On his fourteenth birthday, Frank goes to the post office to start work, but learns that he is not scheduled to begin until the following Monday. The people working at the office laugh at Frank’s raggedy clothes. Aunt Aggie takes her nephew shopping for new clothing, and gives him money to buy a cup of tea and a bun.
The next Monday, Frank starts work. He is a temporary worker, which means that he receives less pay than the permanent workers and cannot stay at his job beyond the age of sixteen. One of the first telegrams he delivers is to Paddy Clohessy’s mother. Her house, which used to be a pit of illness and filth, is now filled with new furniture, bright clothes, and good food. She tells Frank that one day after her husband, Dennis, was craving sheep’s tongue and Paddy stole one for him, Dennis leaped up and said he refused to die in bed. He went to England, as did Paddy, and both father and son now send money to Mrs. Clohessy. She remarks that were it not for Hitler, she would be dead.
Frank gets his wages, the first pound he has ever had. When Michael tells Frank he is hungry and asks for a scrap of bread, Frank takes Michael to get fish and chips and lemonade, then to a movie, where they eat chocolate, and then out for tea and buns. Afterward, Frank thinks that instead of buying food with his wages, he should save each week so that he can go to America when he turns twenty.
The only people who tip the telegram boys are widows, the poor, and the wives of Protestant ministers. Rich people don’t tip, and neither do nuns or priests. Some of the people to whom Frank delivers telegrams are so old and sick that they cannot get out of bed. Although it could cost him his job, Frank helps these people by cashing their money orders and bringing them their groceries.
When school begins, Michael starts staying with Frank in Ab Sheehan’s house. Angela comes to see her sons, and goes back to Laman’s less and less frequently, until finally she has moved into Ab’s altogether. Frank’s brother Malachy returns from Dublin a few months later, and the family is reunited. Despite the fact that Frank gives most of his paycheck to Angela, he still enjoys work, since he gets to cycle in the countryside and dream about the future.
One day, Frank delivers a telegram to the house of a seventeen-year-old consumptive girl named Theresa Carmody. Frank arrives soaked with rain, and bloodied from a fall on his bike. Theresa tends to his injuries by putting iodine on his cuts, and tells him to take his pants off to dry by the fire. He does, and when she comes into the room, she leads him to the green couch, where they make love. Theresa is bleeding, and thinking she is cut, Frank pour iodine on her. Frank goes back to see Theresa for weeks, and when Theresa is not too ill, they make love on the couch. One day Frank is told to deliver the telegram to Theresa’s mother’s workplace. When he does, he learns that Theresa is in the hospital. The next week, Theresa dies. Frank worries that she is in hell because they have had sexual relations outside of marriage, and he fasts and prays and goes to Mass to beg for God to have mercy on Theresa’s soul.
Frank delivers a condolence telegram to an Englishman named Mr. Harrington, who has lost his wife. Mr. Harrington, who has been drinking, insults the Irish and tries to force Frank to sit and mourn with him. He makes Frank drink sherry. When Mr. Harrington goes to get more alcohol, Frank is left with the corpse. He starts wondering if he can save her, a Protestant, from eternal damnation. He decides to baptize her with the sherry, and as he does this, Mr. Harrington comes back and finds him. Mr. Harrington stuffs a ham sandwich in Frank’s mouth, and Frank vomits out the window onto Mrs. Harrington’s rosebushes. Frank then escapes by jumping through the window into the rosebushes and vomit below. Mr. Harrington reports Frank and gets him fired, but the priest writes a letter to the post office, and Frank is rehired.
Frank delivers a telegram to an old woman creditor named Mrs. Brigid Finucane. Frank agrees to write bullying letters to her debtors in return for a few shillings. He uses difficult and obscure words in the letters, which intimidate the debtors into paying. Some of the recipients of the letters are Frank’s friends and neighbors, and Angela says that whoever is writing the letters should be boiled in oil, but Frank justifies his behavior to himself by thinking of how badly he wants to get to America.
Frank plans to take the exam to get a permanent job at the post office, but Pa Keating sketches out the nice, safe, boring life that would ensue: a wife, five children, and numbness. Pa Keating says, “You’ll be dead in your head before you’re thirty and dried in your ballocks the year before.” Consequently, Frank decides to take a job delivering Protestant newspapers for a man named Mr. McCaffrey.
When Frank’s boss, Mrs. O’Connell, hears that Frank walked away from the post office exam, she acts hurt and offended that he fancies himself too good for the postman position.
Frank makes a crucial realization that he must save part of the money he earns or else face remaining in Limerick forever. It is a mark of Frank’s maturity and drive that even though he is nearly starving, he is able to think not of food, and his new ability to buy food, but of the abstract desire to make a new life for himself in America.
Frank continues to grow more conscious of class differences. He sounds bitter when he says, “If you waited for tips from priests or nuns you’d die on their doorstep,” and he commiserates with the woman who points out the hypocrisy of those priests and nuns, who drink wine and eat ham and eggs, yet insist that their parishioners should not rail against poverty, since Jesus himself was poor. His job, which takes him to the houses of the sick and impoverished, makes him even more tenderhearted toward the poor. He says it is impossible to refuse anything to a woman who is little more than a pile of old rags, to a man who lost his legs in the war, or to a mother with two crippled children.
The sexual relationship between Frank and Theresa is both lovely and difficult for Frank. The first time they have sex, he describes it this way: “my head is filled with sin and iodine and fear of consumption and the shilling tip and her green eyes and she’s on the sofa don’t stop or I’ll die and she’s crying and I’m crying.” This description contains all of the complexity of Frank’s first sexual experience: it is a sin in the eyes of the Catholic church, Theresa has just tenderly cared for his wounds, she is sick and dying, she is far richer than he, she is beautiful, what they are doing feels good, but the situation is so complicated and emotional that they both cry.
Mr. Harrington tells Frank, with bitter anger, that all Irish people are ghouls, all Irish people are alcoholics, all Irish people whine, all Irish people are starving. When Frank asks for lemonade instead of sherry or whiskey, Harrington forces him to live up to his own stereotypes by foisting sherry on Frank. When Frank refuses a ham sandwich, Harrington literally shoves the food into Frank’s mouth to prove himself correct in his idea that all Irish are starving. In a symbolic move, Frank throws up the food Harrington forced on him. It seems that McCourt is suggesting that stereotypes, even those that are rammed down your throat, must be violently cast off. McCourt does not lay the blame entirely at the doorstep of rich Protestants like Mr. Harrington, for when Frank returns to the post office, his version of the story falls on deaf ears. His boss describes Mr. Harrington as a “lovely Englishman that sounds like James Mason.” McCourt suggests that Irish people like Frank’s boss make the problem worse by accepting Hollywood’s version of the English rather than thinking for themselves.
When Pa Keating tells Frank, “Make up your own bloody mind and to hell with the safeshots and the begrudgers,” he puts himself in a class with Mr. Timoney and Mr. O’Halloran, men in Frank’s life who encourage him to reach beyond the confines of Limerick and do something daring with his life. McCourt presents Frank’s decision to leave the safety of a pensioned job at the post office not simply as a product of Frank’s bravery, but as the result of the encouragement of these good men.
Frank’s decision to leave Limerick does not meet with everyone’s approval. By writing of Mrs. O’Connell’s anger, McCourt shows us that when one refuses to accept the limits imposed by his poverty, those who did accept the limits tend to become resentful.