To those timorous souls who are ill-equipped for a Dublin drinking bout, the heady heat of an alcohol-fuelled, smoke-filled bar on the skirts of the river Liffey might seem like an inferno (of Dantesque proportions) – but not Honey and Bessie. On the day of my arrival, Sullivan’s was jam-packed with market traders in sluicing their tonsils and oiling their throats after their morning’s work and these two doughty rellos muscled their way through the pub searching for Hank, who was conspicuous by his absence.
‘I don’t see him anywhere ma, can you?’ Asked Honey, frowning. The last thing she needed on a Saturday afternoon was to be out looking around for her brother-in-law. It interfered with her drinking.
‘No, indeed I don’t,’ said Bessie, ‘it’s not like Hank to go missin’ in action. He’s a terrible stickler for time. Where d’ya tink he might be?’
‘He’s prob’ly in the little boy’s room.’
‘The gents.’ Honey explained.
‘You mean the Jacks?’
‘I mean the loo.’
Bessie stared at her youngest daughter in amazement. ‘Wherrya after gettin’ yer fancy speech? Have you a new fella from London or somewhere? I hope you’re not two-timin’ tha’ nice young man Peter Finnigan.’
‘Course not, ma.’
Of that, Bessie wasn’t so sure. Honey was a terrible flirt at the best of times.
‘Tha’ Finnegan fella is good to you Honey, and he’s a nice respectable young man, so he is.’
‘I know, I know, ma, I know,’ said Honey, looking around her at the pub. She lit a cigarette.
Bessie was worried about her daughter, who had taken ages to go steady with Peter Finnegan and still seemed restless.
‘He’s your fella now,’ Bessie reminded Honey. ‘Yiz are goin’ steady. You’re under an obligation, so you are.’
Honey threw her eyes to heaven and sighed.
‘A nice, sober young man, so he is,’ Bessie continued relentlessly, ‘and he’s after takin’ the pledge. You won’t find him pie-eyed in the pub like those bozos you do be hangin’ around with.’
The lounge boy was busy with other customers so Bessie took a pound note out of her bag, ‘Go up and get us two more bottles o’stout,’ she said to her daughter. ‘An no dilly-dallyin at the bar!’
When Honey went up to the bar Bessie watched her like a hawk. The sooner the betther she’s married to that wet stick, Finnegan, she’s a constant worry, so she is.
Bessie’s next door neighbour but one, Angie Holmes approached holding a pint of stout, she was shouldering her way through the crowd. As Angie weaved her way over to Bessie’s table, Bessie noted that she was already langers.
‘There yeh are, Bessie,’ said Angie Holmes, ‘Yer lookin’ well for someone in your condition.’
‘What condition is tha Angie?’
‘Old,’ said Angie, and she burst out laughing as she flopped down on the couch next to Bessie. It was Angie Holmes who looked old. Not yet forty, grey roots were showing through the peroxide hair, and her face was etched with lines. Having received more than her fair share of solid punches on the jawline from her old man, Angie’s lower face had an astonishing mobility. When she spoke, her bottom teeth seemed to gravitate from left to right.
‘Wharrya doin’ in here at this hour?’ She asked. ‘Not like you to abandon your post!’
‘I’m lookin’ for me son-in-law,’ Bessie explained. ‘We were s’posed to be meetin’ him here, but we haven’t seen sight nor light of him. Have you come across himself yourself Angie, in your travels?’
Angie shook her head. ‘Tell us dis Bessie, has your dawther had the babby yet?’
Bessie felt a strange frisson of fear, but she kept a brave face. ‘Not yet, but I’m goin’ over there now, soon as I get a holt o’ Hank.’
Loud voices reached them from the bar. Bessie and Angie both looked up and saw Honey talking with the two men. One of them had his arm around Honey’s shoulders. Bessie threw Honey a warning look, Peter Finnegan, now.
The lounge boy reappeared and placed a fresh bottle of stout down on the table in front of Bessie. He gestured toward Honey’s new friend at the bar. ‘It’s from your man over there.’
‘I do have to keep me eye on her,’ Bessie told Angie. ‘She’s actin’ like a prostitute with that stranger, an’ there she is engaged to a lovely man. Disgraceful so it is.’
‘Arrah, yer on’y young once!’ Angie Holmes said, and she took a long sup of her pint.
