Corvagh Lough was still that evening, apricot tinted from the sunset as clouds of midges tumbled over the bulrushes. Jamesy pushed his bicycle up the hill, past the Rectory where rooks chattered in the sycamores. He used to cycle up this hill when he and the bicycle were younger. His legs were once strong, but he was old now and his legs and the older Sturmey-Archer gears weren’t enough to get him to the top anymore.
He wasn’t bothered by the hill this evening though, he just wanted to take it all in, to listen to the sounds of the twilight and watch the sun arc down towards the Iron Mountain. He paused and looked back over the lake. The sunlit horizon marked its broken reflection on his eyes, all salmon-pink above and indigo below. His hair was the colour of the galvanised barbed wire that stretched along the roadside and as curled and spiked too. In the falling light his zinc curls were rose-tipped like some saintly halo he’d known in picture books when he was young.
He nodded to himself and at the same time his eyes blinked, his cheeks lifted and his nose scrunched up. Eyes, cheeks and nose all came together in an anxious spasm. It was something he’d always had. His teacher had said it was the twitch of an ‘eejit’. Jamesy had had to live with that one in the schoolyard; he couldn’t help it and it didn’t bother him, but the taunts always had.
While he might not have been too good with the letters, there was very little he couldn’t do with his hands; he was certainly no ‘eejit’ when it came to his hands. After the schooling, he’d got a start with the motor-works in town, fixing and mending cars and tractors and even bicycle gears. He was known around abouts as a man who could fix anything mechanical.
He nodded and blinked again then mounted the blue bicycle with its rusted chrome handlebars and flat tyres. He was unsteady as he passed the monastery’s remains, for the plastic Centra bag looped over the handlebar was heavy with shopping. He’d passed the monastery everyday of his childhood. Back then it was nothing but a pile of grey rocks, tumbling through the years. The Office of Works had rebuilt it with European money and now it was the local tourist attraction; all interpretative signs and trimmed footpaths.
At the junction Jamesy looked left, up to where her family had lived, beyond the village and up the hill. He nodded and blinked while a turquoise and grey cement truck passed and then pedalled across the road. He leant the bicycle against the wall of Duignan’s bar and unhooked the shopping bag from the handlebars.
Lifting the bag and placing it carefully on the purple painted windowsill, he searched through the rashers and pan boxty for the green and gold box of Major and the matches. Jamesy bit the plastic wrap off the cigarettes and spat it away into the evening and then with shaky hands he pulled out the foil and the first cigarette.
His lips made and an ‘O’ shape and he wetted the white of the cigarette. Then with cupped hands he struck a match and breathed in the smoke once, twice and three times, before flicking the butt into the road. He took care to put the pack of Major and the matches into the outside pocket of his overalls, he didn’t want to crush the packet. Then he pushed the door of Duignan’s and walked into the gloom with his shopping.
There were a couple of locals watching the TV’s inside, some soccer match from England. The barmen knew Jamesy and pulled the glass of Guinness and poured the Powers. It was what Jamesy always drank, every night other than Sundays; never more than that, a glass of Guinness and a Powers with no ice. Jamesy sat on the cracked leather stool at the bar and drank slowly, while his face creased again and again.
“Any craic tonight Jamesy?” asked the barman, but Jamesy wasn’t one for too many words.
“Aughhh, no,no,” he replied.
He had been a drinker years before, when he lived in England, when he’d had the legs to hold it. He’d spent his days pushing barrows of muck up steep scaffolding planks and tipping the muck into skips. He’d carried blocks and pipes and clamps, up and down ladders and up and down buildings. He’d spent his nights with all the other lads from Leitrim and Roscommon, talking about the old place, the Connacht football championship and the day’s winnings and losings on the horses. He was a Corvagh man and the Aughnasheelin boys would always have a wager with him when the two sides met. He’d not meant to end up in London, but after she’d told him her news, he knew he’d not be welcome in the village.
She’d been sent away to Liverpool to deliver and Father Michael had told Jamesy that he’d be wise to go to England too. So he left on the boat train for London; a hostel in Cricklewood and a job, labouring on the sites. The site foreman used to have him look at the machinery on site if it ever broke down, for Jamesy was handy all right. A quick repair of the cement mixer meant that he’d get a little extra in the brown envelope on a Friday lunchtime.
