Thursday, 4 October 2012

How the East was Won

As he rolled into the estate which was still being built, on the fresh air of a fine day with the window down, the slagging of the builder’s men carried.
Run for gold sunshine (a woman passed), turnips.
Mangolds, the digger man shouted back.

It was Friday, no one would be working back, they were all in good humour. He had slipped away early form the Department of Social Welfare where he worked as a Junior Ex. There all the section heads were in a tizzy, a new minister and it seemed that all the lines of power and of influence the interlaced webs of sycophancy and animosity, would be swept away. They would be shifted around and like hermit crabs moved to a distant bay or tank have to discover a new moon’s pull on those tides of nuance.

God, it was good to get away from all that. He was driving slowly, the road was only a rough scrape with the digger, and stray blocks fallen off the dumper were a hazard. Their house was the last but one of the just finished section and it was still just that, a house, a month’s occupancy gave them no emotional title to home. This weekend I’m going to tackle the garden, Donal thought, put smacht on it.

Maggie, he called as he let himself in.

The name hopped tentatively off the bare walls and uncarpeted floor. A good shoulder and you could be in the next door’s living room. There was no one there as yet. Soon, soon the new settlers will arrive bringing civilisation to the wilderness. He savoured the pioneering spirit and muttered to himself in an ‘oldtimer’ voice, ‘Son, when the railroad comes to Maynooth everything gonna’ change round here real fast.’ Where’s my woman?

Maggie was putting out the clothes at the carousel line, trousers streaming in the breeze, legs on a chairaplane. Her hands dipped into the pooch of her apron after pegs. He leant over her bump, rising higher. The brown hair tied back into a tail he flicked.

- Hup, hup said Donal.
- How’s the great world out there?
- Hush puppies rule, is that all right! And the passenger, any sign of heshe getting off?
- Heshe fairly kicked this afternoon.

Her bag was packed and she was read though splashdown was three weeks away yet.

- It’s so long, I’m fed up waiting.
- Lucky, you’re not an elephant.

He thought to himself, when something is going on for so long it’s hard to keep up the tension. He saw the garden and his desk-bound back developed premonitory twinges. What was there in the little average space was half blocks, bricks, plaster bags (some quarter full and rock hard) lumps of concrete left over from path making, polythene sheeting, Styrofoam, broken planks and plywood flats. Clay subsoil of khaki daub.

- Listen, honey, this weekend I’m gonna turn this wilderness into civilisation and make it fit for white folks.
- O.K. pardner, the heck you will. You’re having beans for dinner tonight, John Wayne is on the box.
- Great! I’d watch him forever.

Like many another man he looked at his wife across the dinner table and wondered, who is she and what is this contract that we have wished ourselves into? It starts out on a disco floor in Galway. She is walnut-tanned, slim sly hips and tastes salty. A holiday thing maybe, this is an August weekend. You feel the sand in your underwear and hear the waves splash in the afterwards silence. There is an exchange of numbers and she calls up and unlikely love starts. Happy times rising now to surface over the table and the curtains blowing back.

What do you talk about when you’re happy? They who had a gift for it, who were not afraid of a light emotion talked about their carpet which was to come.

- Even now Ishpahan, a bearded Persian robed and hatted like a magus in the crib approaches the carpet dealer Kelliji Pasha with the work of art which had blinded half the women of his village. Into it a legend of downtown shopping is woven, imbued with the power of flittering all the €50 notes in your wallet.
- Step aboard, says Maggie, this will transport you to undreamt of bourgeois splendour. There is room for 1.7 children and a small pet.
- This is another fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, he said, rolling up his tie and letting it unroll again like Oliver Hardy.

This was a strong part of their courtship, the pictures. They loved popular films, and had a firm distaste for significance delivered with a hand-held camera. Maggie actually liked cowboys too. Donal remembered saying to her:
- You actually like cowboys, this isn’t just part of your strategy for entrapment.

They ate their dinner, quiche and salad. She said:
- After you wash up, come and give my back a rub.

She had magnificent shoulders and a nicely turned ankle. He liked what he saw.
- Yes, that’s good.

The neck arched and stretched out under his fingers that dug. He looked at his fingers objectively as they moved the humped muscles into an exaggeration of tension that produced its opposite.

- O.K., O.K., that’s good, she purred.
- Where is John Wayne tonight?
- At the Alamo.

