P.W. Bridgman (a pen name) is a Pushcart Prize-nominated Canadian writer with Irish forebears. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in, among other outlets, The Moth Magazine, The Honest UlstermanThe Antigonish ReviewThe Glasgow Review of BooksLitroPoetry Salzburg Review and The High Window. A participant in the 2018 summer school program offered by the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University, Belfast, Bridgman has had two books published to date. The most recent is a collection of poems entitled A Lamb (Victoria: Ekstasis Editions, 2018). The other is a selection of short fiction entitled Standing at an Angle to My Age (Surrey: Libros Libertad, 2013). You can learn more about P.W. Bridgman and his writing by visiting his website at www.pwbridgman.ca

The Four-faced Liar

By P.W. Bridgman

The four-faced liar—the tower clock at The Stables, Sion Mills, Co. Tyrone—says, equivocally, that it’s 8:30. Sr Agnes prefers its west face, as does irritable Sweeney, the tattooed plumber. “You’re late, you’re late,” the teacher sings out to her tousle-headed stragglers at the gate of St Theresa’s Primary. Little legs pick up the pace.

Meanwhile, irritable Sweeney’s rapping on the windows of The Stables tearoom grows louder. Like Sr Agnes, he also knows it’s 8:30, west-face time.

“Late again,” he mutters impatiently to himself. Again.

Ginger-haired, 20-year-old Jenny’s just arriving at the tearoom’s back door. By the liar’s east face it’s only 8:22. Plenty of time. Sweeney wants his usual takeaway tea and scones, not to mention the use of the toilet. He should get a grip. Jenny yawns, switches on the lights, wipes crumbs off the corner table, ignores the peevish rapping.

Frightfully English Mrs Ogilvie leaves her Passat at The Stables’ car park when she arrives there each day before work on her way to Strabane. She’s in Collections. She needs to take her Mourneside Walk before she can face each day’s fresh batch of calls to the whiny and the weak.

“We may have to summon a bailiff if your bill’s not paid by the 31st,” Mrs Ogilvie said yesterday to doddering old Mr MacMinn. He’s run up a fearsome balance on his Barclaycard. Unpaid daily hospital parking charges are accumulating swiftly, as are the bruises on his arms and face. You see, sweet and gentle Lillian’s newly spongy brain has not only released most of her memory, trickle by trickle; it’s also made her into a fine pugilist with a dead aim.

“Your last payment was made more than sixty days ago,” Mrs Ogilvie will say later today to Zoë, a single mum. Mrs Ogilvie will have to shout into the phone to be heard over the din of three squalling children in the background. “Why on earth are you shopping at Sainsbury’s?” she’ll add. What she will really want to say, though, is, “What’s a jumped-up little chav like you doing shopping at Sainsbury’s?”

Mrs Ogilvie looks up at the tower clock’s east face: 8:48. Plenty of time. She walks nevertheless at a brisk and excited pace out of the car park and onto the Melmount Road, then down where the sign points: “Mourneside Walk.” As usual, no one is about. They’re an indolent lot in Sion Mills, she thinks. The lazy sods. Someone in one of these houses will likely get a dunning call from Mrs Ogilvie later this morning.

The long-idle Herdman’s Mill stands ghost-like behind its chain-link fence as she passes by on the path to the Swinging Bridge. The four-faced liar being now out of sight, she checks her watch: 8:58. Arriving at a familiar copse, she paces, puts down her bulky purse on a little hillock and begins to worry.

Presently, the heavy footfalls of Sweeney, the irritable tattooed plumber, can be heard approaching. Mrs Ogilvie’s heart leaps like a girl’s. She checks her purse for the little packet of alcohol-impregnated hand-nappies she saved from her last trip on the Eurostar. Oooh, she felt so guilty when she took dozens of them and stuffed them into her carry-on! Well. Sweeney’s hands are always dreadfully stained with goodness-knows-what! Could anyone blame her?

Sweeney grunts when he sees Mrs Ogilvie. To-go cups of tea, scones and napkins balance unsteadily in his hands. A thin blanket is pulled roughly from Mrs Ogilvie’s purse and spread out. Breakfast can wait. Engrossed in their guzzling and their nuzzling, Mrs Ogilvie and Mr Sweeney are soon lost to the world.

But they are not lost to the ever-vigilant and perspicacious Sr Agnes, guiding her single file of little Christian soldiers-in-training from St Theresa’s Primary on their Mourneside Walk. She first spies silken undergarments through the foliage, then big, ungainly legs seeming to perform some kind of synchronised swimming manoeuvre. It is all unfolding in a copse ahead, mere yards from the pathway. She cocks an ear. There are faint sounds, moist sounds; unmistakable sounds, like a boar snuffling out a truffle at the base of a rotting tree.

God put Sr Agnes on this earth to protect tender ears and eyes from just this kind of thing.

“About face!” she calls out with a voice of authority. The children dutifully reverse direction just before reaching the Swinging Bridge.

There is a chorus of pained voices: “Why? Why, Sister? Why?

“Because you were all so slow getting going this morning. Now we’ve got to hurry back to class.”

A quick glance at her watch confirms it is only 9:11, and that her answer is, thus, wholly untrue. Sr Agnes says a quiet little prayer seeking God’s forgiveness. She knows He will understand.

The division of God’s little soldiers marches reluctantly back toward St Theresa’s.

Anxious to get well away, and quickly, Sr Agnes chooses a shorter route back through The Stables car park, past Mrs Ogilvie’s Passat and out onto the Melmount Road on the north side. They file past Sweeney’s filthy lorry on the way. After discreetly consulting her own watch again (now reading 9:22), she calls her pupils’ attention to the north face of the tower clock. Conveniently, it says 9:41.

“There, you see?” she calls out. “Hup! hup!”

Her young charges still uncorrupted, and with a grave moral danger having now passed, Sr Agnes is most pleased. Little legs once again pick up the pace. Meanwhile, not so far away, four rather larger ones come slowly back to ground—still trembling and a little soiled to be sure—but, despite it all, despite that sweet exhaustion, they are able somehow to carry the weight of two shite-filled lives onward for yet another day.