He’d had ten years of that; rising at six in the morning, into the rusting Transit van with half a dozen other lads. They’d start work at seven and knock off for breakfast at ten; full English and stewed strong tea. Dinner at one, for half an hour, tea at three and finished at six. Then back to the hostel to get cleaned up for the pub and the pints. He’d come home every summer with a little cash to spare and spend his days drinking with the ones that had stayed. Then he’d be back on the boat train to London. Ten years of his life spent sunburnt in summer and frozen-fingered in winter. Then his Father died and he’d come back for good to run the farm.
She never came back; she’d married a coal-miner and was living in Lancashire, so he’d heard. Her mother and father had passed away and he’d no idea what had happened to the baby.
He lived with his mother in the three room cottage on the farm, kept a few cows and looked after her when she fell ill. He’d had a sister, but she’d died when she was young and it was just Jamesy then.
When his mother passed on Jamesy went into himself. He hardly spoke to anyone other than to pass comment on the weather. Most of the young ones thought he was mad, with his twitches and his nodding and his grey hair and beard that grew in every direction. They laughed at him when he cycled slowly past the school bus stop in the morning.
“There’s the crazy man, he’d be a great scarecrow. Ha ha…”
They never bothered him though; he’d heard far worse when he was at school.
“Achh.” said Jamesy to himself, wiping the Guinness head from his beard with his sleeve. He threw the Powers into him and got up to leave.
“See you tomorrow Jamesy,” he heard the barman say as he pulled open the doors and walked back out into the evening
“Don’t forget your shopping.”
“Achh… yes, yes.”
Jamesy looped the near-forgotten Centra bag over the handlebars again and pushed the bicycle up the big hill out of the village, up past the building sites and holiday cottages. When he got to the top he paused, wiped his blackhead-pocked neck with a handkerchief and blew his nose. His face was red with the sun and the effort.
He pedalled the rest of the way home slowly, wavering out into the road, unbalanced by his shopping bag. There was still light enough when he got back to the farm. He’d kept no cows this year; sold them off to his neighbours. He’d been relying on the welfare and the payments from the Department for the last few years but there seemed no point in carrying on the farming if he had to rely on the handouts from Carrick.
Inside the cottage he opened up the vent on the range, lifted the cast ring and filled the firebox with dried timber from the woodpile, stacked against the cream enamel. As soon as he heard the crackling of a good fire, he fried himself up a meal of rashers and sausages, pan-boxty and eggs; a feast for such an evening. He licked the streaks of egg yolk off the plate when he’d finished and then poured himself a mug of stewed tea, sweetened with two sugars and a splash of Powers from the quarter bottle he kept above the dresser. After a few puffs on another Major and the tea drunk, it was time.
He went to his bedroom and sat on the end of the bed to take off his Wellingtons. They were green when he’d bought them but the bog had dyed the soles brown and stained the green with a succession of tide lines. One stood upright but the other fell over and Jamesy had to reach down and lift the both of them together and place them by the wardrobe. He undid the buttons on his overalls. They were blue once, but every job he known since he’d bought them was written across the cotton. The paint spots from white-wash for the cottage, grey blobs from the roof paint of his neighbour’s barn, black grease from the power-take-off on the Massey 135 and blacker engine oil from the same tractor. There were a hundred other marks; each stain was a story, each story leading to now, to this evening.
He slipped off the overalls and kicked them away, then unbuttoned the green woollen cardigan; darned and patched, every button different. He undid his shirt and slipped off his vest, then shuffled back into the kitchen across the cool quarry tiles. He stared for a minute into the small mirror on the wall, catching every detail of his face; the eyes, blue like the feathers of a Jay, the lids sagging; nose, flat and once-broken in a fight over a spilt drink.
He took the pair of scissors from the dresser and began to trim his beard. He’d not shaved since he’d come back from London and as he cut away the hair he saw a face he’d forgotten; a face that had once had a familiarity with hope and had known something like love. Now he saw a face that had worn-out.
He didn’t shave; just left the beard presentable as best he thought and then he swept the barbed wire curls from his shoulders with his mother’s silver clothes brush. He swept up the hair, emptied the dustpan into the Centra bag and filled a kettle to boil on the hot ring of the range. While he waited for the water to heat up he took off his trousers and his long underwear and folded them over the back of a kitchen chair and then stood naked for a while; face twitching, hands clenched.
On the range the kettle rattled as bubbles of steam popped from water trapped under its base. Jamesy poured some of the hot water into an enamel bowl and slowly began to wash himself with a cloth. He ran the cloth down over the thin arms, where two colours of skin met at the elbow. He washed the sunken chest and his back, his privates and his legs and all the while his head nodded and his face twitched.
