A Star Called Henryby Roddy Doyle
Born in the slums of Dublin in 1901, his father a one-legged whorehouse bouncer and settler of scores, Henry Smart has to grow up fast. By the time he can walk he's out robbing, begging, often cold, always hungry, but a prince of the streets. At fourteen, already six foot two, Henry's in the General Post Office on Easter Monday 1916, a soldier in the Irish Citizen… See more details below
Born in the slums of Dublin in 1901, his father a one-legged whorehouse bouncer and settler of scores, Henry Smart has to grow up fast. By the time he can walk he's out robbing, begging, often cold, always hungry, but a prince of the streets. At fourteen, already six foot two, Henry's in the General Post Office on Easter Monday 1916, a soldier in the Irish Citizen Army, fighting for freedom. A year later he's ready to die for Ireland again, a rebel, a Fenian and soon, a killer. With his father's wooden leg as his weapon, Henry becomes a republican legend - one of Michael Collins' boys, a cop killer, an assassin on a stolen bike.
In A Star Called Henry, the latest from Roddy Doyle, the surviving Henry narrates his own story from his poverty-stricken beginnings to his stint as an Irish Republican Army hero. Even at the beginning, Doyle’s hero is utterly irresistible, as is his novel, which so often reaches that burning point when emotions can no longer be sorted out, when anger and sorrow, desperation and joy combine in the keenest sense of life.
In his early youth, Henry is raw and gullible, badly fed and badly clothed. He’s had one haphazard day of schooling and years of living by thievery on the streets. His childhood is nothing that deserves the name. His mother—who works in Mitchell’s sweatshop making rosary beads out of cow’s horns, “six days a week, sweating, going blind for God and Mitchell. Putting the holes in the beads for Jesus”—is soon carried off by tuberculosis.
Henry’s father is largely absent, due to a furtive, bloody and ill-paying career of terrorizing and eliminating his boss’s business rivals. He could accurately be described as a thug, yet young Henry and the reader both feel considerable affection for him. To see such a big man ground down and outmaneuvered by sly, slight double-dealers is like watching the bull at a bullfight, its strength and crude innocence betrayed. Thus by the age of ten, Henry and his younger brother Victor, with his soft, tubercular cough, are alone and homeless. Like the youth of Sparta, who practiced for warfare by stealing cattle, they waylay farmers taking beasts to the slaughterhouse and divert cows down Dublin’s alleyways to sell to a dishonest butcher. Every day they search out a way to live.
“We robbed and helped, invented and begged. We were small, so hard to grab. We blew the ice cream seller’s bugle after his own lips rotted on him; we brought him customers but we never tasted ice cream.” Little Victor could “empty an inside pocket without touching it.” Henry relies on charm and a certain latent sexuality that confuses the women he begs from.
But Victor eventually perishes from the hardships Henry thrives on. Alone and blazing with anger, Henry grows up even more quickly. More than six feet tall by his mid-teens, he joins the fledgling IRA just in time to take part in the Easter Rebellion of 1916 and the siege of the General Post Office. Barricaded in the GPO and issued a weapon, Henry happily shoots out the windows of the stores opposite. “I shot and killed all I had been denied, all the commerce and snobbery that had been mocking me and other hundreds and thousands behind glass and locks, all the injustice and unfairness and shoes—while the lads took chunks out of the military.”
Doyle’s style, honed to a realistic sharpness in a string of wonderful comic novels set in present-day working-class Ireland—The Commitments, The Snapper, Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha—becomes fiercer and more lyrical here in his handling of historical events. Yet there is no sacrifice of immediacy, pungency, urgency or humor. We have the sweep of an eventful period combined with the sharpness of one man’s experience, conveyed in a stream of talk as slangy and casual as if young Henry were catching you by the sleeve on the street. And if Henry has been kept ignorant of schooling and values, religion and social niceties, it means that like Huck Finn, he is also ignorant of the lies that obscure the way things work.
At its best, Henry’s narrative is absolutely convincing. Consider the wonderful passage in which Henry describes a trip into the countryside to train farm lads as rebel soldiers, although, as he says, these country lads, skilled poachers all, “already knew how to move and hide in black darkness better by far than I did.” It’s a dark night, and as a confidence-builder, he wants to drill the men on the estate of the local landowner, slipping in right through the main gates. “I cycled at the pace I’d have taken through Stokestown at noon, and they followed me. It was a noise you never caught in the city, the whirr of bike chains in action together. It was one of the great noises of the war.” This is a brilliant detail, unexpected and precise.
It’s the sort of thing you’d swear would only be noticed by someone who really lived through it, and it’s given depth beyond the moment by Henry’s comparing it with other experiences as a rebel—“one of the great sounds of the war.”
This is a narrative like a hearty meal, and what nourishes the reader is Henry’s huge capacity for experience. His wholeness and soundness, strength and health, make him ready for anything. He can sleep on the ground and “rise with the frost on him,” and he can savor the first decent meal he’s had in months and its taste of hot cabbage. He thrills to writing his name for the first time and takes comfort from the harsh blood-and-dust scent of his father’s coat. He even savors the desperate plunge into the cold, filthy waters of Dublin’s rivers and sewers with a kind of gladness in the shock of their identifying smells.
But there is suspense and a kind of melancholy here, too; because as fast as Henry learns, as fast as he grows up, it isn’t quite fast enough. He catches on to the crookedness of the comrades he trusts a bit too late. His innocence, like his dad’s, undoes the awesome power of his bravery and strength. Possessing the peculiarly Irish talent of boasting about himself without giving offense, big and strongly built, blue eyes blazing and quick-witted, Henry is impossible to resist. From the moment Henry, seeing his brother’s star, yells “My name is Henry Smart, the one and only Henry Smart!” Doyle’s book, too, takes on a rage to live.
