MADE IN CORK... EXPORTED TO LONDON,PARIS AND DUBLIN IT IS FROM THE CAPITAL OF IRELAND THAT I AM ADDRESSING THE WORLD - SO PAY ATTENTION. HERE YOU WILL FIND GOOD BANTER, STORIES, LIES AND MORE LIES.MAYBE YOU MIGHT LIKE MY SHORT STORIES, LETTERS, ARTICLES OR POEMS. IF YOU LIKE WHAT YOU SEE TELL THE WORLD, IF NOT KEEP YOUR BLOODY MOUTH SHUT.
The Shandon Bells ring out midnight just as the arse falls out of the
sky. Raindrops like translucent golf
balls pelt my bald head but I stay rooted to the cobbled square. Through the
wet haze I see the hands of the old clock reach to their full height and the
bells sing out to the world that the New Year has just been born. Under the spire of the church, clusters of
rain -soaked drunks armed with beer cans and cider bottles slobber about,
mauling each other and hailing the arrival of the New Year.
But I’m home at last.
Back in the digs in Romford
Ethel and Lily are blotto by now; belting out “AULD LANG SYNE” as if the future
of mankind depended on it - the sherry bottles well and truly savaged. They would wear their black satin dresses
tonight; they would don their shiniest jewelry.
Mick would be seated in his favourite tatty old armchair by the window
reminiscing about Achill, and Charlie would be toasting the charms of ‘the foxy
lady’. Soon Ethel will have Bing
crooning on the gramophone and the two Paddies will be cajoled and coerced into
waltzing with their landladies. Ethel will present her bare neck to Mick to
be kissed under the paper Chinese lantern, but Mick will misunderstand again
unable to pluck up the courage to put his lips to her fake-bronzed neck. Lily will tighten her grip on Charlie and
pull him to her ample bosom.
And so their night will drift on.
But my journey into the night is just beginning.
With the rain gathering even more venom I amble down Shandon Street.
How the place has changed. I close my eyes and wonder back.
I’m coming down that hill again only this
time I’m running with Francie McGrath, and Sonny McCarthy is a few strides
behind us, our chests busting as we try to escape the clutches of Mr Bernstein. I have the flash lamp firmly gripped and we
hear Mr Bernstein shouting in desperation “robbers”, “ robbers” in a funny
voice. Sonny tumbles an old woman in a
black shawl behind us, and as we disappear down Shandon Street we can still
hear her screeches rising in the morning sunshine. Mr Bernstein is unable to run because of the
war and his old legs; so we reach Nosey Keeffe’s sweet shop at the bottom of
Shandon Street armed with our grand prize.
For weeks we leered at that flashlamp in the window of Bernstein’s
Pawnshop and it took a monumental effort of courage to steal it on that day.
But it’s hard to find courage now.
Leaving behind my adopted family in Romford
- a sad bunch of full - blown alcos stuck in a time zone long past gone.
Leaving behind those boring red-bricked stony houses.
And leaving behind the all broken dreams of
a wasted life.
Arriving in Cork with the knowledge that my
Ma and Pa have well and truly passed on, and that burning word cancer rolling around in my head
Did not even see the father or mother grow
old – too busy in The Crown And Arms.
The rain is easing now, but the memories
are flooding back. The wind is gathering strength again and the lingering bunch
push further in against the big shinny door of Mulcahy’s bakery; while across
the street Reilly’s pub looks dim and dusty.
Tiny arrows of light are darting through moth holes on faded yellow
curtains. Look! there is still a
division in the half-door and strong porter fumes are pouring out into the night to assail and tantalize the
bunch just across the road. I could
swear I saw my uncle Charlie there with that bunch, his fag dangling from his
lips, his expectation high as usual that he might pick up a bob or two for a
few pints – Charlie was always on the make.
But this night is playing tricks with me. I
gather myself together and scoop the rain off my head with my hand; I’m wet to
the bone but relentlessly I stumble on down the hill like some kind of wild
salmon returning home.
I see Lily Barrett now smiling at me from
the top window – her blond curls swinging around like a carousel – she is
waving to me now and blowing kisses my way; but it is too late now – too late
for everyone. She was barely fourteen
when she was killed by that lorry. How I
cried salty tears that long night when I heard the news, and how I hid the
pillow case from my mother the next day, for fear she would discover that I had
being crying all night, and that I was in love with Lily. Lily herself did not even know of my deep
passion for her and departed this world before I ever had the opportunity to
tell her. I wave back to her but there is nothing there but a curtain swirling
in the wind, on I go edging ever nearer to the sharp turn at Nosey Keeffe’s
shop. I hurry past O Connor’s Funeral
Parlor at North Gate Bridge casting a sideways glance at the wreaths in the
window - all flowery and eerie this New Years night.
river Lee stretches below me – my beloved Lee.
It stinks to high heavens. Look
at those two women coming from the tenements each carrying a pisspot; Christ,
they’re carrying them over to the river and emptying them right into the river.
“Stop that at once, isn’t the river smelly
enough for you”
But the women ignore me as if I wasn’t
here, and they fade away into the dark landscape as quickly as they came into
view. But the river continues to elbow
its way to the sea as if in a hurry now to get away from the revelries of the
city and head into the black abyss.
Meanwhile a lone swan examines his distorted image in the water, casts
an eye in my direction, shakes his head and continues on his way. The tenements on Bachelors Quay from where
the two women emerged all lit up now.
The gang in the tenements always knew how to celebrate; they even have
flags hanging out the windows.
The wind has died away and an eerie silence
fills the night. Ethel and Lily are
sleeping by now; draped over the tattered sofa while the two Paddies could lift
a thatched roof with the sound of their snoring. But all is peaceful here except for the gurgling
sounds of the river. I cross over the Bridge and I see the slipway where I went
on my first boat trip all those years ago.
I was no more than six the time – I can still feel those ripples of
excitement as I set foot in the shaky boat.
The fisherman who owned the boat was Mr. Benson who lived next door to
us in Kyle Street and I pestered him for weeks for a spin in the boat. I can see Mr Benson now in his boat in the
slipway – he is waving at me, he still has the same old navy blue sweater on
him, he is calling me down from the Bridge.
“I’m coming down, I’m coming down”
I race around the bridge and head for the
slip but all I can see is a long reflection in the water - Mr Benson is not
there. A pity, that first trip on the Lee was more exciting that any trip up
But I’m heading home, heading home for the very last time and I
have not far to go; just half – way up North Main Street. As I pass Murphy’s pub I detect the faintest
whisper of a gadget in the background. I
move closer and put my air to the door; I can hear it now. The haunting sound
of a slow air – as the curve of the sound rises and falls I’m spellbound and rooted to the spot.
Gradually the light rises inside the pub and I can see Dinny Mac - his gadget
lying sideways on his lap, his head to one side and his stare firmly on the
ceiling. As he continues to draw out the
magic from the gadget, I frantically wave at him but he ignores me, and just
plays on. And the music dies in the
gadget the lights fade and I’m left peering into a musty darkness. The smells of the street feels so
intimate to me …. I start touching the walls… the doors… even the footpath – they are part of me. I
know I am home now- back in my own little world. Suddenly the silence is cut in two by the
clip-clop of horses. I stand to
admire. Four magnificent black horses,
all polished and shiny are pulling a Simcox bread van – the sound of their
hooves beating out an everlasting tattoo on the cobbled street. Mr Cassidy is on board, wearing black tails
and that funny tall hat.
“Five loafs and two fishes” I call out to
He just smiles at me and proceeds up North
Main Street and out of sight. I know I
am truly home when I see Maggie Keeshan at the corner of Kyle Street. Her sing-
song voice is still as strong as ever.
“ Six apples again for twopence ”
She is perched on her wooden box, all dark
and hairy, her shawl hanging loosely round her fat body, her craggy hands
falling out from under all that black.
She smiles in my direction and points towards my old home.
Slowly I make my way up to 14 Kyle
Street. All the lights in the house are
switched on. I move forward slowly, my stomach churning, my breath heaving in
my chest. I remember slamming that big
red door all those years ago; a tattered old bag in my hand and my stupid young
head full of anger and rage.
Now I’m back – back for the last time.
I peer through the large front window –
there is a huge fire blazing. I see my Ma and Da – Christ they have not aged one
bit. My mother is seated beside the fire
and my father is putting a little boy onto a rocking horse. The little boy slips off the rocking horse
much to the dismay of my father and with anger etched on my father’s face he
roughly places him back on the horse again. I am so excited to see my father
and mother again I rap frantically on the window – but they ignore me.
