March 1 to March 31
A Reading Life Special Presentation
a short story by Patrick Semple
A former Church of Ireland clergyman Patrick has had two volumes of memoir published, a novel and two collections of poems. He was editor of 'A Parish Adult Education Handbook', and ghost wrote 'That Could Never Be', a memoir by Kevin Dalton. He has had short stories published and broadcast.
Patrick currently teaches a creative writing course at National University of Ireland Maynooth, Adult Education Department and for the last three years has done public readings of his work in Kempten, Bavaria.
Shauna Gilligan, author of Happiness Comes From Nowhere has contributed a very interested interview with Patrick Sample for ISSM3 and I will soon be posting it. With the permission of the author, I wanted to post this story before the interview. I will also be doing a Q and A Session with him and I am looking forward to that.
This story is protected under international copyright laws and cannot be published or posted online without the permission of the author.
I hadn’t heard from Joe for a long time. He left a message for me to phone back as soon as I came in. As usual I had to hang on until he had a minute to come to the phone. All he said was: ‘Can you come on Thursday, after lunch?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘OK, see you then,’ and he put down the receiver.
As I approached the town along the estuary road I passed the spot where I first met Joe on a summer day some years before. He had a puncture and flagged me down to borrow a wheel brace. He was fiftyish, his face was round with a serious expression. He was heavy but tall enough to carry it. He wore a collar and tie, a cardigan over a pair of baggy grey flannels and sandals. He spoke slowly and with a great economy of words. I’d have bet he was a schoolmaster.
‘If you have time when you’re in town I’d like you to have a drink.’ He gave me the name of a pub, ‘The Barrack’. I thanked him and made a noncommittal reply.
I didn’t take him up on his offer. In fact I forgot all about it but some months later I was back in town again and with time to spend. By chance I came upon ‘The Barrack’ and remembered the puncture. The pub was on a corner with the door set back three or four feet, the overhang supported by a pillar. It was mainly bar with a small snug partitioned off at the far end. It hadn’t seen a coat of paint for at least twenty years. There were two customers in the bar: one sitting at a table reading a paper and one sitting sideways on at the counter gazing out over his pint into the middle distance. Neither of them was Joe. As I stood up to the counter, from the snug I heard the slow, deep voice that had invited me here in the first place. I tapped the counter and out from the snug behind the bar came Joe. He was wearing the barman’s old-fashioned white apron. He greeted me warmly, glad of the opportunity to repay the debt.
Since that first visit we soon discovered common ground. I always called when I was in the area and from time to time he would phone, as he had done on this occasion. Joe became my best contact in the south of the county. If he didn’t know about it, it didn’t happen. He never greeted me by name, but apart from that treated me like any other customer. I always sat up at the bar, if possible at one end or the other, and as soon as he wasn’t busy we would talk. First the pleasantries, then a summary of bits and pieces of interest. No matter how important a piece of information he had to give, he would start with the trivia. He didn’t enthuse lest my evaluation of his intelligence didn’t coincide with his own. In fact his judgement was as good if not better than mine and when he sent for me it was always worth the journey. Our conversation was usually interrupted and he spoke so softly and cryptically I had to concentrate very hard not to lose some vital detail.
I arrived at ‘The Barrack’. There were six or eight people in the bar. Joe took my order, gave me my change and I set in to listen. Normally when he gave me directions I could follow them quite easily but this time the spot was so remote I would need someone with local knowledge. With a barely perceptible movement of his head, like a dealer at an auction, he called up my guide and introduced us.
Jim was about sixty, small, average build, with grey hair showing under a mature cap. He wore a wide American-style tie with a white shirt and a double-breasted blue suit-jacket over a shabby pair of brown corduroys. He had thick glasses with tortoiseshell frames, held together at both hinges by sticking plaster. One lens was even thicker than the other. He perked his head to one side as if to look though the better lens and with a reticent smile said, ‘Pleased to meet you.’ I knew immediately we were going to get on.
The Twin Rock was about fourteen miles away. Jim would bring me as far as the turn to the old quarry where there was a small country pub, and I would leave him there and pick him up on the way back. We finished our drinks and left.
It was half-day and shops were closed. We walked towards the quay, where I had parked the car. It was May and a clear blue sky. Despite an onshore breeze there was warmth in the air. A screech of gulls was crying like banshees over a trawler where crew were dumping offal. A little further out a tern was sitting on the breeze, dipping from time to time to the ruffled surface of the water. The car was like an oven; we opened the windows and set off.
I knew my way until we turned off the main road nine or ten miles out, so I didn’t need the help of my guide at first, but the conversation was slow to get going.
