Eamon O’Leary: Liosbourne, Carrigaline, Co. Cork.
Released early from a ‘life sentence’ in financial services, he needed something more than hacking up the golf course to keep him from the pub. So he started writing short stories.
No particular genre, an eclectic mix, but no sci-fi. Definitely no sci-fi.
By Eamon O’Leary
The brass bed, overdue a rub of Brasso, creaked with relief as Tommy swore, farted and swung two gnarled legs onto the icy linoleum. Except for rheumatic big toes which stuck out the top, his clammy feet found comfort in a pair of originally tartan slippers. Over skid-marked Long-Johns, he wore a pair of shrunken pyjamas and an Aran sweater, minus the elbows.
Yanking back the green floral curtains, he saw only a frost-covered window both inside and out.
“I’m going to shoot that fecking dog. Yap, yap, yap since six o’clock. Non-fecking stop. I’m not taking it anymore, do ya hear me, Rose?”
He went along the landing to the airing cupboard where, on the door, a thermometer hung from a nail. Taking a brown notebook from the pocket of his pyjamas, he noted and recorded the temperature, along with the time and date. After turning on the immersion, he went to the bathroom, took a piss, left the seat up and didn’t bother flushing or washing his hands.
Back in the bedroom, he rummaged under the bed and pulled out an air rifle and a box of pellets. Dragging over an armchair only fit for the dump, he positioned it at the metal-framed window, whose hinges squealed when he opened it. Shivers reached his toes when an icy-clean breeze met the foul air. Before sitting, he went back to the airing cupboard and turned off the immersion. Then, with the ambush set, he plonked himself down on the chair, his index finger exploring high into one of his nostrils.
He entered all the details of his morning – except the subconscious nasal adventure – in his notebook.
The silver circular tin had originally held two hundred and fifty pellets. Seven, he’d used in a former unsuccessful dog-culling exercise. He sat counting as the lazy sun made an appearance and cleared most of the frost, but there was no sign of the doomed dog. With a broken spring burrowing its way up Tommy’s arse and droplets from his almost pious-blue nose running to a constant flow, he suspended operations, but not before finishing the count. ‘Two hundred and forty-three’ was recorded in the notebook.
In the dirt-encrusted kitchen, he heated a pot of porridge that he’d left soaking overnight in milk and a spoon of honey. He stood and ate a bucket-sized portion. On the table sat a stack of books, mostly classics. A pair of ladies glasses on top of the pile. A lonely cup, saucer and spoon lay among an array of medications. Everything covered in dust.
When he’d finished his breakfast, Tommy crushed a handful of oats and stood, arm outstretched, outside the back door. After a short wait, his robin friend landed on a nearby whitethorn tree and made a few cursory security checks before coming to rest in Tommy’s palm. Redbreast made short work of brunch, while Tommy gave him the latest news.
“What d’ya think? Should I shoot the dog?”
The robin took flight without answering.
“Ungrateful little bollocks.”
The details of breakfast and conversation were noted down.
In the bathroom, he shaved and washed his important bits in lukewarm water.
“Maybe it’s not fair to shoot the stupid dog,” he told himself. “Maybe it’s that eejit who owns it I should be going after? Did ya see the state of him, Rose? All tight trousers and stripy shirts and what about the dog? I mean to say an alsatian or a labrador or even a fecking cocker spaniel would be a man’s dog, but a bichon feckin’ frise? Yeah, he’s definitely a queer hawk.”
After checking the immersion was off, he left home, his departure confirmed by the clattering of the cast-iron knocker as he pulled the door shut. The dog barked, and Tommy cursed.
His two-up-two-down, the sole surviving fisherman’s house, sat on top of the hill. The rest had been snapped up and razed by developers. Tommy refused all offers. Not even a house in the new complex and a barrowfull of money could shift him.
“Me father lived here, and his father before him. I’ve lived here all my life and I’ll be buried from here,” he’d told them. He’d won. They’d redesigned the development around Tommy’s place.
A narrow road corkscrewed its way from Tommy’s house to the village. On one side, breaks in the stone wall gave glimpses of heather, gorse and coarse grasses, with the never-ending sea beyond. Opposite, sad, hungry-looking cattle picked at sparse grass in irregular fields.
It was a leisurely five-minute walk for most, but with thumbs clenched inside white-knuckled fists it was, for Tommy, a daily nightmare fraught with danger. His route was like a jigsaw, crisscrossed with moss-filled veiny cracks. Stepping on a crack ensured imminent bad luck and disaster.
Relief came when he reached the road in the village.
McCarthy’s pub, its neon sign swinging from a rusted bracket, shared a corner with Murphy’s grocery. The Post Office, Curls ’n’ Colours and the boarded-up Yangtze River completed the business district of the village. Opposite, facing the elements, stood a solemn, cut-stone church and a two-roomed school. All the buildings shared a sparsity of customers.
Tommy’s education had ended as soon as he’d learned to read and write. He joined his father on the fourteen-footer, hunting down the herring. A tough life for little reward. He minded the few pounds he made. A match was made between himself and Rose and three kids followed. She’d sworn that “All three of them will go to college. That’ll be their passport out of here.”
A good result. Two accountants and a teacher. She’d moved well up from the back row of the church on Sundays.