“Ma, Da, it’s me, your little boy has come
My mother continues to gaze at the fire,
the small boy is laughing up at his father.
I’m still knocking on the window.
In desperation I shout out.
“Ma, Da, your little boy has come home to die
……. I’ve come home to die”
My mother's head moves, my father stops
rocking the horse and suddenly the little boy fades away
My Ma and Da turn their gazes at me and
both their eyes light up into that final smile while Ethel moves forward stretches her fingers and gently close both eyes.
For the first time in his life he felt the severe pressure of duty and the strain was plainly visible on his plump red race.
There was no way out for him.
Garda Tom Joe McMullen moved slowly through the village of Ballydaw with the words of the sergeant still ringing in his ears....
“The Super is on his way down here to crack the whip, and unless you have something to show him after a year’s work there will be heads rolling . . . and believe me McMullen your head will be first.”
Since Tom Joe McMullen had taken up duty in the village, he had never issued a summons to any man or woman and now when he was forced to blot his copybook with the impending visit of the Super, he was unable to bring himself to the point of pinning a summons on some unfortunate. McMullen’s philosophy was simple. The town was comparatively quiet, and as there were no Baby Face Nelsons or anyone showing that potential he firmly believed in leaving things as they were and not to stir up unnecessary trouble. For this reason the people of Ballydaw took warmly to Tom Joe McMullen and the publicans were all very appreciative of his attitude and rewarded him suitably whenever they were given an opportunity – and McMullen never denied them that!
McMullen unlike his fellow garda – a young starry-eyed fellow who had just come down from the depot, had no ambition to put bars on his shoulders at this stage in his life. His only ambition was to work out his days in his adopted village and retire in Ballydaw – and that day was not too far away now. But summonsing a villager now would really put the cat among the pigeons. It was this fact above everything else that plunged McMullen into deep despair.
As he passed the Town Hall he remembered all the opportunities he had let slip through his hands when the tourists were about . . . . . defective cars, bald tyres, drunk driving, even the occasional sex scandal.
Yes he had let them all sail by!
As he leaned against the gate of the Town Hall his mind began to race – race to every avenue of his brain seeking to extradite himself from this desperate dilemma, but it always came back to his original thought that the sacrificial lamb would have to be chosen from amongst his own flock.
“What has to be done must be done” he kept repeating over and over again to himself trying frantically to reassure himself. He straightened his shoulders and pledged to net someone before the day darkened. He ran over a list of likely candidates in his head and came to the conclusion that Chalky White would be his best option. McMullen calculated that Chalkie had more enemies in the village than almost anyone else and this justified a confused mind in making him his number one target. So with a brisk step he set out for Chalky’s farmhouse. He passed the village Co-Op, struggled up the cobbled hill and panted out the few hundred yards into the country and was soon outside Chalky’s farmhouse. Luck was on his side – Chalky’s van was parked under a high bush. Like a trained guerrilla McMullen moved under the cover of the bush towards the van. His eyes lit up! The windscreen was as naked as a new born babe. Sighing with relief he moved cautiously towards his victim’s front door. Chalkie with his natural gift for sensing trouble was at this stage half-way down the path. McMullen dipped like a hawk.
“I see Mr. White that your van is not taxed, I’m afraid that I will have to report.”
“What do you mean report” Chalky cut in sharply.
“That bloody van is taxed. . . .If you opened your two bloody eyes. .”
Chalky checked himself as he moved to examine the windscreen. Sure enough the tax disc was missing. Furiously he tore the keys from his pocket cursing continuously as he did so and proceeded to open the door. When the door creaked open he pushed his head inside and picked the disc from the floor of the van. Pushing it under McMullen’s nose he shouted.
“Take it back with you to the station and have it examined by the doctor.”
McMullen was stunned. Without reply he scurried off down the hill his tail firmly between his legs. Though his hands were still shaking he fought off the temptation to go into ‘The Grey Badger’ and restore his equilibrium with a ball of malt. However bad the situation would be returning to the station without a summons, the smell of alcohol on his breath would signal his final doom.
Time was slipping by!
The gloomy sun was now reading two o ‘clock in the sky and hurrying along McMullen felt that all nature was conspiring against him. Suddenly he was wrenched from his surroundings as the Sergeant’s bull face flashed before him once more . . . . he knew he had no business returning to the station unless he had a name firmly scratched into his little black book. He knew the public houses would be opened after hours – but he could not wait that long, and in addition, he did not wish to suffer the scorn of the village publicans. At four o clock utterly dejected and beaten he threw in the towel and headed back to the station. At this stage he was prepared to face the music and sergeant Maguire was the man to sing it out loud and clear especially when his own neck was on the chopper.
Maguire’s two mad eyes lit up. The flesh that hung from his neck reddened to boiling point as he blasted his voice left and right round the station hammering the desk whenever he got near it. Still shaking he fell back into his chair but rose almost immediately and moved his head towards McMullen.
“You’re going out there and you’re going to get a booking.”
Still grinding his teeth he fell back into his chair and stared at the empty desk in front of him. McMullen scrambled out the door cursing the sergeant, the super and the first day he ever joined this Godforsaken outfit. But cursing was no answer to a ranting raving madman of a sergeant. In desperation McMullen found himself on a path for St. Finians Church with the words of his long deceased mother bubbling in his head. Remember when everything fails and the world is crumbling at your feet find the ear of St. Anthony.
McMullen knew that the good saint had a permanent residency in St. Finians. When he entered the Church he hardly recognised the inside at all – it had been renovated during the summer and St. Anthony had been promoted to a little chapel of his own.
This raised McMullen’s hopes a little higher. He lit a candle, asked his petition of the saint and waited with bowed head. He remained in this position for some time, half expecting a blinding flash of inspiration but nothing was coming from the saint’s quarters. Eventually McMullen concluded that this Saint had more important matters on his mind at this time and nosily scrambled out of the pew. He threw a flaring smirk in the direction of the Saint as he left the little chapel and emerged into the main body of the church. He paid little attention to the few muttering women on either sides of the aisle, as he headed for the big mahogany doors that let him back out into the cruel world.
He ambled aimlessly along the main street and like MANNA FROM HEAVEN there it was before him!
A huge black swishy-looking car parked right on the junction.
“A visitor’s car” he cried out.
Nothing could be more perfect. His blood raced as he went about plastering a ticket on the windscreen and proceeded to write town all the details in his black book. He was not about to take any chances with this piece of good fortune. Triumphantly he started back for the station, hardly noticing the hill as he skipped along. Arriving at the station he stopped, adjusted his tunic and pushed out his chest. Gleefully he stood before the sergeant. Before he could open his mouth the sergeant burst out.
“McMullen where the hell have you been . . . the super has taken a heart attack and his car is abandoned on the Main Street . . . get down there right away and recover the bloody thing before anything happens to it.”
As McMullen ambled down the hill; he thought about the super and the ambulance screaming towards the city hospital.
He gave a wry smile.
This St. Anthony could be a very useful ‘Old Bucko’.
(My contribution to the book New Myths And Tales published in November 2010
At long last here was something in the distance.
Robin raised his hand, placed it on his craggy brow and gazed through the morning mist.
He cried out.
The other members of the crew simultaneously threw their hands towards the sky and roared out with sheer joy– their voices so thunderous that they could be heard by Great God himself.
After two weeks traversing the dangerous waters of the Irish Sea; Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Friar Tuck and Little John had by some miracle brought their boat to within sight of land. As they approached the shore the sun was lighting up in earnest so the woods of Dun Laoghaire became visible in the distance. At that moment Robin hoped his host McDara Caol would find them and bring them across the Dublin Mountains and through Tymon Forest and straight on to the Castle at Kingswood. McDara had invited Robin Hood to Ath Cliath to aid the destitute inhabitants. The authorities both civil and clerical had imposed severe taxes and were harsh on any peasant who could not pay. With a price of many gold coins on his head in England it was a good time for Robin to steal away from the Sherwood Forest and turn his hand to aid the poor this side on the water.
As the boat neared the shore Friar Tuck blessed the voyage, blessed the sea, and he blessed The Land that they were about to make home. Suddenly terra firma.
Hibernia – at last!
And now for the wait until McDara Caol would find them. Robin accompanied by his trusty bow and arrow headed for the cover as Friar Tuck and Little John waited impatiently for food. Robin did not disappoint them – and returned with a wild pig slung over his shoulder. The fire was lit and soon the smell of roasting pig was rising up and tantalising the nostrils of the weary travellers. Soon they were tucking in and devouring the beast much to the bewilderment of the onlookers who had gathered on the seashore. Word spread like wildfire about the strange visitors and it came to the ears of McDara Caol and by late evening he and his supporters arrived with the spare horses. It was nightime when they started for Kingswood Castle. The moon poured a yellowy light on the landscape as they slowly made their way over rugged terrain and towards morning they arrived at Belgard Forest and moved south to Kingswood Castle itself.
