Martin Keaveney – The Help

writer 6Martin Keaveney‘s recent stories have appeared in Small Lives (Poddle Publications), Crannog Gold Dust , The Crazy Oik and Agave Magazine. Flash fiction has been published in Burning Word and Apocrypha and Abstractions. Poetry will appear shortly in Carillon and Sleet magazine. He is currently a PhD candidate at NUIG, 2014-18 where he is researching the John McGahern archive and also writing a novel as part of the course. He has a B.A. in English and Italian and an M.A. in English (Writing) from NUI, Galway, Ireland.


The Help

By Martin Keaveney

I was about six or seven when I met Jim-Eddie first. I was outside playing in one of my father’s machines, pretending I was operating its huge bucket, digging imaginary holes in the ground. My brothers were dosing a few lambs at the sheep pen at the end of the large field which served as our garden.
Jim-Eddie drove in the road, wavering from left to right in his way, as I would become well used to over the years. He drove a white Ford Escort and his pipe stuck out from his large mouth, always smouldering. He stopped just before hitting the wall of the house. I saw it was not because of the brakes, but because he had run the car over a bag of coal. The oil sump was busted beneath.
The others left their job with the sheep to see what the fuss was about. Mam looked out, shaking her head. Jim-Eddie got out of the car, muttering something about it being an awful place to leave a bag of coal. The boys, used to his ways, just laughed and circled him as he walked toward the back kitchen. He was tall and wore a tweed peaked hat, a loose jumper over a white collar and plain tie with a long straggling overcoat. He carried a long windy stick everywhere he went. I was so happy in my game that I hadn’t gone over to see what this visit was about.
As I imagined lifting a great big clod of virgin soil high into the air, mam looked out of the back door and beckoned me in. I hopped down off the machine and hurried toward the back kitchen. My brothers were listening in awe to Jim-Eddie as he told them of the latest bull he had gotten, how strong it was and how dangerous it was.
‘Well, Mr Flannelly wants to talk to you, Georgie!’ Mam said to me. I was a bit surprised as visitors rarely called to see me. I felt a bit shy now, with everyone turning their attention to me, but especially of Jim-Eddie. People used to laugh about him but they would not say too much directly. He had these piercing blue eyes that seemed to look through you and a smig around his lips as though he knew things you didn’t.
When he spoke it was like everything stopped, the birds stopped singing, the kettle stopped boiling, the large rusty old fridge Uncle Paudie had brought home from Watford stopped humming.
‘Looks like he won’t be able handle me bull!’ Jim-Eddie said very seriously. There was a pause as I felt weak and then he made a half-smile and said he was only ‘rizzing’ me.
He then spoke to ‘Kackleen’, as he always called my mother and said a young snapper like me would be handy in the bog baggin’ turf if she didn’t mind, and he’d give me a few bob. The other lads were too busy, between working for other neighbours and busy here on our farm. But young Georgie, he could be put to use with Jim-Eddie, if he wanted. Mam looked at me and said ‘You’ll help Jim-Eddie with the turf, will you, Georgie?’ Well, I could hardly say no.
Jim-Eddie shook me hand weakly, smigged again and said he’d put a few muscles on me quick enough.

The white Escort was finally towed away a few weeks later. It would be me that was steering, a small boy trying to see over the dashboard. It took months for him to get it fixed, but fortunately he had another two Escorts in the garden. I used to think he kept them there for parts until he started using the beige one while the white one was being fixed and he seemed to keep the blue one for going to Mass. I never asked him why he had three cars of the same model. Back then, I was far too shy to have anything like a conversation with Jim-Eddie. No, he did all the talking, telling me the jobs for the night, and finally allowing me home at three or sometimes four in the morning. But that day he busted the sump with the bag of coal was to be the start of many years with Jim-Eddie for me.

