‘The Penknife’ by Roy McCarthy

It was an exciting present for a 7-year old! His Mum and Dad wouldn’t have dreamt of buying him a penknife. But here in Ireland in 1960 a lot of things seemed to happen that never would have happened back home in Birmingham. The penknife was only the latest in a long summer holiday full of wonders.

All right, the outhouse behind his grandparents’ cottage which smelt bad and didn’t have a flush wasn’t such a wonder, but it was certainly different. Water was fetched from the bubbling well in the field up the road. It was freezing cold and delicious. Most meals seemed to consist of brown bread, potatoes and eggs – perhaps a little fatty meat sometimes but the boy wasn’t too fond of that. And it was tea or water to drink.

Down the road lived the boy’s slightly older female cousins and he would spend long hours with them. They bossed him about a bit but, at the same time, they were fiercely protective of their small English cousin, and he loved them. And their Daddy had the most important job in Cork, and the boy would love to help him when he could. The bell would ring in the house and Uncle Jimmy would put on his hat and his jacket and would march out into the lane. There he would pull the level crossing gates away from the rails and across the lane to stop the very few cars or people that might wish to pass. The bell in the house would ring again and the boy would eagerly climb onto the gate beside his uncle. Then, by craning his neck, he would see the steam engine approaching, either from the direction of Dunmanway town, or from the west. Drimoleague, Skibbereen, Bantry – they were all strange and exotic names to conjure with. Then he would watch, with mouth agape, as the train roared by and the guard’s van disappeared into the distance.

One of Ireland’s major attractions was the price of sweets. The boy’s eyes popped at the cheapness of the prices and his pocket money burnt a hole in his pocket. His favourites were Silvermints, thruppence for a whole packet. There were few cars in the town but plenty of cycles, horses and cows. On occasion he would join in the games of the town boys on the waste ground down by the river. However he couldn’t get the hang of the rules of their ball games and they shook their heads with impatience at him.

And at nights his Daddy would show his boy off around the town bars. The Arch Bar, Doheny Bar, The Station. He was quite content to sit quietly with a red lemonade (another strange thing) even when the doors were locked and they were all shooed into a back room until the Guards had gone.

And, strangest of all, the gypsies. At night time their caravans would glow in the firelight, their dogs would bark and the men would shout and quarrel. The boy was afraid at first but his Daddy told him not to be silly. He would go right up to the men and greet them, joke with them. He would offer them cigarettes and he would accept a swig from a bottle. The boy learnt to accept the gypsies as part of this strange and wonderful land.

And each night, at bedtime, the boy resolved that he would stay awake to see the leprechauns dancing at midnight, as his aunt promised they did. But on every occasion it was the daylight to which he awoke.

Then one day his aunt gave him the penknife. It had two blades, one long, one short. Both folded up into a green enamel sheath. The boy was delighted. True, it wasn’t very sharp and didn’t cut much. But it was just great for throwing. With a bit of practice he could throw it, like a Red Indian, into the ground. And it would stick in most times. He walked down the lane and onto the main road towards town throwing his penknife into any likely spot. There was a big expanse of grass in front of some houses. He threw again, an ambitious long throw, and went to retrieve the knife. And he couldn’t find it. He looked for a long time, but it had disappeared. He went on into town to buy his sweets and to pay some visits. On the way back to the cottage he searched again, high and low. But the penknife was nowhere to be seen. Over the last few days of the long summer holiday he looked again but with lessening hope. The green enamel knife had gone. He never told his aunt.

St Patrick’s Church, Dunmanway

The boy visited Dunmanway in the following years, but the visits became less frequent. His grandparents died, and eventually so did his aunt and his Uncle Jimmy. The cottage remained for many years but the railway was long gone. The Square in Dunmanway was now the domain of motor cars instead of animals. Sweets were no longer cheaper. Strangely enough many of the bars remained more or less unchanged and stuck with their old names. The Broadway Cinema, once sixpence to get in (ninepence upstairs) still offered the delights of its silver screen as it had fifty years previously.

But then the old cottage was demolished and the man travelled down the lane no more on his rare visits.

On one such short trip the man paid his respects to the family in St Patrick’s Churchyard, and to Sam Maguire, Dunmanway’s most famous son, up the road. He decided to take a spin out to Glengarriff. Outside the town, approaching Bessa’s Cross there was road widening taking place with a large grassy area being reclaimed for the scheme. He slowed and stopped for the red light. In a trench to the left a lad leaned on his spade and picked up a small object from amongst the diggings. He glanced at it curiously before throwing it idly over his shoulder.

The lights turned green and the man drove – the penknife had been found.

– – –

PDF: The Penknife

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s