Read an Excerpt from "The Boy at the Gate"
I was born in the heart of Dublin City. In the same old one bedroom tenement flat where my granny, eighteen years before, gave birth to my ma. Where the rats, emboldened by my poor marksmanship, would saunter over to the rug beneath the dining table, and finding no crumbs again, would dine where they left off last time; on the rug itself. Where the wooden shelves from cupboards and scullery, promoted like that rug, to a station never intended by their makers, were chopped up for kindling, with bread knife and rolling pin. Where Ma, at night, with Guinness and without Da, would sing for my two younger sisters and I by that little fire, her dark, beautiful voice so filled with emotion that she’d almost scare us. With eyes darting nervously around the room, following the shadows cast by the flames, we’d forget the hunger and the cold as the deep river of her voice held us like boats in the night.
Life was hard, turbulent, often violent, but always colorful.
Later, there was the drab corporation housing estate in Rathfarnham where events too terrible for words, spun our already unstable world completely out of control. Later still, there was the orphanage, the now infamous Artane Industrial School, where the laser malice of the Christian Brothers, would imbue those earlier memories of Green Street with the haunted nostalgia they really shouldn’t hold.
In Artane, the blessing of music captured my soul. Running like a crystal river through the dark, ancient corridors of that harsh institution, it fought for my heart even as events hardened it; where are you, my friend? Even after leaving the orphanage, as I fought desperately not to be defined by my past, as I buried it beneath my career and my quest for musical excellence, I felt music herself plead with me to slow down, to feel what’s truly going on inside me.
And that’s where this story begins: The night music finally took me across half a century of avoidance, to face the lost child within me. In an ancient log cabin in the mountains of North Carolina, I found him, that cold December night, in a song.
I am the shadow of the eagle hiding the coalfields from the sky
I am the water that’s undrinkable I am the tears you never cry
I am the sigh of endless yearning behind the burning of the day
I am the warrior remembering that I am the child who came to play
By Danny Ellis- from his song; “I came to play.”
Liz and I, call it Cooper’s Cabin after our landlord and friend, Cooper Cartwright. I’m just home from my gig at the Mountain Air Country Club, in Burnsville, where I sing during dinner. My wife is asleep in our tiny bedroom where the wind sneaks through the chinking between the logs as easily as the ants. Her thirteen-year-old daughter, Irene, is also asleep upstairs. With the heat from the log fire wafting up over the open balcony, the loft is ten degrees warmer. After I check on Irene, I creep in for a sleepy kiss from Liz.
“How was the gig, sweetie?” She reaches a hand to touch my cheek and is back asleep before I can finish my answer. I load up the firebox in the living room to the brim, enough wood I hope, to last till morning. It’s our only source of heat, our first departure from central heating. I catch my reflection in the picture of Liz and Irene on the wall behind the fire. I look very tired. My focus changes to look at the girls. I took this photo; Siesta Key Beach in Sarasota, Florida, a couple of years ago. It’s my favorite picture of my girls. The palm trees in the background and the sugar-white sand in the foreground are exotic and evocative, but it’s the look between Liz and Irene that gives the scene its strength; It fills the whole frame. That gaze characterizes their relationship. That deep, mother-child-knowing never ceases to surprise and fascinate me. My focus changes and I’m looking at my own reflection again. I shrug off my vague dissatisfaction with the image. I step outside again to fetch my keyboard from the Ford. I set it up in my studio; a tiny, separate building, five yards from the cabin.
Though I’m tired after the four-hour gig and the long drive home, I’m soon tinkling away on the keys as I let myself relax into the music. This is how I unwind; the hair of the dog. It works for me. Tonight, I’m a little fed up. I don’t know why.
Maybe it’s because Christmas is coming.