One of the strongest moments in the pop music of the last few years was the Cranberries' "Zombie." A refusal of the claims of history that winds up emphasizing the weight of those claims, the song is the Irish band's answer to expectations that Irish artists make a statement on "the troubles." But unlike U2, who first reached a large audience with their song "Sunday Bloody Sunday," the Cranberries weren't having any of it. "It's the same old theme/Since 1916," sang Dolores O'Riordan, and her tone told you that she didn't care who started what fight or who did what to whose great-uncle, and that she wasn't interested in sorting out the streams of spilled blood that ran together in some gutter long ago. She'd heard all the arguments and she was sick of them. The music told another story: the impossibility of escaping those grudges. Mike Hogan's bass, as it lurched along under his brother Noel's distorted guitar, sounded like the souls of the revolution's dead trudging toward their graves -- or attempting to rise from them. Over it all, the -- and I'm afraid the cliche fits -- wordless banshee wail of O'Riordan's vocals was like an ancient incantation, desperately invoked to send the walking dead back to their rest.
"Zombie" is a horrifying song. And its bitterness, its vision of history reaching forward to make a dead end of the present, is palpable in Roddy Doyle's new novel, A Star Called Henry, as well, rising over the course of the book until it's overwhelming. The cover shows a smiling boy on a Dublin street and prepares you for Doyle's special gift for depicting rude, unsentimental cheer amid privation. Look closer at the background and you'll see a youngster walking along the street with a rifle over his shoulder. In Doyle's novel -- set in the years 1900 to 1920, encompassing the 1916 Easter Rebellion and Ireland's eventual emergence as a republic -- brutality is casual, simply part of the territory.
During his years on the run as an IRA gunman, Doyle's protagonist, Henry Smart, makes the acquaintance of Climanis, a Jewish Latvian refugee who provides him with cover and the fleeting refuge of a safe house. The rapport between Henry and Climanis is natural and unforced, but this makes it impossible to trust in an atmosphere where killing has the everyday and personal touch of a neighbor greeting a neighbor. Doyle ends one passage with Climanis offering a toast to Henry and his wife (also a revolutionary) and opens the next section with this sentence: "I was right up against his back when I shot him." It takes nearly a paragraph to realize that Henry's target is not Climanis, but one of the people he has been directed to kill -- efficiently, unquestioningly -- in order to eliminate some perceived threat to the Republican cause, or to send a warning, or merely to stir things up.
It's impossible to underestimate the force of that uncertainty. The constant in Roddy Doyle's novels has always been the author's empathy for his protagonists -- whether it was Jimmie Rabbitte Sr. of "The Barrytown Trilogy," a middle-aged man confronting the question of his own self-worth; or Paddy Clarke thinking he had the power to hold together his parents' crumbling marriage; or the battered wife regaining control of her life in The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. Like them, Henry Smart struggles. Worse. He is poor, dirt poor, where Doyle's other characters have all been working class but solvent. But where they suffered from cruelty, Henry inflicts it. Violence is mother's milk to him. The coat worn by Henry's father, doorman at a brothel and hit man at the behest of a local crime lord, has absorbed years of killing and dirt and sweat and drink. Picked up by his father, the infant Henry tries to find a nipple in the filthy garment. Henry's father, as fathers tend to do in Irish novels and memoirs, disappears, leaving Henry with no legacy beyond his old man's wooden leg. Talisman and companion, used to crack heads and to cleave to his missing father's spirit, the leg accompanies Henry throughout the novel.
Poverty is the motivating force of Henry's life, the thing that sends him scrambling through the streets of Dublin, dirt-caked and barefoot, the thing that later sends him to the rebel cause. Poverty is both an accepted fact of life here -- "And then Victor died" is how Henry informs us that his beloved 5-year-old brother Victor simply doesn't wake up one morning -- and obscenely vital. Here's Henry describing the hovels he and his mother and siblings live in:
Decomposing wallpaper, pools of stagnant water, rats on the scent of baby milk. Colonies of flies in the wet, crumbling walls. Typhoid and other death in every breath, on every surface. Banisters that shook when held, floors that creaked and groaned, timber that cried for sparks. Shouts and fights, rage and coughing, coughing -- death creeping nearer. And the rooms behind the steps got smaller and darker and more and more evil. We fell further and further. The walls crumbled and closed in on us. Her children died and joined the stars. Rooms with no windows, floors that bred cockroaches. We cried at the smell of other people's lousy food. We cried at the pain that burned through our sores. We cried for arms to gather and hold us. We cried for heat and for socks, for milk, for light, for an end to the itches that stopped us from sleeping. We cried at the lice that shone and curled and mocked us. We cried for our mother to come and save us. Poor mother. Finally, finally, we crept down to our last room, a basement, as low as we could go, a hole that yawned and swallowed us.
That passage is a set-up. We've read it before, in stories of the Irish, and of blacks and Okies, as an argument for the righteousness of "the cause," and as explanation for why we can look for Tom Joad wherever a cop is beating a guy, wherever a baby cried because he was hungry. And I think Doyle wants us to expect that sort of justification. Because once we do, we are unprepared for what he confronts us with. Poverty is an explanation here, but not for anything heroic. It's an explanation for cunning rather than intelligence, for solitude rather than comradeship, for the violence that is proposed, carried out, countenanced and accepted. Henry doesn't join up out of idealism but out of resentment. Holed up in the post office during the uprising, Henry talks about a Republican banner that proclaims, "We Serve Neither King Nor Kaiser." "If I'd had my way, Or Anyone Else would have been added, instead of But Ireland. I didn't give a shite about Ireland." Yes, Henry feels a thrill at the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. But in the book's grand scheme, that's a moment of surrender to collective sentiment. The truth is that what matters to Henry is the thrill of being a man to be reckoned with, the thumping sound as he and the other volunteers march through the street commanding an attention that none of them would be able to command on his own.
It's that resistance to ideology, that refusal to see the rebellion's guerrilla fallout in grand terms, that characterizes this book. The rebellion, with its holiday gaiety and looting that gradually give way to an inferno in which the decaying bodies of civilians and horses pile up in the street, is an Irish version of the Bosch-meets-Peckinpah delirium of Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" -- minus McCarthy's reductive and simpleminded Guignol.
A Star Called Henry spirals from the rebellion into flight, ambush and revenge, during all of which the question of Ireland comes to seem more and more beside the point. The point is violence, the pleasure of it, of being able to make yourself feared. By the end, Henry, only 20, seems much older, and he is plunged into an existential nightmare similar to that endured by the Lee Marvin character in Point Blank, a wraith of a man who goes on a mission of revenge only to discover that all along he's been acting as the puppet of his betrayer. The climactic pages are like an Irish noir whose meaning could have been taken from Yeats' line about there being no past or future in Ireland, only the present repeating itself, now.
