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16 October 2014
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Warwick Dalzell

Warwick was born in Co Down and taught for a time in Northern Ireland. He sought his fortune in Africa, but returned home penniless. After another stint at the chalkface, he went to London. There he met Peter O'Loughlin who advised him to head for Australia, where he lived on and off for forty years. He is now a frequent pilgrim to the old country.

The Skin Man by Warwick Dalzell

Jamesy Todd was unwashed and underfed, and his clothes always looked as if he slept in them. But he didn’t have to go to school. It was no wonder Jamesy was so happy. I would have settled for half his luck.

The Todds, father and son, lived in a small house on the other side of the street. I doubt if there are any ‘skin-men’ alive today but if there are, more than likely they are called eco-operatives or some such fancy name. The Todds made their living collecting refuse - potato skins, mouldy bread, anything that families threw out after a meal. Some people even kept a separate bin and the Todds scoured the town on their horse and cart collecting scraps. This is now the Council’s job and an old style ‘skin-man’ would be prosecuted and have his house condemned as insanitary and a health hazard to boot.

When their cart was filled with ‘skins’ they took them home, boiled them up in an iron cauldron and fed the resultant ‘stew’ to the pigs they kept in the back garden. The refuse had to be carried through the house as there was no back lane. A sickly sweet smell always pervaded the house. Surprisingly though, the neighbours never complained.

“It’s the wee boy I feel sorry for,” declared Mrs Mawhinney.
She wasn’t a near neighbour but she always liked to stick her nose into other people’s business.
“I suppose you cannae blame the da.”
Mr Todd worked hard and long. He was a man of few words and usually the only noise he made was a hacking cough which seeemed as if it would break him apart.
“A smoker’s cough,” pronounced Mrs Morrison.
Whatever the cause, it mustn’t have worried him for he never went near the doctor.
“There’s mair sick people in the world than yin,” was all he said.

Sometimes Mr Todd didn’t go out on the cart and on those days Jamesy liked somebody to keep him company. The cart was never cleaned. What was the point? We had a saying, “Clean meat never fattened a pig,” which might explain why the Todd’s pigs were the fattest I’ve ever seen.
Sometimes we were allowed to go down the back garden to help feed the pigs. I didn’t mind carrying a bucket of boiled scraps but I hated getting too close to the pigs when they were eating. Davy Coffey once told me that if you fell into the sty they would make a meal of you. The pigs were always too busy eating to notice me but that was no comfort.

The constant stench and the fear of infection probably explained why my folks weren’t happy to see me hanging around the house. The first time I mentioned I was going to see Jamesy Todd’s pigs you would have thought I was going to rob a bank.
“That place is bogging. You never know what you’ll catch.”
“I’m warning you. If you go anywhere near that place I’ll box your ears.”
I was still puzzling over that warning when I ran into Budgie Mills. Budgie was older and more adventurous than I was.
“D’ye fancy goin’ on Jamesy’s cairt the day?” he said. “All you have to dae is help collect the skins.”
When I explained my problem, Budgie sneered.
“Catch yersel on. Niver mind whut they say. Sure naebody’s going to tell on you?” Budgie shook his head pityingly when I said no.
“Ah well, if you’re feared ah’ll go on me ane.”
“Houl on. What if Jamesy picked me up doon the end of the street? That’s weel away from oor hoose.” Budgie rolled his eyes.

Most of the town outside John Street was like a foreign country to me. I had been to Cookstown but I’d never been to the Back Deed. At ten sharp I joined Jamesy and Budgie on the cart. We headed down Court Street and turned into the Shore Road, with its respectable houses and no skins. Then it was left into George’s Street, over the Boyne Bridge and down Greenwell Street. We passed a group of rough looking boys playing football in the street. They ignored us while we did the rounds before turning back towards George’s Street. The old horse didn’t sound too good as it wheezed its way up that gentle hill.

Soon we were entering completely uncharted territory. It was the Front Deed! Why the Front Deed? Don’t ask me! But it was a far cry from John Street. The houses were uniformly small. In some places the plaster had fallen off the walls to reveal the coarse cut Scrabo stone underneath. Each had a small window looking on to the street and in some cases a yellowing newspaper served as a curtain.

“Right boys,” says Jamesy. “Youse two collect differint sides. Ah’ll stay on the cairt.”
I picked up the first container, a rusty old bucket with a lid which dripped a foul smelling liquid. I carried it at arms length, but I slipped on a piece of wet road and tipped out the contents.
“Ye daft wee ganch,” called Jamesy and proceeded to use a lot of language I never heard at home.”It’s well for us, ye didnae throw that on the cairt.”
“Ye’ve got to be jokin’,” I choked, trying valiantly not to throw up. “Who’d notice the difference?”
“Leave them yins wi the lid,” explained Jamesy. “Some ithers’ll fetch thim.”
I did as I was told, trying all the while not to spill any of the putrid stuff on my shoes. Then I spotted the gang of footballers. I noticed this time that most of them were barefooted. They must have followed us and now they were calling us names.
“That’ll dae noo,” called Jamesy.
“Stuck up wee …..,” called a voice.
I didn’t quite catch it but it sounded like a bad word.

“Effin’ wee slabber,” they chanted repeatedly. Then they started throwing what looked like rotten fruit. A piece hit me on the forehead and it made my eyes water. I turned and gesticulated but that only spurred them on. Jamesy and Budgie seemed oblivious to what was happening and they were chatting away happily at the front of the cart while I was bombarded. By the time we reached the end of the street I was covering my head with my hands and wishing I was a thousand miles away. I worked out the problem. I was too clean and well fed looking. The journey home seemed to take for ever and by the time I reached John Street I was nursing some dark thoughts about Budgie and Jamesy. However, I didn’t object when Jamesy said he would drop me off at my place. I just grunted ungratefully.
“If ye like ye can come agane and dinnae worry aboot them wee boys. Sure they mean ye nae herm.” I jumped quickly off the cart and headed for home.

Mum opened the door. She took one look at me and shouted,
“You’re not traipsing that muck through the house.”
She grabbed my hair and dragged me into the hall.
“Right,” she said, tight lipped. “Get those clothes off. You’re not bringing them into this house.”
I stripped down to my underpants and stood apprehensively in front of the kitchen sink. She grabbed a stiff brush and proceeded to scrub indiscriminately. My eyes had watered earlier but now they literally flowed, as the stiff bristles threatened to tear off my skin. Never mind, tomorrow’s another day, I thought. But the next time somebody asked to go to Jamesy’s, I’ll tell them where to stick it.

Some time later I heard that the old man was taken sick. The neighbours made sympathetic noises but none of them visited the house.
“It’s no wunner the poor man’s no a hunnner percent,” said Mrs Brown, the district nurse. “The hoose is worse than the pig sty.”

I never saw Jamesy after that and the old horse spent its time grazing in Crabby’s field. The next thing I knew the blinds were drawn in their house. Mr Todd was dead. The pigs were collected in a big lorry and taken away squealing their heads off. Some body said they were headed for the slaughterhouse so it’s no wonder. I felt sad for the poor pigs. It wasn’t their fault that Mr Todd had died. Then the house was empty and Jamesy had gone too.

“A pity about wee Jamesy,” my dad said when he came home from work one day.
“Why, what’s happened to the poor soul?” asked my mum.
“Sure he’s in the sanatorium.”

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I think it was good idea to build story around such an unusual character and a way of earning a living which is no doubt extinct. I also enjoyed the descriptions of the attitudes of parents in those days and the descriptions of the tough kids in the Front Deed.
Brigid Hamilton

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