleedin’ loyal after all.
The owner of the shop comes to the door, a red-faced, white-haired man, and tells him to move off. Jeremiah holds the man’s gaze for a long moment, thinking that if he still had his knife he might stab the bastard. Just to be stabbing somebody.
He makes his way back into the flow of pedestrians, his heartbeat slowing, breath returning, his stomach scorched with hunger and spent adrenaline as he walks. He knows now that he cannot allow himself to be caught. He doesn’t think they would bother hanging a youngfella for a stabbing, though they might plug one. Wouldn’t even flinch to plug a youngfella who’d carved up one of their pals. But even if they didn’t hang or shoot him, they could lock him away in Artane Industrial School or, worse, send him down to the almost mythically distant Letterfrack in County Galway. Jeremiah knows boys who had been sent there, and he has not heard a word of them since. As if a lad is wiped off the earth, doing time in Letterfrack. For all he knows, those boys could be dead, so feared and far away is the ’Frack. And if this were to
happen to him, Jeremiah knows, there would be no one around to feed his sisters. No one around, he thinks, to cut the guts out of his Uncle John Keegan.
All he needs now is a knife.