Conor Jarrett, Ten Feet Tall

Conor Jarrett was born in Dublin in 1988, and grew up in Naas. He studied at the National University of Ireland, Galway and Dublin City University. His work has previously been published in The Honest Ulsterman and The Galway Review. He currently resides in Almería, Spain where he works as a teacher, freelance translator and writer.

Today I am throwing out the music. Over the last three years, I have often had this thought during my morning shower. I stand over the open bin in the kitchen, twirling the dirty brown rusted body of a tin whistle between my fingers. The end of the barrel is slightly chipped. I jam it down through strips of orange skin and chicken bones gnawed bare.

‘Easy,’ I mutter, and gather my things for work. The keys rattle in my hand as I try to lock the door. I stop, take a few deep breaths and try again. I have been trying this simple approach recently and find that it sometimes helps. After succeeding I face the road, my hands in my pockets. Mick is already treading closer, a roll-up hanging from his lips. He wears a heavy overcoat the colour of red grapes and clumps of dark hair protrude from under his hat. I do not let go of my keys. I feel for the biggest one and squeeze it between my middle and index fingers. The metal presses hard against my skin. I want to let it go, to let it fall to the bottom of my trouser pocket but my hand is clamped.

‘Dermot.’

‘What?’

‘I need a place to stay.’

‘No.’ My hands are shaking again. Sparks shoot up and down my calves.

‘I’ve got the money, all of it.’ He reaches into an inside pocket of his coat and produces reels of fifties, more cash than I have ever seen before. I hope he has not been dealing again.

‘I’m not renting any rooms, Mick, not for any price.’ He rolls up the money and begins to stuff it back into his pocket. Yet the wad is fat and he steers it hastily, carelessly. A breeze scatters notes around the road. He rushes after them. His legs wobble and a foot nearly goes from under him. A tin whistle falls from his pocket and clangs on the tarmac. He looks at me with wide eyes and his lips curling into a smile.

‘Come on, Dermot, we could get the music going again, play a few of the old songs.’ Like the last embers of a fire, his words stoke the memories; whistles twinned in song, their warble pure and their pace measured, feet tapping on the wet-stone grey flagstones of the kitchen in perfect time. My blood pumps like draught beer. I rub my face, and my hand passes over the scar just above my lip; his gift to me the last time he left this place.

‘Fuck off!’ I shout.

‘I’ve given up the grass.’ He speaks in a low, soft voice that I have never heard before.

‘You’ll have to find somewhere else.’ I walk on.

‘Dermot, I’m sorry.’ I turn to find his eyes dark and bloodshot. The skin on his cheeks wears heavy and wet, and I do not know if it is tears or rain. Whatever it is, the image of it flashes in my mind on the way to school. I pass by the lake, hardly able to make out choppy ripples of greyish water fanning outwards to the reeds swirling in the wind.

‘Sorry,’ echoes in my head, even louder than the radio station blaring in the Spar as I wander the aisles in search of green tea. Three people stand ahead of me in the queue, and to kill time I listen to the news:

Ireland’s housing crisis looks set to continue for the time being, and the minister for housing has called for patience…

‘Jesus fucking Christ,’ I blurt.

‘Terrible, isn’t it?’ A man in front says to me. By the entrance stands Deco, a local homeless man. His clothes are picked with holes and his black beard runs wild like an untrimmed bush of rosemary.

‘Here you go, Deco,’ I say, and hand him a breakfast roll.

‘Cheers, boss, you’re a gent,’ he croaks.

‘Ah, not really,’ I mutter.

I go up to my classroom, passing waves of grey jumpers, blue shirts and black ties touched with blue and gold. The same students huddle in the same spots every morning; the jocks by the vending machines in the assembly area, the nerds just outside Mr. McManus the principal’s office. The goths and rockers loiter near my classroom. Every morning a stink of cigarettes wafts from their ranks and their loud, coarse laughter is a constant prick in my ears. All their trousers bear the same cut running up the in-step.

