Frank wakes up early on his fourteenth birthday—his first day of work as a man. He reports for work, wearing his freshly dried clothes. A woman at the office laughs when Frank shows up, and she explains that he’s not due to start until Monday. Embarrassed, Frank leaves.
The clumsiness of Frank’s ambitions for prosperity in Limerick are made clear in this scene: Frank thinks he knows what he wants, but he’s still clueless about many aspects of life in his community (even something as basic as when to show up to work).
Frank returns to the telegram office on Monday morning. There, he’s greeted by the woman who laughed at him, whose name is Mrs. O’Connell. She makes fun of his clothing, which, despite his best efforts, is still old and cheap-looking. There’s a group of other telegram boys at the office. Frank notices that many of them have brought waterproof capes to keep them warm during the day—the office doesn’t provide raincoats. Frank is nervous, since he hasn’t brought a raincoat.
Frank thinks that his job as a telegram boy will help him overcome the disadvantages that have kept him from becoming a missionary: i.e., he’ll be able to make money and become prosperous. And yet Frank realizes right away that his job will also reinforce the social differences between himself and his peers: he’s clearly the poorest one in the office.
Mrs. O’Connell gives Frank a large pile of letters and telegrams to deliver to the city of Limerick. She explains that Frank will be walking—ordinarily, he’d have a bicycle, but there’s been a shortage lately. Frank decides to begin his day by delivering a telegram to Mrs. Clohessy, his friend Paddy’s mother. Frank goes to the Clohessy house, where Mrs. Clohessy greets him. She tells him that Paddy has moved to a pub in England, where he cooks for a living. Paddy sends his mother money every week. Dennis, her husband, has also gone off to England to work at a canteen. Mrs. Clohessy tells Frank that she has plenty of money, thanks to her son and husband’s new jobs. She’s happy to see Frank, and gives him money to buy candy.
Frank is surrounded by people who go off to England and, it would seem, find successful careers there. Frank would like to do the same, except that he’s been told he’s too sickly to leave Limerick. McCourt invites us to notice the injustice in the situation: Paddy has gone off to England, despite the fact that Frank was a better student. It’s also important to note that Dennis—who seemed to be on the verge of death earlier—has now gone off to work in England. Symbolically, McCourt suggests that the desire to travel and “start again” can be not only invigorating, but life-saving.
At the end of his first week of work, Frank has earned one pound—“his first pound.” He realizes that for the first time in his life, he can do whatever he wants—he could buy fish and chips and see a film, for example. He and Michael have a meal of fish and chips, and afterwards, they go to see Yankee Doodle Dandy at the cinema. In the coming weeks, Frank adjusts to his new work schedule. He walks miles every day, delivering all sorts of telegrams. Some of the telegram recipients tip Frank for his trouble, and some don’t. The best tippers are widows, ministers’ wives, and, ironically, the poor. The best areas for deliveries are wealthy neighborhoods, while the worst area by far is Irishtown. Frank slowly gains a reputation for being the “telegram boy” in each neighborhood of the city.
It’s telling that Frank spends some of his first pound on his brother, Michael. Frank and Michael aren’t particularly close, but Frank knows very well that it’s his duty as an older sibling to take care of the rest of his family—he’s been doing so since he was a very young boy. It’s also interesting that Frank sees Yankee Doodle Dandy, an early sign of Frank’s desire to move to America (a desire which sets him apart from his peers, who seem to instead want to move to England).
Frank is under strict orders to deliver telegrams and do absolutely nothing else. But there are times when Frank is tempted to help the people to whom he delivers messages. There’s an old man who’s too old and feeble to get out of bed—he receives money orders via telegram, but he can’t cash them because he can’t even leave his home. Frank also pays visits to the Spillane house, where Mrs. Spillane tries to take care of her two small daughters. She receives money orders from her son, but the money isn’t enough to feed her daughters.
Frank faces the same challenge he’s been facing for years: a conflict between morality and rules. Frank knows that he’s supposed to obey his orders and never help the people he delivers telegrams to, and yet Frank also knows right from wrong: he knows that he should be offering to help the suffering people he meets. For now, Frank follows his orders, as he can’t risk losing this job.
