John McCullagh September 25, 2007
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At the bottom of Bagnall Street, Sean McCulla turned right into Queen’s Row.  Bertie Anderson was leaning against the telegraph pole on the opposite corner but was too busy eating sweets to respond to his wave.  Sean walked along the side of the stream that dropped into a culvert at the side of Albert Taylor’s shop.  There was very little water running, and several tin cans were lying among the exposed stones.

The street swung sharply to the left.  A few yards further on, he came to a rusted metal gate with a large padlock hanging from a chain looped over one of the spikes at the top.  He smiled.  Clive was here.  He snapped the bolt to the left and swung the gate open.  The hinges screeched and the gate juddered as the bottom bar trapped a stone under it.  Sean pulled the gate backwards and then pushed it forward again using his full weight.  He walked through and closed the gate behind him, pushing the bolt home with a loud clang.  He turned and walked up the short lane with lilac trees on either side.  The lane had two deep cart-ruts with patches of grass and weeds between them, and turned right to open into a cobbled yard.  Behind a wooden paling in front of Sean lay the apple orchard, with a small hen-house at the right-hand corner.  A path ran along the side of the henhouse to another gate opening into the first of three fields.  There was a row of three low sheds to Sean’s left.  At the end of the furthest shed lay a large dung pit buzzing with insects.  The yard was filled with the sweet-sour smell of rotting pig manure.  The garden lay behind a four-foot high brick wall to the right of the henhouse path.  A gold-coloured racing bike with low-slung handlebars and a very narrow saddle was leaning against the wall. 

‘Clive?’

‘Aye, I’m here’.  He suddenly appeared, rising behind the garden wall.

‘I’m grafting a couple of trees. Come an’ have a gander’.

Sean walked through the narrow gateway into the garden.  Clive McConnell was twenty.  His brown hair curled around slightly protruding ears.  Sean’s da thought that the hair was too long.  ‘He looks like one a them beatniks ye see in the papers’, he’d said more than once.  But they both liked Clive. He was a horticulture student and spent most of his holidays in his father’s small-holding planting trees and bushes as part of a research project.  Sean looked behind Clive and saw a four-foot tall sapling with a cutting bandaged to it about half-way up.

‘The flax research is on its way out so I’m getting into apples. This is a half-standard class stock from East Malling in Kent.  I wanna see what’ll do best here so I’m grafting eight of them.  You can do one if you want.  I’ll show you how.  I’m trying them without lopping off the top of the trunks.  They’re trying out this new compound at the College so I’ve swiped a tin of it to see how it does.’

Three-quarters of an hour later, the eight saplings had had cuttings grafted to the trunks.  Clive dropped his knife into the old canvas bag he used for carrying his tools, and led Sean up to the summer-house at the top end of the garden, passing rows of potatoes with bluestone-stained foliage.  Inside what amounted to a huge hollowed-out privet hedge, they sat down on an old wooden bench whose struts were dried and cracked from years of neglect.  Clive picked up a worn leather briefcase, opened it and took out a Thermos flask.  He unscrewed the cap and a second cup dropped out of it.  He poured tea into the smaller cup and handed it to Sean.  He filled the outer cup and pushed the cork back into the flask, which he placed on the ground at the end of the bench.  He raised his cup and grinned.

‘Here’s to all young ladies who celebrate Passover’.

Sean had just taken a sip of tea and nearly choked on it.

‘Ah, don’t worry. Sure you didn’t think in a place the size of Portnamon you’d not come under notice?  It’s Silverman the bank-manager’s daughter, isn’t it?’

Sean suddenly felt embarrassed.  How the hell could Clive know about Carole Silverman?

Sean was fourteen and a pupil at Portnamon Grammar.  He was in A3, the top class in his year.  In his three end-of-year exams, he’d come on top in every subject except for Maths and Art.  Carole Silverman had come second.  She was beautiful even though she wore glasses.  Black hair, brown eyes, just like himself.  But a posh English accent which made him feel a complete Paddy peasant.  Her father was the manager of the local branch of the Northern Bank in Court Hill.  Her family lived in a big house out the Newtownedwards Road and her father drove a Wolsely 444, a big car with leather seats and a walnut fascia.  It must cost a fortune to run.  Conor McFee had told him that every time the Silvermans filled up at the garage where he worked, Silverman gave him a tanner tip, even if he didn’t want the tyre pressures checked.  It must be great having enough money to do that.

‘Hullo, anybody in there?’ Clive was grinning again.

‘I’ve seen her. Have you asked her out?’

‘She wouldn’t go out with me’.

‘You won’t know unless you ask her.  Faint heart never won fair lady’.

Sean couldn’t help smiling.  Clive might be a science student, but when he used quotations like that, he knew exactly where they came from.  But, just in case, Sean usually checked.

