Saturday, January 21, 2017

Murphy's Ghost

I was not surprised at the shuffling of feet beyond the high wooden fence. It was Halloween night and I was working my first shift as night watchman in the old lumber company where my grandfather had worked for thirty years. They say, at the end, the owner would send a car for old Tom to take him, in comfort, the two miles each way he had walked for so long. There were children and parents walking the streets outside the yard, sometimes explosions of firecrackers in the distance. It was an old lumber yard, a throwback to the glory days of Bytown when timber was king. I walked around the perimeter wooden fence, checked that the big doors to the yard and garage were locked, wandered into the little kitchen for a cup of tea. I knew that drinking too much caffeine on graveyard shifts could have disastrous consequences when the lack of sleep eventually caught up to you, but this was my first shift, Halloween night and tea didn’t seem as dangerous as coffee. I wasn’t one to be superstitious and all the leprechauns and little people and faeries of Irish folklore weren’t foremost in my thoughts except when I remembered my mother who was born in Galway and believed in it all. I had bad dreams about the freezecat but that’s another story. There were three mugs set out in the kitchen at the back of the office. I dropped a teabag into one, plugged in the kettle and checked that day’s Sun girl. The knocking at the office door sounded normal. Maybe some of the trick or treaters outside had seen the kitchen light. I walked through the dark office. As I reached for the doorknob I heard the words “No need for that” I couldn’t believe my eyes when a man walked right through the door and shook my outstretched hand. “Tom, Tom Wheeler, your grandfather, and you’ll know Murphy” To my astonishment another figure stepped through the closed door and shook the hand which my grandfather had just squeezed. I felt it. I know they both squeezed my hand. I recognized my grandfather by pictures I’d seen. He had a large head, a bald pate and a perpetual smile. My irreverent friends would have called him “wingnut” because of his large ears, but not to his face. Murphy’s theory was the reason I was here in the first place. His theory of gambling on sporting events hit a few rough spots when I tried it after his death. Or maybe I didn’t get the full gist of it. Whatever happened, I lost my shirt over those bets and was forced to take this job. The last time I’d seen Murphy he was sitting up in his casket with my coffee cup in his hands and a brawl going on all around him. They made their way through the office to the kitchen where my grandfather refilled the kettle and washed out an old teapot. He made tea while Murphy and I sat down at the table. I wasn’t sure what to do about it and the manners of these two ghosts, for that is what they must be, were impeccable. “I thought we came here to decide” said Murphy, filling his pipe. “Yes, we can decide tonight, all right. Tonight’ll be the night we’ll decide” Tom said as he set the pot down on the table to steep and pulled up a chair. He too filled his pipe. “You didn’t follow through on the system I told you about just before I died” Murphy said to me. “What do you mean?” I piped up. “A team usually loses at home the first game after a road trip. That’s part of it. There were a few more tricks of the trade which you failed to employ when you made those bets. You would have bet the opposite and cleaned up if you had” Murphy lined up the sugar and milk near his cup just behind the spoon. “Hm” I grunted. Tom poured tea into our cups and spoke to Murphy as he added his sugar. “I think three” Murphy took his time, measured his sugar carefully with his spoon, added milk and stirred the combination vigorously. “After a lot of thought, I have to conclude that the answer is two” A long silence broken only by the sounds of tea drinking and the unwrapping of a package of biscuits Tom had produced. Peak Freans. “Maybe, if they were doing a proper Irish jig. But even then, with the footwork, you’d have to hope they were once Irish in order not to step on each other’s toes.” “See, three is the superior number” Tom answered,” being half again what your number two is It could be easily done by three angels dancing a Highland fling on the head of a pin” My grandfather’s father was a stonemason from Putney but his wife was a Ross from the Highlands and he defended the northern clan at every opportunity. “We’re not talking about a needle here” Murphy proclaimed. “The thick end with the eye in it. Only Irish angels could dance on the head of a pin and there’d only be room for two of them” Tom disappeared for a moment behind a cloud of grey smoke from his pipe. Anger showed on his countenance when he