He rinsed the cloth and ran it over his neck and face. He wrung the cloth out, laid it over the chrome bar on the range and then splashed handfuls of the warm water over his beard and hair. He lifted a thin pink towel from the press and when he’d dried the creased white skin and wiped the grey hair, he left a trail of damp feet-marks on the floor back to the bedroom.
In the top of the wardrobe he found the packet and opened it, then with some difficulty managed to fit the incontinence pad around himself; one of his mother’s. He pulled on the trousers of his Sunday suit over the pale blue nappy, then a white shirt, frayed at the neck and cuffs, tucked carefully in from the front and around.
He tied his ‘wake’ tie, pulled the braces over his shoulders and slipped the packet of Major and the matches into his trouser pocket. He put on his jacket, sleeves shiny from wear, then black socks and shoes from another time. The overalls were folded and left on the end of the bed and he walked back to the kitchen for the last time.
Running his fingers through his damp hair, he gave himself a side parting and took a last look into the mirror, then pulled out one of the kitchen chairs, scraping it on the tiles. Holding the back, he climbed up on the chair and began to unscrew one of his mother’s drying-line pulleys from the tongue and grooved timber ceiling.
Once he’d freed the pulley, he stepped slowly back off the chair and pushed it back under the table. With the towel hung to dry next to the wash cloth and the vent on the range tight shut, he used the last of the water from the kettle to wash the frying pan, dinner plate and tea-stained mug leaving them to drain on the side.
Jamesy looked around to see that everything was in order and he nodded. Turning to the Sacred Heart on the wall he blessed himself three times, finished the quarter of Powers from the bottle in one mouthful and walked out of the cottage.
A week before he’d had a delivery from the Agri-store; a length of two-by-four timber, some perforated steel strapping and half a pound of inch roofing nails. He’d cycled into the town to make the order and he’d bought some orange bailing twine from the counter, though he wasn’t to sure whether he’d need it.
He’d sawn the length of two-by-four in half and then one of the halves into three; nailing the three pieces together in a narrow H-shape. With the strapping and nails he’d attached the whole thing to one of the shed posts, about a yard and a bit off the floor. He’d sawn the other half of the two-by-four into two shorter lengths and made a tripod of sorts using the strapping and a couple of dozen rusty screws from an old jam-jar in the shed. It was some yoke; a little rickety, but as it only had to work once Jamesy thought there was no point in making it too complicated. The bailing twine worked fine and didn’t snap when he’d tested it.
As the western light was disappearing over the mountain and blackbirds were calling in the hedges, Jamesy closed the cottage door behind him, left the key resting on the upturned horseshoe that was nailed to the door and walked across the street into the shed.
He screwed the pulley into the shed post. It was hard work as his fingers weren’t as strong as they once were but eventually it was screwed deep enough, then he ran the length of bailing twine through it and looped the twine around the trigger of the shotgun that was cradled between the two-by-fours. He’d set the gun there that morning; an old four-ten, bolt-action, converted from an army Enfield three-o-three. It was a grand little gun for rabbits and rats.
He’d put an Eley cartridge in his suit jacket’s inside pocket after he’d set the gun up that morning. Now, he took the red plastic and brass cartridge and slid it into the breach, hands shaking. He pushed the bolt into the breach, pulled it down sideways then pushed the safety lever back. He was nearly done.
He took out a set of rosary beads from his pocket and knelt on the dirt floor mumbling a decade, counting through the beads one by one, his worn hands lined with work and ingrained with the same story-dirt as his overalls. When he had finished he blessed himself again and lit a Major. This time he smoked the cigarette until his fingers were brown from the tar and he could taste the filter. He put the Major out; crushing the butt between finger and thumb and flicking it away.
Then, lent his chest against the shotgun barrel that poked out beyond the two-by-four cradle; he’d made sure that it was the right height, just above his nipple where the hard bone of his chest was. He took the bailing twine in one hand and with the rosary in his other he prayed.
“Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee…”
He nodded, his face twitched; then he pulled the bailing twine.
The rooks in the Rectory’s sycamores all rose as one at the noise and somewhere, across the fields, a dog barked. Jamesy lay on his back. His blue eyes were empty of care, staring sightless at the rusted corrugated roof of the shed. His face didn’t twitch anymore; there were no more restless nods. In the west, the sun finally set behind the Iron Mountain.