Doyle's work has progressed from pop entertainments to novels in which both the view of his native culture and his use of language have become increasingly dense and daring. With nearly every novel, he has risked losing the audience his previous work has built. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, by detailing the inner life of a character who couldn't rely on the safety net of the family, risked losing the readers hooked by the profane, familial warmth of The Barrytown Trilogy." "The Woman Who Walked Into Doors was received in some quarters of Ireland as a betrayal because of the way it linked the acceptance of domestic abuse to a Catholic culture that preaches the virtues of suffering. For a writer beloved for his odes to the Irish family, Doyle was taking chances by locating a sickness -- violence -- at the heart of it. With A Star Called Henry, he traces that sickness to the core of his country's history.
With each new novel, Doyle's language has become richer. The Barrytown books were nearly all dialogue (no wonder people read them and envisioned movies), and they were marvelous feats of ventriloquism and control; as every character fought to be heard in the ongoing squabble of family life, each voice in the ensuing cacophony remained distinct. Paddy Clarke described childhood's inner life, its smells and textures, and merited that much-overworked appellation "Joycean." The Woman Who Walked Into Doors was a shift, not just to the first person, but to the voice of a woman as well.
A Star Called Henry, also written in the first person, has the richest language of any Doyle novel yet. Paddy Clarke was impressionistic; this book is expressionistic. The language flows in descriptive torrents that carry the reader, as well as Henry, from event to event. History goes by in a blur here, an indecipherable blend of news and rumor and legend, as in Henry's description of the looting and chaos he sees from his perch during the uprising:
I couldn't tell where the bullet had come from but, across the street, right in front of me, I saw a man being shot. He stiffened; he dropped slowly to his knees, grabbed a pillar, and stayed there, kneeling. For two days. Further up the street, two drunks were getting sick at the stony feet of Father Matthew and a woman made an armchair for herself out of one of the dead horses; she wrapped herself from the wind and rain in velvet curtains and cuddled up between the horse's legs. There was serious madness going on out there. And, in the middle of it all, Pearse gave us a speech. Dublin, by rising in arms, has redeemed its honour forfeited in 1813 when it failed to support the rebellion of Robert Emmet. I looked out at Dublin rising.
A Star Called Henry is a triumph of craft and intelligence and toughness of mind. Doyle has not sentimentalized the past or capitulated to it. That, for Doyle, is the province of history's hostages and its fools, like Frank McCourt's father in Angela's Ashes, who night after night comes home in his cups and rouses his sons from bed to ask them if they're ready to die for Ireland. But by staying true to his vision of the tyranny of history, by refusing to soften Henry into a hero or redeem him with a higher purpose, Doyle has written his least emotionally involving novel -- though it is by far his riskiest and most fluid, and certainly harsher than anything anyone might have expected from him. Like the Cranberries setting out to bury the past in "Zombie," he finds how hard it is to escape that past. A Star Called Henry is Doyle's "Ireland" novel, his way of dealing with the millstone that threatens to attach itself to the neck of every Irish writer. And in this unsparing, pitiless vision of his country's past he may have slipped its noose. The language of A Star Called Henry is that of a writer with dazzling books in front of him. If only the dead cooperate by staying dead.
NY Times Book Review
Time Out New York
Roddy Doyle's ambitious new novel is the story of Henry Smart, born in 1901 with "enough meat on him to make triplets." In a swaggering, often hilarious voice, Henry documents his first 20 years, in which he rises from the slums of Dublin to the front ranks of the IRA and beyond. The result, A Star Called Henry, provides a wildly provocative view of a country, and a person, from the inside out.
Henry must constantly strive to overcome his upbringing. His mother, her sanity undone by poverty and serial miscarriages, disappears early. His father, a peg-legged giant, works as a bouncer at a brothel ("In one neat hop he'd have the leg off and their heads open and the leg back on before they hit the ground"); when he is promoted, it is to serve as a contract killer for the mysterious Alfie Gandon. In time, Henry's father, too, is lost, and he's left with only his Granny Nash, a "witch" who exists somewhere between insanity and omniscience. She provides information about his past (and that of others), but only if he steals books for her to read.
Fortunately, as Henry says, "I loved the street, from the second I landed on it. The action, the noise, the smells -- I gobbled them all up, I was striving for more." He and his younger brother, Victor, survive by collecting rats for dogfights and rustling cattle to the local butcher; the boys eat what they can find, often putting their mouths to the waste pipe of the sweet factory. "There was never me," Henry says, "it was always us. We slept where we fell and ate whatever we could find and rob. We survived." Yet Victor is not so hardy as his older brother; he succumbs to tuberculosis at the close of the first part of the novel.
What prevents this narrative from becoming too dark and depressing is Henry's unsinkable voice, his honest delight in the world. The humor in his Dublin is not merely that of the desperate (though there is that, too), but a cheerful enthusiasm which laughs at squalor and poverty before they can break one's spirit. Here, "a parrot with a talking warranty" can be purchased, and women advise a new bride that "If he makes you do it the way dogs do you'll end up with twins or even triplets or more. Unless the straw in your mattress comes from under a priest's horse." There is an abundance of such rich material, and this bodes well for what will follow; A Star Called Henry is the first of a trilogy (The Last Roundup) that will span the 20th century. This strong first volume promises that the projected work will rival Doyle's justly celebrated Barrytown Trilogy (The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van); it also suggests a turn to more reflective prose, and a more explicit concern with questions of history and politics.
Henry Smart is born into a time seething with political unrest -- a state that suits his temperament. At the opening of the novel's second part, he is 14; due to his size and wits, however, no one suspects it. As he boasts, "My eyes were blue and fascinating whirlpools; they could suck in women while warning them to stay away, a fighting combination that had them running at me." Carrying his father's wooden leg, "varnished and ready to knock heads for Ireland," he fights in the Easter Rising of 1916, and becomes a trusted disciple of Michael Collins.
