this (strug­gling) life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Thomas A. Mullins

IT was long ago and far away, in Dublin. The world was poorer than to­day, and I have a me­mory al­most as old as me.

He would stand me on a com­mon chair in the scullery and tie my shoelaces. When one was done, this man of few words would tap the back of my leg to bring the other one for­ward, and when that one was done he would pull my shirt down in­side my short pants. I have other mem­o­ries. See­ing him sow­ing pota­toes or weed­ing in the garden; stand­ing over a basin of water test­ing a bi­cy­cle tube for a punc­ture, the up­turned bi­cy­cle nearby; car­ry­ing me by cross­bar to Stoney­bat­ter, telling me to blow my nose in the rain-washed gut­ter. Or cy­cling to Croke Park on a Sun­day and lift­ing me over a stile. An au­tumn walk in the Phoenix Park, a win­ter walk to Ash­town. That given time could never be out­done by all the com­fort of the years to come. My fa­ther grew a hard shell to hide his hu­man­ity. Back in the day, for men to show emo­tion, it was thought to be a sign of weak­ness. He showed no weak­ness, his world sim­ply did not al­low it.

I re­mem­ber him in a brown shop­coat, stand­ing over a last, work­ing the leather with hard cal­lused hands. He turned shoe re­pairs into half-crowns to feed, cloth and ed­u­cate his grow­ing fam­ily. ‘‘Take those shoes around to Mrs Crowe and don’t leave them with­out the half-crown,’’ my mother would say. The hun­gry years, though, I never re­mem­ber be­ing hun­gry. The recipe, tea and bread. Thrup­pence worth of potherbs, a pen­ny­worth of thyme. Among her many qual­i­ties, my mother had the re­mark­ably easy fa­cil­ity to ag­gra­vate a saint. My fa­ther was not a saint. I think of them now as two tec­tonic plates, con­stantly grind­ing against each other, some­times with seis­mic ef­fect. I’ll never know how, or have his courage, but he en­dured. In a dys­func­tional world, he func­tioned. Got up ev­ery work­ing day, or­gan­ised his chil­dren, saw to their school­ing and, in my me­mory, was never sick.

Af­ter I fol­lowed John, the el­dest, into the em­ploy of Guin­ness, I re­mem­ber be­ing puz­zled when he looked at me, not so much with dis­dain as with de­spair. I was book­ish, liked po­etry and played ten­nis — in whites! I was as straight as he was, but I now be­lieve he thought he had raised an­other Wilde, with­out the tal­ent of Os­car.

He gave me his name when I was born. I gave him a head­stone when he died, far, far too young, at 56. When I was 18 and needed a driv­ing li­cence to launch my com­mer­cial ca­reer and val­i­date my leav­ing Guin­ness, he gave me his. In my me­mory, he never drove a car. How many go to sit their driv­ing test with the vi­tal per­mit al­ready in­side their jacket pocket? For me, it meant a li­cence to drive the boule­vard of dreams, while he con­tin­ued to cy­cle the wet, cob­bled or black, icy streets of Dublin.

When I re­ceived the news that No 225, where I was born, had been ren­dered to the sum of its parts, my sis­ter now the cus­to­dian of its ghosts, I looked out over the wide Pa­cific and thought of bat­tles long ago. The half-crown tug of war with Mrs Crowe. How could a child of barely 10 sum­mers guess that one day, the leaden grey skies of 1950s Dublin would give way to a shower of 21st-cen­tury gold. I just had to live a life­time, know the bur­den, in­fin­itely lighter, of rear­ing my own chil­dren, and get to ap­pre­ci­ate the grind­ing ef­fort of his labour.

He gave to the world nine wit­nesses to his un­equal strug­gle in that ‘‘Strum­pet City’’, far from the ‘‘Fa­tal Shore’’.

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