Wednesday morning. Overhead, tweeting wires sag beneath the murderweight of crows. Fifteen stories up the roof-high cries of gulls disintegrate in double-crossing winds and do not reach the frost-nipped lobes of surface earth. One of the countrymen lies in a dead and undiscovered heap in a disused telephone box plastered with sex worker adverts, also many years old and faded. Photos of girls with names that never existed in the first place, girls picked off by sleaze-ball pushers and charmers at care units to become gang-chattel, bought and sold, used and abused and disposed of, left alive as long as they keep smiling, sighing, spreading…
Who cares about the deliquescing stiff or how he ended up the way he did – as a meal; first come, first served? Nothing. No-one. Not even the crows or the gulls or the rats; although they will be getting wind of him soon enough.
Countrymen standing and shuffling around at the corner, metres from the phonebox, as usual. They don’t care either. And won’t. Not much. Not too much. A guy goes missing for a couple of days. A couple of weeks. No mystery. He’s on the piss. He’s on the run and shifted city. He’s gone back for some reason to the old country. He’s locked up. He’s in the dry out ward. He’s on another job, about which he is prudently keeping quiet, for his own or the job’s sake or both. Or, he’s dead. These are the seven basic plots of their individual lives, these are the seven low-scoring hands they are all dealt in their turn, and each will shuffle through them all in no particular order, except for that certain last cold hand of death. News of a death is not bad news. Not even slightly. Least of all to him who has gone and died, quashing all his appetites. News of death is news of a funeral, an ecstatic event among the countrymen, a sanctified dipsomaniac carnival at which the greatest etiquette is the greatest possible excess.
The countrymen have many mouths to feed. Their own labouring mouths which must eat as much as ten or twenty men in suits; stacks of spuds, salted meat, cabbage, the eternal diet of the male serf, raised on any old acre, any old muck. Fourteen babies added to their stock so far this year. One stillbirth, whose white-draped funeral spilled out the door of a cathedral, released from captivity six dozen doves, and took over seven different pubs simultaneously. Never so much porter flowed to bless so little and so brittle an existence. What is the life story of a stillbirth? Although they don’t discuss children or wives at the corner here. Subdued tittle-tattle, half-mumbled, non-committal, ranging from failing football managers to troublesome weather.
A fag is sparked and drawn on deeply three or four times, then it’s passed on down the line, the glowing cone of it like the nose of spaceship re-entering the atmosphere. What goes around...practical karma of the destitute.
A mop of dusty, thick-stranded ginger hair unfolds with papery commotion a disordered tabloid plucked from a bin. Those with gambling change to spare mid-week beeline. A circle forms. A buzz begins.
The rest of the men, broke, out of the game, keep their distance, facing the road. This may put them at advantage if a gangerman pulls up and scans them first. In morose and bitter silence they dream their own utopias of endless alcohol and blinddrunk punctuating sex.
After an animated five minute wrangle the gamblers finally agree what drugged-up nag to back. A cap is passed, accumulating weight and jangle as it travels along, coin-music as sweetly promising to the countrymen’s ears as the treacly strings of Albinoni to connoisseurs of the Baroque. The quantity of each individual subscription is carefully eyed by all, though no-one dreams of writing the amounts down. Either they all lose, or they all win, and one gets back strictly according to what one has put in. All of the men have picked up a maths of the head alone in bookie shops, at racetracks. They are calculator fast at trebles and trixies, goliaths and yankees. When it comes to counting winnings, you cannot fool them. One of those rejected by the gangermen will be entrusted to place the bet. For such he’ll be awarded, by custom, the price of a pint from the pot, easing away another otherwise tortured hour for him.
Across the street, from the eight floor of an apparently unoccupied office block, the roving, scoping eye of a labour inspector alights upon the circle of gamblers. The way the black, brown, dun and occasional grey of their heads bunch together round the bright red head in the centre is like a strangely funereal flower, but also like discoloration round an inflamed asshole.
The men are all from the same desperate foreign realm, but group allegiances splinter roughly according to sub-region. Some are married to each other’s sisters. Some have stabbed each other’s brothers. Yet no melees on the mornings of tense and grumbling anticipation when each needs all energy and muscle for whatever work might show up. Only with that work will they be able to afford the rent, the drink, the weekend, only by that rough and daylong labour will they make enough to afford the beating of each other’s sisters, the glassing of each other’s brothers.
A familiar green and orange van pulls up and the men suddenly forget all about tantalising long-shots called Rod Hand and Bear Knuckle and stand to attention, jostling for a place in the front row. The gangerman steps out onto the footpath, removes his tweed cap, scratches his bald, scab-bejeweled scalp while he looks the men over, sucks on a filterless cigarette, clears his throat noisily and hawks a gross greeny gob onto the footpath in front of them, spattering several weathered pairs of hobnail boots. “Right” he says, “Can any man here work a Leeson 7000?’