One pair of seaweed green eyes scowls at me from beneath a tangle of dark, messy curls reaching down to the eyebrows. Shane Burke brushes the locks behind his ears and re-joins a conversation. Inside my room, I sit at my desk and yawn; for the last three years I have not had a good night’s sleep. If I do sleep, I hear Mick’s voice threatening to snap my arms off while he mashes my face into the gravel. I check my notes for the day and find among them:

Shane Burke punishment work due today – ‘Mending Wall’x20

There was too much disruption in yesterday’s class. The initial punishment was ten, but he kept protesting so I increased it to twenty. Thankfully, he quietened down after that. If he had not, I might have thrown him out the window, and we were on the second floor. I hope I will not have to resist the urge again in today’s class. By five past nine everyone has arrived and we are reading ‘Design’ by Robert Frost.

‘Did anyone find any metaphors or similes of note?’ I ask. Matthew Kelly raises his hand. He is heavily built with a face as smooth as glass.

‘Eh, the third line, sir; “like a white piece of rigid satin cloth”,’ he says in his mousy voice.

‘Good man, Matthew. What do you think Frost might be suggesting there?’

‘I dunno… maybe he wants to highlight how some beings perceive a certain beauty in the suffering of others? Is he being ironic?’ From the front comes a tut and a groan.

‘Faggot.’

I march straight up to Shane.

‘You be very careful how you talk to people in my class,’ I say, pushing my face close to his. He looks down at the honey-brown wood of his desk.

‘Where’s that punishment work I gave you the last day?’

‘What punishment work?’

‘No punishment work, and showing a complete lack of respect for others. I’ll tell you what, you write out that poem forty times for the next day.’

As I note Shane’s latest punishment in my journal, I resolve that if I ever have a son he will never go bad like Shane, or Mick. My shoulders ache with tension. To my left, I hear muffled laughter.

‘Shut up!’ I roar and rifle my foot up the underside of the desk.

‘Answer the rest of those questions in your notebooks.’ Bodies squirm, making the seats squeak. Pens scribble frantically on paper. Shane is looking up at me.

‘What are you looking at?’ I say. He cowers his head and keeps it there. I feel a sting of guilt; when we were younger, Mick sometimes spoke to me in the same way.

By half-past four the weather has not improved much. I hurry up the lane, my head hooded and feet slightly sliding over the drizzly gravel. I enter Hayden’s bar through the back door and pass through the lounge, fascinated by classic novels lining the shelves and the golden glow of their titles through the covers shrouded in dust.

A few regulars are perched at the bar. I get a pint and find Julie in the smoking area, her black leather jacket zipped all the way up to her chin and her long, blond hair shining like a field of barley. She sits cross-legged on a high stool, smoking with the elegance of a black and white movie star.

‘Hiya,’ she says, and pushes her cigarette box towards me. I pause before taking one.

‘Fuck it,’ I say.

‘Tough day then?’

‘Fucking right. I made a show of myself.’

‘Yeah, you looked quite distressed earlier in the staffroom. What’s up? Shane Burke wrecking your head again?’

‘It’s not just that.’

‘What else?’

‘Mick is back.’

‘Oh right.’

She inhales and exhales smoke. I take a long gulp of my pint. Traffic lashes through the rain outside.

‘What does he want this time?’

‘He said he needs a place to stay.’

‘I presume you told him no.’

‘Yeah…but…’

‘But what?’

‘I dunno, it’s just that, when I saw him this morning, it was different. He looked weak or something, like he was sick. Plus he actually said sorry.’

‘So?’

‘So; that’s the first time I’ve ever heard him say that.’ Julie looks at her watch.

‘Maybe I should have let him in,’ I say.

‘Dermot, I’ve to go at five.’

‘Can you stay over tonight?’

‘I think it would be better if you sorted out this thing with Mick first.’

‘But what should I do?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘You’re fucking useless.’

