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Guy Barriscale in Southword Journal

Guy grew up in Britain; the adopted son of an Irish immigrant and an English mother. He moved to Belfast in 1989 and then to Donegal 10 years later. He has worked in professional theatre for over 25 years, as a technician, production manager, designer/maker and musician. He started writing nine years ago as a direct response to the death of his father and the first contact with his biological mother; it is much cheaper than psychotherapy. Inspired by a poet friend, he started writing poetry a year and half ago and has recently embarked on a creative writing degree with the Open College of the Arts. His work has appeared in the North West Words magazine, he’s read at the Irish Writers’ Centre and he’s delighted to have been selected for publication in Southword. Guy is married to Patricia, who’s from Strabane in Co. Tyrone. They have two tall children, a short-sighted labrador and an 11 year-old goldfish.






  Commended in the Seán Ó Faoláin Competition  


Corvagh Lough was still that evening; apricot tinted from the sunset, as clouds of midges tumbled over the bulrushes. Jamesy pushed his bicycle up the hill, past the old Rectory, where rooks chattered in the beeches. He’d cycled up this hill when he and the bicycle were younger. His legs were once strong, but not now. Those legs and the older Sturmey-Archer gears weren’t enough to get him to the top anymore. 

He wasn’t bothered by the hill this evening, he just wanted to remember it, to listen to the sounds of the twilight and watch the sun arc down towards the Iron Mountain. He looked back over the lake. The sunlit horizon marked its broken reflection on his eyes, all salmon-pink above and indigo below. His hair was the colour of the galvanised barbed wire that stretched along the roadside, and as curled and spiked too. In the falling light his zinc curls were rose-tipped like some Saint’s halo from a children’s picture book.

He nodded to himself and his eyes, cheeks and nose all came together in an anxious spasm. It was something he’d always had. His teacher had said it was the twitch of an ‘eejit’. Jamesy had lived with that one in the schoolyard; he couldn’t help it and it didn’t bother him, but the taunts once did. 

While he might not have been too good with the letters, there was very little he couldn’t do with his hands; he was certainly no ‘eejit’ when it came to his hands.  After the schooling, he’d got a start with the motor-works in town, fixing and mending cars and tractors and even bicycle gears. He was known around abouts as a man who could fix or make anything.

He nodded and blinked again, then mounted the blue bicycle; rusted chrome handlebars and flat tyres. He was unsteady as he passed the monastery, for the plastic Centra bag looped over the handlebar was full with shopping. He’d passed the monastery everyday of his childhood. Back then it was nothing but a pile of lichen crusted rocks, tumbling through the years. The Office of Works had rebuilt it with European money and now it was the local tourist attraction; all interpretative signs and trimmed footpaths.

At the junction Jamesy looked left, up to where her family had lived, beyond the village and up the hill. He nodded and blinked while a green and grey cement truck passed and then pedalled across the road to lean the bicycle against the wall of Duignan’s. He unhooked the bag from the handlebars and lifted it up onto the purple painted windowsill. He searched through the rashers and pan boxty for the green and gold box of Major and the matches. Jamesy bit the plastic wrap off the cigarettes and spat it away into the evening and then pulled out the foil before the first cigarette. 

His lips made and an ‘O’ shape and he wetted the white of the cigarette. With cupped hands he struck a match and breathed in the smoke once, twice and three times, before flicking the butt into the road. He put the pack of Major and the matches into the outside pocket of his overalls, for he didn’t want to crush the packet, then he pushed the door of Duignan’s and walked into the gloom with his plastic bag. 

There were a couple of locals watching the TV’s inside; some soccer match from England. The barmen pulled the glass of Guinness and poured the Powers. It was what Jamesy always drank, every night other than Sundays; never more than that, a glass of Guinness and a Powers with no ice. Jamesy sat on the cracked leather stool at the bar and supped, while his face creased again and again.

“Any craic tonight Jamesy?” asked the barman, but Jamesy wasn’t a one for too many words.

“Aughhh… no… no…” he replied, bitter Guinness taste on his tongue.

He had been a drinker years before, when he’d lived in England, when he’d had the legs to hold it. He’d spent his days pushing barrows of muck up steep scaffolding planks and tipping the muck into skips. He’d carried blocks and pipes and clamps, up and down ladders and up and down buildings. His nights were spent with all the other lads from Leitrim and Roscommon, talking about the old place, the Connacht football championship and the day’s winnings and losings on the horses.  Jamesy was a Corvagh man and the Aughnasheelin boys would always have a wager with him when the two sides met. He’d not meant to end up in London, but after she’d told him her news, he knew he’d not be welcome in the village. 

