Category Archives: Short Story

The Hind Cut

the-new-country-doctor-406

Gannon lay face down and spread-eagled on the bed, exhausted from a long day in the surgery. Just as he was settling the phone rang in the Hall, its piercing sound stabbing his brain. At least Dot will know how to field the call, divert it to another GP. ‘Hello’ that’s not Dot’s voice, its little Liam. ‘Yes he’s here ….. okay I’ll just get him for you’. Can he not just say that I’m gone out or something? Bloody hell. The six year old boy came bounding down the hallway and burst into his parent’s bedroom. ‘Dad there is some man on the phone and he wants to talk to you, said it’s very important’. Important? ‘How important son? Have the Martians landed in Longford again? He rose gingerly, muttering ‘bloody hell’ as he marched down the long hall towards the telephone, grabbing the receiver ‘Who is this?’ His curt request was met by a quietly spoken ‘Hello Doctor Gannon, it’s Michael Fanning here, I’m in the Dew Drop Inn. You better come quick as there has been an accident’ ‘What sort of an accident?’ ‘It’s Mary Kate Joyce, she sat on a pint glass and is all cut in her hinds. She’s in a bad way Doctor’. Gannon sighed, it was all he needed now, an evening call to a bloody pub. ‘When did it happen?’ ‘only ‘bout five minutes ago, she’s in the Bar wailing in pain and bleeding bad’ ‘Okay I’m on my way’. Gannon looked around but Liam was nowhere to be seen. He knew he had been short with the boy who was sensitive. ‘Liam? Liam where are you?’ No answer. Damn it he thought, he hated going out without apologising to Liam for his sarcasm but it would have to wait.

Gannon carried the tools of his trade in old black satchel which he always threw in the back seat of the SAAB. ‘The Dew Drop Inn’ was set in the heart of the rolling drumlin country, close to the border and at a remote crossroads. When he first came to the area over a decade ago it was described as being close to the borderline, just like its people. In those first few years Gannon took his time to settle. The move was intended to be only a stop gap measure in his medical career, but as the years past and the children settled into the quiet hamlet, so did he. As he became more settled he also began to gain the trust of the locals. It didn’t happen overnight and deep down he felt that it really didn’t matter how long he lived here, he would always be an outsider. He imagined himself as l’etranger. He didn’t let his different perspective on life interfere with his devotion to his profession or to his patients. There were times when he missed his previous postings in Africa and Oman but this was balanced with the knowledge that he had found a safe and secure place to bring up his children, notwithstanding the troubles just ten miles up the road.

‘The Dew Drop Inn’ was an imposing two story building with annexes at both ends and fuel pumps out front. It was set at a crossroads with neither road really leading anywhere interesting. There was no town or village in the parish of Ballybrown and so as such ‘The Dew Drop’ was the focal point of the community. Births, deaths and every significant life event in between was celebrated here. The shop sold all the necessary provisions for rural life. The post office was also part of the shop and it and the telephone Box were the links to the rest of the world and the hundreds of parishioners who now lived far away in places like Manchester, Birmingham, Coventry, New York, Boston and Philadelphia. The walls were adorned with pictures of past parish football teams who had enjoyed success on the battlefield. It was considered a social embarrassment not to be included in one of these line-ups. These were the thoughts that filled the head of Dr. Michael Gannon as he sped the five miles from his home to the infamous ‘Dew Drop Inn’, the social hub of Ballybrown by night, but by day it was inhabited by men for whom drink, and the companionship of those who drink, was their only solace in life. Most of these creatures would be there now awaiting his arrival, and there was poor Mary Kate Joyce in the middle of them, her arse torn to shreds by a pint glass.

            ‘Ah its Doctor Gannon, well this a turnaround, usually its us that travels to him but tonight he’s come to our principal POB’ It was Jack Burgess. Gannon knew him well and his incredibly large ego. Burgess held court here daily in the public bar and while he was not well-liked and considered an annoyance, to the people of Ballybrown he was there annoyance and so occupied an important part of the parish ecosystem.

‘What’s a POB?’ asked Benny Maguire the little hunched up man sat on the stool beside Burgess.

‘Benny my good friend, a POB is our principal place of business, the place where we transact ourselves, the place where, were we a body capable of registration that is, that such registered office would be located, the place where, were a stranger to seek us out and ask such directions of a person of the locality, that person would be directed to this very place, right here Benny, this is our POB’

‘Well seeing as it is such an augmentious occasion the Doctor might buy us a drink’

 ‘Christ man, don’t be talking like that in front of the Doctor, have you no fucking manners at all ………….. the Doctor will buy us a drink in his own good time’

A group were huddled in the corner beneath the television. One woman, the only other female on the premises was holding the hand of Mary Kate Joyce and appeared to be just finishing the Rosary, ‘Hail holy Queen, mother of Mercy, send in most .. Dr Gannon, come in doctor, come in quick, thank God you’re here’. Mary Kate was moaning and when she saw Gannon she started shrieking, ‘ah Doctor, Doctor, am I going to die, I’m near bled out, ah God’. Mary Kate was lying on several towels which were all now crimson. The place looked like a casualty clearing station. ‘You’re okay Mary Kate, you are going to be just fine, try not to worry, we’ll see to you now and get you cleaned up’

Tom Penrose, the proprietor came in from the side door. His complexion was the white of a ghost. No doubt despite the drama around him he would have taken time to check that his public liability insurance was up to date. Gannon grabbed his arm ‘Look I can’t operate on a woman in a public bar’. Penrose nodded, ‘I know Doctor, will we help you load her up and so you can bring her to Mullingar?’ Gannon frowned ‘No Tommy I mean bring her into the lounge!’

The wails of Mary Kate could be heard in several parishes, ‘I’m finished Doctor’. Gannon gently rolled the victim over on her side. She was very much on the plump side. As he rolled up her blood sodden skirt he revealed her ripped nylon stockings and several lacerations to both buttocks. One was quite deep but there didn’t appear to be too much damage to any underlying blood vessels or nerves. Mary must for once be grateful for the bountiful and generous extent of her posterior. Gannon was confident he could suture the main wound but first he’d give her a jab of local anaesthetic. The patient didn’t even feel the needle enter her buttocks and Gannon took this for a good sign. The amount of blood was making things look a lot worse than they were and the assembled audience were only exacerbating tension. ‘Can you stand up Mary Kate please?’ Oh Jesus no I can’t move Doctor, Oh I’m in an awful way’ ‘You will be if you don’t move now my dear’ knowing full well that neither himself nor the half dozen well inebriated men in the bar were be equipped to lift Mary Kates twenty stone frame out of the bar and into the lounge. Gradually with gentle persuasion Mary Kate stood up and with some more coaxing was persuaded to put one foot in front of the other until they slowly made their way into the dimly lit lounge. ‘This won’t do’ thought Gannon but then he eyed the pool table which had a spotlight overhead.

‘Bring her over here and place her on the table, take it gently boys’. Penrose jumped in front of them, arms outstretched ‘Not the new pool table’ he cried. ‘It’ll be destroyed, I only bought it two year ago’. ‘Well go and get some bed linen Tommy and be quick’. As Penrose ran behind the bar and into the house quarters Gannon got a glass. He pushed up the optic and filled himself a brandy. He took a swig and then threw it on his head. He pushed the glass up again for a refill before returning to where the newly commissioned medical orderlies Jack Dexter, Michael Fanning and Pipsey Rooney were having an impromptu cigarette break. Dexter was holding his cigarette to Mary Kate’s mouth and she was dragging on it as if it were her last great of nicotine.

‘Ah Jaysus lads’ cried Tommy returning with a big cardboard box and a well-worn white sheet. ‘Ye can’t smoke in the lounge, ye know that well ye bloody fools. What an evening I’m putting in’.

Dexter went over to the emergency exit and pushing down the bars opened the door letting a whoosh of cool October air in. Sucking strongly on the last remnants of the cigarette he threw the butt on the path. Rooney followed suit and they closed the door. Penrose was tearing up the cardboard box by now and spreading it flat across the pool table. Suddenly the double doors from the hall opened and in came a visibly inebriated Pat Joyce, ‘How are you now darling, you are in good hands, God bless you Doctor Gannon’ ‘How am I he says, How do I look to you with me arse shredded in bits and bared to half the men of the parish’ The wounded looking Pat slid up along the side of the pool table and held his wife’s hand ‘Ah darling don’t be like that in front of the men, the doctor will surely do his best to save you, isn’t that right Doctor, god bless ya and save ya’

Dexter and Rooney lifted Mary Kate up on to the Pool Table and Gannon rolled her gently over. The men averted their gaze but there really was no way of letting modesty take any foothold in this situation. Penrose came back with a basin of warm water and a clean tea towel. The bright light over the pool table was turned on and Gannon began by cleaning the wounds. As the blood was cleaned off he could see that many of the cuts were superficial and he picked out several small pieces of glass. ‘Do your best Doctor I’ve 9 kids at home and they wouldn’t survive without their mammy’ ‘Well they must be surviving alright tonight’  thought Gannon to himself. The blood still flowed from one of the deeper wounds and so Gannon got Pat Joyce to squeeze the two sides of the open cut together to stem the flow. He then took out his suture kit and threaded the nylon monofilament through the eye of the needle. He began to put Mary Kate Joyce’s bum back together stitch by stitch in a standard single interrupted closure of the wound. The smaller wounds were easily dealt with and bandaged. All in all the procedure took less than half an hour and at this stage Penrose was getting agitated and looking at his watch

Gannon was guiding the patient out to the car. ‘I’m just afraid Doctor you know. It won’t affect me if I was you to have another baby?’. ‘Oh no, not at all Mary. Are you pregnant?’ ‘Not that I know of Doctor’. Mary paused for a little break, ‘How many have you now?’ asked Gannon. ‘Well we had ten but nine living’. ‘Nine!’ repeated Gannon, he had thought they had six or seven at most. ‘You know there are procedures available Mrs Joyce. You can get a procedure or Pat either and then you wouldn’t have to worry about getting pregnant’. Mary Kate thought for a few moments before walking again, ‘God I think I’ve had enough procedures for one night Doctor but thanks very much’. Her husband was now out opening the passenger side door and linking her in. ‘Maybe we can talk about again when you get over this. You’ll come into me Tuesday or Wednesday so I can check how you are healing. I’ve given Pat something to help with pain and sleep’.

