Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, Ireland
7th July 1895
James Robinson sat on his step; it was just the right size, and worn smooth by builders’ boots. The
young boy was bored in the afters of the funeral, and he couldn’t find his father.
In the silent yard, a horse snorted. James rose and walked under the carpenters’ workshop, heading
towards the stable. It was dark under there, and cluttered with odd things, propped against the rough wooden
frame or hung from nails, shadowy, dust-laden things that no-one used. He felt uneasy surrounded by
strange shapes in a half-light. A bag of oats sagged in a corner, but he was afraid to approach the horse
alone, so he backed away. His mother had been buried today, or so he’d been told, for his father wouldn’ t let
him see her, or attend the funeral service. Yet it seemed to James that town and country had tramped
through their house in the last three days.
He sat down again, this time on the large, stone steps of the greenhouse, listening to the sounds from
the stable. The boy knew things about his future without a mother; he’d listened to the whisperings of
women at the funeral meal as they sipped tea from his mother’ s best china. Though he begged them not to
use it, they took her tea set from the display cabinet in the kitchen and wiped it clean for use.
Those were her private things in that cabinet; they were special things that she never used. Those women
raided it; they told him he’d have to grow up now, there’d be no more pampering. An aunt would come, or a
cousin, because his father would need the help of a decent woman. Maybe he would even marry again - a
man like him, with a good business, a town councillor no less.
The sun scorched high over the yard. In one half the building supplies were stored; there were mounds
and heaps of things, and then neat piles of brick, wood and slate. James was tempted to climb but he was
distracted by Johnny running up from the house. He looked comical running in his good clothes. Wee
Johnny was the baby, and he looked like their father - the women of their church had determined it. He had
the same eyes, and there was something about the shape of his nose. But James couldn’ t see the likeness.
And, here was Johnny now, jumping, panting and waving his arms; he was barely able to speak with
“They’ve biscuits for us and cordial. Quickly, they’re looking for you, James."
“Who’s looking for me - father?"
“No, it’s those nice ladies.
“They’re not nice, Johnny, they took down mother’s china. I don’ t want their biscuits.
He spoke sharply and sulked, but he was sorry at once because Johnny was cut.
“Will mother need her china in heaven?" Johnny asked. “Those ladies say she’s gone to heaven, cos she was a good, god-fearing woman. What's that mean?"
“I don’t know. I think it’s because she went to services and said her prayers, but I don’t like them; they talk about father, and I don’t like it. We’ve to be brave now and help him, that’ s what he told me - God’sbrave little soldiers. C’mon."
James stood up.
“Are we going to climb, James?" asked Johnny.
“No, wee man, you’ re not to gallivant in your Sunday clothes."
James knew well the dangers of climbing in the yard; he’d been warned often enough with tragic tales of lost boys. So he put his arm around Johnny’ s shoulder, and led him under the workshop in search of a watering
“Let’s go to the greenhouse, Johnny. We can look at mother’s plants. They’ ll need watering."
The boys carried a large watering can to the steps of the greenhouse. There was a big, rusted bath to one side for gathering rainwater, and James lowered the can and watched the water spill in.
“Let me" shouted Johnny, dancing in agitation.
“No, you’re too wee. It’ll be far too heavy."
Then James struggled up the steps, slopping water.
“Open the door for me, Johnny. That can be your job."
The heat caught them as they entered, but they walked on. Raised plant beds lined a long corridor with the floors tiled from the leftovers of the house -rich and brick-coloured, mixed with blue, white and black.
Their mother’s apple trees were first, nearest the door, and there were good green orbs hanging from each branch. James could see the leaves wilting in the heat. He raised the can with a wobble and managed to water at their roots. Johnny started to shout again.
“I can’t see. I want to see."
“Get your stool," snapped James. He was more impatient now with the great work he had to do.
Johnny would get in the way. Their mother humoured Johnny by letting him watch, but it took time to set him up. Johnny would stand beside her in the washroom or the scullery, to watch and listen. His father was always busy and would chase him. There were four years difference in the boys’ age, and at six years old Johnny was a lot more indulged. The boy scurried to a familiar corner, retrieved his stool and watched. Poor James sweated in the heat, and his good clothes clung to him.
Johnny had to move the stool to keep up, and though he didn’ t complain, he was fading in the heat.
