My brother, Bobby Horn, has lived in my dreams for seventy years. He stands bouncing his ball in the shadow of the special school for special people, staring out at a world he cannot understand. He is fifteen and his sweet, beautiful round face perches on that tall skinny body like a new moon. He sways and jerks his hands and shoulders but keeps his eyes on some distant mystery. I stand facing him, night after night, year after year, decade after decade, and while Bobby Horn remains unchanged, I have shriveled into an eighty-seven year old man slowly disappearing from this earth like smoke from a cigarette.
For some years now, when I wake from this dream, I must lie still in my bed until whoever I might be returns and fills me. Each morning I stare at the ceiling wondering if today I will not come back but linger inside the dream to face my brother forever with shame and sorrow. I catch my name and say it for one more day.
“Shoe Horn. Shoe Horn. Me.”
I struggle from bed into a chair by the window and look out over the Irish Sea. Yes. I remember now that I have come back. Back to familiar smells and murky skies. I light a cigarette, my eighty year habit, and gasp between puffs.
“Shoe Horn,” I say to the sea.
Three days ago I closed my shop door and left East Providence, Rhode Island for England. For Barrow-in-Furness and the life I must call upon and be sure of. This day I will walk through the places and people of that life again and let my old bones do the remembering. I’ll begin at St. Mark’s Church. Yes. That minister. How can I remember what he said as if it was only yesterday and I was seventeen once more.
‘Some say it’s Death, Some say it’s darkness,
I say it’s a game of light.’
Bobby and me, 1922
“But what’s it mean, Shoe?” Bobby Horn says.
“Church talk,” I say.
“I don’t get it.”
“I don’t get it either.”
We walk a bit. Bobby’s thinking hard and his fat face shows it. Fat like mummy’s was, but mummy’s was full everywhere and Bobby only carries the fat face with him. The rest of him bony thin, although I see he’s fed and know he’s clean.
“Some say it’s death. Some say it’s darkness. I say it’s a game of light,” he says, wrapping his lips around each word.
“Church of England,” I say and shrug.
“But what’s it mean?”
His fine hands hang and he shakes them with the question as he does when he needs to understand what he can’t. I stop walking and look at his wide green eyes. Bobby Horn needs to know you’re thinking with him, needs to see it. I light one now and blow smoke out the corner of my mouth.
“See now lad, he’s got to say something doesn’t he?”
“Reverend Thomas. You got to say something on Sunday if you’re a minister.”
“Reverend Thomas is a minister.”
“But what’s it mean?”
“Stop shaking them,” I say and point to his fingers. He looks too, thinks hard and does.
“Good lad. Now, what did he say?”
His eyes look somewhere for the words.
“Some ... say it’s death. Some ... say it’s darkness. I say ... I say ... it’s a game of light.”
Bobby’s proud now. He remembered the strange thing.
I turn and start walking toward Ramsden Dock and Mr. Horn’s cave.
“I think he meant life is nice when it’s light out.”
“Is ... is ... he scared of the dark. I am.”
“I know lad.”
“But then I … I… know you’re there.”
I’m smoking and walking. I’m big for seventeen and I’m known. Bobby’s dawdling, watching the gulls a bit, smiling at the old man and woman in the coal cart. I’m still moving.
He’s run up beside me with two big chunks of coal.
“Look,” he says. It might as well be pounds sterling. “They just give it to me.”
It might as well be the crown jewels.
“ ‘For you’, the old lady says. ‘No charge’. For me.”
“Well, of course.”
“For ... me.”
“That’s ‘cause you’re a great good guy Bobby Horn.”
“You’re a great good guy Shoe Horn.”
Now I can smell the water and the fish. Now I can hear them that are on the fishing boats. I like the sea smells. I like that you can see what the boatmen do and how it goes. There’s no two ways to tie off or repair or even clean a fish. There’s one. I like that. I wish plumbing was like that. I wish the bastard had never apprenticed me out. The world passes you and you’re still passing wrenches to fools.
“Mr. Horn hit you last night,” Bobby says.
“Shoe. I said … I said …”
“Mr. Horn. I say he hit you again last night.”