‘Thanks for everything Doctor …. and the other advice too but I think I will take what God gives me’. Gannon smiled but inside he was sighing ‘Has God not given her enough?’

The Doctor returned to the Lounge to gather up his satchel. Penrose had already cleared the make-shift operating table and was wiping the edges of the pool table with a damp cloth. ‘You timed that well Doctor. We’ve an ould pool competition tonight with the Courtmacsweeney lads. You are welcome to sponsor a spot prize if you like.’ Gannon shook his head ‘I’ll have another Brandy though’. Penrose finished wiping and shuffled behind the counter to get Gannon a drink. ‘Oh and send a drink up to Professor Burgess and his able assistant there’.

Gannon gathered up his instruments and put them in his satchel. He looked around the empty lounge. The Bar was filling up though. He was tired and needed sleep. He held the squat glass in his hand and savoured the aroma of the Cognac just under his nostrils before finishing it. He walked purposefully through the hallway and out to the fresh air. As he put the car in gear and turned it towards home he thought of what Mary Kate had said. He wondered had God given him too much also.

 

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The Moustache is hiring

Bar in QueensAs he crossed Queens Boulevard and strolled up the wide sidewalk towards the Bar, Tommy McKillen checked his watch again, 8.45pm. His mate Jimmy had said he’d be there by 9.00pm. Tommy didn’t want to be late. He wondered had Jimmy changed much? He hadn’t seen him in five years now. They had grown up beside each other and were inseparable. Jimmy’s family had returned to the States when he was 14. Growing up in the North West there were several American born kids in school? There was the Harrington’s who were from New Jersey, who could ever forget Colleen Harrington playing basketball in the front courts at school. Tommy remembered how they had all gone to support the school team in the Connacht Finals but the truth was they had all gone to watch Colleen strut around the court. Tommy was shy back then and if she had spoken to him he knew he would have probably died there and then. Joe Burke and Jimmy were from Sunnyside, Brian O’Donnell was Chicago. Then there was that lad from Cashel who was from San Francisco, he was Moran, Tommy couldn’t recall his first name. He did remember him out at Annagh Lake one summer, at swimming lessons, bragging about little league baseball.  Jimmy later punched his lights out at the back of the school gym. God knows what had ignited the row but he recalled afterwards that Moran and Jimmy shared a cigarette; Moran’s hands were trembling so much he could barely hold the match to light his smoke.  Later he gave the entire pack to Jimmy, a sort of peace offering or reparations. We smoked some of the cigarettes under the Cryan’s Bridge until Tommy was dizzy and sick. Then we smoked some more that evening when Jimmy came with me to count the cattle over in Annagh. That’s when he told me they were going back.

Approaching the Bar the Elevated line roared overhead as the Number 7 braked for its stop at the 40th Street station. The old steel frames vibrated, the rails rattled all the way to Manhattan. The Citibank building in the distance stood there proud, alone defiant against the bigger skyline across the East River. Inside the bar was quiet. Tommy pulled in halfway down the bar and picked the middle of three vacant stools. Two older guys on his left were talking about a ball game. Slowly he got his bearings relishing the air-conditioning. There were two girls and a guy on his right who were shooting the breeze about some friend of theirs who had flunked in College. The girl looked nice, a lovely tan, blonde hair and white teeth. Frankie the barman nods as they make contact, Frankie the Greek/ Italian/ Irish barman. “Hey Tommy, What’s up?’ his right hand outstretched to shake mine as his left throws a fresh beermat on the counter. ‘I’m good Frankie’, a cold bottle of Bud is placed on the beermat. Jimmy threw down a few bills beside it. ‘Has Jimmy McHugh being in yet?’ ‘No haven’t seen Jimmy in months. He’s living up state now. Up around Tarrytown’. Tommy nodded and sipped the cold beer. He had telephoned Jimmy’s mother on Tuesday, or was it Wednesday. He wasn’t sure now but she told him shed she’d be speaking to Tommy. When he spoke to her again yesterday and she said Tommy would be here by 9.00pm. He sipped some more.

New york bar‘Jimmy’s a good guy. I like him. We went to the same High School’ utters Frankie as he passes by wiping the counter with a cloth, fastidious, clean cut Frankie. Tommy notes that there a baseball game on the television. He hates the isolation and sitting here listening to other people’s conversations, longing to join in. He checks his watch again, 9.10pm and wishes Jimmy would arrive and not leave him waiting like this.

Tommy’s contemplation is broken by one of the guys on his left, ‘give us two more here Frankie….. and two Irish Whiskies’ Tommy could see the moustachioed guy in the mirror behind the bar. ‘Here you go Roger, what type whiskey you want, I got Jameson, Tullamore Dew, Paddy?’ The Moustache thinks before replying ‘Two Jameson on the rocks and have one yourself my friend’. Tommy takes out his cigarettes and lights a Parliament before stopping to read the matchbox.

‘American Festival Café, Rockefeller Center, 600 5th Ave, New York, NY 10020’

He hates his job there, hates been out in the sun all day, hates the way he must play this phoney friendly waiter all day long. The match card has the famous statue as its centre piece. One of his colleagues Andy said he likes the statue at work, said he saw it in a movie, ‘You do know the Restaurant closes in winter and is turned into an ice rink’. Tommy nodded before telling Andy that the statue is of Prometheus. ‘Oh yeah’ shrugged Andy, ‘that’s cool’ before racing off to berate the two Bengali busboys again. A few days ago he argued with Tommy that the correct term was Bangladeshi when Tommy said you could also say Bengali. Tomato, Tomato, who cares, whatever, fini

Tullamore DewFrankie comes back with the whiskies. ‘Hey aren’t you having one yourself? C’mon Frankie I’m buying, have a drink with us even if those Mets suck, at least the Knicks are flying’ the Moustache is well on it, looks like he’s been here all evening, getting slowly pissed and gradually louder. Frankie takes a shot glass and grabs a bottle of Tullamore Dew, he pours himself a drink. Tommy sucks on his Parliament watching the proceedings out of the side of my eye and through the mirror. Where the fuck is Jimmy, 9.21pm. ‘Here’s to those Knicks, going to do it this season, you heard it here first, and don’t forget it’ Yeah that’s a very loud moustache, muses Tommy, his mate doesn’t even respond, the glasses raised, clink and down the hatch. Tommy watches Frankie; the whiskey doesn’t knock a stir out of him. He recalled one of the Barmen telling him that sometimes Bartenders have their own favourite shot. ‘So it goes like this’ he explained, ‘Couple of guys want a Jaeger, you fill them a Jaeger and then they start putting pressure on you to have one, so you have your own bottle, let’s say it’s a whiskey, so you take out your bottle of Tullamore Dew and fill your glass, you do the shot with them, and the next one and so on. They think you’re a great guy, part of their night out, but they are getting wasted, you’re not because your Tullamore Dew is filled with Iced Tea, all you have to do is clean up the fucking tips’. Frankie has a bottle of Tullamore Dew which he returns under the counter not on the shelf, he’s in on it notes Tommy, determined some night to play him at his own game just to let him know, that he knows. It won’t happen tonight because Tommy is skint. He is hoping Jimmy has some contacts, anything, a phone number, Tommy needs work.

So Roger is the name of Moustache. Now he’s telling his mate about his little girl and what a smart kid she is. Tommy notices the girl to his right again, lovely long tanned legs, hint that she’s been out on the beach, it reminds me to call out to visit his Grandmothers cousins in Breezy Point. She looks about 21. She lazily drapes her arm over the shoulder of one of the guys with her. He is in the middle of some story too, stories being told all around him but what story am I in?wonders Tommy. Then it kicks off to his left ‘Get the fuck out of here, you fucking asshole’. Tommy turns just in time to see Roger the Moustache jumping up and over his mate who is now stretched on the ground with a right hook, his stool is lying beside him, he is gingerly getting to his feet, raising a hand as if to protect himself from any more punishment. Tommy didn’t see the punch clearly but the blood now trickling from the guy’s mouth suggests that it was a sweet connection. Frankie has jumped the counter and is holding the Moustache, ‘Easy Roger, not here man, take your quarrel outside, not here’, ‘You dirty bastard’ the moustache roars trying to kick his former mate, ‘douchebag’. The wounded friend is now on his feet backing away to the door, then he is gone, his shadow passing by the window heading towards Woodside. Frankie still has a bear hold of the Moustache who stretched out is a big unit, 6’2 or 6’3 at least; they go over to a corner by the pool table. Tommy sips his beer again. Move on, nothing to see here, move along.

JukeboxThe girl next to Tommy asks ‘What is that all about?’ ‘I have absolutely no idea’ gesturing with open arms to reinforce his view. They all laugh and shrug shoulders, bemused. The girl gets up and goes to the juke-box, she starts flicking through the lists. ‘You’re Irish’ says one of the guys. ‘Yes I can’t hide it can I?’ ‘My family are Irish, from County Cork; my Gran never lost her brogue even though she is here since the early 50’s’. ‘I’d imagine that it’s hard to keep your accent in a place like this’ I reply for the sake of replying. Tommy remembers a girl who went to work in Bundoran for a summer, seven weeks later and it was all ‘Ock aye’ and ‘wee’ this and ‘wee’ that. Frankie comes back behind the Bar. ‘Sorry about that folks, excitement over. The guys had a bit of a disagreement, Roger there was right though so I’m letting him stay of that’s okay. He’s a good guy, he’s from the neighbourhood’. A few minutes later Roger the Moustache comes back from the restrooms, he has on a Polo shirt, cream shorts, white socks and sneakers. He takes up again on his stool, gathering his money, folding the bills before placing them again on the counter in a neat pile.

