"Magpies" received an honourable mention in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition.
His visitors have left now. Alone again, Mr Gordon, - once upon a time the man of the house, - sits in a wheelchair by the bed in his room, staring across the bed-spread and out the window. It’s a fine afternoon, but they’ve been through all that, and that’s not what he’s thinking. He’d asked his visitors to go out and close the garage door, as usual after a certain amount of visiting time had elapsed, and, as usual, they’d said that staff would close it when they were doing their rounds in a few minutes. “I’ll get Jim to close it, so, if ye won’t do it,” he’d continued, as usual, and that, as usual, was the end of it. “How are you today, Dad?” they would ask on arrival. “You’re looking well.” “Oh, I don’t know if I am or not,” he’d reply. “Me stummick is at me agin.” “Oh.” “I can’t hold annyting down, don’t you know?” “Yes, Dad, I know what you mean.” An’ I have constipation as well . . . An’ me back . . . I can’t stand up today at all.” They’d perhaps look at each other then, conscious that he hadn’t been able to stand up for at least a decade. They’d talk a bit more about his health, and the weather, he’d ask for his grand-children, he’d look out the window and pass some remark about a cat or a dog that might or might not be out there, and then the garage door. You can see the garage that his son Jim and he built long ago for himself, - in his working life he was a mechanic, - at the foot of the garden. Beside a back corner of the garage is the “gap,” as they used to call it when it was a makeshift gateway leading down into the “park” where they used to play as children. It is now a red-brick-walled recreation area, framed by the backs of the houses on this, - Cypress Avenue, - Laurel Avenue, Beechwalk, Friar Street, Cusack Street, and Sarsfield Street. His family had persuaded him years ago to sell the by-then too big house to The Health Board, and the Board had had it converted into special apartments. A condition of the sale was that one apartment would be reserved for Mr Gordon for as long as he needed it. What had been the “box” bedroom of their family home, - No 11, Inisfallen Avenue, - was now one of a number of self-contained apartments in Cypress House, a residential care unit. The bed that his children had fashioned a well in with their jumping up and down had been replaced by a Fannin’s automatic hospital recliner, and the novelty of lifting and lowering himself in this invention had long since lost its attraction for him. The sash window that told the direction of the breeze by the loudness of its rattle was gone, and in its place was a perfect-fit, triple-glazed aluminium window that opened, - barely, - at the top. A disabled-friendly loo and Triton T90-i electric shower, complete with heated towel rail, extractor fan and a wet floor, had been inserted in an enclosure in the corner facing the door, to make way for which a chest of drawers, - brought from New York by his wife and himself in 1933, - had been thrown out. The wall-paper, complete with bare patch over the door where once had hung a picture of Pope Paul VI, had been scraped off and replaced some years ago with a white Valspar matt paint. Apart from himself, the only things that now connect the room with its former life are an alabaster Madonna with a broken neck that still sits in a corner by the window, facing all who come in the door, and a twelve-inch-diameter globe that includes such countries as the USSR, Yugoslavia, East Germany, Upper Volta, and Burma. Looking out, where hastily flung-down cabbages and lettuces used to sometimes bolt, can now be seen pristine herbaceous borders, with “just the right mix” of alyssum and lobelia, begonias, dahlias and chrysanthemums. His children sometimes amuse or tease each other with memories on their visits. Mamie reminded Denis today of how he used to sun-bathe in the back yard on days like this, wearing nothing but the shortest of swimming shorts, - in a horrible shade of bright, bright “bloo,” - wrapped tight around his testicles in order to expose the maximum amount of flesh to the sun. “I did not,” Denis protested. “Yes, you did. Didn’t he, Delia? We’d nearly get sick!” “I don’t remember that,” said Delia. “Now!” said Denis to Mamie. “Sure, you remember less than Dad,” Mamie said impatiently to Delia. “I beg your pardon!” “I remember Patsy Long coming into the yard after Dad,” said Ann, “waving a shovel, or something at him.” “Yeah, remember that,” said Kathleen. “It was a bloody axe, actually. Dad had passed a remark about Patsy shovelling up horse manure off the street to spread on his vegetables. He literally ran up the yard after him, up along there where the far side wall of the garage is . . .” Words would start to tail off then, as they’d try to skirt them around the garage. Eyes would be withdrawn back inside the room again, and they’d look around the walls, trying to think of something else to say. “Remember when that Madonna had her neck broken,” one of them might say. “Yeah, Denis and Jim knocked it down the stairs . . .” and words would tail off again. Across the recreation area and the new swings and see-saws where the ones they used to play on once were, can be seen the tops of the buildings in the narrow channel of street called the West Gate, opening through the Main Guard onto Liberty Square, narrowing again to form the Bridge into Cathedral Street, where stands the last thing on the horizon, the top of the Cathedral Clock Tower. Mr Gordon used to be able to tell the time on the Clock from this distance, but that was long ago. Now he can apparently just about make out the dial, on a good day, if he squints.
