August Competition Winner

The Rainy Day

Martin Keaveney

The teenage girl was studiously typing on her mobile phone when the door of the shop opened and Jackie entered. He was tall, though age had stooped him. His hat tipped the top of the door frame. He wore a long black coat, with remnants of sheep nuts still clinging to it.

Beneath were the green Wellingtons that custodians of the land favoured in these parts. Around his neck, as always, was the customary shirt and tie. In bygone years it had been traditional for a man with the stature of land to dress formally, as a respected member of the community.

Jackie had large hands, big workmanlike tools. In his younger days he had been known as `Shovels`. In contrast, his eyes were elegant, a sea green, piercing, and bright. His teeth were yellow and cracked, the survivors of seven decades. He walked up to the counter, the teenager putting away her phone.

“Ham,” he said bluntly, in a crackled whispered voice.

“Pound, is it Jackie?” the girl said motioning to the delicatessen section.

A popular music station played in the background as the girl ran the gammon through the automatic slicer. He rang his hands together. He had been soaked in the heavy showers at eight this morning. He shivered now in the heat of the shop.

Steam was already rising from his sodden jacket.

“Five fifty.”

Jackie shuddered, as if he had heard a desperate piece of news. He shuffled in his pockets, and produced a small black purse. It was frayed at the edges and was losing its colour around the corners. He took out a large number of coins, mostly coppers and poured them onto the counter. The girl patiently counted them out before saying; “Four forty seven. I can’t take these,” while pointing at a couple of old two pence pieces.

Jackie searched his pockets. Another euro coin appeared.

“Thanks Jackie,” she smiled, handing him the brown paper package.

A muffled “Aye,”was the response, before Jackie turned and left the shop.

He stepped out; there was a cold chill in the air and a stiff breeze. He carefully placed the ham package into the basket of his black bicycle.  He set off, in that effortless stepping motion that a man of years cycling can master so well.

His house was up a small boreen, only a few hundred yards from the village shop. It was a bungalow built in the forties, when it had been painted a cream and brown, and this was never updated.

It had two bay windows at the front. One pane had been smashed many years ago by village youngsters who were since married and had children of their own. Jackie had placed a sheet of old plywood in it. The old slates were holding on, some had fallen away over the years. The house had been built by their parents. It had been quite majestic at the time. Nevertheless, their mother had drummed into them from an early age the importance of minding their money. No one knew when famine times would return, he well remembered her saying. They were not to be careless with their income; they were to invest it wisely. This, in their part of the world, translated into land and sheep and, over the years, the brothers had kept adding to their holding. The garden was overgrown; old ornaments placed there, generations ago, had somehow maintained their position.

These maintenance issues mattered little to Jackie.  It was his stock that concerned him. He would die for his sheep. They were his obsession, they were his life. They ate and lived better than he did. Spread out all over the village and beyond were five hundred acres of Jackie’s, where six hundred sheep and their lambs grazed. His flock were all that mattered to him.

He pushed the back door in, the ragged edges of the peeling boards scraping the chipped concrete. Things were different since Tommy passed away.

Jackie’s younger brother had been his only companion since their mother had died a lifetime ago. A year younger, he had been the liveliest of the pair. Tommy had wanted to get a couple of sheep dogs and a jeep, as the brothers reached advancing years.

Jackie was having none of it.

“What was good enough for our father is good enough for us,” he had retorted proudly. Tommy had argued their father had dropped dead at the age of forty-nine, reputedly from over working.

Jackie would only curse and stare into the fire.

Anger growing, Tommy would head down to the local. He only went out for the occasional pint and smoke of a pipe, but that was more than his brother. Jackie had no vice, he had no luxury. His life was his sheep.  As he was the oldest, he was the boss. He wouldn’t agree to any of Tommy’s proposals and so they had gone on, cycling around their holding, loading their carrier baskets with sheep nuts and strapped-on bales of hay. Meanwhile, the neighbours took advantage of cheap credit, roaring up and down the village in their high powered jeeps and tractors, with music blaring from local radio stations. Their bellies bloated with t-bone steaks and pints of beer.

The brothers spent most evenings sitting in the darkness staring into the fire. On Saturday nights, they cycled to Mass; rarely together, it was often remarked on by the locals. “Jackie won’t wait for Tommy,” people would laugh. In the dark winter nights, the two dim lights of their bicycles could often be seen half a mile apart.

Jackie had refused the electricity connection, central heating, and the phone was a non-necessity. They never cooked, opting for only bread and ham, three hundred and sixty five days a year.

Jackie stepped into the old kitchen leaving the brown package on the long wooden table. The fire in the range was still smouldering. The smell of turf smoke drifted around the damp air. He opened the heavy black lid and tossed a few sods in.

The copper kettle, the bottom half black from years on the hotplate, was steaming away. He began the routine of tea-making.

As he sat on the armchair munching slowly, he reflected on the morning’s herding. The field beside McHugh’s required further fencing. The wooden gate across from O`Reilly`s had become rickety, it needed repairs.