reappeared. “Three Scottish angels could do it” Before I knew what was happening they had jumped up and were circling the table, Murphy with a large shillelagh, Tom with a battle axe. I sat still and watched. Murphy swung a vicious two hander which caught Tom in the neck. His head was clearly separated from his shoulders but just popped up and landed back in its spot. It was facing the wrong way, but Tom adjusted it and caught Murphy on the side at hip level thereby cutting him in two with the axe. Murphy separated in the middle but his upper body, after popping up, returned to the bottom half at the waist. I could hear laboured breathing as they sparred and clashed but no more than the sounds of two old men exerting themselves. Finally, they put aside their weapons, drank tea, smoked their pipes and resumed the debate. “Two is a balanced number, equal on both sides of its duality” Murphy declared out loud. “Well, we could add them together to equal five or put them side by side and come up with thirty two” offered agreeable Tom. One of his brothers had been an accountant. “Ihirty two would be a little crowded on the head of a pin” Murphy observed. Both disappeared behind clouds of grey smoke as they contemplated the problem with newly fired pipes. “The angels would have to step lively all right” Tom observed. “Thirty two Scottish angels could do a Highland Reel on the head of a pin” he declared. “Mind you, they’d need eight circles for the teams of four” “Hm” responded Murphy. “I could see putting them side by side and coming up with twenty three” I was wondering if they would again arise to resume hostilities but all they did was wash and dry the cups together like an old married couple. I could hear them mumbling to each other as they stood at the sink with their backs to me. My disbelief was in a suspended state. Except that it wasn’t a trick in my head. They sat down at the table again and looked across the office to the front door. The knock on the front door came after a long minute of waiting. I made to rise but Tom put up his hand to stop me and Murphy said “Shh” The door never opened but four little men carried a log fire with a bubbling pot slung above it through the office to where we were sitting in the kitchen. Behind them a mad cackle blended with the whooshing sound of a wild wind and a dark figure flew through the wall, did two circuits of the office and landed deftly behind the pot. My mouth was hanging open when I looked at my grandfather and Murphy. Both nodded and smiled at the woman in front of us. “Hello, Zelda” they said. “Boys” the woman spoke while her appearance changed like fluid before my eyes. First she was an old hag, then a beautiful maiden, then an ancient crone with a wart on her nose and finally she settled on a plump milkmaid who peered curiously into the pot. “This is Steve, Tom’s grandson and an old friend of mine” Murphy spoke up. “He’s on the other side, is he?” she stirred the bubbling broth with great concentration. “Yes, he’s still there” Murphy nodded agreeably “But not for much longer” This conversation troubled me. “And how’s tricks and treats tonight then, Zelda?” Tom inquired. Zelda turned into a smartly dressed businesswoman while she surveyed the pot and the four little men. Were they elves or goblins or gnomes? I didn’t know and no one was telling. “It used to be better in the old days” she said “You can’t scare anybody any more. Then there’s all the white witches. Dogooders I call them. I mean you can be spooky without being evil” She joined Murphy and Tom in puffing on a pipe. With all four of the little men smoking their pipes as well, we disappeared for a moment until the cloud moved on. There was no smoke from the fire under the pot though, I will say that. As if on a prearranged signal, the little men picked up the fire and pot, waited till Zelda stepped out of the way, carried it through the office and the closed front door. Zelda watched them go, an ever changing expression on her ever changing face. “Goodbye, boys. I sensed you were in the neighbourhood and thought I’d drop by to say hello. See you round” She did a high speed circuit of the darkened office, one second mounting her broom, the next a black blur, the next gone through the wall. After this display my grandfather produced a pint of single malt Highland whiskey and Murphy found a pint of Black Bush in his pocket. The tea mugs were used to share the shots. “Tell you what” said Murphy “We’ll meet next Halloween night here and decide for good” “Agreed” said Tom “Next Halloween night. That long enough for you?” “Oh yes. By that time there won’t be any doubt. I’ll know by then” “Same here” said Tom. They stood and proferred their hands. Each squeezed my outstretched one. As I followed them across the office, Tom said “Halloween night is over here now. But it’s just starting west of here” They waved goodbye and walked through the door. I opened it and watched them walk to the outer fence. They turned to me. “I’ll say hello to your Dad” Tom spoke in a loud voice. “And don’t bet on anything more than five to one” Murphy shouted They turned west and walked through the fence. Up in the sky, silhouetted against the full moon, Zelda flew by on her broomstick. I walked back to the kitchen to turn out the lights. I felt that glorious buzz which just the right amount of good whiskey produces. It was time to do my rounds and make sure nothing strange was happening in the yard that Halloween night.