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"I recall this: some friends introduced us to him at a party. At that stage, we did not really know how much he was to affect our lives. He had been invited along with his brother and sister and for the most part, he appeared shy. The silent types, the distant moody silent types, are always conspicuous at parties."

miss valentine
Tuesday, March 19, 2013 |

Tucker Tom walked my brother and me the mile and a half to school for according to Ma, we couldn’t be trusted, and besides, the civil unrest in Northern Ireland –what we called ‘The Troubles’– was two years old and about to enter a prolific period of murder and violence. Two years was enough for most people to be already accustomed to The Troubles, and most kids our age –me five, my brother six– didn’t have a Tucker Tom to walk them to school, no bodyguards or bullet-stoppers, but ours was more evidence of Ma’s attempts to wrap us in cotton wool away from the absurd reality that was ready to ambush us.

Although he was only a few years our senior, Tucker Tom looked much older. The sides of his face sagged, but his head was shaped like a trophy with cow-like lugs for handles that made me just want to grab one in each hand and lift his head aloft in celebration. He had innocent rose cheeks and hair that stood astonished like the bristles of a toilet brush. He came from a family of construction workers and later, he too would follow them to the construction sites. He was built that way. They all were; mother and all.

He stood silently at our front door with something we had learned was his smile, but to others it seemed like a permanent grimace at a bad smell. “They’ll be out in a wee minute, Tucker Tom,” said my Ma.

In case you are wondering, a lug is what Ma called an ear, and Tom had two humdingers. Many a time Ma threatened to raise me too in the air by the lugs, or to leave the palm of her hand there, if you know what I mean, after a fierce swing, and for good reason. Not that much reason was needed for a smack on the lug by Ma, for seemingly, at that stage, badness had grown into me.

“Watch these pair, Tucker Tom, for badness has grown into them,” and at that Tucker Tom turned his prize fart-face to signify the start of our trek, and my brother and I marched out to follow him. Badness had grown into me. You’d probably agree with her if it was all your furniture, not hers, I tried to take out into the back yard and burn.

Tucker Tom’s mission was to get us to the safety of school, and when we reached the junior section –we called the juniors the wee bucks– he turned and crossed the wee buck’s yard to the big buck’s yard and that was that, nothing said.

But words didn’t matter to me for my head was otherwise filled with thoughts of love. And what did I know of love? The object of my affection was the most exquisite creature. Dreamy, she blinded me, like I was looking directly into the sun; she smelled of a happy good morning and fresh fruit; she had the warmth of a cuddle. When I closed my eyes, I saw her, and she smiled at me, her head tilted, the ends of her short red bobbed hair curling as if to tickle her cheeks.

With Tom gone, my brother and I marched into the wee buck’s school in our matching clothes (knitted everything: socks, sweaters, ties, hats, gloves). We wouldn’t see Tom again until 3:30 for the silent return journey home.

School to me was the best place on earth. My earth that probably amounted to a square mile of grey, often bombed, soldier polluted, fear filled landscape, part Irish dampness, part apocalypse, but my wonderful universe nonetheless. While Ma used the softly-softly approach to our well-being, knitting us into a cotton wool comfort, Da used shock tactics and gave us the stuff of nightmares. After a local youth was blown up planting his own bomb, Da told us that parts of his body were found a half a mile from the explosion.

But such things remained behind me as I entered the school gates, and in front of me I anticipated only beauty. You see I was in love with my teacher, and as odd as it might seem, her name was Miss Valentine. Of course the irony of that meant nothing to me at five, but later, I checked with old school friends to make sure that I had not made her name up. And I knew they would remember, for they loved her too. Joe McGrath, the most likely to become an outstanding athlete, was forever climbing ropes and standing on bars and swinging like Tarzan to catch her affection. What an ape!

Unable to climb or swing particularly well, I had taken to sliding around on my back on the wooden floors of the classroom. I wore short trousers and knee length socks, and I used my legs to drive around, polishing the floors with the back of the sweater Ma had knitted for me, so I could eventually park myself between Miss Valentine’s feet and look up her dress. I was five years old. What the hell was I looking for? I guess I might not have known what I was looking for, but I certainly knew where to find it.

It was a Tuesday. After morning prayers, the class was drill-marched to the gymnasium to watch educational programs on the television. There was only one television, and it was on high stilts in the corner. Medicinal doses of programs about basic mathematics would be administered and Miss Valentine would tell Joe McGrath to stop swinging on the gym ropes and sit still and pay attention. What an ape!

