By Ken Bruen
The very first short story I had published was about a young man returning to his home town for the funeral of his father
And as you no doubt have realized, I’ve come a long way since
In the joy stakes
It’s a very Irish story — funeral, hypocrisy, priests and loss
How far I’ve traveled from such preoccupations
The narrator’s sister is one of the main loves of his life
Tess, she’s called
And he is convinced she loves Club Milk
A chocolate bar, popular back then
Now we have HERSHEY’S … as we have
The story was based on my own childhood, titled
Releasing The Jackdaw
The father is a tyrant, for example, a framed Home Sweet Home is cracked from his fist
Not exactly your Waltons
There is of course the wake and the neighbors gathered around the bed, leaking homilies
Rosary beads are wrapped round the corpse like celestial cuffs
All speak highly of him, no disrespect for the dead and all that good horseshite. You want to be praised in Ireland?
It’s real simple
Ireland back then was shite poor, you had no choice, you emigrated, that was it, and if you were lucky, you got to America
The Promised Land
If you were bad fooked and truly skint, you got the cattle boat to the UK
Jesus, did they love us
The Bed and Breakfast kips had the sign
Gary Phillips never tires of me recounting that story, especially when we were in London honoring Richard Widmark and trying to re-write Mannix!
He’ll kill me for saying, but when they finally wheeled Mr. Widmark out
Gary whispered to me
“When they gonna plug the dude in?”
But all in the past
We can travel to the UK now without suspicion … almost
I did one of those charity gigs recently, they asked a whole bunch of people and were delighted to get me, as I don’t ask a fee and to be honest, I was number fifteen on their wish list
I know, the lady calling told me … twice
She knows I have a sense of humor and by fook, times like that, I need it
So I did the spiel and for some odd reason, probably Halloween in the air and poison in the water … yeah … still, though they re-assure us that half the city is safe!
I spoke about my time living in the UK
Some of the best writers I know live in the UK
I’m afraid to mention Al, Tony Black, or Donna, as the Scots they have that Celtic take on stuff, like meself
And I regard them as close and cherished friends
So after me rap, a woman comes up and goes
“Why are you so angry?”
As opening lines go, I like it, say
"I only spoke about what it was like to be an Irish teacher, teaching English in London.”
She’s seriously angry now, says
“But you made sarcastic remarks about Hampstead.”
I had made one brief reference to Kingsley Amis’s wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard, entering the fray/fracas about Martin Amis’s comments on Islam, so asked her
“Have you read any of the above three?”
Suspecting a trap, she said
“I read Irish writers … but I haven’t read you, they say you’re very dark.”
“No dogs or … ”
She was about to go when I said
“I wrote a poem about the UK, won me a hundred pounds back in the 80’s, when that was serious money”
She was openly antagonistic now, asked
Yeah, exactly in that tone
“Credited on Clapham North.”
She was delighted, finally, victory!
and times such, I wonder why the fook I bother,
I’d given way too much time to this crap already but as my dear Dad used to say, in for a penny, and she pounced as I knew she would, asked in a voice, laced with vitriol, I’ve always wanted to use that … vitriol … makes you sound learned with a trace of decency and proves how shallow words really are, she went
“And what would you know about Clapham?”
I finally got the chance to smile, not something my ex-wife says I did much of … so I grab the opportunity, said, sans-vitriol
“About as much as you do about Hampstead.”
She took one last fling, tried
“You’re not even a poet.”
Gee, that really hurt
Like the time in boarding school when the superior told me I wasn’t being considered as one of the candidates to be a priest
God, the trauma
Sometimes, you just gotta … Get fookin over it
I said to her
“Thank you for sharing.”
See, manners never let you down
She didn’t give me her phone number
Which brings me back to the beginning, that poem I wrote, when I won the hundred quid,
I sent the money to my Dad and he wrote back, asking
“When are you going to get a real job?”
And in the that first published story, the father does one really nice thing, almost noble
And the question I wanted to ask was … does one decent gesture wipe out the all the other acts of senseless cruelty?
The end of the story, the narrator, his heart shrived (and I’ve learnt the true meaning of that word from Rabbi David Wolpe, Rabbi of the synagogue in Beverley Hills, my dad would say, "at least that man has a decent job!")
He is getting on the train, back to the UK, and no, not to Hampstead, he gives Tess what he thinks she most loves, he gives her a Club Milk and she goes
“I always hated them.”
‘celestial cuffs’ — love that.
I too love the line with the celestial cuffs – vivid image.
Thanks, Ken. It’s foggy out today and as I read your post I kept looking out my window feeling like I was someplace else. Transported.
Ah, parents, Ken.
One of my favorite moments with my mother came when she was ill — for the umpteenth time — and in bed.
I was all of 15 and walked into her room to deliver the water she’d asked for.
When I was leaving, she said, with rapture in her voice, “Oh, thank God! Your ankles have finally thinned out.”
She’d been worrying, for years, that I’d have my father’s ankles.
I love the ending to your story. It’s wrenching in the best way possible.
I like the neighbors “leaking homilies,” too.
My family doesn’t subscribe to the cracked-glass mentality. We kill with stony silence.
File? Sea! A Mhaistr!
Can Gary Phillips actually whisper?
That woman was wrong about at least one thing, Ken. You are a fooking poet.
There always seems to be someone eager to tear down a person they hardly know because of their own preconceptions. It’s very sad to see.
But as you say Ken, manners never let you down.