by Catherine O'Neill
My siblings and I scoured the water’s edge looking for discarded bottles in order to cash in their deposit money so we could go play the slot machines in the nearby Freddie’s Amusement center. It was July of 1969 in Ireland and “blistering hot,” as my mother described, one of the hottest in decades. Ma had demanded Da take us to the beach. The heat wave had zapped our energy, and the sun had blotched freckles across my face. I was almost seven years old and loved the beach, even with the heat. There is no place on earth like Tramore Bay, seven miles outside Waterford city. Tramore is a dichotomous Gaelic root of “tra-mhor,” meaning “big beach.” The sand shawls the coast for miles between distant sand dunes. Tramore, a local hill town, has looming cliffs forming a promontory that juts finger-like into the Atlantic ocean. The land seems to mimic the Metal Man, a tall blue and white statue that points and stands centrally atop one of three round towers marking the rocky coastland to passing ships.
We trudged the length of the beach, kicking up sprays of salt water. I peeled sunburned layers of feathery skin off my bony arms and dusted the flakes into the ocean. My older sister Maria, nine years old, was our lead scout, followed by my brother Paddy, who had just turned eight. I trailed behind, still eye-level with my baby brother John, who had turned five in mid-July. Maria’s legs were long and sunburned. Da said she would make a great runner, with her lanky limbs, and he had signed her up for the local Athletic club. I wished I had the soft curls that coiled down her back. Maria had the best eyes, too. She could spot a Cidona bottle up to thirty feet away. When she detected one riding the waves, she waded in and rescued it. If the dark brown glass glistened half-buried in the sand, she ordered:,“Dig it out, Cidona is worth five pence, and Big Brother Lemonade and Fanta bottles are only worth tuppence.” I squatted down, scooped away the thick wet sand, and tugged at the neck until the bottle loosened. It was close to doing ground surgery on Mother Earth, delivering a bottle in a breeched position. The only downside was that the Cidona bottle was too heavy, so I passed it to John to carry. He was a stout pot-bellied specimen with the same short-back-and-sides haircut the barber had given Paddy. The dreaded crew cut that sparked all sorts of tantrums when Ma enforced it in the hot summers against the sweep of Beatlemania. According to Ma, the British had invaded every hair on my brother’s heads and every fiber of our moral existence; rock and roll would corrupt us. John didn’t mind carrying the bottle. I opted to carry and cash in three lighter glass bottles for sixpence. When all hands were full, we headed back towards the Promenade. The lifeguards housed at both ends of the Prom yelled at us not to carry so much glass.
“If you fall with all your glass bottles, you’ll end up in an ambulance,” the hairy-chested one yelled. I squinted my eyes and ignored him. Driven and barefooted, we clung to our tinkling cargo. Freddie’s Amusements was our destination.
When I was growing up in Ireland, the gaming laws were very lax for minors. Ireland embraced gambling, given its history of the world’s best stud farms and the Irish coastline, a natural race course. Gambling was social and acceptable. When Da went missing to the bookies, we often left Ma alone. Earlier, we had told her we were going for a walk. She picked up her knitting and waved. “Stay together, Maria’s in charge.” That day, we had new energy after we cashed in our bottles at the small shop next to the Prom Arcade, and we made our way to Freddie’s. It was the newest amusement center on Strand Road, furthest from the beach and closest to Richie Power’s bookie shop at the end of Train Hill, where Da hung out and marked up his Irish Field, a neat read of Irish horse racing form.
Freddie’s front doors folded accordion-style, welcoming the sea air in. The breeze flowed through rows of glimmering slot machines, mirrored from above in a panorama of kitschy ceiling tiles. The slots looked like they had been neatly tilled and planted into the shiny floor around the change lady, who sat throned in a central metal cage. She wore a black bandana and moved coinage around. I overheard someone say that she was Freddie’s mother, and someone else answered that he’d never trust his mother with the money. The waft of sea air blended with the chain smokers’ plumes of Virginia tobacco. The din of raspy voices gasped and nudged hard when they won and scowled and dropped low when they lost. A swift ocean wind offered an air change.