Sleep was the only thing on their minds.
The following morning Robin wasted no time in setting up training camp. He soon had McDara’s men in training instructing them in archery and hand to hand fighting. Over the next few days McDara and Robin travelled through the fields and woodlands to Clondalkin, Rathcoole and Saggart to familiarise himself with the terrain. The dirt route into Ath Cliath from Nas Na Ri was the prime target – this route was used daily by the wealthy landowners who traded in the Dublin markets. The position of Kingswood Castle was ideal for the business Robin and McDara had in mind – close enough to the route to Dublin and well covered and protected by woodland, shrub and stream. Kingswood Castle itself had a beautiful maze of underground tunnels and escape routes that made it the perfect hiding place.
The day had come when the men were ready for action.
Robin placed himself on the hill overlooking the Castle and surveyed his men below.
“I ask you” he addressed the men
“To take this pledge before God and man ”
Will you always help the poor and needy?
Will you honour women?
Will you take from the rich?
“We will … we will”
The men roared back.
“So let the work begin from now”
The sun was asleep when Robin and his men took up their positions just outside Rathcoole. Not a sound, not even the crack of a branch was audible as the prey came trundling along - a carriage with four splendid horses accompanied by four outriders on horseback.
They were now just a whisper away.
Suddenly all hell broke lose. Four deadly arrows pierced the horsemen and they fell instantly to the ground as Robin’s men rushed forward in an all-out assault on the carriage with the blades flashing in the moonlight. The blades soon turned to deep red as they plunged their swords into the occupants of the carriage, killing all instantly. With rapid speed the booty was collected and Robin and his men headed back to the security of Kingswood Castle well satisfied with their night’s rewards. When word reached Dublin the next day the city authorities had their guards out but Robin and his men were well out of view. The stolen items were hidden in a dungeon in Kilnamanagh well away from the Kingswood Castle. As the men became better trained and more proficient at their work the robberies became more audacious. Soon the hoard was building up and McDara arranged to have the stolen goods sold off and Robin and his men dressed as vagabonds distributed the money to the impoverished people of Dublin.
And so the robberies went on and even though the authorities got close on some occasions they were beaten off by the superior trained men of Robin. By now a fine cohort of trained men was available to McDara and so it was time for Robin, Maid Marian, Friar Tuck and Little John to say farewell to their adopted land.
But they took a little bit of Hibernia back to Sherwood Forest with them.
It was well into the summer when the lads from our street set about building a base camp in the ‘Furry Glen’ near to our homes. Miler and Whacker were the oldest and toughest and they automatically assumed the joint command of the operation – we the younger and lesser beings assumed the humble roles of foot-soldiers. During the construction of the base camp the joint commanders worked us day and night to such and extent that they were rumblings from the ranks of the foot soldiers - but they were only rumblings. No one would dare question their authority. When the base was finally completed Miler and Whacker secured themselves inside the camp armed with a huge stockpile of sixty-four page comics. The command was issued.
“No foot soldier was to be allowed inside the base camp.”
We were distraught. We had done all the work and it now looked as if we might never set foot in there now that the work was completed. The disenchantment amongst the foot soldiers was palpable ... the lingering thought was too daunting to contemplate! For days we ran errands for ‘General Miler’ and ‘General Whacker’... sparkling red lemonade..Ice pops ..Sweets of every shape and colour. Life was never better at headquarters. Each evening we scurried round the base camp envying the two occupants, until eventually our envy turned to black hatred. Slowly the message was sinking in that these commands were for real. There was no possibility now or in the future that the footsoldiers would be permitted to enter the base camp. Our morale was sagging; our rumblings grew less with each passing day. But a tiny trickle of hope came in the guise of one John Joe Flynn. “Everyone calls me Spider”
He murmured, introducing himself.
“We just moved in to the street day”
Though Spider was not prime material to lead a coup we were nonetheless grateful for any support that might come our way. Spider had a kind of squinty eye and was the smallest eleven year old any of us had ever seen.
“You can join the foot soldiers...I suppose “
Perky uttered with little conviction. Spider nodded his head in acknowledgement. We quietly huddled round and outlined the command structure to Spider.
Said Goggles. Spider was not impressed.
“And who are the generals?”
“Whacker and Miler”
Uttered Goggles almost in a whisper...”
“They can beat up anyone.”
“Is that so?”
“We’ll see about that.”
The foot soldiers were impressed - this kind of talk was rarely heard round here nowadays.
“Who’s causing trouble out there?”
Everyone froze except Spider.
“Let the foot soldiers have a turn in the base camp”
Retorted Spider. In no time the generals were scampering to pull open the sheet at the entrance of the base camp. Whacker and Miler instantly burst out laughing when they saw Spider.
“Run along little shrimp and get back to your own road before we’ll bring you before a court marshal.”.
“And bash your little bones “added Miler. Each foot soldier was glued to the spot in which he stood.
“No pimply faced bully is going to tell me to run along”
Said Spider addressing Whacker. That was it! We knew that all hell would break lose.
“Want to take one of us on midget.”
Miler was aching for a fight. Whacker was relishing the idea of teaching this little upstart a real lesson, and right in front of the foot soldiers as well! Both generals were at this stage standing in front of Spider. We held our breaths fearful for Spider. After all he had stuck his neck out for us, but now he was about to pay the price. Spider somehow looked unconcerned as the two argued among themselves as to who would have the pleasure of teaching this little squinty-eyed blowin the severest lesson of his life. Whacker won out and wasted no time in moving forward for battle. Spider now looked even smaller up against the bulky figure of his assailant. This Whacker had a fearsome reputation, his fighting prowess was well known to the footsoldiers. He once took on a fifteen year old on the railway line near the ‘Furry Glen’ and left him for dead. Our anxiety was at fever pitch - it would be our fault if Whacker made mincemeat of Spider. But we could all see from the expression on Spider’s face that he had no notion of retreating at this stage. Suddenly Whacker made a dirty move - he thrust Spider backwards with a ferocious lounge. Spider almost toppled, but he quickly re-adjusted and his expression changed. No one was prepared for what was to follow! Spider pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, placed it in his left hand and proceeded to take out his eye. He wrapped his glass eye in the hanky and handed it to Goggles.
“Take care of this for me”.
We were dumbfounded. Whacker was unperturbed! Immediately he launched another attack on Spider... this time from Spider’s blind side, but Spider’s quick reply caught Whacker with a stinging crack to the ribs and immediately followed up with a right uppercut that almost lifted Whacker off the ground. The foot soldiers wanted to cheer but it was too early to nail our colours, but within seconds we were cheering when great big red blobs of blood were pouring from Whacker’s nose. The great big fighting machine was now fighting back the tears - but the were soon to come! Spider was in complete control now. Whacker was stuck in a headlock and finding it impossible to breath. He begged Spider to stop and Spider loosened his grip when out of the blue Whacker drew a huge kick at Spider. But our hero had all the answers. With lightning speed Spider fastened onto Whacker’s leg and spun him over leaving him like a mangled ball of useless mutton on the bloodied ground. By his stage Miler’s eyes could have rolled out of their sockets as he watched his fellow general motionless on the ground. When Whacker regained some sense of where he was, he scurried along the ground out of the combat zone and took off like a scalded cat to the deafening cheers of the foot soldiers. Miler was at this stage in hot pursuit of his colleague having lost his appetite for further conflict .The foot soldiers were delirious - their joy unconfined. There was a huge struggle to get Spider onto our shoulders. Every foot soldier wanted to shake his hand and clap him on the back and tell him how grateful we were for our liberation. The implications of the victory were slowly beginning to sink in - from now on we would have full access to the base camp. But our new found leader was full of surprises.
“We’ll raise the base camp to the ground”
“We’ll banish the memory of Miler and Whacker for all time, not trace of their existence will remain, and we’ll build the biggest and best base camp that has ever been seen in the ‘Furry Glen’ and we’ll build it by ourselves for ourselves.”