‘Well, he’s your brother, you figure it out for fuck’s sake. You should be able to do that at twenty-four years of age.’ She takes another drag of her cigarette. ‘Jesus Christ, Dermot, you can be a moody fucking prick sometimes!’

She leaves half a glass of gin and tonic behind her. I watch the ice cubes slowly melt and think about getting another drink. From the smoking area I have a decent view of the counter. John Reilly sits in his usual place; at the far end of the bar closest to the front door. John has a face as red as chorizo and a large stomach fully deserving of the nickname, Johnny Ten bellies, although you’d never say it to his face.

He will stay in the same seat until they tell him to go at closing time. He will wander the main street and blabber to travellers at the bus stop, taxi drivers at the rank or anyone else. Eventually he’ll trudge back down Sarto Road to the dark emptiness of his house studded with wooden boards for windows and the front lawn reaching over the rusty gate. A gloominess swells inside me at the image.

I leave the glasses on the bar and go out into the street, wondering if Mick might still be outside the house when I get back. I walk out of town along Friary Road. It runs evenly for a few minutes before it begins to climb over where the railway bridge used to be.

Down to my left I see the detached, sunburst yellow house as well as the empty main road alongside it. However, as I arrive at the bottom of the hill I cannot see all the way around the old, curving stone wall on the right. He could still be there, outside the house. The wall turns and turns, and my heart begins to thud.

Three years ago I knocked on Mick’s bedroom door. With no sound from inside, I entered to see a chequebook lying on his bed. Next to it was a notepad on which almost identical reproductions of Dad’s signature had been written several times.

I heard his breath behind me.

‘What are you doing?’ he asked.

‘What are you doing?’ I dared to ask. Then his punches crashed on my head like tumbling rocks. I tried to swing back but my hands just quivered and sweated, making it impossible to even clench a fist. My blows landed on him like stray papers. Soon he had me on the ground with one hand behind my back.

Slowly, he edged my arm further upwards, and I could feel the shoulder starting to tear from its socket. He would let it down and then push it up again in short, sudden movements.

‘Just a few inches more, and I could break your arm, you know that? Which one is more important to you? Sure I might just do both of them.’ He spoke in a calm, quiet voice before swaggering off in a caramel leather jacket, his face smeared with the usual cocky grin.

I continued to lie there, still shaking. I wanted to get up but my body felt as heavy as a sack of stones.

That night in bed, the knots in my body cracked as I rolled from one side to the other until the first morning light crept in under the curtains. The day after Mick left, Dad discovered that money was missing from his account; I cannot allow Mick back into the house.

The road is as peaceful as it seemed from the bridge above. After closing the front door, the echo of its old knocker on the wood reverberates around the house. The floor creaks beneath me, while next door I hear Mrs. Byrne jabbering away to her family. She will not stop until midnight.

Since Dad passed away last year, I have had nobody to talk to, and spent many evenings trying to fill the silence with music. I remember that morning and the weak glint of amber among discoloured scraps. I want to go to the kitchen, but I hold myself back.

‘It’s for the best,’ I say aloud. Adrenaline zips from my shoulders to my fingers, but I can only clench my hands and crack my knuckles. My feet begin to move, and I follow them around the house. In the sitting room, the coffee table bears a thin layer of dust. Daylight floods through the half-open bathroom window, illuminating the russet tiles.

I find myself in the front bedroom, which Mam moved into before she passed away. Something clatters on the floor; Mam’s old crutches again. I left them to stand in a corner of the room, and they keep falling over. I should bring them back to the hospital.

The ink blue bedclothes have never been changed since Mam died. Beside the bed stands a sandy brown table, on top of which lies a picture frame face down. I took it out of my room and left it in here after Mick beat me and left with Dad’s money. I look at the picture, as I do from time to time. It is of my mother sitting up in a hospital bed, her arms bangled with tubes and a few red streaks brightening her hair. Her eyes are dancing with delight at Mick sitting on a stool next to her, his mouth wide open and his hands gesticulating with the same, inexhaustible animation.

