First of all, I am a Dubliner. It was Brendan Behan who, before breaking into song, would declare so. I have had many jobs over the years and always felt I was doing time for fraud, for I too wished to be a writer. This year I have managed to complete a second novel and I hope one day it will find a publisher. The fierce desire to be read thankfully continues to this day.
The White Box
Dublin, 26 August 1913
Sparks flashed from the trolley head while the sound of one cable crossing another woke him from his thoughts. He glanced down at the small wooden box resting on his lap with a worried frown on his face before sadly looking away at a crowd of people on the opposite side of the street. An old woman sitting across from him wearing a shawl wrapped over her head and shoulders smiled knowingly. He gave the old crone a hasty look holding the small white box close to him as if to guard it from her filmy gaze. Meanwhile, two women in long flowing dresses quietly boarded the open decked tram and climbed upstairs. A few moments later the conductor pulled the bell cord and the car moved steadily forward with a loud clang. Without warning a young man in a straw hat jumped the emergency fender like a cat after a mouse and tiptoed his way upstairs. The uniformed conductor adjusted his peaked cap while calling out various stopping points by way of Sackville Street to Haddington Road and duly followed them upstairs.
He watched him climb the set of stairs and vanish from sight his country voice reciting the route like a rosary above the continuous vibrations coming from the tramlines, stopping to punch the oblong cardboard coloured tickets invariably handed up to him along the way. A few minutes later the conductor’s trouser leg appeared and began the short spiral descent pausing when he reached the saloon to check his timepiece and pin a red hand badge upon his black lapelled uniform.
Ten o’clock, said the conductor.
The motorman gave the conductor a perfunctory nod and stopped the tram with a swift curving movement of his hand. He then removed the trolley handle so that it couldn’t be driven away.
Let’s see how the well-off gentlemen and ladies get around now that there’s no tram to be got for love or money, he said.
Like the conductor he noticed the motorman wore a red hand badge which he knew to be the symbol of the Irish Transport Workers Union.
If you don’t mind leaving this car madam, said the conductor.
The woman passenger was unsure how to reply and stood up to leave. Her husband, however, remained seated instead.
Please sir if you don’t mind, said the conductor and reiterated that he would have to leave the tram as well.
The man jumped to his feet filled with indignation.
See here! This is outrageous. You have no right demanding that we leave this tram having already paid for our tickets, he announced furiously.
We have every right under the sun, returned the motorman coming out from behind the conductor while still holding the steering handle firmly in his right hand.
The man cleared his throat several times in advance of taking his wife’s hand to escort her from the depleting tram.
You’ll pay for this make no mistake, he threatened. I will complain to the company about this outrageous act of vandalism.
The motorman turned angrily as they departed from the tram.
Look here mister, this is a strike and as such we will demonstrate any way we see fit, for these are our streets as well as William Martin Murphy’s. Inform who you like. If you want war you can have it by the bucketful.
The man and woman pretended not to hear him as they walked away. By now the tram was empty of passengers except for the old woman whose shuffling steps put the two men in an awkward position of having to wait.
Mind how you go, ma’am, said the conductor softly as the motorman helped her down from the car at a gingerly pace.
Despite their consideration towards the old woman the two men wished to be away quickly before the DMP arrived. If caught they would be arrested and bundled off to Store Street Station charged with a criminal offence.
He set off slowly through the city centre and wondered what a strike in the tramway would achieve giving that Murphy had the full measure of the law behind him and had sworn to spend his last shilling in breaking Larkin. As he walked along Parnell Street holding the white box close, crowds of curious onlookers stood on both sides of the street gawking at the tram like ships stranded in shallow water, blocking the tracks. In time some of the strikers started to jeer at those who had remained at their post calling them names. The sound of heavy footsteps behind made him turn instinctively and dart for the nearest doorway. Seconds later, a group of DMPs appeared moving through the crowd brandishing their batons. He pushed at the door but it wouldn’t budge. Taking a firm hold of the handle he turned it left and right while looking around desperately. He glanced up in the direction of Nelson’s Pillar and saw RIC men in groups shouldering their way towards him through the crowds of sightseers and strikers issuing threats of violence. A street urchin sailed past him his nose running with blood. Suddenly the door opened and a hand stretched out to pull him inside. Still holding on to the white box he stood with his heart beating wildly as the door was slammed shut and the key turned in the lock. He looked about him trying to get his bearings and noticed a man with his back turned facing the shop window. The small and narrow room was still and silent as they both listened to the commotion outside in the street.
As his eyes accustomed to the poorly-lit room he was able to pick out the man’s features. His first impressions of him were that he must have suffered untold hardship at some point in his life. Deep lines marked his thin face while his spare body seemed stooped like an old man. He watched him sit on a rump of a stool holding his body erect and placing both hands on his knees.
I thought for a moment I was a goner, he said.
The shopkeeper smiled and spoke in a sympathetic tone.
I was standing close by when I heard you bashing on the door. You had a lucky escape.
Aye, he said.
The police at the top of the road are Royal Irish Constabulary recruited from parts of the country to help the DMP with the strike. Larkin’s plan to throw a spanner in the works during Horse Show Week, I fear, will have made very little headway in bringing the tram company under control.
I heard they were holed up all right at their depot in the Phoenix Park, he said.
Their places, no doubt, will be quickly filled by those who are loyal and ready to give a helping hand, said the shopkeeper.
He nodded his head in agreement and shuffled his feet in the awkward silence. After a while he heard a woman’s voice in the next room call out the shopkeeper’s name.
The owner of the small shop turned and squinted past him.
Is it okay to open up now?
You must excuse me but it’s suddenly come to my notice that you are missing your cap, said the shopkeeper.