Before that there was a minor skirmish with politico-economico pundits who were talking about unemployment. One rogue said that the recession was to be allowed to deepen , money would be cleared away into oil and speculation and factories closed to re-open with robots. Redundancy payments are cheaper than Trade Union aggro. The others, though they didn’t say so, thought this to be a paranoid scenario. The presented twinkled at the inherent drama of Irish life and the nice shades of confrontation that were warming up. Next week would be even better.

John Wayne’s task was simpler. Early in the picture he drove in the buckboard down to the river with his woman, lifting her out by the waist like she was a doll. Magnificent shoulders too. On the banks of the river, symbol of mutability, all things run, you never step into the same river twice; John gave his discourse on the code by which a man lives.

- I came down to Texas, didn’t know what to do. I stomped on a lot of men, been stomped on too. I knew that there were two things a man could do – the right thing and the wrong. Do the one and you’re livin’, do the other and you may be walkin’ round but you’re deader’n a beaver hat.

John died later in a welter of Mexicans.

- It’s easy to mock and gibe, in her no-but-seriously voice; at least in those days honour and valour weren’t notions, they were real..
- The knights of wild west and all that. Did any of them think that they would really die? Even myself, I expected that the 7th. Cavalry would turn up. John Wayne getting killed is not good for the motion picture industry. Let’s go to bed.

Up the stairs they went and as they passed by the door of the box room they looked in at the cot and the new wallpaper of teddy bears and dolls. They had discussed all in detail: no to a catenary of plastic bells, yes to a mobile of a shepherd with sheep dog, tussock, staff and rainbow. Heshe would be breastfed so the cot would be moved beside their own bed. The rainbow spun slowly in the draught of warm air up the stairs. The sheep moved under it and the shepherd by the wafted tussock.

Early in the morning someone called.

- Hello, I’m Jimmy O’Neill from the other side of the road.

Donal looked. He saw a 4-bedroom version of his own house with more elbow room round the sides. The man was about 50, an ambulant version of a well trimmed lawn, glassed in porch and herbaceous borders. A B.M.W. sat in the driveway, a bucket, hand mop and squeegee could be seen at the hubcaps which were gleaming. His accent was London – Dublin. Donal thought uncharitably – a returned empty.
- I hope you’re settling in all right Mr…..
- McDonagh.

They shook hands

- I’m just calling to see if would like to join the Community Association.
- No not at the moment thank you.

O’Neill was braked a bit hard at that but he recovered.

- Some of us have to band together to make sure that the estate gets finished, trees planted as in the plan and so forth, grass mowed and all that.

His eyes flicked towards the chaos of the front patch that was rutted deeply by an enthusiastic reversal. Good, good, thought Donal, by God Red Cloud, this means war.

- I’m just a bird of passage really, the new man next door might be interested, Opisa Fanguto is his name, ah but he mustn’t be in, his van isn’t there. He’s hardly ever there at the moment, he’s waiting for the rest of them to come over. Extended family and all that, you know the situation.

Easy, eassy, white man speak with forked tongue, O’Neill looked as if he might fall over the milk cartons. He said good morning and off he went to Hazeldeane or whatever it was.

Donal went for the paper. Reviews and coffee, racing on the box and oh, the garden. On his way back he saw the diggerman taking out a trench. He seemed to be on his own, probably ‘job and finish’ and get paid for a half day. Donal stopped, got out and walked over. He put up his index finger in a sign which was taken to mean ‘Can I speak to you for a minute?’

Switching off and removing his ear muffs the driver said:
- Howya
- All right. Can you do a wee job on your break, lift out a few stones and rubble out of the back garden and scrape it level - €40 ?
- Sound, I’ll tell you what, you probably need a bit of top soil. I can drop a few yards on it, 6” on top, give the grass a chance to get going, give the grass a chance to get going, €100 the lot.
- Grand job, second from the end.
- I’ll be down in twenty minutes as soon as I have this done.

Around the side of the house the digger man came and sitting up on his jacks, began to swing out the long claw. All the rubbish was scooped out and the subsoil levelled and raked deeply with the bucket’s teeth.

- That’s it, said Donal, loosen it up, this is better than double digging.

After 20 minutes there wasn’t a trace of rubbish left in Donal’s garden. ‘Fanguto’ had a nice mound of it. They had a cup of tea in the kitchen after that and a chat about origins. He was a Meath man who’d started out as an agricultural contractor.