She’d been sent away to Liverpool to deliver and Father Michael had told Jamesy that he’d be wise to go to England too. So he left on the boat train for London; a hostel in Cricklewood and a job, labouring and shuttering on the sites. The foreman used to have him look at the machinery it ever broke down, for Jamesy was handy all right.  A quick repair of the cement mixer meant that he’d get a little extra in the brown envelope on a Friday lunchtime. 

He’d had ten years of that; rising at six in the morning, into the rusting Transit van with half a dozen other lads. They’d start work at seven and knock off for breakfast at ten; full English and stewed strong tea. Dinner at one, for half an hour, tea at three and finished at six, then back to the hostel to get cleaned up for the pub and the pints.

Jamesy would come home every summer with a little cash to spare and spend his days drinking with the ones that had stayed. Then he’d be back on the boat train to London.  Ten years of his life spent sunburnt in summer and frozen-fingered in winter. When his Father died, he’d come back to run the farm.

She never came back; she’d married a miner and was living in Lancashire, so he’d heard. Her mother and father had passed away and he’d no idea what had happened to the baby. 

He lived with his mother in the three room cottage on the farm, kept a few cows and looked after her when she fell ill.  He’d a sister, but she’d died when she was young and it was just Jamesy then.

When his mother passed on, Jamesy went into himself. Most of the young ones thought he was mad, with his twitching, his grey hair and the beard that grew in every direction. They laughed at him when he cycled past the school bus stop in the morning.

“There’s the loony… he’d be a great scarecrow…”

It never bothered him; he’d heard far worse when he was young one. 

“Achh…” said Jamesy to himself, wiping the Guinness head from his beard with his sleeve. He threw the Powers into him and got up to leave.

“See you tomorrow Jamesy…” he heard the barman say as he pulled open the doors and walked back out into the evening “…don’t forget your shopping.”

“Achh… aye, aye…”

Jamesy looped the near-forgotten Centra bag over the handlebars and pushed the bicycle up the big hill out of the village, up past the building sites and holiday cottages. When he got to the top, he wiped his blackhead-pocked neck with a handkerchief and blew his nose. His face was red with the sun and the effort. He pedalled the rest of the way home, wavering out into the road, unbalanced by his shopping.

There was still light enough when he got back to the farm. Jamesy had kept no cows this year; sold them off to his neighbours. He’d been relying on the welfare and the payments from the Department for the last few years but there seemed no point in carrying on the farming if he had to rely on the handouts from Carrick.

Inside, he opened up the vent on the range, lifted the cast ring and filled the firebox with dry sticks from the woodpile, stacked against the cream enamel. As soon as he heard the crackling of a good fire, he fried himself up a meal of rashers and sausages, pan-boxty and eggs; a feast for such an evening. He licked the streaks of egg yolk off the plate and then made himself a mug of stewed tea, sweetened with two sugars and a splash of Powers from the quarter bottle, kept above the dresser. After a few puffs on another Major and the tea drunk, it was time.

Jamesy went to his bedroom and sat on the end of the bed to take off his Wellingtons. They were green when he’d bought them but the bog had dyed the soles brown and stained the green with a succession of tide lines. One stood upright but the other fell over and he had to reach down to lift the both of them together and put them by the wardrobe. He undid the buttons on his overalls. They were blue once, but every job he known since he’d bought them was written across the cotton.  The paint spots from white-wash for the cottage, grey blobs from the roof paint of his neighbour’s barn, black grease from the power-take-off on the Massey 135 and blacker engine oil from the same tractor. There were a hundred other marks; each stain was a story, each story leading to this evening.

He took off the overalls and then unbuttoned the green woollen cardigan; darned and patched; every button different. He undid his shirt and slipped off his vest, then shuffled back into the kitchen across the cold quarry tiles. Jamesy stared for a while into the small mirror on the wall, catching every detail of his face; the eyes, blue like the feathers of a Jay; the lids, sagging; nose, flat and once-broken in a fight over a spilt drink. 

From the dresser he took the pair of scissors and began to trim his beard.  He’d not shaved since he’d come back from London and as he cut away the hair he saw a face he’d forgotten; a face that had once had a familiarity with hope and had known something like love. Now, he saw a face that had just worn-out.

Jamesy didn’t shave; just left the beard presentable as best he thought, brushed the barbed wire curls from his shoulders, then swept up the hair emptying the dustpan into the Centra bag.  He filled the kettle to boil on the hot ring of the range. He took off his trousers and his long underwear and folded them over the back of a kitchen chair, then stood naked while he waited for the water to heat; face twitching, hands clenched. 

