Book: Irregulars

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Next: Chapter 7

6

O’Keefe’s mother has told him that his father had been employed by a woman named Dolan. That his father had taken on the work to repay a debt that he would not disclose to wife or son, despite it driving him to wake in terror sweats, shouting, pleading with the darkness.

I didn’t know … she never told me, I couldn’t have known … please …’

‘Told you what, Da?’ O’Keefe had ventured the night before, but his father had responded to his question with the same blank look that O’Keefe had come to recognise, the vagueness in his features that spoke of shadows, voids, in his father’s mind.

‘You’ll see to it, won’t you, son?’ his mother had asked. ‘Your father’s not able. It would shame him, it would, if the woman were to see him like he is …’

‘You know her?’ O’Keefe had asked her in turn. ‘This Dolan woman?’

‘Not at all. Don’t be daft,’ his mother had said, turning away.

Now O’Keefe dresses in his freshly laundered suit of clothes. Civilian clothes marking the civilian he has become. A grey suit, white shirt and starched collar, though O’Keefe notices now that the shirt is not his own and must be his father’s.

Even after five months as a civilian, he catches himself staring at this unfamiliar image in the mirror and, as he knots his tie, thinks back to the day he marched in the RIC’s last parade before its disbandment, his polished black boots slapping the smooth cobbles of the Phoenix Park depot parade-ground. The lowering of the Union Jack and the raising of the Irish tricolour. He remembers the way he folded his bottle-green uniform trousers on the hanger with the coat and the hat, and how he had left them on the bunk there in the depot. Like a second skin, the armour of his past life shed, exchanged for this one suit of grey wool. The suit of everyman. Making him feel somehow less a man in the world now than he was before.

 

His childhood home behind him, O’Keefe turns onto Clanbrassil Street, slow-hoofs it to Patrick Street and past St Patrick’s Cathedral, Foley’s pub across the way, the public baths on his right, the address of the Dolan woman folded in his pocket. The streets are filled with the clatter and shriek of tram wheels on rails and the clanging of tram bells; the splutter and belch of coal lorries and motor cars; the clopping of cart-horses, movement and light assaulting O’Keefe’s eyes. He starts, goose-pimples peppering his skin as barefooted boys scarper from an alleyway, fleeing some unseen misdemeanour.

Knock the booze on the head, he thinks. Too much of it altogether since he left the Peelers. He thinks again that he should have joined his barrack mates who signed on with the Palestinian Police after disbandment. The Greater Manchester Police as well was looking for experienced men. Or he could always go up north, to the six counties excluded from the Free State by the Treaty, as many other Peelers had done. Take a job at the very wellspring of the civil war now raging. Like the policing he had done in the Tan War, policing in Ulster—they had changed the name to the Royal Ulster Constabulary—would be little more than presiding over pogroms and sectarian bigots with their banners and sashes and such. No thanks, pal. Still, though he is wary, he is happy for this job, happy to repay his father’s debt, whatever it may be. If only because nothing good comes of an Irishman with too much time on his hands.

A newspaper boy interrupts his reverie, hawking the dailies. Read it he-ar! Free State Army crush Irregulars in Cork. Many dead, the newsboy shouts, nearly singing. Lo-ads reported dead. Read it he-ar!

O’Keefe continues on up towards Christ Church Cathedral, passing young girls begging for coppers, clutching baby siblings to their scrawny chests or selling matches, some selling themselves. Common as rain in winter—women, girls hawking themselves in the laneways, doorways and cold water flats of the city. More whores than anywhere on earth, so it’s said. Dublin, city of whores and angry men. Which is he? he thinks, and shakes his head at the routes taken by his mind when he lets it run.

He passes fruit and vegetable stalls. Thomas’s bicycle repair shop—push-bikes upturned on the footpath like obstructions in no-man’s land. O’Brien and Sons Butchers next, the coppery scent of blood from the open doorway suffusing the October air, seeping into O’Keefe’s consciousness and turning his mind to memories of battle, but this time he does not let his thoughts wander. Instead he forces them down into the place on the sea-floor of his memory where he keeps them. The murder hole he has named it, and smiles sadly that he should have need of such a place, and wonders would there ever be a time when the smell of a butcher’s shop would not remind him of the war.

In thinking this, O’Keefe considers how memory—experience—is locked into the meat of a body. He has no belief in a soul, or anything so elevated, but he does believe—he has read this recently during one of his long, clock-killing afternoons in the library and agrees with it—that memory becomes embedded in the physical self; that traces of all past action lay dormant in the muscle, in the sinew and tissue and blood of a man like some latent, malarial sickness and return to attack the mind and body in the form of recollection, unbidden, unexpected. No better than beasts, we are, he thinks as he continues walking, as much slave to the senses as any butcher’s dog seeking scraps at the sound of the knife on the strop.

He hurries his pace for the sanctuary of a passing tram.

 

Leaving the tram at Amiens Street Station, O’Keefe walks less than three hundred yards before turning onto a quiet lane in the heart of the city. He consults the scrap of paper in his pocket.

He looks around him, taking in the long rows of two- and three-storey redbrick houses that line either side of the street. Autumn sunlight exposes grime that is invisible at night; the worn, crumbling brickwork stained black in places from gas-lamps and barrel fires that light the laneways and alleys and warm the hands of waiting hack drivers on cold nights. Rubbish spilling out of bins onto the cobbles. Dogs picking through the scraps, and cats, wary of the dogs, basking with eyes at half-mast on the sunny stone steps. The street is strangely absent of life, an oasis of silence in the otherwise roiling city. O’Keefe knows its residents exist at odds to the daylight.

Foley Street—formerly Montgomery Street—comes alive at night when it assumes the name most Dubliners know it by: Monto.

Also known as The Kips, it had once been the largest, most notorious red-light district in the Empire, and the street still thrives, despite the continuing departure of thousands of British Army troops from Ireland.

Memory stirs in his mind, of laughing women, sweet perfume and sour sweat. Of dancing at the edge of his balance. He cannot remember coming here on his binge—he is certain he would have been too drunk to get up to much bother and he’s had none of the tell-tale itch or burning in his piss; his money had been in his wallet in his pocket upon waking in his digs—but he knows why he might have been tempted. Knowledge lodged in the meat of a body. Even turning the corner onto Foley Street he had felt it—a surge of loneliness strong enough to cut through the shame and the fear, a deep, liquid ache low in his chest. A catch in his throat. There are a multitude of reasons, O’Keefe knows, why a man could find himself in Monto, but the desperate need for the company of a woman was the most common. Men with jobs that would never pay enough to afford a wife. Men with no jobs. Soldiers or sailors hundreds, thousands of miles away from home. Monto served these men. And O’Keefe, the ache welling within him, realises he has become one of their number.

He searches the doors for the address.

 

 

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Next: Chapter 7