“I heard him.”
“I heard him.”
Addy Augarde is in front of her father’s candy shop.
“I could hear him.”
“It don’t hurt Bobby. Don’t worry.”
“Mr. Horn never hits me.”
“You’re damn right and if he ever did, father or no ….”
“Oh, you ... oh you can’t hit ... fathers.”
Now I look over at Addy. She’s sat herself on a barrel and I can see her knees. She’s pretending not to be watching but she’s pretending badly. I heard she’d been to Blackpool with her mother and fancies herself special. She’s a bit cakey but I can see her knees and I’m not alone.
“I can see her knees,” Bobby whispers louder than he talks.
“What? Her knees?” I laugh.
“Look,” and he points.
“Bobby. It’s not polite to point.”
“But, I can ….”
I hear someone shout and turn in time to touch a dirty soccer ball. I stop it and flip it up to my hands. It’s soft and soggy. The ball shows itself skinless. Petey Evans runs up to us. Taber with him. That little mick too. They stop when they see it’s me.
“Hi Petey,” Bobby says with his smile and quiver. “Hi Taber.”
They don’t really look at him and they don’t really look at me. They’re looking then, but they’re not.
“Whose ball?” I say.
“Mine,” Petey says quietly. Not so quiet when they’re onto Bobby. Laughing and picking when I’m off lugging the damn plumber tools about. Not so quiet when they set him crying and sometimes bleeding. Bobby’s fifteen now and they’re about that. Only Bobby Horn is Bobby Horn and I can wonder myself into murder over where the pleasure is at making him cry.
“Who saw me fight under the light at Nuxhall Thursday last?”
The mick raised his hand slow like he had a question. He didn’t. I knew he’d been there. Mostly plumber’s guild men but some from the street. And the micks. The micks like the fights. They don’t take sides.
“The big one,” he says shyly. And I know he ain’t shy. “You come up from the grab and brought him down.”
Bobby dances and shakes and throws silly punches at the air.
“Shoe,” he says. “Shoe goes like this and the big … who?”
I answer Bobby but eyeball Petey ‘cause I know he’s Boss.
“The brother plumber from the hill.”
“Shoe goes like this and the big brother plumber from the hill goes like this.”
Bobby covers his face and flops on his ass.
“Get up for the love of Christ, Bobby. You’re wearing Sunday clothes.”
“Oh no,” he cries, brushing off the mud. I help.
“Don’t cry lad. It’s mud. It’s only mud.”
I’m back speaking to Petey.
“Lawson. That’s the guy. Good guy. First time he lost under the lights. He’s thirty. He’s done. He don’t want to hear anymore bones cracking. You know Petey, I says to him I was sorry about his cheek, about the kicking of his chest and he says ‘That’s it. Too much blood.’ Bobby had too much blood going last game of yours. What happened Petey? Rough game?”
The little bastard nods. I give him a small one. Fast and light. He goes to his knees and covers his face. Some blood drops off his nose, slides through his fingers. Taber and the mick don’t move. Bobby’s moving to him. His mouth is open only he can’t speak.
“Oh Petey,” he says kneeling with him.
“He’ll be alright now, Bobby. He needed his head shaken.”
I toss the ball to Bobby who struggles to catch it but does, squeezing it to his chest. He looks to Petey and the mick and Taber. Back and forth, that fat smiling face going so fast they must be blurs.
“Who … who … who …?”
“Who wants to play?” I help.
“Who wants to play?” My Bobby Horn shouts.
Petey stands up, still not looking. Nowhere to look. My first one under the lights for the guild was that big uncle of his, that Jack. I wasn’t yet sixteen. I took him quick and he bought me a beer and Petey knows it.
“I’ll play,” he says and the others too. They chase the ball down toward the fishmonger. I walk to Addy’s barrel.
She has a red flower in her hair. A paper flower with a comb in it and I wonder who she’s kidding. It’s 1922 and she’s still back there dreaming of the actresses on postcards with flowers and combs. Her knees though, are soft and round. I light one and stand next to her.
“That’s a pretty red flower,” I say.
“Oh, why hello Albert.”
