Mountainy Men, a short story by Martina Evans
12 Stories of Christmas - Day 5:Two children fend for themselves when their father takes to the drink and their mother to the bed
Mountainy Men by Martina Evans: two children left to their devices during a long, hot summer. Illustration: Jane Webster
I learned very early on not to trust sentimental shite and I learned that from the Ould Fella. That was his territory. The drink territory. The Old Lady called it brucellosis. Greta and myself were to have the greatest pity for the rage because no one suffered more than himself. She said. I hadn’t a bit of pity for the tight-fistedest old hoor after he bringing in that one, Attracta – with her purple-fringed handbag, knocking us out with her perfume called Styx. April ’76. Hotter than the Bronx that summer and it all ahead of us.
Attracta was what used to be known as a girl. A girl could be any age, basically a servant. Some of them were treated rough; I’ve heard stories down through the years from people coming into the shop. Stories that have stopped me sleeping at night. A girl could be any age – as old as 60 or 70. No limit as long as she was able to work. She might be made to scrub a floor with a wooden brush with no bristles. She might be made to sleep in a shed and half-starved. She could be attacked by the man of the house or the son of the man of the house. Girls were dying out by ’76, only Attracta was too thick to finish school. I should have sympathy for her, a poor young one. I know. But I can’t because of the Old Lady. I don’t like to think of either one of them, sometimes it takes days to put them out of my mind.
But the old music is soothing. Deanna Durbin singing Always, one big eye piercing out of the shadows of the Lafitte. Or something western from the Sons of the Pioneers. John Ford, my king. Saturday afternoons lying back on Mrs Savage’s settee where I first saw Shane, my arm around Greta or waiting for the UFO to appear between Wayne and O’Hara in Rio Grande.
Greta and myself only eat sweets on Saturday nights now because we don’t want to join the rest of the slobbering savages. I won’t say we haven’t been tempted since I got in the popcorn and the Häagen-Dazs because people renting out DVDs want to be stuffed vegetables, blown away from reality with their gobs full. I’m the main attraction here of course in my double-breasted suit and cufflinks and pinky ring. I didn’t believe you existed! said one gobshite who’d driven all the way from Limerick to see our old post office and he after renting nothing.
On the way out, he was muttering into his phone about mountainy men and a fierce knowledgeable small blond fella. It wouldn’t be worth me while petrol-wise to come back, says he. Jerks – the lot of them, 99 per cent of the time, they’ll be standing there with They Live By Night or A Colt Is My Passport in their hands and then suddenly they’re not in the mood for the “ould black & white stuff”. They’re off out with 50 First Dates or Gladiators, a tub of M&Ms and a barrel of Coke.
I’ve modelled myself on Alan Ladd because I’m small and fair although I’d prefer Preminger’s dark Dana Andrews, policing himself for fear he might turn out be a hood like his old man. All those fellows knew how to button up. They were men. Greta wanted to be Joan Bennett but I said she had to be Veronica Lake. She had to be. With her pure blond head like Veronica rose from the dead in her black velvet band.
We didn’t always live in the post office. That would have been like a dream to us then. Our first major trip to the post office was actually to commit a crime. We had to. The Ould Fella had a phobia of ESB bills – every time he opened one, he jerked like the full voltage was going through him. So he wouldn’t put light in the loft where we slept. And we had to have the batteries to light our rusty old bicycle lamp.
Greta could vomit by will so I arranged for her to get the gawks during Catechism to get us out of school at a quiet hour. Does God see us? God sees us for nothing is hidden from his all-seeing eye. Does God know all things? God knows all things, past, present and to come, even our most secret thoughts and actions. But I thought the main thing was to get past the priest’s gate without him seeing us and we did.
We ran past his hydrangeas with the big pink and blue heads on them, in the cloud of a smell of vomit, like we were flying.
Greta was swallowing her spit like Blackie the cat with the excitement because postmistress was the job all the girls were after. The shop was down in a hollow like it was growing out of the ground with a green wooden door, Oifig an Phoist written over it under a spray of pink roses. They all wanted to be at the books of stamps and tearing the perforated line and melting the big fat lump of red sealing wax like Mrs Savage when she tied the neck of the sack of letters for the 4pm collection, sucking on her Milky Mints.