Lucy will you be kind enough to bring me the cap on the back of the door.
The girl smiled and returned to the interior of the shop.
We can’t have you tramping about the streets without a cap on your head, said the shopkeeper.
Thanks very much, he said. It must’ve got lost in all the comotion. I’ll drop it back to you when I’ve got time.
She handed him the cap and he placed it on his head while the shopkeeper nodded and smiled his admiration.
There’s no need to rush back with it anytime soon, since the boyo who left it behind is doing six months in the Joy for riotous behaviour, he remarked.
He then left his stool and looked through the dingy shop window where newspapers and tobacco were displayed for sale.
The police are providing escorts for the loyal tramway drivers while moving the crowds along although there are still some enjoying the spectacle.
Well, he said in a quiet manner. I think I better be heading and moved towards the door where he nodded his thanks before leaving.
As they stood and watched him walk towards the top of Sackville Street she shook her head in sympathy.
Poor man, she tutted.
Aye, said the shopkeeper.
Walking along Sackville Street he observed the vacant trams around Nelson’s Pillar blocking the tracks north and south of the city. Some of the strikers based at the Inchicore depot began jeering at company officials who took their places, calling them scabs. A handful of them were quickly arrested by the Dublin Metropolitan Police for obstruction as the former motormen up-anchored and piloted the stately ships towards a safe harbour south to Kingstown. The spike helmets of the DMPs gleamed in the bright sunlight and made them seem taller than their average height of six feet and two inches. To avoid being seized and taken into custody like the others, he quickly ducked his head and entered a side street where he waited until they passed before emerging again.
Continuing on with his journey he heard a voice call out to him and turned to see the familiar face of James Nolan.
I caught a glimpse o’ you passing Murray’s window and thought to myself, that’s poor Jack Sullivan, he puffed.
He fell silent for a moment and nodded his head looking down at the white box close to his chest.
I planned to take a tram but the strike got in the way o’ things.
Nolan followed his gaze.
Never fear! When I saw the trams had stopped moving and the crowds o’ people gathering in the middle o’ Sackville Street… An’ then the police came…
He shrugged his shoulders.
God deliver us from our friends…but from my enemies… I’ll deliver myself…
Falling into step he quietly absorbed the soft pitter-patter of his words.
Have ye heard about Larkin, he asked.
No, he said. What about him.
He said we could smash the tramway company in a few days if we really wanted so long as we showed the same determination as was seen earlier today. An’ let me tell you he didn’t call it a strike, no, he called it a lockout o’ the men treated lousy by an unscrupulous scoundrel. But wait now why should the devil have all the best tunes, he said with an impish look about him. He told us that we should form a Provisional Government here in Dublin like the boyos up the north did. To arm ourselves against the Scotchman Lord Aberdeen who’s promised Murphy not only more police, but soldiers as well to do his bloody bidding. Whichever way you look at it we must be ready, if one o’ us is shot, to shoot two of theirs in return.
The two men carried on walking and speaking to each other until they parted at Harold’s Cross. Left on his own, he proceeded to walk slowly the short distance to the flowered gates of Mount Jerome cemetery.
Once inside the burial ground he stood for a moment and looked round. The time fixed for the meeting had long since gone by and he looked from one side to the other of the empty cemetery until a member of the clergy came rushing up to him.
Mr Jack Sullivan, he said hurriedly.
Aye, Father, he replied.
Is this the dead infant?
The priest indicated the white box with a brief nod of the head and leaned forward to take it from him without waiting for an answer. As he turned to walk away he paused momentarily to look at him. He appeared a sorrowful sight, bedraggled and tired his hands hanging limply by his sides.
I understand you have been married for only a short time, said the priest.
We’ve been married nearly a year now, he replied.
This is your firstborn child.
And how is Mrs Sullivan.
Not good, Father.
I’m sorry to hear it.
The priest looked down at the small handmade white box he was holding and allowed his eyes to wander over the decorative features, and the letters carved into the hard material crafted with meticulous care.
You have a great hand at carpentry, he said.
I’m a carpenter by trade, Father.
Shall we say a prayer for him?
Still as the surrounding headstones inscribed with the names of the dead they bowed their heads and prayed together. He listened to the priest’s murmured prayer, and when he was finished blessed himself turned and walked away.
As he walked along lost in thought a sudden sound startled him. The sound broke his reverie and he stopped to look round. Much as he tried he couldn’t see the gates to the cemetery and was at a lost to know why. He continued to walk a little further looking for a way out of the cemetery until he came to a crossroads. Unsure of himself he walked up to one of the headstones inscribed with the name of the dead person and was taken aback.
In memory of Jack Sullivan, he said unable to believe his eyes.
Gathering himself he followed the narrow path until he was within walking distance of his goal.
As he approached the entrance to the cemetery he suddenly began to weep.
Man, why are you crying.
He turned and looked at a young woman in her thirties holding a basket of flowers.
I’ve just buried my son and my wife is ill in hospital, he replied sadly.
‘Tis said faith moves mountains and hope lights up our darkness. Give these to your wife and she handed him a bouquet of flowers.
Even as he leaned forward hesitant about taking them from her hand a tram came into sight and he quickly jumped on board. Sitting down he glanced at her through the window of the Donnybrook tram and was surprised to see that she had disappeared along with the basket of flowers. As the tram gained momentum he quietly observed the calm faces of the other passengers seated round him. Only a few hours had passed since the trams had come to a stop leading to a clash between the employers and the workers, and yet it seemed to them like yesterday’s news.
The conductor punched a hole in his ticket in an orderly way and remarked on the good weather before moving along. He looked down at the brightly coloured bouquet of flowers resting on his lap where the white box used to be and thought of his sick wife, healthy and happy.
© 2018 John Cantwell