Read Portobello Notebook Online

Authors: Adrian Kenny

Portobello Notebook

To Charlie and Dympna, good neighbours

SPRING AGAIN
. I’m out jogging in the mornings along the canal bank, under the poplar trees opening green and gold, watching my step on the crushed fallen catkins, a purple smear all the way down to the Eveready factory fence. I get my breath, looking across at the Taylor Signs clock – 8.30, the rush-hour traffic just beginning – and I think of Michael sometimes as I jog back home.

 

THE FIRST TIME
I saw him was in the local shop. I was getting the evening paper, to see if my review was in.

He said, ‘What’s this?’ He had a west of Ireland voice, and I looked up. He was holding up a cauliflower. His left side was deformed. Cathy, behind the counter, cutting open the newspaper bundles, said, ‘My God, where have you been?’ She handed out
Presses
and
Heralds
to people in a hurry, then she said, ‘That’s a cauliflower.’

He had a long, open smile. ‘How do you cook it?’ he said, and
I said, ‘You just boil it,’ and he put it down. He was with a girl, I noticed then. She blushed and muttered something to him, and he said, ‘Have you rashers?’ Cathy said, ‘We have surely,’ and she wiped the knife clean.

Cathy was from the North, a newcomer like myself, but already she seemed in charge. It was probably her idea that the shopkeeper give him a job. His left arm bent as if he was carrying a bundle, his left leg bent so that his toe just touched the ground; he used to hang around the door chatting to her. I didn’t see him with his girl again. Anyway, he was part of the scene in our street that autumn and winter, pushing the trolley with his good right hand, delivering coal and briquettes. Michael was his name. I got to know him when I bought a piano.

 

HOW TO HANDLE
the enforced idleness small children bring? One of my answers was going to the auction room in Rathmines, as good as a museum to them, and I could lie back on an old sofa, watching paintings, swords, books, mirrors and clocks held up and knocked down: a huge facade, I thought sometimes – when my daughters grew restless and I had to leave – behind which bishops, artists, businessmen and politicians could hide, leaving the rest to do the real, the dirty work, minding children.

‘Anyone?’ The auctioneer came to a piano, a Victorian box of brass fittings and inlay. There was silence even when he ran his biro down the keys, playing a scale to show that it worked. ‘Ah come on. A fiver?’ He raised his eyebrows and looked around. Still in the first glow of home-making, and in gratitude for the hour of peace, I put up my hand. He rapped the end of the biro on Middle C. ‘Sold!’

When I said, ‘Does that include delivery?’ he laughed and moved on to the next lot. I stopped at the shop on my way home to ask for a hand.

 

THAT’S WHAT
I think of sometimes in the morning, as I get my breath at the Eveready factory fence: the struggle up to the hall door with that piano, its castors grating on the granite, our hands scrabbling for a hold on the slippery walnut veneer; resting on each step, our backs to the brute, to stop it falling down again.

‘Can you play it?’ the shopkeeper asked, and when I said No, he said, ‘What do you want it for?’

The door opened and my daughters appeared, tiny, remote, staring down at the grotesque thing coming up backwards. Michael said, ‘Won’t it be nice for the children.’ He got a grip with his powerful right hand. ‘Let it back to me.’

‘I shouldn’t have asked you. It must weigh a quarter-ton.’

‘You’re all right …’ He turned as a handsome girl went by, his own handsome face lighting up like a firefly, fading as she turned the corner.

‘You picked a good spot here.’ The shopkeeper looked at his watch. ‘Come on again.’

‘You’re settling in?’ A neighbour stopped, took off his jacket and hung it on a railing spearhead. A duck and a drake came flying down the street from the canal, quacking courting, six feet above the ground. It was spring. A priest went by. The sun came out and we rested again, backs to the brute.

‘Bill’s the name,’ the neighbour said.

‘Adrian.’

‘Frank.’

‘You have the shop now, Frank?’

‘That’s me. This is Michael.’

It was like a small party as Michael lifted the lid and slammed a chord.

‘And what brought you to Dublin, Michael?’

‘The Rehab. I was doing upholstering –’

‘She doesn’t need upholstering.’ Frank nodded at another girl going past, up to the Labour Exchange.

‘– But sure I wasn’t interested.’ Michael looked, and looked away.

‘You’ll find something. Come on – we’ll be here all day.’

Bill rolled up his sleeves and said, ‘We’ll walk her up.’

Woodworm dust spilled from the squat legs, smearing our hands as we waddled them over the threshold. ‘You won’t be moving again in a hurry!’ Michael smiled as the castors sank into the hall carpet and stopped.