Nobody calls me Albert. I smoke and think and wish I had more to say.
“Were you at church, Albert?”
“Why, where’s that adorable brother of yours? I do not believe I have ever seen you without him.”
“I’m without him plenty.”
Ronnie Manchester walks by with his mum. He sees me. I know he thinks about Addy. I know he wants to try me too, but his thinking gets in the way. He’s twenty four or five and he sometimes goes for the plumbers on Rawlinson Street. He nods and I nod.
“Why, look Albert. It’s Ronnie Manchester and his mum.”
I don’t say anything and light another.
“I will be leaving Barrow-in-Furness shortly,” she says. “I hope to be attending classes in Blackpool.”
“Why, acting, of course. I hope to begin attending classes at Mr. Henry Ainley’s Academy of Thespian law and art. Mr. Henry Ainley has been on the London stage.”
I don’t know him but I admit it’s something alright. London. Acting. Now he’s in Blackpool though, and I do know that place. Addy turns on her barrel and crosses her legs. Grey stockings are up to just below her knees and now I see that pink rounding part of the leg where her strength comes from. I’m pretending not to be seeing but I’m seeing and stirring.
“Yes. I hope to be on the London stage shortly.”
And I hope to be the bloody Prince of Wales.
“Well, Addy,” I say turning so I can pretend not to see her lovely leg better, “I surely wish you luck and I will try to come and watch.”
“It will be very costly. That’s why it is the London stage. Only the very best perform there and so naturally one would expect it to be costly.”
Ronnie Manchester, of all people, showed me pictures on a playing card last year. Above those knees and that creamy top leg is this thing that you might not think would look so nice itself but just does. Look nice, I mean. Other parts too. I seen the pictures. Addy would have all of it, actress or not. Now I’m greatly stirring and better sit on a barrel of my own.
“I’ll sit a bit.”
It’s warm and the late morning breeze is damp. Down the narrow street I see the wharf and beyond it the water and the Isle of Walney beyond that. The tide runs low and spots of silt dot the space like broken glass. I take off my coat and lay it over my lap and my stirring.
Because of the tide the bigger boats lie angled and aground in the shallows. I watch some boatmen in mud boots scrubbing the undersides. I’m pretending not to see the higher leg now, her own playing card there somewhere.
The ball rolls into the street from the alley and Bobby follows. He stops it after some tries, sees me and waves.
Bobby kicks the ball back.
“I’ll be … I’ll be going with Shoe. Thanks Petey. Thanks Taber. Thanks … Thanks … Irish kid.”
He comes to the barrels now all smiley and squeezes me and puts his sweet, sweaty face into my chest. Addy Augarde, who may be going to Blackpool, reaches over and rubs his hair.
He looks at me now.
“I … scored a goal.”
“You’re a great good guy, Bobby Horn.”
“You’re a great good guy, Shoe Horn.”
My stirring has waned enough for me to stand off the barrel.
“We’ll be heading on now, Addy.”
Addy still shows her leg.
“I’ll be right here, Albert.”
We walk again, this time Bobby halts ahead, looking back every few steps to know I’m here. The gulls take him and he follows them with his arms stretched out and flapping. I’m laughing but he’s dead to it. He flaps them hard but stays to earth. I light another one.
“How come … how come they can fly?”
“They’re birds, for the love of Christ.”
“They got wings. You got arms.”
Bobby doesn’t like this, thinks about it and lets them down with a shrug. We’re over Michaelson Bridge now and Walney Island looks square at us, flat and dull. I hate it so. I hate it that we were ever there and I hate it when sometimes I have to cross the Jubilee Bridge carrying Lowden’s plumbing tools. Lugging them pipes and wrenches behind him like he’s bloody King George himself. And always the Great Bitch watching from across the shallows.
“What?” Bobby says.
“What what?” I say after a bit.
I smile at Bobby and myself too.
“That’s good lad. I was.”
“I know. I saw you.”