Usually, when I’m taken by this mood I’ll start a new song. Something nice and sad that no-one will ever hear. Thirty years of meditation has taught me to embrace emptiness as a friend. I’m always up for a little downward mobility. I’ve been here a thousand times. Down I go, playing the keys: Lonely chords, seeped in the melancholy maybe only certain Celtic music or Indian ragas are comfortable plumbing. Melodies rise, feelings fall; the sad notes are unashamed of their nakedness, proud of their vulnerability. I hum the cadence, letting it take me. The feelings articulate beyond words. I let myself float, sinking deeper into a river of allowing. Words are taking form now; vowels and consonants, springing freely from this primal surrender. I let them come up unedited—as I always do with a new song—without knowing their meaning. I barely comprehend them.
800 Voices echo ’cross the gray playground
Shouts of fights and god knows what
I still can hear that sound
Christ! It’s him. The kids are playing on the orphanage schoolyard! He’s standing by the gate, watching them, petrified with fear. The song continues to unfold the playground tapestry within my body and soul. I’m transfixed, leaning over my keyboard, aghast that I’ve allowed this but unable to stop.
With their hobnail boots and rough tweed
Angry seas of brown and green
The toughest godforsaken bunch that I had ever seen
Outside, the cold winter air falls heavily over Tanbark Ridge. It makes its way down through Bull Creek Valley to moan in the pine and poplar that grace the hundred and fifty acres of the Cartwright Farm. The wailing wind encourages the reverie. From a well deeper than I’ve ever drawn from, the song continues to write itself, the words springing up in phrases—as if already written.
I was taken cross the schoolyard in the cold December morn
Through the games of ball and the wrestling kids fighting to stay warm
There I handed in my trousers and my khaki gabardine
Farewell to the last reminders of a home in smithereens.
Silent tears run down my cheeks. I can’t stop this headlong descent into the memories of that first dreadful day in Artane. I’m not sure I want to stop it. My quivering lips can barely form the words.
I’ll be back for you this Christmas
I can hear my mammy say
And the bitter truth within that lie
I’ve yet to face today
Now I’m shaking, the quiet tears have turned to heaving sobs, each one a wave, surging up from my stomach to my chest. I can’t believe I’m letting myself feel this. I’m thoroughly ashamed of myself. This isn’t supposed to happen! It’s the kind of indulgence I’ve avoided for nearly five decades. I’ve meditated my way past it, transcended it, shouted my way beyond it in rock’n’roll songs in smoky pubs halfway round the world.
Now, here I am letting that whiny little eejit of an eight-year-old boy come through unbridled in a damn song for god’s sake get a grip on yerself yer falling apart here. That’s better. There ya go. Sorry ’bout that. Went a little bit mad there for a bit, didn’t I? Tighten up, man! Get above it.
But another wave of sympathy for the boy breaks across my rationale, catching me between compassion and abhorrence. For a moment, compassion wins. OK. Let’s sing the damn song again and see what happens.
I’ll be back for you this Christmas
I can hear my mammy say
And the bitter truth within that lie
I’ve yet to face today
Surrendering to the feelings, I allow new words to spring up from them without conscious direction.
When it gets too much for feeling
You just bury it somehow
And that eight-year-old abandoned lad
Still waits for her right now.
That’s it. It’s all over. Those words, they’ll never go back in again—ever. Under the cover of the melodies and the feelings, he slipped out past me when I wasn’t looking. But I’m looking now and I can see him. Feel him too, and smell that rough orphanage tweed that chaffs his thighs and wrists till they’re blood raw. I hear him; mammy, daddy, mammy, daddy, mammy, daddy, mammy, daddy. There’s a fire in the center of my chest and again, I give in to the heaving sobs. Thank God Liz can’t hear them. I’ll never play this song for her—or anybody else. This stuff is mad and I’m lost in it. But I’m breathing more deeply and freely than I’ve ever done. Why does it feel so bloody good to be so bloody lost?
I’ve been lost before. God knows, meditation and contemplation has shown me some home truths about myself that shattered me to the … well, almost to the core: My personality is a fake. It’s all made up, isn’t it? Bits and pieces of stuff I’ve gathered from everyone all held together by glue, sellotape and hope-nobody-notices. It’s been broken and rebuilt, challenged and found wanting so many times that I’m almost happy to have it fall apart every now and then so I can start over. But this is different. Till now, I always felt sure some angel of light would fix it from above; the wisdom of the soul, through meditation, would trickle-down and put everything right. Well, whatever is underneath my transcendence isn’t getting any trickle-down. It’s pissed off, with plenty to say and I’m not at all sure I’m ready to hear it.
