The dark stairs creaked as Aiden tiptoed down trying not to draw attention to himself. He was about to slip out the back door of the tenement house where his five sisters and four brothers were still sleeping.
“Aiden, eat your porridge before you go.” His mother ordered, barring his way.
“But I want to call for me friends before the coal man comes.”
“You don’t say “me friends”, you say “my friends.” Sarah O’Flaherty believed that even if she didn’t have the resources of her middleclass background, she could still pass on some of its cultivation.
“Okay, Mammy.” His bottom didn’t have time to heat the chair while gulped down his very watery breakfast. He dropped his spoon on the bare wooden table and ran through the door.
“What about your cuppa tea?” She called after him.
“Bye, Mammy.” He pretended not to hear as he dashed down the street. The damp air brushed against the exposed skin on his legs. It made his woollen jersey heavy against his shoulders and chest. The convent, the church and the pig farm were merely a dark blur as he raced to meet his conspirators.
The sky was turning orange behind the coal company when the three boys arrived.
“Hey, Starvation,”Jockser said. “How’s the skin an’ bones? A teacher had baptised Aiden with the name “Starvation”, so his friends called him nothing else.
“My skin an’ bones would beat you in a race any day.”
“We’ll see abou’ dat.” Jockser pushed Aiden gently.
“Enough of dat now.” Dyers Dorgan handed Jockser and Starvation their sacks. “This is great, lads. We’re the only ones here today.” They hopped around to keep warm. “The cold must be keepin’ the Mammy’s boys at home.”
“Or maybe they’re makin’ fancy Christmas decorations wit’ their sisters.” Jockser flapped his hands around and wiggled his bum.
The friends laughed and nudged each other playfully.
“How’s yer dog, Dyers?” Starvation mocked.
“Grand, not a bother.”
“What color is he these days?”
“Ah, he’s still black and tan, but I’ll be killed if I try to paint him again.” Dyers was so named because he attempted to change to color of his dog. The “black and tans” were mercenary British soldiers sent to Ireland on an emergency mission. They didn’t have proper uniforms, so they wore mismatched surplus ones. They made the colors very unpopular.
“Look! Here they come!”
The large gates opened and four horse drawn carts immerged filled with coal. There were three brown horses and a black one. The coalmen’s faces were already black. They wore dark coats and no hats.
As the carts took off in different directions, so did the boys.
Aiden followed his favourite coalman, Paddy, who seemed to drive slower than the younger ones. When he stopped to deliver his coal to the residences of Ringsend, a lot of coal fell off his wagon, which Aiden scurried to pick up. Aiden noticed that Paddy didn’t avoid the bumps in the road as the other drivers did. So on the days he followed Paddy, Aiden’s sack was always full when he brought it home to his Mammy.
“Howaya, Aiden?” Paddy greeted him at Mr Brady’s shop as Aiden picked up a few pieces of coal off the cobblestones and quickly confined them to his sack.
“Hello Mr Paddy,” Aiden replied.
The baker’s van was there at the same time. The smell that hit Aiden when the doors opened made his flat stomach grumble. Aiden approached Paddy, who was feeding his horse with a few sugar lumps. “Can I help you today?” He patted the horse.
“Sure that’d be grand, you know me and me aul bones.” The first rays of the day illuminated the large man as he bent over to check one of the horse’s huge hair-covered hooves. Aiden marvelled at them.
He eagerly climbed up onto the heap of coal in the cart and began filling sacks at least twice his size. He watched in amazement as Paddy picked up the huge sacks, swung them effortlessly onto his back and brought them into Mr. Brady’s yard.
As he climbed back up into his driving position, Paddy asked, “D’ya want me to carry that for ya, lad?” Paddy pointed to the small sack of coal that would get heavier at each delivery. Soon Aiden would struggle to keep up, but he would never give up.
“That would be great, Mr Paddy.” He handed over his loot.
Paddy flicked the horse’s reins. Aiden followed the clip clop sound around Paddy’s route, along the streets of Ringsend. The rows of identical houses seemed to peer out at him in the early morning light. Paddy wasn’t allowed to take anyone on his cart and these houses seemed hungry to snitch.
Paddy stopped the cart outside the coal company and dismounted. The magic of the dawn was gone by now and the dirty of the streets of working class Dublin were coming to life.
“Aiden, thanks very much for your help t’day.” Paddy shook the boy’s tiny but strong hand.
He handed Aiden the sack of coal he had gathered. He also gave him a batch loaf that he had bought in Brady’s shop to reward Aiden efforts. As Aiden tucked it under his arm, he noticed it was still warm.
“Thanks very much, Mr Paddy. Thanks very much.” Aiden was still panting from his run.
The child nodded happily not knowing what more he could do to show his enormous gratitude. He stared intently into Paddy’s startling blue eyes which were made more brilliant by the coal dust on his face. The sight of this great man made the small boy’s heart quiver.
“Ná habar é, a buachail, ná habar é”(don’t mention it). Paddy’s eyes were glistening. Aiden wondered why he would be crying? Could he be mistaken?
“Now go home to your Mammy and don’t be late for school. You have to learn and do good and not end up a coalman. Now off ye go!”
“Goodbye, Mr Paddy.”
The streets were now cluttered with prams and people. A mammy was spitting on a handkerchief and rubbing dirt off a child’s cheek. A granny was at her door step with rollers in her hair, taking in two bottles of milk. Two nuns were rushing by with a box of vegetables each. Aiden weaved through the human obstacle course.
“Mammy, Mammy. Look what I got!” She carefully took the bread from her son and delicately placed it in the center of the table.
“Aiden, you’re the greatest seven year old in the whole of Dublin.” She wrapped him in her arms.
“Wait a minute.” She gently moved him away. “Is that a sack of coal over there?”
“Yeah, Mammy and it’s full to the top” Aiden announced.
“You are not the greatest seven year old in the whole of Dublin, nor the whole of Ireland.”
Although he knew exactly what she was going to say, he anticipated it with an excitement that made him bounce on his heels.
“You are most definitely the greatest seven year old boy in the whole entire world.”
As she hugged him again, he felt like a crowded Croach Park stadium had just thunderously applauded him. She had bestowed on him a crown of glory that only the most beautiful and wonderful queen could do, making him a prince of her heart.
He set off to school, leaving her bent over a blazing fire, with the new baby by her side.
“How did you do?” he asked Dyers at the school gates.
“Grand. Me sack was almost full.”
“What about you, Jockser?”
“Mine was abou’ half full but I got a bi’a chocolate”
“Aw, ya lucky thing” Dyers patted Jocker’s back. “Wha’ abou’ you, Starvation?”
“I got some bread for me Mammy.”
It was only then that Aiden realised that he had forgotten to get a piece of bread before he left.
“We doin’ it again tomorra?”
“A’course we are.” Dyers had his arms around his two friends’ necks.
“Sure, aren’t we the three musketeers?”