Their school uniform was short trousers and a thin blue blazer. There was also a tie, another blue with a slash of white. The ties, however, were more frequently untied, dangling intrusions, stolen or simply forgotten at home. No one paid much attention. A bundle of bluish boys was sufficient in the headmaster’s rheumy eyes; whether or not they were neatly wrapped, orderly ironed, was quite irrelevant. His wasn’t a mind for detail. His mission was to see them through, as much as reasonably credible, eight years of education with as little hardship as possible for all involved: no easy task when faced with the gaggling swarm of sweaty kids in summer, knuckle shaking bare knees in winter. And then there were the parents. While teachers and their own presumed education were admired, school itself for the majority, on a scale of importance was just below clean fingernails on a Wednesday night. Over the years their headmaster had come to accept that demeaning rank with the dignity one gains from being nodded at halfrespectively in the street and a bottle of cherry brandy by the bed. And if the headmaster refused to rise enthusiasm individual teachers soon lost their own initial determination and kept their concentration for the more arduous task of beating this knot of chattering bones into some basic shape of memoryinduced intelligence. Teaching was reduced to basics. To the rhythm of a fist on the table or a cane over knuckles, mathematical rules rattled the walls and mouthgobbling poetry tumbled unevenly to the heavens between the snores of those who had to go back home and work.
Real work was done at home and education had little role in improving the hardening of hands or the strength of backs. School was attended then, sullenly. The breaks were too short to make their fun worthwhile. The drudge of learning was too frightening to make the few grabbed hours away from home entertaining. The town was too small to make any new friends in that stony environment. The harsh building didn’t even provide a respite of warmth during the long winter months.
Sonnyjo hated it. The milling crowds were his image of hell. So removed from his childhood experiences, he never grew to understand or need this mass of humanity. Sonnyjo had taken his first steps in their back yard, balancing a squalling pig. His first words had been at their mottled old dog. Their land took everyone’s time; there was no one to listen, to pay him any attention. When his mother first heard him speak she was astonished: it was almost a full sentence. Sonnyjo got a brief pat on the head before wandering outside to practice further. Cheese in one hand, a hunk of coarsely hewn bread in the other, he strolled of to find the dog, or simply trample through the weeds. The animals, the earth itself, understood him long before anyone else.
It wasn’t his parents fault. They simply hadn’t the time. Mother and father woke before the sun and worked until after it was safely back in bed, through the neverending cycle of a life dependent on the land, the brittle ledge hovering between disaster and living. Everyone worked hard, yet Sonnyjo’s parents were noted for being the hardest. Both coming from large rambling families and feeble fathers, they knew too well the stomach shrink of hunger and had long since promised silently to do better for their own kids. In the process, as payment, Sonnyjo would have to learn to speak by himself.
As a baby Sonnyjo used to be left inside but once he had grown a little he would accompany, first his mother in a bag slung over her shoulders, then his father, trotting full speed to keep up with the loping gait of those giant legs, trying to avoid the splashed mud of the thumping boots as he did so. And once he was walking, he too could help: there were pigs to be fed, the huge bucket dragged manfully across the squealing yard; cold winter nights begged firewood to be collected, stored, burned, emptied and regathered; the bright light of summer hardened the tiny young neck as it towed after the sheep or squinted for weeds amid barely defined young beet. There was always something to be done, regardless of age or tender limbs.
When his mother took sick he was old enough to begin taking her place outside. His legs grew a little and could keep up with his fathers’ easier, until they were long enough to go their own way, control their own responsibilities. Inside, his mother would cough her way through the chores she had left. She hated her own limitations, the shameful confinement to the indoors of food and dirty clothes. “It isn’t healthy,” she used to rant, her anger frustrating her into another round of gutwrenching phlegm, hands clutching her stomach as the throat trembled in pain. “Like one of those shopkeeper women,” she complained bitterly. “Like a bloody Sud with nothing better to do than cook and clean the curtains.”
Fumbling for soft words amid the bawdiness of habit, Sonnyjo’s Old Man would tease her, laugh at her gently and tell her that he was treating his wife like a queen. “Don’t have to work any more! All you have to do is sit around and be pretty.” His laugh would heat the room. Briskly, fleetingly, his hand would brush the thin shoulder. “Not many men would do that for his wife, eh?”
They would force a smile together, above Sonnyjo’s head, in the distance. Sonnyjo would shy away, slightly afraid, or annoyed, or jealous of this tenderness that no child can be a part of, no son can really understand until he grows older and lives it himself.
When she died the house fell silent. The natural gloom of winter darkened even further. Sonnyjo remembered crying. His father didn’t. From a generation that had seen too much to weep, that recognized the blessings of death, he retained his feelings behind a stony eyed stare. He fell silent though, the familiar laugh as cold as a tomb.
Sonnyjo should have started school that autumn but the sickness and death that winter kept him away for another twelve months. “I can’t spare you now,” his father told him at the end of august. “Next year. When your mother’s well again.” The hand on his shoulder, that unfamiliar closeness, signaled the doubt that the confident words attempted to disguise. She was never well enough, but school couldn’t be avoided.
His father’s sister lived down the road, a couple of kilometers further along. They too had a farm stretching back up into the mountains. They also had nine children sprawling from the youngest, scarcely born, to the twenty year olds who tended the land between more children and the crackling threats of their wives. Sonnyjo feared his Aunt Johanna’s house. An endless swarm of roaring voices, the noisy threats made him cower in the doorway. Pots clanging, wives arguing for more space, another farm, quiet children. Husbands growling back in frustration their hands quick to slap away a childish nuisance as they wolfed down their food rapidly to escape back outside again as quickly as possible. And in the midst of this mayhem the old man in the corner said nothing. Sonnyjo never once spoke to him, had no need to, thankfully. He never even learned the name of this shadowy uncle.
