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A Date To Remember
The street was quiet. Nora looked at the abandoned tram on its rails in the middle of Sackville Street and thought of her daddy. At ten o'clock this morning he too had left his car in College Green. Just got his top coat and walked off. “The swells will be on their way to the horse show” he had boasted. “I wonder will they walk.” Mammy hadn't joined in his laughter. She just held Sean closer to her as he coughed.
It was the 26 of August 1913. Nora repeated the date to herself as her bare feet squished into muddy puddles and she squirmed at the coldness of the water. All along the street to the Imperial Hotel deserted tramcars lined the way. At Nelson's pillar an entire fleet stood vacant. She forgot for a moment that she was on her way to scrub lavatories, clean out grates and make fires for the toffs. She felt she was part of something bigger than herself.
Two and a half hours later, having finished work, she placed her hands in front of her face, palms outwards and scowled. Soot had made them as black as her feet. She didn't like walking the streets dirty. Despite the queue for the tap in the yard in the morning she always washed her neck, face, hands and feet before venturing out. But today everything felt different and not solely because it was her birthday.
She heard the familiar trundling sound before she saw policemen force a path through the crowd to let a tram through. She thought ‘the drivers and conductors are on strike. It can't be.' A policeman stood on the front platform protecting the driver and another guarded the back. A crowd began to throw stones. The sound of breaking glass shocked her into running. Her mammy often talked of the mob and how ugly they could get when they were crossed but she hadn't believed her until now.
Before she turned into Brendan's Lane, the reek of filth, fat pork and decomposing liver told her that she was near the tenement. Soot and mud were clean dirt but she hated when she trod on shit or offal from the slaughter house beside her. She had become an expert at dodging anything that looked suspicious underfoot. As she side- stepped yet another pig's heart, crawling with maggots, she smiled exposing teeth, neglected and rotten. Pushing back her hair, she straightened her shoulders, and with her expression happier she ran towards number 13, the black door.
Before she pushed it open she heard the shrieking. “Bloody Jim Larkin” and “mouths to feed.” It was her mammy's voice. Daddy must be home. “Bloody.” The man she had never seen appeared in front of her. No matter how hard she tried she could never separate him from the picture they had over the hearth, Christ looking up to heaven, a crown of thorns on his head, blood spattering his face. She tried to tell her father about how she pictured the person who caused all the rows between him and mammy but all he said was: “Sure you're only young. What do you know?”
“And what about that tramway tyrant you support? Jesus, he has even made a drudge out of Nora now.” Her daddy's voice was cross and loud. She guessed who he meant by the tramway tyrant but she knew for certain that a drudge was what she had been all morning. And she knew that William Martin Murphy owned the hotel because daddy had explained to her why he was known as an industrial octopus. That his tentacles wrapped around everything -newspapers, bookshops, department stores, a hotel.
She listened to her father roaring. “ I will not be a scab.” She fingered the dry
crusty surface of a sore on her finger, now nearly healed, and opened the door.
“You're a contrary bloody man.” Her mother's voice was sour.
There were damp patches on the wallpaper in the hall and it was dark and airless. The ten rooms in the house were each occupied by a family. She pushed the door into what had once been the parlour. A dresser, stocked with three cups and a few saucers and plates, stood at the head of an iron bed with brass fittings. It took up most of the space. Lumps of horsehair pushed through the upholstery of two armchairs. The square table in the corner had a form underneath. The marble hearth and high ceiling were a throw back to an earlier grandeur. A can of water was boiling on the coals. At night Nora slept under a quilt on the floor before the fire and Sean slept in a basket.
“Thank God you're back” her mother said, “and that none of those rioters hurt you.”
‘A rioter now am I?' Her father's face darkened. “Next you'll be calling me a looter.” He was a thin man who had wrinkled prematurely. “I'm going out. There's a mass meeting on this evening. Larkin may appear. I'll be late home.”
“Don't come back with a skinful,” her mother warned.
He didn't answer, just got off the side of the bed where they had both been sitting and glanced at the sleeping Sean. Nora was still by the door when he took her hand in his and examined the dirt under her finger nails. “You're worse than any docker.”
Nora felt her heart sinking and the spark of hope that her father would remember she was twelve today was fast dissolving. Her mother was too worried
about Sean's bronchitis to think about anything else. She studied her face, pale, almost yellow. Her lips were blue as if they had been drained of blood. She took the place vacated by her father on the bed, reached out and touched her arm soothingly. She didn't want to broach the subject of food but running from the stone throwers had put an edge on an appetite she could usually stifle. Silent and awkward, she sat not knowing what to say, feeling a babyish desire to cry.
“I suppose you're hungry.” Her mother's tone was resigned.
“I'd love a slice of bread.”
“You'll have to go to Moriartys. Not a penny from the hotel since I started sending you in instead of me.” She looked at Sean, breathing peacefully for once. “He'll soon be fighting fit again but until then we'll have to scrimp. What with your father on strike and all.”
“Is there anything left to pawn?”
The lines beside her mammy's mouth deepened. She took a mother of pearl rosary beads from her apron pocket. “No food parcels from the church for strikers. They can go to hell.” When she handed Nora the beads, their hands touched. “No skylarking. You hear. Go to the shop on Winetavern Street and do the business. Then buy some bread. Take my shawl. It'll keep you warm.”
She was glad she was wrapped in something of her mammy's when she left the house. The shawl smelled of smoke but also her mother's body scent.
The August twilight had faded into night by the time she had disposed of the rosary beads. Sackville Street lay swathed in darkness but for the light of the torches brandished by men, belligerent and hungry. Big Jim mustn't have come to their meeting as her father had hoped he would.
She held her coins tightly as she headed for the bread shop. She was not afraid as she listened to men swear, women console and children cry. Wasn't her daddy one of them? The waters of the Liffey were dark and still. Nora's stomach felt cold and empty and the nearer she came to satisfying her hunger, the worse it got. She didn't increase her pace. She knew it was difficult to walk fast without stumping a toe, tripping on stones or lately, standing on fragments of glass.
She heard the sound of windows breaking. ‘My God' she thought, ‘looters.' A crowd of men and young boys ran down the street. “Bread” someone shouted. “Get some bread.” She thought she recognised the voice. But she must be mistaken. He wouldn't steal . . . . .
Police with batons drawn emerged from a side street. The window of the bakery shattered under an onslaught of stones. Glass crashed onto the pavement. A mass surged into the shop, grabbing cakes, bread and biscuits. The police waited until they came out their hands laden and their jaws bulging. They beat them round the head and kicked them when they were down. Blood and cream mixed together in the gutter.
She heard beating sounds, batons cracking skulls; kicking sounds, shoes thudding flesh. Stunned, she stood as if she were watching a puppet show until one of the marionettes became familiar. He fell as if his strings had been cut. She heard the sound, dull and crunching, before she heard him shout. A box spilled from his arms.
His stomach was hard as she threw herself on top of him but his arms were limp. Blood crimsoned his face. The cacophony died. Ambulances came. They lifted her father on to a stretcher. A man told her kindly, “In the name of God, go home.”
She hadn't the energy to cry. Her mother. How would she react when she heard? She'd have to go to the hospital. Nora would have to take care of Sean. Stunned, she simply sat on the street. Was her father going to die?
When she saw it, a spot of colour appeared on her pale cheek and though her eyes were still shocked and angry she smiled. Beside where her daddy had lain, was a cake, topped with icing and three almonds.