Henry recruits in the countryside, training the first wave of IRA soldiers. Constantly on the move, he becomes a master of escapes and a man rich in aliases. His fame grows, songs are written about him, and he basks in the attention: "It was heady stuff; I was a walking saint." Enjoying the spoils, Henry doesn't think twice about deeper involvement, and the narrative shoots forward, ever propulsive, bold as its protagonist. The language throughout the novel is beautiful, true, and sharp; the descriptions of Henry's exploits are especially raw and immediate -- the reader comes to empathize with the hold violent action has on him.
Yet, unlike the other rebels, Henry has nothing against the English, the Scots, or the Welsh, and does not concern himself with religious questions. His is primarily a class struggle, and he becomes increasingly uncertain that either side has compassion for the poor people he knows and values. The IRA is beset by corruption, the poor rising only to oppress each other. When he realizes that he has become an assassin, killing anyone designated a "spy" by Alfie Gandon, he can only agree with his Granny Nash, who tells him, "You're just like your father, and that's no compliment."
Henry begins to wonder if his aptitude for violence, and the fame it brings him, is reason enough to justify his role in a war where values are relative. Only in his attempt to give up the violent life, however, does he realize the true nature of the men he has served, and the difficulty he'll find in making a clean break. The "men of the slums and hovels were nameless and expendable," he admits, "We were decoys and patsies. We followed orders and murdered." At the novel's close, such reflections are particularly resonant; what has been portrayed as a rollicking adventure becomes something more complicated and human. A shiver is sent back through the whole story and is felt in the reading. To witness this transformation is a rare and disturbing experience. We are left holding our breaths, hoping, as Henry Smart attempts one last escape.
Peter Rock is the author of the novels Carnival Wolves and This Is the Place. Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, he now lives in Philadelphia. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
—The Globe and Mail
"The best novelist of his generation."
"This buoyantly imagined, lyrical but realistically detailed narrative has a blistering immediacy."
“You’ll find here all the vividness, humour, and emotional thrust of Doyle’s much-acclaimed earlier work along with a new historical density, a heft that ranks Doyle as truly one of the outstanding novelists in the English language.”
—The Toronto Star
"A startling achievement...a book where war can rage and love can burrow under the skin. A fragment of a forgotten folk song and a worm's eye view of Irish history.... A grand thing of beauty."
—The Globe and Mail
"History evoked on an intimate and yet earth-shaking scale, with a huge dash of the blarney, some mythical embellishments and a driving narrative that never falters."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"A triumph of craft and intelligence and toughness of mind."
—The Irish Times
“Doyle has [written an] Irish epic, and he wields the style like a sword, with the power and grace of a master.”
—The Village Voice
“Maybe the Great American Novel remains to be written, but on the evidence of its first installment, this is the epic Irish one, created at a high pitch of eloquence.”
“Astonishing…. Narrated with a splendor, wit, and excitement that lift Doyle’s writing to a new level.”
—The New York Times Book Review
Read an Excerpt
My mother looked up at the stars. There were plenty of them up there. She lifted her hand. It swayed as she chose one. Her finger pointed.
There's my little Henry up there. Look it.
I looked, her other little Henry sitting beside her on the step. I looked up and hated him. She held me but she looked up at her twinkling boy. Poor me beside her, pale and red-eyed, held together by rashes and sores. A stomach crying to be filled, bare feet aching like an old, old man's. Me, a shocking substitute for the little Henry who'd been too good for this world, the Henry God had wanted for himself. Poor me.
And poor Mother. She sat on that step and other crumbling steps and watched her other babies joining Henry. Little Gracie, Lil, Victor, another little Victor. The ones I remember. There were others, and early others sent to Limbo; they came and went before they could be named. God took them all. He needed them all up there to light the night. He left her plenty, though. The ugly ones, the noisy ones, the ones He didn't want the ones that would never stay fed.
Poor Mother. She wasn't much more than twenty when she gazed up at little twinkling Henry but she was already old, already decomposing, ruined beyond repair, good for some more babies, then finished.
Poor Mammy. Her own mother was a leathery old witch, but was probably less than forty. She poked me, as if to prove that I was there.
You're big, she said.
She was accusing me, weighing me, planning to takesome of me back. Always wrapped in her black shawl, she always smelt of rotten meat and herrings it was a sweat on her. Always with a book under the shawl, the complete works of Shakespeare or something by Tolstoy. Nash was her name but I don't know what she called herself before she married her dead husband. She'd no Christian name that I ever heard. Granny Nash was all she ever was. I don't know where she came from; I don't remember an accent. Wrapped in her sweating black shawl, she could have crept out of any century. She might have walked from Roscommon or Clare, pushed on by the stench of the blight, walked across the country till she saw the stone-eating smoke that lay over the piled, sagging fever-nests that made our beautiful city, walked in along the river, deeper and deeper, into the filth and shit, the noise and the money. A young country girl, never kissed, never touched, she was scared, she was thrilled. She turned around and back around and saw the four corners of hell. Her heart cried for Leitrim but her tits sang for Dublin. She got down on her back and yelled at the sailors to form a queue. Frenchmen, Danes, Chinamen, the Yanks. I don't know. A young country girl, a waif, just a child, aching for food. She'd left her family dead in a ditch, their chops green with grass juice, their bellies set to explode in the noonday sun. I don't know any of this. She might have been Dublin-bred. Or she might have been foreign. A workhouse orphan, a nun gone wrong. Transported from Australia, too ugly and bad for Van Diemen's Land. I don't know. She'd become a witch by the time I saw her. Always with her head in a book, looking for spells. She shoved her face forward with ancient certainty, knew every thought behind my eyes. She knew how far evil could drop. She stared at me with her cannibal's eyes and I had to dash down to the privy. Her eyes slammed the door after me.
And what do I know about poor Mother? Precious little. I know that she was Melody Nash. A beautiful name, promising so much. I know that she was born in Dublin and that she lived on Bolton Street. She worked in Mitchell's rosary bead factory on Marlborough Street. They made the beads out of cows' horns. All day, six days a week, sweating, going blind for God and Mitchell. Putting the holes in the beads for Jesus. Hands bleeding, eyes itching. Before she walked into my father.
Melody Nash. I think of the name and I don't see my mother. Melody melody. She skips, she laughs, her black eyes shine happy. Her blue-black hair dances, her feet lick the cobbles. Her teacher is fond of her, she's a fast learner. She's quick at the adding, her letters curl beautifully. She has a great future, she'll marry a big noise. She'll have good meat each day and a house with a jacks. Out of the way, here comes melody Melody, out of the way, here comes melody Melody.
