Mister Jam


Before we moved to Springtown, we lived down the Bog where the predictable rhythm of our lives was dictated by Father Willie John Doherty who climbed St. Eugene’s bell tower three times a day, despite a painful disability, to call us to prayer and by Tillie and Henderson’s efficient use of Derry women in its total dedication to the dictates of the industrial revolution.
On weekdays, Mammy got home from work when the clock over the pawn shop read a quarter past six and, on Saturdays, at a quarter to one. Our Saturday ritual never varied.  After mammy steeped the clothes, we all went to McDaid’s butchers at the corner of Foxes Corner and the Lecky Road.
On the way we passed the bookies where the men loitering outside tipped their caps at her their voices rising with excitement as they waited for the results of the three thirty race. They smoked cigarettes passing a Woodbine around or chewed tobacco.  The younger ones competed over who could send the spit on a trajectory that landed it in the middle of the street. On these occasions, I avoided the middle of the street and crept unnoticed sticking close to the wall.


When I had the opportunity I dawdled around the grownups. I liked to peer inside the dark interior of the bookies where the bets were placed and listen to the conversation.  That’s where I heard about Mrs. Simpson and Eddie. The men said he gave up the throne of love.  That’s also where I heard the news that Hitler had marched into Poland on September 1939.
This caused a worse panic than the outbreak of scarlet fever when the Corporation put Jeyes Fluid through the gratings into the sewers all the way up the Bog as far as the slaughter house.  Mammy and the other mammies told us if we saw an airplane to run into the house right away so wouldn’t get bombed. I didn’t know what an airplane looked like but mammy said to watch out for a big iron bird in the sky

It was also outside the bookies that I heard Winston Churchill described as was nothing short of an auld warmonger.  It always strikes me as odd when American historians/scholars describe Mr. Churchill as one of the great statesmen of the twentieth century. But then I have to remind myself that hushed research libraries, inhabited by well fed and respected researchers, are a long way from the corner of the Bog and Rossville Street and the experience of the men outside the bookies for whom the promise of a job was an unattainable dream and who were at the mercy of forces over which they had no control.
But on Saturday afternoons mammy was in no mood to loiter. She rushed us across Rossville Street into John McDaids butcher shop. Although McDaid was the butcher’s real name everyone called him John Jam and I always thought of him as Mr. Jam. The floor of his shop was covered with sawdust with carcasses suspended from hooks on the ceiling. The place smelled of blood. There were no fancy plastic packages to insulate us from life’s realities.
If there were no other customers in the store, Mr. Jam would stop sharpening his knives, jump to attention behind the counter and ask mammy: “What can I do for you today missus?”
She always ordered a quarter of mince for our tea on Saturday night. Mr. Jam weighed the mince very carefully and wrapped it up with as much care and attention as if it were gold dust and mammy was a very important person. After she paid him for the mince, he would go to a room at the back of the shop and return carrying a large bag of marrow bones.  Mr. Jam would put the mince in the bag with the bones and hand it over the counter to mammy. Mammy would smile and wish him good health. “Sure when you have your health you have everything,” he would say.  “God’s good,” was her usual response.  And she meant it for not only was our Saturday tea in the bag but our Sunday dinner as well.