HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

There Were Always 5 Xs

Leo Cullen lives in Dublin.
1994 Book of short stories Clocking Ninety on the Road to Cloughjordan
2001 Novel Let's Twist Again

My very small output is due to painfully slow writing method, and resorting to excuses such as 'writers' block'.
But I feel that my success with this HISSAC short story will help propel me into a new writing phase. The story has its genesis, and inspiration, from the Tipperary countryside where I grew up. I plan to write other stories to accompany this one.
HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

He’d have to get away fast from the street fellows, Jacky told us. ‘Saddle up along with me, amigos.’
At the pictures, Jacky always sat with the street fellows. Fellows who shouted in one voice when the lights went out and pushed the tubular chairs. The chairs weren’t screwed down and they skated about the floor and the street fellows did all those wild whooping things and then went quiet until the lights came on again during the intermission. So my older brother and I had to leave the cinema early that night. But did we mind – why would we - wouldn’t we be cycling along with Jacky, our bicycles humming along the road, pride in our hearts?
‘Jacky, you’d have easily beaten up Hennessy,’ my brother said.
‘I would,’ Jacky said, ‘but he’s a skunk that fellow. He’d have a gang behind him to ambush me.’ It surprised me the way he used that word, ambush. It wasn’t just something that happened in the Wild West, it could happen to him too. We’d dismounted from our bikes and were walking up the steepest part of the hill out of the village. The council houses were on either side, grouped in twos, going up the hill. Lights streamed out of the open doors. Life too, bodies were moving around, talk and laughter loud in the otherwise silent night. It was always that way; the council houses always seemed to come alive after dark. In the light from a doorway, Jacky opened a bag of sweets. They were stuck to the bottom of the bag but we each managed to pick one out.
‘That’s the Flyer Clancy’s,’ Jacky said, nodding in at one of the open doors. ‘The whore house,’ he laughed. ‘Would you dare me go in and ask for it off her?’
And that was the moment when I thought of Lotta Kinane – did Jacky not get secret letters from Lotta, why would he want to go into Mrs Clancy?
Lotta lived in a house on our back road. We could see it lit in sunlight on summer evenings, its windows flashing. One evening she was out on the road as I was passing. Her feet were bare in sandals. Her dress was swinging around her thighs and her blouse binding her breasts into a sort of agitated bundle. ‘A little birdie tells me you’ll do me a favour,’ she said. Her voice crackled into my head hurting it. She had narrow teeth. Her hand holding out the note was small. She pressed it into my fist and asked me to give it to Jacky. The note had been folded over and over and as soon as I left her out of sight and released my fist it sprang open like a melodeon.
That was the first time. Then there was a second and most afternoons after that I found myself drifting up the road towards her house in case she needed me to deliver a note. She’d become friendly. Even so, the voice still grated in my head. In the beginning I read the notes. In disjointed words they conveyed tenderest desires and they always finished the same way. ‘Hoping this finds you as it leaves me xxxxx.’ There were always five ‘x’s. When I delivered the notes to Jacky he never read them. Instead he put them in his pocket and the two of us hunted for rabbits with his little terrier dog. We never caught a rabbit. Jacky said his terrier was a rat-terrier anyway, and not a rabbit-terrier. I babbled along at his side with my talk of school and once I mentioned the name of the girl there whom I liked, Pearl Casey, and he laughed.

When did I first come across Jacky McGrath? Long, long before the notes and the cycles to the pictures. Maybe gathering conkers, I don’t remember. While we would throw stones or twigs up into the chestnut trees to dislodge the conkers, he would throw massive planks, dislodging whole branches and laughing at the damage to the trees. We watched him play on the minor hurling team also, combing his hair afterwards and guzzling oranges and then pucking them into the next field with his hurley. You could smell them. He was a distant hero in those days and remained so until the nights my brother and I were allowed out to the cinema and afterwards escorted him home. Then, as we climbed up the long hill and ate our clove-flavoured sweets, we discussed the film and the chair pushing episodes and who those fellows were who’d been the worst chair pushers. And what he, Jacky, would do with them, and pointing out to us grazes on his arm where chairs had hit him.
I didn’t see as much in the early days of Lotta Kinane, and what I did see of her I didn’t like. She had that tinny sounding laugh. Sometimes, on our way home from school in the car, we saw her lift white enamel pails of water from the well in a field alongside the hollow of our road. ‘They drink water from the river,’ my sisters said. ‘They have only an outdoor lavatory. Duck Kinane is crude.’ Duck was Lotta’s father. The girls were disgusted at the ways of Lotta and her family; we boys didn’t care one way or the other. And on the occasions we went into Lotta’s kitchen we were always given thick slices of bread. And did we want sugar sprinkled on our bread, Mrs Kinane always asked. She was generous, even if we didn’t like the grainy sugar on our bread. It was about herself though that Lotta was generous, about how she presented herself, sort of open. I think that was why I didn’t like her. And then I became her postman.