- This crowd is not too bad, the foreman is a cute hoor, he has all the top soil cornered from the foundations and he’s going to sell it off by the load. He won’t miss the few shovels, it’s yours anyway.

Several full heaped shovels from the mountain at the end of the site hardly made a dent in it. The foreman had lime scattered over the top of the pile to betray any gouges but the diggerman mashed up a hard lump from ‘Fanguto’s’ and showered it over the smoothed earth to cover his tracks.

€100 later Donal was left with 6” of sweet soil that needed but the rub of a rake to have it ready for sowing. On a wave of enthusiasm he went to the garden centre and bought grass seed, a single children’s packet of flower seed, peas, carrots, beetroot, lettuce and scallion seed. With a few strokes of a spade he made wide beds with little paths around them like his grandfather did. ‘Don’t ever walk on them beds’, he could hear the voice in his head. He saw now the ancient Adam kneeling on a sack, weeding with his fingers in the closely planted beds. He used to broadcast the carrots. I’ll try that.

By six, Donal, like a walking bracket, sat to his tea, the garden sown. In his inner movie he had a flash forward. It is July, a sunny Saturday, the grass is showing well bar a bare patch where he missed but the vegetables are thriving. Maggie is inside feeding P.J. Their new neighbour is working with a pick levering at a solid lump of concrete. He’ll get it out if it kills him. His name is Jack Ryan, originally from Ballina. Donal himself is watching him to rest his eyes, the sun on his paper is dazzling. Jack is aware of his viewer:
- Your garden is in grand order there. How did you do it?
- Green fingers, I guess.


ktismatics said...

A mood has settled over me now and I'm not sure what to do with it. My response was primed no doubt by the rocks I've hauled out of our garden and, from just last night, by Henry Fonda and Victor Mature as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday hewing precarious lives for themselves out of Tombstone. Doc died with his boots off in a Colorado hotel room, overcome finally by consumption. He was 36 years old. Wyatt Earp? From Wikipedia:

"Earp eventually moved to Hollywood and became an unpaid film consultant for several silent cowboy movies. He met several well-known and soon to be famous actors on the sets of various movies. On the set of one movie, he met Marion Morrison (who later became famous under the assumed name of John Wayne. Morrison served Earp coffee on the sets, and later told Hugh O'Brian that he based his image of the Western lawman on his conversations with Earp. Director John Ford worked as an apprentice on the studio lots about the time that Wyatt Earp used to visit friends on the set, and Ford later claimed he reconstructed the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral based on Wyatt's input. In the early 1920s, Earp was given the honorary title of Deputy Sheriff in San Bernardino County, California. The last surviving Earp brother and the last surviving participant of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt Earp died at home in the Earps' small apartment at 4004 W 17th Street, in Los Angeles, of chronic cystitis(some sources cite prostate cancer) on January 13, 1929 at the age of 80."

Some fine phrases are struck: to discover a new moon’s pull on those tides of nuance, the road was only a rough scrape with the digger, a good shoulder. "He thought to himself, when something is going on for so long it’s hard to keep up the tension" -- absolutely. Excellent story, Michael.

ombhurbhuva said...

Thanks and don’t stall the digger with your own work. Was that builder’s rubble you hauled? Happiness is hard to do, like the fox in The Little Prince it has to be there in the corner of your eye as an indirection.

ktismatics said...

It was natural rock -- they don't call this place Boulder for nothing. Oddly, a mechanical digger plays a pivotal role in one of my pieces -- there must be something archetypal about it.

I got a kick out of Donal's refusal to cooperate with the settlers' collective, preferring the solitary way of the lawman/outlaw. Honor and valor? In his inner movie maybe he can leverage it into heroism. And I did like this one:

"What do you talk about when you’re happy? They who had a gift for it, who were not afraid of a light emotion..."

ktismatics said...

In your story the digger performs a restorative function, removing the detritus of human artifice and returning the soil to its natural fertility. But of course the big diggers have come and gone, scooping out the foundations of this new subdivision, fabricated houses that through their own tricks of multiple-month occupancy and decoration and gardening the settlers will engineer into homes. Even the man operating the digger is a kind of artifice, a hired hand who for a fee pushes around other people's debris and dirt.

Quiche and salad? No thanky, ma'am; but I sure would like another plateful of them beans. Department of Social Welfare? Maybe it's time you were heading back east, young feller.