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Camping in England

I was driving around England on sulphate. Everyone was doing it. Housewives, carpenters, people who worked in the London Zoo and the parks. Everyone I knew. Everyone was into it. My other major concern was the horses. Yes, I was hooked on the ponies. One Scottish woman made a pointed remark about her friend, “the bookie’s boy” when she obliquely criticized my obvious weakness for gambling on the races. To me there was nothing like going down to Ladbroke’s on Saturday mornings and placing a few small wagers on combinations and parlays then walking home to eat breakfast while watching the races on tv. Leisurely gratification. Not many winners but many hangovers were nursed that way. I know it happened in England and Scotland and I suspect it’s still the same in Ireland and Wales as well. To be able to afford the life I was living on my two weeks onshore and in preparation for the upcoming two weeks offshore on a drilling rig, I started sleeping in the white Ford van I bought. Not a big van, a small one. An Escort I think. With Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Bruce Cockburn’s Lovers in a Dangerous Time on my tape deck, I drove around to different races. The sound of horse’s hooves on cobblestones as I parked and the sight of the sleek hind end of a thoroughbred disappearing around a corner as I ducked into a pub in Newbury or Cheltenham stuck in my memory. It didn’t help much with the feelings of disappointment as I tore up the last of my losing bets at the end of another day, but as I followed the stoic bookies into the parking lot while they carried their signs and platforms and bulging briefcases. I realized that I was certainly doing something different. If I was at home I wouldn’t be doing this. Sulphate was called “the poor man’s coke”. It had a energetic buzz and, like coke, it enabled you to drink all night without getting sleepy. It was probably crushed up speed of some kind. It came in aluminum paper and everyone was doing it. Two guys in Aberdeen, a Dutchman and a South African, quit their roustabout jobs on a drilling rig because they could make much more money selling sulphate to the welders who worked long shifts for big money on pipe laying barges. They had a connection in Amsterdam and captive customers. For North Americans in England learning how to drive on the opposite side of the road than the side you’re used to is easy once you’ve negotiated the first stop sign and then the first stoplight then the first roundabout. After that it’s easy. Once you begin to drive in England or Scotland, you are convinced that Monty Python is alive and well and exists every day, all around you and it is like a weight lifted off your shoulders. There is less pressure to be perfect. It was probably a race which drew me to the south of England but it could have been an escape from the urge to spend uncontrollably when I got to London from Aberdeen and the North Sea. Robert, a Swedish derrickman I had worked with, lived somewhere in the south. He wasn’t home when I called so I gave the tip I had for him to the woman I talked to and he later got a job out of it. I was savvy enough by this time to find a campground near the Newton Abbott track and set up my one man tent before I found the nearest pub. I had entered Scrumpyland. That part of the country was known for its Scrumpy Cider and I vaguely remember one pub which had seatbelts on the barstools for the customers’ safety. Naturally I overindulged in the Scrumpy and when I was too drunk to care, asked a few of the shadier looking characters if they knew where I could score some sulphate even though I still had some. I was lucky: everyone ignored me. I later heard the saying “Beer on cider makes a good rider but cider on beer will make you feel queer’. It’s true. Queer meaning ill. Somehow I drove to the campsite when the pub closed and prepared to read Aleister Crowley’s Moonchild by the light of several candles in my pup tent. I woke up with a headache and burped up the smell of Scrumpy cider. It had defeated the sulphate in my system and