Colin O’Shea has just finished a creative writing degree at NUIG and enjoys writing about anything that interests him, being inspired by stories heard or seen at some point along the way. He has been writing for as long as he can remember. To date, he has one short story accepted for publication in the Lamp journal and is working on a science fiction novel.
By Colin O’Shea
Old wood is better than new wood. Every carpenter knows that. New wood is got from trees planted too close together and cut down too quickly, to meet demand and increase profit. Old wood is got from trees that were planted by nature, set in the soil by the wind and rain and grown over centuries, with only one goal, to reach out toward the afternoon sun.
The wood that made old Jim Fitz’s coffin was the finest red-tinted mahogany and its varnish gleamed in the overbearing light at the wake. The funeral home light illuminated the pale corpse and coffin like a hospital surgery light would a patient on the operating table. You can be born and die under the same light, only to be wheeled in again under an equally harsh light. No wonder some people spend their lives looking for a bit of shade.
Connor pondered these things as he stood stiffly against the wall. The family was to his left and he had already shaken the limp hands that extended out continuously to meet the line of sympathizing limbs coming through the door and touching briefly like branches interlocking and parting in a gale. But the wind was low outside and only a small breeze through the open doors interrupted the dead and somber air inside.
Connor was getting ready to leave, which involved loosening his folded arms and glancing at the door, waiting until the family were busy shaking another line of hands so he could escape unnoticed before the drawling rosary. He didn’t even know Jim all that well and didn’t even particularly like what he did know of him. He knew that he was a bad drunk and a little bit sly. Not the kind to trust with a loan of anything or for a favour. But he also knew that he had to go to the wake, to show face. In a small town like this, it was expected. No one wanted an empty funeral home when their time came, and everyone wanted to be respectful of the dead and the family. Deep down, Connor didn’t give a damn if anyone showed up to his funeral. He’d be dead and gone, just a fading memory in the minds of the living. What did it matter to him? As far as he could see, it only mattered to them.
He was pushing himself from the wall and unfolding his arms when Jackie D marched in. Jackie was striding with purpose, both arms swinging at his side, his mouth in a wrinkled grimace. He ignored the family altogether and kept his narrow gaze trained on the body under the bright light. Jackie wore his fine grey suit and maroon waistcoat. When he got to the coffin he took off his grey paddy cap and held it to his chest. His thin grey hair was ruffled on his head as he studied Jim’s lifeless face. His eyes narrowed to mere slits and everyone in the place seemed to be watching him, waiting for something.
Jackie D raised his cap and slapped it hard across the dead man’s plastic-looking face. It made a thud against the hardened corpse and Jackie plonked the cap back on his head, twirled around and marched back out without a word or gesture to anyone.
No one moved or breathed, they all just watched, as if unsure of the reality of the situation. Then Jim’s portly daughter started crying loudly, a high drawn-out cry like a donkey, and then his son, shaken to life by his sister’s moan, stood up and scowled at the fleeing back of Jackie D. After that, the murmuring started and a few people went outside to talk louder. Connor took the opportunity to get outside and leave.
Connor wondered what everyone else was wondering; what did Jim Fitz do to Jackie D? He decided to drop into the Old Oak on his way home and sure enough Jackie D was sitting in his corner in front of a muddy pint that was settling. The old Oak seemed to be built around trees; bright varnished, serpentine trunks slid up in every corner. The stairway that led upstairs had long slender and twisting branches for the railing and the ceiling was supported by a series of straighter cross-sections. The counter itself was a fat slab of grainy Oak and rested on a dark, bark-coated horizontal trunk. There was even a tree in the middle of the bar acting as a post with a circular table around it, looking like it had just grown straight up through the place.
Jackie D had a smirk on his narrow mouth. He took off his cap and set it down onto the table beside the pint. He leaned back on the lounge seat like a man satisfied after a hard day’s work. Connor got a pint and walked over.
“Mind if I sit down Jack?” he asked cautiously.
“It’s a free country,” he said.
“That it is.” Connor placed his pint down and then plonked himself across the table from Jackie. He took a gulp and let out a sigh of satisfaction.
“It’s a good pint here,” said Jackie.
“Oh the best.”
They sat in silence for a little while, looking at everything except each other and making an odd sigh. Then Connor spoke.
“So are you going to tell me what all that was about or are we going to sit in silence all night?”
“Well, I knew you weren’t joining me for the company,” said Jackie. “It’s the news you’re after.”
“Can you blame me?”
