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The Vacuum Issue 9 spacer Issue 9
Dwammy - The Language Of Lovely
by John Morrow
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The only time I heard that classic lavatorial euphemism 'Little Girl's Room' used not in jest was at the tail-end of the ham-tea following my paternal grandmother's funeral. The query as to its whereabouts was posed by aunt Effie and it killed all chatter in our packed parlour.
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Up until then everything had gone swimmingly. In the morning the Minister had been brief and the grief restrained (she had been a cantankerous 89). Even the black horses pulling the hearse had come up trumps, laying on a spectacular display of number ones and number twos (a torrent of piss and an avalanche of steaming buns) to delight the gapers along the street.
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Besides Effie, present in the parlour were her husband Sammy - my father's elder brother - father himself, my mother, my young sister and I. It was a small room, one of four, two-up two-down, in our 'industrial terrace'.
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Uncle Sammy had been born and reared here, but it was Effie's first visit. We had heard much about how 'delicate' and 'sensitive' she was (meaning, father said, a nervous bloody wreck) and she turned out to look every bit of it: extremely tall and thin, clad in fluttery chiffon and a hat with plumage; a black flamingoŠ No one spoke as mother and she arose and left the room, mother leading. The door closed and only then did uncle Sammy groan, 'Ah Christ! I'd better bring the car round.'
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It was needed almost at once; in fact the last glimpse of Effie I had that day was through the parlour window as uncle Sammy folded her into the passenger seat before roaring away. Much later mother told us how she had led Effie out through what we called the kitchen, the scullery - a stove, a jawbox and space for one thin person - and into the backyard. And there Effie had been confronted by our 'Little Girl's Room': a doorless lean-to with a rusted corrugated-iron roof, a dark odorous cave with no more than five-foot-three headroom (the Victorian designers had concluded that few inhabitants would grow much beyond that - and they were right); in short, a construction that is best described by that lowland Scottish term 'Cludgie'. 'Poor thing,' said mother, 'she took over all dwammy.'
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Dwammy or dwammie: that's as close a rendering as I can make in print of mother's term for symptoms ranging from mild headaches to epileptic fits. Mother had other words and expressions that I have never heard used by anyone else. She came from Lurgan, which could explain a lot.
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She called uncle Sammy a 'blood blister', which he was; a 'fine figure of a man' by the judgement of the day, meaning a neck as thick as his shoulders and a bulging waistcoat draped with gold chains and Masonic symbols. A church magazine had recently described him as 'a man of substance'. On reading this, before hurling it into the grate, father had shouted, 'Substance my arse! I could tell them about Sammy's substancesŠ The three Bs - blankets, boots and bully-beefŠ '. This in reference to Sammy's reign as Quartermaster Sergeant in Victoria Barracks during the '14-'18 war. Father swore that Sammy had systematically looted the training battalions that had passed through in that four year period. Sammy, he said, with the aid of a dealin'-man on the New Lodge road, had ensured that an entire generation of West Belfast nationalists had been conceived under British army wool, and made himself a small fortune in the process. Father, half-deaf from the broadsides at Jutland, envied Sammy his 'soft' war.
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Post Effie, father came under renewed pressure to do something about the state of the cludgie - which he, an ex sailor, called the 'head', mother called the 'privvy' and I the 'bog'. With help from a mate he did clear the coalhole under the stairs and install what he called a 'thunderbox' (commode) for the women. But until his dying day he refused to refurbish the cludgie in any way, maintaining that that was the duty of our landlord (the Church of Ireland). All to cover-up the fact that he suffered from what today would be initialled M.D.S. (Manual Deficiency Syndrome) - he was handless.
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An echo of the Effie/cludgie affair resounded 25 years later, in the folk music boom days of the 60s. (It was about this time too that I first heard used the Shakespearean cludgie euphemism 'jakes'. Indeed I am reminded of it each time I see a certain famous face on TV and recall his 'prentice treble' raised above the din of Saturday night boozers: Two pints, two halfs, a wee snowball an' the key of the jakes for the woman'.)
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A member of the folk group I played in was a young student, a gentlemanly fellow of good family from Tyrone who had come up to do medicine at Queens. Regrettably, in his first week of residence he joined the varsity folk club and there had fallen madly in love with a banjo, after which everything else had gone by the board (only those who have known a banjo-picker will understand this).
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One winter's night, after a free-drink gig in a downtown pub, I was giving him a lift home to the halls of residence, he being the worse for wear, when I remembered I had to call to see mother, who still lived in the old house. It was on our way, but it proved too long for the banjo-picker's bladder; so when we arrived at the house he pleaded to use the 'loo' (a first for me).
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Mother let us in, growling about the late hour, and I led him out into the backyard. Like Effie, he was tall and gangly. The look on his face as he stooped through the house was that of an Egyptologist entering a fresh tomb.
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It was a clear night. The crumbling cludgie, bathed in moonlight, lay even closer to the ground than it had in Effie's time. The banjo-picker's reaction to the sight was inevitable: he voided every ounce of that night's buckshee intake. 'He's just a bit dwammy,' I explained to mother, ushering him back out. 'Oh indeed and I heard him bokein' his ring up,' she said dryly. 'I'll send the dog out early to clear it.'
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Don't askŠ She was, as I've said, from Lurgan.
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Another oscillation from the past occurred about the same time. It was during the fleadth ceoil in Clones, I think, and I was lodged in a communal tent. The lad billeted next to me was a fiddle player I knew from the Falls Road. He was still out on the ran-tan when I turned in that Saturday night, and I happened to notice the grey blanket laid out on his pallet. A chord of memory struck and I reached over and turned up the corner, knowing just where to look. And there it was: 21!Š the 21st regiment of footŠ the Royal Scots Fusiliers! Uncle Sammy's fortune! (the foregoing paragraph is pure fiction, an example of what is known in this trade as a C.F.D. (Creative Fib Dénouement). My shrink says I suffer from R.D.S. (Reality Deficiency Syndrome), that I am in fact a compulsive liar and should undergo electric shock therapy.
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The above sentence too is a lie: no treatment can eradicate the urge to lie from the human psyche; if it could then the world's entire social, economic, political, religious and artistic systems would collapse and we would all be in the shithouse.
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Anyway, why the hell would a Belfastman need a shrink, for God's Sake?
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Dwammy - The Language Of Lovely
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