knocked me out. When I opened my eyes I was looking at the sky. Then the bent aluminum tent pole appeared. I looked upward down by my feet. Another tent pole arching over me. The skeleton of my tent. I sat up when I realized that only charred pieces of fabric hung from the poles. The candles were pools of wax. Somehow the candles had lighted the tent around me, burnt it up and died out as I slept. There was not even a burn on my sleeping bag. I staggered to the Escort and drove away silently in the dawn. I drove North, glad of a hangover for a change. If I didn’t see it for myself, I wouldn’t believe it. This wasn’t what camping in England was supposed to be like. Forget the races. I knew a sign when I saw one. The image of the tent skeleton and the perfect pile of ashes circling the spot where my sleeping bag had lain kept recurring as Dancing in the Dark and If I Had A Rocket Launcher played on my tape deck and I headed for Scotland.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Man With Two Hats

Randy Hornsby arrived at the country club in his Rolls Royce. He parked beside his wife, Gwen’s, found his way to the dining room. This was the weekend they traditionally celebrated his birthday. It was tomorrow. This morning was a little brunch to say hello to his sons, Chris and Steven. They’d got into town late last night. Steven had his family, Pat and the kids. Chris had a good looker hanging on his arm as usual. Randy was accorded respect from the staff as he made his way to the Hornsby table. He gave Gwen a peck on the cheek, hugged Pat and each of their little kids, Ross and Emma. He listened to Pat talk to them to catch their names. He shook hands with Chris’ date, Stephanie, then embraced his sons. Becky Chisholm stopped by the table, said hello to everyone, made the usual flighty cackles when she heard he was a year older. She and Gwen were trustees at the prep school which the boys had attended. They got into a discussion about the school, Randy focused on his sons. Steven always had been the more serious of the two. Now here he was, an officer. Thank God he’s finished with Iraq. He was needed here more. Pat was a perfect military wife for him. Never complained, a God fearing Baptist girl and plenty fertile with it. Steven had confided, in one of those father and son talks on the golf course, that they’d decided to stop at two. The kids were cute as buttons, but she’d have one a year with no trouble if they kept it up. So, by mutual agreement, Pat had her tubes tied. Chris was the athletic one. No more than Steven when they were young, but Chris had dedicated himself to it. He was about to graduate from university, get drafted by the NFL for sure and make it in football. Randy was confident that Chris’ good looks, charm and outgoing personality would provide a good life for him whatever it turned out to be. He always had girls hanging off of him, now he would have an even wider field to choose from. He seemed determined to remain a bachelor, Gwen complained, but Randy thought they should step back, let Chris live his own life. Gwen took Stephanie, Pat and the kids to see the garden. It was out in the back, a gift from Randy to Gwen. He gave it to her on their last anniversary. It was a lavish affair and the staff took great pains to keep the secret hidden until it was announced. The crowd was impressed. A beautiful garden donated to the club in Gwen’s name. In perpetuity. For generations to come. Randy’s only regret was that they were too old to really celebrate. They had long since taken to separate beds. Not that he did it for a reward. It was given out of love. The men talked about work, football, the current war. Randy felt comfortable sitting with his sons. They were good conservatives like him. The remains of the Eggs Benedict were whisked away, more coffee provided. Randy felt that he had made the right decision each time that the political powers had begged him to run. No, he decided to stay in business. It was better to be out of sight. Better to be the puppeteer than the puppet. Randy caught himself thinking ahead to the girls. Their names slipped his mind too at times. He brought himself back to the table when Spanky Reynolds stopped by. She oohed and aahed over Steven and Chris, how handsome they were and asked after Pat, Gwen and the kids. She would call Gwen later to chat about the philanthropic work they did together. She had laughed the loudest when Gwen told the joke about Alzheimer’s at that dinner party. Gwen was at her effervescent best that night. She told them that a person’s memory was the first thing to go. The whole table went silent. Gwen paid attention to her plate. Finally, someone asked, “Well, what’s the second?” Gwen kept eating, cutting her meat carefully. “Can’t remember” Gwen kept on eating. There