Before the little sliding doors of the enclosed television were opened to start the morning shows, the curtains of the gym had to be closed to block out the daylight. There was always a chorus of “Miss, Miss, Miss, Me, Miss” as little adoring leeches vied to be selected for the task of closing one of the thick green velvet curtains. And I would just hold up a finger at the side of my head, no “Miss, Miss, Me, Miss”, for I knew she would pick me. She always did.

She turned her head and her rays blinded me and she pointed and simply said, “Paul,” with a smile only I could see. She did this every Tuesday and I skipped towards the curtain I usually closed, looking back over my shoulder at my Miss. I skipped towards the special window, the one that was different from the others, a half-window high above the school piano. I skipped. When I got there, knowing her eyes were piercing my back, I did the only acrobatics I could do, and put a hand on the closed piano lid, kicked my legs up, and in my most graceful moment, hopped on it, and stood looking down over my shoulder at the class, and Miss, and started to close the curtains.

As the thick curtains closed the gym got darker, but suddenly there was a deeper blackness behind, as if her sunbeams were no longer trained on me. I felt a sense of dread, and turned around to see a dark silhouette in the mouth of the gymnasium doors. The evil Nosferatu shape, curled and hunchbacked, the long deathly black robe, and polished-white bald head introduced the headmaster, Brother Ignatius. My eyes adjusted to focus on his face, pale and pointy; I traced the curl of a smirk formed by wet earthworm lips and the dark fissures of a squint suspicious of everybody. He hovered in that black robe, and moved with a deftness that was impossible to outmaneuver. No evidence of feet, yet he was by your side before a bad thought had even time to register. He inhaled deeply and slowly through thin nostrils and began to vomit fury at me standing on top of the piano.
“Get down o’ this minute you little skithering get, or I will cut the legs from un-under you, you little skither! Get into my office now, boy!”

I was frozen. My time was up. I had been out on the lake with a girl and my number had been called. Time to bring the boat in. Happiness over.

I had forgotten about Brother Ignatius, so adrift I was in my own wee fairy tale. I’d packed him away along with the bombs and violence and killings and instead forged my own little idyll. His voice was a fierce explosion, and brought instant fear from the very tips of my blond hair, to the dirty scuffed toes of my old school shoes. I slid down off the piano, polishing it too with me shorts-covered arse, and immediately paced towards his office, quick-smart, knowing that dallying would make something bad even worse. The gym was completely blackened by my tunnel vision except for the shaft of light that led to his office. I heard no sound, but the echoes of his, “Get into my office now, boy!”

As I entered the office, I couldn’t mouth any words of explanation, or rat on the real culprit who had asked me to do it, and just thought of the beating I was about to receive. Where was Tucker Tom when I needed him? And Miss Valentine? It didn’t come as a surprise that she stayed in the shadows, didn’t fling herself forward, arms outstretched with all the melodrama of certain stage actresses to stop the injustice. I knew that to Tom, and even to Miss Valentine, Brother Ignatius was venomous, and scared the bejasus out of them too. The power of the headmaster was witnessed in the trance induced by his scrawny index finger topped with nail bayonet, slowly curling back and forth, beckoning. The power. How the hell had I forgotten about this monster? Love blocks the most obvious things.

He grabbed my arm before I was completely in the office and nearly pulled it out of the socket as he dragged me in front of his desk where his sadism held court. A large bamboo cane was swung in an arc and whipped down catching the very tips of my fingers held out in front of him. The follow through of the cane slapped the side of his black robe and the plumes of chalk dust that emanated filled the room with a light fog of Christian education. He had much practice in all things corporal punishment, and was very good at it. Never missing, but barely hitting the tips of my fingers, inflicting the most pain possible. Six times, each hand. My hands were balloons, an ocean boiled from within but I was determined not to cry. I clenched my teeth, felt I could drown in the retained valley of tears as Brother Ignatius sent me back to the gym yelling after me, but I don’t remember the words, because they were probably more for his own justification than any worthwhile warning for a sinner.

As soon as I left his office, I walked slower, a fierce fire coming from the ends of my arms where my hands used to be. Even at five, I knew that it was always held in high regard to take a flogging from the headmaster and not to show it. Joe McGrath, caught swinging on ropes like an ape when she told him not to, about a month earlier, took the same beating and came in crying like a church requiem. But not me. I wasn’t going to let her see me crying. After all, I had taken a beating for her.

