(Note: this should appear in the Politics-free Zone – it’s a short story I wrote some twenty years ago. If it’s not in Politics-free Zone, you’ll know I’m working on it)
Presumer Livingstone and me, we avoided Frankie Dalton. He was too clean – all shiny hair and trimmed fingernails and short trousers that had a crease in them. If he came over when we were playing marbles, we’d pretend the game had just ended. If he held up a shiny brown chestnut on a bootlace, we’d tell him we’d left our conkers at home. Once Presumer and me even hid in a cubicle of the school lav, with our feet on the bowl and our backs pressed against the door, because we knew Frankie was looking for us to show us a Desperate Dan story in The Dandy. He even tried to push open our door but we leaned even harder against it and he gave up. We didn’t hate Frankie: we just didn’t like playing with him. There was something about him made you want rub spit in his hair.
But then one October day when we were in Fourth Class, everything changed. It happened during the milk break and Presumer had just broken his own speed record for drinking a bottle, when Frankie put his empty back in the crate and announced that his mother was trying to have a baby. Presumer stopped in mid-burp and I stared. Neither of us, you see, was completely clear on the babies thing. Presumer was an only child and I was the youngest in our house and we kept being told all sorts of explanations, most of them contradictory.
“What do you mean, have? Where’s she going to get a baby?” Presumer demanded.
Frankie tied a lace on his shiny shoes and tugged up his white ankle-socks before answering. What you needed to have a baby, he said, was a man and a woman. Presumer gave a little nod so I did too. The woman’s job was to sit in a chair and write a letter to the headquarters place where they kept the babies. The man’s job was to buy a stamp and take the letter for posting. Lucky enough, Frankie reminded us, his daddy was a postman so he could deliver the letter for nothing. Frankie’s mammy had said she was sure when her and Daddy put their heads together, the baby would come.
Presumer had his mouth open to ask another question but then the bell went for going back into class.
From that day on, any time I saw Mrs Dalton I studied her carefully. She had soft neat features and smiled a lot, and she saw me staring at her one time, she smiled even wider. The clean skin and shiny hair that were annoying on Frankie looked nice on her. She wore brighter clothes than the other mothers and she was fat in a nice way. But no matter how much I looked at her and thought about her, I still couldn’t figure out if she was a woman who was expecting a baby to be delivered in the post the next morning or a woman who just liked smiling at people. Like most grown-ups, her conduct made little sense.
In the weeks that followed Frankie’s announcement, Presumer and me began to treat him differently. We still didn’t like the way he never got shouted at by the teacher for having dirty ears, nor the way his sandwiches at lunch time always had the crust cut off and were shaped like triangles. But the trying-for-a-baby story had hooked both our imaginations. We began to let him hang around us when we were playing marbles or chasies. In between games and sometimes during them, we would quiz him for more details on the letter-writing and how many teeth he thought the baby would have when and if it arrived. Frankie would give a little purse-mouthed smile and talk about pink writing pads and special deliveries and something called milk teeth. You could see he liked the way we listened carefully to every word.
And then one April morning when the teacher was writing up sums on the board, Presumer caught my eye across the classroom and made a rocking motion with his arms. “Frankie – his oul’ doll got her parcel!” Master McCauley shouted at me for getting two of the six sums wrong but I couldn’t stop thinking about Presumer’s news about the parcel.
They called it Matthew Patrick – or when Mrs Dalton changed his nappy, which was a lot of the time, “my wee magpie”. We knew this because Presumer and me used to follow Frankie home. We’d kick a tennis ball around in the school yard until Frankie came out. Then we’d let him take a couple of feeble swipes at it so we could walk home with him, one on either side. We wanted to know more.
Don’t ask me why his mother let us in – a normal woman would have told us to clear off to hell. But Mrs Dalton wasn’t like other mothers. She smiled and rattled around in the kitchen and said it was great to see the three of us sitting there, three wee chums, Sean and Jimmy and Frankie. “Have a word with the wee magpie” she’d say, starting to peel spuds or drying the dishes. “He’s dying for a chat”.