Jim-Eddie’s house was a small cottage situated at the end of a hooky boreen. He brought me there on the back of one of our tractors that first evening around nine o’clock to show me my work. He said that we would start with a cup of tae and brought me in through the back door. The kitchen was dark and dusty. Loose tiles clung to the wall over the Belfast sink. A Sacred Heart picture hung at an angle on one wall and an old calendar was tacked against another. A large clock with a picture of Elvis was stationed over the door. On the shelves over the sink were chipped plates, teacups and saucers beside various sized statues of Our Lady and the Child of Prague. There were numerous mirrors around the house, all broken, you could never see your reflection in any of them.
Jim-Eddie told me it would be a long night and that I should be ready for some hard graft. He said ‘hard’ like ‘hee-yard’. The work would be ‘hee-yard’, he continued, but he would pay me well. I found out fairly soon that good payment was enough to buy a small bottle of fizzy coke, a bag of crisps and still have a few pound for my pig bank, in return for about four hours mooching around in the dark on various jobs.
It took an hour’s tractor drive to get to the bog. It was almost dark at eleven at night, near the end of August. There had been rain and my knees sank into the spongy ground beneath as I filled old fertiliser bags at the base of the rook. Jim-Eddie didn’t seem to notice the water. He just shook each great sopping sod end off. To think these would be burning brightly in Jim-Eddie’s kitchen in December!
We then carried the bags out to the boreen and loaded up the trailer. After about an hour or so, Jim-Eddie announced it was time for the tae. He had brought an old whiskey bottle full of tea and sugar, which he offered to me. It was sickly sweet and I was soon to learn he usually misjudged how much sugar to put in it.
By two in the morning the trailer was full. I sat on the top of the load, to keep an eye on any loose sods, Jim-Eddie said. I was fairly sleepy at this stage as he drove along the quiet roads. I might have dozed off had it not been for having to avoid low hanging branches. I could have been knocked off the trailer, and Jim-Eddie wouldn’t notice until he was at home. I imagined his reaction, cursing me for being a fool and not staying awake.

When winter arrived my duties changed from working in the bog to helping him feed his stock. Always as nightfall arrived, he would feed the cattle first. This involved lifting large grapes of silage into a wheelbarrow and then pushing it over to some galvanised feeders where bullocks were half housed in a shed. They had the use of the concrete slab for exercise and could shelter inside at night. He insisted I fill the barrow up every time even though my arms could barely push half that and I kept falling over.
Jim-Eddie would wander around sighing ‘Ah, the youth of today!’ before finally taking the other handle and helping me to feed the cattle. They lowed as the first few barrows were being filled and were silently munching the rest of the time.
After feeding, we would do other farm work, such as spreading manure and fencing. One of the best things about working for Jim-Eddie was driving the tractor, which he let me do from about the age of eight. Round and round the field I would drive at a speedy ten miles an hour, never losing the novelty of controlling a powerful machine. The teaching of tractor driving was an important job, but like most things, Jim-Eddie insisted on doing this at night. He was not exactly qualified to teach driving himself. It was said he had failed the driving test some fourteen times before they just gave it to him, many years ago.
I loved the smell of his pipe in the car and the comfortable haphazard way he held the steering wheel with his thumbs at the base of it. A little statue of Our Lady had been glued onto the plastic dashboard. It seemed to shiver as Jim-Eddie weaved around obstacles like ditches, other vehicles and people. With part of an eye on the road, he would ask me how I was in that crushed way of his, sweat around his forehead in the summer, his skin white with cold in the winter.
The house was always quiet when I got home. Mam and my brothers would be asleep for hours. Our red Ford Transit van was often not back, even at three. I would be very tired and fall into bed, often without changing my clothes. The eight pounds that Jim-Eddie paid me for the night would be left on the bedside locker, to be put away in the morning. I had no use for money really, apart from the weekly travelling shop. I was loaded, as were my brothers, busily working for other farmers. But my man was Jim-Eddie, the loony going to the bog at all hours. Like a pair of false teeth, he only came out at night, was the running joke. I didn’t care, though. I had my job and I loved it.
I saved up a lot of money, maybe two hundred, I’d say, by the time I was nine or ten. I had all sorts of things planned. I was going to buy a huge fancy bike, I was going to get the train to Dublin and go to the Spring Show, I was going to buy a long coat and a pair of hobnailed boots just like Jim-Eddie. Oh such dreams! One morning, they were all shattered when the little pig was smashed against the floor and the money was taken. I was told the house needed it.
Even so, I went working for Jim-Eddie again that night, picking stones from a garden he wanted to make into a vegetable patch. Sometimes I used to think he was wasting his time having me there. But I went on about my business, not really caring much why, and enjoying the adventure of it.

One time I got home from Jim-Eddie’s at about two and the Transit was parked outside. In the kitchen, I was told I had been in the way on the road and could have caused an accident. Thick arms grabbed my shoulders and I squealed as I tried to escape.
My eye healed after about six weeks. Jim-Eddie would peer at it now and again. I was always trying to think of an excuse, like I had been in a fight at school. But he never asked.
I was often tired in the classroom. I used to fall asleep on the desk. Sure, you would get nowhere with them old books, we were told. I was inclined to believe that, alright. I didn’t learn to read so well in class and I fell behind. Even though I lost out on school work, I was happy spending my evenings working at Jim-Eddie’s. There was always some excitement. He was so cracked that everything he did was like being in a cartoon, like there was some kind of punchline around the corner. Once he was bringing me up to the shop to help him load a bag of coal. While he was waving to a neighbour he ploughed into a wall. Luckily he never drove faster than twenty miles an hour.
He believed all young lads should educate themselves in the ways of the community, not from books. He told me one night he had been elected President of the local Cumann. It was a great honour he said, and when I was eighteen, I could come along too. Jim-Eddie reckoned it was very important to take an interest in local affairs, though all I ever saw him doing was going to the AGM every February.