The foot soldiers were almost in frenzy. We hoisted Spider onto our shoulders and carried him round the old base camp like some symbolic ritual. But Spider was a practical leader and just wanted to get on with the work. He thanked his comrades and gave a special mention to Goggles for holding his eye. I was very jealous, I would have been proud to hold Spider’s eye. We got on with the work. Our first task was to rip down the old base camp and after our leaders inspirational speech we did this with vigour and relish. We were now a motivated force – a dedicated bunch of foot soldiers, and we were intent on building the best base camp in the shortest time that was humanly possible. It would have to be big enough to hold all eight of us at the same time. We collected tree branches and hundreds of turf sods from the nearby bog. The strong plastic bags were used in the construction ensured that this base camp was well capable of withstanding even the harshest weather conditions. When it was finished on the third night we lit a fire and gave Spider the privilege of naming the base camp.
‘THE FORT KNOX OF THE FURRY GLEN’
We cooked sausages and rashers of bacon and big spuds and the delightful smells reached all the way to the yellow moon. Under our new leader life was certainly worth living! As each day passed our admiration for Spider grew. Though he said he did not want to become our leader, we all thought of him in those terms. The ousted generals – Whacker and Miler were no longer visible in these parts. But news of their demise and the further news of the prowess of Spider brought would-be generals to try their luck and challenge Spider. But one by one they all met with the same bloody fate. Perky, Jamie, and Goggles on two occasions, were all given the honour of holding Spider’s eye. Spider totally ignored me. And I wanted the job more that all the others put together. I wished Spider would pick me...Just once! But time was running out and my dream was fading fast. Soon we would be back in school and the arrival of the dark evenings would put an end to the base camp .It was late in the evening when my sister called me for my tea. She was older than me and Spider remarked that he thought she was a smasher. I seized my opportunity. “She was saying the other night that she had heard a lot of stories about you and that she fancied you like mad, you know that she is the best kisser on the road....maybe I can arrange something....providing, and this is the deal you let me hold your eye at your next scrap. ”
The beam from Spider’s smile would have lit up the ‘Furry Glen’ itself on a dark night.
The skimpy trees outside my house stand like skeletons, and the few odd leaves lurking about will soon be mashed into the ground; this Monday morning is still dark and an easterly wind now gaining strength is about to complete the misery.
I’m getting divorced today.
I’m closing the door on my home for the last time – the wife has fled these last few months now.
The big ‘FOR SALE’ sign will be erected today, and seven years of my life in this house will be but a memory – a bad memory.
Today I’m thinking of another November day.
I’m in my office at home catching up on the invoicing in order to get the cash in for Christmas; Brenda is long gone to work. Charlie is off school for some holiday or other, and he is scoring goals freely on the playstation. I should be doing something creative with him but my work has piled up over these last few weeks, and this is the only opportunity I have to clear the paperwork. Tomorrow Charlie will be back in school and I’ll be back on the road chasing up some outstanding sales prospects.
She rings at ten – of course Charlie is alright. She is so excited – getting promotion – always wanted that job in Human Relations and the money is fantastic too. She might be a bit late, might drop into The Grey Badger for one or two just to celebrate. I’m so happy for her; she fully deserves everything she gets with that company, she’s been a stalwart for them since the first day she joined them. As I put down the phone I remember the bin, today is collection day; couldn’t stand the smell of that bloody thing for another week; better put it out.
From the back garden I hear that young bastard from down the road; he thinks he’s in Brands Hatch in that bloody car. Suddenly the almighty sound of screeching brakes rings out.
It’s his blond hair I see first beside the car. My screams rise to the high heavens when I recognise Charlie on the ground, I rush over to him – but it’s too late.
As I raise him from the road his body falls limp.
My darling boy is dead - red blood oozing from his mouth into my shirt. Somehow I raise myself from the ground and slowly carry him towards the house.
All I can remember about his funeral is his little white coffin and Brenda’s face.
I did not want to leave him behind in that cold dark graveyard.
But I had to go.
More dark days followed – we had no reason to get up in the morning, no reason to eat or talk; not even a reason to even breathe. And so our lives went on. Well intentioned family and friends were endeavouring to carry our load with us, but the truth is that we had died ourselves. Brenda resumed her job in Human Relations and her job was so demanding that she got periods of relief simply by concentrating on her work; I endeavoured to chase sales just for the sake of doing something. When we spoke I could still sense the accusing tone of Brenda, and I was so full of guilt myself that I spent entire days reprimanding myself for being so careless.
Time rumbled on.
After a few outings with the councillor Brenda’s gloom showed some signs of lifting; she was encouraging me to follow the same route, but I told her I was not ready – I would never be ready.
I almost threw up one evening when she said that we should have another child. Of all the sentences in the English language this is one I did not want to hear.
“Replace the dog, replace the cat, how could she think like that about Charlie.”
I refused to discuss the matter with her no matter how many times she would try to bring it up.
“Tell your bloody shrink that I will not have him interfering in my life.”
By this time I was receding more into Charlie’s life. I had decorated his room for his birthday, put up the latest Arsenal posters, and arranged his toys neatly in his room.
Brenda refused to enter his room and accused me of setting up some kind of shine for him. She said she wanted to try and move on with her life; I did not.
And the arguments went on from one week to the next – until eventually we were barely communicating at all. Brenda was less and less in the house now, but that suited me fine as well for I needed time to think – lots of time.
Brenda informed me that she had to go on a business trip to London.
When she returned she had an extra bounce in her step – and a bombshell for me.
She was expecting a baby.
Yes the father was well known to me – the financial director of her company.
She had gone to London with him to sort out things and their entire plan was hatched – she was leaving that day. I was devastated and felt totally betrayed.
How could anyone be so self centred and cruel?
I branded her Judas and a prostitute with all the energy I could muster but she just turned on her heels and went straight out the door.
Soon brown windowed envelopes were coming through the letter box – Brenda was on the money trail - she wanted her portion of the house.
The auctioneer told me that it was the worst possible time to sell any house but I gave him the go ahead anyway. The offers were even worse than I expected but I told him to sell the bloody thing as I wanted shut of the whole business.
His room had to be dismantled so yesterday morning I began. Each item I took in my hands rekindled memories of his young life until my heart could not take the grief anymore, and I ended up prostrate on the couch in an uncontrollable state of grief. John and Jenny from next door took over and completed the dismantling of his room. I’ll be staying with them for a few weeks until I pull myself together. I am moving into the granny flat at the end of the garden now vacated these last six months by Jenny’s mother who is gone to her eternal reward. John and Jenny know I haven’t a tosser to my name and it is through the kindness of their hearts they are doing this for me. Madam Brenda was expecting a nice little windfall from the sale of the house; but in spite of the fact that I was suffering myself it gave me great pleasure to inform her that there was zero left after the sale – the mortgage eat up the lot. All the papers for the divorce are signed and it is now just a matter of pasting a stamp. She rang to wish me a happy rest of my life- I replied with just two words:
Jenny advised me to read Tony Robins on the laptop; instead I lay back on the bed in the granny flat and gazed out the window at the birds shuffling in the big tree.
What was life like being a bird… searching for food from morning to night, coming and going for no particular reason; rearing their young and watch them leave the nest – would birds get lonely, would they cry after their young. Would they cry in the dead of the night; would they cry before they go to sleep, would they cry when they wake up. Birds are selfish I suspect. As I turned my gaze from the antics of the birds I gazed at the painting on the wall – it was Jenny’s mother – all smiley and grey and old and now dead. She lived to be a right old age though.
Does it matter if you die young or old; when you die you are gone anyway. I knew my thoughts were bringing me to a steep slope and I was not resisting going there this dirty grey day.
Would anyone miss me?
Who would shed a tear for my going?
The day was closing in now and the different shades of November darkness were enveloping the house. Earlier on Jenny had given me a few tablets to ease the pain and they were beginning to slow down everything inside my body never mind my head. I lay back on the pillow and made myself more comfortable in the big bed; this gave me a better position to see the birds in the trees. Time had indeed fallen asleep in the grey afternoon.
He was hovering just outside the window the first time I set eyes on him - a beautiful snow white dove. His body seemed to glow in the gathering darkness; he looked straight at me through the window. I jumped up and pushed open the window to get a better look.
“Da ‘tis me, your son Charlie”
“Oh my Charlie where did you come from”
“Da if I told you it would be impossible for you to understand …. Listen I am here to tell you that I am very well, very happy.”
“Oh Charlie how I miss you; you look so beautiful”
“Da I am with you all the time … I know what an awful time you are having and I am here now to tell you that all will be well”
“I cannot forgive myself for carelessness and for your death”
“Shss no more of that …it was an accident… not your fault”
“Listen Charlie I can hardly believe that it is your voice I am hearing; it’s so wonderful to hear you again”
“Now Da I want you to forgive yourself and forgive Mum, and great joy and happiness will pour into your heart, the one thing you learn on this side is that forgiveness has the magic power to heal all ills …I want you to take this to your heart because I will not be able to return to you again once I leave”
“Oh Charlie stay with me …stay with me”
“Da I have to be going now…all will be well”
There was a strong thumping on the door; I jumped up on the bed only to see the smiling faces of John and Jenny at the door.