A show about addition and subtraction was already on, and all the kids were sitting on the wood gymnasium floor in semi-circles around the raised television. The T.V. was like a lifeguard up there in the highchair, with all responsibility for the little arched necks below. The Brother Ignatius incident had made them more attentive than usual. Joe McGrath was seated still, his arse firmly on the floor and not flashing it in her direction, as he would usually do under normal circumstances, the fecking ape!

They all turned as I walked in. There was a spot at the foot of the tall T.V., and holding myself carefully, I slowly walked forward to fall the first and only time to plant myself there. There was nothing said, and I saw my love standing at the back of the semi-circles of little innocence, and she had her elbow in one hand, and the other hand covered her mouth. The light from the broadcast lit up her face and, as she turned to me, I could see streams of tears; a flood flowing from her eyes, her adoring eyes. Tears for me: Brave hero, who had taken a beating from the devil and didn’t reveal it. Tears for me: I was her bodyguard, her Tucker Tom, she loved me as I loved her and her tears for me would wash my scuffed and dirty shoes once and for all.

No one said anything as I sat down on the wooden floor, crossed my legs, and arched my head to watch something on the television I didn’t really see. The others stopped looking at me, slowly turned their heads and trained their eyes up there too. It all seemed to pass too quickly, show over too soon, but in the glare of that black and white T.V., I knew that she was mine, and would be mine forever.

Tucker Tom picked me and my brother up at half past three as usual, except on this day Tom actually spoke. I didn’t ask him where the hell he was when the devil himself was beating the shite out of me, and I wouldn’t tell my parents either, for they’d say I must have doing something wrong, and would try to beat the very same shite out of me again. Nevertheless, my head was filled with gorgeous memories, and the physical pain I endured that day had already transformed into a grander love, but I was always sad leaving Miss Valentine. We had walked silently for about five minutes, my head down, bottom lip big enough to lick all the stamps for the Queen, and I was looking at my shoes, when I turned to Tom and said, “Tucker Tom, I don’t think I need you to take me to school anymore.”

He looked at me and held my stare for a while, his ugly mug covered with that fart-faced smile.

“We’ll see,” he said, “we’ll see.”


