As he slept he dreamt.
The father sits at the kitchen table. His rough, bruised hands cradled in his lap. The boy and his mother huddle together in a sobbing heap on the floor. There is stillness in the air. The coolness of the cement floor soothes the boy’s skin. He dares not look up as he hears his father stand and shove the chair under the table. Rough hands rifle through his mother’s handbag groping for her purse. His father turns; his hulking frame is silhouetted in the doorway. The purse on the floor by his feet stirs. It stands up on four feline limbs and follows as his father leaves the room. Moments later the front door slams.
Felix woke to the usual foggy confusion and smacked the alarm clock quiet as he hauled himself out of bed. Half-memories of his father weighed down on him. He coughed and spluttered his way into the bathroom. Bloodshot eyes and a wan face stared back from the mirror. Felix attempted a shave. The worn blade nicked his stubbled chin. He reached over for the toilet roll, stumbling on the cat in his way. The cat purred a greeting as it weaved against his bare legs.
“Bloody thing.” Felix spat. Felix’s left boot kicked out, flinging her into the side panel of the bath. Shaking herself, the cat scurried from the bathroom. Felix lurched down the stairs into the kitchen. He built himself a four-decker sandwich for his lunch and placed them into an old shortbread biscuit tin that served as a lunch box. He filled the thermos with hot water before forcing down two cups of strong instant coffee. The cat vibrated like an engine as it massaged its length against the legs of the kitchen table. A bottle of Powers Whiskey and a single tin of Meaty Chunks sat on top of the kitchen table. Felix glanced at the cat’s empty dish and then looked at the cat. The cat dared not meet his gaze. It slunk behind the chair as Felix passed. His rough hands grabbed the door handle and wrenched it open. He stepped out into a bright summer morning.
The foreman Frankie Johnston surveyed the building site. Big day today. The concrete was coming this afternoon and a team of roofers would start on Phase 1 in the top corner. He snuffed out his cigarette butt with his size 14 workboot as he watched Felix O’Hare slinking through the gates. Big Frankie checked his digital watch display: 07:29:57. Just making it as usual.
“Jesus Christ Felix! Are ye late fa school again? Let’s go boy! Get a batch o’ mud out ta tha lads on tha piers first. And shake yerself, thar’s a big concrete load coming this affernoon.”
Felix pulled out the choke and cranked the ancient cement mixer. After a few attempts the powerful two-stroke engine coughed and sputtered awake. The workday began. After wetting the mixer and splashing in some detergent, Felix split bag after bag of cement with the shovel’s blade, turfing rationed shovelful after shovelful of cement and sand into the mixing drum. Looking for the consistency of fresh cow-shit. Not too fresh though. ‘Soup’ the bricklayers would call it, before sending it back with a jeering ‘we’ve had lunch already’. Get the mortar tubs filled and an extra batch in the drum then load out the next lift of scaffold from the night before. “Put…Put…Put” orders the two-stroke. There will be concrete loads in the afternoon. The concrete world and its liquid birth. But that was hours away. Don’t think about the time. It will come. And then pints. Sturdy and dark. Clear and golden whiskies. Anonymous clouds of cigarette smoke.
“Hai Felix, whar tha hell’s the block. Thar’s nathin’ over on thon pier,” barked Frankie pointing.
“Alright. Two seconds. I’ll just throw…”
“What’s wrong wit ya’, get a bale out ta Gordon now!” snapped Frankie. “Are ya hurtin’ a bit today wee lamb?” he mocked before turning and marching back down the site.
Felix pulled out three four-inch blocks from a bale and placed them face-to-face-to-face. He stood them on their headers on the ground. Grasping the top outside corners in his right hand he used his left to flip the blocks up onto his left shoulder. In this fashion he fed out the forty-four block bale into the skeleton of an unbuilt house.
A black cat pulls itself out through the open awning window in the bedroom. Its black fur shining in the afternoon sun. A blue-black cat on the roof of an empty house. Its gleaming eyes scouring the garden below.
It was 12:26 in the afternoon. Felix lit up his last lunchtime cigarette and sucked on it heavily. A red spear of burning tobacco lit up the interior of the lorry container where the men sat on bags of cement. But for Felix's biscuit tin, Tupperware lunchboxes housed the remains of their lunch. For those who had wives, the litter of cling-film or tinfoil had held thick chunks of loaf that had concealed deli ham and cheese topped with lettuce and tomato. Little paper cases that had carried fresh-baked buns from the bakery or even the home oven. Men poured the dregs from their flasks and knocked them back. The spears darkened and cooled to ash, falling to the dust covered floor.
The cat slinks along the boundary wall. Its body stretched low against the coping stones, its ears pulled back. It looks like a furry torpedo. It spies its prey. It slinks forward before shifting its weight to its hind legs. Then it pounces on the black bird below. Today it does not play with its food. It is much too hungry for that.