What age was she when she learnt the truth, when she found out that her life would have no music? The name was a lie, a spell the witch put on her. She was twelve when she walked into Mitchell's bead factory and she was sixteen when she walked into my father. Four years in between, squinting, counting, shredding her hands, in a black hole making beads. Melody melody rosary beads. They sang as they worked. Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me. Mitchell wanted them to pray. Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee. Was she gorgeous? Did her white teeth gleam as she lifted her head with the other girls? Beautiful dreamer, queen of my song. The woman on the step had no teeth, nothing gleamed. Like me, she was never a child. There were no children in Dublin. Promises weren't kept in the slums. She was never beautiful.
She walked into my father. Melody Nash met Henry Smart. She walked right into him, and he fell. She was half his weight, half his height, six years younger but he fell straight over like a cut tree. Love at first sight? Felled by her beauty? No. He was maggoty drunk and missing his leg. He was holding himself up with a number seven shovel he'd found inside an open door somewhere back the way he'd come when Melody Nash walked into him and dropped him onto Dorset Street. It was a Sunday. She was coming from half-eight mass, he was struggling out of Saturday. Missing a leg and his sense of direction, he hit the street with his forehead and lay still. Melody dropped the beads she'd made herself and stared down at the man. She couldn't see his face; it was kissing the street. She saw a huge back, a back as big as a bed, inside a coat as old and crusted as the cobbles around it. Shovel-sized hands at the end of his outstretched arms, and one leg. Just the one. She actually lifted the coat to check.
Where's your leg gone, mister? said Melody.
She lifted the coat a bit more.
Are you dead, mister? she said.
The man groaned. Melody dropped the coat and stepped back. She looked around for help but the street was quiet. The man groaned again. He drew his arms in and braced himself. Then he crawled one-kneed off the road, over the gutter. Melody picked up the shovel. He groaned again and vomited. A day and a half's drinking poured out of him like black pump water. Melody got out of its way. The stream stopped. He wiped his mouth with the filthiest sleeve that Melody had ever seen. He put his hand out. Melody understood immediately that he wanted the shovel. She held it out to him. She could study his face now. It hadn't been washed in ages and the specks and lines of blood gave him the look of something freshly slaughtered. But he wasn't bad looking, she decided. The situation the coat, the puked porter, the absent leg wouldn't let her take the plunge and call him good looking, but he definitely wasn't bad looking. He clung to the shovel and hauled himself up. Melody stepped back again to get out of his shadow. He stared at her but she wasn't frightened.
Sorry, mister, said Melody.
He shook his head.
Did you see a leg on your travels? he said.
A wooden one.
He seemed disappointed.
It's gone, so, he said. I had it yesterday.
Then Melody said something that started them on the road to marriage and me.
You're a grand-looking man without it, she said.
Now he looked at Melody properly. She'd only said it to comfort him but one-legged men will grab at anything.
What's your name, girlie? he said.
Melody Nash, she said.
And Henry Smart fell in love. He fell in love with the name. With a name like that beside him he'd find his leg, a new one would grow out of the stump, he'd stride through open doors for the rest of his life. He'd find money on the street, three-legged chickens. He'd never have to sweat again. Henry Smart, my father, looked at Melody Nash. He saw what he wanted to see.
I know what Henry Smart looked like. She told me, sitting on the step, looking down the street, and up, waiting for him. And later on when he'd gone for ever but she still looked and waited. Her descriptions, her words, stayed the same. She never let her loneliness, hunger, her misery change her story. Her mind wandered and then rotted but she always knew her story, how she walked into Henry Smart. It was fixed. I knew what he looked like. But what about her? What did Melody Nash look like? She was sixteen. That's all I know. I see her later, only five, six years further on. An eternity. An old woman. Big, lumpy, sad. Melody Smart. I see that woman sitting on the step and I try to bring her back six years, I try to make the age and pain drop off her. I try to make her stand up and walk back, to see her as she had been. I take three stone off her, I lift her mouth, I try to put fun into her eyes. I give her hair some spring, I change her clothes. I can create a good-looking sixteen-year-old. I can make her a stunner. I can make her plainer then, widen her, spoil her complexion. I can play this game for what's left of my life but I'll never see Melody Nash, my sixteen-year-old mother.
She worked in the dark and damp all day. She squinted to fight back the light. Her hands were ripped and solid. She was a child of the Dublin slums, no proper child at all. Her parents, grandparents, had never known good food. Bad food, bad drink, bad air. Bad bones, bad eyes, bad skin; thin, stooped, mangled. Henry Smart looked at Melody Nash and saw what he wanted to see.
What's your name, girlie?
Melody Nash, she said. How did you lose it?
I haven't a bull's clue, said Henry.
He looked down at the ground where his foot should have been, and hopped away out of the porter he'd just thrown up. He wanted nothing to do with it; he was already a new man. He was thinking quickly, planning. She'd seen him falling on his face and then getting sick, one of his legs was missing he knew he hadn't been impressing her. But there were other ways to catch fish. He looked at Melody, and back down at the ground.
It was my good one too, he said.
Your good one?
Me Sunday leg.
Oh, said Melody. It'll turn up, mister, don't worry. Maybe you left it at home.
Henry thought about this.
I doubt it, he said. I lost that as well.
She felt sorry for him. No leg, no home the only thing holding him up was his vulnerability. She saw honesty. The men Melody knew showed off or snapped at her. Mitchell the rosary beads, her father, all men they were all angry and mean. This man here was different. She'd knocked the poor cripple onto the street, his face was bleeding, he'd no home to hop home to and he didn't blame her. She saw now: he was smiling. A nice smile, he was offering it, half a smile. He didn't look like a cripple. She liked the space where the leg should have been.
Will we go for a stroll, so? he said.
Yes, she said.
He wiped the blade of the shovel on his sleeve.
Let's get this gleaming for the lady.
He let the spade hop gently on the path. Melody heard music.
Now we're right, said Henry Smart.
He held out his arm, offered it to Melody.
Hang on, said Melody.