Mrs Savage had everything. Bobby bars and Lunches and Scrumbles and Catches. Aztecs, McGowan’s toffee and Calypso bars. Pineapple splits, raspberry splits and banana ones and then the stuff she weighed into little white paper bags, Pineapple Chunks, Rum and Butters, Malt and Creams, Acid Drops, Scots Clan and Quality Street. The glass jars were spotless, she washed them out with hot soapy water once a week. Everything shining on the counter. The balls of chewing gum, sour grape, cherry and orange. The Kojaks pops. And the gluey sealing-wax smell mixed with toffee and milk chocolate.
As I said, our mission was the bicycle lamp batteries but when Greta pointed, I picked up two banana splits and then it was flogs and a handful of blackjacks. I couldn’t stop. There was an overpowering smell of melting toffee, mixed with the sweet nutty smell of the old yellowy library books that I used to read to the Old Lady.
I went nuts, tearing the wrapper off the banana split, cramming the whole thing into my mouth, with a painful point sticking out of my cheek. Greta followed me per usual, our gobs so full they hurt. I pointed to the double bicycle-lamp batteries down next to the roll of brown paper and as we tumbled our sweets to the floor, we heard her, Can I help ye at all, lads? She stood in her midnight-blue housecoat, with her two blue eyes behind the thick pink glasses underneath her crown of silver plaits. Jacky, her Jack Russell, came out for a look too, his nails clipping on the lino. And then there was pure silence apart from a bee buzzing inside an empty bottle of Fanta orange.
The Ould Fella said Mrs Savage was always trying to get hold of children on account of having none of her own barring the Jack Russell, but he was just bucking because she was on our side from the start. She could have called the guards when she caught us that day but she didn’t.
She said it wasn’t our fault, we were misfortunates with a sick mother and a loop-the-loop father. She didn’t like him, there was some history there even though she said she wanted to help him.
The Ould Fella was tired of everything. He’d taken to the drink but then the Old Lady went one better and took to her bed with a mystery illness so he was caught by the hasp of the arse. No escape for him. I’d see him at the foot of the stairs in the twilight, head raised as if willing her to rise like Lazarus and take up her sewing machine.
Mrs Savage suggested Irene Cassidy’s friend the jockey who’d become a healer after a horse stood on his head but the Ould Fella said, No Quacks! He wanted a real doctor. So then she suggested Dr Jones who was a hypnotist on the side. The Ould Fella rang Jones and got very excited. He’s after curing a load of them, he said, when he put down the phone. When Greta asked, A load of who?, he shouted, A load of women!
But Jones was a disappointment from the minute he turned up with a desperate combover and a glimmering white chin like a bar of Lux soap. The Ould Fella was worried that Jones wasn’t a doctor at all and when Jones took the stairs at a funny angle, he threw his head on the table and said he’d been had and it would kill him to pay. Then he said he couldn’t bear it, what was keeping Jones so long? He ran up the stairs and ran down again, shouting. He’d been ordered out of his own bedroom where Jones was doing feck all, only trying to hypnotise her with her own Biro that she used for doing the crosswords. Afterwards the Ould Fella said he was paying no bill for a man swinging a Biro but Jones said he was “very much afraid” he would have to insist on cash on the barrelhead. And the Ould Fella took off his jacket and roared, Quack! We were 40 miles an hour up the stairs to the Old Lady’s bedroom but it was a quick scuffle because we were only in time to see the end through her window – the Ould Fella slapping the arse of Jones’s car roaring, Get on out of here now with your GBH!
The Ould Fella put the blame on Mrs Savage, said she’d addled him into it with her talk of Quacks and when Mrs Savage wanted to give me an after-school job wiping and stacking shelves, he roared a big brucellosis No! at her. Mrs Savage’s blue eyes squeezed tight behind her pink glasses, Ah no, but sure they were looking forward to it and wasn’t Greta going to sit on my little high stool cutting the tops off the Cork Examiners? The stool was made of golden wood and not very high with a sky-blue leather cover.