Bessie opened her bag and looked at her watch. Still no sign of Hank. She couldn’t help the niggly feeling that something wasn’t quite right.
‘What’s your dawther wantin’?’ Angie asked, ‘A boy or a girdle?’
‘Arr, she doesn’t mind,’ Bessie said, ‘as long as it has all its limbs’.
‘Tha’s right,’ said Angie, ‘it does be terrible to see these little babbies born rotten so it does, and it’s all to do with tha’ pill yoke.’
‘The contrasumptive pill,’ said Angie, a serious look on her face, ‘that’s what’s ruinin’ the childeren. I was raidin’ in the Star newspaper – more childeren are destroyed from tha’ ting. Isn’t tha’ terrible. Take me neice, Rita’s dawther, she’s an awful hoor. She does be shaggin’ fellas right and left. She’s on tha’ yoke. God love her. She’ll rue the day when it comes to havin’ a babby, so she will. It’ll be one o’ them.’
The conversation was not to Bessie’s liking. She considered Angie’s niece wanton and wild. And this loose talk about pills was upsettin’, so it was. Where the divil was Hank? It was high time to scoot on over to the hospital to check on Fan and the babby. Was the babby even born?
Honey returned with a stranger in tow. The fella had two bottles of stout, one in each hand, he laid them down on the table like an offering. ‘There you are ladies, have one on me.’
‘Much obliged,’ said Bessie.
‘Not at all,’ the young man said. He turned to Honey, ‘I was wondering miss, would you come to the pictures tomorrow night?’
‘I’d be delighted.’ Said Honey.
‘Grand, I’ll pick you up at around eight.’
‘Right, you are.’ Honey said.
The young man sauntered off back to the bar. Bessie turned on Honey in fury. ‘Whaddya mean, acceptin’ a date off a stranger in a bar. Are you outa your tiny mind!’
‘Arr, I’m on’y goin’ to the pictures ma, no harm.’
‘Tha’s not wha’ he tinks!’ Bessie poured from the bottle in front of her. ‘I’m warnin’ you Honey – you’re actin’ like a hoor! The next thing, I know you’ll be comin’ home up the spout!’
‘Ah now ma, I won’t be comin’ home like tha.’
‘Why is tha’? Are you takin’ that feckin pill? Is tha’ why you’re actin’ so footloose an’ fancy-free!’
Honey looked guilty. ‘Ah ma, where do you get your ideas from? Sure you can’t get it over here, it’s on’y available in England.’
‘Oh! So you were lookin’ were you? Well I’m ashamed, so I am – a dawther of mine actin’ like a gentleman’s floozy.’
Angie Holmes glanced furtively at Bessie. ‘I’ll tell yez wha’, I’ll have a look for Hank.’
Bessie and Honey said nothing.
‘No bother.’ Said Angie, and she scuttled off back to the bar.
Honey and Bessie drank in silence.
Half an hour later, Honey was drinking a vodka and blackcurrant sent over by another admirer at the bar.
Bessie nudged her daughter, ‘don’t be givin’ tha’ fella the eye now Honey. What if Peter Finnegan walked in and saw yeh lookin’ at tha’ hippy! What d’ya tink he’d tink?’
‘I know ma, I know,’ said Honey.
Bessie and Honey watched as the stranger left the bar and began making his way through the lounge. Bessie didn’t like the look of him. He reminded her of a Capuchin monkey with all that facial hair.
She clutched her daughter’s elbow. ‘I’m warnin’ you now Honey. Be careful o’ tha’ fella with the beard, he’s a slippery gibbet be the look of him.’
When Honey’s new paramour reached their table, he smiled. Bessie saw that his teeth were made of enamel, not porcelain. Older than Honey by a long chalk but well preserved thought Bessie.
‘Do you mind if I join you?’ The stranger asked and without waiting for an answer sat down.
‘What’s your name?’ Asked Bessie
‘The name is Mosse, Archibald Mosse, descendent of the late Bartholomew Mosse, a reverend.’
At first, Bessie thought he had the air of huckster for all the smart South of the river gob on him, though she couldn’t help but notice the suave approach, and confident manner.
‘Where d’ya work?’ She asked him.
‘I work over at the hospital.’ Mosse said.
‘On Parnell Street?’ Asked Bessie.
‘The very one.’
‘A porter?’ Bessie asked.
