Kieran Duddy is from Derry in Northern Ireland. He lives in London where he is currently working on a novel. He has been published in Wordlegs, Cleaver Magazine, Litro Magazine and The Honest Ulsterman. In his spare time he likes to drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and listen to punk rock.
“Bricks, Cement and Bottles of Stout”
Sean Tracey stood at the bar of Molly Malone’s on Kilburn High Road gulping down his stout. He stared at his haggard face in the mirror, then looked at the other punters. They were all Irish, men from both North and South who had weather beaten skin and hands like giants. He listened to their voices echo around the bar. “What the fuck am I doing here?” he swore to himself. “I am killing myself with the drink. There must be something better than this.” He took another gulp, then turned to the man beside him.
“Jesus, Jimmy. I hate this game. I hate that fucker Shorthall. He has it in for me.” He leant against the bar and shook his head. “What, with carrying those bags of cement up those stairs. Jesus! He loves watching us struggle.”
Jimmy stuck his hand on his cap, twisting it around until it sat in the right place.
“I know it’s a hard old game, Sean. Just do as he says or he’ll send you down the road.”
Sean rolled himself a cigarette and slapped Jimmy on the back. “Down the road! I’ll be going down the road in a bloody box if he doesn’t let up. Thank God for the black stuff!” Sean took another gulp and stared at the carpet, which lay beneath his feet, worn from a thousand Irish footsteps.
The next morning when he woke up he stared at the cracked yellow ceiling of his bedsit. A glint of light broke through the torn curtains and fell across his worn duvet. Sean sat up in bed and lit a dog end. “Jesus, it’s bitter in here,” he muttered to himself as he spat into a bucket. He looked at the wall opposite, to which he had sticky-taped a map of Ireland that he had brought across the water with him to London. There amongst the green he could see county Donegal. He sighed and reluctantly got out of bed.
He arrived at the construction site in Holborn, where he stopped and stared at the half-built office block, surrounded by scaffolding. “I’m giving it to the end of the month,” he thought before signing in.
Half an hour later Shorthall was shouting at him. “You’re digging that hole like an old woman!”
Shorthall was a mountain of a man from County Meath who had a neatly trimmed beard and wore an Aran sweater and a tiny gold crucifix around his neck. “Come on!” he yelled. “Work faster!”
Sweat formed on Sean’s face and his arms began to ache. Each time he stuck the shovel into the mud he imagined that he was digging Shorthall’s grave. A cement mixer churned in the background while around him men in shirts and caps toiled at the earth.
“I want the job finished today!” Shorthall added, rubbing his crucifix before walking off. The men kept digging. “At least I’ll have a cup of tea and a fag at break,” Sean said to himself as he lifted a shovel-load of muck thick as porridge and threw it to one side.
At lunchtime he sat in a nearby park. Parents walked by with their children. This made Sean feel sad. He wondered if he would ever have children. He took a gulp from his beer can and began to write a letter to his mother, informing her that he had met a lovely woman from Dublin and that they were to move into a flat at the end of the month. He mentioned that he had ten men under him and that he was expecting promotion. He took a couple of pounds from his pocket, and stuck them in the envelope. Then he walked towards the post office, thinking of Sundays back home when he would sit with his mother around the dinner table, the taste of stew filling his mouth, while the smell from the peat bog drifted through the window.
The afternoon’s graft nearly killed him. At four o’clock a lorry drove on to the site and screeched to a halt. Shorthall left his office and walked towards the driver, his thick arms swinging. He signed a docket.
“All right,” he said to the men. “Get the cement off.”
Sean stood in line. A bag was lowered onto his shoulders. He walked past a man drilling thick concrete, grunted, then threw the bag on the ground.
“Careful you don’t bust the fucken thing,” Shorthall sneered. “Come on! Buck up and get the job done!”
When the men had finished, they sat on the ground. Shorthall walked past Sean and stopped to pat him on the shoulder. “Well done. We’ll make a man out of you yet.”
Shorthall, rubbed his crucifix abstractedly as he spoke pointedly to Sean. “Don’t drink too much tonight. Get a good night’s sleep. There is a lot of work to be done tomorrow.” He then turned towards the wooden hut that served as his office, walked swiftly inside and slammed the door behind him.
Smoke hung thick in the air of the pub that night. A tricolour hung from the ceiling. The sports channel showed a clip of the Irish hurling semi-finals. The drink flew from the pumps as the men cheered. A grey-haired man at the bar began to sing an old Irish ballad. The publican turned the sound down on the TV. Sean put his arm around a stranger and began to sing, looking around at the other men’s glazed eyes and stubbled jaws. He looked towards the bar and saw a man wearing an Aran sweater. He looked closer. The man was younger and clean shaven. For a second he thought of what lay ahead the next day. His heart sank as he tipped the glass to his lips.
The mood was low in the tea hut the next morning. The door flew open. Shorthall stood there with hard eyes and a stern face.
“All right boys. Get your arses in gear. I want the bags taken to the sixth floor. No smoking. No talking. Let’s get the job done!”
Sean slammed his cup down on the table and left the hut.
Out on the site Shorthall stood beside the pile of cement. He thumped a bag, causing dust to rise into the air and he began to snigger as he gestured to Sean to lift the bag.
