The Ballad of JP

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There was the first chill of the oncoming winter in the house tonight. I pulled the heavy door shut, turning the key in the stiff lock, another little job to add to the ever growing list for the weekend. I’m sure there is a can of WD40 somewhere in the shed. The turf fire in the old range will have the place nice and toasty by the time I get back tonight. An involuntary shiver overcomes me as I walk through the exhaust fumes towards the car, parked facing west, down the long grass centred lane.  “It’s the darkness that gets me” she had said. I could never understand what she meant, I never missed the lights, there was always the moonlight or the starlight, but then for someone born and reared in a city it might be different. I had to allow her that. “You’ll get used to it”, I had said, seeking to comfort and reinforce the idea that one day this could be home for us. I turned left down onto the main road past the solid stone piers my grandfather had built, or maybe it was his grandfather, who knows. I remembered turning on the headlights that night “There is that any better for you?” and laughing “You will, you’ll get used to it” but now I know that the eyes adjust but the rest might not follow, that was just ten months ago.

As we approached town we had met a couple of oncoming tractors, pulling cattle trailers, on the way home from the livestock mart. One driver drove a vintage Massey Ferguson. There was no cab to shelter him, the only adornment being a roll bar on the back. He was well wrapped up and a pipe dangled precariously from his mouth, his bare hands gripping the steering wheel. “God will you look at that bloke” she said, “he must be freezing, he’ll get his death”. “He might be happier than you or me!” I replied. “He’s probably after selling a couple of weanlings and had his fill in Duignans or Reynolds. It might be cold outside but he could be warm enough inside”. I looked at the temperature gauge which displayed Four degrees. He will be cold by the time he gets home alright, but I was unwilling to betray my thoughts, especially after  leaping to exalt the lone driver just seconds before. Must be a Leitrim trait I thought, to defend ones place, defend one’s own, zealously, even when the attack is slight, veiled or maybe only imagined. “Will he have far to go now?” she asked, and my mind immediately remembered the jobbers and dealers that congregated in my Uncles Pub back in the 70’s, “He could be from as far away as Corlough or Glangevlin” I replied, “Is that far?”, I thought of Big Tom McGovern with hands the size of shovels handing me a bottle of Cavan Cola with a straw. I can’t have been more than 8 or 9 years old then. “Oh it’s a good spin alright, but he’ll have half a bottle of Jemmy in him to keep him warm, and he might have one or two more stops on the way”.

I pulled up outside the Bar on the empty street. I could make out the smoky silhouettes of a few heads inside. Opening the creaking door a blast of furnace-like heat meets me, and as I scan the place my eyes are drawn to a coal fire crackling away in the corner. Three men sit at the the counter, two manning a corner each, and one in the middle, my Uncle tending to them. He has failed since I last saw him that evening four months ago. We nod at each other. ‘Good man Dan, pull up a stool there’ says Tommy Gucks, ‘and fit and well you’re looking. It’s always an honour and a privilege to meet an educated man like yourself’. ‘How’ya young Dan’ comes from down the counter, the voice of a little snipe-like creature shirking beneath a well-worn tweed cap, Hugh Dunleavy. ‘Good man Hugh, you’re keeping well’, the reply was instant ‘not too bad Dan, not too bad, considering the state the country is in. Your grandfather and father would turn in their graves if they saw the messing that’s going on’. There is a pause as if the patrons must take up new positions and their conversation must adjust because of my intrusion. The pub hasn’t changed much since I was a boy and yet it still remains a place of wonderment, a place where these characters act out their roles and my Uncle like a good stage-director, steers the conversation in whatever direction he thinks appropriate. The Uncle places a creamy pint in front of me, ‘and sure get the lads one there as well’.

‘Any sign of JP?’ I ask the Uncle as he gives me back my change. No, you mightn’t see him in tonight, he was in last night and had a tightener. ‘He sure had’ said Tommy, ‘he sure had, when you see the little dog coming over to our place of an evening you know he’s looking to see if there’s any grub to spare’. ‘Thank you Dano’ says Hugh acknowledging the drink, ‘Good health to you Dan’ says Gucks lifting his glass and tipping his head in a well-choreographed  manoeuver.

