Eamon O’Riordan lives in Toronto with his wife, Melissa. He has previously lived in Limerick, Belfast, Dublin, Barcelona and Umeå.
He grew up in County Cork.
He is an emerging writer whose first published piece, Desire Line, was included in the June 2020 edition of The Honest Ulsterman.
By Eamon O’Riordan
To have my own life, living away on my own, without troubling anyone. That’s all I’m asking for. What have I to be complaining about and the poor misfortunes in Africa without a bite. I have my life lived well by keeping nicely out of the way. In school, I sat in the middle rows and never put the hand up to ask or answer. When time came to work out in the fields, picking up rocks with the lads, or later digging the roads for the Council, I’d laugh along with the carry-on in my own way. I never offered a word and they never let their words fall too hard on me. It’s the quiet ones you have to watch isn’t that right Pat? Huh, now you said it, huh ho, huh ho. Down the pub, they could’ve been saying a lot more about me, or them belonging to me. I never set foot inside, so I can’t be sure. Come to think of it now they probably didn’t even think to mention me. There was nothing to say. I always tore into the work at hand, then home for a bite, then bed. The simplest of cycles to fold a life in with. I took each turn of a day or a month or a year the same as the last. The days got shorter until the days grew longer until the days got shorter again. Out in the elements in all seasons. Spit in the palm, grip the shovel, and dig.
As the years turned over, my spine took to drooping and a tightness came to the joints in my arms and legs and hips. I took more breaks during the day and turned down extra shifts. I got by alright. Until the time came that the young foreman lad of the Council told me not to bother coming back after Christmas. I took the news well. I’d had a right good run. High time to let the young lads at it. My hands, at least, were glad of the rest. The skin on the palms had become red raw and the skin on the fingers split open along the creases. The years spent feeding the wooden handle of the shovel up and through and down again. The shock each time the spade hit stone, like from two hurls clashing, shot up the handle to the shoulders, splintering the back. The sound of the spade hitting rock on a clear day filled the empty fields and laneways and farmyards and front kitchens. There may as well have been no man left in the wide earthly world only myself and the spade, and the ground in front of me, and that clean scraping sound.
After it ended with the Council, I put in for a move to one of six new terraced houses on a little cul-de-sac up the hill from the church. Handy for me to drop down to the ten mass of a weekday. The houses were painted parsnip yellow, with white around the windows, white window-sills, and a white border about a foot-high, running like a skirting board, along the bottom. Under the roof was white and clean and ready for swallows. The six terraced houses were part of a larger development of new sites the Council had sold off and on those sites were built bungalows. All the bungalows were full up with people and I moving in to my place. Up the way from me, there was a green for the youngsters to play a bit of soccer on. I don’t know who was put in charge of cutting that green. I’d have done a right job on it.
For a while, I wasn’t sure of my new surroundings. I found the house too bright and it’s surfaces too smooth. I’d pull the linen curtains across during the day, and I supposed I’d get used to the rest of it in time, and I did. Having no stairs is a blessing. Any time of the day or night, no matter how stiff the back would be, I can shove myself into the bed for a rest. Not that I’d sleep much with no job to tire me out. Every week, three fellas from the St. Vincent de Paul pulled up in a white van with bags of groceries for me. Even though I never asked for any help I didn’t give out to them when they did come. I thought once or twice about inviting them in to the little sitting room for tea but I caught a hold of myself in time, thank God. Sure that would be a pure daft thing to do! What would I be delaying them for and I nothing to say to them?
The hands do fairly sting me during winter. I know well I should get the skin on them looked at. The two rasher-red palms and the dark spots gathering around the bony knuckles. They used to be like shovels, my hands. Now look at them. Withered away down to size of an old woman’s hands. I’ve no gloves and the cold wind nips at the dry and peeling skin something fierce. I don’t want to trouble the St. Vincent de Paul lads with how busy they are either. They must be driven stone mad by fellas like me. For the want of a pair of gloves I’ve managed to fix a few plastic bags left from the groceries around both my hands that work the finest. Two bags wrapped tight around each hand and tied at the wrist. I’ve the pockets of my long coat to sling the hands into. Out I go walking, with my hands deep in the pockets, and my head down into the collar of my coat pulled up around me.
