|Tales of The Great
The Great Unwashed depends on daytime
custom to survive. Big-spending youths on stag or hen nights are few and
far between, and the clientele holds no benevolent lottery-winners or locals-made-good.
The folk who pay the bills are the old ones who use the pub as a second
For the most part the regulars are
men, and for the most part they are poor. But they move in numbers, and
between them are capable of consuming impressive amounts of drink.
There is a myth which holds that
the aged are privy to some little-known wisdom. The nostalgic and naive
can sometimes be seen plying the old-timers with drink in the hope that
this may part them from some pearly advice. It is never forthcoming, or
else takes the form of such banalities as could be read in any daily paper's
horoscope. We once had a student from one of the city's leafier suburbs
who came in with a tape-recorder and a note-pad. He claimed to be a social
anthropology student, and was collecting oral history for his project.
He pestered one and all for a full afternoon, bought drink for anyone who
could tell him a story, but made the mistake of asking Sippy Pat for her
recollections of the war. Pat wasn't born until the mid-fifties, so was
none too pleased. She quietly hailed her cousin who, with a couple of friends,
escorted the tiddly historian to the lane by the car-park where any remaining
curiosity was kicked out of him.
Of course the old ones do have their
stories, but they keep them close and quiet. What stories they have that
would interest others don't always involve the teller as hero, and so many
of the best come from others, second and third hand.
I can tell you about Sammy the Biter,
who was well into his sixties when he decided that he wanted to be taller
than the five foot two nature had allowed him. He purchased, by mail-order,
a special pair of shoes which would make him three inches taller. I recall
the dreich Autumn day when he came in, soaked and shifty, and much taller
than he should be.
What's happened to you Sammy?
I asked, and he put a forefinger to lip and leaned closer.
It's the special shoes. It's
a miracle. Just like it said in the ad so it is, three inches on you and
no-one will notice anything untowards at all.
The astonishment on the faces of
those seated proved that the improvement had been noted, and had inspired
a stunned silence.
How can they not notice Sammy?
I whispered, you're too tall now.
Sammy made for the toilet in slow,
careful steps. The shoes, for everyone was now looking at them, seemed
unusually short, almost square, and the movement of Sammy's legs suggested
he was walking on tippy-toes, causing terrible distortion of his upper
legs and hips. It occurred to me that perhaps he had become a devil, and
the black shinies contained not feet, but cloven horntrotters. Sammy emerged
from the toilet, went sadly home, and the shoes have never been seen since.
John the Midden has a good stock
of fighting tales, but in all he is cast as the victor. They are mostly
true it seems, but he omits his few losses which are of far more interest
to those of us who are less than enamored with the big fellow. His ignominious
hammering at the hands of tiny Finny MacAteer and Pakky, at the end of
which he was taken under police escort to the hospital with a big aubergine
stuck in his throat, is the stuff of local legend. But that's another one
Personally, I don't care to listen
to too much talk from the old ones. I find that few can be honest about
their own failings and mistakes, are too ready to blame spouses or offspring
for their own weaknesses, and there is a sizable minority who have no stories
at all, but are simply reaching the end of their span as they lived it,
in total boredom, only slower than before.
But there was one whose story stuck
with me, and has for thirty years or more.
Guilt keeps the memory of Poppy
Laggan alive. My guilt. He had been a regular as long as Da could remember
at the time I met him. I was still young then, and with my own team of
children just a couple of decades behind me, I was full of life and wanted
more. I absorbed stories and characters, sure that the remainder of my
span would be taken up with visiting fantastic places when I'd made my
fortune, telling my sons and daughters about all the world-wide wonders
awaiting them, becoming then a grandfather, a contented slipper-bound sage
smoking exotic tobaccos and surrounded by enigmatic souvenirs.
Poppy Laggan was not remarkable
to look at. Fifty-something, prematurely gray like all his four older brothers,
much smaller than the others. The runt I suppose. He would come in on the
way back from his job at the printing works, have two pints of stout and
a glass of red-eye, then head home for his dinner. Very occasionally he
would come in of a Saturday evening with his brother Sean, but even then
he would hold his silence, content to let the older man speak. Poppy was
seldom obvious in his drunkenness, could hold his own with the others.