The clock above the till is at 9.30 but it’s surely after 10 by now. I realise the fading discoloured clock has actually stopped. The clock is a souvenir of the Leitrim team from 1994. ‘I think you need a battery for that yoke’ I say to the uncle, pointing towards the idle timepiece. ‘I must do that tomorrow’ he replies, Tommy nudges me, ‘Ah sure it’s  a bit like the Leitrim team today, they are at a standstill, do you know someone remarked last week that it’s harder to get off the team than on it, now isn’t that something’. The uncle looks wounded, ‘That’s a bit rich from a man that never kicked a ball out of his way, aren’t they flying the flag anyway, fair play to them’. Hugh broke into a laugh which became a cough and a series of splutters the culmination of six decades of tipless cigarettes. We all wait a few minutes for Hugh to get his breath back and to put away the dirty cloth handkerchief that has never been washed since it came into his possession. Tommy wasn’t going to take my uncles slight lying down, ‘Sure I had no time for football and me busy teaching young Colm O’Rourke how to play, didn’t I teach him everything he knew before they all headed for Meath. Sean Boylan thanked me personally for helping them win the All-Ireland’. Hugh was composed again and quipped,’ Well where ever he got the football it had little to do with you Gucks. An awful pity though he didn’t come back to us, We could’ve done with him.’ My uncle now has his back to us, fumbling with some paperwork on the shelf, his glasses hanging off the end of his nose, like Harold Lloyd hanging from a Manhattan skyscraper. ‘Didn’t you play with the brothers Phil?’ ‘Whose brothers?’ replies the Uncle placing a Players Please GAA ornament of two men in the Galway and Kerry colours I’m presuming.  ‘The O’Rourkes of course!’ Turning now and placing his huge bare forearms either side of him leaning on the shiny counter, the Uncle gathers himself, before saying slowly, ‘Indeed I did, and great lads they were too, Fergus was a giant, a gentle giant most of the time, ah but we had great teams back then, Mayo had the flying Doctor but we had the flying dentist, Leo Heslin, what a gent’ as he looked wistfully towards the fire. The moment is broken by the creaking door and in comes Jack ‘the Lad’ Shanley whistling to himself, ‘Good night to ye all, could be freezing and if it’s not its damn well near it’.

‘Is JP still kicking ball?’ I ask. ‘Apt’ says Hugh, trying to is all he’s at, sure he hardly trained the year, with hamstrings and groin strains.  ‘It’s the G-strings that is causing him more harm mind’ spurts Jack the Lad, and they chuckle in unison at some joke that will remain untold but will be left hanging, part released, in a ‘to be continued’ mode. ‘On his day he is good, I’ll grant him that’ says Gucks ‘but Jaysus he loves been told it, he does, ah he does. Do you mind the time he was in here on the Monday they bet Drumreilly and he had scored, was it 1-5 or something, any way he starts bladdering on about how he scored 1-5 yesterday and 0-9 the week before, and how he had, wait, was it 5-35 scored in the championship so far, and he was bladdering on and on”. “Now you were doing little in the way of discouraging him Gucks’ said the Uncle. ‘Well I gave him plenty of rein before I hit him the deadly, and if you don’t mind me asking JP, how much did you score on that young McDermott lad in the final last year? well it stuck him to the floor”. “F%4k you is all he said and off to the juke box, sure ya see he never got a sniff of it that day and they took him off at half-time. Well he stayed up that end for a while and then came back and sidled up to me and he says, you know well Tommy what happened me that day!’, ‘I don’t says I. What happened you at all?”. Tommy leaned into me imitating JP ‘You know fucking well I got the sh*ts after that kebab I had above in Longford the night before’. They all laughed again like it was the first time they had heard this tale, “Sure maybe he did” said I and Gucks took a sip out of his pint before giving me a half disproving look. “He’s had more good games than bad now! Or at least that’s what I hear,’ conscious that I hadn’t seen JP play since he was a minor.

Ah JP is some flower alright’ said the Uncle, he was telling us one night about his uncle Tom Pat ‘sure doesn’t he take after him’ muttered Eddy Joe Gray, a big bear of a man just in the door and in the process of hanging his heavy coat over the back of a chair near the now blazing fire. ‘Do you know that one Eddie Joe?’ enquires the Uncle.  ‘Which one, there are so many?’. ‘The one about the bull calf. Go on you know it, start it off there and I’ll boil the kettle’.

Eddie Joe sat in on a stool, then rubbing both his hands repeatedly on the knees of his trousers he began with a disclaimer, ‘Well gentlemen, If its lies I’m going to tell ye, then its lies that I was told, and this is what I was told, whether it be truth or lies. Tom Pat went out one morning and was doing his foddering and bits and pieces. He had this fine yearling bull calf that he was bucket feeding. Now he knew by the calf’s demeanour that he simply wasn’t himself that morning. Sure he was an ‘ould hand reared pet but a fair lump of a pet now boys, mark now a Charolais Limousin cross. Now this lad was been reared with Monaghan Day Mart in mind, do ya see now. Well the beasht wasn’t just himself, and Tom Pat couldn’t get him to ate  a bit of meal and his snout was cold. Well he was going to ring the Vet and then he reckoned the calf just had a chill.

Well he was in and out of the house and up and down the yard looking at this calf. He decided he’d bring him into the house by the fire. We’ve all seen it done now, be honest now boys, there’s no shame in it. So he brings in a bale of straw and scatters it all over the lino and he goes out and puts a halter on the calf. Now that didn’t work as sick and all as he was the calf was he’d never been led and wasn’t about to start at it now. So eventually with a bit of coaxing Tom Pat got him inside the back yard of the house. Now you know the lie of McCormacks place, you drive in on the street and then there’s a four foot wall around the house and you walk through a gate, into the yard and then into the house. Well the calf didn’t know what was happening at all but after another while didn’t Tom Pat get him into the house and he pulled the door behind him. He turned the table on its side to prevent the calf from pushing up against the door’.