“Not really, I suppose.”
“You know I’m not one for blathering Jackie, I’ll keep it to myself,” said Connor earnestly.
“Ara, I don’t give a damn who knows. It’s not me that did the wrong.”
“So what did he do?”
Jackie’s smirk disappeared as he leaned in over his pint and clasped his hands on the table.
“Well, you know the way he came into some money there a few years back.”
“I do of course, sure wasn’t he out every other night, buying drinks for half the town at the lock-ins and all. I thought the old fool struck oil up in those fields of his.”
Jackie grimaced and snorted at the thought. “The bastard never bought me a pint. Anyway, that money should have been mine. It started a summer day a few years back, I was out in the bog, cutting the turf and who came walking along but himself, his hands in his pockets, whistling a tune. Some bloody sight. It was a fierce day and I thought it was a mirage. That man, in a bog!
Anyway, he said he heard I might have some old timber lying around the place. He needed it for a shed he was building, that’s what he told me. God knows how he heard it, but I had just dug out a few old tree trunks from the peat, fine big ones. I had them collected up, ready to burn, didn’t think they’d be much good for the fireplace, being in the damp earth so long. And then Jim comes along and takes a look and says they’d be perfect for rafters on a shed he’s building, so I say grand, take them away. And he comes down later that evening with his jeep and a long trailer and that waster son of his and loads them up in a hurry.
It was only a few months later that I heard of his good fortune. He made a load of money. Everyone thought it was a lucky streak at the bookies, but I know Tom that works there and he saw no such thing, not to mention the man was about as lucky as a fly caught in a web. So, I started wondering and getting a bad feeling and decided I’d go up to Jim’s house and see for myself. He was in fair humour, laughing away with his young fella, the waster, then he saw me and turned a bit sour-like.
I asked him, I said where’s the shed you built with my wood, and he tried to shrug it off and said they decided not to build it, too much trouble; but he was getting nervous, I could tell alright. So, I asked him where he got the money he’s been splashing around the place, just out of interest like, and he turned sour and told me to mind my own and get off his land.
That’s when I knew something was up, so I did a bit of research as they say and I went down to the library. And what did I find but a book about bog wood. Turns out it can get a good price if it’s old enough and sure it could be over 5,000 years in the ground.”
“Jaysus!” exclaimed Connor.
“I know. The peat preserves it of course and they use it to make jewellery and smoking pipes and all sorts. I almost flew into a rage in the library. Tore the book in half. Paid for it after, mind.”
Connor nodded thoughtfully.
“Anyway I hounded him good and proper after that and he got the shotgun and aimed the fecking thing at me. And then he goes to the guard and I got warned off him. It didn’t matter that he took the wood. Law says I gave it to him, so they can’t do a thing. But sure, I wouldn’t of given it to him had I known. And he knew well what he was at. Building a shed me hole. That bollocks couldn’t build a bloody sand castle, will ‘ou dop.”
“You’re not wrong there, Jack,” Connor chuckled, but Jack’s stern and haggard face made him bite his lip and get serious again. Jack took a long, steady swig of his drink before continuing.
“Anyway, I got a lawyer and we were just about getting somewhere, legally like, since he knew he was swindling me out of it, and then the old fucker goes and falls dead at the bar right there.” Jackie pointed at the old oak bar counter to the side of them.
Connor sat and assimilated the story while Jackie got them another round.
“Sure, when you think about it,” said Connor after his new pint was set in front of him “it was the money that killed him. He wouldn’t of been drinking and pissing the days away if it wasn’t for the money. And I know you like a drink yourself, so maybe it’s a blessing in disguise, you know?”
Jackie scowled across the table. “Ara, I’d be better off drinking myself to death. Now Jim will be up there first, getting the Lord on his side.”
“Jaysus Jack, I don’t think the Lord takes sides.”
“Ara, don’t give me that. Isn’t the bible full of that sort of thing. If it isn’t the Jews, it’s the sick and the lame. And him an alcoholic and all, he’ll have all the pity above,” Jackie D said, and pouted like a child.
Connor didn’t know what to make of it. Jackie’s furrowed wild brow and wrinkled cheeks gave away not a hint of humour and he was gawking at his pint as if it was the last drink on Earth.
“Maybe you should try break an arm or something before you check out. You’ll have the lame thing going for you then at least,” Connor said.
Jackie’s eyes narrowed as he concentrated and then they lit up.
“That’s not a bad idea at all Con, have you an auld sledge and a good aim?”