As he considered which of these tasks were the most pressing, the pain in his chest struck again as it had some weeks back. He sat up quickly in the chair and put down the bread. He rubbed his ribcage slowly. He had visited the Doctor about it, medication had been prescribed.

It passed as quickly as it came and he sat back again in the chair. He looked across at Tommy’s seat, vacant now for many months.

For a while, he had used it to hold an extra bucket of turf, but he later thought maybe that was disrespectful. There wasn’t much life here, it occurred to him, sitting with only his thoughts for company.

He wondered about the recurring pain.  He had been told to slow down. Jackie had smiled for the first time in months when the Doctor had suggested he might consider selling some of the land or at the very least rent it. “Take it easy, Jackie,” he had looked at Jackie squarely. “Let someone else do the hard work for a change.” Such a notion. This was his farm; no one else would be let in, interfering. He had worked it and made money from it over the years. Yes, he had been frugal. He could comprehend no other way of doing things.

A terrifying possibility entered his mind. If his time was soon up, everything would be left here, free for anyone to plunder. He wasn’t sure how many pound notes or euros as they called them nowadays that he had stuffed in various crevices in the house. It had been a calamity when the money changed. For the second time.

Himself and Tommy had been days scouring the place for the old pound notes they had carefully hoarded away. They found some they had missed the last time in `71, bundles of old money. There had been a lot of arguments in the bank over them.

He would have to take action. He drained his mug and got up off the chair.

Frantically, he started to ransack the kitchen, emptying pots and buckets, boxes and biscuit tins. He opened presses and pulled out old clothes which were wrapped around bundles of notes. He took a scissors from the press and clipped open a cushion from where he plucked a large wad. Gradually, a haphazard pyramid of brown fifty euro notes developed on the old table. Eyeing it fervently, Jackie went into the room he slept in, and some minutes later returned with another armful.

He went into Tommy’s room and there was more of the same. He had never searched for Tommy’s money before. It had never been necessary, but he knew where his brother would hide it. The same places he would choose. His face vaguely hinted satisfaction as it became apparent Tommy’s pile was considerably smaller than his.

He counted it, unfolding each dusty bundle, stacking the money in small piles about the place. His mind still sharp for figures, he worked quickly. There was no time to waste.

He stood, leaning on the table, surveying his fortune at the end, counting it down to the last euro cent. It was on the far side of half a million in hard currency.

His mother had left a lot of money hidden in the house when she died. They had changed most of it in `71. They had found it quite difficult to get out of the bank with it, what with Managers trying to tempt them into various investments.

Nowadays, Jackie was well known to them. No one bothered him now when he appeared at the branch carrying a bundle of headage cheques which required immediate encashment.

There had been decades of admittedly mediocre years in sheep farming, but always profitable.  Spending little all the time, it had gathered to this princely sum.

Jackie regarded it for a few moments. The first thought that entered his head was how many ewes you could buy with that. Then he was angry they hadn’t known the extent of their resources. They could have bought more land when it was cheap.

A milder form of the pain asserted itself and Jackie felt a little short of breath. He coughed deeply. When it passed, he knew it was time to get the money to the bank. The youths wouldn’t get at it in there, if he was indeed on the way out. He turned and went into the room .Under the bed; he dragged out a large black carrier bag that was sometimes used for sheep meal. He hurriedly packed the bag with the crumpled piles of notes.

Outside the clouds had gathered. The sky was darker. It started to rain. Jackie looked out his front window. It wouldn’t be appropriate to go into a bank dripping with water, even if you were making a substantial lodgement. He went into his room again and took out his Sunday shirt, tie and jacket. There was an alcove at the door of the bank where he could change.

The bag tied tightly, he cycled off, down the boreen, and turned onto the road. The town was four miles away.

The rain continued to spill down. It splashed Jackie’s eyes, soaked his large old hands as they gripped the grey rubber handlebars. At about the halfway point, he felt something was wrong, he was losing balance. He looked at the front wheel. The tyre was punctured.

“God blast,” he said quietly.  Aggravated; he felt another minor pain in his chest. He tossed the bicycle up against the trunk of a tree. He swung the bag onto his back and set off walking.

Paddy Begley loved traditional music and always played it loudly in his jeep.

He was a heavy man with a cherry face and short stubby hands which gripped the bottom of the wheel. The rain was so heavy he strained his eyes to see; at first he thought it was a dead animal. As he got nearer he realised it was a man, sprawled on the ground. He pulled up at the side of the road, and got out. The man’s hat had fallen off; he was soaked from the rain. His face was turned to the sky. Paddy recognised Jackie Maloney, his face much paler than usual. Those green eyes stared at the sky, seeing nothing.

In the local weeks later, Begley recalled how he had found the hard man Jackie Maloney meet his end on the ground outside their local town. .

“Aul` Jackie loved hardship,” he said.

“All that land and sheep and nothing but a shack and ham sandwiches to show for it. Not even a radio.”

“I wonder where he was going,” his companion replied.

“I don’t know,”Begley swilled his pint of beer, his voice creeping into a laugh. “But in the ditch beside was a bag with his Sunday clothes tossed inside. Maybe he was headed for the funeral home, making it easy for the undertaker!”