The Science of Sameness
Wednesday, February 27, 2013 |

The conversation to accompany the rich Italian food was proper chirpy, boasting of the good things in life, and while we gulped at a Chianti that worked (sometimes they don't), a sentence started by one was finished by another without feeling like interruption. It was the sort of occasion often punctuated with darted comments like "isn't life great?" which was strange, for we had just returned from a tour of cemeteries, and had been met at each solemn grave by dreary rain.
Flowers were planted, and small pines (oh, how you have grown since we saw you last) resisted trimming, but the hedge clippers were mainly to blame for they were blunt and lazy. We tousled the pines instead to shake them to attention and, all the while, gardening, we sheltered beneath large bright golfing umbrellas.
Content with our lot for this brief period --who would blame us for wallowing in the moment-- we sat around the table in the noisy Italian restaurant, with an open kitchen like a stage, and reminded ourselves of the worst jobs we ever had. I found it hard at first to retrieve that recollection, so caught up I was in the positive mood, but something L said found the memory:
I was young, and having just been released from my blessed captivity of life before twenty-one, I headed for London and to my friend. Desperately in need of money, I was told when I got there to sign up at a Temp Agency, which was one of the first things seen by arrivers at Ealing Broadway. It reminded me more of a Travel Agency than a place to find work, with its large shop front windows covered in handwritten cards that requested things like "Drivers Wanted" in a manner very similar to proclamations of "Ibiza from £60."
I spoke at first to a large girl, with bright red lipstick and dressed all in black. She sat behind an office desk and as I sat in front of her, it was obvious she had one of those effervescent personalities. Her face was beautiful and her demeanor prettier. Another friend from Ireland who was with me, looking for work also, was to leave the agency that day with a date to meet her the following Saturday for drinks at the North Star. He did not go, and stood her up, which hurt me then, and hurts me still, and extinguished the roaring fire of optimism she had. She became colder, rightly cynical, but I still got my temporary work whenever I asked.
But on that first day, she told me that I was getting a week-long stint at somewhere or other. All I heard was the word 'week', and I thought about the money. She told me to show up at the entrance to the train station the next day and I would be picked up by a work bus.
Eager as you are on your first day, I was there slightly early, and circled at a distance sizing up the others already in line before I joined them. I met a guy from Liverpool. Instantly talkative like my preconception of all Scousers, I liked him immediately. Not only did he wear his heart on his sleeve, he served it with condiments, and like a butler, pulled up an imaginary chair and offered a seat, so I could be more comfortable as I helped myself to his heart.
I do not remember the journey to the workplace or the orientation when we got there -it couldn't have been much. We stood on a factory floor in front of a large metal machine, like an old-fashioned oven, and dark green, it was as tall as we were. Just above waist height, it had an opening, fat and boxy; the bottom of this opening was shiny silver like a fancy serving tray. To the left were five large pallets of books; each pallet had a different type of book, some thick, some thin. They were instruction manuals for Epson printers (It did not occur to me then that a printer could be so complicated; later in life, I was to yell at them).
We had to pick one book from each pile to form a package of manuals, place the package on the silver tray, and press a foot pedal at the skirt tail of the green machine. Ga-clunk: Mechanical arms, green too, flailed inside the machine's bowels, and if we were careful, they bound only the books and not our arms with that plastic, slightly corrugated tape that is so hard to remove and the bother to new printer owners.
The two of us, Scouser still talking, quickly formed a rhythm, and alternated back and forth from machine to pallets. While he formed a package, I ga-clunked another. Evidence of our appetite for breaking the monotony of this trial can be found in my recollection of the Southern Asian guy - my only other real memory of the job.
Thin as wheat spaghetti he was, and he wore a white shirt too big for him unbuttoned at the collar, with a black tie shaken loose about two inches. He always arrived at the same time, his disproportionally big black hair finely coiffured, and we always stopped our rhythmical chore as he casually crossed by us on the bare warehouse floor. His right hand was always buried deep in the pocket of black trousers which, although drainpipe-style, refused to cling to toothpick legs.
We guessed he worked in the offices upstairs, had money, or more than we had at least, and although it was probably the same unwashed shirt and tie each day (we didn't think about that), we were suitably impressed by his vague officiousness. He broke his gait across the factory floor only to skip on to a large platform, a scale used to weigh many pallets, and as he stood there, a model paused at the end of the catwalk before returning, he gazed at the alarm clock red numbers declaring his weight.
At that moment, each day, the Scouser would say,
"Does he look any heavier to you?"
And we would go back to our ga-clunking, back to our eternity of repetition, and the spaghetti man would make his way back upstairs, probably happier or sadder with the result, and you would not be far from the truth if you are thinking right now that the small weigh-break was not a break at all, but part of our Sysiphusian routine.
After the tales at the Italian restaurant, and double espressos to try to level our emotions, we arrived back home from a day that had differed from our normal days. As I stepped into the house, I remembered another job I did as a youngster that would probably top as the worst job in the world, worse than the ga-clunking. I reminded myself to tell my friends about it, and I will tell you too, one day. Our visit to the cemeteries had somehow encouraged us, subliminally perhaps, to think bright things and of the good in life, and the visit to the Italian restaurant was something we had not done before as a group. There is safety in sameness, but change is good.