 


AND YOU THINK
you know someone,’ Cathy said, when they found him. She thought he had gone home, back to the west.

It was a week before he came to the surface, floated up swollen, and was seen in the morning rush hour. The blind man was going down Grove Road, beating his white stick along the wall; I was jogging along the other side of the canal as they lifted him out – just by the Taylor Signs clock. That’s how you settle in.

THEIR DAINTY
doorknocker rattled, then banged louder. Ta-ta-ta!

‘That’s Harry,’ she said.

‘I’m going down to the shed.’

‘Shed. Bed. That’s all you do.’

‘I have to do my work.’

‘You’re just hiding from life.’ His wife’s footsteps banged down the hall.

He slipped out the back door and down the dark path to his study, a garden shed. From there he could see Harry come into the kitchen, his hat brushing the white paper lampshade, sending his shadow swinging against the walls. Paring a pencil, he watched him sit down, take off his shoes. He could guess what he was saying – his feet were killing him again. He set to work.

Ta-ta-ta. The Everest typewriter tapped as persistently as Harry, but no door opened. It was like digging granite with a teaspoon. It was like … he was moaning like Harry. He set to again.

Eight – nine – ten o’clock. For half a page. He didn’t dare to reread it. The rest of the book stretched before him like … He turned off the paraffin stove, switched off the light and went up to the house. Harry was on his third pot of tea, drinking it steaming from the saucer.

‘Well, Abraham.’ He called everyone Abraham.

‘Harry. How’s the foot?’

‘It’s both of them. Ooh! My God!’

‘You should try another doctor.’

‘I’ve tried every bloody doctor. What do you think it is, ma’am?’

‘I don’t know.’ Through her teeth she said to her husband, ‘I’m going to bed.’

‘Goodnight, ma’am!’

He took over. ‘Another cup of tea, Harry?’

‘No, no!’

‘I’m making it anyway.’

‘I’d love a cup of water if you have it.’

‘Is the doctor giving you anything?’

‘Everything. It’s no use.’

He lived around the corner. Everyone had run from him always. He was odd.

‘Not a bad old day, Abraham.’

‘Were you out?’

‘Just down Pleasants Street, selling a bit of old scrap. Ooh!’ He fingered his toes through his socks. ‘My God!’

‘Is Maurice not here?’

‘That fella’s never here. I don’t know why I took him in.’

He talked as loudly as ever, but he was nervous now. He had begun calling since he had been robbed – two tinkers had broken in, tied him to the bed, beaten him with an iron bar and taken everything.

When half past ten came, he said, ‘Are you walking round the corner, Abraham?’

And when they came to his gate: ‘Do you want to come in for a minute?’

‘No word from the guards?’ He stepped in.

‘A young fella was round to see me again. What were they like? he says. Like Mother Theresa! I said. What sort of damn fool question is that? Just have a look around, Abraham.’

He went into the sitting room first, as usual. Framed photos everywhere of Jewish men and women in 1920s’ clothes; a book – one God … unity of all things – a prayer book thrown open on an armchair; little ritual cups and bowls in a glass-fronted cabinet – its door still open since the robbery; a piano with rotten legs.

‘All right in there, Abraham?’

‘All right.’

They stood together in the hall. Maurice’s door had been fitted with a big new bolt and padlock. ‘Where is he tonight?’

‘Shelbourne Park. More trouble than he’s worth.’

Maurice was a bookie, but he had been a boxer once. Harry had given him a room, in exchange for protection.

‘He looks after himself, that fella. Look what he spent eight pounds on this morning.’ Harry led the way down to the kitchen, pointed to Maurice’s tins of sardines and jars of pickles on the filthy table. Everything was filthy except the new back door and its gleaming bolts.

‘Will I look upstairs?’

‘Mind yourself, Abraham.’

The stairs was almost falling down. He went up, close to the wall. On the landing, where the worst drips fell, the boards were sodden. He edged into Harry’s small back room.

From its window he could see the back of his own house. His
wife was up again, in the kitchen, tidying after them. She seemed far away. She was right. Shed, bed – burrowing into his
never-never
memory, dream, imagination or whatever it was. He gave her no life. He felt suddenly as cold as Harry’s room.

‘All right in there, Abraham?’

A cheap brass ritual candlestick, a wax-splashed matchbox, an electric fire in an oven-roasting tray on the bedside locker. He returned to the landing. ‘All right.’

‘No harm to put that in.’ Harry came up with a light bulb. ‘In the front room.’

