Friday, 29 April 2016

The wrong side of the tracks

When I was about thirteen I started secondary school. Every lunchtime we'd spill out onto the streets of town like a herd of wild animals, roaming in packs, or lounging on walls to display our coolness to the world. The town happened to sit on a rarely used train-line which mainly carried slow-moving freight cars. Although it was completely off limits, some of us would climb over the fence and walk the tracks to the far side of town as a shortcut. To my teenage mind, I was thumbing my nose at the establishment, walking on the wild side, a fugitive from justice.

Although I'd never let on to my friends, there was one particular part of crossing the tracks that always made me sick to my stomach. The bridge. The ground dropped away until there was nothing between the sleepers but fresh air. A hundred feet below a river churned, fast running, but not particularly deep. Every time I placed a foot on the narrow maintenance walkway the same feeling of dread fell over me. What would happen if the train came?

As casually as I could, I'd listen for the rumble of a thousand horsepower engine bearing down on us. I'd rest my foot on the cold metal of the track and feel for vibrations. All the way across the bridge I'd imagine what I might do should tonnes of crushing locomotive trap us with no place to run. Would I jump into the water below, risking broken legs, back, or even drowning? Would I have enough room to lie on the walkway and let the train pass over my prone body. Every step of the crossing I'd replay the scenarios in my mind, imagining the water rushing up at me and the shuddering impact when I hit that churning surface, or the feeling of the undercarriage screaming inches from my nose, tugging at my jumber until some low-hanging piece of metal sliced me open from head to toe, spilling my steaming guts all over the bridge.

Those images were bad enough to have rattling around in my brain as we crossed, but I also had to contend with Barry. Sometimes your friends can be your biggest nightmare. Barry was a butty lad with a small brain and a big mouth, who was never happy unless he was showing us up, or slagging us off. Every time we crossed the bridge Barry would climb on top of the ten foot high metal balustrade and walk the narrow ledge the whole way across. If that was not exciting enough for him he would hop from sleeper to sleeper, with the yawning drop between each not bothering him at all.

One day, myself, Barry and a few others were starting to cross the bridge when all my fears came through. Around the bend ahead, a wall of fume belching death came thundering toward us. Barry was hopping as normal from sleeper to sleeper when we saw it. We turned and ran away from the train, back toward the end of the bridge.

"Come on Barry!" I shouted over my shoulder but noticed he was actually hopping toward the train, not away.

"BARRY!"

"I can make it!," he said and continued to race the train to the far end of the bridge. The driver must have seen us at that moment because the horn blared, once, twice, three times and then the scream of metal on metal breaks joined the din. By this time we were all off the bridge except Barry who was still a dozen sleepers from safety. The train driver was trying to stop but his efforts were having no affect at all, he was going too fast and the engine was far too heavy. 

Barry had stopped leaping and was now trying to run across the sleepers. His head was swinging wildly from side to side looking for a way to escape, his terror blatant as he relised these moments may be his last. That was the moment his foot skidded from under him on the greasy timber. He fell back ward and one leg vanished into the void. He managed to wrap an arm around the thick timber beam and stop his fall. His eyes were huge as the first train wheel hit the bridge, the howl of breaks, horn, and metal wheels, mingled with Barry's blood curdling scream until it was impossible to say where one started and the others finished. The train divers panicked face loomed huge and white in the glass. 

There was nothing anyone could do. I got one last look at Barry as the train rushed over him. I don't know if I was yelling or not, I cant remember. It seemed to take forever for the spark spitting wheels to pass by us. When the last carriage cleared the bridge: blood, gore, and mangled body parts should have greeted our eyes, but by a miracle two thin arms were still wrapped around the moss covered sleeper with Barry's tear streaked face hovering inches above it.  We all ran over and dragged Barry onto the bridge as quick as we could before escaping the scene of our crime.

Barry didn't say a word for the rest of lunch time and was particularly quite during the afternoon classes, but by home time his natural boastfulness had overcome his fear. He ended the day standing at the bus stop bragging about taking on the train and winning. But between you and me, he never crossed the bridge again.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Thirty Pieces of Silver - Job for Joey

The early morning air was chilly, but the blue sky promised a good day ahead. Joey looked up but failed to see anything to be happy about, mainly because he wasn't a morning person, he wasn't even an early afternoon person, but when Jimmy Kingston called it drove thoughts of sleep from his mind like a dog driving seagulls from a beach.

