The first time I read a story by John Duffy it was during my read through of Abandoned Darlings, a collection of writings by the 2011 and 2012 MA in Creative Writing classes at the National University of Ireland at Galway. His story was about a very dangerous bus trip through the Andes in Bolivia. (You can read my post on the story on the link above.). These words sum up how I felt about Duffy's really well done story, "Death Road".
You might have seen a National Geographic Channel program about the terribly dangerous road through the Andes in Bolivia that the narrator in this story crosses in a bus ride sure to scare anyone out of their wits who is not from there. The first person speaker in this story is an Irishman out for an adventure in the wilds of South America and he happens to hook up with a beautiful and delightful sounding "French girl of Lebanese extraction". Some cynics say the reason the English conquered India was because they could do things and have adventures there that they could never do at home. I think that is part of the deeper theme of this very interesting marvelously cinematic story.
Today I am very pleased and honoured that John Duffy has entrusted me to share another of his stories on The Reading Life, "The Grafter".
"Grafter" by John Duffy
It was early afternoon when I cycled back to the office to collect payment after a short shift at Labour Ready. In no rush as the day was bright and sunny and I thought about the dispatcher in the office and how he could probably threaten me with another job if I arrived back too early. I spotted an opening in the bushes and there was something about this little path that looked enticing. I pulled the back brakes hard and skidded to a stop. It was early summer and there was overgrowth and briars in bloom. I made a way through, pushing back branches as I went. A tree lay across the path so I lifted the bicycle over it and kept going. Go on a little adventure there man. Seek some peace among the gentle sounds of the natural world and take a break away from all the commotion and traffic.
The air smelled fresh and it felt cooler among the trees and shade. At a clearing, such a lovely blue sky overhead and a few billowy clouds sailed past. Back in the dream time, ships, dinosaurs and dragons. I heard the sound of water running nearby so I continued to find it. Left the old Cherokee against a tree and climbed down an embankment. There were salmon berries, growing bright and red among the briars and light green leaves. I plucked a few and ate a handful, juicy salmon berries swirling around. Good choice there fellow. Let somebody else do the work for a change. How long have we even got here? At the sandy bank by the river an uprooted tree had fallen across the space and its branches dipped into the water. It could not have fallen in a better place.
There were a few diamonds in the rough alright, it was just a matter of skipping through the music player to find them. I opened a can of mango lemonade and took a swig. Across the river a single white butterfly flew by the reach of the trees. I marveled at this tiny creature for a while, this flutter of yellow- white glory as it climbed to the highest reaches of the tree tops. I thought about our baba at home. He’d be with his mother back in the city. They might be out buying fruit or formula or something. A wave of fulfilment and peace passed over me for a while. Follow the flow, away downstream, little waves of water and a fish with a strawberry sheen along its lateral line jumped and landed with a splash.
A small notice twirled on the breeze nearby. A memorial note, suspended by a string from a branch with a photograph of a young man. Back in time. We will never forget you. Family and loved ones. Remember the times. Maybe he liked it by the river as well.
Later, I packed up and made my way back up the path. It was still and quiet in the forest and the sound of the lively stream seemed distant now. The birds I heard earlier in the day neither chirped nor sang their sweet melodies. Everything felt a little too quiet and with the depth of the stillness a chilly, uneasy feeling passed over me. I climbed the embankment to the path and picked up the old Cherokee. There was a bear, looking straight at me, a black bear, his stout head of frizzy hair and shiny frame of fur filled the path. I couldn’t see past him. He stood there with his paws up. It was the first time I had ever seen a bear and I was gripped with fear.
Back in the old country a person might encounter a bunch of nettles or a swarm of bees for pain while out and about in the wild. I’ve seen the bull saunter behind a herd of cattle walk up the old boreen by the sea. Easy going animals. The fat brass ring lobbed through his nose and he licking his nostrils. To the dry stone walls of the western fields, carefully laid pieces of limestone, each a memory to some soul.
A lamb lay sleeping on his side, so you’d have to tip toe around him not to disturb his peace. It became clear in an instant I was dealing with a different pot of mackerel over here.
I leaped onto the bicycle and pedaled away faster than I ever pedaled a part. There was no point turning around. I hit a few tree roots along the way and nearly went flying over the handle bars. Then I thought about other bears that could be nearby. A whole sleuth of them could move out from the growth at any moment, looking for something to eat. Not too hot, not too cold, just about right. There’s not a pick on me lads. You’d be wasting your time. It’s all muscle here. I thought of my wife and son and if I would ever see them again. Bollocks. The path turned a corner ahead and I thought about what might be around the bend. I jumped off and wheeled the bike down the embankment, then stepped out into the river. I was fortunate, the water was low and the current weak enough to allow such a manoeuver. I waded across, feeling the water flow hard, rising up to my knees, trying not to slip on the bigger rocks. I thought of our boy as an adolescent in his future life, wearing a school uniform, talking with his friends.
‘What happened to your old man?’
‘He was taken by a bear back in the day. He wasn’t long in the country.’
Not today. I felt a surge of power in my legs and pushed through the water.
There was a bridge ahead and a road to my great relief. I heard a rattling sound in the woods and voices. A man and a child cycled along the path.
‘Hey,’ I called to him but he made no reply. ‘Excuse me. Hey man.’ Still nothing. ‘There’s a bear.’
‘There’s a bear on the path.’ ‘Where?’
‘You’re cycling towards him.’ ‘OK. Thanks for letting me know.’
I climbed the fence and got back on the road and then into the cycle lane again. Lucky boy, made it to the highway, then over the bridge, racing the freight train east. Then he turned the key and pushed open the apartment door.
‘Hey. Look who’s here. Daddy’s home.’ I gave my wife an extra-long hug.
‘Are you ok?’
‘I can’t believe you cycled there. What was it like?’
‘Good. It’s a beautiful day out there.’
‘Oh it’s just gorgeous. We went to the farmers market.’
‘Perfect timing anyway. His diaper needs to be changed.’
‘I’ll take care of it. You lie down for a while if you want. This is an easy job for me.’ ‘There you are now buck o. Clean as a whistle.’
‘Da, Da. Vroom, vroom. Car, car.’
‘That’s right baba, that’s a car, car alright.’
The lovely smell of his baby head and then the milky, puke smell of his banana bib bringing you back to reality. Hold him there and take his little foot in your hand and tickle his toes. And you’re happy to give, because everything is worth it. And nothing beats being there. And you will hold him for as long as he needs to be held because it’s the best feeling in the world.
John Duffy is from Ballina, County Mayo. He writes short fiction and poetry as a hobby.
He has a BA in English and History from NUI Galway and an MA in Writing.
He has contributed to Abandoned Darlings, an anthology of fiction and poetry, The Georgia Straight and to The Reading Life
An electrician by trade, John lives in Vancouver, Canada.
I look forward to following John Duffy's work for many years.