Tommy lights another Parliament, the jukebox kicks into life, Ace of Base. The trio on his right start chatting again, he is on his own again, and he is going to kill McHugh, 10.04pm. ‘I saw the sign and it opened up my eyes, I saw the sign…’ Frankie comes back with some bowls of pretzels, placing one in front of the Moustache and one in front of me. ‘Cheers man’ says the moustache ‘I’m sorry Frankie you know I’m not like that but fucking hell what an asshole’Frankie is working his way along the bar only half listening, so the Moustache starts talking to Tommy. ‘You just never know do you?’ he says. ‘Know what?’‘This guy, I was drinking with him for like two hours, seemed like a decent guy, he was Navy so was my Dad, ya’know, just having a beer. I was telling him how my father was chosen to be Neptune when they crossed the Equator, you know the tradition right, meant so much to my old man’ He stopped for a moment and threw his whiskey on his head and slammed the glass on the counter. ‘Son of a bitch! So I was telling him about my daughter and showed her photo like this’ he takes his wallet out and shows Tommy a photo of this young oriental looking girl, his daughter. Must have got a mail order wife assumes Tommy, Thai, Filipino somewhere like that. ‘So he says nice kid and asks me do I want to see his, I say yeah sure, I thought you weren’t married blah! Blah! and he takes out his wallet and shows me some pictures of young kids nude, disgusting man, young kids, fucking paedo, sick bastard!’Christ I think, he was right to box him so, ‘I’m sorry kid but this guy really got me, if Frankie wasn’t here I would have done some real harm, Frankie give is two beers and I’m gone’ Frankie places two fresh beers on the counter, ‘There on me’ The moustache is off again, ‘I was just telling your friend here about that creep, fucking hell’ Frankie winks at me without the Moustache seeing and heads back up along the bar. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t get your name kid, I’m Roger by the way, Roger Wallstein’ his hand is out so I shake hands, ‘How are ya, I’m Tommy’‘Irish huh, this neighbourhood was all Irish once upon a time, when I was growing up it was all Irish, all the businesses too. I’m Catholic, German, family, Bavarian, yeah a good Catholic boy. So what’s your story Tommy?’ 

Tommy takes a drag out of his cigarette before answering, ‘Well I was supposed to meet a mate of mine but he’s stood me up. Irish guy I grew up with, well he was born here but family came back to Ireland and then back over here again. Frankie knows him. I’m looking for work to be honest, only been here six weeks. Have a job in a bar in midtown but the hours aren’t great’ ‘Midtown not great for tips either save Thursday and Friday afternoons’ says Roger. ‘There’s some temporary positions going in our place, easy work, money is okay’. This sounds good thinks Tommy, ‘Where bout’s that? Doing what?’ ‘It’s an apartment block on the Upper East Side, concierge, you know, Doorman, elevator cars that sort of thing. You might get a few months’ work, who knows’. ‘That would be great, really need something soon’. ‘Frankie give me a pen’ When the pen arrives Roger starts writing an address and number,

Empire House, 180 East 72nd St 3rd & Lex., Shaun Richards

‘You give them a call or call in and speak to Richards. Who knows he might give you a break’. The Moustache looks at his watch ‘Oh my god, I’m out of here!  Nice talking to you ….’ ‘it’s Tommy’ ‘yeah Tommy’ he throws his bottle on his head, picks up his Bills and throws a twenty back on the counter, ‘Thank you Frankie, I’m sorry about earlier buddy’. With that Roger the Moustache is gone. Tommy looks at the napkin, Upper East Side he thinks and places the napkin in his wallet. Frankie is over and picks up his tip and wipes the counter down, ‘Roger was in good form tonight eh Tommy?’ ‘Yeah, certainly was a bit of drama alright, I never met him before’. Frankie continues wiping the counter ‘I suppose he told you all about the wife leaving him, he really misses his daughter. He met this girl Chinese or something through some agency in the church, she comes over, they marry, have a kid, lovely little girl, then she ups stick and are now living in Manhattan with some other Chinese guy. Roger thinks he was set up, maybe he was but he certainly got her a green card and she’s here to stay but he’s left paying the bills. He’s drinking a good bit these days. I worry about him’. Frankie reaches into the under-counter fridge and pulls out another Bud for me ‘That guy surely ruffled his feathers earlier’ Frankie goes through the whole story about the  porn pics in the wallet and the man claiming they were his kids. ‘Dirty bastard’ Tommy shakes his head and then asks ‘What does Roger do for a crust? ‘He works in some building in the city, security or something. Not sure Tommy’

apartmentBack in the Apartment Tommy tip toes by their Ecuadoran room-mate. There is no sign of Andy in the bedroom, out on the town again. With the stifling heat, Tommy can’t wait to turn on the fan for some relief. There is no air conditioning in the apartment and they struggle to sleep. The noise of the city wakes him up and he looks at his watch; it’s just after 7.30am and he is covered in a lather of sweat. The pillow is soaked through and the sheets also. He even kicked off his boxer shorts during the night. Not able to sleep any more he takes a shower, relief, relief god that water is good he thinks but then he can’t dry himself with the towel, as he starts sweating again. He hates this heat, he hates this apartment, but most of all he hates being broke in this city. In a few minutes he is gone down the stairs out into the bright, blinding white of day. He wants to go home but he can’t. In the Diner he has some breakfast Canadian bacon, eggs and coffee. He can feel a slight thud in his forehead. Jimmy never showed. He takes several refills of coffee and read the The Post.

Two hours later and he comes up out of the subway station. He takes a few seconds to orientate when he does he continues over East 72nd Street and into a shady atrium. Tommy walks to the front door and is met by a man in a smart uniform and white gloves. ‘Can I help sir?’ he asks, stretching his arms across to ensure Tommy doesn’t consider entering the building. ‘Can you show where the reception is?’ ‘Reception’ he looks curiously ‘this is an apartment building not a hotel. This is the main entrance and is for tenants only sir; you’re going to have to move on sir’. Tommy turns to walk away but then shouts after the Doorman, ‘I’m looking for the manager Mr. Richards, Shaun Richards?’  ‘Go back to the service entrance on the corner of 71st and 3rd, you better go now’.

The building is huge, Tommy looks up at the sky and it seems to cover an entire city block, a central tower with two substantial wings with probably several hundred apartments in total. He walks around the block and thinks about abandoning his mission. He stands at the entrance for a few seconds. This is not near as glamorous as the entrance on the other side of the building where he’s just been. A couple of men point me towards the office and he enters the bowels of the building, down a ramp and into furnace like heat and the deafening noise of a rubbish compactor. Men in overalls push overflowing garbage bins up the ramp to waiting trucks. At the bottom of the ramp a corridor leads on and he sees a sign for the office. There is a glass window and he can see a number of men inside deep in conversation. There is a time clock on the wall and a large board with dozens of employee’s time cards in neat rows. Tommy pauses before knocking on the door but when nobody answers he just opens it. A man is sitting at a desk; he is on the phone but momentarily puts the mouthpiece to his chest and says ‘What you want?’ ‘I’m looking for Mr. Shaun Richards’. He points towards another door, returns to his call and I go on further, knock on the door,

‘Come in’ is the reply so Tommy opens the door, ‘C’mon, c’mon I don’t fucking bite, what can I do for you?’ says a Burt Lancasteresque figure in a sharp suit. ‘I’m here to meet Mr. Richards’ ‘Oh yeah well I’m Richards, Shaun Richards, who are you?’  he roars, why is he roaring? ‘Tommy McKillen, here about the job, Roger sent me’ He gleams with big white teeth showing and a powerful stare. ‘Roger?  Roger who?’ ‘Roger Wallstein’ I reply. ‘I have no idea what the fuck you are talking about son, Saunders! Saunders get in here!’ the man on the phone rushes in., ‘Saunders are we hiring? Summer relief? You know anything?’ ‘Well yes sir we do need some cover yep’, ‘Listen this kid looks the part, and he’s got balls to walk in on me like this’ says Richards as he reverts his gaze back on Tommy‘ look son we have a few weeks work that’s all but there may be something more permanent come out of it. Be on time, always be on fucking time and be polite to the tenants, if you’re not, you’ll have me to deal with, now get the fuck out of here’.

Saunders leads Tommy out of the office and down the corridor where he takes out a bunch of keys and opens the door. When the lights flicker on Tommy can see rack upon rack of uniforms, some still in dry-cleaning covers. ‘What size waist?’ asks Saunders ‘34”’ ‘Here try these’ the trousers don’t fit so Tommy tries another. With trial and error he gets fully kitted out and is then given a locker in the changing rooms to keep his stuff in. ‘Get a lock, get 3 or 4 white shirts, always come in clean and tidy. No bad breath or BO, you start tonight at 11.00pm, you be here by 10.30pm and relieve the man at Elevator 6 at 10.45. You give good relief you get a good relief. In the morning your replacement will try and be in for 6.45am. Where are you living?’ ‘Oh Elmhurst, just off Broadway’ replies Tommy. ‘Okay, if you haven’t shirts there is a Sears out at the Queens Center, it’s just another couple stops on your train, get some’

At 10.44pm that night Tommy takes the service elevator up to the lobby. It is a beautiful hall of mirrors with a water feature behind the main entrance where he had initially been this afternoon. Two door men look towards him and he can sense they are checking him out. Tommy has a piece of paper with instructions about polishing brass and cleaning mirrors, on the other side is his Roster for the next 3 weeks. He walks towards where I’ve been told Elevator 6 is. A uniformed man with a moustache stands outside the car, looking in the mirror, fixing his collar, ‘Hi Roger I got the job’ Tommy announces excitedly, ‘Hey kid, thanks for the relief’ he looks peculiarly at Tommy, ‘We met in the Blackthorn last night, remember?’ but Roger just frowns, ‘The Blackthorn?’ he looks at Tommy vacantly.  ‘Yes remember the old guy with the kid’s photos?’ Roger opens the door to the service elevator, grabs his bag and says ‘I’m sorry kid I think you must be mixing me up with someone else, have a good one’

The Month’s Mind

I have reworked a previous blog post about shaving into a short story. The title refers to  requiem mass celebrated about one month after a person’s death, in memory of the deceased. The tradition is of great antiquity and some believe the word is derived from the Norse word ‘Minne’  describing a ceremonial drinking to the dead. The tradition survives in Ireland where the family and close friends attend. The story is reworked into a rites of passage narrative. 


shaving brush


I walk down the lane to the neat little farmhouse half consciously counting the cars parked in the farm yard and driveway. It is four weeks since he died and since then the dahlias in the front garden have come out rejoicing I n full bloom. My granduncle is standing sentry-like at the back door, smoking his cigarette and fumbling in an effort to put his matches back into the inside pocket of his well-worn suit. My Aunt says she swears it is the same suit he wore twenty seven years previous to my parents wedding. ‘It’s hard to believe, it sure is, hmm’ he mutters cigarette smoke bellowing from his mouth and nostrils like an old train, ‘imagine hah….. Where does the time go to?’ I’m sure he can barely make my shape out through his glossy, brandy dulled eyes.