‘What do you work at?’ I asked.
‘Nuttin’ much these days, the auld sight is gone.’ Pause. ‘I’m tryin’ to get the blind pension.’
‘Don’t you need to be totally blind to get that?’
‘Well I nearly am, so I thought I’d get most of it; but the bloody auld TDs round here are no good. I’m after bein’ to more doctors and medicals; I nearly know the charts off be heart.’
Jim would only talk if I started first. After a long silence I said: ‘You’re not married?’ – sure in my mind that he wasn’t.
‘I am,’ he said.
‘Have you family?’
‘Twelve livin’, but there’s only three left in the country. The rest is all in England or America. I have one in Australia.’ After a pause: ‘God, isn’t the country in a shockin’ state. The last two to go, went to England after Christmas. I do have to laugh when I hear our crowd condemnin’ Thatcher when she can provide the jobs and they can’t. They can’t even afford to give me the blind pension let alone jobs for me children.’
‘Times are hard, right enough, but I think things are looking up,’ I said, trying to lift the conversation a bit.
‘They are, but aren’t the young people gone to the divil with drink and drugs and all this sex?’
‘You’re right,’ I said tersely, not wanting to get into that particular area.
We turned off the main road and Jim directed me through a maze of tiny roads; despite his poor sight his navigation was faultless. We climbed steadily on a narrow road that only had room for one car. The may was coming into bloom. Primroses dotted the ditches on both sides in nature’s inimitable asymmetry. The signs of spring were well established.
I dropped Jim at the pub and gave him a couple of pounds to punch in the time. I turned up towards the quarry and arrived at a clearing on the right-hand side of the road. I left the car and walked quietly up the road past the quarry gate, as Joe had told me, to a high bank on the left. I climbed the bank and lay on my stomach, surveying the scene. I had a bird’s -eye view of the derelict quarry. From cracks in the long-abandoned quarry face to my left, sprouted grasses, gorse and an occasional small tree. The moorland stretching to my right had worked its way back to the bottom of the rock face.
There was absolute stillness. I noted roughly the point on the ground in tall vegetation beyond the quarry face that Joe had described to me. I lifted my binoculars and searched the sky all round. There was no sign of anything. I lay on my back and waited, scouring the bright, clear sky from time to time. At last, after about an hour and many false alarms, I saw the male harrier coming towards the quarry from my right. At first it was little more than a spot; then a recognisable flight pattern.
I slid back down the bank eight or ten feet to the cover of some low gorse and sat back on my haunches. I was aware of my pulse. Keeping my glasses trained on the approaching male, I glanced at the spot on the ground. Too soon. I looked to the incoming bird. I could now see the blue-grey colour and the black wing tips. I glanced to my left again. Still no move.
As the cock came closer, his steady wing-beat slowed. He began to lose height and I could see the prey locked in his powerful talons. Before he was above the mouth of the quarry he started to glide. I turned to look at the spot, tingling with expectancy. There she was, the hen rising from her concealed nesting site towards the cock. With the cock slightly above and ahead she rolled on her back, showing her pure white rump, relief from her overall brown. He dropped the prey. She caught it in a flash in her outstretched talons. Magic. In a split second the pass was complete and the birds parted.
At that instant the crack of a rifle shot shattered the stillness. I saw a sprinkling of feathers come from the cock. The birds flew in opposite directions but I could see from his flight that he was not injured. In seconds both birds dropped and disappeared into the vegetation beyond the quarry face.
I didn’t move for what seemed an age. My heart pounded. I became aware that both my knees pained and one of my legs locked in cramp. I slumped down and sat on the bank. It took some time for the pain to abate. I was thrilled and stunned. My first sight of one of the most spectacular happenings in the bird world, the food pass of the hen harrier, had nearly ended in tragedy.
I crept slowly back up the bank and peered out over the top. Everything was as still as when I arrived. I lay quietly for a long time. There was no sound and no sign of anyone. I went back to the car and sat thinking about what to do. There was nothing for me to do except to tell Joe. I turned the car, and switching off the engine, freewheeled slowly down the lane towards the pub. I thought I might come on the sniper and was half glad that I didn’t.
Jim was waiting. He wanted to buy me a drink but I declined. He finished his pint and we left. I hadn’t told him the purpose of my mission and I assumed Joe hadn’t either. I didn’t know if, from Joe’s point of view, it was all right for him to know but I couldn’t keep it in. Jim listened carefully and when I finished he perked his head to one side, looked up at me and said: the gobshites.’
I offer my great thanks to Patrick Semple for allowing me to share this story with my readers.