The man I wanted to be by Kevin Murphy

The man I wanted to be

Seamus Rooney had the most pluck of any man I ever met. ‘No Bog-trotter like my father’, he swore. He had come over to rebuild England after the war. He brought his Monica gold, but the man that was left after the thousand-ton presses bashed bonnets and boots out of his brain in the flashing dark of the Cowley car plant was not the same man she had married.

They came from emerald country to dim factory; we from dark satanic mills to the city of gleaming spires.

They joined us in the poorest area of North Oxford in forty seven, him seeking more light in Lucy’s Iron foundry; me driving a tax officer’s desk.

He would try anything; change frightened me.

Lucy’s was still hot and noisy – airless. He needed out: one Sunday I stood guard while he circumnavigated a bulldozer. He whistled me; I peeped the all clear. The dozer sparked up and crashed into gear: the behemoth ground forward, crawlers crunched a turn; blade up, blade down; deafening silence; blood roaring in my ears; Seamus by my side; finger to nose, not a word.

On the Monday he told the ganger that he needed a dozer driver – a good one who didn’t ruin his machine. He got the job and the driver got a shovel.

Shorter and younger than me, Seamus was a man I always looked up to. I needed a pal like Seamus to goad me into doing what I really wanted to do, but never dared. Edith was my rock but if ever I needed to strike out for the stars…

Seamus’s biggest wheeze was Christmas forty eight. With rationing still on, we couldn’t afford a turkey if there was one to be had. Christmas Eve, pub turn out time, ears deaf to his ruse. “We’ll have a swan, Paddy!” All was quiet over Port Meadow, where but for the drumming in my chest, I was to stand on one side of the Thames and beat the swans onto his shotgun. Out with my torch, waving and shooing, the swans gathered round the fool throwing the bread. In panic at the empty river before him, Seamus shouted “I’m gonna shoot, Paddy!” letting go both barrels.

He raced back over the Bailey bridge and splashed, chuckled and squashed our mighty swag into the bag. We didn’t sneak back home: “Hol’ your head up Paddy, sure we’re Santa and his elf out on our rounds.”

I told you he had pluck – so did Monica and Edith: Monica to pluck the swan and Edith to pluck stray pellets from my arse. It was our best fed Christmas of the post war decade. We had a laugh, a story and a feast: two feasts really. All plucked and stuffed the swan would fit in neither of our ovens. Seamus cut it in half with an old saw he ‘borrowed’.

Only five years later, a Christmas card from Ireland told of his great success with a Turkey farm.

[A memoir of parents’ early years of marriage]