If you want to get poetic about it, he comes in killing. Mitchell's human life.
If you want to get poetic about it, he comes in killing.
It's rather an illogical notion, a quaint one, that somehow children kill their mothers this way, during the difficult births--if you'd like to regard it as some kind of an omen you're welcome to, but it was common back then, especially with the poor and he doesn't see it that way and he doesn't see much order in anything, anyway.
They cut her open, eventually, slice through the skin and he comes out screaming and the priest is praying for his mother's soul and he is a blessing, they tell his father, he is a gift. That he lives is a sign of mercy.
"What am I supposed to do with a baby?"
He cries in the basket. His aunt, his father's sister, rings out shirts in the sink. There is blood from where she has cut herself, cooking.
"If this is your backhanded way, Frank Mitchell, of trying to get me to take your son, I can't do it."
"I feel for the boy, I do, but there's four here--Donal doesn't make much--"
"What am I supposed to do with him?"
"You asked that already."
"No answers, either."
"It's not so very hard, taking care of a child. Men think it's beneath them, is all."
"So get someone in."
"You're going to turn him out, Frank? Hardly be a novelty around here, would he? People ache to pick up street children, don't they?"
His father pinches the bridge of his nose.
"I wouldn't do that."
His aunt shrugs.
"So get a wife. I've no more advice for you than that."
His father gets a wife. John is six months old when they marry.
She does not look like them, not dark Irish, she has a lot of red hair and she is nineteen perhaps and nobody ever mistakes her for his mother.
She calls him Johnny.
He remembers her, not very well but he does, her pale face above him Johnny Johnny and she's kind to him, isn't she, and not many people are--back then (in Ireland especially with the Pope stretched over your bed) they don't have the privilege of thinking anything much of children, too many of them around, no novelty in it. And people aren't kind, his father isn't kind, his aunt isn't kind but his stepmother is kind and he watches her from the edge of the room, her red hair swinging around her back.
His father doesn't blame him for his mother's death--he knows that from the start. Any indifference isn't some sort of impersonal violence, it isn't a reaction at all--he doesn't care about him, this is all.
Sometimes he wishes his father did hate him.
Their house is in Dublin and it has three rooms and his father works at a factory and sometimes he talks about going to America.
"We can't afford that," his stepmother says.
"There's opportunity there--"
"And I hear such lovely stories, from the ones who do go."
He is five years old. He is bouncing a ball against the wall. Bounce--bang. Bounce--bang. He's proud of himself, for catching it.
"Will you stop that?" His father's voice is a surprise, an explosion, almost. It's very loud. He jumps.
"Don't shout at him like that."
"Don't tell me how to speak to my son."
"He's as much mine as yours, by now--"
"He's my blood," his father says, "I'll speak to him how I like."
He learns young that blood is very important. He's not entirely sure why.
When his father is out, a man comes, sometimes. He's tall and has light hair and a loud laugh and he gives him things, sometimes. Sweets, or sometimes money.
His stepmother laughs.
"You'll spoil him. And how will he explain it?"
"Our secret, eh, Johnny?" The man puts a hand on his shoulder. "I don't come here, do I?"
He speaks to him like he is grown and Johnny likes that and of course he won't say anything, why would he?
They go into his father's bedroom and strange noises come through the door and he figures out for himself, young, what it is they are doing and he would like to be embarrassed but he doesn't let himself be and he would like to be grown up.
It is his fault, eventually, when it does happen.
He is talking about the day, his father leans back in his chair not quite listening and his stepmother does listen and he says he went to the docks he says he played with the boys he spent the money Tom gave him and his father asks who Tom is.
"I--" he says, "Tom ain't anyone. I don't mean--"
His stepmother folds her hands, under the table.
"Don't do this, Frank, don't be so hard on the boy--"
His voice is a mess and he can't think of a good idea, of a good excuse, he was never good at that--
"Tom's my friend. He's one of the boys, down by the--"
"Your friends don't go giving you money--they wouldn't if they had it--"
"Stop it," says his stepmother, "stop it."
"You steal it?"
"No. I didn't steal it--I swear I didn't steal it--I didn't steal it, sir--"
His father's hand is around the back of his neck and he is being lifted up and his stepmother speaks--
"Tom's a friend of mine. He comes in, sometimes, during the day. He gives Johnny--he likes to give him things."
His father takes his hand off his neck.
"Is that so?"
"It is." His stepmother looks down.
"There a reason I don't know about this friend of yours?"
He remembers her hands, still, white--almost like wax, her hands in front of her and it all seems to stop for a second.
He can hear it, from his bedroom, the smack of skin against skin, the fist and she screams he can hear that too and he tries to think there's nothing out there, the scream is only a noise it is not real it is not and whore his father says you fucking fucking whore and you in my house and her screams get higher and weaker and eventually he hears a thud against the wall and a breath from her and his father's breath, heavier, in and out fast and it is over and he sleeps.
He is hit, too, later. Where is his loyalty, his father says, whose son is he? He should tell him he should tell him he should have told him and it is not as bad.
His stepmother doesn't leave the room for a week. He doesn't think about her, he makes himself not think about her, he only runs faster and brags louder with the boys outside whose faces he can't quite tell apart and that is all.
She comes out at night, once, to get water. Her face passes into the light for a second. Her eye is squeezed shut and purple and her face appears bent, almost, misshapen.
She doesn't blame him, she says later. It was a mistake. She knows. She understands.
He stays in school long enough to learn how to read and after that, he works. Well, he tells his father he works, that he's gotten a job as a messenger and he and Bill O'Shaughnessy end up picking pockets in the street. They eat well off of it, Mitchell distracts them (at home, John, at work, Mitchell) while Bill takes the money from the pockets. Older women, the ones in the nice clothes, like him and he smiles at them and they smile back and Bill grimaces and says it's because he's pretty.