I was rarely late for work. One Sunday evening we waited in the Transit outside on the street of the local town. I was worried because Jim-Eddie wanted me to help him dosing calves that evening and it was almost six. My brothers were arm wrestling. They were making whooping noises as one beat the other. I sat alone behind the driver’s seat, worrying about Jim-Eddie’s stock.
We waited for seven hours that day. I remember people passing the windows and looking in at these snotty-nosed country lads. Every so often I would look out the window and see the lone figure through the darkened glass, sitting at the bar, and wondered when he might decide to go home. I knew mam would be complaining to the empty house that the dinner was burning.
Jim-Eddie was mad when I arrived at half eight. He told me he couldn’t be waiting all day for someone to help him. He asked me where I had been and I told him. He didn’t say much more. We just got on with the business at hand.
I remember well the job that evening. We had ten calves contained within a tall stone walled pen. They rambled around, the hooves awkwardly sliding on the stony, mucky floor below them. Usually Jim-Eddie caught them and me, being that bit weaker, would inject the dose down their throats while he held the head. Jim-Eddie grabbed one of the calves. Just as I was going toward him, the calf squirmed away.
‘Blast!’ Jim-Eddie roared. The calf ran along the wall. I left the dosing gun on the ground and intercepted him, launching my hand around his head. He struggled, but I held him tight. Jim-Eddie coughed, picking up the gun and came over. He deftly slid the brass piece down the calf’s throat.
‘Good lad, good lad!’ Jim Eddie said as I let the beast go. I didn’t know if he was talking to me or the animal.
Afterwards, he did treat me to ham sandwiches. I was starving, having had nothing since breakfast, after first Mass. When we had eaten, Jim-Eddie filled his pipe with tobacco and told me about all the work we had to have done for the following week.

By secondary school, I was more or less running Jim-Eddie’s farm. He was now close to his ninth decade and hobbled around everywhere with his trusty stick. He had gotten crankier too. Saliva spilled from his lips as he ordered me about the place, pointing at a fence which needed attention or at one of his galvanised gates. He insisted on repairing everything and refused any murmur I might make of buying new.
‘It’s good enough!’ he would snarl.
We soldiered together every night of the year. During the summertime we were either saving hay or bringing home turf. In winter, there would always be cattle to feed or dose, or sheep to be moved from one field to another.
At fourteen, I was advising Jim-Eddie on how to make the best use of the place. I began to do a lot of the things that he had been neglecting for decades. Fixing up fences, rebuilding long collapsed stone walls. He had grown very thin. He barely had the strength to inhale the pipe and coughed with a deep wheezing effort. I found myself helping him through doors.
His driving was brutal by now. I think he was fairly blind at this stage and he saw only vague figures on the road. I began to drive him around. I wanted to get Old Barley to bring Jim-Eddie’s stock for the mart in his jeep and trailer, which Jim-Eddie eventually agreed to.
That was the beginning of the end. Sometimes I thought Jim-Eddie had outlived his own life. Mostly now, he had a few days’ stubble and his shirts were always stained. He did continue throughout these years to lecture me on politics, told me when I should buy a car and to keep away from beer and women until I was at least thirty-two.

Now and again I would wonder who would take over the place when Jim-Eddie was gone. One time I asked about a photo of him, his mother and three brothers within a dusty gold frame on the mantelpiece. The brothers had emigrated to England in the early fifties. He told me the picture was taken just before they left.
They had never came home, he said. There was no money for travelling back and forth in them times, because it wasn’t just the travelling, it was all the ‘bleddy’ drinking that went on, coming and going between ferries and trains and buses, so the three brothers never bothered. They were all dead now. Dead for years and buried in London graveyards. I once asked had they any family over there and he said he thought they had but they never wrote anymore, not since the mother died in 1970. He was left on his own then and that was when he started to hire local lads to help him. There were always hands to be got, but mostly they would only put up with Jim-Eddie’s ways for a couple of years. I was the only one to stay with him for much longer.
When I would arrive in the evening in my well-worn school uniform, Jim-Eddie would look up from the bed clothes and mutter some feeble instructions. Most of the time now, these concerned things near him, things that he could see from the dusty window of his bedroom. Fences behind the sheds, stone walls that no longer mattered, not the way I had reorganised the place. Wooden gates that needed fixing which I had replaced weeks earlier.
I fenced the boundaries of his place with precision, tightening up wires and driving new stakes, even though Jim-Eddie would be telling me branches of dead trees would do to block gaps. I had given up a long time ago trying to explain everything to him. I just nodded and carried on anyway.