She took off her shawl and wiped his face with it. She dabbed and petted, removed the blood and left the dirt that was his own, none of her business. It didn't bother her. Dirt and grime were the glues that held Dublin together. She spat politely on a corner of the shawl and washed away the last dried, cranky specks of blood. Then she put the shawl back on.
Now, she said.
They were already a couple.
He leaned on the shovel and offered her his free arm. She leaned on him and off they went, on the ramble that would still deliver her smile when she recalled it many moons later, when she told us all about it on the steps of all the tenements we were thrown into and out of. A Sunday in June, 1897, when the Famine Queen, Victoria, was still our one and only. A glorious summer's morning. It took getting used to, the rhythm of their stroll. He'd lean out over the abyss that was his missing leg. She, clinging to his sleeve, would follow him out there. Then he'd haul himself in and forward on the handle of the shovel. She'd be pulled after him, then out again and forward. There wasn't much room for talking. The cobbles were tricky, corners were impossible. So they went straight ahead, out to Drumcondra and the countryside.
Who was he and where did he come from? The family trees of the poor don't grow to any height. I know nothing real about my father; I don't even know if his name was real. There was never a Granda Smart, or a Grandma, no brothers or cousins. He made his life up as he went along. Where was his leg? South Africa, Glasnevin, under the sea. She heard enough stories to bury ten legs. War, an infection, the fairies, a train. He invented himself, and reinvented. He left a trail of Henry Smarts before he finally disappeared. A soldier, a sailor, a butler the first one-legged butler to serve the Queen. He'd killed sixteen Zulus with the freshly severed limb.
Was he just a liar? No, I don't think so. He was a survivor; his stories kept him going. Stories were the only things the poor owned. A poor man, he gave himself a life. He filled the hole with many lives. He was the son of a Sligo peasant who'd been eaten by his neighbours; they'd started on my father before he got away. He hopped down the boreen, the life gushing out of his stump, hurling rocks back at the hungry neighbours, and kept hopping till he reached Dublin. He was a pedlar, a gambler, a hoor's bully. He sat on the ditch beside my mother and invented himself.
You didn't tell me your name yet, she said.
Henry Smart, he said. At your service.
Was it a name to compensate for the missing leg, a name to match hers? He fell in love with her name Melody melody Melody Nash and she fell in love with his.
They held hands.
Years later, looking into the night sky, counting her children. Poor ruined mother. She sat in the rain, the hail, the heat. She turned her back on the houses behind us and stared up at the soothing night. Behind her, the damp, scabbed walls, the rotten wood, the wet air, the leaking, bursting ceilings. Decomposing wallpaper, pools of stagnant water, rats on the scent of baby milk. Colonies of flies in the wet, crumbling walls. Typhoid and other death in every breath, on every surface. Banisters that shook when held, floors that creaked and groaned, timber that cried for sparks. There was no rest, nowhere she could lie down and forget. Shouts and fights, rage and coughing, coughing death creeping nearer. And the rooms behind the steps got smaller and darker and more and more evil. We fell further and further. The walls crumbled and closed in on us. Her children died and joined the stars. Rooms with no windows, floors that bred cockroaches. We cried at the smell of other people's lousy food. We cried at the pain that burned through our sores. We cried for arms to gather and hold us. We cried for heat and for socks, for milk, and light, for an end to the itches that stopped us from sleeping. We cried at the lice that shone and curled and mocked us. We cried for our mother to come and save us. Poor Mother. Finally, finally, we crept down to our last room, a basement, as low as we could go, a hole that yawned and swallowed us. We lay down and slept in the ground water of the River Liffey, we slept piled together with the sewer slugs and worms. Mother sat on the crumbling steps, she turned her back on the sweating, appalling facts of her life and looked up through the acid smoke at the stars that twinkled over Dublin.
They got married in a side chapel, in the Jesuits' church on Gardiner Street. Her father gave her away (and died the year after). The best man was Henry's colleague, a bouncer called Brannigan. The bridesmaid was a scrawny girl called Faye Cantrell who scratched so much and so loudly that the priest told her to stop it or he wouldn't let her friend get married. So she put her hands to her sides and concentrated so hard on keeping them there that she wet herself.
Melody was three weeks shy of her seventeenth birthday. She sailed out of the church, lifted by the smells of burning candles, the newly varnished pews and Faye's piss. There were kids outside, a scabby-headed mob, waiting for the grushie. Henry took a handful of farthings and ha'pences out of his trouser pocket and flicked it so that, for a second, the coins covered the sky. The children watched, enthralled, then woke up, ran and beat and mauled each other to get at the money. The losers turned for more. They stood there, the snot running out of them in ropes and waited for more of Henry's magic. But there was none.
There was a party in her parents' room on Bolton Street. Nothing swanky, a few bottles and some music. The neighbour women queued up to hand over the wisdom to Melody.
Remember now, love, said old Missis Doody from the back parlour. Give the babby half a bottle of stout every night and that'll kill the maggots.
I'm not having a baby, said Melody Smart.
Of course you'll be having a babby, said Missis Doody, a woman as old and as dirty as the house. We all had babbies. I had five or six.
I'm not having a baby now, said Melody. And I don't know who told you any different.
Ah now, said old Missis Doody. One-legged babbies you'll be having. One after the other. They'll out-hop the hoppers.
And Missis Dempsey from the step next door told her all about syphilis.
It'll rot the brain out of you, love, she said. You won't get it, of course, but he might. And then he'll pass it on to you, so you'd want to be careful. Rots the brain till you fall over in the street because your legs don't know what they're supposed to be doing. You die screaming and roaring, there's no cure at all for it. If you're lucky they'll bring you to the Locke Hospital and smother you with a pillow. That's what they do to the unfortunate girls that catch it off the sailors. Just make sure he comes home every night and you'll be alright. Or rub a bit of whitewash from the wall of a church on him. When he has his dander up, if you can follow me; you'll learn, don't worry, love.