Saturday, October 20, 2012 |

The following is a written account of actual events. And just because I’m telling you this story doesn’t mean I survived. There are many ways to die, many things to crush us, empty our innards, and turn us into the hollow walking dead.
It all came together as I searched for the source of a mysterious sound in the basement of my condemned house. I stopped calling it my home many months before my wife moved out to put some distance between her and a condemned marriage. Since she left, my house has been full of ghosts. They don’t scare me, but the ones that bother me most are the happy ones. Since she left, I hate happy things. I hate the ghosts that echo the cheerful events from the past, and much prefer the ones that peddle fear and melancholy.
I’m lying on my couch watching an English television show about a guy who travels back to 1973. It occurs to me he's a lucky bastard and if I were him, I wouldn't come back. And that's when I see her again –the happy ghost– walking down the stairs and into the living room. She’s semi-transparent, the way all ghosts are supposed to appear, and the sounds of her laughter, the shifts in her movements, the rustle of her taffeta skirt, and the clip of her stilettos echo as if coming from a large airplane hangar. As she crosses the room, she stops, and for a second, it looks like she might see me. If she is a figment of my imagination, I should be able to make her turn and look, but she doesn’t. I have no control. She’s laughing at something else. As she pauses, she stoops to adjust her shoe, making the heel fit her foot more comfortably. I bow my head and close my eyes. I think of the moments we had that would make her this happy. Her apparition is gone before I open my eyes again.
I breathe heavily through my nose, and try to concentrate on the television show. I love the seventies, but I stop feeling jealous of the character when I remind myself that creativity allows me to go back to 1973 too. My thought is interrupted by a strange noise that seems to come from the basement. I content myself thinking that a draft of wind might have knocked something over. Unexplained sounds like this in my condemned house are not unusual; it's gone midnight, and at that desolate hour, I usually start to hear noises.
The typical routine is followed: I turn down the sound on the television to eliminate the possibility that it was the source. That's normally the case. I listen. Nothing. When I begin to convince myself that the T.V. is the source of the strange sound, it happens again. Clearer this time. Like a hammer on a piece of metal. The worst outcome has manifested; there is a noise coming from the basement, and it frightens me. Since I became the sole inhabitant of this ghost-infested house, my Brooklyn Crusher is always within reach when the sun goes down. It's a self-defense weapon in the guise of a baseball bat. I grab the handle.
Now here's the thing. When you watch horror movies, and you see the victim go searching for the source of the spook, you're always wondering why the hell they just don't run like blue fuck away from any possible danger. But from my experience, you do act like they do in the movies. That's exactly what you do. You want to know what it is, or should I say, what it isn't. You want to rationalize it. Turn the suspected horror into a cat or drafty window.
I hear another clang. As I move towards the basement I start turning all the lights in the house on. I behave like I'm in a movie, treading slowly down the stairs that lead below. The basement is extremely cold and dark when I open the door and take my first step inside. My heart is thumping and my t-shirt feels as if it struggling to keep it from leaping out and dashing back upstairs. Brooklyn Crusher gets another squeeze from my right hand to assure her that I love her and need her. I have to walk about ten feet before I reach the light switch, and when I turn it on, the light flickers.
Looking for possible culprits for the noise, I scan the room. I find nothing. The light suddenly stops flashing and stays on. There's no cat. No drafty windows. This is utterly dissatisfying. I check the door and secure windows and do anything possible to defuse my anxiety, for how can I return upstairs with an unsolved mystery below.
Suddenly a crashing sound, I jump back,"Fuck!"
I add several more profanities, directed at my skittishness, when I realize it's only a garden rake that has fallen over. I blow wind through an O-shaped mouth and convince myself that the rake is the villain. The source of the earlier noises. And as ludicrous of a deduction that is, it will do for me. Don't ask me for specifics.
I stare at the rake. The handle is long. It provokes a thought, and then begins to unravel a memory. The memory is over 40 years old. It's frayed. When it begins to come into focus an almost mythical character emerges: The Lollipop Man. He stands translucent in front of the basement door shadows covering the features of his face. I close my eyes. How do I want to remember him?