Michael begins spending more and more time with Frank, who is still living at Ab Sheehan’s place. Eventually, Michael comes to live with Ab and Frank full-time. Soon after, Angela begins to spend more time at Ab’s place, until eventually she’s moved out of Laman’s house too. Over time, it comes to the attention of the unemployment office that Angela’s son has a job. As a result, she’s cut off from her relief payments, and Frank has to give his weekly pound to his mother. Shortly afterwards, Malachy Jr. comes home from Dublin, claiming that he’s “fed up” with blowing a trumpet in the army. He sleeps on the same mattress as Frank, Alphie, and Michael.
The fact that Michael and Angela follow Frank to his new home is a clear indication that Frank really has become the “man of the family” in his father’s absence—his behavior dictates where the rest of the family goes. Malachy Jr.’s behavior in Dublin, by contrast, illustrates that he’s still immature. Unlike Frank, he refuses to commit to a job he doesn’t love—his ambitions aren’t as clearly defined as Frank’s.
At work, Frank bonds with the other telegram boys, such as Toby Mackey, by making fun of Mrs. O’Connell, a severe, humorless woman, and her equally cold colleague, Miss Barry. Toby is an ambitious boy—like Frank, he’s seen American films, and he aspires to move to America one day very soon. He keeps a long journal of “facts” that he’s learned—Frank admires him for being so attentive to details.
The people to whom Frank is most attracted tend to be dreamy, thoughtful, intelligent, and ambitious—often ambitious for travel of some kind. Toby is another example of this type. Like Toby, Frank has lofty ambitions, he’s intelligent, and he’s attentive to details and facts.
One day, Frank is given a bicycle and told that he’s responsible for delivering telegrams to a neighborhood of the city where he hasn’t gone yet. This neighborhood, Toby tells him, is home to the Carmody family—famous at the office for 1) having consumption and 2) giving big tips to telegram boys. Frank bicycles to the Carmody house, excited, but he falls off his bicycle and scrapes his back and shoulders. At the Carmody house, a young woman invites Frank inside to treat his scrapes. Frank is reluctant to walk inside, since he knows about the infamous Carmody consumption. In the end, however, he accepts the invitation.
This is a turning point in Frank’s life, and he experiences it because of his employment as a telegram boy. The milestones of life in Limerick are almost without exception related to Catholicism or work. This scene marks the beginning of Frank’s first real sexual experience, and it comes while on the job. We already know that Frank isn’t supposed to linger at people’s houses too long.
Inside the house, the young woman, introducing herself as Theresa Carmody, tells Frank to take off his pants so that she can dry them. Theresa takes iodine to Frank’s cuts. As she treats them, Frank can’t help but feel aroused—Theresa is very pretty. Theresa notices Frank’s erection, and strokes it. It’s implied that Frank loses his virginity to Theresa that afternoon. Afterwards, Theresa cries—she’s bleeding, since she’s just lost her virginity, too. Frank is terrified that he’s going to catch consumption from Theresa, but he’s so excited that he doesn’t care.
It’s interesting to think about how much of Angela’s Ashes unfolds “offstage.” We’re rarely given much insight into what Frank is feeling—how he feels about being poor, having a drunk father, etc. This scene is no exception—there’s no description of Frank losing his virginity, just a “jump cut” to the moment immediately afterwards. Frank’s emotions here—both horror and excitement—are indicative of how he’ll continue to regard the episode for a long time. Catholicism has trained him to feel guilty about sex even as he secretly desires it.
Frank continues delivering telegrams to the Carmody house (and having sex with Theresa) for the next weeks. One day he shows up to the house and finds Theresa’s mother, Mrs. Carmody. Mrs. Carmody explains that Theresa has been sent to a hospital for her consumption. Frank rides his bicycle to the hospital, where he pretends to be Theresa’s cousin. The doctors, not fooled, turn Frank away. The next Saturday, when Frank delivers a telegram to the Carmody house, he sees that black blinds have been drawn over the windows.
Just as with Patricia in the hospital, Frank makes a new female friend (and here, seemingly, his first love) only to have her be quickly snatched away by disease. Frank almost seems cursed by the fact that he survives all his sicknesses and experiences—he stays alive, but only to watch those close to him die.
On Sunday, Frank goes to church. He senses that he’s sent Theresa to hell—by taking her virginity, he made her sin. Furthermore, since Theresa had tuberculosis, she didn’t have a chance to confess her sins before death. Instead of confessing, Frank leaves the church, and the next day he proceeds with delivering telegrams as usual.
Frank is forced to practice a calculated stoicism after Theresa’s death. His situation in Limerick is so dire—he has to save every cent he earns—that he quite literally can’t afford to grieve all day. Frank has been trained in this form of stoicism for many years, especially by watching Angela.