I lock up my studio and shuffle across the yard to the cabin in the cold. I’m a little unsteady on my feet and it’s not because of the wind that’s shaking the evergreens. I creep into bed beside Liz. She sighs contentedly. She feels soft and warm—and whole. I snuggle up beside her in the dark trying to stop processing what just happened.
But my mind is racing. No sleep tonight. After a while, I creep out of bed and tiptoe into the living room. I sit and stare at the fire. It’s burning way too fast. Adjust the damper, quick, for God’s sake. But it’s too late. It’s blazing far beyond turning down. He’s not going away, is he?
Then it hits me like a smack in the face: I’m talking about a part myself in the third person; my childhood self. I’m calling that part of myself him. My God! I’ve abandoned him as just like everyone else. This realization fills me with sadness. Something inside cracks open and I find myself asking softly;
OK. What do you want to say to me?
No answer. But at least now I’m calling him you. That’s about halfway between him and me. Maybe that’s close enough for now.
I stand up from the fire and stretch. I feel a little better. I get a drink of water, grab my old Washburn guitar from the hook on the cabin wall and start to sing the song again—quietly, so as not to wake Liz. It feels so different on the guitar; more intimate and personal than the keys. I’m surprised to realize I want to finish the song, surprised to find that I don’t want to lose him again. I take down the old picture of the orphanage band, from atop the oak hutch: The Artane Boys Band. I’ve had that picture for almost four decades and I’ve barely glanced at it.
But there he is now, in the back row, with the trombone section; God, but he’s a sorry looking sod! Lost as Lent, no trace of a smile, no glint in his eye. I look at him for a long while through the mixed feelings of rejection, pity and shame.
But I know what I must do. This is going to take a while—all night maybe. But after fifty years, what’s the hurry?
I drape myself around the guitar, my chin resting on its waist. As my fingers strum the chords, deep within my breath something moves to make room, to invite.
Here, they come; memories, gentle as the breezes that blew over Ireland from the Gulf Stream, sudden warmings in the dead of winter, that lifted the drab, sunless mornings to new hope. Then they’re cold and gray as the concrete of the orphanage playground where I was forced to hide my sorrow away like a deranged relative. Memories; soft and easy as the light from the old street lamps in Green Street, then hard and cruel as the leather strap across the legs on a cold day.
Right from the beginning, even before I had the words to record why, it was so easy for me to drift away into an inner world. The casual rejection of Ma and Da was surely present even before my first memory of it at two, I had impetigo, my face was red raw and covered with sores, Da recoiled like he’d seen a leper as Ma tried to get him to hold me; “Get that scabby git away from me, before I throw up.”
“I’ve been rocking him for an hour and now it’s your bloody turn. If he doesn’t stop crying, I’ll throw him out the shagging window.”
Ah, yes, out the window. That’s nice. Out I’ll go and fly off like a bird. Pushed away from the harshness of their world into a realm of fantasy, I was already an expert at disengaging. Completely self-absorbed, left alone on the cold floor, hardly even noticing the cold, I’d still be in the exact same position when they turned back to me an hour later with the Guinness breath.
“Come to yer mammy ya poor unfortunate crature. Yer bloody freezing with the cold,”
Ah, that’s what that funny feeling is; cold.
Hunger was the same; “Ya must be starvin’, son.”
Oh, is that what you call it? I was wondering what that feeling was.
Barely aware of my body, my vacuous look drew more abuse than sympathy. “What’s wrong with that bloody child?” Relatives asked. Nothing’s wrong with me. I’m grand.
I probably came out of myself a little as my sisters were born, first Patricia, strong and willful, then Kate, sweet-natured and shy. When Da left for other shores to find work, the house full of girls softened my remoteness a bit. But not too much; I still reserved the right to vanish inside myself at the drop of a hat. That was a skill I wasn’t going to give up without a fight, a fight I would win until I was forced to show up by events on the Artane playground.
