once hastening grey,
hold in time
at the behest
of the children;
of their raucous prayers;
of discordant incantations.
Merlins of the cinder and concrete
fend off the darkness
with the prism charm in a tear,
till it rolls from the cheek
of the face of an urchin,
onto the cold stone night.
From time to time Paulie would shake his head in that way, with both hands over his ears, and the long, dark curls of his hair trying to escape between his slender fingers, which on these occasions always appeared serpentine. His eyes were ripe-apple red, the effects of the clamor inside his head. It was as if the bells of St. Francis were tolling in his noggin and it always put his younger brother Jack and older brother Thomas quite on edge. He thought that they might be hearing the racket too.
They would, when it happened, as now stop what they were doing, which was the Tonner boys habit, of crisscrossing Gorbals, looking out for that elusive proper place. The episodes would usually only last no more than a few minutes, but the frequency of them, the fits, became more and more of a distress to Jackie and Thomas for they counted on him for his good eye for finding a shelter for the night or maybe even longer. It was the one and the same eye that now sees only a blinding light and the deepest of darkness.
The place, as Paulie put it simply to Jack every time he was asked, which was quite often, “Is where we can live, grow old and die right.” Thomas, being a broad lad and tree tall, stood guard during these interruptions in their journey and discouraged any curious public notice, while Jack tried to hush the roaring thunder of Paulie’s storm.
“Paulie boy, it’ll soon be fine. You said yourself that we’re closer to it now than we were ever before. So, let that be in your head…a magic elixir of sorts. So bottoms up brother!”
It was then that Jack’s tired young eyes went to those of his sick brother for some kind of recognition, but it was no use. He never hears much more than bells when he’s like this. Helplessly, he placed his coarse hands over his brother’s fine ones to somehow build a dam against the din and with lessened assurance, frowned and implored:
“Paulie, Paulie…please stop. You’re scaring me. We need you…Thomas and me.”
Thomas, who had been watching and listening, was not all to happy with state of Paulie’s condition. His main concern is to hold things together, for he is the chief of this family now. He turned from where he has positioned himself when Jack asks
“Thomas, do you think we ought to take him to a priest?”
Aye, and we might as well light some vigil candles while we’re at it, Thomas replied sarcastically. “The only thing the Holy Church can offer us are the pennies we can thieve from the poor box.”
“Don’t give me that,” Jack said angrily, with Thomas firing back, “For Christ’s sake, we are poor aren’t we – poor sick and tired.”
This kind of talk of talk from Thomas made Jack even more uneasy. Thomas believed in the devil, and not much more, and then Jack wasn’t even sure of that. Even though he hadn’t been to church since shortly after he was his First Communion, Jack steadfastly respected it. After all, Father Macdonald had anointed and then buried their beautiful mum when she was taken by God. He uttered some of the finest prayers over her and said that the Almighty would be merciful and watch over her.
But, Thomas didn’t see it that way. He was as hard on the church as he was on the rest of the world. And so the subject of religion wasn’t brought up that much. It was Jack’s mistake for bringing it up this time, but he thought that just a few little prayers might just help poor Paulie and God would take mercy on him too. But, so as to keep peace with his big brother, he had to recant, -- somewhat.
…“I’m so sorry Thomas, you’re absolutely right. I must have lost my head and we can’t have two of us in that shape now, can we?”
What say, we go see James and his bunch when Paulie comes around?”
Jack knew that with Thomas, you could round off a dose of sarcasm with an unrelated question and that the latter would change the subject. It used to work on Mr. Tonner, too. It must be that the first apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, which he then thought of how he had never even seen an apple tree. And he thought of how much Thomas did remind him of their father scaring him more than his brother’s sacrilegious, pagan ways.
After forgetting about the whole priest question, Thomas straightened up at his post in the building archway they were taking refuge under and said:
“And what have we to gain from meeting up with James and that lot. They’re just a pack of bloody schemers and dreamers, and that place of theirs …it isn’t it,…not by a long shot, it just isn’t it. So just try to bring Paulie back to the living while we’ve still got some daylight left.”
Jack, not feeling that he did much in diverting Thomas’ attention from priests, religion and such was again sorrowed by his brother’s lack of faith in their most sacred and singular quest. He knew he shouldn’t feel this way, because Thomas was doing his best and was mostly responsible for their survival thus far. But he couldn’t help the way he felt. There always seemed to be some kind of wild thing gnawing on his older brother’s soul, but now he feared the beast was becoming more voracious. His waning patience with Paulie, and his more recent outbursts of exasperation with the passing of each day were wearing on him.
With him being the youngest of the trinity, Jack had always depended on his older brothers. But, he knew that this was not to be forever. Not that he would ever think of leaving them or of them leaving him. And even if such a treacherous thought crossed his mind, the pledge they took in brotherly blood, vowing to always remain at each other’s side, be it steeple bells tolling in one’s head or an insatiable beast supping on another’s soul was inviolable.
When their mum passed away a few years back, the brothers were left in the calloused, worthless hands of their father, with whom living under the same roof with the wretched man became intolerable. And, shortly thereafter they left the home, if you want to call it that, of the dishonorable Mr. Tonner, without so much as a good riddance to bad rubbish. It was then they shed their blood and made the pact. No, Jack would never leave his brothers but would compromise, and he would just require less from them. Recalling the bond gave him a revived vigor, and tempered with a new fidelity, Jack said:
“When you’re right you’re right Thomas…and when Paulie is able, we’ll make the best of what’s left of the day. We are getting closer to home…I can tell.” He had said home, he had never called their place home before.
As in the past, Jack asked his brother, “Will you build us a big stone chimney like we saw in that book, Thomas? One big enough for a stove that will keep us warm enough while we sleep and hot enough to bake those pies mum used to bake and that we adored?”
“Yes,” Thomas said, “A chimney will be built… and pies will be cooked, but not until we get the hell outta here. We’ll have neither unless we do.”
Then Thomas’s voice softened and so also had the din of the crowded streets. It’s sound was now that of the wee swifts’ whoosh in their eventide darning of a sky which was now growing pink. And Thomas’ earlier insistent urging had passed and were distant now as Jack focused on the swifts while hastening in their chores. Their beaks seemed to be threaded with gold and red yarn closing up the gaping holes in the Glasgow skyline. And now, even the countless cobbles leading away from here, looked just right for traveling on. But, when Jack gazed in Paulie’s direction his still contorted countenance said that this was not going to happen just yet, and he sighed.
Written by Ron McGilvray