‘So who said that, then?

Clive leaned back and sipped at his tea.

‘Well, young man, that depends’.

‘On what?’

‘On whom – notice I said ‘whom’ and not ‘who’ – you listen to.  Was it Cervantes in Don Quixote, Part 2, Chapter 10, or was it Robert Burns with ‘faint heart ne’er wan a lady fair",  in his poem to Dr. Blacklock?  Or, indeed, was it Edmund Spenser? I tend always to go for the earliest, which in this case would be -?’

‘Spenser’.

‘Well, to tell you the truth, I’ve never bothered to check it out. Spenser died in 1599 and Cervantes in 1616, the same year as – ?’

‘Shakespeare’.

‘Bravo.’

‘Does it matter?’

‘What?’

‘Who wrote it first? Maybe they arrived at it independently.  Maybe a servant or a friend or a neighbour came up with it and one of the three made a note of it, thinking ….

‘Ah that’s not bad. I’ll try using that’, and the other two stole it – provided they weren’t already dead, of course’.

Clive laughed.

‘You’re not just a pretty face are you, young Sean? By the way, something I’ve always wondered.  What’s a Prod doing with a Papish name like ‘Sean’?’

‘Friend of my da.  I’m called after him’.

Clive nodded.  ‘Unusual, though. I’m called after Clive of bloody India.  My father’s mad about friggin history.’  He pulled a packet of Gallagher’s Blues and a Zippo lighter from his pocket, lit up and inhaled deeply.  He raised his chin and pouted his lips and eased a perfect smoke-ring from his mouth.  It slowly floated a few inches above his head and hung there, rippling gently like a skein of grey-blue wool, and gradually expanded in the still air.  A circling wasp buzzed out into the open air.

Sean closed his eyes and sighed.  He wasn’t absolutely sure that he liked Clive’s father.  Old McConnell was a Ministry of Agriculture vet.  Everybody said he was rolling in money.  Since he’d come back from England a year before, Sean’s da had earned extra money by working for Old McConnell in the evenings and at weekends.  He gathered the hens’ eggs, washed them and packed them into boxes to go off to Johnson’s Packing Station.  He fed the pigs and cleaned out the pig-sheds.  Sean had been helping him for months, which is how he’d come to meet Clive.  Sean enjoyed the work, especially trying to find eggs laid by the hens which often seemed either too dim-witted or perhaps too crafty to lay in the straw-lined boxes in the henhouse, often choosing to drop their eggs in the hedges around the orchard and fields.  If Sean found a big cache, Old McConnell usually gave him a shilling.  Sean always hoped that his mother would never end up buying any McConnell eggs in the shops, knowing that sometimes they must be at least a week old before they were even found.

They left the summer-house and walked down through the narrow gravel path.

The air was still, the sun eye-beating.  ‘I’ll thin those lettuces tomorrow.’  Clive pointed at a row of lettuces. ”Webb’s Wonderful’.  Not bad’.  As they walked out of the garden, Sean said  ‘I’ll do the pigs.  Da sent Jack to Ernie’s for a coupla bottles ‘a Guinness, so I don’t s’pose he’ll be over the day’.  Clive swung his bicycle off the wall and wandered off down the lane.  Sean opened the door of the shed by the end of the garden wall.

He loved the smell. There were bags of lime, packets of fertiliser, tins of Jeyes Fluid and bags of seeds.  Along the shelves ranged under the corrugated iron roof were tobacco tins, biscuit tins and cocoa tins which Sean knew were filled with rusty screws and nuts and bolts.  There were bedraggled spider-webs with shrivelled insects all over the place.  A row of gardening tools leaned against the back wall.  He suddenly thought of a joke that Dennis Patton had told him on the last day of term.  A patient escaped from an asylum and ended up in a laundry. He raped two women and ran off. The next day, the headline in one of the papers was NUT SCREWS WASHERS AND BOLTS.  He picked up a shovel and walked to the second shed.  He pulled the bolt and opened the top half of the door very slowly.

Three pigs were stretched out on the floor along the back wall. One was a very large sow, the others much younger boars.  Clive’s Da had been one of the first to buy Landrace pigs when they came in from Sweden in the year of the Coronation, the year the picture house was blown up for showing a film of the big event.  The warm, sweet-smelling air which wafted past him was laced with the sharpness of urine and made his eyes tingle.  He opened the bottom half of the door, walked into the shed and rapped the head of the shovel against the feed bin along the left-hand wall.  The pigs immediately heaved themselves up and made straight for the feeder.  They pushed their heads against the vertical hinged flaps and snuffled in the bottom of the bin.  Empty.  Snorts and squeals.  Sean walked past the pigs, turned and struck the sow’s back lightly with the handle of the shovel.   She grunted, swung away from the feeder and lurched out through the doorway.  The two boars followed her.