If I’d had the language then, I might have said I’m being shaped by absence; Absence of love, warmth, touch.
Yeah, absence. It’s all over the bloody place. Now, it’s the absence of Black Bob, my Christmas present, that’s causing all the trouble.
“Where’s me Black Bob annual?” My two younger sisters don’t even look up from opening their presents wrapped in yesterday’s Evening Herald.
“What Black Bob annual?” Ma’s pretending not to remember her promise.
“The one you said I’d be getting on Christmas morning.”
“I never said any such thing.” Ma rubs her belly tenderly. She’s been doing that a lot lately.
“You did, Ma, didn’t she Patricia?”
“No, she didn’t.” I wish I had more important enemies that Patricia, but at least she’s more than willing to be my first.
Ever since the day I played football with her orange, Patricia has hated me. I kicked that unfortunate orange all the way down Moore Street to Parnell Street and up Little Britain Street to join with the lads, John O and Jemser on Green Street, in booting it all the way to number nine, where we live. Finally, I carried it up the stairs where Patricia lay sick in bed with the flu, for which the only cure, known to all in Ireland, except meself, is an orange.
Ma meets me at the door. Behind her, Kate, my youngest sister, is holding Patricia’s hand as she lies in Ma’s bed in the living room. Ma’s hand is outstretched for the magical cure. I give it to her and she drops it instantly.
“Jesus Christ, what happened to that bloody orange? It’s squishy as a squashed fish.” Ma groans. “What did you do to it?” A little smack on the head for me.
“It’s not just my fault, Ma, I swear. Jemser and John O kicked it too, up the street like a football.”
“I’ll kick you up the street, you dirty looking eejit. That orange is good for nothing now. You’ve kicked all God’s goodness out the bloody thing. Patricia could have new-monia for all you care.”
“I wish she had.” I thought, and as if she heard me, Patricia started up like she was a banshee trying out for a job on Halloween.
“Oh, me orange! It’s all flat and floppy. I’m awful sick, that’s what I am and I’ll never get better now. Yer just a fecking bowsie, Danny Ellis!”
Ma smacks me across the head again. “Stop cursing ya Protestant or I’ll banjax ya,”
“I’m not cursing Ma, it’s Patricia.”
“Don’t call me Ma either. Call me Mammy. Only poor people call their mothers Ma.”
The orange was months ago, and don’t ask me why, but Patricia’s still mad at me. Maybe she needs enemies too. No help there then, from her. So with Black Bob’s absence laying the seeds of a lifelong hatred of Christmas in my six-year old heart, I do the only decent thing a lad can do at my age, I run away. Later in the evening as the girls are doing girly things with girly toys, I take off for America.
Patricia couldn’t care less if I run away and I’m not sure about Ma. Patricia’s full of a wild, quick fire, like the newspapers Ma burns when there’s no wood. They flare up real fast and swoosh up the chimney. That’s Patricia; blue-red flames quick as lightning. Wish I could give dirty looks like that, she could stop a bus. So she doesn’t care less whether I run away to America or China. Kate cares, but she cares for everyone, so that doesn’t really count. What’s the use of having someone on your side who’s also on everyone else’s? But Katie is everybody’s favorite. Her gorgeous blond curls fall around her sweet, wide eyes like the golden, spirally Christmas decorations Ma’s hung beneath the gas mantles on the walls. I love Katie and she loves me. I love Patricia too but I wouldn’t tell her, she’d probably … well, I don’t know what she’d do coz I’ve never told her. Maybe I should tell her. But I’m afraid. I’ll practice on Katie first. I give her a kiss. Katie’s heart is as open as the gates of Smithfield Market on a Wednesday morning. She cried all day when I first started school at Halston Street Boys. I’m her hero. If I wasn’t afraid of me own shadow, I’d fight anyone who upset her. But she’s too sweet to ever get upset at anyone, so my cowardice is never revealed.