The second I open the door I am almost overcome with the unnatural heat and noise coming from inside the house. ‘It’s nice that they laid him out in the home place’ said Mrs Noone to my mother, ‘even of the house is showing its age and all that, it’s what he would have wanted.’ Mrs. Heeran interjects ‘I’m not gone on these funeral homes at all; they’re pure pagan so they are’ to which Mrs Noone replies ‘It’s hard to beat a good wake at home amongst your own and then the chapel’. I am stranded here between them like a net on a tennis court when my aunt rescues me, ‘There he is, won’t be long before he’s off to University, isn’t that right Liam, now come up here to your Grandmother for  a minute, Grainne will you get Mrs Noone a fresh brew?’

In a few short minutes I find myself sitting in the room where he once sat, in the chair that he would have sat in. I settle down and look around the room at the people gathered for his Months Mind. Trays of sandwiches are passed around followed by plates laden with slices of fruit flan and apple tart, the latter flavoured with cloves of course, my Grandmother’s way. My Aunts and Cousins fly about with pots of steaming tea topping up delicate china cups, in a room where an epic turf fire blazes. On a shelf above the radio, a small statue of St. Martin de Porres acts as a paperweight for numerous Mass Cards, the little figurine itself surrounded by various miraculous medals and bottles of holy water from Knock, Fatima and Lourdes. There too are his reading glasses, the ones he detested and fumed about constantly. On the inside sits a shiny box red and black containing his electric razor.

Shaving had never seemed routine to me as a boy. I believe that shaving is something ceremonial, almost ritual and more than mere necessity; it can be a performance, the theatre of the everyday, the essence of life, a mark of manhood and flash of vigour. I remembered my father used a wooden handled foam brush to mix the cool shaving cream that he then daubed over his prickly face to soften the stubble. He then began by slowly dragging the sharp Wilkinson blade across his jaw, like mowing a meadow in straight swathes, before cleaning the blade under the cold tap after every second or third stroke, repeating the motion, cleansing, shearing and renewing. He would finish with the more difficult movements around the mouth and lips, which he pinched, in deep concentration, before finally washing the residual foam away with a wet cloth. A quick dab of cold water marked the end of the ceremony; all the time unaware that I was standing there watching, learning, in awe.

No doubt he too would have looked at his father, my Grandfather, shaving, or perhaps his uncles when they came home from England in the summer. Once I had tried to mimic the act of shaving with my father’s razor, a foolish act borne out of my impatience to become a man, and testified by the cross-like scar on my upper lip. The scar is hidden now by my own stubble only to appear anew when I shave. My Grandfather had berated me for my stupidity, a silly boy trying to be a man.   ‘Have you the bags packed Liam? You won’t find it now. He would have been so proud of you’  It is my cousin Aileen smiling, her words breaking my trance-like reminiscing and I become aware of her heady perfume. ‘Yes just two weeks away, won’t find it’ I reply, ‘Have you digs organised?’ she asks, ‘yes, I was lucky to get a room in a house on Quay Road. Only got word yesterday so I’m taking it blind but it should be fine’ She puts her hand on my knee and squeezes it ‘It’ll be the making of you young man, the world is your oyster, he’d be so proud, he’ll be with you Liam, he’ll be by your side’.

It was I who used hang at my Grandfather’s side watching him, learning from him, like in McKee’s Bar on the nights of the big sales in the local Mart, the pub full of jobbers, tanglers, dealers, Northern buyers, tobacco smoke and thick ash plants for beating cattle up trailer ramps. I would sit on a high stool beside him, aping his gestures and movements, my legs dangling, swinging in time to the beat and blare of the mixed accents of men from Cavan, Longford, Roscommon and Fermanagh. The air was thick with the sounds of laughter, merriment, rows, insults and the vigorous shaking of hands, the entire drama that went on such nights as I pretended my frothy Cavan Cola was a glass of Guinness.

Later I would link my Grandfather home from town, standing well in on the grassy verge when car lights approached, until finally we came as far as our lane.  On the way home he would denounce what ‘They’ had done to men like Blessed Oliver Plunkett; He would tell me how Parnell was let down badly but had let himself down too. He would get most animated when he spoke of about his own Great-Grandfather, ‘don’t ever forget’ he said that ‘we were burnt out of  our house, put to the road and they after hanging him from the shafts of a cart.’ Unbeknownst I was being passed on invisible torches, whether I wanted to hold them or not. Then as we approached the house he would straighten up, puff out his chest, fortified for meeting my Grandmother. ‘Liam you’ll have this’ it was my Uncle Martin, ’put hairs on your chest’. In his hands are two small glasses with two large pours of whiskey, one of which he is pointing towards me. I don’t usually drink whiskey yet instinctively I take one. I lift the glass to my nose and savour its woody pungency before slowly sipping the burning malt.

In summer time my Grandfather had often shaved outside on the back street of the house. A red basin with warm water set on a chair brought out from the kitchen, a fresh towel laid across the high back, a small mirror propped up on the wall with a red brick. I am back there again; the brown faced Collie lying stretched out, but watching him, panting in the heat of the mid-morning sun. I am sitting there watching him too. With his braces now hanging down by his sides, he looks like a character from a Western; standing there he could’ve been out on the high plains. We are both engrossed in his labour. When finished he bends down scooping up the water in his cupped hands, washing away the last of the foam from his now shiny skin. He then pats his face dry with the towel, which is then thrown over his shoulder, before he picks up the basin with a flourish, flinging its contents down the yard, scattering cats and hens in all directions. He is gone then into the house, his ablutions over. When he emerges he is wearing his bright sports coat and a gaudy wide tie, the latter clearly from another decade, another continent even. He pinches my cheek first and then pats the dog and mutters something about looking like a ‘broken down gentleman’ then he is gone away for the day to some meeting.

Martin has now come back with the bottle of Jameson and topped up my glass again. I feel my cheeks aglow and the whiskey now tastes far sweeter than that initial sip just minutes before. ‘SsH! SSh! began to pass through the house and as the various conversations subside the reprise of the Rosary can be heard from the living room. The people sitting next to me begin the reply ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.’ Our neighbour Patrick Joseph gets down tentatively on his knees and manoeuvres himself so that he is facing into the armchair he’d just been sitting on. I couldn’t help but notice the well-worn shiny seat of his pants. For all his piety he is more accustomed to sitting than kneeling. I thought of the line from the reading I had read at the funeral mass, ‘To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven’. The whiskey was making me dreamy as was the murmuring uniformity of the prayers. ‘A time to be born, a time to die, A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted’. Ecclesiastes, egg cheesy elastic, heck cheesy plastic. ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.’

My grandfather had become a frail man, his body shaking with uncontrollable tremors that mocked him and broke his spirit. His daughters took turns in shaving him. His shaking hand would only have done himself harm. Instead of a sharp razor blade they preferred to use the Remington electric Razor. It was a present they had bought for him one recent Christmas. It was very sleek and modern with a tilting head to match the contours of his rugged, well lined country face. I remember thinking that one day I would like to own a smart looking Remington too. ‘Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Erin’. An hour later as we are all leaving I ask my Grandmother if I can have his razor. ‘Of course’ she says, ‘of course, why wouldn’t you, …… sure we’ve no use for it now’. I reach up to the shelf for the box and say my good nights. As I approach the  door my Aunt walks into the back kitchen, she sees the box in my hand and I can see her eyes well up. She takes a tissue and wipes her eyes ‘Good night Liam’ her hand touches my shoulder as I leave.

I awake with a dry mouth. I lie there for several minutes until the the thirst is too much. In the bathroom I greedily drink a gulps of cold water straight from the tap. Looking in the mirror I rub my chin and cheeks. My stubble feels rough and bristly. Need to look presentable the first day. I open the cabinet door and take down the box. Inside are various brushes, the razor and the power lead.  I plug the razor into the two pronged socket. The shaver buzzes loudly until I place against my skin so that it hums softly. I trace a path across my face down the the jawbone and then faxk il again. The razor starts to struggle and choke.  Flipping open the lid I see it us full and I tap it firmly against the side of the wash hand basin tipping the contents out. The slow running water from the cold tap gathers up the discarded stubble. The colour of the water, turns first grey, then dark and mottled, making ever increasing concentric circles. Suddenly I am startled by sight of my own fresh stubble now mixed with the last my grandfather ever grew. I remembered now, I remembered the women below in the corpse room preparing his body for the wake, and our cousin coming up the hall with the Remington box in her hand. She placed the box on the shelf.  I gaze in the mirror at my half shaven face looking deep at and through my now glossy eyes, overcome with the significance of the stubble, slowly emptying down the plughole of eternity.

The Art of Shaving

Shaving

Shaving had never seemed routine to me as a boy. I believed that shaving was something ceremonial, almost ritual and more than mere necessity; it was a performance, the theatre of the everyday, the essence of life, a mark of manhood and flash of vigour. My father used a wooden handled foam brush to mix the cool shaving cream that he then daubed over his prickly face to soften the stubble. He then began by slowly dragging the sharp blade across his jaw, like mowing a meadow in straight swathes, before cleaning the blade under the cold tap after every second or third stroke, repeating the motion, cleansing, shearing and renewing. He would finish with the more difficult movements around the mouth and lips, which he pinched, in deep concentration, before finally washing the residual foam away with a wet cloth. A quick dab of cold water marked the end of the ceremony; all the time unaware that I was standing there watching, learning, in awe.

No doubt he too would have looked at his father, my Grandfather, shaving, or perhaps his uncles when they came home from England in the summer. Once I had tried to mimic the act of shaving with my father’s razor, a foolish act borne out of my impatience to become a man, and testified by the cross-like scar on my upper lip. The scar is hidden now by my own stubble only to appear anew when I shave. My Grandfather had berated me for my stupidity, a silly boy trying to be a man.  But still I copied him, like in McKee’s Bar on the nights of the big sales in the local Mart, the pub full of jobbers, tanglers, dealers, Northern buyers, tobacco smoke and thick ash plants for beating cattle up trailer ramps. I would hang at my Grandfather’s side, sitting on the high stool, aping his gestures and movements, my legs dangling, swinging in time to the beat and blare of the mixed accents of men from Cavan, Longford, Roscommon and Fermanagh. There flowed the sounds of  laughter, merriment, rows, insults and the vigorous shaking of hands, the entire drama that went on such nights as I pretended my frothy Cavan Cola was a glass of Guinness.