Sean finally reached the sixth floor feeling like he was going to faint. His legs felt like jelly and a vein throbbed painfully on his forehead. He carelessly threw the bag on the ground, relieved to be rid of the back-bending load.
“Watch the fucken thing!”
Sean turned round and wiped his brow with an old rag, surprised to see Shorthall standing there.
“How did you get up here so quick?” he asked, a look of puzzlement on his face.
Shorthall rubbed the heel of his boot into the floor. “I used the lift.”
Another man threw a bag onto the pile. Shorthall rubbed his hands.
“Come on boys!”
“Jesus Christ.” Sean threw his arms in the air. There were patches of sweat staining his shirt. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” he spat out.
Shorthall grinned with characteristic malice. “There’s nothing wrong with me. It’s you that’s the problem here, sonny.”
Sean turned and looked at the other men for support. They didn’t seem to notice him. Just stood bent over and fought to get their breath back.
“Look. Listen, I, I can’t understand.”
“Understand what!” Shorthall demanded, his tone mocking.
“Why don’t you let us load the bags onto the lift? Is that too much to ask for? ”
Shorthall cackled, looked at the cement, raised his eyebrows, and then looked at the lift. “The brickies are using it.”
Sean looked towards the lift which stood empty and shook his head. “There’s no one using it. A couple of runs and we’ll be done.”
“And then what am I to have you do for the rest of the day? Stand around and scratch your balls?” Without waiting for a reply to that question, Shorthall walked to the lift and pulled the door across.
“I’ll see yis on the ground floor.” He pulled a lever and disappeared.
The journey to the pub that night was a slow one. The men trudged along the brightly lit Kilburn High Road, their heavy shoulders slumped forwards. When they got to the pub they sat in silence and stared into their glasses as if they were watching a scene from a film.
Sean woke with a start the next morning. He thumped his alarm clock, his head pounding and saw that he was late. “Fuck’s sakes!” He rubbed his bloodshot eyes, hurriedly leapt out of bed and pulled on his clothes, all the while bitterly cursing himself and his treadmill of a situation.
The bus pulled into Holborn. Sean got off and walked slowly across the road, his eyes not leaving the ground. A car drove towards him and the driver tooted his horn, his face red. Sean swore at him, then walked onto the site. When he saw Shorthall come out of the hut he knew what was to come.
Shorthall stopped in front of Sean and glared at him. “I’m sending you down the fucking road!”
“Look, I was held up,” Sean pleaded.
“I don’t give a fuck. Fuck off!” He stuck up a finger, turned and slammed the door.
Sean walked to the park, his hatred for Shorthall mounting. He took a swig from his can, knowing that he could walk onto another site on Monday. It began to shower. He sat under a tree with the rain dripping from the branches. He took another swig and thought of the small cottage with a thatched roof that he would buy when he went back to Ireland to retire.
At four he walked to the site determined to get his wages. He stood at the gates. Soon O’ Neill, the main contractor, who delivered the wages, drove into the yard in his green Jaguar. He got out of the car and looked at Sean, who was leaning against a post in his sodden work clothes.
“Who you working for?” he asked in a thick Dublin accent.
Sean shrugged his shoulders. “Shorthall?”
O’Neill shuffled in his pockets and pulled out a packet of cigarettes, his keys falling unnoticed into the mud, he took one out, struck a match and lit up.
Sean dropped his eyes then quickly looked away.
O’Neill blew out a trumpet of smoke. “Keep an eye on the car, my good man.”
Sean walked towards the car, his boots squelching in the mud.
From the site there came the confused sounds of a sudden commotion. “Get an ambulance,” a man screamed. “He’s fallen down the stairs.”
O’Neill ran towards the building.
Sean looked on, raised an eyebrow, and then picked the keys from the mud wiping them clean on his trousers. He paused and watched O’Neill enter the building. Slowly, he stuck the key in the boot, turned it and looked inside at the rows of brown envelopes. Eyes flashing he got in the car, rubbing his hands, the smell of freshly polished leather filling the air.
An ambulance drove past, its siren wailing. He watched the drama unfold through the rear-view mirror. A man was being stretchered into the ambulance, his legs badly twisted. Sean put the key in the ignition, spun the car around and began to toot the horn. Shorthall walked from the building then looked towards the car.
He narrowed his eyes, stuck his fist in the air and ran forward. “What the fuck are you doing?”
Sean clenched the wheel, his knuckles white, and began to rev the engine, which roared like a wild beast. He drove straight at Shorthall, who stood white faced, his body rigid. The brakes squealed and the car came to a halt. Shorthall clutched his crucifix so tightly the chain snapped and it fell into a puddle at his feet. Shorthall stared and gaped in terrified disbelief, while his lips trembled and piss ran from inside his trouser leg onto the ground.
Sean wound down the window and roared in triumph. “I’m off to buy myself a mansion!”
He turned the car, put his foot on the accelerator and sped off, leaving a trail of smoke behind him. Looking through the mirror at the unfinished building getting smaller, he thought of the green fields of Ireland, the misty mornings and cows grazing in the fields. He took a deep breath, inhaling the fine Irish air. The beat of the bodhran began to drum and he drove on to the only Ireland that he would ever see, Molly Malone’s on Kilburn High Road.
© 2019 Kieran Duddy