He hadn’t been in there before. In the sudden light the long room seemed unreal: the ceiling sagging like a belly, a brimming red plastic basin under a leak, fallen wallpaper curled like huge ribbons along the skirting-boards, drawers up-ended by the tinkers on the bed.

‘This was the mother’s room.’ Harry clapped his arms about himself for warmth. From the dressing table he took a framed newspaper photo, wiped it on his sleeve, screwed up his eyes and read the caption aloud to himself. ‘Rabbi Hertzog … That’s the uncle.’

‘Where’s he?’

‘Manchester. That’s where he was.’

‘You never thought of following in his footsteps?’

‘God no.’ He put it down carefully. ‘I stayed with the mother.’

Standing under the bare swinging light bulb, listening to Harry talk about his mother, he thought of his own mother, a woman who had only to stand at a bus stop for someone to appear and tell the story of his life. He had it too; he must have got it from her. What was it?

‘… Never spit in somebody else’s water, she used to say. You might have to drink from it someday …’

He nodded. Some sort of passivity? He seemed to have spent
half his life like this – in pubs, trains, under trees along the canal bank – listening.

‘Where’s that fella got to?’ Harry broke off and went to the window.

‘He’ll be here.’

‘What time is it at all?’

‘It’s only eleven.’

Harry began to talk again – stories about his horse and cart, long-ago journeys through Ireland, buying feathers, lead, antiques, scrap.

Listening … like a cracked jug that never filled … he looked over Harry’s sloping shoulders at the chaos. A gilt plaster pediment torn from a mirror, crowned with a lead cherub in an overcoat of greasy fluff. A broken violin stained with ox-blood boot polish. A tiny picture lay on the littered dressing table. He took it up.

Why? Some basic flaw? Still listening, he licked a finger, dabbed at the paint. His fingertip turned black and he licked another finger, dabbed again until he saw white; green. He turned it to the light. A white waterfall, a green field below with two goats and a figure the size of a pin, its head picked out with one grain of red. ‘That’s lovely,’ he said.

‘What’s that?’ Harry took the painting, screwed up his eyes again, turned it over – the old dealer for a moment – and tapped its back. ‘That’s on board.’

‘You don’t want to sell it?’

‘I’d give it to you, only it’s not mine.’ Harry set it down, went to the window and peered out again. ‘Everything’s between me and the sister, above in Kimmage Road West.’ He walked down the room, clapping his arms about himself again. He made an effort, picked up the ruined violin. ‘Now that’s something. That’s worth a fortune …’

There was a scraping noise, like a rat, he thought. But it was a key turning in the hall door’s new Chubb lock. Harry went first, limping quickly downstairs, calling, ‘Is that you, Maurice?’

‘Who do you think it’d be, you cunt?’ Back from the dog track, his leather bag clutched to his leather overcoat, Maurice brushed past them both. His face lead-grey, flabby jowls scowling, he was like an anti-Semite cartoon. He unlocked and unbolted his door and disappeared.

‘About that picture …’ Harry opened the hall door, talking loudly, as if to hear his own voice one last time that night. ‘That’ll be all right. I’ll be seeing the sister on Sunday. She won’t be too hard on you.’

‘Will you be all right now?’

‘Goodnight, Abraham.’

He walked home slowly around the corner. All the nights he had walked home. He looked up at the stars. All the stories he had heard. He walked up the steps. Strange how his life had taken shape. He raised the knocker; a small brass mermaid holding a scallop shell of brass, then remembered he had the key.

‘Ssh,’ his wife called up softly as he shot the bolt.

Seeing things … hearing things … trying to write things. That would be his life, as Harry’s life had been buying junk and trying to sell it on. There would be no change now. He felt a spasm of sadness, almost like a pain.

From the kitchen he saw Harry enter his bedroom and, framed for a minute in his curtainless window, undress to his shirt and Sabbath skullcap. The light went out and he disappeared, alone now with his gangrened feet and those words neither of them had ever spoken – ‘hardening of the arteries’.

Strange how that picture had been there all the time amongst that rubbish. And now it would be his. He tiptoed downstairs,
looked into the children’s room, went into his own.

His wife murmured, ‘Is he all right?’

‘Maurice came home.’ He undressed.

‘Poor Harry,’ she sighed. The row was over.

He got into bed beside her. He could see it, even in the dark. The white waterfall pouring down, the red-capped figure minding two goats in the green below. His wife turned on her side, and he heard her deep breathing – asleep already, now he was home.

He would try harder. He would live, he would give. He’d begin in the morning. He put his arm about her, and fell asleep too. Such a beautiful picture.

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