was another moment of silence before the table exploded in laughter. Effervescent and a superb actress. Gwen was admired, envied even, by many in the community. Randy had to get Gwen to explain the joke to him later. He didn’t think it was funny to make a joke out of memory loss. He was forgetful at times himself. They all were. When brunch was over they went their separate ways. The kids had friends to see, Gwen had a charity auction to attend. Randy returned to his six thousand square foot home on the manicured forty acres of their gated estate. He cooled off with some laps in the indoor pool, showered, changed into comfortable driving clothes and set out in the Rolls for the hour long drive north. His birthday would be celebrated at the club tomorrow. Gwen never questioned his schedule anymore, he would be there tomorrow. He knew that she had arrangements to make for the party. Tonight there was another celebration. Tommy Ryder pulled his Rolls into the four car garage, noting Sharon’s sports car in the lane. He looked over the two tarp covered cars in the middle of the garage to Kim’s Rolls Royce. It needed a good cleaning. As he walked from the garage to the house, Tommy admired the lines of the sprawling mansion. It impressed him every time he looked at it. His first construction project was well thought out, well constructed. So well made that it began his construction company. Word of mouth carried news of the house to the wealthy residents of the county. Soon Tommy had more work than he could handle. Good delegation and Kim’s help had made it a flourishing company. Tommy didn’t have to do much anymore. It was taken care of for him. Kim was out in the back with the horses, Sharon with her. The horse breeding and show jumping was time consuming, but they liked it. Sharon always was the daughter who shared Kim’s passion for horses. She had wanted to be a vet when she was a little girl and still, now, in her freshman year in university, she was sticking with it. Big, rosy cheeked, always cheerful, Sharon was their best daughter. Not that the others were loved less, but she was more normal. Kim was glad she wanted to be a vet but Tommy wished she could be a doctor. Tommy grabbed a beer from the fridge in the glistening kitchen, wandered to the games room. He sat in the recliner and flicked on the huge tv screen. He grazed the stations for the latest word on the NFL odds. His account in Vegas was aching to splash out on a good parlay. Certain teams were always backed by the public and the bookies knew it. When Tommy woke up later that afternoon, Sharon was sitting on the floor beside his chair, head leaning against his leg. She watched tv with the remote control in her hand. “Hi Daddy” Tommy stretched, sat up, was given a kiss on the cheek and the remote. Sharon uncoiled from her sitting position, kissed him and left for the kitchen. “Sweetheart” Tommy stood and stretched again. They went to the golf club together. They got Ronnie, the butler, to drive Kim’s Rolls, while they sat in the back and sipped champagne Kim looked as classy as ever in her black, slinky dress with a lot of glittering jewellery. Sharon looked sweet in her new pants suit with her hair done up. Tommy felt as if he was escorted into the club by the most beautiful women in the world. They had a six course meal with a large birthday cake at the end. Everyone applauded as Tommy and Kim took to the dance floor, shook and shimmied with the best of them. The only negative part of the evening was the appearance of Sally and Sonia, their other daughters. It wasn’t really the girls, it was the boys they were with. Both Jason and Travis, or whoever they were, appeared obviously loaded when they arrived. The hugging and kissing of his daughters felt good to Tommy, but he watched the girls’ dates out of the corner of his eye. The one who hadn’t shaved, his shirt had a wine coloured stain and there were suspicious little burn holes in the other one’s sweater. Tommy remembered taking Sheriff Wayne aside when Sally was dressing like a Goth in prep school. They told him later that it had been done quietly and firmly. A police woman had pulled Sally over when she was driving alone. She warned the rebellious teen about the people she was associating with. That Craigmore kid got a stiff sentence for drug possession soon after. Sally toned it down. She was an adult now, beyond their reach. She was on her own, responsible for herself. Tommy didn’t like her friends, but she was always loving and polite around him. That’s probably why the girls only stayed for a short time with their dates. They wished him a happy birthday, hung around for a piece of cake and a dance, then left. Probably got their boyfriends out of there before they caused any damage. Tommy was swept up in the