“What a sleeper” says Jenny
“Asleep for eighteen hours”
“We had a few peeps in on you to make sure you were alive” said John.
“I have something to tell you”
“Keep everything in your head ‘till you have a fine breakfast inside you” said Jenny.
Over breakfast I discovered that they had a plan to take me out for the day and I still had not related my story to them. The image of the white dove was jumping round in my head and the strangeness of it all had my senses creaking. Perhaps it did happen; after all the window was open in the morning. I eventually decided to keep my story to myself lest they think I was losing the plot completely, and went along with the trip out for the day.
I had a new bounce in my step and for the first time in months my body did not feel heavy or cumbersome. As we were about to get into the car I stunned my two minders.
“Would you mind driving me to Charlie’s grave; I just feel like going there today”
“Of course, of course” said John.
For months I had refused point blank to go anywhere near the cemetery and the turnabout in my attitude left them totally perplexed. All my apprehension had evaporated and I felt a new peace and calm within me as I approached the grave.
Brenda had done a beautiful job on the grave – so neat and tidy – and she did not forget the Arsenal jersey either!
I had just started to bless myself when Jenny leaned forward and picked something from the grass.
“Oh look what a beautiful white feather” she cried out.
I looked upwards towards the watery sun and smiled.
Formica table is filthy - strewn with dirty coffee mugs and empty packets of instant tomato soup. Headline from last Sunday’s Press is screaming at me . . . . I pay little attention. My head is hurting so I lay on my bunk to ease the pain. My hands are trembling; beads of sweat gather on my forehead and trickle down the deep channels on my face. Sprouting from the splintered ceiling the bulb hangs bare, leaking light at the yellow smoky wallpaper that litters the walls of this Godforsaken doss house. The smouldering fag in the saucer, the black slimy stout on the lino and the piercing smell of piss rising from the bunk suffocate the room.
The game is up for me.
I push the last few tablets into my mouth and drain the Whiskey bottle as I swallow. Sleep descends and pain drifts away with the disappearing smoke.
Relief is temporary.
Nightmare starts almost immediately. In that big room the same shadowy figure bending over me . . . all dark and lumpy, his swarthy face smirking like a possessed demon, long rosary beads rattling against his swollen thighs, spitting out words through huge gaps in his teeth.
‘This is our little secret’
The words suffocate in my throat.
The door closes with a gentle click and a bulgy shadow disappears down the corridor just as the grandfather clock strikes out. Tears begin to flow. Twelve is too old for crying but I just can’t stop myself. I taste the salt in the soaking pillow. A dim shaft of light escaping from the corridor catches the crucifix on the wall and through wet sleepy eyes I see the forlorn face of Christ. My weak cries fade to whispers. Christ I’m scared of every little sound, scared of this house and scared that the Chaplain will return.
How incredibly different everything had been a few hours earlier. Carefree and happy with my school pals Mucker and Davy skimming up that steep hill under the sparkling September sun, bags flung over our shoulders eagerly anticipating our first trip to Pater Noster House. And missing three days from school as well!
Could anything be more perfect?
We skipped along. Laughing and joking and trying to imagine how all those poor suckers felt who could not fork up the cash to pay for the retreat and had to remain behind in class. Doing Latin about now . . . .
MENSA . . . . MENSA . . . . MENSAM . . .
We chuckled out with great delight!
When we reached the gates we were impressed. Down a stony pathway stood the great house, with huge mahogany doors and a gleaming brass nameplate. We each took turns at pulling faces in front of the brass plate, and roared with laughter at our silly images all distorted and yellowy. The bearded wall, the ancient trees and the tall labyrinth promised three days of wild adventure for Mucker, Davy and me. We looked out at Cork Harbour stretching down below us in the distance with its white matchstick ships and dazzling blue waters.
‘Old Grandpa’ – Brother Jessie from our school was fussing about in reception and ticking off names from a list as each group of boys arrived. He lifted his head when he was the three of us approaching.
‘The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost’ said the good brother.
‘All present and correct’ said Davy.
We laughed. We always enjoyed Jessie’s humour.
It was then we caught sight of the chaplain. His brown habit clung tight to him, outlining a flabby belly that wiggled from side to side as he toddled along. A rosary, with beads as big as chestnuts dangled nosily from his belt and almost touched the ground. He stopped, mumbled something to Jessie and waved us along to assembly room. The room was old and shiny. The smell of dying books on the open shelves lingered everywhere. Two large windows opened up the outside world, inside the chaplain was shuffling about before getting down to the real business of religion. Mucker, Davy and me positioned ourselves in the front row and cleared nervous throats. The tension was broken almost immediately when the chaplain did a pirouette on the floor making fun of his bulky mass to the uproarious laughter of the boys.
‘Now boys who do I remind you of?’
We all knew but no one dared offer a suggestion.
‘Let me say it for you then . . . could it possibly be Brother Sebastian.’
We almost cheered – this priest really understood us boys.
‘I’ll let you into a secret . . . just between us….. For these few days why don’t you call me Brother Sebastian.’
We wished that the brothers in school were all like this priest. He went on to tell us some wonderful stories from the bible, and how God made the world in six days and that he was so pleased with his work that he rested on the seventh day. Davy said it was a good thing that God only took six days otherwise we wouldn’t have any football matches on Sundays. Brother Sebastian went on to tell us how God loved each and every boy like a father loves a son, and finished up by raising a poster with great big letters high over his head on which was written:
TODAY IS THE FIRST DAY OF THE REST OF YOU LIFE.
After confession that afternoon, we knew it was going to be the first day of the rest of our lives, our souls were as white and sparkling as new born snowdrops, and when we knelt before the raised figure of CHRIST ON THE CROSS we vowed never to commit a single sin again. Not even the tiniest stain.
It had been a long day. By the end I was whacked. All I wanted to do was to throw my sleepy head onto a pillow. When I had said my night prayers and tucked up nicely, I was startled when the door clicked open. I was mightily relieved to see it was only Brother Sebastian. He wore a broad smile on his face.
‘I came to tell you that God was very pleased with you today Johnny.’
I was surprised he knew my name.
‘And I’m pleased as well, so pleased in fact that I brought you a little box of sweets.’
I felt great. I thanked him and said it was a very happy day, and that I felt very close to God.
‘Your pal Davy told me you twisted your knee in the gardens today . . . and I came to take a look.’
‘Oh Father it was nothing, it’s better already.’
‘These things are better seen to right away.’
He pushed the covers aside and began to gently rub my knee. He examined it further.
‘That could be a nasty little sprain you have there.’
He continued to rub, this time with more intensity. The effort was showing on his face and his breathing got louder and more rapid. I knew that something awful was happening to me, as his eyes became strange and focused, and the smile disappeared from his face. His hands were now rapidly moving up my thighs. The shock reduced my voice to a mumble, as he muttered that God would be very pleased with me for making Brother Seb so happy. Soon he was beside me in the bed, spread out like a giant jellyfish with frantic sweaty tentacles, foul breath and frothy spits all over my neck. He disappeared as quickly as he arrived, and I sobbed ‘till a merciful sleep enveloped me.
I awoke suddenly from my stupor, eyes hurting. As I sense the dampness of the bed, that face flashes before me again – swollen and ruddy, mad eyes dancing in his head, words hissing from his mouth. I scramble into my clothes and with shoes still untied I prise the window open. Escape . . . escape . . . I keep muttering to myself…..escape from this hellhole. The plunge from the first floor lands me onto the rain soaked lawn; I scale the slippery ivy-clad wall and leap into the deserted street below. Too ashamed to face home and tell my parents I splatter my way downhill and feel the rain seeping through to my skin just as I reach the quays – this early morning all deserted and quiet. After observing the scene for some time I managed to sneak aboard a ship laden down with timber. Before I realized the gravity of what I had done the ship was speeding ahead for Southampton. From there I jumped a train for London and spent my first night under the stars . . . but none shone for me on that night or in the twenty years ever since – the haunting figure of Brother Sebastian ensure that.