Obediently we’d tiptoe over to the corner of the room where the baby’s cot was. “Hello” I would say, but after that I could never think of anything else. Frankie was as bad as me, which was worse, because a person should be able to talk to his own brother. Presumer, though knew how to talk to the baby. My mother said Presumer could have talked to the Pope.
Presumer’s real name was Sean Livingstone, but all he got from most people was Presumer, after the great African explorer. He had greasy hair, buck teeth and when you stood near to him there was a funny stale smell. The days that he decided to come to school, he’d usually arrive late and most times without so much as a pencil. Sums and spelling words always gave him trouble: he didn’t so much get them wrong as forget he was supposed to be doing them. Punishment didn’t make him yell or whimper, the way it did the rest of us. The teacher would have a face like thunder and be hammering at Presumer’s hand, bang, bang, bang with the strap, but Presumer would be smiling past him with his scummy teeth, as if his body as well as his thoughts were elsewhere.
But there was one thing Presumer was very good at: playing the mouth organ. He’d just sort of taught himself and he was terrific. Every year the Christmas Brothers’ Concert programme would say ‘INTERVAL, S Livingtone, harmonica’, and Presumer would stand in front of the big curtain and play ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Silent Night’, and the crowd would whistle and stamp their appreciation.
So when Frankie’s mother said to talk to the baby, Frankie and I would stick our hands in our pockets and make embarrassed faces at each other. But Presumer would lean into the cot, a strip of greasy hair dangling from his forehead and whisper: “Here, wee man – can you fart at all? Close your mouth – that’s right – and push for a real rasper bomb!” And the baby would seem to hear and go red in the face.
“What are you saying to him, Sean?” Frankie’s mother would call from the sink, smiling.
“I’m teaching him to say Matthew Patrick”.
And Mrs Dalton would say “Aah!” or sometimes come over to the cot and say to the baby, with one hand on Presumer’s shoulder” “Com on now, magpie. Tell Sean and Jimmy and Frankioe and Mammy a wee wee baby’s name!”
The baby didn’t know what she was talking about and eventually she’d go back to the sink. Presumer would wait until she was settled again and then go on encouraging the baby to do bad things.
When it did – at the first whiff of nastiness – the three of us would shout the news and Mrs Dalton would come bustling in and scoop the baby up, call him a tricky wee chicken and take him to the bathroom for changing. As soon as she was out of the room Presumer would do a spectacular collapse on the floor, holding his nose and whispering in a strangled voice “Holy Jaysus I’m gassed!”
And then, when it was six weeks old, the baby died. Since it had been baptized the very day after it was born, that end of things was grand – there’d be no question of St Peter putting him in Limbo. But at the same time there was no rhyme or reason for the likes of that to happen, my mother said in her vexed voice. At four on a Sunday afternoon the baby was alive and took a bottle; at seven in the evening it was got dead in its cot. The next day, Monday, Frankie wasn’t at school because his baby brother, the late Matthew Patrick, had died and gone to heaven. We all said a prayer for him at the beginning of class. Presumer leaned in to me and whispered that praying was a load of baloney.
After school my mother reported that Frankie’s mother was bearing up well to the shock, by all accounts. Amazingly well, in fact. She had the house spick and span for people visiting, and both her and her husband were shaking hands and chatting as if nothing had happened – such control was never seen. In some ways, my mother said, you’d nearly sooner see them roaring and crying. Sometimes holding back would affect a body inside. Damage them. In fact from what my mother heard, Mrs Dalton was behaving a bit funny already, God help her. She was refusing to wear black clothes, whih was what you were supposed to do if someone died. She wouldn’t even hear of a wee diamon-shaped patch of black material being sewed on her sleeve. And she had sent word with my mother that she wanted me to call that evening to say goodbye to Matthew Patrick. And as if that wasn’t enough, she’d sent another request, which was for me to call and take that half-washed eejit Presumer Livingstone with me. Frankie’s mother didn’t say Presumer was a half-washed eejit, my mother said that. She also said that that poor Dalton woman could go to bits at any minute.