Americans call him a Crossing Guard, but in the land that created Spiderman, The Silver Surfer and Captain America, they are missing much. For even the name, The Lollipop Man, immediately pulls a smile on the sourest of faces, and encourages the belief in fantasy only possible in the reading of good fiction. But this is a deeply honest memory: The sort of honesty that is crafted from remorse. My recollections are positive though; nostalgia has a way of doing that.
He stands about 5’5” tall, or sometimes 5’2”; it depends on which leg is holding his weight, for the right leg is three inches smaller than the left. Although a specially crafted orthopedic boot evens out this discrepancy, he still limps. Precise math and exact shoemaking procedures cannot account for that. It’s likely his mind over his body. His mind has known since childhood that he should limp, therefore he still does.
That’s not all: His right foot is always at a right angle to his left foot. So, when he looks down, and I am sure he often does, the position of his feet read three o’clock. To compensate for the weight of the built-up shoe, he swings it as far forward as he can when walking. It makes for an interesting gait: A clumsy gallop of clunkiness. There’s a noise I associate with the limp: ga’dumpf, ga’dumpf. If a soccer ball was to get in the way of that almighty foot swing, it might produce the most perfect shot on goal.
His black pants are too short and show off the lacings of his specially made boots. A plastic white coat that is two sizes too big for him, his Lollipop Man uniform, is buttoned to the neck. He doesn’t really have only one tooth, but one of his incisors is so disproportionally larger than the rest of his teeth,  it looks as if he does. There’s always a smile wrapped around that disproportionally large tooth, even when he’s shouting at me.
As an adult, two or three large strides would be enough to cross the road in front of my primary school's entrance, but to a child, it’s a vast wasteland of potential harm. And that's where The Lollipop Man stands. The usher of safety. The one who makes sure the school children are not put in harm's way. His head is completely bald, and on the right side of it, on top, about three inches above the right ear, is a golf-ball sized lump. The Lollipop Man's name is Paddy. Most kids call him Paddy Bump.
We stand, little fucking angels, as if butter wouldn't melt in our mouths, waiting for Paddy to let cars pass by. And then he pushes his heavy shoe forward, ga’dumpf, ga’dumpf, and marches out to the middle of the road with all the bearing of a hopeless drunk. It's only when he plants the bottom of his lollipop stick firmly on the pavement, and waves his left arm, that we are allowed to cross. The lollipop stick is constructed of a round top, exclaiming STOP CHILDREN, and it's attached to a long broomstick-like handle.
We cross, and when we get to the school side of the road, we turn to utter our collective taunting. We giggle and shout, “Pad-dy Bump, Pad-dy Bump, Pad-dy Bump.” And run off to the security of the busy school yard. He hobbles after us, ga’dumpf, ga’dumpf, only a faster ga’dumpf, ga’dumpf than before, and spits threats around his disproportionally large tooth, “I knows whos yous are. I knows your Mas and Das.” We run, sniggering, pushing and tripping each other. When we needed him, we were all cherub-like, but after he had helped us, we ridiculed him. And it was always like this. And he never threatened us before helping us across, as if he was thinking, “This time, this time they won’t.”
I open my eyes. The ghost of the Lollipop Man is still there by the basement door. He’s smiling. I imagine him saying, “I know your Da,” and I turn. As I make my way back to the living room, I murmur “Pad-dy Bump, Pad-dy Bump, Pad-dy fuck-in Bu-ump.”
The guy on the television is wearing what I used to call a yahoo-collared shirt. The points of the collar are exposed over his brown leather jacket and almost touch his armpits. He’s an undercover detective dressed in brown everything, and he’s still coming to terms with 1973. A guy leans into his car window to ask for directions. The bright sunlight makes him a silhouette.
A loud laugh reverberates in my head and I’m transported to a place near Boston Common in the middle of the summer of 2008. It’s overwhelmingly hot, and I feel lethargic as I walk towards the signal where I can cross to the park. My excess weight makes days like this feel like I'm swimming in pea soup. Déjà vu: I remember this. I know what happens next. Always this memory.
A Toyota Camry —it’s seen most of the country in the last 15 years— is stopped at the traffic light. It emits the sort of burning oil odor that used to make me carsick in the back of all those used cars my father bought. The stink makes me wretch a bit. All the windows are rolled down and there are three young men in the car. They look naïve, all perhaps about 19 years old. The one sitting in the front passenger seat raises his eyebrows to me as if to get my attention.