Also squinting, through the reinforced glass pane in the bedroom door behind Mr Gordon, is Gary, one of the Nurse’s Assistants from down town who work part-time for the Health Board. The Assistants check on Mr Gordon regularly, though he is rarely not sitting up like that, or sleeping.
“Jim!” Mr Gordon calls out, turning his chair around, as if sensing the eyes on his back. “Jim!”
Gary sags his shoulders, perhaps disappointed to have been noticed. He opens the door inward, and walks in, closing the door behind him. He’s wearing his hospital-blue Nurse’s Aide’s uniform; a short-sleeved shirt, trousers, plastic galoshes. His staff id card hangs from his neck on a lanyard.
“Jim!” calls the old gentleman again, “Shut . . .”
“No, Mr Gordon, it’s not Jim,” says Gary, looking at the buff-coloured industrial carpet on the floor.
“It’s not Jim, Mr Gordon, it’s Gary.”
“Yes, Mr Gordon.”
“He’d be at work at this hour, Mr Gordon. You’ll see him later.”
“I need him to shut that bleddy garage door. The car is sitting inside it, wide open. Them magpies from the town’ll have it stripped if they get half a chance!”
Gary walks over to the window, and looks out. The garage is closed, as usual. He doesn’t bother to turn back to face his patient again, because he knows that Mr Gordon will by now have wheeled his chair around the foot of the bed and over to the window also.
“See that bleddy door. What was he thinking of, at all, leaving it like that?”
“I don’t know. I’ll go out and close it, Mr Gordon.”
“Sure, why doesn’t Jim close it?”
“He’s not home yet, Mr Gordon.”
“Well, he’ll be home soon, won’t he? Sure, look at the time,” with a nod of his head in the direction of the Cathedral Clock.
Gary looks, although he knows that he can’t read the clock from where he stands, and looks at his wrist-watch.
“It’s only three o’clock, Mr Gordon. Jim wouldn’t be finished work for another two hours yet. I’ll close the garage door for you. Are you alright there, now? I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“And check ‘er for oil while you’re at it.”
“Don’t know what the hell he had to leave the door open like that for, anyway,” Mr Gordon is saying as Gary goes out. “They’ll have that car stripped, I know it!”
When he reaches the garage, Gary turns and looks back up at the bedroom window. Mr Gordon is still sitting there, looking in his direction. Gary smiles at him, takes a bundle of keys from his pocket, puts one in the keyhole of the up-and-over door handle, and lifts it open. He steps in, reaches up toward a shelf to one side, and takes down an old can of Duckhams Q20-50 Motor Oil. He turns around, and holds the can up, as if for Mr Gordon to see. He turns again and walks the few feet to the bonnet of an old Ford Anglia that sits in the middle of the garage floor. He lifts the bonnet open from where he stands. The catch hasn’t worked for years. He twists open the sump, opens the can, and pours in a small quantity of oil. The floor of the sump was damaged some time ago by a mis-placed hydraulic jack, and some of the oil drips through onto the garage floor. Gary is used to this, and he hardly notices any more. He replaces the lid of the oil sump, and twists it shut again. He puts the lid of the oil can back on, and puts the can back where he got it. He looks up at Mr Gordon again, and wipes his hands against each other as if to shake off the dust of ages. Still standing just inside the garage, he pulls the up-and-over door down shut in front of himself, loud enough, he hopes, for Mr Gordon to hear. He looks around, smiles, reaches inside his uniform, and pulls out a packet of Silk Cut Blue. He walks over to the shelves on the side wall, passing the remains of the old Ford in the middle of the floor, reaches to where he knows there’s a box of matches, and lights a cigarette. He moves to the grilled window on the back wall of the garage, and stands there, smoking, his right elbow cupped in his left hand. The garage is an ever-decreasing shrine to parts of what used to be Mr Gordon’s life. Climbing the middle of the back wall is an incomplete collection of dull-with-age spanners, the ringed end of each one hanging on a nail-hook. On each side of the spanners is an assortment of rusty chains, a few of them with padlocks strung from a link. Two rusty wood-saws, and a single small rusty hack-saw, hang from nails. There’s a Black & Decker Workmate not quite tucked away in a corner here, and it appears to have been used not very long ago. In another corner is a heap of old tyres and tubes, all of them totally bald. Suspended from the middle of the ceiling is an old cobweb-covered bare Philips 200-watt light-bulb. Directly under this sits what’s left of the 1967 Ford Anglia De-luxe. You can see the torn leather upholstery of the seats very clearly, because the wind-screen has been tapped out, the back and side-windows also. The handles have been removed from the doors, which are now opened by gently pulling on the window-frames. At the foot of the driver’s seat are bare