On the range the kettle rattled as bubbles of steam popped from water trapped under its base. Jamesy poured some of the hot water into an enamel bowl and began to wash himself with a cloth. He ran the cloth down over the thin arms, where two colours of skin met at the elbow. He washed the sunken chest and his back, his privates and his legs and all the while his head nodded and his face twitched. He rinsed the cloth and ran it over his neck and face. He wrung the cloth out, laid it over the chrome bar on the range and then splashed handfuls of the warm water over his beard and hair. He lifted a thin pink towel from the press and when he’d dried the creased white skin and wiped the grey hair, he left a trail of damp feet-marks on the tiles back to the bedroom.

In the top of the wardrobe he found the packet and opened it. With some difficulty he managed to fit the incontinence pad around himself; one of his mother’s from the time she was ill. He pulled on the trousers of his Sunday suit over the pale blue nappy, then a white shirt, frayed at the neck and cuffs, tucked carefully in from the front and around.

He tied his ‘wake’ tie, pulled the braces over his shoulders and slipped the packet of Major and the matches into his trouser pocket; then his jacket, sleeves shiny from wear, black socks and shoes from another time. The overalls were folded and left on the end of the bed and he walked back to the kitchen. 

Running his fingers through his damp hair, he gave himself a side parting and took a last look into the mirror.  He pulled out one of the kitchen chairs, scraping it on the tiles. Holding the back, he climbed up on the chair. Taking his time, Jamesy began to unscrew one of the drying-line pulleys from the tongue and grooved timber ceiling.

Once he’d freed the pulley, he stepped back off the chair and pushed it back under the table. With the towel hung to dry next to the wash cloth on the range, he lifted the ring and dropped in the bag of hair. Replacing the ring, he could hear the hair spitting in the fire. He closed the vent on the range tight shut and used the last of the water from the kettle to wash the frying pan, dinner plate and tea-stained mug, leaving them to drain on the side.  

Jamesy looked around to see that everything was in order and he nodded.  Turning to the Sacred Heart on the wall he blessed himself three times, finished the Powers from the bottle in one mouthful and walked out of the cottage.

A week before, he’d had a delivery from the Dairies Co-op, a length of two-by-four timber, some perforated steel strapping, and half a pound of 6 inch wires. He’d cycled into the town to make the order and he’d bought some orange bailing twine from the counter, though he wasn’t too sure whether he’d need it.

Jamesy had sawn the length of two-by-four in half and he’d used one of the halves to make a short, narrow cradle. With the strapping and nails he’d attached it to one of the shed posts, about a yard and a bit off the floor. He’d used the other half of the two-by-four to make a V-shape and nailed it to the cradle, upside down, with some more strapping to secure it. It was a handy yoke; a little rickety, but as it only had to work once, Jamesy thought there was no point in making it too complicated. The bailing twine worked fine and didn’t snap when he’d tested it.

As the western light was disappearing over the mountain and blackbirds were calling in the hedges, Jamesy closed the cottage door behind him, left the key resting on the upturned horseshoe that was nailed to the door and walked across the street into the shed. The smell of wood-smoke, burning plastic and singed human hair caught his throat and he coughed and spat the phlegm onto the ground.

He screwed the pulley into the shed post. It was hard work as his fingers weren’t as strong as they once were.  When it was screwed deep enough, he ran a length of bailing twine through the pulley and looped the twine around the trigger of the shotgun, held in the two-by-four cradle. He’d set the gun there that morning; a four-ten, bolt-action, converted from a World War I Enfield three-o-three.  It was a grand little gun for rabbits and rats. 

He took an Eley Number Six from his jacket pocket and slid the red-plastic and brass cartridge into the breach, hands shaking. He pushed the bolt into the breach, pulled it down sideways then pushed the safety lever back. He was nearly done.

From his pocket he took out a set of rosary beads and knelt on the dirt floor mumbling a decade; counting through the beads one by one, his worn hands lined with work and ingrained with the same story-dirt as his overalls.

“…as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”

He blessed himself and lit a Major. This time he smoked the cigarette until his fingers were brown from the tar and he could taste the filter. He put the Major out; crushing the butt between finger and thumb and flicking it away.

Jamesy lent his chest against the shotgun barrel that poked out beyond the cradle. He’d made sure that it was the right height, just above his nipple where the hard bone of his chest was. He took the bailing twine in one hand and with the rosary in his other, he prayed.

“Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee…”  

He nodded, his face twitched and he pulled the bailing twine. Then there was nothing.

The rooks in the Rectory’s beeches all rose as one at the noise. Somewhere, across the fields, a dog barked. Jamesy lay on his back. His blue eyes were empty of care, staring sightless at the rusted, corrugated roof of the shed. His face didn’t twitch, there were no restless nods. In the west, the sun set behind the Iron Mountain.



©2012 Guy Barriscale







©2009 Southword Editions
Munster Literature Centre

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