Here we go,” I think, “he needs directions. Shite, I’m always shite giving directions.” I try to focus on my surroundings and hope he asks me directions to somewhere I know.
“Excuse me, sir,” He says, with his arm dangling out of the window, “Can you help us?”
I slightly bow my head —an instinctive and pointless move somewhat like the unnecessary dip you might do if a jet flies overhead and you hope those reduced inches might save you from jet-engine decapitation.
“What is it?” I say.
“We were just wondering,” he says, and then pauses, “...are you Boston’s first pregnant man?”
And I am immediately turned to stone. I clench my teeth and try not to show emotion. I'm aware of perspiration on my face, one large drop on my nose; a swinging blob of embarrassment hanging on for dear life.
I have no words for the questioner, but his words have serrated edges that tear at my chest leaving ragged wounds, and they probe deeper still, slashing at my heart, ripping it into slivers, blood clotting and falling to the ground like bits of despised liver. And all the while I have no words, but the unbearable thought that, unlike a real stabbing, I will fucking survive this. I will survive this fucking mauling, and have my nose constantly rubbed in the pain by ghosts.
There’s a swell of hilarity as each of the car occupants feed their laughter to the joke. The traffic light takes pity on me and turns green. They move off, and it seems the further away they are, the louder the guffaws are, until the sounds morph into a familiar nursery rhyme: “Pad-dy Bump, Pad-dy Bump, Pad-dy Bump.”
When I was about 25, I worked for a radio celebrity called Bobbie.  He’s a key conspirator in my addiction to storytelling, and I got many of my fixes through his weekly show where he interviewed personalities from Northern Ireland. On many occasions I joined him, and worked the recording equipment. His idea of personality was very broad, and most of the time, he just enjoyed interesting characters. Bobbie had an uncanny knack of knowing who would be entertaining, like the man who claimed he was Shirley Temple’s nephew and that he’d invented the heart transplant by first trying it out on chickens.
“Why don’t we interview Paddy, the Lollipop Man?” Bobbie said.
I snapped my fingers. “That would be brilliant,” I said.
When the day came, Paddy arrived at Bobbie’s studio wearing the large white coat. He looked exactly the same as I remembered him. He didn’t recognize me though; there was a whole new generation of weasels out there to worry him. He passed me and moved towards the chair, ga’dumpf, ga’dumpf, and sat down.
Bobbie went though simple questions unearthing the genius of banality.
“So Paddy, in all those 35 years as a Lollipop Man, how many lollipop sticks have you had?”
“Ah, just the one, Bobbie,” said Paddy.
“That’s amazing. Just the one lollipop stick in 35 years?”
“That’s right.”
“And you have never had any accidents or damage to it?”
“Oh,” said Paddy, “I’ve had a few; I’ve had two replacement handles, and three replacement tops.”
Bobbie smiled, "But it's still the same one?"
"Aye," said Paddy, “It’s the very same one.”
And in that moment, Paddy became legend to me. That memory would become champion, and I would use it to try to drown the ones where I made a mockery of him. If I were to use this memory of Paddy more than the others it would prize me with atonement. It’s the same lollipop stick, but it has completely changed. Just like ourselves.
It's seems as if the memories and ghosts I have aroused have some relevance, or are trying to convince me they have relevance. Young teens in a jalopy calling me names is my karma for my own name calling. But I don't believe in karma. Like the word "sin", it's part of a wider lexicon created by people just to make other people feel guilty. The ghosts are showing me what people do, not how I got what I deserved.
Paddy Bump probably went to his grave haunted by the taunts of children. He's likely long dead, because he was ancient when I first met him many years ago. I wish he could have known how affectionately I respect his ghost. That he could know that with his simple approach to life and that incidental philosophy, he encouraged me to write this. I can only take solace that those three youths might go on to do creative things, and maybe one day produce a piece of work about a pregnant man.
And then, I see her again –the happy ghost– walking into the living room towards the stairs. She’s semi-transparent, the way all ghosts are supposed to appear,  and she’s laughing. She starts to climb the stairs, stops for a second and looks at me. She looks directly at me and pouts her bottom lip. She begins to fade. And as she does, I close my eyes. She starts to recite a familiar mantra:
Pad-dy Bump, Pad-dy Bump, Pad-dy Bump.