Mrs Savage started rubbing it like she wanted Greta to jump up on it like a Jack Russell herself. The Ould Fella said, Didn’t I say no? They have to take care of Mary. His face as hard and square as the end of a spade. God, are they taking care of Mary and they as young as that? says Mrs Savage and he laughed into her face, Sure weren’t you about to put them to work yourself a minute ago? He walked out quick with the last word and a smile like a painted moustache.
Speak yourself to Irene Cassidy, so then, Mrs Savage said the next time he came in moaning. She told him there was always tablets and pressed the silver hair clips deeper into her silver crown. The Ould Fella drew Irene up the road after Mass in her coffee-coloured Crimplene trouser suit.
Irene wanted to talk about the weather being glorious but the Ould Fella was having no small talk, lowering his voice so I couldn’t hear a word only whatever he was saying made Irene touch her lip with her cream glove. When she pulled her hand away, she was bucking, looking at the red lipstick stain. And then he said, There’s children at stake! Irene said something else and Mother of God, he shouted, kicking gravel in his excitement, that was the last thing on my mind! They were outside the post office and Mrs Savage’s pink and blue face came to the window, divided into eight squares by the green frame. The Ould Fella shouted, But the cost of a girl! Three wavy lines swam up and down Irene’s forehead and she pointed her red-stained glove over to the low wall beside the priest’s house where Attracta was sitting by herself, licking a Golly bar.
Mrs Savage looked like she was nodding through the window but she told me afterwards she was shaking her head in despair.
The second day that Attracta was there, the Ould Fella still hadn’t brought her up to see the Old Lady who was stroking the green candlewick quilt, saying to me that she was worried that poor Attracta would be frightened with a strange man. It wasn’t everyone that knew about the Rage of Brucellosis. She’d hardly said it when we heard the screeching laughter out of the two of them below and the Old Lady asked me to read out of The Queen’s Confession. Marie Antoinette’s mother, the empress of Austria, was a right one. She had the snap on the whole of Europe and was always sending Marie Antoinette instructions. The Old Lady was desperate sorry for the poor girl stripped at the border and all alone in a foreign court, the spending, the necklace, the revolution, Count Axel von Fersen and the big conspicuous green escape coach with the red wheels and white velvet seats. The highlight, of course, was The Execution.
After a few days, the Old Lady said she didn’t think she should see Attracta herself at all with the state she was in. Sure, I’ll have to go on the Guinness to put on the weight. She was delirious to think Guinness was going to pull her out now but the Ould Fella brought her up a glass of Guinness sweetened with six spoons of sugar every night and she gagged it down. God Almighty, the sound of the swallowing and the faces she made. I stayed at my post, reading, So he went to the opera and was taken ill there. He had a stroke and died in Leopold’s arms. It was naturally said afterwards that he, being near death, had had a terrible premonition of my future and that was why he had sent for me in that unusual manner.
Someone should have knocked sense into the Ould Fella that summer, told him, you’re wearing the wrong lipstick, Mister. It was disgusting to be there with the two of them and he pretending to be not looking at her. Attracta was doing all the cleaning as if Greta and I hadn’t been doing a tap all along and then the Ould Fella said we weren’t respecting her, that Attracta was afraid of my black looks. Respect! Was she the bishop that we had to kneel and kiss her ring?
I told Greta to keep Blackie away from the butter when I was upstairs every evening reading Penmarric after the Old Lady and myself had squeezed The Queen’s Confession dry. But what could I do? I couldn’t bilocate, could I? So I wasn’t there to stop Blackie from licking the Ould Fella’s rashers and Attracta calling Blackie a filthy dirty thing and the Ould Fella throwing Blackie out. The next day Mrs Savage gave me Mogadon for the Old Lady so she wouldn’t be upset by the sound of raised voices.
