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Gerry McCullough
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Short Stories: Giving Up

This story received commended status in the Seán O’Faolain Short Story Competition, (Munster Literature Centre, Cork), September 2009.

The afternoon sun blazed through the front room window.

I moved forward, and pulled the heavy curtain halfway across.

June. A beautiful day.

I used to love days like these.

Sitting out in the sun, on Portstewart beach, with the kids playing happily round us, and Kathy stretched out in her bathing costume, drying out after her quick dip.

Nearly twenty years ago.

Somehow, it wasn’t the same, now.

The kids had grown up and gone, Kevin to Australia, Maggie (I must remember to call her Margaret) to Scotland, wee Dominic to Belfast. He was the nearest, but somehow I seemed to see less of him than any of the others.

The sun was still blinding me.

I twitched the curtain farther over, irritation in all my movements.

Instead of sitting down to watch the rest of the racing, I found myself gravitating to the kitchen, to the wall cupboard.

The bottle was empty.

I couldn’t remember finishing it, but I suppose it wasn’t the mice.

Now the struggle.

To buy more. Or to have the sense to cut back a bit.

It didn’t take all that long.

I sighed, patted my pocket to check that my wallet was still there where it should be, opened the front door.

I had the key in my pocket as usual.

Okay.

The off license was about a half mile walk.

Good for me, the walk, wasn’t it? Better to be out taking exercise than sitting in the house all day.

Yes, of course.

The giro had come in the other day, so no problem there.

By habit, I had changed into my working boots before leaving the house, though why, I couldn’t have told you. It was several years now since I’d needed them for working, since I’d been turfed out of my job.

I struck out across the grass behind my house. It was bright with daisies and buttercups, lit up by the sunshine, like sweet hopes for the future.

My feet in the thick working boots crushed them down as I walked.

Never saw any clover, these days. White and purple, there should be. Purple vetch, as well.

Halfway across the stretch of grass was the beginning of the pile for the bonfire. The kids started collecting early. When I was a youngster, they didn’t start until July.

There were piles of good pallets, like they would use on the building sites. How they got hold of them, I didn’t know. Nicked them, likely. Valuable stuff, not just rubbish for a bonfire.

I knew all about pallets. Spent most of my working life shifting them about with the fork-lift.

Until I lost my license, and the job with it.

Maybe if I hadn’t had that fight with the foreman, they might have given me some labouring work.

But he was a right git, deserved all the names I’d called him.

Ended up punching him in the face.

I grinned at the memory. Then wondered what was so funny about getting myself fired out of work.

A long time ago, now.

Nothing to do with me, if the kids nicked the pallets. Served the bosses right.

The off license was open.

"Morning, Hughie."

"Morning, Charlie."

The youngster behind the counter smiled at me. I counted him as a friend. He was always cheerful, happy to see me, I thought.

Of course, I was a pretty regular customer. He would need to look pleased.

I dismissed the thought.

"A bottle of your cheapest, Charlie," I said.

"Whiskey, right? No problem, Hughie."

He took the tenner, winked at me, and got the change.

"Beautiful weather we’re having, Hughie. Reminds you of when you were my age, I bet? Right, Dad?"

"Yeah."

"So you’ve told me many a time."

I wasn’t entirely sure how to take Charlie sometimes.

I grabbed the plastic bag and headed home again across the grass.

It was my evening for calling with Niall O’Hanlon and going to the Horseshoe Arms for a quick pint.

Niall gave me a funny look when he came to the door.

"Are you all right, Hughie?"

"Never better, Niall."

I had tripped slightly over the step, but nobody would have noticed.

"Thing is, Hughie, I’ve got a friend here with me …"

"Sure, bring him along, Niall!" I said cheerfully. "The more the merrier, right?"

"It’s not a him, it’s a her," Niall said. He seemed a bit annoyed.

A good looking wee red-haired woman appeared behind him in the doorway.

"What’s up, Niall?"

Niall turned round and whispered to her.

Although I couldn’t hear what he was saying, I heard her answer clear enough.

"Sure, there’s no problem. We’ll all go down the pub for a round or two. No need to stay late, eh?"

I saw her give Niall’s arm a squeeze. Then he turned round and gave me a grin.

"Fair enough, Hughie. We’ll all go. But Bridie and me won’t be staying late, right?"

We headed off down the road.

The pub was in walking distance. Just as well. Neither Niall nor me had a license now.

There was noise and music coming from the open door. It was going to be a good evening.

I took a good sideways look at this Bridie.

Quite a look of my Kathy, she had. Small, neat, cheerful, and the red hair. The way Kathy had looked, just before she ran off with her big American.