I loved the scent of tobacco, it was the most natural scent in my world. If you didn’t smoke and gamble in my family, there was something radically wrong with you. I had crossed over to another planet, one with lights and rows of cherries, bells, bars and the word “jackpot.” Cha Ching! I thought everyone who was playing the slots was winning. They perched at the same machine for hours and only moved to put money in or pull the lever. The woman to my left, in a stained headscarf and scaly forehead, gave me sixpence to go next door to Pipers and buy her a Club Lemon drink. “So much for the Sunny South East, I’m gasping,” she said, “but I can’t leave this machine.” When I came back with her drink, she thanked me and blew smoke in my face. I wondered what she’d do when she needed to go to the bathroom. She beamed down over her bifocals to tell me that Freddie was opening a new bingo room.
“We’re blessed,” she said, “we won’t have to wait for the bus into the Regal in Waterford anymore.” I told her I knew all about waiting for the bus. It had been an expedition earlier to travel from Waterford City to Tramore. We had walked two miles to a bus stop where a fleet of buses had passed, loaded with children’s heads poking out of every window like they were feeding from a trough of cool breezes. Luckily, my Uncle Morris was a bus inspector and let us jump the queue and get on free.
“Give the handle a little shake at the last minute if the third reel is nearing ‘JACKPOT,’ that’s what I do,” the woman said, and slugged down her Club Lemon. I decided to give it a whirl. “Stop swinging like Tarzan, Freddie will bar you,” she said. “You can play my lucky machine, I’m going over there.” She pointed at the highest stake shilling slot machines. I reached up and dropped a big dirty copper coin into a Bally slot machine next to her. I jumped up to catch my one-armed bandit. That’s what Da called the slots. On tiptoe, I pulled the handle and stretched to view the reels. They spun in dizzy splotches of green, blue and yellow, with dashes of black and white lettering that came into focus as “JACKPOT” when each reel slowed and steadied to a click. I went back onto my toes to see the winning line. I needed two of a kind or three of a kind. One of a kind was hardly worth it. I stood mesmerized by the flashing lights. Every nerve inside was warm and alive. A gush of excitement rippled through me when I won. My only goal in life at the time was to win enough on the penny slots and get to sit on one of the high stools in a shared cloud of smoke. Grownups. They were the chosen few, the regulars who carried buckets of silver coins and two packs of cigarettes. I couldn’t have cared less if I ever saw my family again.
Maria was supposed to be minding us but was easily distracted with the jukebox. Paddy and John played air hockey and left me alone. When their money ran out, they would sometimes get into trouble with the owner. Freddie had slicked-back grey hair, and he glowed like a bronzed tourist. Decked out in a wrinkle-free shirt, dagger-like creased pants, and toeless sandals, he licked his lips twice before every drag of his fat Havana cigar.
My brother John had a bad habit of butting his pot belly against the Rapid Falls machine. It was tucked away in the back left corner, next to the glass-cased psychedelic fortune teller who delivered ten sentences about the future for threepence. The future was the furthest thing from my mind. It was all happening in the present. The action. Shaped like an Aztec temple, a single penny could be offered to the Rapid Falls gods. It had to be inserted into a shrine-like orifice to slither and slide down a tortuous Amazonian cataract. Only fate and the lure of the gods would determine the wake of copper pennies to be pushed over the edge. I too lapped up the danger. The risk. It was a winning waterfall to feast on cascading pennies until John sacrificed himself.
“Watch this,” he said, and flung himself at the temple door. The machine’s alarm siren went off. Freddie roared, “I’m calling the Garda!” He stubbed out his cigar in a rage. John giggled and cleaned out the god’s rich deposits in the payout tray.
“Run-nnn!” Paddy roared and urged me to flee out the blue back door. Freddie chased us but couldn’t run in his sandals. John laughed back. We hid out behind the swing boats and counted our spoils until all the commotion died down.
