© Eamon O'Leary
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Gauging the Temperature
The brass bed, overdue a rub of Brasso, creaked with relief as Tommy, emitting a constant stream of coarse expletives, farted and swung, despite his dodgy knee, two gnarled legs onto the icy linoleum floor. Except for two rheumatic big toes which stuck out the top, his clammy calloused feet found comfort in a pair of slippers, originally tartan in design. Over skid-marked Long-Johns, he wore a pair of shrunken pyjamas. An Aran sweater, minus the elbows completed the ensemble.
Yanking back the green floral curtains revealed 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?
Suspended from a nail outside the hot press on the narrow landing hung a thermometer. Taking a brown, hard covered pocket-sized notebook from his pyjamas, he noted and recorded the temperature along with the time and date. After turning on the immersion, he made a piss, left the seat up and didn’t bother flushing or washing his paws.
Returning, he rummaged under the bed, cursing ‘til reappearing, armed with an air rifle and a box of pellets. Dragging an armchair, he took up a position at the metal-framed casement window whose oil starved hinges squealed at being opened. Shivers reached his mangled toes when an icy clean breeze met the damp sock-smelling foul air. He got up, switched off the immersion and with the ambush set plonked himself down, his long index finger delving high into one of his nostrils.
All details except the nasal adventure entered in the notebook.
A silver screw-topped circular tin originally held two hundred and fifty pellets. Seven used in a former unsuccessful dog culling exercise. He sat counting as a lazy sun made an appearance and cleared most of the frost, but no sign of the offending canine. 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 recorded in the notebook.
In the shabby dirt encrusted kitchen, he shovelled back a bucket-sized portion of porridge, left soaking overnight in milk and water with a spoon of honey. When finished, he crushed a handful of oatlets in hard, calloused hands and stood with an arm outstretched outside the back door.
A short wait before 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 were noted.
After breakfast he shaved and washed his important bits in lukewarm water before asking:
“Maybe it’s not fair to shoot the stupid dog. 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 Frise. Yeah, he’s definitely a queer hawk.”
Again no response.
After checking the immersion was turned off, he left home, his departure confirmed by the clattering of the lion-headed cast iron knocker as he pulled the teak door over the swollen door saddle. The dog barked and Tommy cursed.
His two up, two down, the sole surviving fisherman's house at the top of the hill. The rest snapped up and razed by greedy developers. Tommy refused all offers.
As obdurate as stone, not even a free house in the new complex and a barrow full of money could shift him.
“Me father lived here as did his father before him and I’ve lived here all my life and I’ll be buried from here.”
A narrow road corkscrewed its way from the development of duplex houses and apartments to the village. On one side, breaks in the loose 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 a series of irregular fields.
A leisurely five-minute walk for most. For Tommy, a daily nightmare fraught with danger. His route resembled a jigsaw, criss-crossed with moss-filled veiny cracks. Stepping on any ensured imminent grief and disaster. Despite, a battery of letters and personal calls, the council continued to ignore him.
Relief came when he reached the tarry road in the village.
“The highway to nowhere and everywhere,” Tommy called it.
McCarthy’s pub, its one cracked neon sign swinging adventurously 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 commercial life of the village. Opposite, their rears facing the elements; a solemn cut-stone church and two-roomed school. All the buildings with a shared commonality; a sparsity of customers.
Gathering driftwood, Tommy enjoyed the half moon shaped rocky foreshore, wondering what stories of storms, giant waves and foreign parts these bleached relics with their curvaceous swirls and grooves 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. Steamed in a little water with a squeeze of lemon did the trick. Crusty bread to mop up the juices.
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 dull light at the seaward end flickered as if conveying the inevitable.
Armed with a fishing rod, a torch and the 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, temp. and a comment entered the notebook.
As the door banged on his return, he’d call; “I’m back.”
Warming himself by the fire, he’d place a nightlight in the centre of the narrow wax covered mantlepiece of the cast iron fireplace. An eclectic collection of dust and grime coated photos cluttered the limited space. Babies, children of all ages, college conferrings 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 the 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 and with work and everything, why don’t ye come over to us for once?”
“Maybe next year.”
Over time, the weekly phone calls tapered off and now only an occasional duty call. He’d never felt the joy of a newly born grandchild wrap its tiny fist around his little finger. No longer babies, they were strangers to him.
He’d given up on organised religion years earlier and preferred the direct approach. Before climbing into bed and checking the immersion, he’d kneel by the bedside and have a private chat with whoever was up there.
Callers to the house were rare except for Jack McCarthy the postman. Almost as old and wizen as Tommy and equally cranky. They sparked well and enjoyed sorting out the problems of the parish, country and the world. Agreement on any issue a rarity. The perfect match.
As the days shortened, December crept along and with it the first of the Christmas post.
“I’ve a few for you today Tommy. Any of the kids coming this year?”
Tommy replied with a grunt which Jack interpreted as a negative. Unopened, Tommy threw the cards into the grate after Jack left. Date, time and details again noted.
Another week passed and another visit to the pier. The thermometer gave its reading which he recorded together with a comment.
A frigid night with as Tommy would say; “A lazy wind. ‘Twould rather go thru’ you than around you.”
About to strike out for the hazardous trek home, a group of children singing carols blocked his way, 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…… Yera, 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. 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 the unexpected, 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, feet, fingers and faces shivering. Pulling down a zip in the cumbersome coat, Tommy took a crumbling leather 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.
Tommy’s only suit, smelling of mothballs, hung amongst an array of dresses, some long, some shortish and all old. Winter and summer overcoats and even a full-length fake fur coat complete with foxtail collar. Holding the hanger by the window, 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 assisted by a build-up 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 on the front and doused it under the cold tap before giving it a final pat of the piping hot iron. To give the ensemble a bit of an airing, he hoisted the lot on the remaining door of the lopsided wardrobe. With a frenzied enthusiasm, a pair of mould embedded leather shoes were polished back to parade ground standard.
The sun took a day off the last Sunday before Christmas. A grey 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 in, he took his reading.
Date, time and temp recorded and a comment – perfect.
He returned home.
“I’m back,” he said.
Taking the photos from the mantlepiece, he sat by the fire examining each before putting them all back except the one of the young couple. As the fire died, Tommy hobbled upstairs, checked that the immersion was off and changed into his suit and brogues. Back downstairs he blew out the nightlight and put the photo of the newlyweds in his breast pocket. The small brown notebook he placed on the mantlepiece and tugged the front door closed after him.
The dog next door barked. Tommy laughed and headed back to the pier.