But she’s going to miss me in my absence. I’m off to the docks. I’ll cadge a lift across the ocean on a boat and I’ll meet Da in New York. He’ll buy me a Black Bob annual and I’ll join him in the American army. Wait now. I’ll need his address. I grab one of his letters from the stack behind the clock on the mantelpiece and stick it in me back pocket.
Da’s letters from America; the red and blue borders on the envelopes, the crispy, important feel of the paper, always set my heart pounding, my imagination racing. Ma reads them feverishly; over and over. I watch as the faraway look in her eye slowly hardens and I wander off to play, confused.
Da is a hero when absent and a stranger when home. Heroes don’t stay home. Like arrows, they’re made to fly, and wherever they land, they don’t belong there.
But I’ll punch anyone who says I don’t have a da—anyone smaller. I suppose I miss him—I’m not sure really. When he was here we didn’t see him very much coz he wasn’t here very much. He was always off somewhere else looking for work. Work seems very important to everybody but I never understand why anyone would have to look for it. Ma complains sometimes: “There isn’t enough hours in God’s long day for all the work I have to do. Every bloody place I look, all I see is work, work and more work.”
So, if work is to be found everywhere, why is everyone always looking for it? I once heard Ma get real mad at Da, when he came home tipsy one Monday afternoon and crawled into bed. “If there was work in that bed, you’d sleep on the floor.” I never saw him sleep on the floor so I knew work couldn’t be in the bed. Where work was and where it wasn’t, seemed to decide whether or not we saw Da. But it looks like work is in New York coz Da’s been there for a year now. And work must be in the army too—he’s a soldier. At first, Ma thought that was all great, coz Da promised to save enough money to bring us all over to America. I thought that was great too.
America is the place in the Technicolor pictures we see on the Maro, the cinema on Mary Street. The English flix are all in black-and-white and American ones are in color. America is beautiful in lovely reds and blues and greens and England is boring in stupid grays and blacks. No wonder there’s work in America, that’s where I’d be if I was work. Maybe God is in America. And the way Americans talked: All slow and low and smooth; “Git yore hands up.” Not all fast and squeaky like the English; “I say old chap, can you spare a fag?”
There’s a troubled look in Ma’s eye when she says the word America these days. But that’s where Da is and that’s where I’m headed. I run down Green Street towards the quays. Here comes the Liffey stench. It’s a slow, sly sort of a smell. Like the silent farts me sisters and I let fly, beneath the blanket at night, when me Ma is out late with her friends. Ma hates the Liffey smell. On warm days it makes its way north to Green Street. Walking home from school, sometimes I’ll make a mark on the ground when I’m not able to smell it anymore then walk backwards with my eyes closed till I can smell it again. It’s a different spot every day.
“Close that bloody window before we all faint for Christ’s sake.” I once heard Ma say to her brother, my Uncle Matty. “Why don’t they just dredge the damn thing so we can all breathe again?”
“You can’t go dredging the Liffey.” Uncle Matt said impatiently, “you’d poison the whole city with the years of shite clumped beneath it. Better leave well enough alone.”
Maybe that’s a good idea.
“What’s that song, Danny—it’s beautiful?” I spin around from the fire. Completely flustered, I bang my guitar on the chair. Liz is back from shopping. I didn’t hear her come in behind me.
“Nothing really. It’s just something I’ve been working on.” It’s been three days and I still haven’t plucked up the courage to sing her the song. Normally, I bounce every line of every new composition past her. Not this one—not yet.
But she’s caught me. I’m strumming idly, avoiding her eyes. She stays quiet. After an awkward minute, I say nervously: “This is something… I mean, it’s not really anything… Anyway, don’t worry about it. It’ll never see the light of day.”
I try to grin but it’s a grimace. She doesn’t respond.
“Look, it’s not anything I’ll ever sing to anyone else. It’s just something from my past that sprung up from I don’t know where…I’m still working on it, I may not even finish it… oh, for God’s sake, listen.”