Above them the sun cast a hard light, mellowed through a tangle of greenery, yet James was too busy to stop. Though the geraniums scented the air, it was their blast of colour that finally made him pause. Setting down the watering can he reached out, rubbing a furred leaf between his fingers. Closing his eyes, he inhaled slowly, mimicking his mother. He had a strange but cosy feeling of being nowhere at all…floating…imagining. Maybe this was like heaven, lost in colour, sun and scent with that softness at his fingertips. But he was aroused by Johnny tugging at a geranium.
“No! That’s bold. Don’ touch the flowers." James was rough with him again.
His face creased for a moment, about to cry, for their mother had always been patient with Johnny. She had way about her that James couldn’ t master: teaching rather than scolding, and Johnny would listen and obey.
It was hopeless this being without her, but James tried to settle himself.
“C’mon, we’ll get more water. You can help me this time." He would start afresh and try to be patient with Johnny; she would be proud of him.
They returned t
o watering her vines and the pear trees full of immature fruit. She’d watched the fruit
develop each year, explaining to her boys the craft of feeding, watering and training. James was a real help
to her, because he was fit for proper work, like shovelling horse dung from the road, or sweeping the dust and fallen leaves from her tiles. Her cordoned fruit trees stretched further each year, and Johnny and he
danced below her on tiptoes as she picked and sliced the first pears - a soft, sweet feast that wet their lips and cheeks, and made their hands slippery.
Now Johnny helped to raise the watering can, and he was calmer, and so they continued, turning at the corner until they reached a second door. Light filtered through its coloured glass, flashing colour on the boys’ dark clothing. Johnny laughed and jumped about, bobbing in a patchwork of light. But James observed in silence for a moment.
“C’mon, calm down wee man. Let’ s leave the watering can and go up to the garden. They’ ll not find us there."
“Let’ s play hide and seek, James?"
James opened the door, and a cool waft of air settled around their cheeks like a welcome embrace.
Johnny closed the door behind them, for that had always been his job, and they mounted deep, stone steps.
Ahead of them was a circle of light, and the rising passageway was a tunnel. The steps had high, stonewalled boundaries spattered with ivy and clematis: the roof a knotted mess of greenery. Those mossy steps were cool on a hot day, and this was a pleasant place to sit, but James had always been afraid there.
Halfway up on the left hand wall there was a strange little window, no glass, just a hole in the wall with a grill of steel bars. James called it the dungeon, and secretly he feared the sleeping dragon. It had come from the Saltpans outside the town, he was sure, from down below the dark, narrow shafts where salt and workers travelled the depths in buckets. Disturbed by constant hacking in the salt mine, it had fled to a quieter spot.
Now it was in search of a boy, because it would eat one occasionally from the mines, and here it would be short of prey. Say your prayers at night and nothing will harm you: his mother’ s words. So reaching behind
him he took hold of Johnny’s hand, and then quickening his pace he pulled at the little boy to keep up. But he was ashamed of his dark imaginings.
Then they burst into the garden, giggling and blinded by light, and they started to play.
Tumbling on the lawns careful of her flowerbeds, and chasing each other along the pathways, they squealed and pushed
and wrestled - running riot. Mock battles, leap frog, tumble over: they settled finally in their sweat to pick the peeping daisies and make a chain.
“For mammy," announced Johnny when they had finished, and then James remembered.
“Boys, I’ve been looking for you." A neighbour, Mrs Albert Carruthers, appeared from the tunnel. She was fat, puffing and furious, her long, wide skirt flapping over her great weight. And, her eyes were dark
and determined, squat in a face that didn’ t smile.
“Come down now. No playing! Look at your good clothes; think of your poor mother."
“Sleeping dragon," wished James, “awake now to her passing footsteps."
Mrs Carruthers pushed them through the back door into the cramped scullery. Inside, two women stood at the sink, one washing, the other drying the dishes. Though they were familiar to James, he didn’t know who they were. Most of the company had congregated in the kitchen.
“Now sit here and don’t move, said Mrs Carruthers, pointing to an empty space on the couch.
James looked around in vain for his father. Then a young woman approached them; she squeezed through the crowd, and Johnny jumped up to greet her. He put his arms around her skirt grabbing generous
handfuls of the material and burying his face.
She looked a little surprised, and Johnny jumped backwards smiling; he had expected her to stroke his head.
“Johnny, sit down," said James, for he was embarrassed, and felt a longing for his mother. This was Miss Eleanor Marsh, he recognised her from Sunday service. She was dark haired and pretty (not unlike his
mother), and she greeted them with a hint of embarrassment, patting each of them on the head offering cordial and biscuits. James glared at Johnny trying to remind him of their pact, but she had all his attention.