I had managed to clean out my slot winnings. I had been on a winning streak at the lucky machine. I would have it all: fish and chips saturated in malt vinegar, mountain-high candy floss, and a ninety-nine soft serve ice cream cone with a Cadbury chocolate flake, followed by bumper car rides. Everyone knew McCormick’s amusement center had the best rides. The sign read “Dodgems,” but it was all about the head-on bumping I could fit in against Paddy and John in the ten minutes while the young fella on the microphone bleated out, “One way around the floor, safety first.” Pipers had the best candy floss. Paddy refused to eat the pink color, and Mrs Piper made up a batch of blue. It didn’t bother me what color the floss was. It was a direct hit of sugar to my brain once the sweet mound melted on the roof of my mouth.
We snuck back into Freddie’s to meet Maria when the money ran out. When we returned to Ma, the tide was fully out, and Da sat at the water’s edge shrouded in seaweed. Ma sat knitting a swaddling blanket for what could only be for baby Frances. Ma said she was on the way, and I wasn’t to ask any questions until she got here. Lounged back in her striped deck chair, she had tied four tidy corner knots in her handkerchief before fitting it on her head to deflect the strong rays.
This is how I remember my mother. It’s as if she is the warp and I am the weft of the same thread. The fabric of our lives had yet to be woven without either of us fully understanding the men in our lives, our gamblers. The disease of gambling which brought us together would drive us apart. My pledge was never to become her. I’d run three thousand miles away and marry a non-gambler who became a gambler. I’m no angel, I gambled too. Luck of the Irish, what are the odds? I never understood this small woman who wore a white cotton crown with her #11 knitting needles stuck out of her head like antennae. Alien and isolated. She could knit for hours, purl stitches, and pore over detailed patterns. Deaf to the sound of crashing waves, she was a world away, her eyes like unexplored caves. When I became a parent, I couldn’t help but wonder if she ever watched us during all those hours we spent in the ocean or if she knew we lied about going for a walk. I grew up thinking I was having a blast. Maybe I had delusions of grandeur. I wanted to believe we lived like jet setters while we loaded up bottles and invested recklessly, squandering our cash deposits in the bustling amusement centers along the strip on Strand Road. I don’t recall ever hearing the word “gambling.”
“Go help him pick the periwinkles off the rocks whilst the tide is still out.” Ma pointed at Dad and tossed me the big bucket when we came back from the amusements.
It felt like she couldn’t bear the sight of us at times, so I raced out to Da, and he said, “Go fetch some more seaweed.” I knew he wanted me to drape the kelps over him and shield his fair skin from the sun. I ran into the cool ultramarine waters and returned with seaweed fronds. I twizzled the lengths of seaweed down his torso. He just crouched there and didn’t say a word. I told him Ma said we should pick the periwinkles. I shook the green bucket near his face.
“Later.” He nodded and went back under his kelps. I started doing cartwheels around him. First clockwise, then counterclockwise, flinging myself every which way until I got bored and started walking on my hands. Forward and backward, watching how quickly my handprint disappeared in the ebbing tide. I flipped my limber body into a crab-like position and meandered around the water’s edge, looking at the world upside down. I seemed to find a peace and order when things were in the wrong place. By natural order, I was upside down in the craziness and right side up in the madness. The inverted image of the Metal Man still pointing out to sea.
Da walked us out to the Metal Man later that day when the bookies had closed. He read the plaque inscription and warned, “Keep out, keep out, keep away from me; for I am the Man of Misery. See that iron fella up there,” he said, pointing. “He’s wearing eighteenth-century British sailor’s clothes, a blue jacket, a red top, and white trousers. Way before my spell in the Irish navy,” he added before lolling off in the grass to do his “homework,” his choice of words to study his racing form. “Better luck for your wish to come true if you hop around the tower on your left foot,” he reminded us, and I bounded around on my left foot dodging heaps of cow dung. I thought I got my wish early when John and Paddy almost hopped over the cliff.
Ma was snoring her head off in her deck chair when we got back. Da said she needed a rest and corralled us into the water near the rocks before we rambled over to the tidal pools and started picking periwinkles, small edible sea snails.
