Book: Irregulars

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Next: Chapter 6

5

Jeremiah Byrne awakes cold and wet with dew. In the grey light of morning he peers out from the high grass in which he had finally, several hours earlier, lain down to sleep. His stomach growls as if to wish him good morning and remind him that he has not eaten in more than a day.

Groggy, he searches his memory for the last food he has taken, and in this searching, the frantic action of the previous evening lurches into his conscious mind. He sits up abruptly and scans the field of grass where he has hidden. It is a smaller field than he’d thought when he stumbled upon it in the darkness, bordered by a low hedge and the Howth Road, he thinks, not having known for certain what road it was at the time, but only that it would take him far away from the men and the boys in the lane off the quays.

Jaysusfuck, he thinks. Miles I must have run. And as he thinks this, he looks at his right hand, and sees that it is stained with dried blood. Not his own blood, he remembers. Another fella’s blood. And thank fuck for that.

Forced to cut the bastard, he thinks, when all he’d wanted was a root in the pockets and a pair of boots off the youngfellas they’d followed from the hotel.

Part of Jeremiah knows that he’s in it neck deep now, whether the fella’s dead or not, but another part of him can only hear the growling in his stomach, feel the parch in his throat. Giving the field a final scan and reassuring himself there is no one about, he stands and brushes the dew from his clothing, beating his thighs and stomach with his palms to get the blood flowing.

Blood flowing. He thinks again of the fella in the laneway and decides that he doesn’t mind if he had killed him. He’s hardly eaten in two days and that bastard had come between Jeremiah Byrne and a fine, slap-up nosebag, courtesy of them young lads in the lane.

Time to find Tommo, he thinks, hoping his friend had made it away when the bother kicked off. Find Tommo first, get his side of things straight and make sure his mate keeps his cake-hole shut.

Then head back to the Ma and see if she’d used the two bob he’d given her two days ago—after dipping some gentleman swat’s wallet on Grafton Street—to buy food for his sisters or gargle for herself. But he knows the answer already and sorrow wells up in him as he makes his way through the wet grass towards the road. And this sadness, like it always does, turns to anger as he walks, lest it overwhelm him. He has no choice in this. Anger he can use; sadness is useless. So what, to fuck, his anger says, if I sliced the bastard, when that fella slept on a full belly every night and me and me sisters with nothing but grief to eat. Fuck him, the cunt. I’d stick him again. If it would mean a hot meal, for himself, for his sisters. For them, he’d stick any bastard who crossed him.

 

Jeremiah hops a tram at Fairview Park, riding on the open back conductor’s platform, hanging on to a handrail. He makes it three stops before the conductor comes down from the upper deck and ticketless Jeremiah leaps off. He has been making his way home for the better part of an hour now and will cover the last half mile on foot.

The night before seems strangely distant to him as he walks in the rare autumn sunlight, the cobbles and macadam warm and sticky with horse shit and motor oil and Indian summer-softened tar under his bare feet. Everything on Amiens Street—food stalls, fruit stands, shawlies selling holy medals and postcards, newspaper boys with the latest editions for the workers arriving by train from Amiens Street station, beer lorries and cart-horses and tinkers’ scrap wagons—appears unchanged from any other day. Nothing has changed just because he had stabbed a fella. The world rolls on as if nothing has happened. Which means, he decides, that he must not have killed the man, because if he had, surely the world would be different somehow—the colours grander, brighter; the sounds louder and perhaps sweeter to his ear.

Of course, he’s stabbed a fella once before, he has. An auld dosser in a lane who had half shocked the shite out of him, rising from the shadows like a ghost begging for coins, but that fella had lived to doss another day. Jeremiah had only carved up his arm, and that shielded by a heap of rags worn for warmth under a British Army greatcoat. As well as this, he recalls that he has cut youngfellas in fights the odd time, and taken the odd jab and slice himself from other fella’s knives. But he knows that the world will be a different bleedin’ spot alto-fuckin’-gether when auld Jerry gets round to snuffing a fella, and since the world today is just like it was on any other day, he decides he must not have snuffed that fella the night before.

Absently rubbing his palm on his trouser leg as he walks—though he had scrubbed it free of blood with dew-sodden grass at the side of the Howth Road—his stomach growls with hunger, twisting in on itself as he passes bakeries, cake shops, a working man’s café where dockers and porters stand at a wooden counter, shovelling in the bacon and cabbage and washing them down with tea or buttermilk. Another thing that hasn’t changed, he thinks, passing a man with a cart selling pig’s trotters—I’m still hungry. Same as every day, with the stomach stuck to the ribs and scarce hope of a hot feed. He considers ordering a trotter with gherkins in newspaper and pulling a scarper, going so far as to loiter on the corner next to McCormack’s early house pub to watch the vendor.

In the end, he moves on towards home. No sense getting lagged or shot. Shot for a trotter. Who knows which mob the vendor is paying protection tax to, or which fella idling on the corner has a rod in his pocket and a fierce yearning to use it. Too many lads hauling iron these days, and none of them would shy away from blasting the arse out of a youngfella.

No, no thieving for the moment, he thinks, and as he does, he sees a uniformed DMP man and thanks the god of gougers that the constable crosses the road to speak with a beggar-woman hassling passers-by.

Jeremiah stops, and in the reflection of a chemist’s shop window he watches the policeman menace the beggar until she moves on. Studying his own reflection now, superimposed over the shop’s wares—conventional medicines and ointments, but also herbal balms, tiger powders, curry paste and yearling’s milk potions for superstitious sailors—he begins tucking his hair up under his rough, mushroom-shaped cap, as much of it as he can fit. His hair is the bane of his criminal existence. Even oiled, or unwashed for weeks as it mostly is, it falls out from under his cap in straws of golden light and makes him easy prey for even the blindest of coppers. He turns, instinctively scanning the quays around him. Sensing nothing out of the ordinary, he relaxes and carries on walking.

His hair is of some advantage, he will admit. Girls like it. Not that he is much bothered with them. His sisters are about the only ones he can tolerate. But it isn’t girls he is thinking about—though a girl would do for a turn when the hare was in need of a hole. He is thinking about the other way he has discovered, in the past year, to score the odd bob. His blond hair helps him there and no joke. Fair hair a bonus, in the job of work that was this other way. A far easier way than robbing, he thinks. And, in ways, much harder.

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Next: Chapter 6