He is twelve.
"Me? Pretty?" He makes a face.
"They're thinking about taking you home and dressing you up. Little urchin boy. You'd be ever so grateful, wouldn't you?"
"I ain't an urchin," he says, "I got a home, don't I, just like them."
"I know that. We both do. But the rich ones--they think we all starving, don't they?"
"Enough of us are."
"It's not the same. They believe anything, don't they? It's like they want us to take from them. They're guilty."
"Maybe," he says.
His stepmother gets quieter, she spends time in her bedroom, mostly, even after her face goes back to the way it was. She waits before she says anything, always.
The man doesn't come back.
He's a bad kid, everyone knows that--he did badly in school and he's a liar and a thief and if he forgets this, his father will remind him. Are you even my son, he says, and that's funny, almost a joke--they look alike and their voices are the same he is his father's son to the last he learns to laugh when the belt is taken out, for whatever reason, even if it makes his father worse he laughs harder and harder and his laugh gets bigger than the house and that is how it goes.
He is fourteen. He and Bill are out, in the evening, when people drink and they only have enough money for one bottle which they pass between them, his mouth curves against the glass and Bill is bragging about something some con and Mitchell isn't really listening, they are leaning up against a building and on the other side, across from them there are two girls and they have cigarettes and seem their age, trying to look older with lipstick on and he looks, he can see the outline of one of the girl's breasts, she blows out smoke between her lips and her hips form lines against the dark and he swallows the drink and he is not listening to Bill, he is not listening to Bill at all.
"All right over there?" The girl's voice is loud, almost jarring.
"Why wouldn't I be?" He wonders if his voice is shaking, a bit.
Bill elbows him.
"You seem to have a problem with the staring," she says.
"I'm sorry," he says, "Hard not to, you know."
He wonders if she can tell he hasn't done it before, fumbling in between her legs her breath smells sour a little but he doesn't care, tracing his finger up the expanse of white thigh and her legs are opened in front of him, go on, then, she says and he is pushing into her and it's odd at first he doesn't quite know what to think even except god god it is hot and wet and something of a mess and he finishes quickly and when he pulls out, some of his cum is on her thigh.
"I'd just better wash up," she says.
She is trying to look older than she is, he can see that, her wide red mouth the lipstick is smeared on her face and she is probably older than him but it can't be by much.
"All right," he says, "all right."
She smiles. She puts her hand on his cheek.
"You're pretty, you know."
"I keep hearing."
After that, it is easy. Sometimes he and Bill pay for it, after a good day, but there are always places where there will be girls, hanging around and he learns quickly that he can get it for free. They like him, he knows that, they have always liked him and the faces blend together, five thousand legs he is pushing himself between five thousand wet open cunts for him to take and he takes he takes he takes.
When he is sixteen, he gets to be taller than his father.
Here is where the rules change.
He comes home one night, drunk, stumbles into the front room and his father is awake.
"Here he is."
"Here I am," says Mitchell, "here I am. There something you want, then?"
"You're not going to try, are you?" The alcohol is buzzing in his head and he doesn't care, he thinks. "I'm bigger than you are, you know."
"I am." He laughs. It is very funny, somehow.
His father's hand goes up.
"You're going to try?" he asks, "You're going to try and hit me? Go ahead."
He's hit in the face, he feels the blood coming down his face but this is only a second his own hand goes up and he feels his father breaking under his fist the dull cracking sound and he's broken his nose and this is funny still and he laughs and leans back against the wall and laughs.
"You don't touch me," he hears himself saying, "and you don't touch her. You're finished."
He's cock of the walk, John Mitchell, he's the one the girls watch on the street, he's famous and if he's only famous among ten people or so who cares, even because that's famous enough for him and stealing gets dull, stealing gets small and sometimes he fights in the street, sometimes it's for money he does different things and he does everything and a few people nod at him when he walks by and this will not be enough soon but now it is enough and it is brief and very young and almost glorious.
Eventually, there is one girl. Of course there is. She's a nice girl, as they go, no more money than he has but respectable and when he fucks her the first time she bleeds and a hundred years later he will not remember her name.
"I love you," she says.
"I love you." It seems the right thing to say. He is dressing.
"They say there's going to be a war. In Europe."
"That's English shit, that talk. Doesn't concern us."
"They could make you go, anyway. You're the right age."
"Don't," he says.
"When they talk about it, all I can think about is you. You dying somewhere--"
"Jesus," he says, "do you have to be so goddamn morbid?"
"I come here to forget about things and here's you talking about me getting shot in the head." He lights a cigarette. "It's--Jesus, can you not?"
"I said I was sorry."
"Fine." He sits down on the bed.
"When are you going to marry me?"
He laces up his boot.
"When I can--money. I doubt your parents would be over-fond of me, either."
"They'll have to go on, then, won't they?" She sits up. "Nobody else will marry me, you know."
"Don't be stupid--you could, you could get anyone--"
"They won't marry me because they know you've had me. People call me a whore."
"Who calls you a whore?"
"People. People I know who you don't."
"And I--if I had a baby."
"Well," he says, "if you're going to have a baby, then we'll talk about that then."
"I should go."
He kisses her on the mouth, quickly. He walks.
He hears about the war from a newspaper boy, while he is waiting by a shop. Waiting for? He waits a lot, he guesses, for not much and someone walks by and yells war war England is in the war and he ends up going.
"Marry me before you go," the girl says.
He doesn't listen. He will come back, after all, he will come back, there is no question of him not and he will not want to be chained to her.
"Do you worry?" It's one of the soldiers in his barracks. He is young and thin and looks weak.
"Nah," he says. He crushes a cigarette between his fingers. "Reckon I've seen the worst people get, anyway."