Johnny slipped his hand into hers and was leading her towards the table.
“Are you coming too?" she asked, but James declined her offer and was left alone.
The boy watched the dark shapes above and around him. The men wore black suits, and the women plain, black dresses; they spoke earnestly in low voices, and the air was thick with their solemn murmurings.
James leaned back against the couch and closed his eyes trying to listen to the dull hum of their conversations; they drifted to him but made little sense. He wanted to get away and to be on his own; he needed a place where he could be alone, a place where he could sit in peace and draw his pictures.
Most Sundays the yard was empty, and then he would use his step. He slipped away from his mother, who was bent in her seat, reading the bible aloud. She never minded as long as he was quiet. On those Sundays he drew dragons: big ones sleeping on their giant claws. To draw was his joy and his pain, but mostly for
James it was a compulsion; he hid huddled in corners with his chalk and slate. Mostly, at school he would sit alone and odd, and he knew that the other boys were different; they thought him strange and aloof, because he would observe them without engaging. Instead he would draw them, whether in the playground
where he would draw their swirling haste, or at their desks. One day he might draw Daniel Ellis - a lumped head on an outstretched arm, and the hand would be limp and curling; he had bitten fingernails and feet that
would be bare and dirty at the soles. Or another day it might be Ned Wright - his arm in the air to answer every question and chin cocked high; he bounced with desire to please the teacher. Or Alec Davis, standing at the blackboard - watching in terror at the tip of the master’ s cane; his dull eyes absorbed nothing, despite his beatings, and James pitied him. But right now James was compelled to draw his mother, and so he rose from the couch and went in search of paper. He wasn’ t deliberately defiant, no, it was more of a need that was to utterly absorb him.
All at once the drawing room was the place; his mother’ s writing paper was there. James coveted paper, but he knew well that it was forbidden. To draw on paper was wasteful. Yet today was different, and there was no-one to tell him. Mrs Carruthers wouldn’ t listen; she didn’ t listen when he spoke. The room
would be filled with strangers, and he could pass through like a ghost. So leaving the kitchen, he went into the hallway. The front door was open, and the room, ablaze with sunlight, was filled with a multitude of
strange coats and hats. There were so many in the stairwell that they had heaped the coats across a chair by the window. The hats were arranged on a hallstand where the afternoon sun had hit the entire collection. It
shadowed all the hollows and creases, darkening the curls and pleats, and spangling each silken strand of feather. Even the black felt of the bowler hats was cheered by a shine on the corded ribbons. James looked
for moment, and then reached out to touch. He stroked the feathers like a favoured cat, and ran his forefinger along the velvet, depressing it.
They were beautiful, the hats, and the air was warm and still; the sound of conversation drifted through the hall doors ajar. For one moment James paused in the stillness, then he climbed the stairs.
The drawing room was brimming with men in black suits, mostly elders of the church, standing and sitting and talking and talking, mouthing their murmurs and impressing the importance of their platitudes.
But he had listened enough over the past few days and he had learned nothing of comfort. They talked of God and heaven and eternal reward, and of finding strength and comfort in the scriptures. But he needed his
mother now, and he didn’ t understand why she’d gone. There was no goodbye; she didn’ t explain it to him as she had always explained everything to him.
And they wouldn t let him see her. Why was she dead? How was he to believe that she was gone? Dead like the old cat that they had found in the yard, maggoted?
The boy moved around the edge of the drawing room. It was a beautiful, sunny place built above a shop, with three windows facing over the street. This was the good room, with elegant furniture and a piano.
Mostly the room was unused: a decoration of sorts. His mother wrote letters there - that was all. And he thought of her bowing to write, skirt billowing on the edge of her seat, he on the couch observing, or
listening to the sounds from the street below them, and the tinkle of a bell when someone entered their shop.
Now he reached her writing desk, and eased down the front leaf, just enough to rummage inside. There was a single white sheet, but he couldn’t find a pencil.
Clicking shut the leaf, he left the room. The workshop: that was where he would find a pencil. Yet he knew it was forbidden, it was a dangerous place full of sharp, dusty hazards. Rule number one of all the rules he lived by: thou shalt not enter the workshop. But his father worked with a pencil, when he carried it behind his ear James knew he was busy.
The boy walked with purpose now, zig-zagging among strangers and squeezing through; there was a smell of sweat and food. In the kitchen Johnny was still entertaining Miss Marsh. James reached the scullery and moved quickly, darting for the door. There was a smell from the toilet as he entered the yard, and the
sudden heat and the stench made him dizzy. He could hear the noise from inside drifting out, and it was a comfort to walk up the yard and over to the steps; they creaked as he climbed them, and he was nervous.