The first few weeks were hell. I thought of my family and friends every minute of every day as I hid amid the teeming masses of London but I could not muster the strength to make any contact with them. I was unable to exorcise that brutal beast from my consciousness. His appalling face, his watery speech and his evil touch hung over me - I was possessed by him. His image followed me to park benches, to soup kitchens, to overcrowded hostels. In the middle of lonesome nights I could hear the rattle of beads, the awful words hissing forth, the snigger of satisfaction. Weeks tumbled into months, and months into years. Time became for me the harsh frost of winter or the kinder climes of summer. It was the doctor down at the police station who lost patience with me.
‘Listen Johnny, we’re sending you away to the country, the rest should do you good and you won’t know yourself in a few weeks.’
‘But doctor I am perfectly well, I don’t want to go to any asylum.’
Suddenly I was grabbed from behind by two coppers and before I could protest my sanity I was whisked away. Life was more unbearable now. This renewed my hatred. This beast responsible for my miserable life and somehow his evil spirit had managed to get me locked up. Day by day I became more obsessed with revenge. It was to the visiting pastor that I first put my request – my life’s desire was to return to Ireland. I told him it would bring back a lot of childhood memories. The Pastor felt that getting back to my roots might be the best thing for me now that I was otherwise so well. Not alone did he convince the chief medical officer but he organised the cash for me.
It was the beads I noticed first almost scraping the pebbled stones; his fat frame listing to the right; a blackthorn stick helped pull him along. I tagged along behind until I was outside his door. When he had settled I pushed in the door and stood before my fat prey . . . he had a startled look on his face.
‘Who gave you permission to enter my room?’
‘The same person who gave you permission to enter my room twenty years ago.’
‘What are you talking about, are you insane?’
‘Yes I am, thanks to you.’
‘Listen Brother Sebastian I have come to pay my dues.’
I cracked him straight in the face and sent red hot blood splattering in all directions. Gathering up his beads I wrapped them around his neck . . . his eyes bulged with absolute terror. Those who live by the beads will die by the beads; I thought to myself as I squeezed further ‘till his eyes almost popped out of their sockets, and his face reddened to boiling point. His breath fading ….. Gone …. I slipped back to the squat.
It was my breathing that almost stopped when the banging started on the door.
‘This is the police, open up or we’ll break the door in,’ a rough voice rang out.
With my heart pumping furiously I pulled the bolt open and stood helpless before a bunch of detectives. As I was being led downstairs one of the detectives remarked that I was a lucky man that the ‘old geezer’ survived.
‘Anyway’ he went on, ‘we want this Padre alive, got over twenty calls about him since last week.’
Not a whisper of a breeze. Not even a puff of air. Sunshine stillness – time is almost visible.
I push forward, my breath measured and even.
I’m waiting for that moment......... waiting for that gun to go off.
I light up like a rocket and out of my blocks and almost to the first bend before an explosion of sound from the stands meets me head on. Every part of my body is moving at a frenetic rate in one almighty effort to get to that finishing line. I can see the yellow vest of the Jamaican out of the corner of my eye – I’m catching him.
Accelerate; accelerate now out of the last bend and hit the straight at full throttle... the finishing line..... Where is it..... I’m stretching every muscle forward and dipping..... Dipping.....
Suddenly the crowd is silent, I’m hanging there suspended in a purple haze; away in the distance I can detect a faint voice. It’s coming closer but I cannot see – I am unable to open my eyes. A voice calls out.
“Mr. Murphy, Mr. Murphy, take it easy there or you’ll break the bed.”
Sadly I wake up and half open my eyes, but alas I wake up without my glorious Olympic medal.
“ ‘Tis dangerous during all those tricks in your condition Mr. Murphy.”
I am so disappointed – won it on the line.
“Would we have any idea who was doing the gymnastics with you........ are you listening to me at all Mr. Murphy?”
I had it just on the line, I mutter..... only to wake up...... only to wake up.
“I’ll be back with your tea and toast later; you might be in a better mood to talk after all that running.”
My Olympic Medal..... Gone.... faded in the hospital air.
I lie back against the stack of pillows, my head still reeling, the lingering foul taste still on my tongue. But the message on the chart beside me kicks me back into the real world once more.
“Fifty..... Heart Attack..... Triple By-Pass.”
I’m too tired to think now.
I need more sleep.... and the graveyard silence of the ward helps me drift away.
I’m woken again.
It’s the Philippine nurse again and she is whispering in my ear, her breath hot on my face, her voice just above a whisper.
“Mr. Murphy, I must take your blood pressure”
I stretch out my arm, her brown hand soft as a kitten brushes the hospital gown aside, she secures a tourniquet-like strap to my arm and the machine takes over.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question, Mr. Murphy?”
I nod a sleepy approval.
“I found out from your medical notes last night that you are colour blind, could I ask you.... what kind is it seeing the world in black and white?”
I was startled.
She just stood there with that quizzical look etched on her innocent face waiting for the answer.
“It’s like.... well.... let me think about it for a little while.”
And she nonchalantly moved away, leaving the air fragrant with her female scent and a little question for me to ponder. I straighten up in the bed and peer around the room; my eyes eagerly seeking colours – I can clearly see the cream walls, the blue empty flowers vase, everything else is white. In the great big world outside the hospital window, I can see the green leaves of an oak tree, the speckled ivy bearding the wall, and high above the garden a blue patch is sticking to the sky. Reassured, I surrender my thoughts to the afternoon stillness. I measure time here in the hospital from one meal to the next, not that I am eating very much right now, after all it’s only two days since the operation. I’m not expecting any visitors; wouldn't like anyone to see me like this - all tethered up like an old donkey. None of my friends or family knew about this operation – not even my ex-wife or my daughter.
“It will be time enough for them to know should anything happen to me”, I informed the hospital when they asked about next of kin.
Have been that way all my life – if I got myself into a scrape it was my job to get myself out of it. She could never get that, she was into sharing. I always insisted that the sharing stuff only worked up to a certain point, and ultimately life is about paddling your own canoe. Look it’s as plain as the nose on your face. Could anyone else have an operation for me; who could face the questions of the padre the night before but myself. The surgeon was very frank – a two per cent chance I might not make it. Now there’s a figure to be tumbling over in your head at four-o-clock in the morning. Now who could share that with you.
Suddenly the stillness of then afternoon is shattered by the laughter of Nurse Malone on the corridor and I’m shaken out of my ponderings – she is coming with my tea and toast. She pushes her head round the door, her blond hair showing, her eyes dancing in her head. I can see she is a full on menace.
“Is the medal ceremony over yet or am I just in time for the National Anthem.”
I feel awkward, and mutter something silly about the medication.
“Never mind Henry, every medal is welcome in Ireland even fantasy ones.”
She leaves the tray before me and gleefully skips away. But I’m remembering other days when I won real medals – Leinster Colleges sprint champion in the 100 and 200; never made it to the All-Ireland though. The races took place the week my mother found the lump on her breast; the doctors said she needed immediate surgery. On hearing the news my father hit the bottle with a vengeance – went to pieces, never could face a problem, never wanted anything to go wrong in this world. Six months later I swore to her on her deathbed that I would never turn out like my dad. And I stuck to that promise as if my life depended on it. As his problem with the booze grew worse, I upped my sticks and left the house, married Rosie, and started my own plant hire business. I was a man on a mission and hell bent on making a success of the business. One thing for certain I had no space or time for wishy washy people that sometimes came through my doors. “Shit or get off the pot” was my philosophy. They would soon get the message and if they didn’t buck up I would have them out on their arses faster than they could say ‘Labour Exchange’I always wanted to be number one. That’s how I built my business over the years and that’s why I got three million in the takeover bid. When my ex-wife and daughter came sniffing for more money on hearing of my good fortune, I told them in no uncertain manner where they could go, and sure enough they disappeared. I hear the physiotherapist at the door. She’s here to walk me around the corridor’ I have no mind for walking today, but she’s having none of it. As she is helping me down the corridor I seem to be dragging a half mile of cable with me.
“You are doing very well Henry” her accent is clipped and precise.
I respond by pushing on that little bit faster.
“Hold, hold everything there or you will run away from your attachments”
I, getting out of breath and the physio parks me in a chair in the corridor, with a promise to return in ten minutes. It suddenly dawns on me that I’m on display here like an old statue – I’m an object of curiosity to these bloody visitors passing through the corridor. They look at me and my harness and nod sympathetically in my direction.
The minutes are passing very slowly; I wish that physio would hurry up.
My watch is telling me that the ten minutes have elapsed – not waiting another second. I gather my harness, rise to my feet and start to head back.
Suddenly I’m dizzy..... my head is spinning...... I’m spinning round... and round... can anyone stop me.... tumbling.
The ice is melting on my forehead and trickling on to my face but it’s cooling the massive lump on my forehead. The ward sister was angry, said her piece and left.