Like Joey had expected, Sarah kicked up blue murder after hearing the phone call in the hair salon. She badgered him about being a Kingston lackey, and when that wasn’t working she switched tack and tried guilt tripping him. Joey had let her words wash over him because he knew his sister was worried. What Sarah didn't seem to understand was that he wasn't doing anything wrong, so she had no reason to worry? It seemed she was always ready to see the worst in him, always ready to believe he was up to no good, no matter what he told her. Yes, he did the odd job for Jimmy and the boys, yes he had delivered a few messages, but they had never wanted him to deal drugs, or even carry them. Jimmy had loads of guys more than willing to do those things. He was Kenny’s friend, which made him as good as family. Someday, Sarah would believe him.

As he walked along the early morning streets he thought about the fight between the Griffin's and the Kingston's. Kenny had phoned him and threatened all sorts of stuff, but Joey knew he'd do nothing without his father's say-so. As he walked, the words of revenge which dripped from Kenny's tongue last night, sounded once more in his mind. He felt a shiver run up his back and hoped this job Jimmy wanted done was nothing to do with the Griffins. The last thing he wanted was to be dragged into a battle with those guys. Joey acted the hard man with his sister, with his friends, and the likes of Scobie, but when it came to real hard men he knew he was completely out of his depth.

Eventually he came to the turning for Jimmy's street and the place looked as it always did, except for the couple of builders van’s parked outside Jimmy’ house. He flicked a nod here and there to Jimmy’s men as he passed along the road. They were sitting in cars, lounging in doorways, all looking causal but their eyes were constantly on the move. A cloud of tension hung over the whole place, the kind of heaviness you get in the air just before a thunderstorm.

As Joey turned into Jimmy’s garden and noticed the door had been taken off its hinges, and a new one was being hung in its place. Just inside the hallway Pete was standing guard over the work, watching every move with an eagle eye.

“Hi Pete, is Jimmy in?”

Pete nodded his scarred and grumpy looking head slightly, but never uttered a word. His only concession to Joey’s existence was a slight tightening of his huge arms crossed over his barrel-chest.

“Cheers,” said Joey meekly, and slipped past Pete. He popped his head around the sitting room door but it was empty. He continued on into the kitchen where he found Jimmy sitting at the breakfast table reading a paper while Kathleen tended a frying pan sizzling on the hob. Jimmy sensed Joey’s presence and dropped the corner of the paper.

“There’s coffee in the pot,” said Jimmy and pulled the paper taunt once more. Joey sat and poured out a coffee for himself. The room was filled with the delicious aroma of sausages and bacon, which made Joey’s stomach grumble noisily.

“Got a rumble in your tummy, Joey?” sniggered Kathleen, rattling the pan in her hand to turn the sausages. Joey smiled and blushed.

“Would you fancy a cuppa, Mrs Kingston?”

“Jesus, Joey. Call me Kathleen. Mrs Kingston makes me sound about a hundred years old.”

“Would you like some coffee, Kathleen?”

“Go on so, just a half cup, good sup of milk.”

He poured out a half mug of coffee and added the milk. He stood and brought it to her at the cooker which earned him a huge smile. “Right little charmer ain't you,” she said, sipping the drink and looking over the rim at him with smoky eyes. She might be twenty years older than he was but she was eyeing him up like a leopard watching a baby gazelle. Joey blushed and as he turned she swatted him across the ass with the spatula, and howled with laughter at the shocked look he gave her.

After a few sips of his coffee, and several turned pages of Jimmy’s paper, he thought it was time to broach the subject of the job.

“What did …”

Jimmy’s furious eyes appeared over the edge of the paper which cut the words dead in his throat.

“Relax, I’m going,” said Kathleen as she placed a heaped plate in front of Jimmy. “Want a bit of breakfast there son?” she asked Joey but before he could answer Jimmy said her name under his breath.

“The kid’s got to eat,” she said, ignoring her husband and piled sausages on a plate. When the delicious smelling breakfast was sitting in front of him, Kathleen walked out of the kitchen, taking her mug of coffee with her. Jimmy folded up his paper and glared at Joey.

“Don’t go opening your mouth to anyone about what I ask you to do.”

“I just thought …”

“And for God’s sake, don’t start thinking, just do exactly what you’re told. Got it?”

“Got it,” he mumbled.

Jimmy turned the paper beside his plate and began eating in silence, reading in between bites. Joey looked down at the sausages on his plate, but the rumbling in his stomach had stopped. It was a mixture of fear and unease that chased his appetite away. After a few minutes, Jimmy glanced at the untouched food and said, “Eat the bloody things.”