But this act was different from taking some paper; his mother sometimes gave him paper when he promised not to tell. But he knew this was wrong; he’d never been allowed to do this. Yet it seemed somehow like the
beginning of an adventure.
He reached the door of the workshop and pushed it open; it was silent. The sun shot rays of gold through the windows, and found every gap in the wooden walls, but the boy noticed the floor first, it was strewn with golden dust and heaped with shining curls. His father might explain about wood shavings, but James saw treasure. It was a treat for the eyes, an undiscovered wealth. Was this what the dragon guarded?
While he was stunned by the beauty, he became forgetful, and standing for a moment in awe of it, he welcomed the soft heat and a silence that calmed him. Then the horse moved in the stable below, and he jumped and paid attention. He must look for a pencil and leave.
The room was long and filled with wooden benches; they were notched and chipped and scattered with discarded tools. Around the walls more tools were hanging from nails. They were sharp-looking instruments
with a range of different blades and teeth: straps and saws, chisels, hammers and blocks. Their handles were rounded and worn shiny with use; there were many browns like fallen leaves. Bits of things were apparent,
parts of stairs, lengths of skirting and architrave, half finished pieces that looked odd and out of place. He walked slowly across the floor to the benches. Some floorboards creaked underfoot, and his footprints
appeared writing his movements in the dust. He searched the benches until he found his father’ s pencil, and then lifting it, he turned to leave the room. Somehow he was comforted by knowing what to do.
James settled himself at his step; the wide, smooth rung was a familiar drawing board, and unfolding his paper he savoured its subtle crispness, fingering its smooth softness. His pencil moved softly, with grace, the strokes were different from his chalk and slate. There was a subtlety of line that allowed him to draw her hair: black and contrasting, and then soft shadows below her chin. His skill was evident. It had been practised and refined and teased out since he had first held a pencil. He drew quickly and with fervour, and the paper took on her form. The long, black hair was tied back from her face, and then a fine nose, thin lips, dark, almond-shaped eyes wide apart. He drew her face large on the page, just her face. So often he had been told of his likeness to her, especially now over the last few days, by people striving to soothe -- the
picture of his mother. And he could see himself now in her emerging face, familiar. She was beautiful, and in that moment she was with him.
“James Robinson, you disobeyed me - Mrs Carruthers is beside herself."
His father’s roar rose through the yard, and James jumped and scored the picture. Walter Robinson was striding at a fearful pace, descending upon James, arms outstretched, reaching for him in rage. He looked
small and dark, unlike himself, for he was a tall man and gentle by nature. And then he grabbed the boy by the arm, and wrenching at him, turned him around. The pencil fell, followed by the paper, but Walter didn’ t
notice as he focused on his son.
“You’ve been in the workshop, today of all days. Look at you, covered in sawdust. You deserve a good hiding, boy."
He was pointing at James’s feet, where his shoes were dusty and the bottom of his trousers.
“My pencil! So that s what it’s about. You broke every rule of this yard for a pencil. Give me that paper."
James didn’t speak; he had nothing to say. But the paper lay upturned down in the dust, and so he turned it around showing her image as he offered it to his father - a gift of sorts. And Walter’s face changed when he saw it; it softened as he focused on his wife’s face. Taking the paper in his outstretched hand, he began to cry. Poor James had never seen a man cry before; it seemed beyond the possible, maybe even something terrible. Whatever it was, he knew that he was the cause of it. Honour thy father and thy mother, but his mother was dead, and he had dishonoured his father. He was alone, and he too began to cry.
Walter composed himself. “I’m sorry son." He folded the picture before putting it into his pocket.
“We’ll keep it," he said, “in memory. Now let’s go into the house. I’ve people to talk to. They’ve been kind enough to come."
James rose and stood beside his father; he wanted to take his hand, as Johnny might have done. Instead he asked a question.
“Daddy," he said, “what’s a tragedy?"
“Well, it’s something sad I suppose, son."
“You mean like mother not being here anymore, to tuck us in at night, to help us say our prayers."
“Johnny asked me ifGod would let her visit us, maybe just for a wee while. I said that I’d ask."
“No, son, she’s in heaven now. God called her and that’s his will. We must manage without her."
“That’ ll be hard for us, Daddy."
“Yes, son, but God will guide us."
Then Walter put his arm around James’s shoulder, leading him back towards the house, and the boy leaned in on him.