I’d never seen a corpse before, even a small corpse, and the thought of it wasn’t very nice. I tried to tell my other I had a sore tummy but she said nonsense, to clean my face and put on good clothes, I’d soon get better. When I got there, she went on, I was to be sure to shake hands with Frankie’s mammy and daddy and say “Sorry for your troubles”. After that all I’d have to do would be kneel down and say a wee prayer at the side of the coffin. There was nothing to worry about, anyone could do it. The baby was sound and safe in heaven; what was at the house now was just the remains.
“I’ll tell you what it’ll be like” Presumer said, emerging from his house in a pari of battered white gutties. “It’ll be like a dead scaldie. Only bigger and no beak on it”. He stared at my tie and sports jacket but said nothing. We moved up the hill towards Frankie’s place, Presumer whistling between his teeth and kicking a stone in front of him.
I kept step with him, worrying. What happened if the baby started to move in the coffin? What if it sat up and made a grab at my hand? What about all the incidents where dead people came back and said they were lonely, they’d never rest until they had some company with them in the grave?
Presumer glanced sideways at me. “You look as if you’re going to vomit” he said. Then he stood on tiptoe and flipped the knocker on Dalton’s front door.
Mr Dalton, wearing a charcoal grey suit with a waistcoat, gave a weak smile and gestured for us to come in. His face looked like a creased white shirt.
The living room was crammed with people drinking tea, smoking, chatting with their heads together, looking up to see who were the latest visitors. I acouldn’t see or hear anybody crying.
“Sorry for your troubles!” I said and shook hands with Mr Dalton. Mrs Dalton, looking very nice in a red from with a black scarf at the neck came from a corner of the room, so I said the same thing to her. Behind me I could hear Presumer.
“Sorry for what happened” Presumer said to Mr Dalton. To Mrs Dalton he said “Sorry for your baby being dead on you”.
Mrs Dalton squeezed out a smile and brought us a glass of lemonade each. Two armchairs in the corner of the room were pulled back a bit so Presumer, Frankie and me could get in and sit on the linoleum floor. All we could see were trousers or the seams of women’s stockings. Even when you put your head back and looked up, you still couldn’t recognise people because you were looking up their nose.
Presumer turned to Frankie, who was wearing a black tie and had his hair combed even neater than usual.
“Where’s it at?” Presumer asked.
“The corpse. Flip’s sake – what do you think we came for?”
“The remains are in the bedroom” Frankie said, speaking in a serious, rehearsed sort of way.
“Were you crying and that?” I asked him.
“I was crying earlier on. I’ve come round now”.
Presumer peeked out over the armchairs then ducked back down. “Your ma and da aren’t crying either” he informed Frankie. He sounded a bit irritated. “It’s a big loss, a baby, no matter what size it is. When you suffer a loss like that, you need to bawl your head off. And then people put their arm round you and say ‘There, there, shh, shhhh’ “.
“How do you know?”
“My ma told me” Presumer said.
“My ma told me that as well” I said, even though she hadn’t
“My auntie told me it years ago, I just forgot” Frankie muttered.
After that, the time went really slow. Your legs get stiff when you’re sitting scrunched up between two chairs, and any time we stuck our heads up, somebody seemed to be staring at us. The parish priest pushed his way into the corner and patted the three of us on the head, and said we were stout companions for a boy to have at a time like this, and Our Lord himself had said suffer little children.
Presumer waited until he was out of earshot then said “Anybody would be suffering, stuck in a corner like this”. He made mouth-organ-playing motions with his fingers for a few seconds, then turned to Frankie.
“What goes over the water and under the water and never gets wet?” His voice was quite loud and I could feel one or two adult heads looking towards our corner.
Frankie frowned and murmured to himself “Over and under and…Tell us”.
“An egg in a duck’s backside”.
The three of us went into a fit of giggling that someways didn’t match the mood of the room. When we recovered Presumer tapped Frankie’s knee. Here. Are we going to get seeing him then?”
“Seeing? Seeing who?”
“The corpse, your baby’s corpse – what do you think? That’s what people come for, is to look at the corpse”.
Frankie slowly stood up and led the way to the bedroom. As we passed the adults, they smiled sadly and said “Ach, the poor wee fellah” to each other. Surprisingly the bedroom was empty of people – they must all have been and gone. The coffin sat at the bottom of the bed, made of brown wood, more like a trunk for clothes really, only smaller and with a pointy end. It rested on two kitchen chairs and was covered in Mass cards.
Presumer stared at it, then raised an accusing finger. “The lid’s not open – why didn’t you keep it open? Your lid’s supposed to stay open until it’s taken to the chapel”.
“My mammy wanted it to be closed. She said Matthew Patrick’s life had slipped away and it was time to lock the door. So Daddy got a man to come and close the lid with a screwdriver.”
“Are his eyes closed?”
Frankie stuck out his lower lip. “I don’t know. I wasn’t here when they put him in the coffin. Only ones allowed in here then were my mammy and daddy and later on the photographer man”.
Presumer’s hand sank to his side. He stared at me, then Frankie. Photographer man? Presumer said he’d never heard of a baby being photographed or at least not a dead one being photographed. That stupid, photographing a dead baby.
“Well I don’t care because we got my late brother photographed, so you’re wrong. The photographer man used a flash thing. My mammy hadn’t a photograph of him so she got a photographer man to come in and take one. So she’d have it.”
Presumer scratched his oily scalp with one finger. “But the baby is dead! She’ll have a photograph of a dead baby. That’s not right”.
“He looked just like he was sleeping – that’s what the photographer man said. ‘Like a wee sleeping angel’ he said”.
Presumer put his eye to the crack where the lid joined the coffin. “I think I can see him” he said. “What’s he wearing?”
Frankie hesitated for a moment. “A sort of night-dress” he said at last.
“What about pyjamas?”
Presumer straightened up from the coffin, his mouth open in shock. “He should have a nappy. Babbies are supposed to have nappies – that’s how you know they’re babies, for flip’s sake. If he has no nappy in heaven, God could mistake him for a midget”.
I felt I should give Frankie a wee bit of support. “God doesn’t make mistakes” I said. And as I spoke I felt somebody else in the room. Mrs Dalton was standing in the doorway, very still and pale, not coming in or going out. A couple of times she opened her mouth as if to say something but no sound came out.
“He does sometimes – doesn’t he? Make mistakes”. Presumer, far from being embarrassed, was appealing to Mrs Dalton. “He made the devil – that was a mistake for a start. It was in an autograph album I saw one time. Somebody put in ‘God made Satan/Satan made sin/God dug a big hole/And threw Satan in”.
Mrs Dalton didn’t say anything. I put my hands in my pockets and tried to think of something to say. This was nearly as bad as when she used to ask us to talk to the wee magpie.
Presumer raised a finger and pointed it at Mrs Dalton. “Why has a giraffe a long neck?” Before she could speak he gave the answer. “To join his head to his body. What did one wall say to the other?” He waited a half-second. “Meet you at the corner”.
And Presumer went straight into a string of riddles, every single one of which I’d heard before. As he spoke, asking and answering them himself, some people appeared behind Mrs Dalton, intent on paying their last respects. But with her back to them she blocked the way so they stood there, staring past her into the room, looking inquisitive or puzzled. Presumer ignored them. He just went on askoing riddles, his lazy brown eyes locked on Mrs Dalton’s face. Even if she had known what the big chimney said to the wee chimney, he didn’t leave her time to answer.
Eventually, after about ten riddles, Presumer paused for breath. By now there were a lot of faces packed behind Mrs Dalton, all of them looking serious and even, I thought, a bit angry. But Presumer didn’t seem to notice them. The only thing in the world for him was the woman in the doorway, her black scarf is sharp contrast to her red dress. Still watching her, he reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out his mouth organ. I could hardly believe my eyes.
“Will I play ‘Goodnight Irene’ or ‘I Discovered a Bum-Bum-Bum’ for you?” he asked, resting the mouth organ on his lower lip. Mrs Dalton said nothing, just stood there looking white and swaying slightly. “Right so, I’ll do you the both of them”.
And he did. He played the ‘Bum-Bum-Bum’ song first, and his left foot pounded time on the linoleum for the loud bits of the chorus. By this time the entire doorway behind Mrs Dalton was jammed and Mr Dalton was standing behind his wife, his hand on her elbow. Still she didn’t budge an inch or changer her expression.
The only thing that had any effect was when, towards the end of the ‘Bum-Bum-Bum’ song, the parish priest, his face very red , came thrusting through.
“What is the meaning of this?” he shouted in the booming voice he used on people who tried to leave the chapel before Mass was ended. Then Mrs Dalton swung briefly round and said “Shhhh!” in such a sharp, piercing way, it was as if not just her mouth but her whole body had gone into producing the sound. The parish priest stopped with his mouth open and said no more. Totally unaffected by the exchange, Presumer geared down to a lower key and started into the swaying tempo of ‘Goodnight Irene’.
It was a queer feeling, standing there in the room, just Frankie and Presumer and me and the baby’s trunk-coffin covered in black-edged Mass cards, with all the adults frozen in the doorway, like water at the edge of the plug-hole. I don’t think I ever heard Presumer play so well. His hands moved like butterflies as he vamped the slow-waltz rhythm of the song, head back, eye on the light bulb, body swaying in time. At the door Mrs Dalton swayed too, her face as white as Al Jolson’s gloves.
It was only when Presumer had finished and was rubbing the mouth organ on the sleeve of his jacket that Mrs Dalton stopped swaying and began to shake. She was like a car that was trying to start, giving bigger and bigger shudders. The people behind her stopped staring at Presumer and turned to her, murmuring and flapping their hands as the shudders got worse. A couple of them made as if to catch her, but they were all afraid to. It was just as my mother had said. Mrs Dalton could go off like a bomb any minute.
And then she did. The shuddering stopped. A second of silence followed. And then her hands with the nails sticking out came up to her face and she let out a long, slow howl that sounded as if she was going to start singing herself, only it wasn’t really singing, more like a dog being killed than singing, and her nails dug into her own cheeks. The noise rose until it could rise no higher, and then it broke in a sob, a gasping for air, and she doubled up. That’s when Mr Dalton’s arm went round her shoulders and he half-led, half-carried her into the other room.
Frankie, his ears red, gave us a watery smile and hurried after them. For a long time, in the distance, you could hear her shrieking. Sometimes there’d be pauses and you’d think it was finished, then it would start again.
It took half an hour for the doctor to come. When he did arrive with his dark blue suit and black bag, he gave her a dose of sleeping tablets that had her conked out before you could say Jack Robinson, my mother said.
As the door closed on her cries the priest led a charge across the room towards Presumer. Alongside him were two or three long faces with big noses that did the collection plate at the chapel on Sundays. Presumer swung away and his white gutties squealed on the linoleum as he tried to squeeze under the bed away from them, but it was too late. After a couple of hopeless kicks and punches they had him grabbed, hands and feet pinned tight. His mouth-organ clattered free of the ruckus and lay on the floor near the coffin.
“You shameless, sacrilegious guttersnipe you!” the priest roared. You could see a big vein on the side of his neck and his face had turned the colour of raw meat. “Have you no respect for living or dead, God or man? Answer me!” And his big right hand with hairs on the back rose to strike.
Squirming, Presumer showed his scummy teeth. He wasn’t smiling now, he was ripping mad. “Shut you your frigging trap, you holy-poly big pig!” he shouted. “I was only trying to cheer the bloody woman up!”
As the priest jumped forward to whack the side of Presumer’s head, there was a crunching noise – a complete, totally finished, crunching noise. He had stood on Presumer’s mouth organ. That’s when Presumer began to cry.
Mrs Dalton cried too – for a fortnight without stopping after the baby was buried. My mother said it was a miracle her mind didn’t go. But a couple of months later her and her husband were to be seen out shopping together, or walking along the Dublin Road with Frankie on a Sunday. Sometimes going into a shop or crossing a road, she’d reach out and touch Frankie’s arm or even his neck. When there was really no need to.
And then ten months later – to the very day, my mother said, and must have been counting – Mrs Dalton had another baby. They baptised him William Sean, the William after his daddy. Frankie asked us did we want to come up and see it, Presumer and me, but we couldn’t be bothered. By this time the two of us were fed up with babies and were more interested in girls, especially ones with chests.