Saturday 24 March 2018

Lee Dunne's Christmas story: You can call me lucky

Although writer Lee Dunne was born into a penniless family in 'a dry sore on the face of Dublin', he has always felt incredibly blessed. Here, he tells the miraculous story of his Christmas birth that reduced his beloved Ma to tears every time she recounted it, and her deathbed message to him, her alcoholic son

FAVOURED BY FORTUNE: Lee Dunne, in Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin, at the launch of his book 'Dancers of
Fortune' in 2005. Photo: Graham Hughes
FAVOURED BY FORTUNE: Lee Dunne, in Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin, at the launch of his book 'Dancers of Fortune' in 2005. Photo: Graham Hughes

Lee Dunne

I was born on December 21 at 7.30am on a sofa-bed at 162 Mount Pleasant Buildings, which I called The Hill in my first novel, published in 1965.

Here is a line from the book: "The Hill was a scab, a sort of dry sore on the face of Dublin," and to this day I believe that it was just that, a custom-built slum -- of cold-water flats, situated on Dublin's south side.

It was a concrete and iron-bars place, like a prison unit that, to my young mind, was barely fit for people to exist in, but deemed more than good enough by the powers that were in a position to dump the poor anywhere they liked, without one among us being able to do a thing about it.

Down the years, my mother often spoke of how bare was the cupboard, how empty her purse, as I landed in our kitchen, which was also the living room. We had one very small bedroom and a narrow loo designed to accommodate people that didn't get enough to eat. Our family -- my parents, my four brothers and my sister lived here, in and around and on top of each other -- there was always somebody up your nose and you up theirs -- until the absolute lack of money drove my eldest brothers and my sister away to England, this happening when I was about 10 years old.

Being financially poor was not a new situation for my mother, Katy Rogers, about whom I was just plain crazy. This was my position from the moment I became enough of a person to have likes and dislikes, and the like. Truth is, I thought she was my personal property and, by the time I was 12 I was calling her Katy.

"Don't you call me Katy," she used to say, half joking -- whole in earnest -- while I -- yes, I was very precocious, and already admitting to the fact that I was going to be famous and the like -- would reply "Yes Katy" and she would go "Where in God's name did I get you from?" to which I would rejoin, "Do you want me to tell you, Ma?", leaving the punchline to the lady of the manor: "Shut your mouth! You always knew too much for your age!"

The truth is she did talk to me like she didn't do with anybody else at home, and I regarded her as mine. From the time I was eight years old, I worked two small jobs with a good heart, because the few shillings I earned helped Katy get something for the table.

A lot of the time she looked weary, as did my poor father, Mick Dunne -- a truly decent skin, who was just one of many thousands that were unable to find any kind of job -- the country being on its uppers -- with little sign of relief happening any time soon.

This was the situation when Katy was delivering me, the midwife being a neighbour that I adored, Missus Doyle. This impoverished lady lived with a Woodbine stuck to her bottom lip and, was never less than a delightful presence, and a major source of encouragement to me from the time I began to share my dreams with all and sundry.

My fantasies were nothing very heavy, merely, that I was going to be a famous book writer, and even a film star, as well, because all the local girls claimed that I was better looking than Scotty Beckett, who had played the Young Al in The Jolson Story, and I had no problem at all in believing them.

And because I shared my Technicolor dreams like this, without even a blush, naturally, I was thought of as not being the full shilling. This reaction was par for the course when you consider that I was unloading my stuff on people that were, right up to the time I left Ireland as 1950 landed, living still in a country that was deflated in every possible way.

In time I came to consider the very strong possibility that Katy, my mother, surely helped me arrive like a serious pain in the posterior, since she herself was a hi-low merchant, who told me so often how she was up to ninety as Christmas was upon her, without her having managed to gather the makings for the very special Pudding she was famous for, due to the lack of the all important ingredient -- money.

No matter how often Katy retold the story of what happened on Christmas Eve, her face would light up, and her eyes would shine with a hint of pride, but, allow me share the revelation. . .

She was sitting on the sofa-bed, having given herself a bird-bath, while I, having sucked her dry, was sleeping like a baby.

As she was about to rise and take the basin of water out to the scullery, the key was being turned in the lock of the hall door.

Calling 'come in', Katy got back into the sofa-bed and as she told me so often: "It was as well I did, if I'd been standing, the legs could well have gone from under me from the shock."

A tiny troupe of women made it into the kitchen -- there was nobody home but my mother and yours truly, out for the count.

The quartet of females took turns to embrace and kiss and hug Katy -- all of them weeping in the joy of reunion after a good many years. Even as the party were hugging and kissing and weeping and half laughing, they were divesting themselves of the food, and the other gifts that they had brought to wet the head of the new baby, the lucky little sleeper who was the main reason for their unexpected visit.

The quartet of middle aged women that had been Katy's companions and friends during the years they had spent working side by side in Jacobs, the biscuit factory on the edge of The Liberties, chuckled and laughed and cried in the embrace of this reunion, my mother almost overwhelmed by emotion and gratitude.

One of the one-time workmates, having heard on the grapevine that my mother had given birth to a Christmas baby boy, contacted the other three -- a natural gathering followed -- and there they were, in the door of our flat, bearing gifts that were precious beyond the gold it took to purchase them.