I start again onto Ramsden Dock Road. Mr. Horn’s house is off it behind the foundry. It smells like melting bolts. It does. We smell like that too. Christ. The Channel Lane Hotel is ahead and Bobby runs onto the high porch and to his lookout where he can see over Walney to the Irish Sea. And Piel Island too. I go up to look with him but I’ve seen them. I’ve turned the wrench all over the Barrow. I’ve done the pipes. Bobby points but says nothing. I nod but Christ knows what he’s pointing at. I close my eyes because sometimes it’s better than what I’m seeing. And thinking. I should never have gone under the lights at Nuxhall Road. I don’t like it that Mr. Horn told Lowden I could lay them down. I’m looking different and I’ve had only nine or ten matches. That Rudy. That filthy Russian. Good Christ but he would not stop. And now, Thursday next. Well, you go ‘til you lose.
I open my eyes and he’s still pointing. A girl comes onto the porch. I watch her. Mick for sure. Got that catholic look about her. I can tell. I can. And the big black curls. And the skin that’s not at all creamy. It’s tea cup skin. Black eyes. She goes behind me wearing a blue apron with Channel Lane Hotel on it, carrying some rags. She smells like oil soap. I’ve seen her before or think I have. She drops some of her rags, bends to get them, but Bobby’s quicker.
“Here,” he shouts, holding them out.
“Thank you,” she says, and I’m right. Pure mick.
“I’m Bobby Horn,” he shouts.
“Don’t shout it, Bobby,” I say.
“I’m Bobby Horn,” he shouts a whisper.
She smiles and it’s a nice one.
“I’m Molly Reilly.”
“I play soccer,” he says.
“I work at this hotel.”
Addy Augarde’s top leg is still in my head and I wonder about Molly Reilly’s.
“I’m Shoe Horn.”
We look a moment. I do that, I notice. Look at the girls. Look when I should be looking somewhere else. It’s a small mouth too, and her lips are round and thick.
“I’m working,” she says, getting ready to turn away.
“I’m in service.”
“Ahhh. I’m apprenticed out to the trades.”
She looks about my age but what’s that? I might look thirty and not seventeen. I touch my often broken nose. She smiles at me and I wonder if it’s true that the Irish girls tend to steal linens. Mr. Horn says they acquire the habit from their mothers. I look at her hands and imagine them reaching for linens not their own. Long hands chapped red and swollen. She sees me looking and hides them in her armful of rags.
“I don’t live here,” she says out of the blue. “I live over on Shakespeare. Da works for the paper mill. I’m in service.”
“I don’t mind.”
“We saw Addy Augarde’s knees,” Bobby says, like he’d burst if he didn’t.
We laugh but Bobby’s not finished.
“We saw her knees and … and … and … what Shoe?”
“You scored a goal was it?”
“A goal,” he shouts. “I get it and … and …”
Now he’s dribbling up and down the long porch with the ball only he’s seeing.
“I get it and … Petey comes up but I go like this … and … and I go like this and …”
“Goal!” Molly shouts.
“Yes, yes,” Bobby shouts.
Ten minutes later we’re at Ramsden Dock Road and Athol Street, looking down the lane to his crooked dark house. Might as well be built of coal. Might as well be chewed into a hill. I light another and check my pocket watch. Past noon and I’m thinking the bastard is still sleeping where he was when I dressed up me and Bobby for St. Mark’s. St. Mary the Virgin is closer, just over the bridge. But I don’t go there anymore unless I have to. I know the Great Bitch roams there. Bobby starts for the place.
“I’m just …”
“Wait ‘til I smoke this a bit.”
“You don’t go into the house without me.”
“I ... know.”
He’s thinking and watching the glow on my smoke. He’s wanting something but not sure what. I’m missing our mum. Who do you tell that to when you lay them down under the light and look it? My sweet mother, stew on the table, salted beef and such and my shirts starched and straight. Christ, but he wasn’t the faker then. Up for the work, out to the shop and on Sunday mornings blowing hymns on his coronet. Mr. Horn’s horn he’d say. Lunch in the park and kites. But now Mr. Horn is what he has become.
“You don’t go in there without me. I’m Shoe Horn.”
“I know you know ‘cause you’re a great good guy Bobby Horn.”
I flick the damn smoke away and head down to the place and the father.
“And … and … and you’re a great good guy Shoe Horn.”