The Philippine nurse continues to wipe my forehead with a sponge and with a rue smile asks me if the start I saw when I hit my head were black and white. Perhaps she says playfully, it’s the Lord’s way of trying to knock a bit of sense into your head, now that he has healed your heart. She gives my forehead one final rub of the sponge, her eyes light up into a wonderful smile, she flicks back her dark hair and almost floats down the room and away. I lay back against the pillows again as the evening light surrenders. The silence now is blissful almost spiritual, where time is visible in the quarter-second. Outside my room the tall oak tree stands strong, it’s arms outstretched to the world. It’s another Autumn day long since past that I can see again – I’m attending the Sunday Benedictions at St Mary’s Dominican Church.
Rosie and my daughter Carol are there.
Rosie is just a slip of a girl, hardly nineteen – far too young to be a wife, she is all muffled up against the easterly breeze howling outside, her eyes shining, her face beautiful. Carol is just two, she keeps loking up into my face and pointing out the dancing shadows on my face.
From high up in the gallery a young girl begins to sing “Tatum Ergo”. Her plaintive voice clear as a mountain stream. I feel a shiver creeping down my spine as a calmness descends on me. From somewhere a tear wells up, gathers in the corner of my eye and trickles down my face. The smoking incense is perfuming the air and the blue and gold colours of the stained glass windows are casting spells.
Nothing mattered but the moment then – just like now.
Strange how feelings change us.
Strange too how someone takes your heart and repairs it.
The illustrious medical consultant Mr. Dominick McWilliams rushes into the ward; hands flying in all directions as if he was conducting the universe. I was sneaking a look at Johnny McGrath’s medical chart at the time. You see I’m a curious little bastard. My mother tells the neighbours in the flats that I’m the nosiest eighteen year old on the face of the earth. I tell my mother the reason I’m nosy is because I’m an intelligent little fucker. McWilliams beckons me over to the bed where he is about to examine a patient. I sense trouble ahead. To put you further into the picture I’m in my final quarter of a community employment programme and rejoicing in the title as assistant to the ward orderly. But the ward orderly is absent on a two year pissup which means I do all the work. To be honest I’m the dogsbody of the outfit; I hate to be seen with that fucking brush in my hands. I can read faces.
But sometimes my mates down at the boozer cheer me up when they remark that I have the striking appearance of an army officer. Sometimes like in the army I’m called upon to perform special duties - like when Mickie Murphy pisses on the floor prior to a consultant’s visit or when some poor bastard has had enough of this place and decides to pop off to more salubrious surroundings in the sky. But to get back to McWilliams who by now is moving at turbo speed; his staccato hands raising the blood pressure levels of everyone within eye distance. I drop Johnny’s medical chart on his bed; I feel sure old eagle-eye has spotted me breaking the golden rule. Jesus I could kick myself for being caught by that old geezer; I make it my business to be well out of sight when these old consultant farts are doing their rounds. For one flashing moment I see myself being arse-kicked out the front door of the hospital and left without a penny in my pocket. But the electric eel is full of surprises. He beckons me into his aura. I change my demeanor and throw a smile at him as if I have just recognised that he is the single most important person on the planet. He ushers me in front of him without uttering a single word. In no time he has me feeling Slasher Reilly’s big toe.
“What is it ……… What is it”
I hesitate to tell him it’s a toe for fear he would explode.
“Come on young man....look at the symptoms.”
McWilliams rabbits on.
“The symptoms are classical” his tanned face now contorting; his patience about to snap.
The bell rings...... the penny drops! The old geezer thinks I’m one of those medical students that infest this place.
“Classical gout” I spout out much to the doctor’s relief. “Splendid” says he, and we hastily leave Slasher’s bed and proceed to our next patient. I sneak a look over my right shoulder at Slasher who just lies there like a beached whale, pondering the farcical scenario that has just been acted out before his very eyes.
Once started I decide to take McWilliams on a right old ride now. The world and his mother knows Slasher’s complaint, for he spends most of the day ranting and raving about how painful his bloody gout is; especially when the nurses forget to give him his medication. And so it went on, from one startled patient to the next, McWilliams and me completing our morning visitations. It was a piece of piss for me, after-all I was more than familiar with each patient’s ailment; having listened to each and every one of them giving me intimate details as I went about my work in the ward over the past few months. I was more than ready to rattle off each of my diagnosis with the assured confidence as if I had come straight from Harley Street. McWilliams was suitably impressed by the brilliance of his young prodigy. Fully confident about my medical competency, the Old Boy dismisses me and decides to take his genius to another ward, but not before he gave me a rewarding pat on the head as if I were a giant Labrador. Because I was now centre stage I delivered the final punch line to the audience knowing full well that McWilliams was well and truly out of earshot. I called after him that I’d be willing to give him a dig out if ever he had trouble getting his sailing ships into glass bottles. That did it. The audience erupted. The patients could not contain themselves any longer. Their hilarity sped like a miniature Mexican Wave; this lark with McWilliams was more therapeutic than a surprise visit from Sharon Stone. Fellows who hadn’t smiled since Ray Houghton put the ball in the Italian net in Giants Stadium were hysterical and calling for yours truly to come forward to acknowledge the acclaim. The nurses welcomed the morning distraction and joined the fun. This was not the time for taking blood pressures.
My sheer neck and audacity in making such a prick of McWilliams in front of a packed audience won me new respect in the ward; and for those few precious moments I basked in my new found status. With my adrenalin pumping at fever pitch tempo I took the bull by the horns. I put my two hands round Nurse Maddox’s waist feeling her huge tits as I did so. ‘Mortal Sin’ herself did not object....I was away for slates.
It was well after lunch before the ward got back to something resembling normality. As the visitors began to arrive they each in turn were given the complete load-down on the happenings of the morning. Over the next couple of days the story found it’s way to ‘The Flats’ and from there to my local boozer. In no time my mates were referring to me as ‘The Mop Doc.’ Anto said I must have balls of steel for making the consultant geezer look like a total gobshite. My head was swelling by the day. My standing in the ward and amongst my mates was at an all time high. There was a new bounce in my step: I felt I could take on the world for the first time in my life and I worshipped the admiration that was coming my way. No longer just the bloke from the Flats; I was the clown who played rings round the medics. The mother took a dim view of the whole affair and said it would end up in disaster if authorities got wind of my antics.
For the first time in my life I enjoyed going to work. The patients had got a taste of fun and were not about to let it go, in fact they demanded more and more crazy antics from me. They too began to call me ‘Doc’ and jokingly would ask me to examine them while I was fiddling round the ward with my brush. Often when the coast was clear I would grab a white coat and stethoscope from the press and proceed on mock visitations. The patients looked forward to these little diversions, for many it was the highlight of the day.
It was Tuesday morning - my day off - when the big fat brown envelops was pushed through the letterbox. Shock...horror a mole had been to work. The hospital authorities had taken a dim view of my behaviour and said I had shown shocking lack of respect for Mr McWilliams who had given such sterling service to St.Lukes for over thirty years. The letter went on to say how my behaviour with the patients could be potentially damaging to them. A full medical investigation was in progress at present and depending on the outcome the hospital authorities may refer the whole situation to the Gardai.
Included with the letter was my finishing cheque and my marching orders in the form of a P45. My medical career was over as quickly as it began. It began to rain as I stood in the dole queue on Friday morning waiting for the labour to open.
But things could be bleaker..... ‘Mortal Sin’ is picking me up in her car at eight tonight.
Six A.M. in Dublin and the water is bubbling in the kettle; outside the swans are just about lifting their heads and stretching their snowy white necks to the brightening sky. The canal is calm and peaceful this August day. Soon the scalding water will be poured into the blue mug and a thick spoonful of gooey black Bovril will be added. Charlie loves his Bovril first thing every day – the bull is in he tells everyone. The tiny living room is soon overcome with the pungent smell, and the fumes instantly lodge in Mary’s lungs. Mary is an old forty five year old married daughter of Charlie who possesses brown teeth and has two lungs like filters that you would only find in a grain store.
“How in Christ’s name could anyone drink that stuff” she addresses Charlie as she lights up another cigarette. Mary takes one long greedy pull on the fag and blows the smoke towards the single sixty watt bulb hanging from the ceiling and immediately starts to coughs into her polka dot hanky. Tommy continues with his task and hands the steaming mug to his Da who by now is sitting in his favourite armchair. Charlie looks up at calendar on the wall – 9 August 2010. Like First Communion or Confirmation days, this is an important day in Charlie’s life - and at the age of seventy five he is apprehensive…..Very apprehensive!
