Hennessy New Irish Writing: November 2017’s winning story
The Mighty Quinn by Marty Thornton: time takes its toll on an infamous family five-piece from Tuam
It was the end of the road.
On a cold November evening in ’89, a pair of tired and insignificant troubadours, the last survivors of an infamous family five-piece from Tuam, took to the feckless stage in the Warwick Hotel, as they had done without fail every other Sunday for the past 28 years.
As ever, for a shilling and a penance they promised a night of ballroom dancing and other earthly delights. In truth, this venial stretched to little more than the faint hope of a skid on the floor with a tall ham-handed stranger followed by a stale Garibaldi and a raffle ticket if you were lucky.
The band was led by Eddie Quinn, a decrepit shadow of a man in a monkey suit. A musical vessel overflowing with talent who came out of the womb in 1916, Eddie fought in a war, buried two wives and killed a tinker’s horse for his sins. Once crowned by the deaf and the delusional as a virtuoso, now crowned under an apricot rug, Eddie wheezed nostalgia to his saxophone whilst hanging onto the dream of eternal youth.
Behind him stood Jimmy Quinn, a spluttering engine with a Fender bass and lazy combover. Jimmy slung his guitar low, past his gut, almost past his knees. He told some it was a tribute to Gary Cooper in High Noon. He told others it weighed down any burden of expectation.
“Ladies on the inside. Gentlemen on the outside.”
Eddie muttered numb velvet tones into the microphone then recoiled from the feedback. As ever, this was but a prelude to Jimmy’s cue. And although he hated it with every aching bone in his body, Jimmy pressed start on the drum machine regardless. It hammered out a hypnotic swing, a country two step to be exact, which Jimmy plodded after like a sheep in quicksand chasing a Judas goat. Eddie brayed a brassy hook with the odd bum note or three. Improvisation served more than to foreshadow his genius. It reminded people he was still very much alive.
And as the lonely and desperate stared at their polished feet and counted in silence, Jimmy juggled what ifs and buts as he swayed heel to toe and rocked himself to sleep. He dreamt about finding love and the fear of not finding it, then dreamt about the tragic demise of his oldest brother, God rest his soul. Affectionately known to all who knew him as the “man with the golden horn”, Christy Quinn, trumpet player extraordinaire, had size 13 feet and lungs to match. A tempestuous soul, he could blow hot or cold, then with a glint in his eye would noodle a lick and colour a dead tone.
Christy Quinn overnight lost his thirst for the trumpet and appetite for the flesh
He’d charm the wings off a horsefly and the tights off a fool in the back of his van. And he’d make them feel special by screaming their names a couple of times at the top of his lungs, as they climaxed like animals to the high C of sin. Christy Quinn, legendary swordsman, who always swore his health was his wealth and spread his seed far and plenty, had enough bastard children in the West to fill a small country school.
Christy Quinn overnight lost his thirst for the trumpet and appetite for the flesh. A man in a white coat prodded and poked, hummed and hawed, then flatlined he had but a month to live. And so this poor whale of a man and his size 13 feet were eaten inch by inch, from the inside out, until all that remained was skin and bone and fear. And as four brothers stood at the foot of his bed, poor Christy Quinn, whimpering dog, made them promise to keep the van on the road and the Mighty alive so he could watch over from the back of the hall through his bastards’ eyes, then took his last breath. And the band played on.
As the two-step finished, the dancers slowed from a canter to a trot, then shuffled a ripple of generous applause. Good manners cost nothing and filled the uncomfortable silence between pioneers and widows. Some thanked their partners for the pleasure, then apologised for two left feet. Others excused themselves to powder their noses, kissed the saint on their scapulars and wept for the extinct. Long live the resolute, who toughened it out till the next number in the faint hope a fallen matinee idol in forgiving light might lower the bar and spring for a cordial.
Eddie Quinn mopped his brow and divulged the next dance was a cha-cha-cha. He placed his saxophone to his lips, warbled a desperate mating call and released the Yellow Bird. This came as no surprise for the Mighty had played that same unflinching set for 28 long years. In some regard, it was comforting, a fitting epitaph to all who had gone before. And for the fainthearted and those left behind, it promised there was nothing more to fear. And whilst the lonely and the desperate wheeled an infinite figure of eight on the dance floor, Jimmy scoured the back of the hall, from right to left, then left to right, for size 13s in a flat or heel, but nothing, not as much as a hint of a glint. So he plucked his bass by a miserable string and cursed the immortal drum machine for replacing Lugs and keeping perfect time.