‘Well the calf thought the arrangement a bit strange and he lowed a bit, but it was a weak enough low and it had Tom Pat worried. With the heat of the fire the calf began boiling up, and still its snout was cold. The calf lay down eventually in the middle of the floor and hung his head. Tom pat tried to rise him again but the calf wouldn’t move, then all of a sudden it gave one great big low, dropped its lugs and head and didn’t take another breath’. ‘You mean the calf died? In the house?’ I enquired. ‘That’s right Dan, stone dead there in the back kitchen. Tom Pat was in a tizzy and then he called the Vet, imagine calling a Vet then, sure what was he going to do, tell him his dead calf was beyond help and thank you very much, that’ll be Fifty euro. Well Flanagan, the new Vet in Arva came out and surveyed the scene, he’d never seen anything like it. He shook his head and commiserated with Tom Pat on losing such a fine animal. He told Tom Pat it was Blackleg. A bad dose, unless they get the injection early they’re finished. When he was going the Vet said to Tom Pat, ‘How are you going to get the calf out of the house? he’s swelling fast!

Tom Pat could only scratch his head and wonder. The Vet left and Tom Pat called up to Owenie Micks and wasn’t he in luck to find two fine men to counsel him in Owenie Mick and Jimmy Mullins’. ‘He was in luck alright with them pair of ludramans’ said Hugh shaking his head. ‘Well down to Tom Pats the three went. Owenie Mick produced a measuring tape from the boot of the car and proceeded to measure the height and width of the door way, he shook his head, ‘the jaumbs will have to go Tom Pat, there’s no other way’. Back out to the car went Owenie Mick, Tom Pat on his shoulder crying, and as he opened the boot to get a nailbar, he spied the con saw. Some class of a light went on in that cave of a skull of Owenies and he said, ‘begad there might just be another way’.

An hour and a half later the Calf was more or less butchered.  Owenie started with the legs and cut off all four just above the knee joint. They then laid a bit of old tarp on the ground and sawed into the stomach, blood and gore flying in an arc until it hit the back wall and spattered the ceiling. Then off came the head and and they sawed the whole way down through the backbone, leaving two heavy hund quarters, which it took all three of them to lift into the barrow. They wheeled all through the back yard and stacked it along the road. It was like an Abattoir, the straw coloured crimson , the walls and ceilings all spattered with blood, a  trail of offal from the back door to the road. 

Tom Pat had already called Nannerys, the knackers yard and they were on the way. When the lorry arrived arrived it reversed in on the street but Tom Pat told them to park on the road. As he lifted the tarpaulin the driver was shocked to see a hairy, bloody pile of of bone, meat and guts, stacked five foot high, there on the side of the road, a decapitated head sitting askew on top with a long tongue hanging out to one side. Those ISIS boys wouldn’t hold a candle to Ownenie Mick and his consaw’  

bloody-knife1I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, it was like something from a Quentin Tarantino movie, barbaric and funny. The Uncle brought out a tray with a large pot of tea, a bag of sugar and pint of milk on it and laid it before Eddie Joe. One story followed another and the performers came and went, the conversation going through ebbs and flows, intervals and actions. It was like the unscripted performance came together here under this roof, my uncles roof, the last in a long line of publicans, a man who left a good job in Boston to come home to run this bar. His father told him that he had reared ten children out of it and there was no reason why he couldn’t do the same. Now he was the last one, of that there was no doubt, he wasn’t going to marry now at eighty years of age. As his ageing customers drifted off I helped him clean up, I swept the floor, put the chairs on the tables and on the counter. It was nearly 2.00am and we sat down by the last embers of the fire, each staring into the red coals as if it were an oracle. I nursed a crested ten between my hands and then he spoke, ‘How is that girl, Denise, isn’t it? Lovely looking girl …. soft hands …. you didn’t bring her down with you?’. ‘No, I’m afraid we’ve gone our separate ways. Not compatible unfortunately, but better find out now than ….”’Ah that’s a pity……… don’t worry you’ll meet someone else, you will…… I don’t know if she’d like it around here anyway, ya know like when you come back’. I said nothing, just stared on into the grate, and thought I could see her smiling face, ‘Your right I don’t think she would.’ The Uncle lifted a poker and started fiddling with the dying embers, trying to coax the last of the warmth from them. ‘I better be off’ I said to him throwing the glass on my head and swilling the whiskey, letting it warm my mouth before swallowing it, ‘I’m going to make an early start, I’m going to try and get JP out for a shot’ He stayed looking into the embers as I began to let myself out, ‘ I’ll call in after Mass time’ ‘Grand’ he replied and I heard him murmur, ‘Hard to believe it’s the first of November already …… where has the year gone’.

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