Four years ago, it must be. Just after wee Dominic moved up to Belfast.

I wondered suddenly if she’d been meaning to go for years. Just waited till the wee one had moved out and set up his own life.

It was a hard thought.

I turned my mind from it.

"What’ll you have, Bridie?" I asked. "Half pint? And a pint for you, Niall, my old mate?"

I went off to the bar. Better get a whiskey for myself. Didn’t do to change your tipple halfway. Best make it a treble, in fact.

I could feel Bridie’s eyes on my back.

She fancied me, I could tell.

Sure, Niall was a good lad, but not one to get far with the women. He was my best friend, these days, I supposed.

Ever since that row with Peter McBride, a year or two ago.

Peter.

We’d been best mates since primary school.

What was it we’d fought about?

I couldn’t even remember.

Maybe I could give him a ring sometime. See if we could make it up.

Meanwhile, there was Niall.

I wouldn’t want to say anything against Niall. But, sure, he’d never had the gift of the gab, like me. And as for his looks, he was an ugly big critter, when all was said and done. Not one that the women would fancy.

I was coming up to fifty, okay, but I still had the pull.

I was in good form, that night, if I say it myself.

The two or three whiskeys in the afternoon had helped me. Or maybe it was four or five. Hard to keep track, sometimes.

"Well, Bridie," I said jovially, "it’s not often I meet such a good-looking woman as yourself!"

She smiled.

Niall didn’t seem so pleased, but he was always a bit of a sour one, come to think of it.

I ignored him, and went on talking to Bridie.

After a while, I got her up to dance.

She was a warm, cuddly bit of an armful. I pressed up close to her, enjoying myself.

Then Niall tapped me on the shoulder.

"My turn, Hughie."

I was in two minds about letting him away with it. I was sure Bridie didn’t want to stop. But, there, another fight mightn’t be the best idea.

I went to sit down.

The room was swimming round a bit.

The heat, maybe, and the loud music.

Bridie and Niall came back to the table, and I pulled myself together.

I started to tell funny stories. For once I found myself remembering them. Some of them were a bit blue, but I didn’t think Bridie was the type to mind.

I edged closer to her along the seat, and after a while I put my hand on her knee, under the table, right, so Niall wouldn’t see. I gave her a wee squeeze.

Then Niall got her up to dance again.

I sat on.

After a while, things began to get blurred. The room seemed brighter, but farther away. It seemed to me that they had come back, and Bridie sat up close to me, put her arms round me, and began to kiss me. Her hands were all over me. She put her leg over my thigh, twisting round to face me, rubbing herself against me. I responded eagerly.

"Ah, Kathy, baby," I muttered. Which one was it? It seemed as if it was both of them.

Someone was shaking my shoulder.

I swam up out of my dream, and heard voices in the distance.

Then they got more distinct.

"I’m sorry, Bridie." It was Niall’s voice. "Sorry for letting you in for this. He used to be a decent mate."

Then Bridie’s voice. "Sure, never worry, Niall, love. Dear help him, he’s nothing to take seriously. Just a joke, so he is, nothing to worry about."

I noticed that my head was on the table, resting on my arms.

I don’t remember getting home, to tell you the truth. Niall must have helped me.

One thing I do remember, though.

When we came out of the pub, there were people singing on the far side of the road. I wanted to stop and listen, but there was a drag on both my arms, and I went with it.

"What a friend we have in Jesus," they were singing.

I remembered it from years ago. Kathy picked it to sing at our wedding.

There was something urging me to stop, to listen. But the hands on my arm were forcing me to totter on. There was no strength in me to resist them.

Next morning, when I woke up, I was lying on my sofa.

I didn’t feel too good.

Kathy’s chiming clock, striking, told me it was afternoon already.

I lay about until tea-time, then I made myself some baked beans on toast, and had a whiskey or two. After that I felt better.

I watched some television, had a few more drinks.

It helped me to forget the things I had heard when I came up out of my dream.

Which had been the dream, and which the reality? Bridie couldn’t have really said those things, could she?

Bridie had liked me, I was sure of it.

So why would she say what she had said?

A joke. I was just a joke.

I must have dreamt it.

It would have been near half-ten when the phone rang.

I got to it just in time, tripping over the carpet where there was a bit of a rip, as I staggered over to the handset.

"Yeah?"

"Dad? Is that you?"

"Maggie? Is it yourself?"

"What? What? Dad, I can’t make you out. Is that you?"

I pulled myself together.

"It’s me, Maggie."

"Oh, Dad, I need help. I need someone to talk to!"

"I’m here, Maggie."