Felix puffed and strained under the hot afternoon sun. With the other labourers he hauled and grunted. As usual Mooney had grabbed the lorry’s concrete chute and was swinging it out over the parked wheelbarrows filling them to the brim. Each man heaved his barrow up by the worn wooden handles, driving his boot-clad feet into the ground, shoving his load forward on a single rickety wheel. Chunky concrete soup slopped out onto the rutted ground. The men manhandled the mix up planks and around bales of blocks before tipping them into shuttered pits where waiting spades scraped and screeds tamped and leveled. Wheels cleaved a path as load after load harried the line to the pits. A grey juice of water, cement and aggregate slopped from overflowing barrows. The soles of boots clogged in the muddy stew and coarse voices rose in frustration.
Felix trudged through the hours. Shoulders pulled back and arms stretched taut he shoved load after load into the pit. You had to be careful with the concreting. When you got to just the right distance from the pit you had to put the wheelbarrow on its legs and squat down to place the heels of your palms under the handles. If you pushed up with a fluid, balanced motion you would tip the lot smoothly and evenly into the pit. You had to consider distance though. If you parked the wheel too far away some would slop out onto the ground. Not good. Waste. Too close and the wheel could knock out a section of shuttering. Felix whipped the empty barrow around. A splinter dug into his finger. Felix cursed and switched off.
He had been two years old and still in nappies, his mother tells him. He had managed to slip out of his cot and use a stool to open the front door. It was an early winter’s morning. “It was a good job your father hadn’t come home that night” his mother says each time she tells him the tale. “He woulda flailed you alive, ye cheeky monkey” her half-cocked smile tempered with a knowing look. “You were wearing nothing but a nappy, but thank God it was clean. The ground was covered in frost. I never even heard ya going out. It was when I came down for a cup of tea I saw the door open. I was half afraid to go to the door. I didn’t know what’d happened –did your father come back or what. You were in the flowerbed your father’d made at the foot of the garden. You were down on your hands and knees trying to stab the end of a crow’s feather into the hard ground. You were getting frustrated and you’d cut your hands on the hard ground but you kept going. I asked you what you were doing and you told me ‘I want to grow a bird’.” His mother looks at him silently with her hazy eyes. After a time she laughs.
Blood stains the cat’s snowy throat fur. It stretches itself out in the tepid evening sun.
“Much left?” asked Felix. It was the final lorry load. When they got through this it was just a matter of setting up the next lift of scaffolding, stacking some block and redding out the mixer. Then, the pub.
“Still a couple of yards yet Felix”, Mooney answered leaning lazily on the chute. Felix jostled another barrowful up the planks. His shoulder muscles throbbed and his legs ached. The barrow wobbled on its stiff axis. He rounded the bales of blocks and headed for the edge of the pit. The barrow came to a brief rest.
“Just horse her in Felix”, shouted Frankie, supervising operations at the edge of the pit. Felix pulled the barrow around and pointed it into the corner of the pit where the men waited with spades, rakes and screeds. He ran while hunkering down under the barrow, his palms pressed against the underside of the handles. He pushed up hard. The left handle snapped off abruptly and a shard of wood pierced the edge of his hand, drawing blood. The wheelbarrow pivoted on its remaining handle hurling the muddy mix over the ground before careening into the corner of the shuttering. The joint gave way and the barrow flipped into the pit.
“Christ’s sake what ar’ ya at?” roared Frankie. Felix sunk back cradling his hand, looking warily at Frankie.
“Well tha’s what I get hirin’ on an oul drunken bastard. Are ya stupid? Are ya just gonna stand lookin’ at it?” Felix reddened. He could feel all eyes on him. Even the roofers on their perches above seemed to have downed tools to enjoy the spectacle.
“It wouldn’t have happened if you’d have forked out for decent wheelbarrows.” Felix said.
“What did ya bloody say?” challenged Frankie, walking towards him.
“I said you’re a cheap bastard.” replied Felix. He did not see the punch. Just the white flash behind his left eye. He stumbled backwards against a bale of blocks and slumped to the ground.
“Get the hell off my site, ya waster.” He heard Frankie’s booming voice above him. He blinked repeatedly into the sun but could only make out the silhouette of a man looming above him. Rough hands fingered a roll of cash pulling off a few bills and flinging them at him. He pulled himself onto all fours. He touched his temple; he was bleeding. The viscous liquid plopped onto the dusty ground. An industrial blood-brown pudding. He could see the bills now and he snatched them up and stuffed them into his pocket. Head down, Felix scuttled off the site.
Felix opens the gate. Bloody feathers litter the pathway to the front door of his home. He goes inside and puts on the kettle. He stuffs his hand into his pocket retrieving a handful of crumpled and soiled notes. They unravel in his palm. Felix flings them onto the kitchen table. He feels the pressure of his mother’s cat rubbing her sleek body against his calf. He reaches past the bottle of whiskey and lifts the tin of Meaty Chunks from the table and spoons it into Cleo’s dish. Felix huddles down on the cool cement floor and cradles his cat in his rough, bruised hands.
copyright © 2014
When not engaged in torturing blank pages, Shane Mac Donnchaidh converts empty calories into intense bouts of prolonged procrastination.