pedals, worn shiny. In another corner of the garage are six Draper foot-pumps, - for Mr Gordon has always very much valued the virtue of loyalty, - all broken. There are two four-arm wheel-braces, one dull blue and one rusty-silver, and one rusty-silver single-arm wheel-brace. There’s a half-open jack, and a compressor. In the other corner is a blue, steel tool-box, lying open and empty, showing patches of rust at the edges of the compartments. Beside this is a covered wheel-barrow, the only piece of hardware in the garage that’s not generously coated with dust. The shelves on the walls display a selection of containers, mostly upright, some lying down. A few of the labels are still legible, just; on the left-hand wall, beside an eighteen-inch spirit-level, Castrol GTX, 3-in-One Lubricating Oil, Swarfega, a dirty old rag, a bent dip-stick . . . On the wall opposite, Halpin’s Tea, Kimberley Biscuits, Old-Time Irish Marmalade (Thick Cut) . . . On the shelf below this, Condor Pipe Tobacco, a crumpled Churchmans packet, a holder for a set of Kapp & Peterson Pipe Cleaners, a half-pint Phoenix Ale bottle . . . Beside the window on this wall is a yellowing photograph of Mr Gordon and his son, Jim, taken not long before Jim’s death in a car crash. Gary enjoys the special smell of the cigarette smoke mixed with the ancient hint of oil that has always pervaded the air in here.
Residents are walking slowly, or being wheeled, around the recreation area. Gary is not surprised to see, at this time of day, Annette, Mary and John on the swings, Catherine and Laurence on the easy chairs, and Chris among the supervisors. Chris is already looking back at him when Gary spots him. Chris says something to Maura, another supervisor, and walks over to the gate, up into the garden, and down to the back window of the garage.
“What kept you?” he asks Gary through the bars.
“Nothing. The family were just a little bit late. It’s around the usual time.”
“No, it isn’t. Anyway, your man wants the rest of that chassis. Tonight.”
“Can’t be done.”
“Has to be. It’s supposed to be gone long ago.”
“I’m on call this evening. They had to make a change to the roster.”
“Well, we’ll just have to chance it. You know the routine.”
Mr Gordon is asleep in his chair by the window, his head lolled back on the head-rest, when Gary looks in at him again a few minutes later.
. . .
The Cathedral Clock reads five o’clock. Gary throws his cigarette butt to the ground, pulls down the garage door behind him, locks it, and puts the keys in his pocket. He’s wearing a light-weight top-coat over his uniform. He lifts the handles of a covered wheel-barrow in front of him, and gently pushes it down the slope, out the gate, and into the recreation area. He wheels it to the right toward the Sarsfield Street exit.
“Hey, Gary. ‘Often meant to ask you; what are you smuggling under those tarpaulins?” says the man in the gate-house good-humouredly, opening the gate for him.
“Wheelbarrows, what do you think?” replies Gary with a smile.
He wheels the barrow out the gate and goes straight up Driver’s Hill in front of him. He wheels it for about half a mile. He is uncomfortably warm, but leaves on his top-coat. The evening appears to be prematurely dark. Gary looks toward the sky and notices the tail of a heavy cloud, perhaps, or smoke from the incinerator. He hears a Fire Brigade siren in the distance behind him, and thinks to himself, as he does every time he hears one, that they made the chimneys in the houses of Kennedy Park too narrow. He stops at an improvised scrap-yard outside a dilapidated bungalow in the Assumption Park housing estate, and waits. A few school-children are sitting on the wall, and alternately rambling among the scrapped cars, as if scavenging for something of interest. After a couple of minutes, he looks anxiously at the house, at the children, who regard him with amusement, and at his watch. After another couple of minutes, he looks at his watch again. Then, he looks up and down the road, and walks up the short, hard-core-covered driveway to the front door. A couple of the kids make a bit of a show of making way for him. He presses the bell, and listens. He hears nothing. He presses again. Nothing. He knocks twice. No reply. Twice more. Still no reply. He looks worriedly at the clapped-out cars all around him, some of them with ill-fitting door handles and windscreen wipers. He knocks three times, and more loudly. A sound inside, like something falling. Another sound, closer, and the door is opened by a man in dirty overalls. “Well, Rusty,” the man calls out to one of the kids. He looks surprised to see the Nurse’s Aide. Gary can look right through the bungalow from the front door, and can see the outline of a rudimentary green-house in the back yard.
“What are you doing here?” the man asks Gary.
“Chris said you wanted this tonight.”
The man looks at his watch.
“It’s only six o’clock. I said tonight.”
“Well, I won’t get another chance tonight. I’m on call all evening. I’m supposed to be there now.”