I prefer to walk in the bright. I put in a good distance each day. It is good to get the air in the lungs even if the hips and the knees feel like they’re fighting each other over which of them is going to give out from under me first. I keep to the side streets of the town. No-one knows me here and I don’t want to be troubling anyone. I keep my long coat tied up around me and my blistery hands covered and pushed well in to my pockets. When I pass someone on the street, I make sure I step to the far side of the footpath with my head held down and away and my eyes to the ground. I know the sight of an auld fella like me striding along the narrow footpaths of the town or up the hill home every day is not what anyone wants to be catching out of the corner of their eye. I do my best to stay out of sight but I know I am seen. After each walk, I take the tea into the bed and listen to the sounds of children playing outside or a car passing up the cul-de-sac or a heavy shower of rain or a sudden gust of wind or a crow cawing. It’s the sounds of children laughing and talking and playing together I like the best.
I don’t hear a lot from my next-door neighbours. There is a mother and daughter living on one side of me, one as young looking as the other. The odd time a fella walks out of the house and speeds off down the road making an awful racket. The other side of me is a fella that could be thirty or forty or fifty. He doesn’t be outside much. I think he might be a bit simple. The Council let these houses out to the odd simple lad trying to make a go of looking after themselves. Or so I overheard once and I out walking. Sometimes, I hear the words like ‘appearance’; ‘state’; ‘stink’; ‘frighten’ and I passing people on the street. I don’t pay it much heed. I am in my element and I out walking. There’s always something new to see. The sunlight flung across the front wall of the old courthouse or the fresh look of the footpath rinsed clean after a sudden downpour.
There’s people my age now have grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I don’t feel as old as that even with the rackety joints and the blistery hands and the time it takes to get in and out of the bed. There’s still the bit of go in me yet.
The summer takes the pace of life in the town down a notch. Everyone is in better form with the children free to roam the empty roads and play their games on the green. I used to like the summer as a young lad too, sitting down on the grass in front of the house, looking up at the white ships floating in the big blue sky. A warm hand on my shoulder and the call in for dinner. I knew to avoid the eyes of any adult at the table as I forked up the steaming lumps of boiled and buttered mash. Gone in a flash. Then straight out to the full life of work lived with the good Lord looking down on my each and every move. I’d do the same and again had I it over and I’m still going strong. The walking keeps me busy. In summer, I still keep the length of the coat thrown over me and the collar up. I even avoid the town’s side streets so as better to not be seen. I come out of my cul-de-sac, then quickly down the hill, turning left, away from the church, past the Council houses painted green, until I am free of the footpaths and on to real road. I keep in along the briar hedges at the side of the road, so that you could only see me for a split second, out the open window of your passing car, speeding off to God knows where. I do a ring of the roads around the town. The same ring every time. Then back up the hill and into the house with a nose filled with pollen and a soapy back.
Lately, instead of taking the first turn into my little cul-de-sac, I have kept walking straight on up the stone road until it falls across the top of the green and back down towards my row of little houses. As it takes its swing back, you get a good blast of the brown hills off in the distance. Those hills will outlive us all in the end. The children playing on the green take no notice of me most of the time and I passing them. It is a grand thing to see the young boys and girls full of beans, running after each other, or after a ball that they kick around between them. Their sing-song sound voices calling after each other. The fresh-cut grass golden in the evening sun. Just the other day, their ball spilled over the saucers lip of the green onto the road and rolled over in my direction. I knew well to pick my own pace up to stay out of the way of the ball and the young lad running after it. I chanced a quick glance at the young heads dotted around the green behind me as they looked after their rolling ball as it picked up speed on the packed concrete road, and beyond it, to the old man, half bent over, with hands stuffed into the pockets of a big black coat, shuffling away down the hill in its wake.