Later I would link my Grandfather home from town, standing well in on the grassy verge when car lights approached, until we came as far as our own lane.  On the way home he would denounce what ‘they’ had done to men like Blessed Oliver Plunkett, He would tell me how Parnell was let down badly but had let himself down too. He would get most animated when he spoke of about his own Great-Grandfather, ‘don’t ever forget’ he said that ‘they were burnt out of their house, put to the road and they after hanging him from the shafts of a cart.’  It may have been in 1798 but the message was we ‘Don’t ever forget’. Unbeknownst I had now been passed an invisible torch, whether I wanted to hold it or not. Then as we approached the house he would straighten up, puff out his chest, fortified for meeting my Grandmother.

In summer time my Grandfather had often shaved on the back street of the house, a red basin with warm water set on a chair brought out from the kitchen, a fresh towel laid across the high back, a small mirror propped up on the wall with a red brick. A brown faced Collie lay stretched, watching him, panting in the heat of the mid-morning sun. I would sit there watching him too. With his braces now hanging down by his sides, he looked like a character from a Western; standing there he could have been out on the high plains, so engrossed was he in his labour. When finished he bent down scooping up the water in his cupped hands, washing away the last of the foam from his now shiny skin. He then patted his face dry with the towel, which was then thrown over his shoulder, before he picked up the basin, flinging its contents down the yard, scattering cats and hens in all directions. He was gone then into the house, his ablutions over. When he emerged he was wearing his bright sports coat and a gaudy wide tie, the latter clearly from another decade, another continent even. He patted me first and then the dog and muttered something about looking like a ‘broken down gentleman’ then he was gone for the day to a meeting.

In time he became a frail man, his body shaking with uncontrollable tremors that mocked him and broke his spirit. His daughters now took turns in shaving him. His shaking hand would only have done himself harm. Instead of a sharp razor blade they preferred to use a red and black Remington electric Razor. It was a present they had bought for him one recent Christmas. It was very sleek and modern with a tilting head to match the contours of his rugged, well lined country face. I thought that one day I would like to own a smart looking Remington too.

Four weeks after he died and I am sitting in the room where he once sat, in the chair that he would have sat in. I look around the room at the people gathered for his Months Mind mass. Trays of sandwiches are passed around followed by plates laden with slices of fruit flan and apple tart, the latter flavoured  with cloves of course, my grandmothers way. My Aunts fly about with pots of freshly brewed tea topping up delicate china cups, in a room where an epic turf fire blazes. On a shelf above the radio, a small statue of St. Martin de Porres acts as a paperweight for numerous Mass Cards, itself surrounded by various miraculous medals and several bottle of holy water, from Knock, Fatima and Lourdes. There too are his reading glasses, the ones he detested and fumed about constantly. On the inside sits a shiny box containing his electric razor. An hour later as we are all leaving I ask my Grandmother if I can have his razor. ‘Of course’ she says, ‘of course, why wouldn’t you, …… we’ve no use for it now’. 

A few days later I plug the razor into the two pronged socket in the bathroom and begin my first ever dry shave. The shaver buzzes for a few minutes but after only completing one jaw it struggles and chokes. I flip open the lid and tap it firmly against the side of the wash hand basin tipping the contents out. The slow running water from the cold tap gathers up the discarded stubble, the water turning first grey, then dark and mottled, making ever increasing concentric circles. I stand suspended, looking down in the basin where my own fresh stubble is now mixed with the last my grandfather ever grew. I remembered now, I remembered the women below in the corpse room preparing his body for the wake, and our cousin coming up the hall with the Remington box in her hand. It was she who placed the box on the shelf.  I gaze in the mirror at my half shaven face. I look deep into my now glossy eyes, completely overcome with the significance of the stubble, slowly emptying, down the plughole, of eternity.

The Ballad of JP

  photo - Copy

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’.

coal-stoves-1

1979

1979The Infant School is gone now. It made way for the amalgamation of the old Boys and Girls schools. The Boys School was viewed by the Nuns with a deep suspicion as if it was an academy of evil and vice. The Girls School was a place where they set out to promote virtue. They would strive to educate a few aspiring teachers, an odd nurse, occasionally a nun, but for most girls it would be a low level civil service position or a farmer’s wife.

Sr. Eugenia was her name. She was a sadistic bitch who ruled her Senior Infant’s class with fear, fear and lashings of more fear. She did have her pets in that room; those whom she favoured because they were from what she would have termed ‘good’ families. Some of these favoured few were clever enough to know that there was a game to be played and if you knew the rules you could get by, relatively unscathed. The Pets were gratified with little errands such as handing out the pencils that were kept in a metal box on the teacher’s desk. The pets were mostly girls from the town. Even at that stage it was clear that most girls were much more advanced than boys of the same age. They didn’t fear her like we did. It was as if they could miraculously anticipate her moods. We boys just threaded carefully in constant fear of her sudden outbursts and rages.

Vatican_CityIt began as a day not unlike any other.  It was the year the Pope came to Ireland. I can’t recall what time of the year it was, nor the time of day, or the weather. I can clearly recall though that precise moment when the mood changed in that space between those four walls, this mini State where her writ did run. The change was sudden and without warning and seemed to catch even the pets off-guard. The Nun said a toy was missing, stolen no doubt, by a boy no doubt, a boy from the town no doubt. At the side of the room were various cupboards and shelves containing the tools and machinery for running a classroom. There was paper and paints, pencils, word cards and charts. On one particular side arrayed neatly on a counter there was a row of abacuses. To one side of these ancient counting tools were a collection of small toys such as little cars, tractors, trucks and various animals. I don’t ever recall that we ever got to play with these toys. I remember how teasing and tempting they were, their different hues of racing green and fire engine red, distracting us from the lessons been drummed into us throughout the long day.

The Nun began a mass interrogation of the class. “Who took it? Own up whoever it is? We can’t have any thieves among us? Someone here is a thief” Everyone was scared as they knew when she got this angry someone would have to suffer. She would have to have satisfaction. “That’s it I’m going to go down to the Barracks and get the Sergeant. When he comes up he’ll find out who took it and they will be thrown in the Black Hole in the Station. Ye won’t see your Mammies and Daddies tonight”. A few of the children began to whimper, one boy uncontrollably. By now she had stormed out of the room and in a moment we saw her black habited silhouette rushing past the window in the direction of town. She was going to the Barracks and she was going to get the Guards. This is bad we thought and we realised that she really was going to go through with this. What if we never see our families again? More children whimpered the cries and sobs of the damned.

I don’t know how long she was gone. It might only have been a few minutes but to the five and six year olds huddled in that room, shivering with fear, it seemed like an age. Return she did in the same bluster as her leaving; her eyes were now dancing wildly in her head and her face was distorted with unfettered anger. “Was it you?” she shouted accusingly at Carr singling him out from the herd. She always singled him out for some reason. He was a strange kid but we were all friends with him in those early days where the tolerance of the innocent prevails. My mother said that he was adopted. We didn’t know what that meant. It was a strange sounding word loaded with meanings that we as children could not comprehend or grasp. His adoptive mother died soon after he arrived into their house. Terrible luck to lose one mother but to lose two before you had even crawled must have been crushing. He was raised by a soft spoken, meek father and a frail, elderly housekeeper. The father sold ecclesiastical supplies and was often away at night. His shop was adorned with all the effigies and idols of the Catholic Faith. When one entered the shop your senses were overwhelmed with the smell of candle wax. One side of the shop was given over to toys and stationery. There were rows and rows of matchbox cars. It was a strange mix, the religious icons reinforcing submission to the Word and the colourful toys which were tools to fire a child’s imagination. It was a palace of wonderment, the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory of our little country town.

“Stand up I said” but even as she was saying this he was already shuffling up and out of his seat. She had him caught by the ear like a hooked fish. “Where is it? Where is it? I’m giving you one chance and once chance only”. Carr was shaking now in fits. Paradoxically many of the rest of us were relieved that she had now chosen her victim and it wasn’t us. We all waited for Carr’s fate to unfold before us. “I’m going to teach you a lesson and show you all what happens to thieves”. She was gone again, out of the room with Carr left standing there, like a man stuck in No Man’s Land, doomed, forlorn, awaiting his fate.

This time when she returned she had what looked like a skipping rope in her hands. There were no handles on either end and it now became clear it was some sort of chord. She took a chair, stood up on it and began passing the rope through a metal ring that was protruding from the ceiling. The ring and other hooks were used for holding the Christmas decorations and hanging paper lanterns and aeroplanes. The nun was furiously making a loop and tying a knot on the other end of the rope. We all just sat there quiet and cowed watching this bizarre event unfold. Bizarre quickly yielded to shock and then to the macabre.

The Nun got Carr to stand up on the chair and purposefully passed the newly made noose over his head, jerking it down over his frightened face, around his neck before tightening the loop until it pressed against his tiny throat. All this had been achieved in near total silence but this lull was finally broken when some child wailed. The rest of us just sat there motionless and helpless, unable to move or act or to comprehend what was happening in front of our eyes. Carr was going to hang for stealing a toy car. This is what happens to thieves.

The Nun began shaking the seat under Carr’s feet as if to pull the life out from under him. Carr didn’t make a sound up to this but now the tears streamed down his face in rivulets. He began mumbling repeatedly “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it” pangs of desperation in his shaking voice. She didn’t believe him or she simply didn’t want to believe him.

Carr didn’t hang that day. I don’t believe we even told our parents about what happened. The next day the missing car was back in its place on the counter but Carr hadn’t put it there. Carr had no need for any more toys. He had a whole shop full of them for his own amusement. Carr didn’t take the toy, he wasn’t lacking in material things, what he was lacking was a Mother and Brothers and Sisters.

Twenty years later I was talking to my brother who was also there that day. Memory has a habit of playing tricks on us all. I had recently recalled the events of that day. The truth is I had come to doubt myself on whether it had happened at all. “Do you remember anything in High Infants with Sr. Eugenia and Carr?   Without hesitating he replied “Do you mean the time she went to hang him?” Not long after this I met a girl who was in the class that day also. She remembered it too.