“Yeah, I know. I heard.”
Back where Gary has walked from with the wheelbarrow, they’re standing and sitting at the Assembly Point in the recreation area, looking at flames leaping through the roof of Mr Gordon’s garage.
“Where’s Gary?!” Matron is asking. “Who’s on B Block? Who’s minding Mr Gordon?”
“Gary is,” says Chris.
“Well, where is he? He’s not coming in on his walkie-talkie.”
“I think I saw him going up the road a while ago,” says Maura.
“And Mr Gordon?” asks Matron.
“I don’t know. Gary was walking away from me, but he seemed to be pushing something. Maybe he wheeled Mr Gordon out for some fresh air?” in the direction of Chris.
“Yeah, maybe. I’ll go in and check,” says Chris.
“No. I’ll tell the lads from the Fire Brigade,” says Matron.
. . .
“Heard what?” Gary asks his customer.
“Was there a fire, or something?”
“You’d better get back to your post, Mister!”
Gary turns and starts to run back down the driveway.
“Hey!” his client shouts after him. “I can’t pay you for this till tonight!”
“Sshh!” Gary hisses back, looking around . “Don’t worry about it. I’ll see you later.”
“No. I can’t hold it here all evening, either. You’ll have to bring it back with you!”
“No! Forget about it. Just keep it, will you?!”
“Here, take something for it anyway, sure, here . . .” reaching into his overalls pocket and following Gary onto the road.
“No. Put that away!” says Gary, feeling the eyes of people on him as they point and look in the direction of the smoke.
His customer has caught up with him, and is opening Gary’s coat lapel in order to try and slip a note into his inside pocket.
“Stop!” says Gary, pushing him away.
Gary is running now, faster and faster, back toward the house, his coat billowing open and showing his uniform.
“You’re going the wrong way, Son!” he hears an old woman call after him. “It’s getting away from that place you want to be now, by the look of it!”
The gate is open, and almost everybody appears to be sitting or standing around in Sarsfield Street, looking across the recreation area at the shooting flames. Gary pushes his way through the crowd to the gate, where Matron, Chris and other staff are standing. Matron is talking to a fireman.
“Where were you?” Matron asks Gary.
Gary looks at Chris, who shakes his head.
“I had to go out for a few minutes.”
“You were on call. You were supposed to be minding Mr Gordon. Where did you bring him?”
“Bring him? What do you mean? I didn’t bring him anywhere.”
Matron and Gary are prevented by police and firemen from breaking through the cordon around the recreation area. Another fireman is approaching the Sarsfield Street gate from Cypress Avenue, announcing that all is clear, and there’s nobody left in the house.
“And Mr Gordon?!” shouts Matron. “What about Mr Gordon?! I don’t know where he is!” The fireman turns around and points back in the direction he’s come from.
. . .
A little bit earlier, In Mr Gordon’s room, he was sitting in his chair in the usual way, oblivious to the commotion elsewhere in the house. He can hear the fire and smoke alarms, but appears not to think that any of this concerns him. Almost every other resident has now been evacuated, and the last of the rooms are being checked by Fire Brigade personnel and the designated Cypress House Fire Wardens.
“Jim!” he shouted, sensing eyes on his back again. “Is that you, Jim?!”
“Come on, Sir. We have to get you out of here!” a fireman said to him, as he turned his chair around and started wheeling him toward the door.
“Are we going to shut the door?” asked Mr Gordon.
“Yes, Sir, we’ll shut the door, later,” answered the fireman, fixing the chair to the escalator rail. He walked down the stairs beside Mr Gordon. He brought him out the front door, and started wheeling him toward the front gate of the house.
“Where are we going?!”
“We’re just on the street now, Sir.”
“The street?! No, not that way. Sure, the garage is out the back. You can go around the side, there,” pointing back over his shoulder with his thumb.
“We have to go this way now, Sir,” wheeling him down the street.
“Okay, we can go around through the recreation area, so. Is the back of the house blocked, or something?”
“Yes, Sir Something like that.”
. . .
The fireman wheeling Mr Gordon stops in front of the Sarsfield Street gate, beside the pointing finger of another fireman.
Matron breathes a sigh of relief, and looks at Gary. Gary walks over to Mr Gordon, and stands behind him, placing his white-knuckled hands on the push-handles of his chair.
“What’s going on?!” asks Mr Gordon. “Is that door shut?” he asks in the direction of the fireman who brought him out.
“Yes, Sir, the door is shut.”
“Good. Them bleddy magpies’ll strip that car if they get half a chance!”
. . .
About half a mile away, a group of school-children are busily plucking bits and pieces of an old Ford Anglia out of a wheelbarrow, as a man in dirty overalls tries to hunt them away.
. . . .