|My paviour great grandfather, wearing a waistcoat & moustache, |
next to the bearded man with the tar barrel.
One of my more recent projects was a book called A Proper Person to be Detained, about the murder of my grandmother's uncle, John Manley, on Christmas Day 1881. It describes the milieu in which these people lived and worked, but it also examines the way in which that single shocking act of violence changed the lives of those who witnessed it and those who came after. 'Like a pebble dropped in a still pool' a friend described it to me afterwards.
Like my book about Jean Armour, it involved intensive immersion in a time and place and I thought about little else for almost two years. Just as now, when I'm writing about my Polish grandfather and wishing I had known him, I found myself wishing I could have met my Irish great grandfather, but he died before I was born.
He was born in County Roscommon in Ireland, he had come to England as an adult, to work on the roads, he was a skilled paviour and a kindly man who loved children. He sang, making the traditional 'mouth music' and he had a fund of old songs and stories.
He was also, in many ways, the saviour of the family. He was my great grandmother's second husband after her first one died tragically young, leaving her and her children in penury. He was a person who managed to haul the family out of the extreme poverty into which they had been born. Yet he was so generous that if he saw a beggar in the street and he was wearing a good coat, he was as likely as not to hand it over to the more needy man. 'He couldn't keep anything,' said my aunt Nora, who remembered him. 'He would give things away when the family could ill afford it.'
So what's spooky about that, you may ask?
None of it, except that I think I may have met him in Morrison's car park, one morning when I had just finished writing the book, but was still, somehow, immersed in it.
It happened like this. I had parked my car, and was heading towards the store. It was a chilly, misty morning, but there was a low winter sun shining in my eyes, dazzling me. I lifted my head and was surprised to see a man standing in front of me. 'Excuse me, madam,' he said. I hadn't seen him coming at all and, surprised, I stopped on the lane between parked cars. 'Oh, be careful, madam!' He reached out and very gently ushered me onto the pavement.
He was dressed in working men's clothes, with an old wool coat over them, and he was covered in mud or dust or some combination of both. 'You see I'm very hungry,' he said. 'But I have no money for breakfast. Do you think you could give me just a little money for my breakfast?' His voice was soft, his accent was unmistakeable. Not Dublin, not Cork, but the soft rural accent of Mayo or Roscommon. I should add that the sudden appearance of Irish labourers isn't particularly common here - or not nowadays anyway. The Belfast ferry is some miles down the coast, and we are more likely to meet summer visitors with Northern Irish accents.
Even before Covid, I didn't carry much cash, but I took out my purse and gave him a £5 note which was all I had in there. 'Thank-you so much,' he said. 'And God bless you!'
He walked away. The sunlight and mist seemed to swallow him. It was my own response that surprised me. My legs felt suddenly weak. I had to go into the supermarket cafe, sit down and drink coffee till reality resumed. I still remember the feeling - a weird combination of excitement, exultation, disbelief and the inevitable 'don't be daft' rationality that always intrudes sooner or later.
Still, it's one of those things that has stayed with me. I can see him still, emerging from a glorious combination of light and mist, can feel his gentle touch on my arm. 'God bless you!' he said.
I hope he managed to get some breakfast.