Nowadays, Tommy enjoyed the half-moon foreshore, gathering driftwood, wondering what stories of storms, giant waves and foreign parts these bleached relics could tell. It mattered little after he’d dragged them up the hill. They’d all end up the same way, clobbered by his hatchet and fed to the fire. Date, time and relevant details recorded in the notebook. Other days, depending on the tides and time of year, a bucket of cockles made for a change from the staple diet of boiled spuds and streaky bacon.
Of late, usually on a Sunday, Tommy took an evening constitutional as far as the pier. Once a thriving haven for fishermen, including Tommy, it now hung on sadly, slowly succumbing to the endless waves. A single insipid light at the seaward end flickered as if signalling the inevitable.
Armed with a fishing rod, a torch and his thermometer, he timed the walk to coincide as best he could with the full tide. With the thermometer hooked to the rod, he lowered it into the water, retrieving it minutes later. Date, time, temperature and a comment entered the notebook.
A white bundle of fur sitting on the windowsill inside the house next door greeted Tommy on his return. It barked. A lot. Tommy shook his fist and swore.
He slammed his front door. “I’m back.”
Warming himself by the fire, he placed a candle on the narrow, wax-covered mantelpiece. A pile of sympathy cards and an eclectic collection of dust-coated photos cluttered the limited space: babies, children of all ages, college celebrations and weddings. In the centre, a black and white portrait of a smiling couple on their wedding day. Only memories now. The regular visits from Australia and America petered out when partners and grandchildren arrived.
“Will ye be coming home for Christmas?” A regular plea. “Your ma will be disappointed if ye don’t come.”
“Da, you know we’d love to, but with the kids, it’d cost a fortune. Why don’t ye come to us?”
“Maybe next year.”
Over time, the weekly phone calls tapered off. Now they were down to just an occasional duty call. Skype and Facetime alien to Tommy.
He’d never felt the joy of a newly born grandchild wrapping its fist around his little finger. No longer babies, they were strangers to him now.
He’d given up on organised religion years earlier and preferred the direct approach. After checking the immersion was off and before climbing into bed, he’d kneel by the bedside and have a private chat with Whoever Was Up There. It always ended the same;
“Take good care of her.”
Callers to the house were rare, except for Jack McCarthy, the postman. Almost as old and wizened as Tommy, and equally cranky. They enjoyed sorting out the problems of the parish, the country and the world. Agreement on any issue was a rarity. The perfect match.
As the days shortened, December crept along and with it came the first of the Christmas post.
“I’ve a few for you today, Tommy. Any of the kids coming this year?”
Tommy grunted. He threw the cards into the grate unopened after Jack left.
The sun hid its face on the last Sunday before Christmas. A sky laden with snow hung heavy over the village and delivered its cargo as Tommy prepared for his evening trudge to the jetty. An effortless journey for once, a light powdery dusting covered the cracks. The full tide was in, so he took his reading.
Date, time and temperature recorded and a comment – ‘Perfect.’ Bitterly cold with a lazy wind that would rather go through you than round you.
About to strike out for home, he found his way blocked by a group of children singing carols, huddled together like a flock of lambs outside McCarthy’s pub.
What a stupid place to bring these kids, thought Tommy. The coldest spot in the village…
Oh, should’ve known. ’Tis that eejit living by me that’s in charge.
Not the dog-owner, but another adversary of Tommy’s, the recently arrived long geek of a schoolteacher. There’d been some problem over a parking space. Tommy didn’t have a car, never drove, but that wasn’t the point. One child shook a collection bucket in Tommy’s direction. He stopped. The teacher, expecting an outburst, held his breath and bit his lip.
Tommy rooted through the pockets of his oilskins. Yellow from top to toe, he looked like a giant canary standing under the light. A few bits of twine and an oily rag didn’t augur well for the collectors with their feet, fingers and faces shivering. Pulling down a zip in the cumbersome coat, Tommy took a crumbling wallet from within the layers. With hands over his mouth, the teacher took a step back and watched Tommy empty note after note into the bucket. Fives, tens and even a twenty. The children danced and whooped, except the bucket carrier, who stood motionless, eyes fixed on the bundle of notes.
No answer. He missed the smell of Christmas baking.
Tommy went up to the bedroom. His only suit, smelling of mothballs, hung in the lopsided wardrobe among an array of dresses, some long, some shortish, all old. Winter and summer overcoats and even a full-length fur coat, complete with foxtail collar. Holding the hanger, Tommy satisfied himself that a rub of the iron would restore the charcoal grey suit to its former glory, and set about the task. He managed a crease as sharp as a razor on the trousers, the knees shiny from years of grime transferred from palms to pants. A size eighteen collar shirt, formerly white and now a delicate yellow, together with a wide maroon tie got a smoothing of the iron. He spotted what looked like a gravy stain, a relic from a wake or wedding, and doused it under the cold tap before giving it a pat of the hot iron. With a frenzied enthusiasm, a pair of mould-encrusted shoes were polished back to parade ground standard. He changed into the suit and brogues and after checking the immersion was turned off, returned downstairs.
Taking the photos from the mantelpiece, he sat by the fire examining each before putting them all back except the one of the young couple. As the fire died, he blew out the candle and put the photo of the newlyweds in his breast pocket.
“Not long now, love.”
He placed the small brown notebook on the mantelpiece and tugged the front door closed after him.
The dog next door barked. Tommy gave him the thumbs-up, laughed and headed back to the pier.