The Truth About Babies – A story for Sunday

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, and because it had no lock we put our feet on the bowl and our backs pressed against the door, because we knew Frankie was probably wanting to show us a picture of him and his mammy or something stupid like that He even tried to push open the lav door but we leaned even harder against it and tried not to laugh. We didn’t hate Frankie: we just didn’t like playing with him. There was something about him made you want to rub a gob of spit in his hair. 

But then one October day when we were in Fourth Class, everything changed. It was the milk break at eleven o’clock and Presumer was trying to break his own speed record for drinking a bottle, when Frankie put his empty bottle back in the crate and said that his mother was trying to have a baby. Not so much said as announced. Presumer wiped his mouth and we both 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. The explanations we both heard sounded impossible. 

“What do you mean, have?” Presumer asked him.  “Where’s she going to get a baby to have?” 

Frankie tied a lace on his shiny shoes and tugged up his white ankle-socks before folding his arms and looking at us as if he knew everything. What you needed if you were going 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 told him she was sure when her and Daddy put their heads together, the baby would come. 

Presumer had his mouth half-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 a soft neat face and smiled a lot, and if she caught you staring at her, 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 but 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. Same as most rown-ups, she  made damn-all sense. 

In the weeks that followed Frankie’s announcement, Presumer and me acted differently towards him. We still didn’t like the way he never got shouted at by the teacher for having dirty ears, or the way his sandwiches at lunch time always had the crust cut off them and were shaped like triangles. But the trying-for-a-baby story had got the two of us hooked. We began to let him hang around us when we were playing marbles or chasies. In between games and sometimes during them, we’d ask 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 wee arsehole smile and talk about pink writing pads and special deliveries and something called milk teeth. You could tell he was sort of thrilled, knowing more than us for once. 

And then one April morning when the sun was coming in the big classroom window  and the teacher was writing up sums on the board, Presumer looked  across the classroom to me and did a wee rocking motion with his arms and then did a thumbs-up. “Frankie!” he mouthed. “His oul’ doll!  Got! Her parcel!” Master McCauley spotted him then and roared for him to finish his sums if he didn’t want to see stars. 

They called it Matthew Patrick – or when Mrs Dalton changed his nappy, which she did every second minute, I swear to God, “My wee magpie!” she’d say, and let the baby suck her finger. We knew this because Presumer and me started following Frankie home. We’d kick a tennis ball around in the school yard until Frankie came out and then we’d let him take a couple of useless  swipes at it, and after that we’d walk home with him, one on either side. We wanted to know more.

Don’t ask me why his  mammy let us in – a normal mammy would have told us to clear off to hell. But Mrs Dalton wasn’t like other mammies. She smiled and rattled around in the kitchen and said she just loved seeing the three of us sitting together, three wee chums, Sean and Jimmy and Frankie. “Why don’t you have a chat there with the wee magpie” she’d say, going out to the scullery to peel spuds or dry dishes. “He’s dying for a chat”.

So we’d do what we were told and would  tiptoe over to the corner of the room where the baby’s cot was. “Hello, Mr Magpie” I would say, but after that I could never think of anything else. Frankie was as bad as me, which definitely was worse, because if a wee magpie is really your brother, you should be able to talk to him. But it was no bother to Presumer – he could talk to anyone. My mammy said in two shakes of a lamb ‘s tail, Presumer would talk to the Pope, if he got the chance.

Presumer’s real name was Sean Livingstone, but all he got from most people was Presumer, after that big African explorer fellah.  He had greasy hair, buck teeth and when you stood near to him you could get a funny stale smell. The days that he decided to come to school, he’d u arrive late and most times without so much as a pencil butt. Sums and spelling words always gave him trouble: he didn’t so much get them wrong as forget he was supposed to be adding them. The strap didn’t make Presumer yell or squeal, the way it did the rest of us.  There were days the teacher would have a face like a murderer and be hammering at Presumer’s hand, bang, bang, bang  for all he was worth, but Presumer would just stand smiling with his scummy teeth  and looking past the teacher, as if his body as well as his thoughts were elsewhere. 