My mother felt blessed beyond belief about the practical nature of the presents -- chickens and ham, and minerals, a Christmas pudding, and an envelope containing 15 pounds.

When they handed my mother the beautiful shawl they brought for me, it was too much altogether, causing Katy to weep copiously every time, down a lot of years at Christmas time, when she delivered another reprise of one of the finest moments of her life.

Of course, I have no memory of that first beginning, but the story was burned indelibly into my mind by the time I reached puberty, and I often thought of it during my travels and my travails, or I would draw it up to comfort me when I needed to remind myself that I was lucky, that I had always been, that somehow, even when things seemed really dire, something showed up as though it was just part of the day that was in it.

Not a miracle or anything, just a happening that was part of the present.

I believe that my overall good fortune in life was in some way due to my devotion to Katy Rogers, whose father died from alcoholic poisoning at the age of 42. As it happens, I am the living spit of my grandfather, Paddy Rogers, and I got myself lost for close on 20 years before I managed to put the plug in the jug and save my own life.

The story of how this happened is, to me, huge, but it is for another day. Suffice to say that when I quit drinking alcohol, it was already too late to save my marriage to a good woman, deserving of a better deal than she got with me.

We managed to part amicably, and I signed over the house we had lived in, with a heart and a half. This earned me the right to see my children, have them for holidays, call them and write to them, and be there when they needed to hear my voice, easing the cruel demands that the final separation caused for Jean and me.

To aid my recovery I came home to Dublin because I liked the feel of the AA meetings here more than I had done anywhere else. I wanted too to devote time to my mother's well being. This turned out to be another lucky break for me, and indeed for Ma, who never tired of me coming into the kitchen where we had first met face to face.

Katy was, almost inevitably, destined to end up with cancer of the throat, something she had lived in fear of with every cigarette she smoked down too many years. She was in, and out, of the Adelaide Hospital just across from Peter Street where she had spent the happiest days of her life working with her pals in Jacobs. Because I was fancy free, I was in a position to give Ma all the time she needed, along with visiting, and generally taking care of her, feeling privileged and indeed, once more with feeling, very lucky, to be spending all the time I did, down the last furlong of her life.

When her time was nigh, I kept up my two visits a day routine, not wanting her to sense any heavy change in how I viewed her condition. Three months earlier I had asked her specialist how long had Katy left. He told me frankly: "Lee, all I can guarantee you -- your mother will not be on this earth in three months' time." He would be proved right, and I was blessed that I could be there when Ma's time arrived.

I walked in as I usually did, ready to offer a cheerful presence only to find Katy, eyes closed, apparently asleep.

As I moved a chair to sit by the bed, her eyes opened, and she took my hand even as I was about to sit down. I managed to accommodate both needs, and was about level with my dearest Katy, who told me in the instant: "I'm dying, Lee."

Normally, when I arrived, she might say she didn't feel all that well, and I would say something like, "your dodgy heart could kill you alright" with a view to avoiding the word cancer. It was a kind of game and usually we played pretty well, but, not this time.

Katy clasped my hand fiercely, surprising me by the strength of her grip, and she told me in a surprising matter-of-fact voice, "I'm dying Lee," and she sank back against her pillows with her eyes closing.

Being speechless is not a condition I've had a lot of connection with, but, on this occasion, I could not even make a joke to try and sidetrack this line of thinking. So I sat there, leaning forward as I held her hand, sniffing back tears that were burning my eyes.

Half a minute later, she opens her eyes again, a tiny change in her demeanour warming her eyes for a moment, and I am facing my mother, Katy, rather than filling the role of hospital visitor.

Without any preamble, she asks me, while she is actually laying down the law, "You won't go back on the drink!" It took me a few moments before I could reply and I was surprised that she could hold my eyes -- a minute earlier I had accepted that she was passed over.

I reply to her muted outburst: "Are you kidding me, Katy? I got a reprieve. Somebody was praying for me."

"It was me," she said, discomforted by the use of all her energy. "I blistered Heaven with prayers for you."

The effort caused her to sink back into the pillow and, once again, I thought she had actually passed on.

But she came back to me, and she took my hand again and she said, "Don't worry about me, I'll be in God's pocket."

And with those words, Ma lay back, and I felt her hand slip from mine. And I cried tears that had a life of their own, and I felt blessed that I had been granted this time with one of the great loves of my life.

And, lo and behold, just 40 minutes later, I was standing over her body in this little mortuary. The Sisters at the Adelaide had attended to her appearance -- she wore a cotton nightdress that I had picked up a few weeks earlier, and she looked like a 40-year- old woman with a head of snow-white hair.

My tears tumbled with a will of their own, as I heard myself saying "God love you, God love you, God love you". My prayer was filled with relief that my mother was free of the pain and the fear, and I could hear her words repeat to me, so grateful she had found comfort in her belief when she told me earlier: "Don't worry about me, I'll be in God's pocket." In that moment I had no problem believing she was already there.

Before I left, I touched her forehead and I felt connected, and so very lucky to have been there in her last moments. As I had, in retrospect, felt, many times, Lucky all the way, blessed to have been the son of Mick Dunne and Katy Rogers. R I P

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