Nobody knew where Carr went to after school but everyone knew his life had gone completely off the rails. The old housekeeper died. His timid father re-married again in middle age to a cold heartless creature that had no time for Carr. He spiralled even more out of control. He was expelled from Secondary School. Some nights he wouldn’t go home at all. He often slept rough in the local mart, alone, except for nights after big sales when some cattle were left over night. He had acquaintances as he always had cigarettes to share. He had no friends. Parents discouraged their children from having anything to do with him. He was described variously as mad or bad, wild, a nutter, a crazy mental case. He had become the town pariah. It was rumoured he had fondled a young boy in town from another dysfunctional home. It was said he would pay the young lad money. He always had money when we had nothing but a few small pence to buy penny sweets.

Then he went away to God knows where before making one brief memorable appearance up at the school. It was around the time we were preparing for our Leaving Cert and he waltzed up to the school yard. His hair was gelled up in punk-style spikes, he was wearing a huge chain around his neck and a frayed black leather biker-jacket. He was drunk or high or possibly both. We were glad to see him again but almost as quickly he was gone. It was the last time we would ever see him. We heard he was in prison on Spike Island, or that he was in a band in Athlone, or that he was sleeping rough in Dublin, Galway or Cork.

Sr. Eugenia moved on too. Our paths crossed again some years later when we were preparing for our Confirmation. She was now a Catechist touring the Diocese on behalf of the Bishop. Her mission was to ensure that we believed in the sacred Scripture and were ready to receive the Holy Spirit the following Month of May. I can’t recall if Carr was in our class that day she called to the School but he must have been. He is there in the Sixth Class School Photo, second row, first on the right, there we are lined up in front of the school on a wet drizzly day. I wonder now how he must have felt as he watched the Nun that day, the woman who had tortured him and humiliated him, standing there at the top of our class beaming. Was he sickened by her cheesy smiles and the babble of the phoney small chat between her and the Principal?

I also wonder now what state of mind he was in when he decided on Christmas Day twenty years later to take his own life. I wonder too when he slipped the ligature around his neck that morning, his last on this earth,  did he recall, even if only for an instant, the very first time a rope was wrapped so snugly around his soft throat.

He was Thirty Two years old, the same age as our lord was when he was crucified.  The Catechism told us that our Lord had descended into hell and rose again on the third day. Carr never ascended from his Hell.

 

So it came to Pass

This is a short story set against the background of Leitrim’s historic Connacht Championship win in 1994 – but it takes place thousands of miles away.

 

 

“SO IT CAME TO PASS”

Late July and August weather in the city can be stiflingly oppressive. The air is heavy with moisture and almost airless. I can never get used to this alien humidity. On muggy days like these I often long for a cool breeze to announce the coming of a shower of rain, not just a soft harmless drizzle. I crave a mighty downpour to deluge and cleanse me of this suffocating urban cloak. Who would ever have thought that I would miss the rain? The rain that as children we prayed would go to Spain. Yet sometimes I just longed for those cool breezes and showers.  I laughed to myself at the oddity of it.

I trudged up the steps of the subway station coming out into the late evening light at 63rd and Lexington. As I continued up towards Hunter College and past the Armoury I thought of how familiar these places had become to me. How punctuated our lives are by places and landmarks such as these buildings, churches, bridges, statues and monoliths.

The most important landmark of my childhood was the Mountain. I spent endless stretches just gazing at it because whatever the season it always stole my attention. From the hilly meadow where we stacked bales in July, or from the window of the classroom in February where through frost sculpted glass I watched its dome, draped in a whitewash of snow. I was drawn in to it, studying its contours and lines, sometimes seeming so near and at others so far away. I recalled its changing hues as the sun would drift behind some dark clouds and then back out again until the round summit arose again, reborn in light anew. Sometimes I got snapshots of the great mound in October when we were out picking the potatoes in ever-shortening evenings after school. I knew every part of the mountain, each nook, crag, rock and ridge. To me it was an ever changing tapestry with its forests of dark green pasted onto a collage of cinnamon and chestnut.

Now in late July and many miles away from me I can still see it clearly. Now in mid-summer the ridge would be a brilliant carpet of amber and honey dominating the little houses and farms nestled below.

This Mountain dominated us in a benevolent way. She was not generally harsh. She was a matriarch incarnate, a sanctuary and haven for many of these people living below her and clinging to her sides, my own included.  Never was she more compassionate than in part forgotten times when these people’s forebears had been thrown from their land in the North. When they took to the road they dared not look back as Lot’s wife did, for they knew in their breaking hearts that there was no going back. For a fortnight they walked on into the west living off what people gave them along the way until they stopped at this place. For these last two hundred years they looked on the Mountain as it came into view each day at sunrise. This kind mountain, although not rich or abundant, had sustained and looked after this flock. Her people knew she was there in the dead of night even though they couldn’t see her, yet they could feel her safe embrace all around them. Once again they could dream of better days ahead and we were the children of these people, we were the seed of the Ultachs.

“Hey Whats up!” I snap out of the daydream. Approaching me is my workmate Abel Pereira. I always think Abel looks like a Latin boxer. He is taut and lean and he is light and lively on his feet, a ball of energy moving and darting, “Hey Tommy my main man?” He already has his hand out for this ritual we go through every shift, the clenched handshake, then knuckle to knuckle. To me it’s ridiculous but I want to fit in and not stand out in this place so I participate. Abel is part Puerto-Rican and Cuban ancestry and I am always keen to learn something about his culture. He thinks this curiosity ridiculous. “Look man I’m just a New Yorker, I dunno nothin about Puerto Rico or Cuba” (which he pronounces Quba)

Yet strangely Abel is keen to know about my home and I am as exotic as any animal he has seen up in the Bronx Zoo. He also thinks that I “talk real funny” walk even funnier and he laughs at the un-orthodox way I pitch at softball.

Abel’s knowledge of basic geography is terrible as I’ve already discovered. Just last month Ireland was set to play Holland down in Orlando. “So how you guys doing in this Soccer World Cup Series?”, he asked me. “Well we are still in it” I replied. “But we don’t fancy the heat in Florida again; we are not built for it”. Abel laughed, “Yeah you poor Irish white asses can’t take the heat, that’s why you spend the summer in the air conditioning in a bar”. Stung somewhat by this observation I simply said “I think we might do okay though, we have a good record against the Dutch”. “The Dutch?” said Abel, “but you’re not playing the Dutch, you just said you were playing the Hollanders!

There then followed a lengthy geography lesson where I taught Abel that Hollanders were from Holland, The Dutch were not from Deutschland and the Dutch and Hollanders lived in a country called the Netherlands. Abel just brushed it off by saying “Europe is complicated”.

Just after 2.00am I make my way over to the Deli on 3rd Avenue. The city sounds different at this time of night but is still a rollicking assembly of sounds. The whistles of doormen summonsing taxi’s for late night guests leaving dinner parties, the sirens of emergency vehicles hurtling to nearby hospitals, fire-trucks the loudest of all, boom boxes from cars at red lights, the garbage trucks crunching up the mounds of city waste, cop cars whizzing up, down and cross town, the city beating, ebbing, flowing, the midnight music of life itself in under and all around the man made canyons of this island of Manhattan.

On 3rd Avenue I pass two taxis pulled in hard along the kerb. The sidewalk is empty save for two prostrate men, their prayer mats rolled out, bent in prayer, facing east towards the Food Emporium but in their own minds to Mecca.

I cross the road and enter the Bodega to get my usual order,  pastrami on rye and a Gatorade. Jose the owner and one of his shop assistants are outside watering the fresh flowers. Jose is smoking a thick cigar that he trims with what looks like a garden clippers or secateurs.  “Buenas noches SenorI say.

“Gracias, Gracias, tu español es cada vez major…getting better every day Tommy, soon you have to come live up Washington Heights no Spanish Harlem” says a grinning Jose until he breaks into a rattling series of deep coughs. His assistant grins even though I don’t think he knows what is been said. When Jose finishes spluttering I say “Fumar Maloand he nods acknowledging with a raised hand as I cross the street back to Empire House.

Mike Considine has now joined Abel up in the Lobby. Hi Tommy, what’s up?” “Not much Mike, how are all in the Bronx?” I reply, tucking into my sandwich. Usual Tom, keeping out of trouble”, Mike is a squat bull of a man of about thirty years old. As usual he has taken a house out on Long Island with his wife and her brother’s family for the summer months. I have no doubt he has spent the last few days out on the beach as his face is a glowing crimson shade. Mike is always on the attack and keen to wind me up. He takes particular delight in baiting me. So I guess a greenhorn like you’ll be heading up to Gaelic Park tomorrow to hang with your homies eh?”  “Don’t know Mike I might come visit you in hospital instead, you don’t look healthy with that oompa loompa look, haven’t you heard of melanoma?” 

Mike has that mischievous grin that he assumes when he knows there is a chance of some proper banter “jeez that’s very nice of you to be thinking of my well-being Paddy McFurniture, we look after you guys too, only for us you’d be speaking Russian” and so on and on it goes for twenty minutes over and back whilst Abel finishes mopping the lobby floor and starts shining the brass in the main elevator car. Our exchange is only stopped when a black limousine pulls up outside, I hurry out and get the door.

I can see it is Mr. and Mrs Gertstein. They are a nice old friendly couple. “Good night Mr. Gertstein I say as I open the rear passenger door. “Hi Tommy, how are you, the old place still standing eh? This is the ugliest building in New Yawk I tell ya” “Ah come on now Mr. Gertstein there’s uglier around”. “No I tell yaw only for my Ruthie likes the neighbourhood and her buddies, what’s left of them, are nearby, I’d be out of here period”.

 I help Mrs. Gertstein with her other bags, Mike has got the luggage from the trunk. “So were you out of town for long?” I enquire. Mr Gertstein starts to talk but by now his wife is broadside and talks over him. He throws his eyes up in mock despair and heads towards the lobby. “Yes Tommy dear we were actually down in Florida for my grandson’s bar mitzvah. It was wonderful and to top it all Rabbi Feltstein was there. It was a surprise. I’m sure you’ve heard of him Tommy? “, “Oh Yes” I lie, to do otherwise will only prolong the story. “It was wonderful Tommy, you should have seen the food, the most beautiful Rugelach and Babka and the tastiest Knishes and blintzes, beautiful, beautiful they were. Eh I must give you the recipes, I have them written down here somewhere you know, got them from Rosie Haas, you know her don’t you, used to live in 14J, never shuts up, but a sweet heart” and she starts fumbling in her handbag.