The doctors gave her no more than six months, but it must have been Mick that kept her going for nearly a year. When he talked, she would listen with endless wonder, her face propped up on her hands like a sculpture. The pose could only be broken by rocking her head back in an eruption of laughter.

After her diagnosis four years ago, he came straight back from London. He brought two tin whistles; he had learned to play from a guy he shared a flat with in Clapham. He gave me one of them and taught me lots of songs so we could serenade Mam. He even tried to get Dad to sing, but he was not interested. ‘You’ve killed that poor woman, putting her through all that worrying about you and that filthy drug habit of yours,’ Dad would say.

The shrill whistle of a bird’s song rings in the distance, and memories flood my mind: Mick playing ‘The Roscommon Reel’, one of Mam’s favourites, with the same haunting chill and fluid pace of a gale-force wind moaning over the west coast of Ireland on a dark winter’s night. I used to listen to him, consumed with envy. I practised every day and before long we could play together. Even though playing with him was frightening, it was also exhilarating. ‘Well done,’ he even said on a few occasions, and I tingled with pride.

Playing with him was easier than practising by myself, worrying about doing it wrong and that he might be angry with me. He seemed to enjoy it too, from the fierce energy he played with and the smile plastered all over his face. Giving up the weed had clearly done him some good. For the first time we had something to share, something that relieved some of the pain of Mam drifting away. I am sad at the thought of the music passing on too.

In the kitchen, I remove the tin whistle from the rubbish and clean it in warm, soapy water. The cloth smooths over the metal and the bits of dirt fall away to reveal a sharper shine. I take it to the long chestnut table. Silence hovers. I remember my arm locked in Mick’s hand, the bone threatening to crack and the drone of his voice in my ear.

However, the gleaming body of the whistle winks at me. I blow a few notes. Their sound seems clearer, crisper. Although my hands are trembling, I begin to play a reel. My foot taps on the grey flagstones, and one song leads into another. After the set, the grip on my arm is not so strong. The talking has faded. I play a set of jigs. The lively pace of the music electrifies me, like when I used to play with Mick and feel ten feet tall afterwards.

When the music is finished, I recall Mick explaining the rhythm of jigs to me; ‘rashers and sausages, rashers and sausages, just keep saying the rhythm to yourself and you’ll get it.’ I had forgotten how he sometimes took the time for me. It does not seem so much to give him something back, if I could make him feel the way he did me. If I can be kind to Deco, I can do the same for my brother. He has hurt me, himself and Dad, yet preserving only the memory of this has kept me awake for too many nights. My mind goes blank, like the whiteboard in my classroom wiped clean at the end of a class. I set the whistle on the table. My arms hang loose by my sides and my hands are finally still.

The sky has turned to darkness hued with the bright yellow fuzz of street lights. Drops of rain speckle the windows. The wind is howling, evoking thoughts of sailors caught on the high seas, too far out from the coast for anyone to reach them. I get up. From the hallway, I see Mick passing the house again, his hands buried in his pockets and his shoulders bunched together. I imagine the icy wind slicing through him, and I myself sense a sharp frost.

A great sorrow runs over me at the thought of him bedding down on the damp, mossy ground of a dark forest without the sound of a single human voice, only the hissing of leaves in the wind. If he does so, it will have been my fault. There will have been no beauty in his suffering. Julie is right; he is my brother, I should offer him something.

I picture his face smiling at the feel of a steaming hot bowl of stew, and a radiant energy flows through me. I go out to the road. The weather is colder than I imagined.

‘Mick!’ I call.

In_Line_for_Skinny_Puppy_web

Artwork: Starting as a painter, printmaker and analog photographer, Roger Leege earned BA and MA degrees in Visual Arts from Goddard College. Following postgrad study in computer science he became an early adopter and evangelist for digital art and artists’ tools. He is widely-published in the US and abroad.

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