The morning light by now is poking its head through the dirty-grey glass window and showing up a carpet with its glory days well behind it.
Charlie is thinking.
“And now emerging from the dugout is the Dublin team led by its captain Charlie White “
Micheal O Hehir goes on.
“This Dublin team today are looking for their second All-Ireland in a row and are raging favourites to do so – it would be a brave man who would oppose them.”
As Mary settles from her bout of coughing she turns to Charlie.
“Da I feel awful that I am not able to keep your cat – you know that no animals are allowed in our apartments”
“Mary, for Gods sake don’t mention the cat again I understand very well – Mrs Reilly promised to look after him.”
“And now we stand for Amhran Na Bhfiann”
O’ Hehir continues.
“My God I haven’t been up this early since I buried your mother God rest her”
“Now Da this is hard enough without bringing up Ma at this time”
Charlie retreats back into his chair as the memories come flooding.
“And the ball is thrown in and the game is on – Charlie White reaches for the clouds and grabs the ball and sends it straight into the Galway square”
Charlie is growing anxious and feels awkward in his chair.
“And what time is Tony’s taxi coming over”
He calls out to Mary as she busies herself collecting odds and ends from around the house that have not been packed for Charlie.
“You know that this is best for you especially after the heart attack; Dr Saunders says there is terrific care there.”
Tommy is explaining for the umpteenth time. But Charlie’s eyes are glazing over as he surveys the familiar off cream wallpaper in the room. He breaths in the familiar smell – fifty odd years under one roof is a long time. The first time he crossed the canal and planted his eyes on this house he believed that he was the luckiest man on the planet. Herself was there of course – bold, brash and beautiful. As they both entered the house with their little bag of salt and their half peck of coal – all good luck omens – they knew they were blessed with good fortune. Charlie was thinking how quickly time passes when Sam his beloved old cat pokes his nose round the door.
“The crafty little devil knows there is something up”
Sam leaps onto Charlie’s lap and immediately buries his head in Charlie’s woollen jumper.
“The ball is cleared by the Galway full back out to the half back line where it is added to by Paddy Connolly but only into the lap of Charlie White who seems to be everywhere for the first five minutes of this game.”
The cat is hiding - Charlie is hiding.
If only he could call off the whole lot he would manage alright. Suddenly he has a rush of blood and he bursts forward in his chair.
“Tommy cancel the car I am not going anywhere; I’ve changed my mind.”
“For Christ sake Da, you know that all the arrangements have been made ... The bloody house is sold and you are too sick to live on your own”
“I am not leaving here - and I am not leaving Sam”
Mary is looking on in astonishment.
“Listen Da” she says
“We all understand how you feel, but you will be fine when you settle in - look they even have sky sports there now.”
“More like a hotel than a nursing home”
“This Galway team is putting it up to Dublin and at this stage they are three points ahead … as the ball is kicked out by the Dublin goalkeeper it is grabbed in the air by Charlie White …… oh what a fantastic leap, he turns and runs towards the Galway goal and with his left foot he kicks it straight between the posts… this man is on fire today”
“More like a hotel than a nursing home” repeats Charlie.
“But I don’t want to live in a hotel; I want to live in my home.
“This is fecking awful” Tommy cuts in
“We have been down this shaggin road a hundred times and you let us believe that this is what you wanted – what the hell can we do and the house already sold”
“Tell the Wilsons I have changed my mind and I want to cancel”
“Listen Da you are really losing it now … you know that is it is impossible to cancel a sale once the bookwork is completed”
“The Galway team are pulling ahead in this game”
The pressure is building on Charlie. Tommy and Mary are lining up; the taxi is on the way. By now the morning light has fully broken through into the living room and the silver cups on the dresser reflect the light straight into Charlie’s face. Mary, not sure what to do or say, pulls the blind down to half way on the window and resumes her place next to Tommy.
“And with five minutes to go to half time they are now five points ahead
“Look Da you never drank your Bovril – it must be gone cold by now, let me get you another one”
Charlie just shakes his head.
Life had been tough on him these last few years - losing Nora was a bitter blow, the heart attack coming out of the blue nearly finished him off, and now he has to leave his home for ever.
“Jesus ‘tis him”
The driver had arrived.
“And now the second half has commenced and Galway still has a commanding lead in this game.. The ball now has reached Charlie White but he is surrounded and gobbled up by the Galway players… nowhere for him to go and he holds unto the ball and the ref blows for a free”
Tommy opens the door – Tony is whistling.
“Is there man here ready for delivery?” he beams out.
Charlie remains silent.
“We are having a problem Tony”
“Da is refusing to go”
“As the ball is kicked out again it is held by Charlie White … this man is refusing to give up the crown without one almighty fight - he moves forward toe to hand and heads towards the Galway goal…... he passes one man and then the other ...he is now twenty yards from the goal he lets fly and the ball has hit the back of the Galway net … the fans are going wild on the Hill…. Now the game is on”
Sam realising that the trouble is growing in the camp leaps from Charlie’s lap and scurries out the back door.
“What’s the problem Charlie” said Tony.
“Changed my mind I just cannot leave my house … I thought that I would be able to leave but I have too many memories in this house”
While Tony is pointing out the great advantages of the nursing home Mary is slipping into the back kitchen and ringing the parish priest.
“Charlie you won’t know yourself … everyone dancing attention on the famous footballer.. The best of grub… all the sports programmes.. The sing-song on Friday night … and not a single worry about safety”
Tony was trying hard but all was falling on deaf ears. All the efforts of Tommy and Mary all end up the same – Charlie is not for moving now or in the near future.
“This Dublin team is rallying under their inspirational captain.. This is one determined player...he is resolute about lifting the Sam Maguire”
Fr Clancy shows a bald head as he lifts his hat when ushered in by Mary.
“And where is the great man?”
The priest calls out just as he approaches the living room.
“In here Father”
Tommy calls out.
“For the love of God don’t tell me they brought the priest out to hunt me out of my home”
“Not at all… not at all” replied Fr Clancy.
“Just popped along to see you before you left for Judes”
The priest lied.
“But I’m not going anywhere now or in the future”
“You were always a stubborn man Charlie White – on and off the pitch”
“With ten minutes to go Galway are still two points in the lead”
Tony excuses himself – has another quick job he says - and hurries out the door promising to return if Charlie decides to change his mind.
It is now down to the Padre.
The phone rings. Mary is nearest and lifts the receiver.
She begins to mime to the audience - soon everyone is aware that it is the nursing home is enquiring when Charlie will be coming.
“Tell her I’m not coming”
Charlie calls out to Mary who is growing more embarrassed dealing with the call.
“Let me have a word” the priest is quickly on his feet.
“Just having one or two little problems” he tells the sister in charge.
“Hope to have Charlie with you in a little while”
“Two minutes to go and Dublin are still one point behind ….and here he goes again… Charlie White races up the centre of the park and shoots straight and accurate and the teams are level”
Fr Clancy not only a man of the cloth but also a man of the world remembers his late fathers advice: sell the sizzle and not the sausage.
And gently set about his task speaking glowingly about the nursing home.
“As you know Charlie as one of the chaplains in St Judes I go along every week and it occurred to me the other day that they lack one thing in that place – a captain – some one of their own that they could look up to; and no greater man than yourself.”
“You mean like a trade union official Father”
“Well a captain just like a team”
“Father you’re softening me up”
“Listen Charlie man to man I’ll make a pact with you that if you are unhappy in a month and want to return to your house I will arrange that you will return – I will talk to the Wilsons also about the sale of the house”
“What about the cat”
“I’m sure we can arrange to bring him too”
“Are you confirming to me that if for any reason I want to leave Judes you will guarantee that you will bring me home”
“Absolutely Charlie… one hundred per cent”
That sealed the deal.
The call was made and Tony was on his way back.
Tony packed Charlie and Mary and Sam in the back while Tommy placed his amble body in the front seat and they headed off. Over the canal bridge and straight out – they had hardly gone a mile when Charlie fell fast asleep – after all it had been an early day and with all the hassle it was no wonder he was played out. At last they reached the gates of St Judes …..
“It is almost full time as Charlie White collects the ball … he pretends to go right but goes left and with a monstrous boot fires the ball between the posts for the winner”
“Da we have arrived” Mary gently shook Charlie.
“Da wake up we have arrived”
She shook him even harder but there was no response.
All the efforts of the medical staff to revive Charlie were in vain and ………
later on Sam drifted home.
“And as Charlie collects the All-Ireland Football Cup he raises it high above his head and gazes into the heavens above”