A tall man, already prominent in the middle of the front row, and still Dutch-courageous from the night before, steps forward and shouts “I can, boss”. The gangerman doesn’t fully credit him. “Where’d ya pick that up?”. “Off the Mcallisters. I was with them 3 months one time and a month I was on the 7000”. “Hop in so and let’s get going”. “I’ll need a man with me boss”. “Ya will not”. “I will boss, swear ta God I will”. For wha? “For shovelin and liftin and ta keep the 7000 goin non stop. Otherwise we’ll be stoppin and startin for me ta load it meself all the time. Two men’ll give ya thrice the speed on a Leeson machine, if ya get me.” The gangermen chews, considers, spits. “Pick a man out so”. The tall man strolls back into the huddle and comes back a few seconds later having retrieved a short man with a black eye. “I’m not takin that fella” said the gangerman. “He’s me brother boss, I’ll keep him goin”. The gangerman shook his head and spat, which was a way of saying yes without approving. “Any carry-on with the either of ye and ye may forget about any more work from me”.
They board, the gangerman into the driver’s seat, the two labourers into the back of the van to jam themselves in among tools and machines that are far less disposable than they are, and looked after far better, machines with vaguely anthropomorphic shapes that seem to sense the men’s presence and regard them as intruders, inferiors, foreigners, transients.
The couple of dozen men remaining at the corner go at ease again, silently cursing the two lucky ones in the hope that they will not last the day without some bad fuck-up that will rule them out of contention forever for that particular gangerman. The two brothers in the back of the van, though they are no telepaths, can hear what all their cornered countrymen are thinking all the same. Patchily, through the streaks of ancient grime opaquing the van’s oblong back door windows, they watch the other men regroup, recede, then disappear.
From his perch in the Gull Zone, the labour inspector notes the familiar registration number of the green and orange van, and the direction in which it drives off. He knows the likely site the van is heading to. Similar vans will be heading there from many other navvy corners of the city. The World’s Fair or The Olympics or some such. He’ll drop by the overseers’ office this afternoon to collect the hush money that makes his life worth living.
The brothers have no idea where they are going to be working in the enormous city, which is bordered all round by cities just as big and growing just as rapidly. 100 or more miles away would not be unusual, nor would 12 straight hours of heavy labouring. No matter. They are used to it. They know no different. They’ll be dropped back to the corner at the end of the day and, like ants, they know exactly where to carry themselves from there, without even thinking about it.
After a few minutes on the road, their sense of triumph wears off and they begin thinking about the long day ahead of them. The bruise-covered junior brother is the naturally anxious one of the pair. “What in the name of fuck is a Leeson 7000?”. The tall, cool-headed one smirks, snorts, “I haven’t a notion what it is or how to work one. We’ll figure it all out when we catch a hold of it”. “What if we can’t figure it out?” “We’ll tell him it’s broken and needs repairing. He won’t know no difference.” “What about us then so?” “He’ll find us something else to do. He’ll have to. He’s not gonna waste time drivin us all the way back to the corner at the wrong time of day.”
An hour passes. Imagine the scene as a long take, sped up rapidly, an hour at the corner phasing by in one or two minutes. The fast-forwarded gaggle of countrymen dissolving in ones and twos as the vans and occasional pick-ups pull in and pull off, the group shrinking, reforming, shrinking, reforming until there is only the reject with the cap full of coins left and he turns away towards the bookies and high street, and the roll slows down to reality speed again. By now crows and gulls have started to squabble on top of the phonebox and indeed to peck at the casing and the dirt-blacked panels. This small, stout, slow man with the pocket full of change held in trust for the bet, a man far from utterly stupid or incurious, hauls the door of the phonebox open. A kind of smoke emerges. A spore-cloud. Immediately a crow and a gull kerfuffle into the phonebox, but the stench that hits the man forces him to reflexively slam the door shut without even chancing to examine the source of the stench. He bends, empty retches a couple of times, painful very painful on the peptic ulcer down there, straightens, walks on to the purpose, swearing mumblingly and blasphemously never to open that door or any door like it ever again. And not the slightest bit guilty or concerned or edgy, although he knows by the stench it’s a body. Obviously it’s a body. The same funk that came through the walls of his childhood six days after old Anna next door suicided. Or was hanged perhaps by her only son, who never again showed up. The same funk off the endless corpses of animals, diseased, poisoned, trapped, assaulted, struck down on the roads, the ditches, the cornfields, the wet woodlands of the old country. All the one stench in the end. All the one great body of death. Melting back into itself….
The countryman recovers and ambles along towards the bookies, coin-cap clasped tight like a purse to silence the jangling. After another 100 metres or so the high-pitched, frantic screeching and ka-kaing of the Gull and Crow, entered into mortal combat over the countryman’s corpse inside the phonebox, passes completely out of earshot.
Dave Lordan is a writer based in Dublin. Wurm Press published his acclaimed short fiction debut First Book of Frags in 2013 and his third collection of poetry Lost Tribe of The Wicklow Mountains is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry.He is fiction editor at colony.ie. His website iswww.davelordanwriter.com and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org