 Mr. Gertstein is getting impatient, “Ay Yay Yay Tommy and Mike aren’t interested in kosher, they’re Irish. They like steak and corn beef, potatoes that sort a thing, and cabbage, yeah cabbage, C’mon Ruthie its gettin’ late, Geh Schlafen”.

I walk with Mrs. Gertstein down through the lobby as she continues to fumble away in her handbag, “I know it’s here somewhere”. As she holds her bag I suddenly glimpse the inside of her wrist. There amongst the aged and freckled skin I see the faint outline of tattooed letters. For a moment time stands still and I am taken aback. Auschwitz! For the first time outside of a textbook I am face to face with the horror of Hitler. My mind races. Here is an elderly woman, probably in her eighties who has been through the worst human nightmare imaginable. At the Elevator we wait for the car to comedown, 15, 14, 12, and 11 it has stopped on 11. My mind races and I see her as a young girl, her hair in plats, her pale cheeks and large eyes, standing at a barbed wire fence, gazing out on a vast green Polish meadow. 4, 3, 2, “here we are” says Mr. Gertstein as the doors open.

 Arbeit macht frei ….what terrible things she must have seen, and yet how normal she seems, a nice gregarious kind-hearted Jewish lady.  The bell rings we are at 15. Mr. Gertstein yawns as he walks out of the elevator car. His wife and I both go for the handle of her large handbag at the same time and again I see the tattooed numbers, faded but real. There is a pause and I wonder if she is now aware that I have seen how the Nazis branded her like an animal for slaughter. I feel shame and I don’t know why.

Mr. Gertstein fumbles with the keys at the apartment. I offer to take them but he is stubbornly persistent. Eventually the mechanism clicks and we are in the hallway. I leave the bags down and Mr. Gertstein tips me with three or four crumpled bills. “Thank you Tommy and have a good night” he says. “And you too, sleep well you must both be very tired after the flight”. The hallway ends in a wall adorned by a framed print with some nude figures. “It’s a Lucian Freud” says Mr. Gertstein “I’m not too gone on him but Ruthie thinks he is great. Can’t beat a good landscape Tommy, gimme one of your Jack Yeats any ….“  Mrs Gertstein cuts him off suddenly “I’m so sorry Tommy I can’t find it but I will, I promise, and I will hand it to the main Doorman for you, okay honey” She finally gives up the search for the recipe, “Oh yeah but it’s a wonderful stuffed Knish that your wife could make for you”. I cross the threshold back out to the landing as I reply “But I’m not married Mrs. Gertstein, although you never know maybe I might meet a nice Jewish girl one day who can cook all these blintzes and knishes for me”. There was a pause, not much but definitely a pause “Zie ga zink Tommy you are such a good boy” she half chuckles “but surely you know we cannot marry a Goy! Goodnight”. I stood there for a few seconds after the door shut in my face.

Also on this floor are the Farrago’s, the Fleischer’s, the Karliners and Sandlers the names sound to me like a list of dead composers of long forgotten waltzes and polkas. How many of them also bear these marks and brands and why am I feeling shame? It had nothing to do with me. Back in the Lobby Mike and Abel are still hanging out. When Abel sees me approach he exclaims in mock tones “Oh if it isn’t Tommy the Schmuk, loves all the Jews in the Upper East Side”. I sidle up to the front desk “Actually I’m just interested in learning about them ya know. You think the world revolves around this city and there is nothing beyond of any interest. I bet you’ve never even been outside the tri-state area”. Abel is animated now and he is out in the middle of the front lobby “Oh listen to the Irishman, hadn’t a dime before he came here to My City!!! And now he’s breaking my balls!!! You hearing this Mike? You hearing this kid?……Well actually I have been out of the city, twice in fact, once to Atlantic City and another time to the Hershey Factory in Pennsylvania, so there.” I fight the temptation to point out that Atlantic City is just down the shore in Jersey. Abel and geography shall forever be just strangers passing in the night.

Mike is reading yesterdays Daily Post that he found in a drawer at the front door desk. A few minutes pass in the silence of the night shift until I ask him “Mike Whats a Goy?” He looks around towards me and then back at the paper, “it means someone who is not Jewish, ya know a Gentile, someone like me and you”. After another long pause and without looking up Mike says, “So you saw the tattoos?” He continues looking at the page. “Yeah how’d you know” I said. “Well I just saw you looking” I hadn’t realised my reaction was so obvious. “I just knew by the way you went so quiet………a lot of them here have them you know”, “Really”, “Yep plenty they are the survivors. It’s Amazing really that they were so near total annihilation and now they live in this fancy place. The Gertsteins are nice people, they are very good to the boys here at Christmas and holidays and they always look after me well too”. 

For once the City seems so quiet. There is no noise coming sneaking in and all I can hear is the hum of the water feature coming from across the lobby. Mike puts the paper back in the drawer and stretches his arms above his head.

 “Look Tom I know you’re curious but take my advice and don’t ever ask them about those numbers right, they’d only get upset, who knows what they went through. I heard it said that Mrs Gertstein is the only one who survived from her family. Think about it if that was you. Here they feel safe, nobody ever thinks that could happen to them but they, they know, they know what man can do the most evil things”.

 But I had thought about nothing else these last few minutes. In College in Dublin I had worn a PLO scarf and had great sympathy with the Palestinians. I saw comparisons with the way my own people were dis-possessed, my own ancestors were refugees from Armagh having lost everything. Now though I was confronted by these nice decent people who had also suffered so much but at the hands of their own neighbours and just a few short decades ago. “Abel was right, Europe is complicated”. Mike grinned, “Abel’s a survivor too Tommy”

 “When I started here about eight years ago I used to do this shift with an old timer called Savo”. “Where was he from?” I asked. “He told me he was from Montenegro. I never heard of the place to be honest, I thought it was a city or sumtin. At least I hadn’t heard of it until the last few years and the Yugoslavs started butchering each other. Late at night we‘d be chatting away just like me and you now. Savo had come to New York after the war and he lived up in the Bronx in Kingsbridge. He got on really well with some of the residents here. He was always on time and always immaculately dressed.

 Then this one night he didn’t show up for work. I mean he never called in sick or nothing; he never got any one to call in either. So about a week later the manager asked me if I’d do him a favour and call around to his place as I was living nearby at the time. So I called over to his building and rang the buzzer a few times, had a look around, the usual.  A resident came along and I asked her about Savo but she didn’t seem to know anything. I mean she lived just a floor above him for years and didn’t even know what the guy looked like.

 I was off the following day and was over by Kingsbridge so I decided to call by again. This time I got into the building and up to his floor but he never answered the door. I checked the post boxes and his was stuffed full of junk mail. I met the Super and he said that the man who lived in that apartment had gone to California to visit his brother who was ill. Savo had never mentioned he had any family in the States. I told the guys in the office what I found out and they just took him off payroll but said they’d keep paying his union card for six months in case he came back. They were gutted, he was a great worker, never caused any trouble”.

 “Well did you ever hear from him again?” “No, I didn’t, that is until one night I was at home watching the news and a picture came up on the fuckin screen, it was the nightly news and there was our Savo. Turns out our Savo’s real name was Nikola Ivanović and turns out he was a Croat and he was working for the fuckin Nazis rounding up the Jews and Gypsies during the War. He was on the FBI’s most wanted and all as they got a tip off. Nobody here could believe it. There he was in his SS Uniform, a young man but it was definitely our Savo. No doubt whatsoever”.

 “I’m sure I heard about this case. Was he ever found?”  “Not a trace Tommy. Bank accounts not touched either. But he’s alive. I know it. I know it. The Management got lots of grief from the residents. I suppose they are just coming to terms with the fact that the smartly dressed ever so polite concierge is a fuckin Nazi and many of them lost everything and everyone in the ovens. You could say they were pretty pissed alright. It’s not that Savo was a threat anymore but here they’ve rebuilt their lives and they thought they were free of all that went on. This new life, new world, no killers, no fear anymore”.

 “That’s unreal and I’m doing his shift. So what do I do if he comes back for his old job?” “He won’t be back. I’ve heard the church helped many of these guys after the war. He was a Catholic. My sister’s husband said he used see him at mass in St. Johns on Kingsbridge. Always on his own but always there every Sunday.”

 Abel comes up the foyer and he’s humming to himself. Mike puts a finger to his lips declaring the Savo Story over for now and not for sharing with Abel.

 It doesn’t take long for Mike to take up a new thread of conversation “So are you heading up to Gaelic Park tomorrow for a few beers or no?”  “Not tomorrow Mike I’m going out to Queens to watch a game, a big game in fact, looking forward to it”. Abel feels left out, “So what games that?” With all this chat about Nazis and the Holocaust I had forgotten all about the bloody game and now suddenly I was tense and nervous again. For a moment I wonder how can I possibly convey  the significance of this game, how do I explain to a Twenty Five Year old year old Hispanic lad from Jamaica, Queens what a Connacht Championship would mean to a success starved County like mine. More importantly how can I explain to Abel how bad I feel that I’m over three thousand miles of seawater from where I should be right now.  I try but the words I come out with sound out of place, out of tune with the Upper East Side at 3.00am in the huge glass lobby of a an apartment building. “It’s a huge game for my home place Abel, it’s 67 years since we won this cup, everyone will be there, all my family, friends, neighbours, the whole town will be deserted, it’s that big” I explain.

“Getta out a’ here” – oh what like bigger then a Yankees World Series. There is nothing bigger then the Yankees. You saw the Rangers in the Stanley Cup last month right? Now that’s a big deal”. Mike has been quietly listening, “I know Tom it’s huge. Two years ago my old man went back home to watch Clare win the Munster Final. He was still in tears two weeks later when he got back. He said of all the times he left Ireland, this was one of the hardest. He said he was never so proud and it was bigger than putting a man on the moon. The sad thing is none us got it, none of us could really share the moment with him”

“Man you crack me up” said Abel. “You Irish just make up stuff so you can party. Abel’s no fool, I get ya. So Monday morning Abel’s pager goes,  Tommy’s on the line, sorry I had a late one, I’m all messed up, Abel bro can you cover me for work. You see I got it, I can see where this is going, don’t be trying to pass off that bullshit on me” and he breaks into a laugh heading down the lobby to finish his chores.