Melody was mystified; she was numb. Woman after woman sat beside her, one on each side, and whispered the deadly secrets into her maiden ears. Now, if you smell a fancy woman off his coat you should boil it in water with the head of a Malahide mackerel. She'd gone up the little side aisle in a state of sexual innocence, kissed only by one man and no further. She knew that sex happened, like she knew that God was up there behind the clouds. She knew that women went inside to their houses for a while and came out with babies. Two good pulls like that now and he'll leave you alone for the rest of the night. She'd heard noises under the dark stairs. He'll never be off you, you mark my words. With the leg made of wood there the blood needs somewhere else to go. She was impossibly innocent. Her mother had told her that she'd have to stay in her new home for three whole days after the wedding night. She was ready for the lock-in but she didn't know why. A nice leaf of cabbage will do the trick. She lived bang in the middle of a place that survived on the buying and selling of sex. It was in the air; its stains and howls were everywhere around her, the cries, whoops and gasps, babies and brats crawling over every square foot, brassers and sailors holding up every corner for miles around and, God love her, she'd never noticed. And now, she was being bombarded. If he makes you do it the way the dogs do you'll end up with twins or even triplets or more. Unless the straw in your mattress came from under a priest's horse. She looked around for her husband, to see if she'd see the monster she was being told about by these calm and bitter women. She couldn't see him. She couldn't hear him, his laugh or his leg. She couldn't breathe. I got this jar of stuff from a Jewman and that got rid of it before I had the lid back on it. She thought she was going to die, just a few more whispered words would kill her; her tongue was beginning to swell.
She was saved by the fight that broke out when a couple of moochers that nobody knew were caught helping themselves to the bottles of stout.
Yeh dirty lousers!
Granny Nash jumped onto one of them and bit him on the cheek. His screams saved Melody. She got away from the women. But the sight of her mother hanging on to the poor man's face filled her with fresh terror. Was this part of the wedding? Would she have to do it? The man was trying to save his face but his arms were stiffened by all the bottles and sandwiches stuffed up his sleeves. His friend was being pounded by Melody's father, using her new husband's leg. And her Henry sat on the table guarding the rest of the bottles. The neighbours queued up to have a go at the moochers but Granny Nash wasn't ready to give up and hand over. She was growling and chomping like a scorched bitch from hell; her dirty old thumbs were crawling across the man's face, looking for eyes to gouge. Faye was bawling and scratching herself under the table. Old Missis Doody was clapping her hands.
Seven, EIGHT, open the GATE!
Melody had had enough.
You're ruining my day! she screamed.
Granda Nash dropped the leg.
Sure Jaysis, love, he said. The day would've been ruined altogether if they'd got away with the rest of the bottles.
But the fight was over. The moochers tumbled out the door and down the stairs, whimpering and crying, and they left a trail of blood that the dogs of the district followed and lapped. They also left the bottles, none broken, and most of the sandwiches, some of which could be straightened and eaten. Henry strapped his leg back on and went over to Melody. He had a face on him that was bashful and brave.
Yes, said Melody.
It was time to go. They said their goodbyes. Melody wouldn't kiss her mother; the moocher's blood was still on her chin, her eyes were tiny and mad. They strolled the short walk to their new home. Melody held on to Henry's arm and began to feel happy again. The air was cool and nice, she was married and walking home. Around a few corners, down a few dark lanes.
To No. 57, Silver Alley.
To a room in 57, Silver Alley. Up two flights of stairs, in the door, the top front room. A room of their own. A room with a window, a good working window that could be opened and closed. It had once been some child's nursery. A hundred years later, the newly married Smarts felt lucky to have it. They had it to themselves; all this space and peace, they'd never had so much before. They stood at the doorway, getting their breath back, and looked in at their home. They had so much. They had good thick walls and a window. They had a mattress, fresh straw, a chair and a stool. They had a tea chest for the coal and another for a table. They had a window box waiting for flowers. They had a mantelpiece and a blue statue of Mary already up there. They had two cups not too cracked and two plates not cracked at all. They had knives, forks and one spoon. A water bucket, a basin, a good big kettle and a slop bucket. A paraffin lamp and a brand new bar of Sunlight soap. An old biscuit tin for keeping the food and a piece of gauze for over the milk. They had clothes on their backs and some to spare. They had a man who'd call for the rent for the landlord, a policeman called Costello, every Friday at six o'clock and it didn't frighten them at all; they'd have the money stacked and ready on the mantelpiece. The floorboards were clean, their window was gleaming. Henry's everyday leg was parked in a corner. They had a sheet made from flour bags, and sugar sacks for blankets. They'd a bit of bread and cheese in the tin, and a dollop of butter staying fresh in the water bucket. They had everything they needed; they owned it all.
He sat on the chair, she took the stool.
A room of their own. They could close the door and keep out the rest of the house. They could forget the darkness they'd climbed through, the unseen filth that made each step an adventure. They could joke about the banister that wasn't there when they'd reached for it. They could ignore their drenched sleeves where they'd rubbed along the stairwell and the stench that had risen with them as they'd climbed the stairs. They could comment or not on the bloodied coughs they'd heard coming from the room below them as they'd passed, and could still hear now if they wanted to. They could hear claws in the attic, beyond the sagging ceiling, and claws behind their walls. They sat side by side like they were on a tram and, beautifully shy now that they were married and alone, they looked at the walls and at their window.
The walls were alive, looking back out at them. Crawlers and biters, cities under the layers. If they put their hands to the paper they could feel creeping and shuffling. Melody and Henry thought all walls were like that. They weren't solid; they were never reliable. There was cow hair in the paste, invented to keep the room warm. It smelt to high heaven and back down to hell.
They looked at the cracked pane of their very own window. They saw the yellowed, blackened newspaper, filling the hole under the sill. The front top room, a room with a view. They could look out and see the world. They could see the smoke floating by, smuts the size of kittens, grey, stinking rain. They could go to their window and see other windows just a few feet in front of them, a big man's reach over the alley. Houses bending towards each other, hooding the alley below, and ready to topple. Flaking brick and rotten wood; a good wind or a push would bring them down. Sneering replicas of their own room, leaning out towards them, they could see the houses dying. To the right of their window they could see the alley's missing teeth, three houses that had fallen into fire five years before. Three houses and eighty-seven people, the flames licking Melody and Henry's window. They could open the window and look down at the alley, at the stray dogs and children, bare feet and rickets, the beatings and evictions, the running dirt and pain. They could look out at their future. Ah sure, God be with the days. They could close the window and keep out the dead and the living, the screams and the heartache. Inside, they were happily married. Outside, they were doomed.