He never gambled, and had an almost phobic aversion to horses and any talk
of them. But he was well-liked by all.
It was a Thursday night when he
came in at his appointed time, and he gave no indication that anything
was amiss. I hadn't noticed he was wearing a collared white shirt, and
it was only when he removed the black tie from beneath the scarf that I
realised he must have been to a funeral. I didn't dare to enquire, and
left him in peace. The radio was on that night, and the place was busy,
listening to some European game whose participants and outcome have escaped
When we closed, Da moved to the
end of the bar and sat with Poppy. They didn't say much, but I could tell
something was up. I cleared out the cellar and settled the cash, settled
the optics and poured them another. They had moved to the snug below the
gas mantle. Da beckoned me over.
Poppy was worse than I'd ever seen
him, but for all he poured in the drink it seemed not to worsen his state.
His eyes, red and tired, would close for several seconds, then he would
shake himself awake, drink more, and mumble something to Da. I could see
Da was more than worried - he was frightened. I got more drinks. And more.
And Poppy's story slowly came out.
Sean had died. Heart attack. The
first one, and a big one, it had finished him at fifty-eight. Poppy had
been the closest to him.
See, thing is, I know what's
happening now, said Poppy, and Da nodded and I watched.
It's alright, said Da.
Ma told me from early I had
a gift, that I had the sight and all that. It's like being locked in the
picture-house, not knowing what's coming on. I can't stop it. Closing my
eyes makes it clearer, opening them just makes it fade.
I thought I caught a movement, Da
making a tiny sign of the cross with his forefinger.
How's the difference 'tween
a curse and a gift, carried on Poppy, when you get to see them things no-one
should see? Sean's back again now. I don't know if it's behind or ahead,
and that's no matter. I don't even know where. But he's back in it again
when he thought he must've been out. He was happy being out, I know that
Poppy drank deep and long again,
eyes closed. Da lit their cigarettes.
There's a to-do before he's
born, a ceremony on the shoreline. It's a clear sky and cold as hell, and
the stars have something to do with it. It's the women in charge, the men
are settled about the fire and they bring him in with the music and animals
on leads, kids dancing about. What a terrible smell of fish all about there
is. It's happy, and he's lifted up and there's a cheering, then silence.
They look like us these folk, just the same. But it's not his Ma that's
holding him. She's dead. A figure comes out from the dunes, all covered
with hairy things and not a face on it you can see, and it's chanting over
and over and the cheering gets back up and there's an almighty party. He
soon knows he's special. Other weans get taken out on the boats to fish,
or else help their mammies about the house. There's always work to be done.
But not for Sean. Not that that's his name now you understand. I can't
say his name. I can hear it, but it makes no sense. But it means The Deer
or The Stag or something like that. It's a special name. He does as he
pleases. If he wants to eat when the others are working, he eats. If he
chooses to sleep all day, so be it. There is never an angry word against
him, no child dares near him. Angry dogs get their tails between their
legs when they smell him coming. He has a fight with a simple lad from
a nearby village. Maybe they're about ten or eleven. The bigger lad gives
him a fair old thumping and Sean goes back to his village with bruises
and burst lips. There's a real to-do over it. The women all get together
and stroke his hair and make him lie down and give him special mixtures
and foul drinks, even though he's fine and just wants to get back out and
about. The men come in that evening and there are angry shouts. Next day,
before the sun, the men leave with weapons clanging, and return before
mid-day with the head of the boy impaled on a lance. It is taken to the
shore. There is another ritual, quiet and serious. The head is left atop
the lance, and even when the birds have stripped it clean it stays. Sean
has his own house, deep-set in the low flat stone, and everything he needs.
Every woman in the village is his mother and sister, every man his father
and brother. But he has no family. Everyone is his friend but he never
has a visitor at his comfortable home. He takes to wandering further and
further from the village, climbing the cliffs, hunting alone for the men
will not allow him to join them on land or sea, and he meets travellers
who are happy to talk until they find out who he is. He has no sense of
being famous or fearsome, but it seems that he is. He grows tall and broad.