dancing after that and they drank too much champagne. He woke up in the big bed the next morning with a hangover. Champagne never did agree with his constitution. He was more of a beer man. He should never have had the southern sipping whiskey and the Havana at the end of the night in front of the big screen tv. But it was a tradition on his birthday. A few glasses of bourbon and a good cigar. He knew that the girls would be gone when he descended the stairs to the kitchen. Kim had arranged her equine duties so that she’d be free to help him in the afternoon. He drank coffee and read the morning paper at the kitchen table. Tommy could see the barn roof from the kitchen window. In the foreground was the Olympic sized pool, bright blue in the sunny morning. He refused to plunge into doom and gloom about Sally and Sonia. They were young. They would grow out of their questioning. Their finishing schools would cure them of that. If they turned out like their mother, everything would be fine. He poured himself another cup, wandered out to the pool. A few good laps would help him shake the grogginess. Kim would make good Bloody Marys to go with lunch. He thought with fondness of their younger days together. It was a classic case of Randy remembering Kim from high school, years before. She was working in the office of his fledgling company. She caught his eye, was available and thrown together with him by chance. The overtime seemed to never end in those days. He saw more of Kim than he did of Gwen who was already his wife and the mother of his boys. But Randy and Kim and a few others in the little startup company had stayed the course and produced an invaluable microchip for the pork industry. The farmers were able to track each pig from birth to death. Their weight, their diet, who sold them, where they ended up; information contained in the little chip implanted in each pig’s ear. The company made Randy a millionaire many times over and began his relationship with Kim. They just seemed to click. It was long before the days of Viagra. Oysters were his only ally in surviving sex with both women. Kim never mentioned the other family at first, but eventually she got used to the idea. They decided to build their home on an acreage fifty miles out of town. The girls were born, it seemed, instantly. Before Randy knew it, he had two families. They talked and Kim had her tubes tied. It was easier for him to change his name to “Tommy Ryder” than to go through the hassle of divorcing Gwen and changing Kim’s name. So he adopted her last name and they set up house in their magnificent new home. Divorce wasn’t really a question he’d have considered anyway. He owed Gwen some loyalty and it wouldn’t have done the boys any good. Kim was happy with her house and cars and girls. He had provided everything for her that Gwen had. He had donated millions to the hospital for a wing named after her. She was always the life of the party. The women of the community looked up to her, admired her unlimited cheerfulness. Her only comment on the situation was that if it made him happy, it was ok with her. Usually, Tommy dressed in the clothes Ron laid out on his bed for him, but Kim had insisted that she would be there when he got ready to go. She fussed over the tie he wore, straightened the knot several times and dragged him in front of the full length mirror in their bedroom. She stood to one side admiring him as he turned in front of his reflection. She even had a special flower for the lapel of his expensive jacket which was placed carefully in the back seat of his Rolls. She wanted things to be just right. He admired Kim’s devotion. Tommy drove south. He had been increasingly concerned about memory loss recently. He sang along when the country music station played an old Hank Williams tune. Dusk was a beautiful time of day. It would be good to see the girls tonight. No, it would be the boys. He couldn’t remember his sons’ names. There was a shopping mall on the right. He pulled in, didn’t remember the number. The speed dial was set on his cell phone. The familiar number was displayed. “Hello?” It was Kim. “Hello, dear. It’s me. I’m...uh...I’m...” “You’re on the way to town, dear. It’s your birthday party tonight at the club” Tommy heard the gentle answer. Kim was always more sympathetic. She understood. After they found the big wad of cash which he had hidden in the dresser drawer and they checked with both companies, they never did find out where those thousands of dollars came from or what they were for. He couldn’t dodge that one. He had to admit it and deal with it. Good old Kim. Of course, my birthday. Randy Hornsby’s birthday party at the club. “Thanks dear. See you” Tommy pushed the off button on his cell phone and pulled the Rolls out onto the road leading south.