Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Loanshark.

In an earlier entry I mentioned something about a man who made my mother cry. I want to speak a bit about that man, the situation that caused my Ma to cry, and what happened after that.

The man was a loanshark. But this time my mother didn't have a loan from him. You see he also went around offering to colour old black & white family pictures and for that you repaid him weekly. The weekly repayments never seemed to end. This guy was well known and disliked in the area. But he was tolerated. They had to tolerate him because so many people depended on the money he used to lend, even if it was at an astronimical interest. At that time there was no legal protection from these guys. They could charge what interest they liked on loans.

Anyway, my Ma gave him a black & white picture of her mother and father to colour and he did the job. Not a great job, but to have a family picture in colour and in a nice frame was a thing to be proud of back then.

He called every week for his payments. A small bald headed man who wore thin wire rimmed round spectacles, always carried a thin briefcase, some kind of folder under his arm and he always seemed to carry his hat in his hand rather than on his head. I remember noticing that his head seemed to be perpetually sunburned. He would rap on the door and call out, "The picture man!" and Ma would open the door and give him his weekly payment. He never spoke, just took the money, wrote something in a notebook and went on his way.

But one week Ma was short of money and couldn't pay. He stood back from the door and shouted that he wasn't doing this for nothing. That he wasn't a charity! I remember him shouting that he knew my Dad was working and that Ma was well able to pay. And they were just the printable things he said. I was just a kid but I could see that Ma was very upset and that she was crying. I remember wanting to hit that guy, but he went off still calling over his shoulder that she better have it (the payment) next week, and on the double or there'd be trouble. Ma sat at our one table with her head in her hands and cried and I saw how she shook. She asked me not to say anything to Dad when he came in, so I kept quiet.

But I brooded about what had happened, and especially about how upset Ma had been.

Meet my three my pals from that time. In no particular order there was Sean (Seanie) who was the oldest, he was about a year older than me and I thought he was very wise. He read a lot of books. So did I but his were never fiction. He was a mine of information on WWII which he seemed to read about an awful lot. He was the quiet one, but the one who no one crossed because he spoke quietly and struck out if you annoyed him. Someone who could frighten. But like I say, I liked him and sort of looked up to him too.

Then there was Jimmy (yes another one, I was called Jimmy then too). Jimmy was the skinny one, or at least he was skinnier than me. But Jimmy was a great singer. I liked him for that, he seemed to sing all the time and sometimes Seanie would give him a wallop to shut him up. It wasn't a hard wallop, just hard enough to shut poor Jimmy up. Jimmy always took it in good part and now that I think of it I don't think I ever say him in bad humour. In fact he used to slag off Seanie just for the hell of it.

Paddy made up the third of the four of us. Paddy was a dreamer. He lived the western movies that we used to go to see at the local cinemas, or picture houses as we called them. We never called them cinemas. There were three main ones that we went to. The Maro (in Mary Street), The Plaza (in Granby Row) and The Lec (the latter short for the grand name of "The New Electric Cinema", which was in Talbot Street) If we saw a movie (oh yeh, we didn't call them movies, they were 'the pictures') about Zorro for instance then Paddy would be wearing a Zorro mask and cape and carrying a sword (home made of course) until we went to see the next western. There was one I recall about the Alamo and Davy Crockett. Well Paddy had to get that furry hat too, the one with the tail hanging on the back. I know they had a proper name but we just called them Davy Crockett hats.

Then there was me of whom you might know enough, and if not I'll talk more at a later date.

Now, the four of us used to sit on the steps outside the tenements in Summerhill. I think they call those steps 'the stoop' in the US. Seanie told me that. So a few nights after what had happened to Ma I talked about it as we chatted on the steps. Seanie said we should do something. Jimmy agreed, but then again Jimmy always agreed with Sean, it was good for his health. Paddy said he should be run out of town. I definitely wanted something done. So we talked about it and made a plan that I honestly didn't believe would work, and also I thought it would take too long and I wanted justice now.

But we carried on with the plan. Out at the back of where we lived there was a very big yard, long grass growing through the skeletons of rusted bits of bikes,old iron bedsteads, a place where kids weren't allowed to play and grown ups didn't go. And there was one big feral cat living amongst this junk. We set out to make friends with the cat. We brought it bits of food and we sat nearby while it ate until eventually it's fear of us seemed to go away and it would come and beg food from us, and rub itself against our legs. I remember that although the cat had become more or less friendly that I was still a bit wary of it.

The day dawned, as they say in all the best stories.....

Along one side of that yard I spoke of there was a high (to us) wall, and running beside the wall was the lane that led from The Diamond to Gardiner Street, where we lived. We sort of hung on the wall, leaning partly over it with our legs hanging inside so that only our heads and part of our shoulders could be seen from the lane. Beside us sat The Cat. He (or she) had never been named, it was always The Cat. We knew that the loan shark (or the picture man, take your pick -- he was both anyway)came from The Diamond, up the lane and into Gardiner Street, on foot of course, only the wealthy had cars. He may have been wealthy but didn't have a car. I remember what he was wearing. He had on a long overcoat that was called A Crombie, an expensive coat at the time, and as usual he carried his hat in his hand. His bald head like a beacon as he drew closer.

We remained very quiet until he drew level with us who were now above him, along with The Cat. Just as he was immediately below us Seanie dropped the bomb, which was The Cat! Maybe it was because of all those war books he read or something, but his bomb aiming was perfect. The Cat landed right on the picture man's bald head! Ever see a cat when it's scared? It sort of makes a hump and digs it's claws in? Well that's exactly what it did. Only when it dug in it's claws they were into yer man's bald head. He actually screamed, which I suppose frightened the cat even more with predictable results and when he tried to knock it off his head that cat dug in for dear life. The result to the picture man was that his bald pate was lacerated with cat scratches. His head was covered in blood and I remember seeing it on the shoulder of his Crombie coat too. The Cat took off and jumped the wall beside us and the picture man ran in the direction of Gardiner Street. We ran through the house and into the street to see where he was heading, and a woman had already stopped him and she applied first aid. It was just scratches but they bled a lot, and most of all the whole thing gave him a major fright. I mean it's not every day that a cat lands on your head out of the blue.

We remained friends with The Cat, or maybe that should read The Cat remained friends with us even after how we had treated it so mean that one time. It followed us about until eventually we saw it no more and assumed it had either died or had run off with a mate.

The picture man? Yes he came back the following week and he had sticking plaster still covering his scratches. We were standing at our hall door when he called and Seanie told him not to call anymore. Jimmy got a fit of the giggles, Paddy told him to get out of our street and I remember him looking at me and I think even then he knew why he had been ambushed by these four kids. But Seanie took it upon himself to explain anyway.

I don't think Ma ever paid for that picture (no one ever called afterwards for the money), and as far as I know someone in the family still has it.

So that was the tale of a cat and four boys, who as it happens didn't turn out to be gangsters after all. Close but not really. The picture at the top is the scene of the 'crime', X marks the spot.

Next time I think I'll talk a bit about The Four Corners of Hell and how we used to have a ringside seat after the pubs closed and the fights started.

Till then.... look up if passing a high wall!