She sits down opposite me, mildly concerned with my manner. I start the song. 800 Voices echo cross the gray playground…
I’m barely able to keep my voice from breaking and I’m ashamed of where the song is taking me. Halfway through, I force myself to look over at Liz. Her eyes are swimming in tears. When I finish, there’s a long silence.
“You have to finish that song, sweetheart.” Her voice is very soft. “That child has something very important to tell you.”
Yeah, listen. I’m running away to America. The Liffey smell’s getting stronger and stronger. I run down Arran Street and turn left on to Ormond Quay toward the lights on Capel Street Bridge. Its real name is Grattan Bridge, but nobody in Dublin calls it by that stupid name. I cross the wet road and climb the iron ladder that curves over the river wall and look down into the dirty-green water below and breathe it all in slow and deep.
A seagull squawks above. Below, the cigarette packs, Players, Sweet Afton and Woodbines, the Guinness bottles and the banana peels, the bits and pieces of Dublin’s shame, all float lazily by. Anna Liffey, you’re not the lass you used to be, they say. Your body holds the sins you never committed. Below and above, Dublin City speaks through you as much as its songs.
But Black Bob! He’d jump in there now in a flash. So would I if it was summer and I could swim. It’s not and I can’t so I don’t. But I do the next best, stupidest thing. I climb down the ladder holding on to the freezing iron rungs. When I get to the bottom, eight feet below, I hang on tight to the ladder and imagine I’m on the boat to New York.
Then I see it, downriver a bit; A comic! Gone are thoughts of sailing to Da and here comes … wait, it’s Steve Canyon, in full American color. I’m down on the last rung as the comic comes on the slow promise of the incoming tide. My arse is an inch from the water as it floats toward me and with one hand on the ladder I stretch to grab it greedily.
Argh!! I’m spitting filthy water out of me mouth and coughing and screaming me head off all at the same time. Down I go again. Now I know why the Liffey smells so bad. Shite! Vomiting and choking and I’m not screaming anymore. I’m sorry Ma; I don’t care about the Black Bob annual. Stupid dog! I knew you didn’t have the money for it anyway, Ma. Patricia, I love you and I’m sorry about kicking your orange kicking your orange and jingle bells jingle bells jingle home for Christmas.
A strong hand grabs of me by the scruff of the neck, I’m being lifted up the ladder like a rat, still vomiting. I’m dragged over the wall and on to the pavement, coughing and crying.
“Yer all right son, yer all right now, son. There ya are, now. That was too close for comfort wasn’t it. Christ, what a way to spend Christmas.”
Gray haired and unshaven, his dirty clothes are as black as his toothless grin, and the smell of Guinness on his breath overpowering the Liffey’s own. Cold eyes look at me from under wild bushy eyebrows. The relief and gratitude I feel is mixed with some feeling in my gut that won’t leave even as he shakes me to keep me warm.
“What in the name of Jaysus were ya trying to do? I saw ya climbing down the ladder and thought to meself, has he dropped something?”
It’s then I notice that I’m still holding the Steve Canyon comic in me right hand. Just in case it was his comic I blurt quickly; “Yeah, me comic, me comic!! I dropped me comic.” It’s mine now; he’s not getting it back.
“Yer comic was nearly the death of ya, son.”
Great! It’s not his comic.
“Let’s get you and yer comic home to yer mam and dad before we all famish with the cold.”
“Me da’s in America, it’s only me ma,” I blurt and immediately regret it. He’s stopped breathing and so have I.
He grins and his eyes half close for a second. “Yer mother will make us a nice cup of tea then.”
That’s when my belly did an odd, cold turn and it wasn’t from the filthy Liffey water I’d swallowed either. I’m looking up at him through the steam of me breath in the dark of the evening and I’m shaking and it’s not from the cold.
“Where do ya live?”
I grit my teeth hard. Slowly, a funny feeling creeps all over me, like another person, only it’s me, a harder, darker me. Black Daniel. Hot and sure, it moves up from my belly to the top of my head. For the first time in my whole life I see a way to control things. It feels like I’m suddenly six feet tall. I stop trembling. I shake the water out of me shoes with strong kicks.