“The French go in for these,” Da said. According to him, they loved their delicacies and their Evian, Perrier, and Volvic bottled water. “Leave it to the French to bottle water,” he vouched when a stray plastic bottle washed ashore. I was more invested to go gambling, and stretched to see if there was any return cash for the deposit money. We spent an hour filling the green bucket with periwinkles. The dark gray marine snails were plentiful off the rocks at the low-tide mark. Da would let them simmer in the big pot once we got home.
“If it’s good enough for the French, it’s good enough for us,” Da used to say after he sat us around the kitchen table with safety pins, on a mission to dagger out the turbinal meat inside and scarf it down. Ma would complain for weeks about the indigo stain they left behind in her only big stew pot.
When Ma finally awakened, she moved her deck chair to face the last rays. Da dipped back into his Irish Field.
“Do you have the money for the bus home?” she said to him.
“I do for you and the children.”
“And how will you get home?”
“Walk, it’s seven miles,” she said, and started a wild flying nunchuk action with her knitting needles that made me slink back a few feet.
“I have shoes.” He pointed to his shoes at her side.
“They’re in flitters, the heels are full of stones.” She dropped her knitting and picked them up. She rattled the small pebbles locked inside to make her point.
“Let’s see who the conductor is? If I know him, he’ll let me on free.”
“And if you don’t?”
“I’d rather walk,” Da answered with a thick pride. They turned away from one another.
These were the feral moments I could never understand about their marriage. I have to wonder now if silence is the space the heart goes to when it can find no words. It would take me years to realize that gambling is an emotional disease.
The big orange sun bowed out of the reddish streaked sky. “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning,” Da chanted his old sailor adage before we rounded up our belongings to head towards the bus stop. We were always the last to leave the beach, Ma relentless not to return her rented deck chair. It was almost eight o’clock, and the long summer day of the northern hemisphere was drawing into a dreamy twilight.
We yawned when we reached the bus terminal. The families that came earlier were long gone. A few people lined up at the terminal between the barred railing. I hung upside down. The blood gushed to my head. I swished my body around like a spoon, coiling my torso to mimic Da’s upward spiral of cigarette smoke rings. He puffed anxiously as the bus driver circled the terminal area. I stirred harder. The double-decker bus pulled up next to the passenger bay. I could tell Da didn’t know the conductor. He slunk away like we all did after doing something wrong. Shame stood on end, a loose end tethered to its close handmaiden, guilt. I didn’t understand that Da had gambled away the bus fare and most of his wages. Angst was on a slow brew.
The bus loaded up. I leaned out the window and passed Da on his long walk home. He ambled, spry with a bag of kelps in each hand that he would later fling around his vegetable patch, all part of his pH plan. I didn’t know if I should wave or not. It had somehow felt like my fault he had been left behind. My anxiety settled like a fog without rising for days. I wondered why I’d funded a rollick with my winnings. Had I known, I could have given Da the bus fare. I was broke, and I’d hold out for my Holy Communion money and go back to play the shilling slots. I was never sure if Da had gambled away his bus money or had given up his bus fare so my pregnant mother would not have to walk two miles home with four children.
Years later, I separated from my gambling spouse. I returned to Tramore and crouched beside Da, who was ritually draped in seaweed at the water’s edge. The ocean sparkled and glistened, the rhythm was old and new. The horizon seemed so far, but yet so close. The cliffs cast a long shadow across the beach, drawing my eyes upward and my mind outward across time. I gazed out at the Metal Man, and the sun set into a fiery halo against the silhouette of the Man of Misery. A voided moment skipped a reality beat and became empty-hearted out of fear of being human. I picked it up, the way I did as a child, like some kind of poltergeist emotion that came and left me feeling warped. Neither of us had the emotional scope to know where to go. Tears were not part of our language. Instead, I stared out at the blazing sunset dip and blur behind the ominous Metal Man and wondered about who I became with the men in my life, my gamblers.