The girls start to gather within view of his home. He is in the angry years,
and takes it out on his own. He fights with anyone, daring them to fight
properly, though he knows they will always go down eventually. He takes
a girl back one night, and the following day there is a lot of talk but
nothing done. Her parents smile and allow her to bring him some food. He
takes another girl, and another. No harm comes to him. The men let him
come out on the boats, the great low long boats, and he retches and heaves
for days on end. He feels like life has started for him with this voyaging,
albeit little more than bartering trips across the bay. And then it all
comes so fast. I don't know how old he is, but not much over twenty. A
rider comes and talks to the village men and right away you can see there's
something up. The women start crying, the children start running about,
fighting each other. They're going to war it seems. Sean's watching from
his house. He feels fear now. First time. Real fear. A great ship arrives
the next day, and together with their own smaller ship they prepare. Food
salted, kegs of beer, weapons greased and wrapped against the brine, furs
piled high in the wide base of the ship. They leave at daybreak. The women
and children watch from the shore as the ships move away and head South.
Some of the older children run alongside the clifftops and wave and watch
and wave until they cannot be seen. The voyage is unlike anything Sean
could have imagined. He had heard the men talk of high seas and monsters,
but nothing had prepared him for such terror. He cannot eat, cannot sleep.
He alone takes no shift at the oars. After weeks, they beach at midnight
on moonlit sand. The land they have found is low and quiet, and not a tree
to be seen. The sea washes calm, carries a warm wind from the West. Sean
in half-sleep, the men discuss the attack. The chiefs debate long into
the night, consulting hide-etched maps. Tonight is their last before the
assault. The last of the beer is consumed, the beef soaked and eaten. The
priests of all the villages represented come together and invoke whoever's
favour. The music is muted and serious, but grows stronger and faster as
the night goes on. With the light at its weakest, for it never really gets
dark now in the Summer, the priests become frenzied. Sean joins the others
in the dance about the fire but he is roughly subdued, made to spectate
from the centre. Then the dance stops. The prayers continue as the men
fall upon him, and they pull at his hair and face, two men to each limb,
they rip him apart. His being alive seems to be important. He screams.
But with no mouth and no tongue there is no sound. He can see tears in
the eyes of some, but others are laughing and frothing. Leathered fingers
pop his eyeballs, and he hears the excitement mount as one of the priests
takes a small knife to Sean's belly and slices space enough to get a hand
in. Out with his guts and heart, but it's something else they want. Maybe
his liver. Whatever, the warm meat is pulled from him, hacked off and raised.
Sean listens, dying. The meat is squeezed, its juice added to the bucket
which the men will drain as their last and most important protection. Sean
dies again, and the last faces in his mind's eye are those of the only
folk he'd ever known and loved, berserk with fear and rage.
It's not for me to say if Poppy
was simply drunk and gibbering. It doesn't matter if his story was true
or not, and no-one can ever say it was or wasn't, except maybe Sean. What
matters is that I, in my excitement and stupidity, repeated the story to
the others the next day. Poppy is a seer, I told them. He has the gift,
I said. Da cracked up when he heard I'd been talking, but it was too late.
Poppy was forced to wander even
further afield in search of a pub where he would not be pestered for racing
forecasts and bombarded with selfish medical enquiries. People would go
to his door at all times of the day and night, and there was even talk
of some film crew wanting to make a documentary with him in it. He eventually
moved away, and none of us even know if he's still alive.
Sometimes I wonder if he sees his
own next life, or had seen mine, and then try to imagine what he may have
seen. And then I see my own life for myself, and wonder what that means
at all. Not as exciting as Sean The Stag's, that's for sure. Then I look
about here of a daytime, at the shaky old crumblers who pay my bills and
my wages, and I wonder whether I'd rather my guts torn from me at the peak
of an adventure, or be left to fossilise in peace. And I truly don't know.