Friday, September 28, 2012 |

O’Malley’s Reprisal
Friday, November 02, 2007 |

“Is this us?” she said.
“Are you a guessing person?” he replied.
There is not much to guess to be truthful. It is North Station, Boston, 06:51:38 PM. There are nine empty platforms and only one that entertains a train: Track 8. Some of those that are waiting have made the obvious assumption and have started to board the train already. The others, including O’Malley, stand swapping glances from the train to the departure board. Their train is top of the list, the 06:55 PM to Haverhill, but the track has yet to be announced and they remain unconvinced. It seems an obvious choice, as already suggested, but O’Malley doesn’t go for it. He did once, and that time he had the luxury of an almost empty train, half a car to himself: a risk taken, reward given, and he who does not take risks does not drink champagne. On that occasion, as he sat in the half empty train, he looked out the window to see a train arriving at the last minute and his suspicions were confirmed: the one arriving was the one he wanted. He doesn’t do that anymore, take risks, for champagne can make you behave foolishly.
But as he expected, Track 8 is called for Haverhill three minutes before departure. The she-said-he-replied couple dart forward and O’Malley follows, along with about eighty other non-champagne drinkers, darting too with all the gusto of a half-marathon send-off, all dartlike with intent. It’s a semi-obese race mostly, for the good seats, but O’Malley is otherwise occupied with thoughts on why they always do that at stations, leave the track announcement to the last minute. He mutters several different styles of fuck to no one in particular, his favorite being an extended rasping faaacck squeezed through his teeth. In his mind he enters a room of cameras and monitors. He imagines one of the operators in room with a finger hovering over the departure board update button as if primed to launch a missile. Making sure he has the attention of his colleagues to witness some choice buffoonery, the operator thumbs the button to start the race saying, “And….they’re off.” It occurs to O’Malley that the operators of the cameras, monitors and train departure boards have to amuse themselves somehow.
The train fills up fast suggesting there was maybe a reason for the late announcement. O’Malley grabs a seat near the door, wonders who will take the free one beside him, and immediately organizes his arse to get comfortable, planting his case tightly to his right after removing his black notebook. He pushes his eye glasses up on top of his head for he needs bifocals and these ones are useless for objects in the immediate vicinity. He opens the black book and begins writing about himself and the situation. For no apparent reason O’Malley decides to call himself O’Malley in the prose. The man in front facing him starts roaring into a cell.
“Your’re kidding me,” He says. O’Malley immediately mutters the same three words in agreement along with several different styles of fuck, his favorite this time being a long silent thought fuck. The annoyance wears a yellow sports coat with a green waistcoat on top. O’Malley wonders what that is all about, but puts it down to a fashion sense as daft as his abrasive cell phone drama. He also has a blue checked shirt, the sort that is supposed to be iron-free; a hat that falls around his ears might be dedicated to a love of Sherlock Holmes and is the same color as his thick-thread brown corduroy trousers, and at the end of crossed legs both feet tap rhythm in green Doctor Martens.
“I don’t know why you do this to me,” The Garish repeats into the cell phone. O’Malley agrees, and pushes himself back into the chair to seat himself upright hoping the body language says “Oh please shut up,” and looks outside at the damp evening wondering how much longer he will have to suffer the talkative clown. Much to O’Malley’s chagrin, a quick scan of the car of the train reveals it is already quite full. Opposite is a large lady who resembles a circus balancing act of three large balls on top of each other. Her mouth is arched in an almost perfect depiction of those sad face emoticons used in text messages; the sheer weight of the sides of her face pulls the edges of her mouth southwards. She is reading a book and O’Malley thinks that there is a possibility that the sour outer belies a happiness within. She has propped her as-big-as-they-come cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee at the corner of the free seat beside her. O’Malley considers himself an expert at recognizing the strange ways some folk have of marking the seat next to them as unavailable. He didn’t even have to see the coffee to figure that she was a wannabe lone-seater. He thought the better of moving; it did not bother him to be rude and tell her uncouthly to move the coffee and no one would get hurt, but he weighed up the options and figured that his spot in front of the garish goblin G’noof’noof was the better one. Besides Sourmouth’s coffee was teetering on a fall.
Just as O’Malley is about to take his attention elsewhere Sourmouth spasms, and her head jolts back with a little snort rasp from the back of her throat. O’Malley realizes it is the manifestation of her amusement at a particularly funny line in her book. “Sn’gghh-gghh!” she snorts at the bonus funny line that follows.
At that moment, a character from a Kundera story tries to enter this tale, scissor-fingering his extremely neat and conservative looking brush-to-the-right bangs. O’Malley knows it is Thomas and decides to have him scan the car for a free seat, turn, and walk to a different compartment of the train. Before Thomas turns, O’Malley wonders if he suits the argyle sweater, and as he leaves, and O’Malley lingers on the ponderance of the diamondular pattern, the toxic odor of a fart dangles over O’Malley’s vicinity. O’Malley suspects that it was Thomas who assaulted olfactics and fartened the atmosphere with skatole, but that deduction creates a predicament, for the others have not seen Thomas. O’Malley immediately scrunches a who-farted nose and frowns to signal to the others that he recognizes the presence of a fart and under no circumstances should they suspect it belongs to him: fart-free O’Malley. The others pull similar scrunched noses but their scan of O’Malley from top to toe suggests that their noses are more the I-know-who-farted kind. Sourmouth sn’gghh-gghhs.
O’Malley is startled by the old man standing beside him looking at the free seat next to him. The look proclaims ownership but doesn’t seem to bear any recognition of an offensive odor. O’Malley shuffles a few inches almost knocking his glasses of his head where he forgot they were perched. He takes to the task of furiously writing in his notebook as the old man sits beside him.
“Poor bugger,” O’Malley thinks, “still commuting at his age. Looks like one more clean shirt will do him before the Grim Reaper retires him.”
“I don’t know why you do this to me,” The Garish repeats into the cell phone. Sourmouth sn’gghh-gghhs. The old man has the color of extremely weak tea with milk, and his face is polka-dotted with liver spots. His hair is a cliché of white and he is wearing surprisingly trendy spectacles. He props a briefcase on his knees in an obviously well practiced maneuver and folds his arms on top, tucking the cuffs of his red pinstripe shirt back in to the sleeves of his Lieutenant Columbo-style raincoat. He smiles at Sourmouth and The Garish G’noof’noof and they return the greeting, and O’Malley knows he is gate-crashing the space of train buddies. The old man notices O’Malley furiously writing.
He half-turns and says something to O’Malley he will regret for the entire journey in the company of the writer.
“Hello,” he says, “you are doing an awful lot of writing there. What are you writing about?”
O’Malley can’t resist, and in a malevolent tone befitting of Nicholson in The Shining slowly turns to the old man, raises eyebrows and says, “You. I’m writing about you.”

the ghost of minty hatton

"I must have been scared all my life when I think about it, and I am still nervous now about most things. I’ve actually seen the ghost, and that’s not the worst of it; my chronicle amounts to this: "