Trees are a constant in my memory of the events. Big billowy ash and beech and chestnut trees in leaf, down in the hollow of the road. So it must have been summer. Or if not, that time of year when spring is turning into summer. I would hide in my world of leafy trees. They would walk below me, he holding his bike, murmuring in her ear, she tickling under his shirt, looking up at him and tittering. It would have been in the long evenings, the cows would have returned to the field after milking. Jacky would have cleaned himself following his day’s work. And still it would be bright as day and I could watch them clearly. The meetings fell into a regular pattern. Then the postal service stopped - no longer required. Then I felt something happen between me and Jacky. Maybe it happened in my head. Jacky came from a council house at one end of our large farm of land; Lotta came from a cottage at the other. That dip of the road below our house was secluded. On it there would be little traffic, only us young Bretts, us Bretts of the Manor, driving cows or aimlessly cycling, or playing. In my eyes now he was entering a world of which our parents spoke disapprovingly, whose inhabitants jumped straight from school to courtship, a world separate from mine. And how was I to know, but maybe he too was beginning to see me in a separate world: the one of the big farmhouses, whose children were removed to boarding schools, schooled there until eighteen, after that never quite returning to where they had once belonged. Anyway, he was slipping away from me.
That summer, Jacky gave up those games of hurling with the team in the sharp evening air of the Park. I don’t know what Lotta could have been doing that she’d have given up. Tidying away washed crockery after tea perhaps, jeering at passers-by out on the roadside. One wet evening, instead of watching from the trees as soon as they came into view, I walked onto the road. Maybe I missed his company. Maybe it was that which, this once, uprooted me from my vantage point. Making a way onto the road through a gap in the ditch, I pulled a stick from the side of the hedge and held onto it. I remember walking over fallen tree debris on the road – leaves and beech mast, softened by the damp of the hollow. Then I was holding the stick before me, as if protecting myself from a strong energy. Jacky spoke to me and he was so tender and affable he made me lonely. How is Pearl, he asked and it was like he was trying to tell me something. Watch this, he said, and he held Lotta and gave her a kiss. I looked away but I heard their lips rubbing. When they came apart, after a long time, neither of them made a sound except for a sigh out of Lotta. And I was feeling some grief and I didn’t want it but it was flowing through me. It was like he was saying there was a secret, and he’d like me to be part of it. Then he changed: ‘that’s what you’ll give to Pearl Casey,’ he laughed coarsely, like he was dislodging conkers or pucking orange-skins. I saw them together once more after that; walking alongside the bike, Jacky holding the handlebar with one hand and holding his coat over Lotta’s shoulders with the other. She was leaning into him. That must have been a lot later; it was a cold weather time, trees bare overhead; I remember how shiny he looked in his open shirt, his fist on the icy handlebar. He never reappeared at the hollow after that. He returned to the hurling team, winter training at the Hall. One night he was attacked by fellows from the team, Hennessy and Lotta’s brother, Ken Kinane, and some others. Lotta only returned once. Nobody was there the night in the hollow that she gave birth. That’s where the premature infant was found, blooded in a cardigan, beside the well in the field. In time, the hollow was left to the young Bretts again, and to the odd passing car or a tractor with a load of hay. Jacky had gone, to a job in a builder’s yard in the county town. Lotta went to England, returning infrequently on holidays. She never went into our village when she came home but people were able to say they heard she was back. I went away to boarding school. Boarding school was a place where I was forced out of the habit of passivity and into one of sport and vocation. I forgot about Jacky and Lotta.
After six years, when all that was over, I came home again to find that Jacky and Lotta had also returned. They were now both married. Not to one another. Within a few years they were both rearing families. I was probably the only one who felt cheated by the way their neighbours accepted them. Of the three of us who had come together, in whatever way, even if it was only for one damp afternoon down in the hollow of the trees, I was the only one whose feelings, in as much as I knew anyway, hadn’t healed.
I didn’t accept people having such short memories. But then I suppose people weren’t in on the business as I was. To them it was a scandal. And no more than that. The perpetrators of such a scandalous act, even if it was accidental and who was to say if it was or wasn’t, must pay the penalty before in the fullness of time they be allowed return to the fold. That would teach them. It taught me otherwise. My lesson was accompanied by acts of love beneath trees, where a man was reduced to soft words and a woman surrendered her shrill mocking laughter. Where, from the tips of the leaves and the breezes of the air, I plucked something throbbing and painful, and I belonged. I didn’t accept the breaking apart. Jacky and Lotta had let me down.