Joey sliced up the sausages and forced down the food before he upset the boss any further.

An hour of nerve-jangling silence passed so slowly that every minute felt like an hour. Eventually a small Nokia phone on the table buzzed, which made him jump. Jimmy picked up the phone and read the message to himself.

“Right, we’re on,” Jimmy said, getting to his feet and walking out the door. Joey stood but wasn't sure if he should follow or wait in the kitchen. He was still stood at the kitchen table, shuffling from foot to foot with indecision, when Jimmy came back in with a small backpack hanging from his hand. He threw it and Joey caught it clumsily with both hands. It felt empty except for a small bulge in the bottom.

“Get yourself into town and take the 46A bus out to the UCD campus. Find Fosters Avenue and wait at the bus stop near Robuck Road. Just wait at the bus stop till I call you, got it? Wait there until I call you.”

Joey was busy repeating the names of the streets in his mind when Jimmy shouted at him, “Have you got it Joey?”

“Got it, Jimmy. 46A, Fosters Avenue bus stop near Robuck Road.”

“Good lad, you better get going.”

“What do you want me to do out there?” asked Joey, instantly regretting the words as they left his lips.

“Just wait at the bloody bus stop until I call you and whatever you do, don’t lose the bag or look inside.”

“I won’t,” said Joey, shouldering the backpack and striding out of the house, glad to be away from Jimmy.  As he walked, Joey felt the small lump in the bottom of the bag swing against his back. With each touch it reminded him of Sarah’s words the night before, and how right she turned out to be. He was a mug, on a mugs errand, carting Jimmy Kingston’s drugs around the city in a backpack. He should have seen this coming, but he was the fool his sister always thought he was.

***

The inside of John’s head felt ragged, as if an all our war was being fought behind his eyelids. God almighty, they had really tied one on last night. The disadvantage of living in such a small flat was the bloody noise. He could hear every move Emma was making in the kitchen, and she wasn't a shy and retiring creature at the best of times. Each banging door sounded like the roar of a V8 engine in his ear, and every clattering pot sounded like crashing symbols. As a new wave of screaming kids and shouting rolled over him he turned his head into the pillow.

The walls were like paper, but after living like this all his life he should be used to it. What he would give for a few hours peace and quiet. The funny thing was, whenever he had the place to himself, which was nearly never, he couldn't sleep. Too quite. Today he would have no problem sleeping. His eyes were firmly shut against the early morning sunlight trickling into the bedroom around the edge of the curtains.

“John! Get the hell out of the scratcher and help with the monsters,” yelled Emma from the kitchen.

He twisted in the bed and tried to shield his eyes from the dim light seeping into the room with the back of his hand. The monsters were the twins, and monsters they were, Zoey was his angel. Some people might think Emma calling the kids’ monsters disgraceful, but life is hard, and life in the guts of a city was even worse. John knew his kids needed to learn to be tough and there was no better time than now for that lesson. Mollycoddling them would be no favour at all, not for the future that lay ahead of them. Emma might have a sharp tongue and a quick hand, but when it came to the kids, she would kill for them. Emma was his lioness, wild, fierce and as loyal as the day is long.

John liked to think of himself as a lion, it made sense in the world he dominated. Like a lion, he was the king and had a pride of girls he could call on if he wished, but only one was the queen. His heart belonged to her and her alone. Fair enough, his body might stray from time to time but his heart was all hers.

“John!”

“Alright, alright, I’m up,” he grunted, throwing back the covers and padding out into the tiny kitchen in his boxers. The place looked like a tornado had hit it. Emma was trying to get the twins to eat some cereal but most of it coated the table and the floor. Zoey was reading her book, blissfully unaware of any of the roaring going on around her.

"About time!"

"Ah, give it a break would yea?"

"Don't, 'give it a break' me. I wasn't the one trying to drink Dublin dry last night."

"Stop your yelling, I'm up now, aren't I?" he said, walking to the table and sitting down. He heard her exhaling nosily behind his head as she crashed a pot onto the cooker.

"Put some manners on them two and get them to eat something," she snapped. Right at that particular moment on of the twins sunk his sharp little teeth into the other lad’s chubby forearm and the howl of pain speared John's brain through and through. John reached out and snatched the carnivorous toddler up by the back of the tee-shirt.

"Here, what have I told you about biting?" he yelled into the kids face, letting his pounding headache get the better of his temper. Soon both boys were howling.