It was the postman who found him. By the time I got to the house it was full of people. I stood outside, not really wanting to mix with the mourners. I stared at the jamb of Jim-Eddie’s back door. I didn’t feel like going in there to listen to low voices. I just wanted to talk to Jim-Eddie again about the sheep and the cattle and going to the bog.
A suited man with piercing blue eyes walked in past the door.
‘And who are you?’
‘George O’Grady.’
‘Ah yes, Johnny’s son. Are you coming in?’
We entered the kitchen which seemed bigger, colder than before. Two men stood there talking about cattle prices. They looked at me. One of them came and shook my hand. The suited man looked at this with puzzlement. A woman handed me a glass of whiskey which I left down again and picked up a glass of lemonade. I munched on a piece of fruit cake, the sweetness seemed to give me strength and I walked through the crowd until I got to Jim-Eddie’s bedroom. The room, like the rest of the house, seemed different than normal. The bedroom was unusually tidy. Jim-Eddie was stiff in the bed, his hands clasped around rosary beads, two candles burning beside him on a small table. I looked at his still mouth, no more talk of politics or the price of sheep. Two other suited men, I noticed they looked like the man at the door, sat near the bed. I could only stand there a couple of minutes. I shook hands with the men. I stood over the bed for a few moments. The air was cold as I left the house and cycled down the boreen.
The day after the funeral I came to feed the bullocks a few barrows of silage. The man I now knew to be Jim-Eddie’s nephew was standing in the yard with a notepad. He looked at me and asked what I wanted. I told him I did the work for Jim-Eddie.
‘You’re not needed anymore,’ the man said. ‘Does he owe you any money?’
All of the stock was sold off within a fortnight. Old Barley came in his haulage truck and took the lot away in a few runs. It was said the three nephews were fighting over the land. There was forty-seven acres in it. It was poor land but you could still lease it. Farmers always wanted to rent land, even the worst of it.

I make a living fixing up cars now. I specialise in vintages, Ford Escorts being a speciality. I sit in each prospective model, and try to imagine what Jim-Eddie would have seen in them, what he saw in his life, what he saw in everything. I’m thinking of going back to school. I’m only twenty-five next month.
Jim-Eddie had made a will but it took more than a year for it to be read. I never got to hear about it, but I suppose he left me nothing. There was a rumour he gave it to the party he had followed all his life. No wonder he kept telling me to vote.

Glossary of colloquial terms

Dosing – The oral application of a liquid, probably a worm killer, by either gun or bottle.

Driving stakes –Fixing wooden posts to the ground.

Windy – Crooked.

Smig – Smirk.

Rizzing – Ribbing, pulling one’s leg.

Baggin’ – The placing of dried peat logs (called ‘sods’) into old fertiliser bags, for transport purposes and sometimes storage.

Turf – Refers to peat, dried into small short logs between six and eighteen inches long and three to four inches wide and deep.

Bob – Payment.

Hooky – Twisting.

Boreen – Very minor road. Usually with a track of grass dividing it in the centre.

Tae – Irish language for ‘Tea’.

Hard graft – Labour.

Mooching – Moving slowly.

Rook – The turf is usually built into a large cone shaped pile, neatly walled at the edges with sods, something like brickwork. It remains at the side of the road for some weeks to allow it to dry. Some operators build these rooks on the bog as in this case.

Load – The trailer, filled with the sods of turf.

Grapes – A grape is a four to six pronged implement with a long handle. It is used for moving dried grass (known as silage) which, after some months of storage under cover is used for feeding during winter.

Galvanised feeders – Shaped in a semicircle with a number of galvanise bars at the top and a flat sheet of sheet metal to the base. The cattle stand outside the semicircle and angle their heads between the bars, where the silage is typically placed for feeding. Sometimes a flat wall like design.

Bullocks – Castrated male cattle. Typically kept until two years old, when they are slaughtered for beef.

Concrete slab – Large concrete base.

Loaded – Slang term for wealthy.

Spring Show – Now defunct, this was an annual national agricultural show.

Cracked – Surreal.

Cumann – ‘Cumann’ is the Irish Language word for ‘Group’. Jim-Eddie was attending an organised political gathering.

Bleddy – Bloody.

Would do – To be sufficient.

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