“Bolton Street. Number forty-five,” says I. Massive! How easy it is to make up things! I kick my legs a bit more and go on making up stuff: “Close to the fish and chipper, up past the bookies on the left…”
He interrupts me impatiently and the grin is gone. “C’mon then. C’mon.”
As we walk along I say. “I have a big brother, Seamus, he’s a policeman. He’s very strong y’know. He can lift me up with one hand.” I’m enjoying this new make-up-stuff trick and besides, I’m gathering reinforcements in case I need them.
He stops suddenly and grabs me by the collar. “I thought you said it was only yer ma.”
Christ! You have to be careful with this trick. You have to remember what you made up earlier. “Yeah, it’s only me ma and me sisters and me big strong brother Seamus. He’s big as a house and very bad tempered.”
He grins and I know he doesn’t believe me. I took it too far. But that’s all right I have another idea.
When we get to Green Street, I know exactly what I’m going to do. The street is empty but the hall doors of the tenements are all open as usual. No locks on Green Street. Nothing worth stealing. When we get to number seven, I bolt through the front door, down the dark hallway out into the back-yard and over the wall and into number eight yard before he could turn and see I’m not beside him anymore. I crouch by the wall with my heart bursting out of my ribs and my breath heaving like a train and I’m not a bit cold anymore. Trying to tame my breathing, I hear him shuffling and cursing at the back yard door of number seven.
“Shite! He’s bloody scanoodled. The lying bastard!”
Ah, that’s what making up stuff is called; lying. Always wondered about that.
I follow the gravel driveway down to the path that circles the Cartwright Farm. Up the looped trail I go, through the woods and along by the stream. I’m smiling wryly to myself, remembering the Liffey Man affair: the birth of Black Daniel. God knows, it’s happened to every child in history, but for me, as I recognize that first, dizzy adventure in falsehood, I’m amazed at the long, winding road it’s led me down. Once I learnt how to lie there was no going back. With the disregard for truth echoing all around me, I never thought about it in terms of right or wrong. It was simply the most sensible way forward in a pinch. I’d lied before, hot little denials to escape blame or punishment. But with the Liffey Man it was very different. This was a calm, calculated attempt to manipulate a scary situation and it changed the way I operated forever. I didn’t know what I was doing or why I lied to him, but although I was only six, I knew enough to trust the instinct and it felt good—in fact, it was intoxicating. That man who saved my life may have deserved better, but the sense of danger, real or imagined, was more primal than the gratitude. With his filthy black overcoat and smelly Guinness breath, he was not getting past our door—Black Daniel made sure of that. I saw The Liffey Man again; weeks later on Capel Street and the dark look he gave made me think I’d been right. But with this exciting new power I’d discovered, nothing would ever be certain again: Whether he was mad at me for betraying his heroism or because I’d foiled his plan to murder us all, I’ll never know. Deception confuses the deceiver more than the deceived.
Ah, but did I pull the wool over his eyes or what? I can’t wait to try it out on Ma. I climb the wall between yards number eight and nine. In a jiffy, I’m up the stairs and in the door home, dripping wet and shivering.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Would ya look at the cut of ya?” Ma is more worried than mad.
I’m trying out my new trick, what did the Liffey man call it? Lying; “I was walking down by the Liffey, minding me own business, when this bunch of lads caught me and threw me in the water.” I’m warming up to the story with loads of great add-ons ready, when the look on Ma’s face stops me dead. She’d been looking at the dripping comic in my hand and now her eyes, beautiful and full of understanding, rise to meet mine.
“Ah, come in for Jaysus sake, you’d swim the Liffey itself for a Steve Canyon comic.” She winks. “Santy is looking out for you after all, eh? Come in you saturated heap of misery, before you freeze to death.”
You don’t get too many hugs round Green Street, but I’m getting plenty tonight and I’m not sure why. Steve Canyon is drying by the turf fire, Ma is singing to us in her dark, beautiful voice and Christmas 1953 is behaving itself at last.