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Authors: Edna O'Brien

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Saints and Sinners

BOOK: Saints and Sinners
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“Edna O’Brien writes the most beautiful, aching stories of any writer, anywhere.” — ALICE MUNRO

With her inimitable gift for describing the workings of the heart and mind, Edna O’Brien introduces us to a vivid new cast of restless, searching people who — whether in the Irish countryside or London or New York — remind us of our own humanity.

“One great virtue of Edna O’Brien’s writing is the sensation it gives of a world made new by language. ... A lyric language which is all the more trustworthy because it issues from a sensibility that has known the costs as well as the rewards of being alive.”

— SEAMUS HEANEY, from “Citation, Lifetime Achievement Award”

“Edna O’Brien has, for a half-century, been the advance scout for the Irish imagination. There is no living Irish writer who compares in terms of style, stamina, depth, or meaning. She has consistently been the necessary edge of who we are. She is a riverrun writer, bringing us back and propelling us forward — continuing, always, to create arias of belonging.”

— COLUM MaCANN, author of
Let the Great World Spin

_________

EDNA O'BRIEN, author of
The Country Girls Trilogy
,
The Light of Evening, Byron in Love
, and other widely acclaimed books, is the recipient of the Ulysses Medal and the
Los Angeles Times
Book Prize and an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in London.

About
Saints and Sinners

With language that is always bold and vital, Edna O'Brien pays tribute to the universal forces that rule our lives. In the story "Send My Roots Rain," Miss Gilhooley, a librarian, waits in the lobby of a posh Dublin hotel, expecting to meet a celebrated poet and occasional correspondent while reflecting on the great love who disappointed her. The Irish workers of "Shovel Kings" have dreams of becoming millionaires in London but long for their quickly changing homeland— exiles in both places. "Green Georgette" is a searing dissection of class, through the eyes of a little girl; "Black Flower" takes on the Troubles by way of the tentative relationship between a former prisoner and his sponsor. "Old Wounds" illuminates the importance of family and memory in old age.

First edition: May 2011

Back Bay Books is an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. The Back Bay Books name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to
The New Yorker
and the
Atlantic,
where "Old Wounds" and "Shovel Kings" originally appeared. Other stories appeared for the first time, in a slightly different form, in
Subtropics, Zoetrope,
and the
Sunday Times.

For
my
friend Luke Dodd

Saints and Sinners
Shovel Kings

IN ONE LAPEL WAS a small green-and-gold harp, and in the other a flying angel. His blue jacket had seen better days. He wore a black felt homburg hat, and his white hair fell in coils almost to his shoulders. His skin was sallow, but his huge hands were a dark nut brown, and on the right hand he had a lopsided knuckle, obviously caused by some injury. Above it, on the wrist, he wore a wide black strap. He could have been any age, and he seemed like a man on whom a permanent frost had settled. He drank the Guinness slowly, lifting the glass with a measured gravity. We were in a massive pub named Biddy Mulligan's, in North London, on St. Patrick's Day, and the sense of expectation was palpable. Great banners with Happy

St.
Patrick draped the walls, and numerous flat television screens carried pictures of the homeland, featuring hills, dales, lakes, tidy towns, and highlights of famed sporting moments down the years. Little votive lamps, not unlike Sacred Heart lamps, were nailed in corners to various wooden beams and seemed talis-manic on that momentous day. Only three people were there, the quiet man, a cracked woman with tangled hair gabbling away, and myself.

Adrian, the young barman, was chalking up the promised delights, large Jameson at less than half price, teeny dishes of Irish stew and apple cake for free. Moreover, the governor had left a box full of green woolly hats and green scarves that were reserved to be given to the regular customers. Adrian was young and affable, asking if I needed more coffee and wondering if the quiet man, whom he called Rafferty, would like a refill, in honor of the day. Much to the chagrin of Clodagh, the spry young assistant, Adrian indulged his nostalgia by playing "Galway Shawl" on the jukebox, over and over again.

The coffee that I had been served was dire, but I lingered, because of being early for an appointment, and picked up a newspaper that was lying on the vacant table next to me. Disaster and scandals featured prominently. Further unrest was reported in a northern province of China; an actress was pictured being helped out of a nightclub in a state of inebriation; another photograph showed her arriving only a few hours earlier wearing a white clinging dress and perilously high heels. A hostage who had been released in some African bush after sixty-seven days in detention seemed dazed by the posse of journalists who surrounded him. I looked at the weather forecast for New York, where I had often spent St. Patrick's Day and stood among milling crowds as they cheered floats and bands, feeling curiously alone in the midst of all that celebration.

My appointment was with a doctor whom I had been seeing for the best part of a year and who had just moved to this less salubrious part of London, had left his rooms in Primrose Hill, probably because of the rent's being exorbitant. This would be my first time at this new abode, and I dreaded it, partly because I had left, as I saw it, fragments of myself behind in that other room, with its stacks of books, an open fire, and an informality that was not customary between patient and analyst. Sitting there, with an eye on the wall clock, I kept checking on this new address and asked Adrian about such and such a road to make doubly sure that I had not gone astray. Yes, he knew the man, said he had been in several times, which I took to imply that my doctor liked a drink.

Meanwhile, Clodagh was bustling around in an emerald-green pinafore, reciting a verse for all to hear:

Boxty on the griddle,

Boxty in the pan,

If you can't make the boxty,

You'll never get your man.

The light from the leaded-glass panels danced on her shadow as she flitted from table to table, extolling the miracle of the boxty potato bread and dragging a duster over the round brown tables that bore the mottling of years and years of porter stains.