It was on St John’s Eve that Mrs Savage asked me what would I do if I thought Attracta had a baby. I hardly knew where babies came from so it was some shock. Mrs Savage was burning her old rosary beads and a prayer book that had swelled after being left out in the rain. You were allowed on John’s Eve. She asked if we would like to live with her and of course there was only one answer to that but she gripped my arm tight and said I was to say nothing to Greta or the Old Lady. Keep your powder dry at all costs, said she. When we left, the St John’s fires were burning, there was a strong smell of turf and I had a hold of Greta’s arm.
We took a detour to avoid the tinker’s camp although we heard scuffling in the ditch and we didn’t know if it was them or an animal. When we turned into the yard, the Ould Fella was standing in the gateway, in his turned-down wellingtons smoking a fag with his blue chin stuck out, Well, I know where ye were, he said. Mrs Savage gave us Double Centres, Greta said. Oh I’m sure she gave ye Double Centres, have ye figured out that she’s a witch yet? He took a pitchfork and walked away up the yard, big shadows bouncing around him as Blackie ran into Greta’s arms.
Attracta had left a smell of Mr Sheen and “umpteen things clean” after her, the kitchen window shining with stars like a planetarium. Blackie was thrown across the length of the table groaning and stretching her legs while Greta was scratching her ears. I ran for the stairs, calling the Old Lady but there was no answer only a blast of heat when I shoved open the door. He’d her fire lighting and she was snoring. Did he give her the Mogadon? I’ll never know because we weren’t talking at that stage. I rattled the bottle of pills and then Greta came behind me and rattled them too and I said, For f**k’s sake, do you have to copy everything I do?
I tried to close the Old Lady’s mouth but I couldn’t. And when we came out of her room, we couldn’t find Blackie to take to bed with us so Greta got a pain in her stomach. I made us two glasses of Andrews Liver Salts. Greta slept but then I had a pain in my stomach. And Blackie was still missing in the morning. Greta went up and down the yard calling. Then Attracta came out hitting the yellow tin tray calling, Blackie, Blackie. And since when did you ever care about Blackie? asked Greta. When I tried to go upstairs to say goodbye to the Old Lady, the Ould Fella was in my way, stamping down the corner of the lino where it curled up on the first step. He said not to go up, to let her sleep on.
A bolt went through me when I heard the knock on the door during Catechism. How will the bodies of the damned rise? The bodies of the damned will not rise glorious, but they will be immortal, to share in the everlasting punishment of the soul.
It was Mrs Savage who came for us. She didn’t have to tell me that it was the Big Sleep for the Old Lady. Her blue eyes watered behind her pink glasses, her silver crown to one side like a mark of respect.
We couldn’t eat her tinned salmon sandwiches although Greta drank a load of Lucozade, fizzing loudly into the glass every time Mrs Savage poured. The only other sound was from Jacky who had something stuck between the pads of his foot, he kept gnawing at it.
Mrs Savage looked several times, pushing the pads apart until he roared but she found nothing. I couldn’t drink, even liquid stuck in my guilty throat. I hammered into the Sour Grapes gum until my jaw locked completely at half past eight.
Our bedroom was blue with flowery curtains of thin material. Greta said it was calico what the girls used for sewing in school. It let the light in so we could see the roses from the arch dancing on their stems and all the flowers on the material stood out, travelling in the air. Mrs. Savage said all we had to say was we were on holidays and then we’d never go back. She picked up Greta like she was a baby and Jacky cried out again, this time with the jealousy.
When the Ould Fella brought Blackie to us, his hands were covered in scratches. He said she’d been lying on the stone hearth in the Old Lady’s room soaking up the heat on St John’s night and got locked into the room. He whispered did I not think it was the sign of a very unhealthy cat to be thrown down like that by a fire when any strong-blooded creature would be roaming the field of a summer’s night? I shook as he spoke, remembering him taking off up the yard and the bouncing shadow of his pitchfork. Greta flung herself on the cat, sobbing and crying, I love you, I love you, I love you! And Blackie’s eyes were like black flying saucers as she struggled to get free.
Martina Evans is a writer and poet; her latest collection is The Windows of Graceland: New and Selected Poems (Carcanet). Jane Webster teaches illustration at Kingston University in England. janewebsterillustration.com