Ah poor Lugs Quinn. His abject lack of talent was evident to anyone who could count. It was only surpassed by the rage that roared inside him. A rage which stemmed from a deep-seeded self-loathing over the size of his ears and fuelled his need to beat the living shite out of anything and everything three four time or as close to a waltz as he could manage. Still, every silver cloud.
He was overcome by the stark realisation of his own mortality and an invisible cloud of noxious gases
Lugs Quinn, who if truth be told couldn’t paradiddle with the worst of them, but always marched to the beat of his own drum, was taken from this world in the cruellest twist of fate when on a wet September morning he entered the slurry tank to rescue a stray cat that had run out of lives. Lugs Quinn identical twin, animal lover and father of three took a weakness, when without warning he was overcome by the stark realisation of his own mortality and an invisible cloud of noxious gases.
And as he faded away one shallow breath at a time, he harked back to an article he once read in a broadsheet about hearing being the last sense to vacate upon death. Small mercy. He smiled, then blessed his big ears for posterity and prayed to the Gods that the last strain of a hum or a tone, a cry or a whisper would be that of his wife or his sons. Silence. And the band played on.
Bernie Quinn’s nicotine-stained magnolia soul was like his accordion, misunderstood. Although he was older by only nine minutes, he found it impossible to digest that natural order had been disturbed, hence took it the worst. Matters weren’t helped when a rabble of dodgers and vultures, the type you only see at weddings and funerals, croaked “Ah, he’s the spit of you laid out there, poor creature”, then blessed themselves from nowhere but habit. With outstretched hands, they offered sympathetic grimaces and heartfelt absurdities with perfumed kisses. And as they moved down the line with their fists buried deep in their pockets, they wondered what exactly was inside every other sandwich and when Lugs had last changed the wallpaper.
And as Bernie stood three sheets to the wind, shoulder to shoulder between Eddie and Jimmy, he stared down at his twin in the coffin and started to crumble, for blood was thicker than water and the significant part of him had died also.
It was a year to the day when Bernie decided to end it all. He poured himself a shot of paraquat, washed it down with a souvenir bottle of Knock water, teased a jig and a reel from his squeezebox, then took to his bed. He prayed to the man above, the man below and the man in the moon for his passage to be quick and painless, then stared at the ceiling for the next 72 and begged and screamed and waited to die. Then there were two. And the band played on.
Ladies’ choice. Two sisters damned to dance cheek to cheek cut a rug whilst the desperate and lonely shuffled past in dead men’s suits and their Sunday best. With furrowed brows and painted smiles, all forgot their heartache and exhaled what little hope was left of their lives, one fragile waltz at a time.
She was shamefaced, pale and buxom with fine childbearing hips
Same familiar faces, just a little more worn down each week they got closer to the last dance.
That’s when Jimmy saw her. A wallflower like no other. She wore a daisy print dress, like his mother used to wear, hemmed just above the knee. She was shamefaced, pale and buxom with fine childbearing hips. And in all his 52 years of chastity and decades of moonlight serenades in this graveyard of ambition rocking back and forth, heel to toe, toe to heel, he had never noticed her before. And she stirred something deep within him. And he wondered whether to play to the damned or throw caution to the wind.
Jimmy Quinn, who never once felt the wanton breath or warm embrace of a woman. Jimmy Quinn, brother, sheep, flaccid as the day was long. Sure what he wouldn’t give to the girls, he’d give to the worms. And sure who’d remember to forget him.
The music stuttered then faltered to a standstill. A ripple from the dyed in the wool devoted.
And the world stopped spinning. And Jimmy Quinn stepped off. He drew breath, closed his eyes and followed in her footsteps. Chased her sweet perfumed sweat outside to the front of the cancerous van, where he undressed her first with his eyes, then shy but willing, pressed her against the bonnet.
And under a blanket of stars and the sweet hush of night, his fever grew as she lifted her skirt, then lifted him in. Grasshoppers warbled and nightjars sang. And the deeper he went, the closer he got.
And just for a moment, everything and nothing made sense. And life followed death and death swallowed life.
And when the fever broke, she comforted him and told him, “Let go”. God speed. And he cried.
He cried for his brothers who had gone before him and cried for the Mighty, the one he was leaving behind. And the band played on.
- Marty Thornton is a Galway-born writer and musician. He holds a masters degree in screenwriting from IADT. He has written a number of screenplays and is working on a novel. This is his first published work.