"It’s wee Patrick, Dad. They say he’s got leukaemia, Dad. Oh, Dad, what am I going to do? Mark and me are both so miserable. I need someone to talk to."

I couldn’t believe it. Wee Patrick, my only grandchild. What could I say to help her? I didn’t know.

I began to talk feverishly.

"Maggie, it’ll be all right. The doctors can do bloody miracles these days. If they’ve got it in time, they can make him better. I was watching a programme on TV the other night about it. Don’t be crying, lass. Your Dad’s here. I love you, wee Maggie…."

"What? What? Dad, I can’t make you out. You’re mumbling. What did you say?"

"Maggie, I love you… and I love wee Patrick…"

"Dad, you’ve been drinking!" Her voice sharpened with anger.

"Just a bit, girl."

"I can’t make out a word you’re saying. Oh, Dad, can’t you get a grip on yourself!"

"Maggie, I didn’t mean to…"

Her voice grew even sharper. "It’s Margaret. Not Maggie. Margaret."

"Sorry, Maggie."

"You’re useless, Dad. I needed you tonight, Dad. But you’re no good. Just useless."

The phone was slammed down at the other end.

I staggered back to the sofa.

It seemed as if there was nothing I could do. Nothing to help.

Next morning my head was sore.

I was still lying on the sofa. Hadn’t made it to bed, last night.

What was I to do?

I didn’t want to drink. Hair of the dog - yuk!

The idea revolted me.

Memories kept coming back.

Young Charlie laughing at me up his sleeve.

Niall looking angry. I suppose he didn’t like the way I was getting off with his girl. Another friend on the way to being lost, was it?

Bridie calling me a joke.

But over and above all these, there was Maggie.

Maggie turning to me in need.

Looking for support in trouble.

And me, not even able to speak to her coherently. Trying to help. And failing.

Of all my children, Maggie had always been the closest to me, maybe because she was a girl. I remembered her supporting me more than once when Kathy had been laying into me for the drinking.

What had I done?

Had I lost her for good?

And wee Patrick. What could I do to help him?

The song came back to me from last night.

"What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear….."

I stood up.

Made it into the kitchen.

Took the remains of the whiskey bottle from the cupboard, and poured it down the sink.

I felt better.

The day wore on.

About the middle of the afternoon, I thought I would phone Peter McBride.

"Are you there, Peter?"

"Yes, who is it?"

"It’s me, Peter. Hughie O’Donnell."

I could hear Peter at the other end draw his breath in sharply.

"What do you want?"

"Well, Peter…"

"What?"

"I just thought…. You and me’s been pals for a long time, Peter. It’s a shame we never see each other these days…."

"Hughie, you know fine why we don’t see each other. After that night, I told you I never wanted to have anything to do with you again!"

"Ah, Peter, if I spoke out of turn, I can only say I’m sorry…."

"Hughie, I put up with you and put up with you for long enough, but it was just too much in the end. After the things you said about me that night, I reckoned we’d be better apart. It was you raising your fist to me that finally did it, you know that rightly! I walked out before I ended up beating the hell out of you! Spoke out of turn, did you? That’s one way of putting it. Ah, don’t remind me! It’s the drink does it, Hughie. Are you still drinking?"

I hesitated.

Do your friends despise, forsake you….?

"Maybe not, Peter. I’m thinking about it."

"Well, when you’re doing more than think about it, you can ring me. Till then, I don’t want to hear from you."

Another phone slammed down.

It was a glorious day. The sun was blazing in through the window again.

I headed for the kitchen. After the way Peter had spoken to me, I really needed a drink.

It was only when I reached the cupboard that I remembered pouring the remains of the bottle down the sink.

Great.

Okay, wait, it had been the right decision.

If it wasn’t there, I couldn’t drink it.

I sat down again in front of the television, but after a few minutes I got up and began to wander round the room.

I couldn’t seem to settle.

I would be better out in the fresh air, I thought.

Maybe a short walk would be good for me.

But not to the off license, right? No sense in that.

Still and all, what harm did the occasional drink do, if it wasn’t a matter of overdoing it?

Maybe if I just strolled up that direction, and made my mind up when I got there?

No harm in having a bottle available.

I didn’t need to go overboard with it.

I could be a moderate drinker, for sure, like most people, if I just put my mind to it.

It was the overdoing it that was the problem.

I patted my pocket to make sure that my wallet was there.

My key was in my pocket as usual.

I set out across the grass behind my house. It was bright with buttercups and daisies, lit up by the sun, like sweet hopes for the future.

My feet, in the heavy working boots, no longer any use to me, but still worn out of habit, crushed the flowers down as I went on walking.


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