But there was one thing Presumer was better at than anyone in the school: playing the mouth organ. He’d sort of taught it to himself and he was terrific. Every year the Christmas Brothers’ Concert programme would say ‘INTERVAL, S Livingtone with his 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 feet, he was that good.

So when Frankie’s mammy said to talk to the baby, Frankie and me would stick our hands in our pockets and raise our eyebrows at each other  – the two of us felt that stupid. But  it didn’t take a fidge out of Presumer. He would lean into the cot, a piece of his greasy hair dangling over his forehead,  and whisper: “Here, wee magpie  – can you fart at all? Close your mouth – good man yourself – now push, push and give us  a rasper bomb!” And the baby would seem to understand him and go red in the face.

“What are you saying to the magpie, Sean?”  Frankie’s mammy would call from the scullery, in a smiling sort of voice.

“I’m teaching him to say Matthew Patrick”.

And Mrs Dalton would say “Aah!” or something like that, and then 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! You’ll do that, won’t you? My  lovely lovely wee boy!”

The baby didn’t know what she was talking about and eventually she’d give up and  go back to the scullery. Presumer would wait until she was settled with the spuds and then go on whispering, trying to get the baby to do bad things.

When it did – at the first whiff of fresh poo – the three of us would shout the news and Mrs Dalton would come bustling back in and scoop the baby up, call him a tricky wee chicken-magpie and take him to the bathroom for changing. As soon as she was out of the room Presumer would roll his eyes and collapse on the floor. Holding his nose he’d whisper 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 locking 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 glanced over at me and rolled his eyes – tell you the truth, I don’t  think Presumer even knew how to say his prayers.

After school my mother reported that Frankie’s mother was bearing up well to the shock, by all accounts. She had the house spick and span for people visiting, and both her and her husband were shaking hands all day and chatting as if nothing had happened – such control was never seen the length and breadth of Ireland.   In some ways, my mother said, you’d nearly sooner see the pair of them roaring and crying. Sometimes holding back would affect a body inside. Damage them. I told Presumer that and he said “Your ma knows more than her prayers.” 

But later that day Mrs Kelly next door told my mother that Mrs Dalton had started acting a bit funny, God help her. She was refusing to wear black clothes, which was what you were supposed to do if someone died. She wouldn’t even allow them to sew a wee diamond-shaped patch of black material on her coat sleeve. And she had sent word with the woman next door that she wanted me to call that evening to say goodbye to Matthew Patrick – and that I was to 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, barring the mercies, the same 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 ilooking at it wasn’t very nice. I tried to tell my mother I had a sore tummy and couldn’t go but she said nonsense, to clean my face and put on good clothes, I’d soon get better. When I got to Frankie’s house, she went on, the first thing I must do would be  shake hands with Frankie’s mammy and daddy and say “Sorry for your troubles”.  Then the second thing was, I was to kneel down ion the floor beside the coffin and say a wee prayer.   The baby was now sound and safe in heaven; and all they had  at Frankie’s house now was just the remains

“I’ll tell you what it’ll be like” Presumer said, emerging from his house in a pair 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? And hadn’ Uncle Mickey one night told a story where dead people came back and said they were lonely, they’d never rest until they had somebody with them for company in the grave ?

Presumer glanced sideways at me. “You look as if you’re going to chuck up” 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 crumpled grey  shirt.

The living room was crammed with people drinking tea, smoking, chatting their heads together, their eyes glancing up to see who were the latest visitors. I couldn’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 frock 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.

“Right bad handling, that” 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.

“Where’s what?”

“Your wee brother’s 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 going on?” I asked him.

“I was crying earlier. 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. Presumer 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 throw yourself about. 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 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 armchairs, 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 “Frigging right suffering, stuck in a corner like this for hours”. 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 little area.