"Stop all the bawling, or I'll give you both something to bawl about!" John yelled, dropping his son back onto the chair. As one, the boys held in their cries with quivering lower lips as they regarded their father with snot and tear streaked faces. He felt bad, but they had to learn when enough was enough. He shoved the half full dishes in front of the stony faced boys and commanded, "Eat!"

Silence settled over the kitchen. Zoey peeked over her book, and he could sense the Emma's movements had gotten softer in the blaze of his fury. He sucked in a ragged breath or two and gave the two boys, sulkily shovelled rice kipsies into their mouths, a ferocious look. With each breath, he felt a tiny bit of the tension riding away on the outgoing air. The stoic munching faces finally melted the last of his anger and he hung his throbbing head low, taking the weight of it in his palms. He felt Emma's hand rest on his shoulder as she slid a plate of scrambled eggs between his elbows. He raised his head and covered her hand with his to give it a squeeze. She knew him inside and out, she knew when to shout, and when to say nothing at all.

When the kids had been sent off to brush their teeth, Emma sat down beside him and sipped a cup of tea. He was feeling a little better after the eggs and a strong mug of coffee, his stomach had stopped doing somersaults, opting for the occasional back flip instead.

"What you got planned for today?" she asked.

He felt his eyebrows arch at the question. She nearly never asked about his business.

"Got a few lads who are behind with their bills, probably going to give them a visit, and of course, got to keep the pressure on Jimmy."


"Just be careful," she said, her voice heavy with worry. He took her hand in his and looked her in the eye.

"I'm always careful."

"Humph."

"You know you'd have me no other way," he said with a smile, which made her smile back, but her eyes remained pained. Just then Zoey arrived in her school uniform.

"I suppose you want me to take you to school?" he asked. Zoey nodded happily.

"Come on so," he said, taking the keys of the car from the counter top and walking toward the door in his boxer shorts.

"Ah, Da!"

"What?" he said, stopping with the door open and one foot on the balcony outside.

"Da! Put you're pants on!" she said with a giggle. He looked down at his bare legs, feigning surprise at his near nakedness.

"Sure, who'll be looking at me, come on," he said waving and taking another step.

"DA!"

"Go on so, if I have to," he said walking back into the flat, ruffling her hair as he passed, ringing a gale of giggles out of the little girl. He felt his heart glow, he would never love anything as much as he loved his little girl. She was his world, his everything.

***
The Ferryman strolled down Grafton street, his hands in his pockets, and not a care in the world. He stopped to look into the window of Topman. The clothes were trendy but not so trendy that they stood out. Just the kind of clothes he liked to wear. He could see his reflection in the glass, his dark self-looking back at him. He liked that, a dark being who walked unseen among men. He looked away from the window and moved into the throng. He passed unseen, he was good looking but not handsome and his dress was smart but casual. In short, he looked like anyone else. That was his outside, but on the inside he was a different animal entirely. He was cold, sparse, savage and terrifying. He sometimes wondered about the twist in his make-up that set him apart from most men. The best way of describing how he felt was to say he was hollow, an emotional void that could never be filled.

He felt neither love nor hate, fear nor passion. Other people would look at things and feel, he would look and only see. To him a dead person was only dead, a starving one only hungry. He couldn't project his mind inside those people and feel their fear, their torment or their suffering. In reality he didn't want to. He knew he was different but this was a difference he embraced. It made him stronger, it made him invincible.

It hadn't taken the Ferryman long to decide that Jimmy Kingston's job was a genuine one. Every corner of the city hummed with the news that the Kingsons and the Griffins were at war. After he agreed to the job he had watched John Griffin, tracked his movements, looking for an opportunity to exploit. John Griffin turned out to be an unpredictable man, never sticking to a schedule, always jumping from one thing to another, and it was starting to irk.  The ferryman liked to plan his hits down to the last detail. To have every turn accounted for, all contingencies considered. That didn't mean his chosen actions were always complex. He believed that the simplest plans were often the best. Less to go wrong.

Being a hit-man was not hard, there were a dozen young-lads willing to stick a gun in someone's face and pull the trigger, but they always were caught or killed. Why? Because everyone knew it was them. They would brag to their mates, tell girlfriends what they had done, they would run and hide in the aftermath, they were fools. He was different. He never told anyone anything, nobody knew his name, and nobody knew his face. He appeared from the shadows, took his pound of flesh and vanished into thin air. The only thing that was known about him was his was the name, everything else was legend. 