That done, she began to pipe green tincture onto the drawn pints of Guinness to simulate the emblem of the shamrock, something Rafferty observed with a quiet sufferance. A noisy group burst in, decked with leprechauns and green gewgaws of every description, led by a tall woman who was carrying fresh shamrock still attached to a clump of rich earth. In a slightly affected voice she described writing to her old uncle several times since Christmas, reminding him that the plant must not be detached from its soil and, moreover, he must remember to sprinkle it with water and post it in a perforated box filled with loam.

"Was it holy water by any chance?" the cracked woman shouted out.

"Shut your gob," she was told, at which she raised a hectoring finger, claiming, "I was innit before yous was all born."

As the single sprigs ofshamrock were passed around, they somehow looked a little forlorn.

A second group followed hot on the heels of the first group, all greeting each other heartily, spreading coats and bags on the various tables and commandeering quiet nooks in the alcoves, for friends whom they claimed were due. A cocky young man with sideburns, wearing a black leather jacket, walked directly to the fruit machine, where the lime-green and cherry-red lights flashed on and off, the lit symbols spinning at a tantalizing speed. Two youngsters, possibly his brothers, stood by, gazing and gaping as he fed coin after coin into the machine, and as they waited in vain for the clatter of the payout money, the younger one held an open handkerchief to receive the takings. The elder, who was plump, consigned squares of chocolate into his mouth and sucked with relish while his brother looked on with the woebegone expression of an urchin.

I had put the newspaper down and was jotting in a notebook one or two things that I might possibly discuss with my doctor when, to my surprise, Rafferty was standing above me and almost bashfully said, "Do you mind if I take back my paper?" I apologized, offering him a drink, but he was already on his way, detached from the boisterous crowd, carrying himself with a strange otherworldly dignity as he raised his right hand to Adrian in salutation.

Three or four weeks passed before we exchanged a few words.

"What's the harp for?" I asked one morning when, as had become his habit, he made a little joke of offering me the newspaper.

"To prove that I'm an Irishman," he replied.

"And the angel?"

"Oh that's the guardian angel We all have one,"

he said, with a deferential half smile.

About six months after our first meeting I came upon Rafferty unexpectedly, and we greeted each other like old friends. I was on the Kilburn High Road outside a secondhand furniture shop, where he was seated on a leather armchair, smiling at passersby, like a potentate. He was totally at ease out in the open, big white lazy clouds sailing by in the sky above us, surrounded by chairs, tables, chests of drawers, fire irons, fenders, crockery, and sundry bric-a-brac.

Offering me a seat, he said that the owner believed his presence perked up an interest in business, because once, when he had been singing "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen," passersby had stopped to listen and, as he put it, had browsed. Nearby, a woman haggled over the price of a buckled sieve, and a young mother was in vain trying to get her son off the rocking horse to which he was affixed. The white paint was scraped in several places, and the golden mane a smudged brown, but to the boy his steed was noble.

Rafferty rolled a cigarette, folded his tobacco pouch, and, impelled by some inner recollection, began to tell me the story of coming to London forty years earlier, a young lad of fifteen arriving in Camden Town with his father and thinking that it was the strangest, sootiest place he had ever seen, that even the birds, the fat pigeons that waddled about, were man-made. Theirs was a small room, which his father had rented the year previous. It had a single iron bed, a thin mattress, a washbasin, and a little gas ring to boil a kettle.

The next morning at the Camden tube station, where lorries and wagons were parked and young men waited to be recruited, literally hundreds of them, hundreds of Irishmen, hoped for a job. A foreman eyed Rafferty up and down and said to his father that no way was that boy seventeen, but his father lied, insistingthat he was. More heatedwordswere exchanged, about effing cousins and so forth, but eventually Rafferty was told to climb onto the lorry, and he did. I believed (Rafferty said) that a great future lay ahead of me, but the look of despair on the lads left behind standing in that street was awful, and one I can never forget.

They were driven a few miles north to where a group of young men were digging a long trench, for the electricity cables to be put in later on. The paving stones were already taken up and stacked in piles. At his first sight of it, it was hard for him, as he said, not to imagine those men, young though they were, destined for all eternity to be kept digging some never-ending grave. He was handed a shovel and told to get to work. The handle of the shovel was short, shorter than the ones he had been used to at home when he dug potatoes or turnips, and the blade was square and squat. And so I was (he said) put to digging the blue clay of London, as it was then called, blue from leaking gas and sticky, so sticky you had to dip the shovel in a bucket of water every so often, then wedge it in under the soil to try and shift it. Lads in a line, stripped to the waist because it was so hot, each man given a certain number of yards to dig, four foot six inches wide and four foot six inches deep. The foreman in his green Wellingtons walking up and down, putting the fear of God into us. A brute, and an Irish brute at that. After an hour of digging, I was half-asleep over the shovel and only for Haulie, I would have been fired. He covered for me, held me up. He was from Donegal, said the mountains and the hilly roads made him wiry, and that I'd get used to it. Two Connemara men nearby spoke only the Irish and didn't understand a word others were saying, but they understood the foreman and the ruthlessness of him. I didn't feel hungry, only thirsty, and the cup of milk at half past ten was a godsend. Tea was brewing all day long in a big bucket, but Haulie said it tasted like senna. Teaboy Teddy was in charge of the grub, and men were given potatoes and cabbage for the dinner, except that I couldn't eat. By the time the whistle went in the evening, my hands were bloodied and my back was ready to break. In the room, I fell fast asleep at the little table, and my father flung me onto the bed, boots and all, and went out.

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