The reception hall of the Achill Guest House and Baths is all exposed brickwork, holy statues and cold, parquet tile floor. A sagging line of half-drunk and hungry men extends out of the front door and Jeremiah Byrne is amongst them, waiting until the man behind the wire cage of the cashier’s desk is occupied by one of the sots in the queue.
‘You,’ the man in the cage says. ‘You know I’ll extend you no favours, McPhail. No favours at all unless you’ve the scratch to warrant them, and since you haven’t had a ship since the war, I know you’ve nothing and may shove off with yourself.’
‘What, here’s me only arriving in and already you’re slandering me? You fuckin’ goat’s poxed cunt of a bastard son of a tinker bitch.’ The drunk, McPhail, raises his arms, grabbing the wire mesh of the cage with hands like claws, as if to wrench the cage from its frame. He continues his rant, as Jeremiah had hoped he would, raising himself to his full height, a large man in a tattered black overcoat and sailor’s cap, the coat open now like bat’s wings, blocking the cashier’s view of the foyer.
Jeremiah ducks low and darts across the reception hall as the drunken man calls the cashier every common slur and curse, including some that Jerry has never heard before. Sailors are like that, he thinks, hearing the drunk call the cashier a ‘whore’s rusted seed pipe’ as he turns into the main hallway of the doss-house. Others in the queue may have seen him, but fuck them. Few of them had never pinched a free doss somewhere, and they would rather sleep with both eyes shut than spend the night waiting for a youngfella like himself to creep up on them in the dark and slit their throats for a touting, Turk informer. Jeremiah isn’t half worth wasting their own sad, few coppers of kip on.
He can still be unlucky, he knows, if he bumps into another of the house’s workers who gives enough of a toss to ask to see his rooming chit—the small paper ticket that changes colours each night of the week, indicating payment of doss fees. But there are ways around them if it happens, and most of the staff—kitchen women, mop men or coal boys—are known to care about as much as Jeremiah himself does, who has paid for what, once a fella doesn’t make more work for a body.
He stops in the dim, gas-lit hallway, letting his eyes adjust. The Achill is located on a laneway off the Smithfield markets, not far from where he pilfered the potatoes and onions for his sisters, what …? Yesterday? The day before? He has lost track of the days since he fled Uncle John Keegan and the suited men at his tenement. Since then, he has been sleeping rough, going with punters behind the market pubs for a bob or two, doing things he had thought he was finished doing when he’d discovered what could be done with a knife. With the few coins he earned he had eaten fish and chipped potatoes wrapped in newspaper from an Italian shop, using the rest for a bottle of fortified wine to drink against the autumn night. Now he is stiff and tired, craving proper rest and in need of money. And a knife.
The Achill is nothing like its beautiful Mayo island namesake. A doss-house, plain and simple—one step up from the poorhouse—a former lying-in hospital for women. It is one of the meaner of such establishments in the city, catering to single men who pay nightly for a dormitory bed and flea-sparked blanket. Clean sheets, when available, cost extra. A meal in the canteen, also extra, knife and fork available for a rental charge. Showers, located in the basement, extra again. But it is warm and dry and Jeremiah knows he can kip safely here. Once he’s inside, he need not pay for a bed and cozying around one of the coal stoves in the common rooms is free. A fella is meant to be eighteen years of age to bed down here, Jeremiah well knows, but he looks old enough if he wants to and has seen younger lads than himself behind these walls. More often than not, down in the showers.
He delays thinking of this and approaches a group of men gathered against the wall under one of the gas jets. His stomach growls. There are four men, one of them sitting on a bench built into the wall, the other three standing around him. Jeremiah takes out a cigarette as he approaches. He had dipped the packet from a man he’d serviced the night before, and now he has a flaring memory of the scent of sour beer, stale vomit and the bleachy taste of the man’s goo, his hand rummaging the punter’s pockets, coming out with half a box of Player’s and a broken-toothed comb. The cigarettes cost nearly as much as the punter had paid him for his suck.
‘Any yis have a light?’ he asks, sidling up, the cigarette dangling from his mouth. The men are mostly old enough not to be dangerous—broken-down dipsos, men in their thirties and forties, muscle eaten away and withered by drink, making them slump in on themselves, looking ancient and worn. Too slow by half to be a hassle, Jerry thinks, even without a blade on him. Yet.
‘Who’s the youngfella then?’ the seated man asks, looking up at him, and Jeremiah corrects himself. This fella could do harm. Go easy with him, so.
‘Thomas,’ he says. ‘Tommy Fallon’s the name.’
The man on the bench smiles, and Jeremiah can smell the reek of waning stout and whiskey rising from him.
‘A light is all. Have me an auld puff and then head down for a wash. Let the smoke take the edge off the hunger before me kip.’
‘No scratch for grub, youngfella?’ the seated man says, still smiling but something dark in his eyes under his dirty cap, heavy brows.
‘Not a bean,’ Jeremiah says. He has used this story before. It is his way of innocently announcing where he will be and what he needs, to the kind of men who might like to find him. It is safer this way. Courting fellas who might not want it could be ropey, some of them hating a lad for what he’s offering, others hating him for maybe wanting what he offers but despising themselves more for wanting it. And there are always those who hate a lad for charging for what they think is their right to take for free. No matter the reason, getting it wrong could earn a youngfella a bad beating or worse. Jeremiah had once seen a boy in the basement, a fella younger than himself, badly pulped for kneeling in front of a man who’d been eying him through the steam. That lad had read the signals wrong and paid for it with pints of his claret, spinning down the hair-gnarled drain of the doss-house showers.
‘No bean for a feed, so,’ the seated man says, striking a match off the stone bench seat and offering it to Jeremiah, holding Jeremiah’s eyes with his own until understanding has passed between them. ‘I may have a wash meself,’ he says, letting the match burn down to his thick, calloused fingers before blowing it out.
‘Nothing like a wash,’ Jeremiah says, as he moves off from the men, ‘for to keep a body clean.’