“You know my Dad passed away last year Tommy” Mike’s expression  had changed, gone is the usual bravado. He is pensive and sombre “I’m sorry to hear that Mick. I didn’t know, was it sudden?” There is a pause and Mike gathers himself, “well it was kinda sudden for us. The son of a bitch never told us he was sick. That trip home to Ireland was all planned by him knowing that this was it, this was the last time”.

 Mike took a drink from a can of coke he was holding before continuing, “You know he came here in 1949 and didn’t go back for thirty years. Even when his mother died he didn’t go. Then the Pope says he’s coming and all of a sudden he decides he wants to go home and see everybody.

He brought my sister Pat and me and we flew into Shannon and from there until we got to Cooraclare he never shut up. He described every field, tree, and crossroads and he told us who lived in each house and who owned that pub and so on. It was just too much information for Pat or me to take in. I was only fourteen. But I never heard the old man so passionate about a place. I mean he didn’t even know who lived in the next door Apartment to us in Bedford Park and there is this place he left behind that stretches for miles and miles, from here to Poughkeepsie I guess, and he knows who lives in every bloody house”. Mick laughed heartily as he thought over what he had just said.

“My uncle was a nice quiet man but my cousins looked at Pat and me as if we were from Mars. After a few days we settled in and we became great friends. My cousin Vincent lives over here now, he is up in Pearl River. He’s done well for himself got his own business. That was a great trip though. I finally got to understand what it meant to be Irish not just Bronx Irish and Father Mulcahy in St. Brendans and all that baloney. Anyway don’t mind me I’m babbling on here”. But I didn’t mind at all, no in fact it was great.

I had known Mike for a few months only; usually he would be ribbing me about being straight off the boat, a Greenhorn, unlike himself, in his own eyes a thoroughbred Irish American narrowback. I had thought him a tough steely character and he wore the fact that he was from the Bronx like a badge of honour, an “Okay you were in Vietnam, but hey I live in the Bronx” attitude. He told me that as a kid he ran with a rough crew, a mix of Irish and Italian kids from Fordham and on up to Bainbridge. He told how some Friday nights they would roll a guy coming home from some of the bars on 204th, usually some Irish guy the worst for wear after cashing his weekly pay cheque. Mike told me he stopped one night when he overheard his Father telling his Mother how one of his work mates was mugged by some Puerto Rican kids. Mike knew it wasn’t the Puerto Ricans, it was him and a McDermott lad. Now here he was talking about the Pope’s Visit something I remembered from my early childhood too. How could Irish America be so similar and yet so alien?

“They are good memories Mike. Did you go get to see the Pope after all?” “Oh yeah” he replied, “we got up to Ballybrit Racetrack in Galway, we nearly caught our deaths it was so wet, it was bigger than Woodstock.

When I came back to school Sr. Martha made me stand in front of the class and tell the kids about it. That wasn’t so cool. I’ve been over a few times since. Ya’know I love it there but now that Pop’s gone it’s just not the same, you know what I mean?”

I didn’t know what to say but just nodded and then to change the direction of the conversation I said, “You know, often at home we dread when the American cousins are visiting. The house has to scrubbed clean from top to bottom, and my mother and grandmother start fussing over ye with the best china and silver cutlery taken out”. Mike laughed, “Oh yeah and you think we enjoy it! Going around to all your houses from morning to night, drinking warm sugary tea and eating all that sickly sponge cake”.

It was a revelation to talk to Mike like this. Over the next hour no work was done. Mike recalled how he had played Gaelic Football as a kid for the Fordham Shamrocks and how they weren’t very good but they were the toughest team in the league. In that part of the Bronx been able to stand up for yourself mattered above all else, don’t back down even if it means taking your beating. “Look it’s nearly 6 o’clock Mike I better do some work”. “Yeah I’ll catch you before you head out”.

Our shift finished at 7.00 am. At this stage I had a lump in my throat and was edgy in anticipation of the game. I looked at my watch for the umpteenth time. It is now noon at home. They will be all be on the road to Roscommon by now, crossing the bridge at Rooskey perhaps, leaving Leitrim behind for the day. When I got out of the locker room I began walking up the long corridor and in the direction of the ramp that led out into the early morning sun.

“Hey Tommy wait”. It was Mike again. “Hey I was looking for you before you went, look I just wanted to say good luck to you guys today”. “Thanks Mike I suppose it’s now or never”. “No I really think ye’re going to do it. Two years ago when my old man came back it was incredible. He said he could die happy now that Clare were champions. I didn’t get it until a few weeks after.  It was a Sunday I called over to my parent’s place. Dad wasn’t there and Mum said he was down in Meaneys. It’s our neighbourhood bar. Tommy Meaney is from Clare too and he and my old man know each other since before they even came out here. I said I’d go down and have a beer there. There was no one about, the street was deserted and outside Meaneys was quiet too, but when I opened the door there was at least a hundred people maybe more all watching this Irish satellite TV showing Clare playing in Croke Park.

 My Dad saw me, and he smiled. I bought us some beers and I’ll never forget it, my own fuckin father said ‘you’re alright son even if you are a narrowback’.

 I looked around the bar and all these people, wherever they came out of, their eyes glued to this screen, looking at images of this old packed creaking stadium in this far off land, and you know what, I finally got it! Here I was a stranger in my own backyard. So fuck it, if Clare can do it why not Leitrim?”

I could think of a hundred reasons why Clare could do it and Leitrim couldn’t but I didn’t want to annoy Mike with them. For once in the hurly burly of New York I have time to kill. Although I’d been up all night the adrenaline was starting to flow in anticipation of the game. I stride down Lexington Avenue until I meet Ahmed, the man from the Yemen who has a little kiosk shop beside the 63rd Street Subway. “Good morning Mr. Tommy” “and a Good morning to you Ahmed” I respond. I buy some mints and continue on my way.

Dawn in the city can be eerie but a Sunday morning dawn is eeriest of all,

‘The Dawn! The Dawn! The crimson-tinted comes, Out of the low still skies, over the hills, Manhattan’s roofs and spires and cheerless domes’

 It is too early to get the subway as the game won’t start until 9.00am. On down the avenue I go and just after Bloomingdale’s I turn left under the vast steel underbelly of the Queensboro Bridge. The traffic is light. The city is just getting used to the idea of a new day. A few cars rumble above but otherwise I am deep in my own thoughts. The truth is I am in the deep despair that comes when asking oneself those hard questions, the ones we hate to confront.

What the hell am I doing here in this city?

I shuffle into Sutton Place a lovely leafy street lined with upmarket apartment buildings of stylish brick facades. I walk into Sutton Square, a cul de sac, and at the end of the street I looked out over FDR Drive, Roosevelt Island, the Cable Car and the 59th Street Bridge to my left, on out on the East River and the vast borough of Queens beyond. How is it that here in a metropolis of sixteen million people a person can feel so alone?

The Pogues song “Thousands are Sailing” is playing as if on a loop in my head and I just can’t get it out of there.

 “Thousands are sailing, Across the western ocean, Where the hand of opportunity, Draws tickets in a lottery

Where e’er we go, we celebrate, The land that makes us refugees, From fear of priests with empty plates, From guilt and weeping effigies”

I check my watch again, I better get moving. I walk down past the UN Building, turning into 42nd Street and over to Grand Central to catch the No. 7 train. I wait on the platform for that moment when you see the front beacon of the train, faint, far away down the tunnel but getting bigger, brighter and nearer. The Jazz busker’s noise grows dimmer and the train’s rattle grew louder. In the side of my eye I catch a flicker of a subway rat scurrying for cover between the tracks.

The 7 is my favourite train, the first subway line I took when I came here. As I sit down I immediately began to relax. The line rumbles out of the tunnel that brings it deep under the East River so that your ears pop. Then it comes up again in Queens, up into the daylight. It feels like a roller coaster shunting and creeping, lurching from side to side. It takes one sharp bend of almost ninety degrees before Queensboro Plaza. The wheels crunch and screech with the effort but it gives you a fine panoramic of the Midtown Skyline. They are all there, the usual suspects, the silvery spaceship top of the Chrysler, the solid mass of the Met Life and the huge obelisk of the Empire State overlooking the entire. The train is nearly empty. It is a glorious sunny morning and the oppressive heat hasn’t had time to build up yet, but it won’t be too long. The carriage is a cool sanctuary.  At each stop a gush of warm air rushes in when the carriage doors open.

We shunt on up through the old neighbourhoods of Sunnyside and Woodside. I catch a glimpse of ‘White Castle’ and the Sunoco Gas Station and beyond that ‘Blooms’, ‘The Breifne’, ‘Sidetracks’ ‘The Startin Gate’ and ‘Toucan Tommys’ more landmarks of my life. Low flung red brick apartment buildings fly by at cinemagraphic speed. I can barely read the staccato like glimpses of building numbers and street signs as the train rat a tats on. My stop is 74th Street and Broadway-Roosevelt Avenue. It is calm, almost subdued compared to the hubbub around here midweek, when you can be lifted up by the throngs heading towards the exits. A garish looking black woman with torn leggings is humming a song to herself as she lies prostrate on a bench in the station. Her eyes are closed and as I pass her I realise it sounds like a children’s lullaby. The air is an eclectic mix of smells from many cultures and continents. The Colombian Nail Parlour, the Korean Butchers, The Bengali Kebab House, The Ecuadorian Bodega, the Greek Diner, the Jamaican Auto-shop, an Indian Electronics store and all these on just one side of the street. Just two blocks up is a small neat Irish bar, there tucked in quietly and neatly amongst all these nations of the world. For all the traditions and cultures in its midst this bar sits snugly at peace with itself, for it has been here for generations, it has seen many people come and go from this neighbourhood that it clings on proudly and stubbornly to.

This is Jackson Heights, Queens on a typical Sunday morning. It is the 24th July 1994. I pull open the door. I’m hit by the cool air that suddenly envelopes me. I hear the unmistakable sound of a hundred conversations at once in a packed bar. The communion of babble draws me in. Instantly the reassurance buries the mountain of anxieties of the previous hours. Today will surely be our day.

So it came to pass.