He was starting to worry that John Griffin was a messy job he should have never taken. He was considering contacting Jimmy Kingston and withdrawing when he found his window of opportunity. One tiny chink in John Griffin's armour of randomness, and a chink was all it would take. He had selected the scene, planned his escape and was primed for the kill. All he needed now was his money. He never lifted a finger against another until he had been paid. Today was the day he would take his pieces of silver before sending another soul back to its maker.


He checked his watch and the morning was in full bloom. He had time to eat before preparing himself to collect his money. Another scene, another costume change. He thought of his name once more and wondered if Chameleon would not have been a more apt moniker




Friday, 15 April 2016

Pass the Parcel

You know when you arrive home and find that package you ordered from Amazon waiting, did you ever stop to consider the journey it has taken, or the people it encountered on the way. Yes, it might be a dull brown box but when you think about it, that innocent little box has a secret life you know nothing about. You may have been the spark that gave birth to its journey, and you will be the one to rip it asunder in its final moments, but what about the middle?

I got to thinking about this because of a story my mother told me the other day, and I thought it might strike a cord with some of you.

Recently, my Mom has been getting a lot of packages delivered to the house, some ordered by my Dad for one job or another, but most of them she ends up minding for neighbours who are out working.

The man who delivers the parcels is quite elderly, and in a past life was one of the post men for the area, an old school delivery man you might say. The man has become a regular sight standing on our doorstep exchanging a few words with my Mom over assorted packages. Anyway, Dad had been having trouble with condensation building up in their car and sourced some Silica to fix the issue. With one click the order rolled into life in a factory thousands of miles away, and the hidden journey of this brown package began. 

It took a couple of weeks for the package to arrive and by the time it did, my Mother had forgotten all about it. Mid-morning one Tuesday the doorbell chimed. My Mom went to open the door, wiping flour from her dough speckled hands with a tea-towel.

"Morning, Missus. Package for you," said the delivery man, getting her to sign for the padded envelope in his hand. As she printed out her name, the man turned the package over and over in his hands, looking at it quizzically. When he handed it over he looked at her earnestly and asked, "What’s in it anyway?"

Now, my Mom is a trusting sort of woman and would read nothing into such a question, where I might be shocked at the man's nosiness. She took the package in her hand, looking at my Dad's name the label and said, "Lord, I've no idea, why?"

"It's just that me and the lads at the depot were all trying to figure out what's inside, and it’s got us stumped. Seems to be squishy but then there are loads of little balls," said the delivery man, holding out his hand to give the package a squeeze in demonstration.

As my Mom, and the delivery man stood kneading and fondling the innocent little package, realization stuck.

"Ah! It’s the stuff for the condensation."

"The what?"

"The condensation in the car, look," said my Mom, pointing at the fogged up windows on the car in the driveway.

"You're joking?"

"Nope, found it on the internet. Apparently it will soak up all the moisture on the air and get it out of the car."

"Jesus, what will they think of next," said the old man scratching his head. He began walking away when he stopped and turned. "Why don't yea bring the car back to the garage and get them to fix it?"

"Ah, its a lot of bother for a little mist. We will give this stuff a go first."

The man waved and walked away down the drive, with his hands stuffed into his pockets, his clipboard wedged under his arm, lazily taking in the fine spring day God had blessed them with. My Mom closed the door and thought nothing more about the whole thing. When she told my Dad, he could not figure out which was stranger, the fact the guys in the transport depo were feeling everyone's parcels to guess what people were ordering, or that the old guy was so perplexed by the package he actually asked what was in it. 



A few weeks after, the same man ended up at our house with a neighbours package.  As my Mom signed for it the man demanded, "Did the balls work?"

Most middle aged Irish women are not in the habit of discussing balls, working or not, with near strangers on the doorstep. The confused look on her face must have betrayed her shock as the man clarified himself saying, "For the car, did the balls work?"

"Oh the condensation? Yes actually, they did," said my more than relieved Mom.


"Well I never, mist drinking balls, what next?" he said with a jaunty salute, and strutted back to his van full of yet to be guessed mysteries. 


So the next time your delivery man gives you a look when getting you to sign for a package, give it a good squeeze, because sure as Billyo, he did.

If you enjoyed this why not try out some more tales from the Irish Countryside.
http://www.amazon.com/The-Misadventures-Father-Squid-McFinnigan-ebook/dp/B01AGW4PU2