Henry and Melody sat on the chair and the stool. They were excited and frightened, frightened and excited. She was sixteen, he was twenty-two. My parents. My mammy and daddy.
I'm just around the corner, gathering steam. I was born in that room, or in a room just like it. I was born into that alley, that city, that small corner of the Empire. I'm looking for the door, trying to find my way in. It's dark, but I'm nearly there.
They paid the rent every Friday night. Melody handed it over to Costello the rozzer, a big, fat Dublin Metropolitan policeman who first saw Dublin the day before he started work. He hated the place, the people, their accents and their dirt. They deserved their streets and their slums. Collecting the rent was a nixer. He loved it, especially when there was no rent when he knocked. He had a huge moustache that matched his gut and feet that spanned three parishes.
He counted Melody's shillings and pennies. He weighed them on his palm, hoped they'd be a little too light.
Grand so, he said after he'd waited long enough to make Melody worried.
He pocketed the money, dropped it down on top of more money. He wet the top of his pencil.
Where's himself the night? he asked as he pretended to write in the notebook he held gently in his mitt.
He's at his work, Mister Costello, said Melody.
His work, said Costello. He calls it work, does he?
Costello cracked Dublin heads for a living. So did my father. He stood in front of the door of Dolly Oblong's, the biggest brothel on Faithful Place, bang in the middle of Monto. In her dark room deep inside the house Dolly Oblong, a woman few people had seen, scoured the papers for news of troop movements, stock prices, football results. She knew what boats were on their way, the big race meetings, the date that Ash Wednesday fell on, years in advance. She saw business everywhere; she knew everything. It was said that, in her day, and still a child, she'd brought spunk to the eyes of the Prince of Wales; he'd been brought to her through secret passages that had been dug especially for him. And immediately after that, she'd serviced an unemployed navvy, the Prince's arse hardly back inside the passage. She'd fucked all classes, colours and creeds and her girls would do the same. She ran a house for all men. All men with the money and the manners.
And that was where my father came in. He stood on the steps all night and kept the peace. There was privacy inside for those who needed it and licence for those who wanted to whoop. The rozzers and clergymen could come and leave under cover of night. The sailors could come at any time they wanted. But they all had to get past my father. He stood there from six till six, all night long. The letter-in and chucker-out. Soldiers, butchers, politicians they all had to pass his test. He glared at them as they came up the steps. He looked for something in their faces: crankiness, aggro, badness. If he saw it, they didn't get past him. He was a great big man but there was more to him than that. Compensation for the missing leg, his body had a sharpness that was quickly understood. Sailors with no English turned back when they read the tilt of his shoulders. Ratarsed aldermen stopped boasting when they saw Henry's eyebrow lift. Bankers stared at his chest and knew that he was incorruptible. Others just knew him; they knew about him. In one neat hop he'd have the leg off and their heads open and the leg back on before they hit the ground. He was a good bouncer, the king of the bullies. He often went a full week without having to take off the leg. He was polite and agile. He stepped aside and let the men in, the ones with clear faces, decent men looking for a ride or a bit of after-hours singing. They often tipped him. The girls liked him too. They paid him to buy them their cigarettes and sweets. Dolly Oblong would never let them out; she wanted them white-skinned and captured. She called them all Maria; the clients liked it. She hated the coarseness of the girls who stood on the steps all down the street and the snootiness of the flash houses, like the one she'd worked in for years.
He made a living. He walked home at six in the morning, dying for his bed and the weightlessness that arrived when the leg came off. He was reliable, steady, a father crying out for children.
He calls it work, does he? said Costello.
Every Friday night.
Yes, Mister Costello, said Melody.
Looking after hoors is work, is it?
I don't know, Mister Costello, said Melody.
He did other things too, my father. He was reliable, he was steady. A man created from his own secrets, he was well able to keep other people's. He did things for people. Sometimes Henry wasn't on the steps of Dolly Oblong's. He was somewhere else. He gave messages, he delivered lessons. He gave lessons that were never forgotten.
Costello gave his money a fat jangle.
What about you, Missis Smarty? said Costello. Are you one of his hoors?
No, I'm not, Mister Costello.
No, he said. Sure, who'd want you?
I'm off, said Henry to Brannigan.
Fair enough, said Brannigan.
Brannigan watched Henry hop down the steps. He watched, then listened to the leg as Henry disappeared across the street, into the dark. He pushed out his chest to fill the gap left by Henry.
Melody closed the door. Peace at last. For another week. She wished her Henry could stay at home on Fridays, at least until after Mister Costello had gone. It always took her hours to recover. She cleaned the floor. She dusted the statue.
Henry waited. He waited for the message to come to him. There was no such thing as a quiet wooden leg. Sometimes, the tap tap of the approaching leg was message enough; he walked under a window tap tap and back, knowing that the money, the promise would be delivered first thing the day after, or quicker. Tonight, though, Henry needed silence. His was the best-known leg in all of Dublin tap tap. He needed silence. He stood back in the dark. He listened. He heard the shouts and howls from the streets behind him. A baby crying from a window above, a bottle breaking, a batch of cats singing for sex. He was listening for a wheeze. Any minute now. Any second. He knew his man. He knew his week. It was Friday night. Any second now.
He heard it. The wheeze, and good leather on cobbles. The message. Henry opened his coat; he unstrapped his leg. The wheezing was louder, louder. Any second now. Henry held his leg. Louder, louder, louder. Henry lifted the leg.
Costello never knew what hit him. The weight of the rents pulled him quickly to the ground. He was already half dead. Henry had the leg back on. He stood over Costello, one foot on each side of him. He had to stretch; it was like straddling a sea-lion. Costello was face down. There was some of him alive. Henry leaned down to his right ear.
Alfie Gandon says Hello.
Then he sat on Costello, hauled back his head and sawed deep into his throat. With a leather knife he'd sharpened that afternoon. Back and across the man's neck, like a bow over a fiddle. Henry even hummed. Costello's death rattle was a feeble thing; there was no fight or spunk in him. He quacked and properly died.
Henry stood up. He wiped the sides of the knife on the sleeve of his coat, the same sleeve my mother had leaned on on their first walk into the country. The dirtiest sleeve in the world.
Back home, pregnant Melody said her prayers before she climbed under the sugar sacks and tried to sleep.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >