– The Aga Khan –
The little shop perched unpretentiously on the end of the terrace overlooking the High Street. The whole of its frontage – even the glass of the single display window and the extractor fan in the centre of the glass – was painted a dull, anonymous shade of yellow. The paintwork was peeling and flaking in places. Above the door and window, big brown letters stretched the length of the shop, proclaiming to the town: P. PERCY & SON, BOOKMAKERS.
The boy hesitated outside the open doorway. The late June sunshine was warm on his face. He could smell the freshness of the soft breeze that was carried up to him from the sea. Down below in the narrow High Street, local shoppers jostled with talkative, slow-moving visitors to create that familiar Saturday afternoon buzz. The boy glanced along the terrace and up at the Jubilee clock. It was nearly two o’clock, still a good half-hour before the first race. He checked his jacket pockets again, feeling for the wad of crumpled slips on the left and the reassuring weight of coins and notes on the right. Then he left the sunshine and stepped into the shop.
The sensation was at once fascinating and unnerving: the sudden transportation from the brightness and freshness and cheerfulness of the day into an alien, uncharted territory of stale air, hushed voices and permanent dimness. As the boy’s eyes adjusted to the gloom, he could see that the walls and ceiling of the room were painted the same dull yellow as the shop front. A single pendant hung from the middle of the ceiling, its bare bulb casting a weak, shadowy light across the room. The floorboards were also bare, but brightened here and there by splashes of gold from sunbeams that glanced through paint cracks in the window. Narrow, chest-high plywood ledges ran along the walls to the boy’s left and right. On the wall facing him, there was a door to the left and a small, glass-fronted hatch in the centre. The hatch gave a glimpse of the more intense light in the office behind it. Above it, the metallic voice of a woman droned through a big Tannoy speaker; in a detached, tinny monotone, she was announcing the latest starting prices from the courses.
The boy walked towards the hatch. Men were standing at the ledges. Some were leaning casually, smoking, quietly studying the race cards that were pinned to the wall in front of them. Others were hunched over the ledges, deep in concentration, printing out with meticulous effort the exotic names of their chosen runners; sometimes pausing, checking, their biros poised over their little works of craftsmanship. The boy trod softly past the men. He noticed that the pens they were using were attached to the wall with pieces of string. He stood at the hatch, sweeping back his black hair from his forehead, feeling suddenly awkward. He knew that his cheeks were beginning to glow from the redness that always came with his self-consciousness. He felt like an intruder in this place where real men gathered to carry out men’s business. And yet he could sense no excitement or adventure in the dingy room; the men’s actions seemed so furtive, so seamy.
‘They’re all losers,’ his father had told him once. ‘Wee men, like me, betting a few coppers at a time. If they win one week, the bookies take it back the next. There’s only one way to beat the bastards. You need to watch out for the young horses with potential. And you need to follow their progress; to build up a system, so that you know what circumstances suit them and the right time to bet on them. Most of all, you need money – big money – that you’re prepared to gamble and lose. That’s the way the real gamblers – the big winners – do it. And there’s not many of them in the Ferry, son.’
A good system and plenty of money: those were the secrets. His father’s system was coming along. He had already picked out about fifty promising horses. Regularly and painstakingly, he had been recording their form on cards that he kept in a little red box at home. Money, though, was an entirely different matter. With six kids to feed and a wife who had an obsession for tallymen’s tick, his labourer’s wage from the dockyard was never enough. Even the few bob he made from the runner’s job had to be spent with care. Aye, money was a different thing altogether …
The face at the hatch was round and pink and chubby, like a cherub’s. The man’s eyes were small, and his hair was biscuit-coloured and wispy. The voice coming through the glass sounded distant and impersonal.
‘I’m sorry, son, you can’t place a bet here.’
The boy’s cheeks were burning now. He stammered, ‘My dad sent me … Derry …’
‘Och, it’s Derry’s son,’ the man smiled, but the smile seemed more like a leer. ‘Come right through the back, son. You’re alright.’
Still acutely nervous, the boy stepped over to the door on his left. His hand fumbled on the doorknob. Then he opened the door and went into the tiny office. The smell of stale cigar smoke was overpowering. In less time than it took to look round the office, the two Alsatians had slid forward. They looked like twins: both young and light-coloured, and thin to the point of emaciation. The dogs didn’t bark or growl or snarl; they just crouched on either side of the boy, their hungry eyes fixed on his, daring him to move. The boy kept his arms rigid at his sides. His big brown eyes were opened wide with fright. His blush had vanished.
‘Sheba! Shona! Back!’
The dogs retreated immediately to flop down at the feet of the man who had given the commands. The man was dumpy and dapper and in his fifties. He was sitting on a swivel chair with his back to a battered roll-top desk. Thin strands of silvery hair were Brylcreemed back over his pointed head. He wore a white shirt with mother-of-pearl cuff links, a striped tie, patterned braces, sharply creased pinstripe trousers and very shiny black shoes. In the glare of the anglepoise lamp on the desk, gold glinted from his tie-pin, his arm-garters, the big rings on each of his hands and even the thin rims of the spectacles that he wore halfway down his pug nose. There was an unlit cigar stump in the corner of his mouth.
‘Shut the door and come in, son,’ he said. ‘Pay no heed to the dogs.’ He pulled the cigar from his mouth and gave a husky chuckle. ‘Aye, son, I’ve no need to lock the door when my wee girls are here.’
His eyes still darting down at the Alsatians, the boy closed the door and walked towards the man. He hadn’t met the man before, but he knew him well from his father’s description. ‘A wee, fat, tight-fisted bastard’ was how his father described P. Percy. He owned this shop in the Ferry and another two shops in Edinburgh; like all bookies, he was very rich. None of his customers knew what the ‘P.’ stood for, so they just referred to him as ‘Percy’. His son, who was equally anonymous, was called simply ‘Percy’s son’.
Percy’s son was the cherub the boy had seen at the hatch. He, too, sat on a swivel chair facing the boy. He was smoking a reeking, foul-smelling cigar, his elbow resting on a shelf under the hatch. There was a bulging cash drawer on the shelf, together with a rubber stamp and inkpad, a stapler, and a clumsy-looking adding machine with a big handle. The man was probably in his early thirties, a younger, but much scruffier, version of his father. His hair was uncombed, and there was a round bald patch on his crown, like a monk’s tonsure. His shirtsleeves were rolled up, and a wide, flowery tie with an untidy knot lolled askew over his heavy paunch. His shirt was stretched so tight across the paunch that the lower buttons seemed hardly able to bear the strain for much longer. He wore crumpled, checked trousers, white socks and scuffed brown shoes. Seeing Percy’s son close up like this, the boy still thought that he looked like a cherub; a very tarnished and shabby cherub.
Percy was speaking again. ‘Tell me, son, how’s your father?’ he wanted to know.
The boy cleared his throat. He had been asked the same question a dozen or more times that day on his journey round the scheme. He spoke quickly, the story perfected. ‘He went into Bangour on Monday morning. They’ve been taking tests all week, but he thinks that they’ll operate on him quite soon now.’
‘That’s good …’ Percy was saying, but his son interrupted.
‘Didn’t I tell you, paw, that Derry should’ve been in the hospital months ago? The poor man was looking awfie bad.’
Percy nodded. ‘Aye,’ he murmured, looking down at the dogs. Then he said to the boy: ‘Your dad says that you’re a good help to him; a good wee runner …’
‘A bookie’s runner’s runner,’ Percy’s son interrupted again, grinning, pleased with his cleverness.
Percy scowled at him, but said nothing. He turned back to the boy. ‘How old are you, son?’ he asked.
The boy shifted uncomfortably. His flush was reappearing. ‘Fifteen,’ he muttered.
Percy re-lit his cigar and looked hard at the boy. His eyes were the same colour as the acrid grey smoke from the cigar. ‘Well now,’ he said. ‘This wee job you’re doing for your father, it’s our secret, right? A secret between you and you’re father and us two here. Right? Otherwise, the Polis’ll string us up by the balls.’
The boy nodded sheepishly.
‘Okay, son,’ Percy continued. ‘What have you got for us today, then?’
The boy reached quickly into his jacket pockets. The heads of the Alsatians jerked up suddenly, then down again when the dogs recognised that no threat was intended. The boy placed the betting slips in Percy’s left palm and the money in his right. Although he had tried to flatten them out before he left the house, the slips were still very crumpled. They were usually handed to him at the door, wrapped tightly around their stakes; clandestine little packages for the bookie. The incongruous scraps of paper bore secret, coded messages of hope, and a bizarre array of nom de plumes that reflected the idiosyncrasies of their authors. When he opened them up and read them, it was like uncovering a conspiracy.
Percy hardly glanced at the slips before passing them to his son. The son swivelled round to face the shelf and began to pummel the slips with the circular rubber stamp. The stamp flew up and down in his hand in a flurry of thuds. Percy was counting the money, flattening out the notes and placing the change in neat little piles. Seven pounds, nine shillings and sixpence, the boy said to himself. He had checked it twice already and had tallied it with the lines. He had collected bets at about twenty houses. The smallest bet – his own – was one and six; the biggest was two pounds.
Percy finished counting and waited. His son was scrutinising the betting slips now, and alternately stabbing his forefinger into the adding machine and hauling at its big handle. The machine clacked and whirred each time. After a final tug of the handle, Percy’s son tore off the piece of tally-roll and, with a loud bang, stapled it to the bundle of slips.
‘Seven, nine and six,’ he said quickly to his father and then turned his attention to the old man who had come to the hatch. ‘Right, sir!’ he shouted.
Percy smiled and nodded. He selected three half-crowns from one of the piles of change and handed them to the boy. ‘A shilling in the pound,’ he said. ‘The same deal as your father.’
The boy’s eyes shone. It was a lot more than he had expected. A man’s commission for a man’s job. He took the coins from Percy’s chubby hand and slid them quickly into his jacket pocket.
Percy sat with his fingers interlocked and resting on his belly. The cigar was dead again. He said, ‘That’s a good wee round you’ve got there, son. We’ll maybe get you collecting bets for the evening racing next week.’
The boy smiled for the first time.
Percy continued. ‘Now, if you come back just before six, we’ll have your returns for you. Right, son?’
‘Right!’ the boy said rather more loudly than he had intended.
The boy began to leave, but Percy was speaking again. ‘We’ll try and get in to see Derry some time next week.’ He looked at his son’s back. ‘Is that not right, lad?’
Percy’s son didn’t turn round. ‘Aye, paw,’ he said to the hatch.
The shop was busier and noisier now. The hollow voice crackling through the Tannoy speaker seemed to rise above the men’s talk. The boy’s tread was more sure as he dodged past the men. His cheeks were still flushed, but there was a big grin on his face. Out in the fresh air, the sunshine dazzled him for a moment or two. His hand was still clutching the half-crowns in his pocket. He was seven and six richer; his bet might come up; and he was sure to get at least a couple of bob when he handed out the returns later on. He felt older, more mature. He wasn’t just a spectator any more; he was part of the men’s conspiracy, a co-plotter.
Walking back along the terrace, it occurred to him suddenly that they hadn’t asked his name. He thought of the two men – the father and the grimy cherub of a son – and their wealth and their corpulence. He thought of his own father in the hospital bed; the wiry, weather-beaten frame knotted in pain. Struggling on week after week while the ulcer seethed within him, spreading its poisonous tentacles, tightening its grip. Hiding the pain. Fear in those dark eyes. Compelled to carry on working. And he sensed it then about P. Percy & Son. Their concern wasn’t real. Their sincerity was just about as strong and enduring as the tissue paper old Ma Reilly had used to write her line on that morning.
Derry pulled hard on the roll-up, then tapped the half-inch of dead ash into a little foil tray, the kind that came with apple tarts in them. The cigarette was not much thicker than the match he had used to light it; ‘a Saughton special’ he called it. He chopped at the cloud of blue smoke with his left hand and said to his visitors, ‘The Sister doesn’t like me smoking in the ward. She keeps threatening to take away my baccy tin. But I’m alright at visiting times.’
Mary sat at the edge of the bed with her back straight and her hands resting in her lap. She shook her head disapprovingly, but she was glad to see the twinkle in Derry’s eyes. He looked rested, more relaxed. The pain and the worry and the tiredness that had creased his brow for such an interminable time seemed to have vanished. It was as if through his mere presence in the hospital he had found the key to unlock all of that unbearable pressure. Mary smiled and reached over to touch Derry’s hand. They both knew that the hospital was only a temporary sanctuary. The worries were still lurking at home; the debt hadn’t shifted. But he was in here to be mended; to return stronger, fitter, more able to take up the struggle again.
The boy sat opposite his mother, leaning back in his chair, listening quietly to his parents’ conversation. Derry spoke excitedly, almost boyishly, of the tests he had undergone. The barium meal sounded like a horrific ordeal. The hospital seemed to have completed its diagnosis, though: a huge pancreatic ulcer that stretched right across his stomach. Surgery to drain and then to remove the ulcer would be carried out later in the week. Mary pursed her lips and cursed the doctors in the Ferry for their incompetence; for their failure to take the problem seriously; for their insistence over many months that the ulcer could be treated with special diets and courses of tablets. Deftly, Derry shifted her thoughts away from the bitterness. He began to describe the regime in the ward. The place appeared to be full of cantankerous old men. Some of them were literally on their last legs, in there to die. A few had already passed away, silently, without struggle, in the middle of the night.
‘I’ve figured it out,’ Derry was saying. ‘The old men that have been popping off have usually been in the beds right next to the ward doors. The closer they put you to those doors, the quicker you’ll be offski, potted heid.’
The boy smiled and looked around the long ward, as if he was seeing it for the first time. There were about fifteen beds on either side of the ward, separated by a wide passageway. On a big, polished table in the middle of the passageway were two vases of flowers, several neat piles of books and magazines, and a box of dominoes with a splintered lid. Whispered, muffled conversations were being conducted at the few beds with visitors. His father’s bed was near the back of the ward, well away from the large swing-doors. Clearly, if Derry’s theory was correct, he was quite safe for the time being.
The boy looked past his mother and along the row of beds behind her. His gaze lingered on a bed that had seemed empty at first. The old man lay with his eyes closed, his white hair and grey face merged with the pillow, his skeleton of a body hardly furrowing the bedclothes. The boy thought that he was dead already. He dragged his eyes away from the spectre when he heard Derry ask, ‘How are you getting on with that old skinflint at the bookies?’
‘Fine, dad,’ he replied. ‘He’s paying me the full commission, you know. And I’m collecting for the night racing this week.’ He paused. ‘Percy says he’ll be in to see you soon.’
Mary snorted. ‘And pigs’ll fly,’ she muttered.
‘That’s good,’ Derry said, as if he hadn’t heard her. ‘I’ve been placing a few bets myself. There’s a wee man who comes in once a day. A runner for a bookie in Broxburn …’
‘Jesus, Derry,’ interrupted Mary, ‘you’re not still backing the horses. And in hospital, too. You can’t keep away from the bloody things.’ It had been twenty years since she had stepped on Irish soil, but the brogue was still as thick as the morning mists over the Liffey.
Derry grinned. ‘It helps to pass the time, hen. Anyways, I’m a bob or two ahead the now.’ He winked at the boy, and the boy knew right away that his father had won much more than just a bob or two.
Mary checked her watch. They would have to go soon to catch the first of the two buses that would get them back to the Ferry. She stood up and said, ‘I’ll just away to powder my nose before the bus. Back in a minute.’
They watched her go, her back ramrod straight as usual, her heels clicking and clacking on the polished brown linoleum. She would be forty on her next birthday, a little heavier than before, a few traces of grey in the waves of blue-black hair.
Derry waited until the heavy doors had swung back into place, then he reached out quickly, slid open the drawer at the top of the cabinet next to his bed and pulled out a piece of paper and a bundle of five-pound notes. He handed the paper to the boy.
‘Right, son.’ he said. The tone was hushed and urgent. ‘I need you to do me a big favour. Have a dekko at that.’
The boy took the paper, a page of foolscap folded neatly in two. He opened it up. The names of about forty horses were printed down the length of the page. A series of brackets to the left of the names grouped the horses into threes and fours. Further left was a complex set of betting instructions. Down in the right-hand corner of the page, a big circle highlighted the total amount of the stake, £50, and below that was the nom de plume, Aga Khan. The boy whistled and looked at his father. It was the biggest bet he had ever seen; a bet and a half.
Derry said, ‘I’m trying out a new system. A new perm that I’ve read about in the form books. I’ve had plenty of time to work it out. I’m backing all the favourites and all the second favourites in every race from the three meetings on Thursday night. The way the perm works is that if only one or two of the horses are placed – which is a certainty – I’ll get my stake back. But if they’re all placed, I’ll be rich. It’s a good system, eh?’
The boy nodded, wondering if his father was going mad.
Derry went on quickly. ‘What I want you to do is to place the bet with Percy some time tomorrow. He knows my hand, though, so you’ll need to write out the line again. But keep my one as a copy. Tell Percy it’s from somebody that bides in the new houses up the back. I’d give the line to the wee man from Broxburn, but I’m not sure that he’d take it. It would be a big risk for him if it came up.’
He checked the swing-doors again, then thrust the notes into the boy’s hand. ‘Not a word to your mother, mind,’ he said. ‘Just between you and me, I’ve made more money on the horses these past few days than from all the years of betting put together. And I’m intending to make a lot more with this new system.’
The boy just had time to stuff the paper and money into his pocket before the doors creaked open again. As Mary’s heels click-clacked up to the bed, Derry asked him, ‘Do you know who the Aga Khan is, son?’
The boy shook his head.
Derry smiled a wee, fly smile. ‘He’s the richest man in the world, son.’
The boy stood at the end of the terrace with his chest pressed against the railings, staring down through the gap between the shops on the other side of the street, his thoughts lost for the moment in the patch of shimmering blue sea. The first week of the school holidays had brought glorious weather. Later on, once he was finished here, he would take a walk along the Shellbeds and see if he could find his pals.
The Jubilee clock struck the half-hour. He turned around again to face the padlocked door of the shop. Half-past twelve, and still they hadn’t turned up. He had been waiting the best part of an hour already. He was growing anxious. Niggling thoughts were taking shape in his mind. It was as if a catastrophe had taken place, and he was the only person not to know about it.
With a sigh, he walked over to the shop, sat down on the stone doorstep and unrolled his copy of the ‘Sporting Chronicle’. The sun was in his eyes, but he had little difficulty in making out the big red crosses that he had marked in the results section on the back page. His father must have won a packet. More than twenty of his horses had been placed. Some of their odds were pretty high, as big as twelve to one for one winner. Now he was here waiting – and waiting – to collect the winnings …
The boy remembered the evening before when he had handed in the line, along with the handful of small bets he had collected round the houses. The front shop was deserted, and there was no sign of Percy or the dogs in the back office, just Percy’s son, looking mean and surly and as dishevelled as ever. His hair looked like it needed a good wash, and his breath stank of stale beer. He was wearing a grubby pink shirt with a large polka-dot tie. He had stared cockeyed at the big, neatly printed line, eventually remarking, ‘Aye, this is one of them newfangled perms. What fucking mug gave you this, son?’
The boy had shrugged and lied, ‘Just a man up at the new houses.’
Percy’s son had stared at the line for a moment longer, stamped it grudgingly and repeated ‘fucking mug’ under his breath. Then he had handed the boy a pound note, saying, ‘A pound for cash, son. I can’t give you any more than that. I’m taking too much of a risk already.’
That had bothered the boy a lot. But it didn’t matter now; his dad had managed to beat the bastards at long last …
A shadow fell over the newspaper. The boy looked up, squinting in the glare of the sun. The old man was tall and swaying a little. As if to challenge the warmth of the day, he wore a bonnet and a long black overcoat that was buttoned to the top. His hands were hidden in the coat pockets. His face looked white and frozen.
‘Are you waiting for the bookies to open, son?’ he asked in a loud, gravelly voice.
The boy nodded, still squinting up.
The old man stared blankly at the door for a few moments. ‘Well, sir,’ he said, ‘you’ll have a long wait, by Christ. In fact, you’ll be waiting till the coos come hame.’
The boy abandoned his paper and stood up. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asked.
The man took a big, gnarled hand out of his pocket and rubbed the stubble on his chin. ‘I’ve just come from the Forth. Percy was on the phone to the landlord earlier. It appears that his big eejit of a son has fucked off to London with Percy’s Jaguar and all yesterday’s takings. He’s done a bunk, son.’
The boy gaped. ‘But I’ve got returns to collect …’ He threw his hands up in despair.
The old man tutted. ‘You’re Derry’s laddie, aren’t you?’
The boy nodded.
‘Well, if I was you, son, I’d go home and tell your father what’s happened. Derry’ll sort it out with Percy. It’ll be alright as long as the lines haven’t been burned. Okay, son?’
The boy nodded again and mumbled, ‘Thanks, mister.’
The old man stepped down from the terrace and walked slowly in the direction of the next pub. The boy stood with his hands in his pockets, staring at the old man’s back, dejection plain on his face. He turned quickly, fighting back the tears, and headed home. His hands were clenched into tight fists. He was angry and resentful … and afraid. Afraid of the pain that this would cause his father. Afraid to see the hurt in his eyes again. He had seen it too many times. Like when the dockyard police strip-searched Derry and took away his lines. Or when Mary discovered where he had hidden the returns and then spent them all. Or when some drunken lout in the pub picked Derry’s pockets while he was out collecting bets … It was the hurt that frightened the most.
The beginnings of tears were glistening in Mary’s eyes. ‘Jesus God, Derry, what have they done to you?’ she murmured for perhaps the fifth or sixth time.
She was leaning over the bed, using a tissue to dab at the thread of saliva which seemed to be trickling perpetually from a corner of Derry’s mouth.
‘I’ll be fine, hen,’ Derry croaked. ‘Don’t worry yourself. It’s just a wee bit of pain from the operation.’
He tried to sit up straight, wincing with the effort, inadvertently pushing back the covers to reveal the blood-flecked bandage around his stomach. There was a burn mark on the sheet beside him and a big brown blister along the index finger of his right hand. He looked at the hand and attempted a smile, but the smile appeared more like a grimace. ‘Aye,’ he muttered, ‘they finally took my smokes away.’
Mary examined the blister and shook her head. ‘Stupid eejit,’ she said. ‘Trying to smoke when you’re still drugged to the eyeballs.’
The boy stood at the foot of the bed, holding on to the metal rail. The ward doors were on his left, only a short distance away. He was smiling across at his father, trying desperately to mask the horror that he felt inside. Derry’s face was grey and haggard and lined with pain. His lips were drawn tight and pale. The pupils of his eyes were like tiny, dark slits. His pyjama jacket was open and looked much too large for his narrow shoulders and thin, bony chest. The sight of his father reminded the boy of picture he had seen in a book about the concentration camps.
Mary said something about seeing the Sister, then she moved quietly past the boy and out of the ward. The boy slipped into her place at the side of the bed. Derry peered at him for a moment or two, his eyes going in and out of focus. Finally, he wheezed, ‘Are you looking after your mother, son?’
‘Aye, dad,’ the boy answered softly. Tears were welling up in his eyes.
‘You’re a good laddie.’ Derry grimaced again, trying hard to concentrate. It was as if he was struggling through a heavy haze. When he spoke again, the words were slurred. ‘Did you put that line on with Percy okay?’
The boy gulped. His throat felt sore and constricted. ‘Aye, I did, dad,’ he said. ‘But when I went to collect the winnings yesterday, Percy’s son had run off … to London. The bookies is closed down … and I’m not sure what to do next …’
Derry sighed, but there was no anger in his expression. His face seemed to soften a little, and the boy was sure that he detected the flicker of a smile. With a groan, Derry shifted up slightly and reached out to pat the boy’s hand. ‘Never mind, son,’ he said. ‘It couldn’t be helped. You’ll not see Percy or the money again. I’ll guarantee it.’ He sighed again and said, ‘Who can you trust, eh?’
The boy looked at him, perplexed, wondering whether the reaction was coming from his father or from the drugs they had given him to deaden the pain.
Derry raised his arm and winced. He pointed to the drawer of the cabinet next to the boy. ‘Have a wee peek in there, son,’ he wheezed, then lay back again. ‘Just a peek, mind, then shut the drawer quick before your mother comes back.’
The boy opened the drawer an inch or two and glanced inside. His eyes opened wide and his mouth fell open. He jerked the drawer shut as if whatever lurked in there was on the verge of reaching out and grabbing him. On many occasions afterwards, he wished that he had taken a better look. Even then, he still couldn’t believe that the drawer was stuffed full of money.
There was a proper smile on Derry’s face now; the familiar smile of the quiet, fly, wee man from the Ferry. ‘Aye,’ he said, ‘I kept a copy of the bet and managed to place it with the runner from Broxburn.’
He held up his left hand with two of the fingers crossed. ‘See me and the Aga Khan, son? We’re just like that …’
Mary came through the swing-doors, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. She had just been told that there would have to be another operation to cut out the rest of the ulcer.
They were sitting in the kitchen, just the two of them, sipping tea, the solemnity of their expressions in perfect harmony with the greyness and dreichness of the early morning. The rest of the family were still in bed, still asleep, their minds and bodies recovering from the spent grief of yesterday’s funeral and the rowdy get-together that came afterwards and went on through the night.
The boy sat opposite his mother, silently watching her. She looked cold and frail in her thin housecoat. Her hair had lost its lustre, and her eyes were puffy and red-rimmed. She was staring past him into nothing, her thoughts lingering on the edge of the abyss that was the future. She could sense only despair in that vast, unknown chasm: the despair of struggle and penury and aching loneliness. The bleak vista of widowhood was stretched out in front of her; a hostile and barren landscape.
The boy’s thoughts were also on the future. Unfairly, brutally, without warning, he had lost his father. There was bitterness in the loss and an immense desire to mete out blame, but he had to rise above those feelings and grasp the mantle of manhood that was being thrust at him. He was the man of the house now. He had to be his mother’s comforter and supporter; her companion. He knew that there would be many times like this in the years ahead: silent, unspoken moments between the two of them.
Mary blinked and seemed to block out the abyss. She was back in the present, her mind on the immediate task of survival. Her voice sounded hollow in the quiet of the room. ‘They all came yesterday,’ she said. ‘They brought their sympathy. And they drank their beer and whisky. And they talked and they sang about poor Derry. But not a one of them asked about the cost of the funeral. Not a one of them offered to help.’
She became silent again and looked down hopelessly into her teacup. Money, she thought. She cursed it. It had always been the bane of their existence. The cause of their unhappiness, their constant quarrelling. Surely the cause of Derry’s death. Even the insurance policy had been surrendered long ago for the sake of the few coppers it had cost each week.
The boy was still watching his mother, staring into the misty softness of her eyes, searching for an answer. He was confused. She must have found out about the money in the drawer. She couldn’t have forgotten so quickly, so easily. Why was she denying its existence? He hesitated, cleared his throat, then finally, in a weak voice, he asked, ‘Do you know that dad had stacks of money in the hospital?’
She glared across at him, her eyes suddenly hard and cold. ‘What money?’ she barked.
It was as if his question had ignited the touchpaper of her emotions. He recognised it, but he also knew that it was too late to prevent the explosion. He had to persist. Keeping his voice quiet, he said, ‘Dad had a big win on the horses the week before he died.’
Mary banged her fist on the table. The teacups rattled in their saucers, shocked by her fury. ‘Horses!’ she cried. ‘Bloody horses! A big win, my arse! Jesus Christ, he’s got you as daft as he was!’
‘But it’s true, mum. I saw it myself. Piles and piles of money in the drawer of the cabinet next to his bed. I saw it! Did you not collect it –’
‘Collect it! Jesus Christ Almighty! I’ll tell you what I collected from the hospital, will I? An ould watch. A ring. An empty wallet. And that stupid bloody box of cards with the names of his precious horses. That was it. That’s what Derry left me. His life’s worth. That’s what I collected in a polythene bag.’ She wasn’t shouting now, but the words were still spoken forcibly. ‘So don’t talk to me about horses. Or big wins. Or piles of money. Don’t ever mention them again. Haven’t I got enough on my plate already?’
Her anger used up, Mary buried her head in her hands and began to sob quietly. The boy reached out to hug her, to give her his warmth – and his forgiveness. Large, hot tears were rolling down his cheeks. He had stayed brave up until now. He hadn’t cried at the graveside, nor afterwards, even when he had locked the door behind the last of the drunken relations. He was crying now. Tears devoid of bitterness. Tears of sorrow. The sorrow not for himself, but for the man who had never won; the man who was destined to lose. They robbed him before he died, and they robbed him after he died. When the boy closed his eyes, he could picture that tired, gaunt face. And he could hear that sad, little sigh, and Derry saying, ‘Who can you trust, eh?’
– o –