Sean leaned the shovel against the back wall and returned to the tool-shed to pick up a yard-brush.  Back in the pig-shed, he swept the manure into a heap against the right-hand wall.  The pigs never fouled the area where they slept.  He knew that they were very clean animals, although they would eat anything.  He had once seen the sow devouring a dead rat, and had avoided bacon until the memory faded.  He swept up the straw where the pigs had been lying and heaped it on top of the manure.  Four trips to the dung-hill sufficed to remove the lot. There was a round iron water-tank in a concrete surround between the second and third shed, with a black hose attached to a big tap on the wall above it.  He turned on the tap and sluiced the floor of the pig-shed, squeezing the end of the hose between his finger and thumb to produce a spray.  He turned off the tap and coiled the hose again, dropping it on the ground beside the tank.  He opened the door of the third shed where the straw was stored and picked up the graip lying on the floor just inside.  He forked a bunch of straw and carried it into the pig-shed, spreading it on the floor along the back wall.  Another two trips between the sheds completed the work.  He came out of the pig-shed just as James McConnell walked into the yard.

Despite the heat, the vet was wearing a tweed jacket and a tie.  The elbows of the jacket had oval-shaped brown leather patches sown to them.  His trousers had sharp creases and his brown shoes were patterned with little holes all over the uppers.  They looked expensive.

‘You’re hard at it, young Sean’.

‘Hullo, Mr McConnell. I’ve cleaned the shed out and put down new straw. I’m gonna collect the eggs now and I’ll feed the pigs before I go.’

‘Have a look around the hedges. There were only three eggs in the boxes yesterday. The buggers are laying all over the place and in this heat the quicker we find them the better.  And use the light-box to candle any you find. They were moaning at the station a couple of weeks ago about cracks.  I’ll be off. I’m away home.  I’ve been at it since early morning.  Ask your father if he can call at the house on his way from work on Monday.  I’ve got a dripping tap in the bathroom that’s driving me mad.  And I’ll leave his money on the bench in the tool-shed.’

All the time he’d been speaking, James McConnell’s eyes had been roving over the ground between them and to either side of Sean.  Suddenly, with an alacrity that belied his wrinkled face, he bent over with a little grunt of satisfaction and pulled something out of the packed earth.  With a smile, he held up a rusted screw with dried soil filling the lower threads.  He swirled it around in the water-tank and showed it to Sean.

‘See?  That’s a perfectly good screw going to waste. One day we could be following the crows for that because we need a screw and haven’t got the right size.  Nip into the shed and put it in the cocoa-tin.  Look after the pennies and the pounds’ll look after themselves’.  As he dropped the screw into the Bournville tin, Sean thought, not for the first time, that it was no surprise that people with money had it and kept it. 

The vet had followed him in.  Sean heard him putting some coins on the work-bench.

‘I’m away then. See you the next time.’  As McConnell left, Sean turned and looked at the bench. To the right of the big vice bolted to the edge near the right-hand end, the vet had left two half-crowns with a shilling and a sixpenny piece beside them. Sean picked up the half-crowns and dropped them into his left-hand pocket to give to his father.  He put the one and six into his other pocket.  That was his.

He found the first eggs in the hedge alongside the hen-house, behind a huge clump of nettles.  There were six eggs, five of them spotless and the sixth with hard spots of whitening sh*t dotted over the surface. The hens had scooped out a little hollow in the hard soil.  Around the orchard he found another eight eggs . By the time the wicker basket was half-full, sweat was oozing out of his hair and he’d become bored.  He decided to call it a day; it was too hot for this.  He returned to the tool-shed and plugged the light-box into the socket on the wall behind the work-bench.  He picked up a fragment of sponge, walked outside to the water-tank, soaked it and squeezed it firmly.  He wiped each of the eggs until all were clean.  He took each egg and held it in front of the hole in the top of the light-box.  None was cracked.  He placed them broad-end up in a cardboard tray which he placed above the last layer of eggs in a wooden butter-box on the floor below the bench.  As he did so, he wondered how on earth the eggs in the lower levels could be described as ‘fresh’.  But that wasn’t his problem.

Twenty minutes later, he pushed the steel shackle of the padlock through two links of the chain on the gate and walked down Queen’s Row.  A Red Admiral suddenly alighted on his left shoulder.  He stopped.  Turning his head, he squinted downward and could just see a wing trembling lightly on his shirt.  His mind leapt to an article he’d once read in ‘The Weekly News’; the Sioux tribe believed that the soul of someone recently dead could come back as a butterfly.  He thought of his grandmother and of his younger brother’s sad face when he had learned of her death.  He smiled and walked on, the butterfly balanced on his shoulder.  As he turned left into Bagnall Street, it flitted into the air and fluttered away.

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