Bessie eyed the interloper afresh, impressed with his credentials. She moderately revised her judgement of earlier. Sure. Peter Finnegan was an okay chap but he never had two coppers to rub together to make a thruppence – which was a big black mark in Bessie’s book. Nevertheless, she thought she’d better put Mosse out of his misery before he got any bright ideas. ‘Me dawther just got engaged to her fiancé, Peter Finnegan,’ Bessie fibbed, ‘a lovely fella, and a good soldier who doesn’t dhrink a dhrop. Never misses mass of a Sunday.’
‘My hearty congrashoelations,’ Mosse said, and Bessie realised the man was more than a little tipsy. He sat there gaping at Honey who was already shimmying her way back to the bar through the packed lounge to greet another friend she had spotted earlier.
‘Is your husband with you?’ Mosse asked, looking around.
‘I got rid of tha’ blackguard long ago,’ Bessie told Mosse. Unwelcome memories of married life pounced back into her brain. ‘I’m well shot of him.’ She added.
‘All the more reason for shellabration,’ slurred Mosse.
‘Me other girl is layin’ in over there at the hospital,’ Bessie went on.
‘Quite common that,’ said Mosse looking down at his empty glass. He hiccupped loudly, twice, and Bessie thought to herself, ‘clare to God if that’s the kind o’ calibre o’ doctor in the Rotunda, I fear for me dawther’s life! The cut of his jib, with them ‘ould sandals and half-jarred. What in the name o’ God’s happenin’ to the medical profession!
‘She’s due this afternoon,’ Bessie said, anxiety taking hold again. ‘Me dawther’s name is Fan Fitzgerald. Have you met her?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t – you see I don’t get involved in the nitty – what’s your daughter’s name again did you say?’
‘Fan Fitzgerald’, Bessie repeated, and she was sure she detected a shifty look underneath the copious brush. ‘Well? Have you or haven’t you?’
‘I have to admit, the name does ring a bell,’ Mosse said, ‘we deliver so many babies to the pound these days, it’s difficult to remember all the mother’s names. In fact, it’s murder in the labour ward today but have no fear, Mrs Molloy, the hospital staff will handle your daughter with the utmost care and attention.’
That’s it, thought Bessie, I’m makin’ me way over there now, Hank or no Hank. I’m not havin’ me dawthter bein’ subjectin’ to a murderin’ but then Mosse went on in soothing practiced tones, summarising the improved standard of care in the hospital compared to say, a century ago and Bessie calmed down again. ‘Yer talkin’ true, me own poor mother nearly died, an manys the occasion I had a few close shaves meself!’
‘There is only so much we can do nowadays to ensure safe delivery.’ Mosse continued, ‘And yet, if it weren’t for my ancestor, dear old Bartholemew, women would still be having babies on the side of the road. There was no such thing as a maternity hospital before the good Reverend Mosse. Many’s the infant that lay discarded out in the field – food for the birds.’
‘May the angels sing his praises in heaven,’ said Bessie who was – funny enough – warming more and more to the odd looking Mosse. She had to admit, she enjoyed a meaty discussion now and then.
She glanced askance at Mosse. Now that she thought of it, sure didn’t Jesus himself have a beard, and sure didn’t he go around healin’ the sick in a pair of ‘ould leathery sandals? Mosse was older than Jesus by about ten years but Bessie wondered if – after all – he might not be the right kind of material for Honey.
She watched as he slipped a hand inside his corduroy jacket and extracted a discreet looking tin of tobacco. ‘Mind if I smoke?’
The manners on him, thought Bessie and she was intrigued by the ornate silver box, it reminded her of her snuff tin at home, only a much more elaborate job. ‘Go ahead,’ she told him.
‘Might I offer you a cigarette?’
‘Indeed you might. I’m partial to a cig,’ said Bessie and she took another sip of her stout in preparation.
Mosse’s cigarettes were laced with a mysterious herb the taking of which caused Bessie to loosen up, she found herself launching into an earnest disquisition on ‘modderen methods’ versus God’s holy law – Mosse concurred with her view and during the course of the conversation she reinforced her new found opinion – he wasn’t such a bad lot.
For what seemed like an eternity, she and Mosse sat together and discussed life, death, birth and rebirth and then went on to have a deep and meaningful conversation about food, babies and the disposal of unwanted bodies. They concluded that the old-fashioned method of devouring new borns as a means of birth control wasn’t altogether off the mark.