Frankie frowned. “Over the water and under the water…Give up.” 

“An egg in a duck’s backside”.

The three of us went into a fit of giggling that someway didn’t match the mood of the room. When we recovered Presumer tapped Frankie’s knee again. “Here. Are we going to get seeing him then?”

“Seeing? Seeing who?”

“The corpse  – what do you think? You’re the one has the corpse. That’s what people come here  for, 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” and “Sure God look to him, it’s hard now, it is that. Right and hard surely.” And they’d sigh and take a swallow of tea or pull on their cigarette.

The coffin sat against 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, then raised an accusing finger. “The lid’s not open – why didn’t you keep the lid open? Your lid’s supposed to stay open until everybody’s seen the corpse and then 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?”

“Whose eyes?”

“Your brother – the corpse. I hardly meant the boy with the screwdriver.”

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 clapped his hand to his forehead. 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 was a right stupid thing, 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. To remember.”

Presumer scratched his oily scalp with one finger. “But the baby is dead! She’ll have a photograph of a dead baby. Where’s the sense in that?”

“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 thought hard for a minute “A sort of night-dress, I think.” 

“What about pyjamas?”

“No pyjamas”.

“A nappy?”

“No nappy”.

Presumer straightened up from the coffin, his mouth hanging open in shock. “He should have a nappy. Babies are supposed to wear nappies – that’s how you know they’re babies, for flip’s sake. If he has no nappy on in heaven, God could mistake him for a midget”.

I felt I should give Frankie a word of support. “I don’t think God makes 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, but. 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.  I saw this  autograph book one time,and somebody had signed their name and then wrote above it: ‘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. Anything. But nothing would come. This was even worse than when she used to ask us to talk to her wee magpie.

Presumer walked over to Mrs Dalton and tapped her folded arm. “Here. Why has a giraffe a long neck?” Before she could speak he gave her the answer “To join his head to his body. Good one that, isn’t it?  Try this: what did one wall say to the other wall?” 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 gathered 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 all. He just went on asking riddles, with 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 this time there must have been a dozen faces packed behind Mrs Dalton, all of them looking very serious and grown-up 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 in sharp contrast with her red dress. Still watching her, Presumer reached into his pocket  and took out his mouth organ. A quick wipe on his sleeve and he asked Mrs Dalton “Will I play you the Bum-bum song or ‘Good night Irene’ first?”  When she didn’t reply he said “”Right – I’ll do the two” and he began tp play the ‘Bum-Bum-Bum’ song, his left foot pounding time on the linoleum for the loud bits of the chorus. “Youse can join in if you want” he told the crowd behind Mrs Dalton, but nobody did.  By this time the entire doorway was jammed and Mr Dalton was standing behind his wife, his hand on her elbow. Still she didn’t budge an inch or change her expression. 

Presumer had just got to the end of the Bum-Bum song and was starting ‘Good night, Irene’, which sounded a bit sad, when the parish priest, his face very red , came thrusting through the people. 

“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. When he shouted that Mrs Dalton swung round to him 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 hit the swaying chorus  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 deadly still in the doorway, like water frozen at the edge of the drainpipe. I don’t think I ever heard Presumer play so well. He seemed to be in another world, and 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 front of his shirt 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. 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 pig 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 screams. 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 bedroom 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 who 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, but it was too late. After a couple of hopeless kicks and punches they had him grabbed, hands and feet pinned tight,and pulled him out.  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 on a cold day. “Have you no respect for living or dead, God or man? Answer me!” And his big right hand with hairs on the back of it rose to strike.

Squirming, Presumer showed his scummy teeth. He wasn’t smiling now, he was ripping mad. “Shut you your frigging trap, would you, you holy-poly big Balooba!” 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 s a crunching noise – a complete, totally finished, crunching noise. He had landed with the full weight of his right foot 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 together, doing a bit of shopping 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, so she 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. 

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