Sonnyjo avoided this ramshackle mess of humanity and hasty wooden extensions whenever he could. Aunt Johanna, however, was less easily ignored.
Anxious herself perhaps to leave the furnace that was her home, Aunt Johanna quickly assumed control of her brother’s house after Sonnyjo’s mother died. Unasked, as far as Sonnyjo knew, she began to turn up shortly after breakfast, once he and his father were out the fields. In the quietness of the empty house Aunt Johanna cleaned and prepared the food. When the men returned, lunch would be ready, rough, harsh with the hasty training of having to provide for such a large family, but filling. Later she would fix the pig mash, feed the hens and bustle around the house in a haze of loud curses and vaguely concealed insults. Like his father, she seemed incapable of speaking without shouting and the noise of her own home had done little to quell the volume. Regardless of the emptiness of Sonnyjo’s home, or perhaps to fill it, she continued thundering, her endless fight to be heard, a symbol of life itself.
“Look at the state of this. When are you going to mend that door? Those sows haven’t been cleaned out for months. That one is ready for the market. You can’t go around with your jacket in that state. Take that filthy cap off in the house! Have you not finished the hay yet? What are you doing out all day and I here slaving away and it not even my own house.”
A woman of passion, her endless energy burst forth from the vehemence of her voice. A scuttling block of steel she was everywhere, smiling pleasantly at all in sight, taking out her vengance on those closer to home. Nobody dared tell her how to run things, how to make a bed or cure the flu or shear a sheep if she got the chance. Her boys kept their distance, squabbling amoung themselves to keep her off track, off the scent of their private lives.
Born of the same genes as his father, Aunt Johanna shared the man’s raucous tones, the joy of shouting and entertaining anyone who cared to listen. Unfortunately, the boisterous laughter of his father had been worn down against the hard stone of her sprawling family and its stream of endless demands; his father’s humor and playful teasing had in Aunty Johanna been filed away to the craggy complaints and the pining threats of someone who felt that life had been harder than deserved and that in return others should at least be threatened and preferably made feel guilty. In her own house there were numerous other voices to add to the turmoil, the endless battles of verbal doom, only halfjoking slander. In comparison, her brother’s farm was a haven. There was no one to shout back. Saddened brother and timid nephew provided scant challenge to the hard sword of Aunt Johanna’s tongue. She enjoyed herself bustling about their empty house, scolding them without fear of response. She returned to her own milling house each night refreshed, revitalized for another battle.
Thus, as Aunt Johanna foraged a new life for herself, neither of the receiving households were entirely happy. Her own cringed under the force of her vigorous homecoming at the end of the day while Sonnyjo and his father struggled to escape her during it.
As the winter wore through and flowers appeared over the grave, Sonnyjo’s Old Man slowly recovered some of his wit. Spring blew strength to his voice, humor to his smile, echoes to the faint return of the once familiar laugh. Alone with the older man down the fields or watching him restate his power amid old friends, Sonnyjo was happier; his father’s resurgence urged his own, helping to remind that he was only six, that there were many years to be lived, even without his mother. Recovery, however, was double edged. In the house, during the day, his father’s increasing strength drew him lovingly into battle until the bite of his humor across the harshness of Aunt Johanna’s tirades grew to a frenzied crescendo which Sonnyjo could scarcely bear. The two voices, wrapped in mutual entertainment, flew above the child’s head in a torrent of abuse, mauling, tripping, scratching in the playful if dangerous games of young lion cubs. Under the weight of extra work, a lonely heart and the spiraling bellicosity of his own home, Sonnyjo kept outside whenever possible. Overwhelmed by the mayhem he remained where he could talk in peace to his animals.
Compared to his chosen solitude school therefore came as a shock. It provided another species of wild animal to be dealt with, a whole new concept of noisy mayhem: it was like his cousin’s house multiplied by one hundred. Sonnyjo had only two great memories of school: one was this loud confusion and the other was shivering.
Perhaps because school begins in Autumn and the uniform of stipulated short pants are marched out whatever the weather, in defiance of sewing machines, groaning young lads and the nervous tingle of of blundering defiance. Out of maliciousness or simply because they were cheaper, those shorts, goose pimpled legs, provided the children with their fiercest battle and earliest memories. The long winter struggle of attempting not to freeze allowed scant time for more academic subjects; the smoking coal stove at the top of their rooms, burning a hole in the seat of the master’s trousers, offered little less than an aspiration, a slender focus for wavering thoughts, an aim for the ambitious. The acrid fumes drove most into a drowsy haze, a sweetened abyss where damp socks fumed silently into strong cheese and onion breath and the unflinching roaming of a teacher in their own world.
The ambitious were few. Between farms and trades the town provided the school with troops of uninspired students. Knowledge struck some with an illusory force, fewer with an unobtainable thrill, but the vast majority scarcely had the time to consider it at all. At home lay their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and a rising stock of work to be done. As they progressed through the levels their workload increased with age until it was harder and less expected to finish homework, easier and simpler to seek days off. “Learn to read and write,” they were told, and a few numbers: being able to do the occasional sum was essential for the few shop owners, equally so for everyone else on entering a store or in case some outsider with a lot of papers confused them over prices.
Their parents had it very clear. The school itself did. There was enough work to keep anyone who wanted to stay at home in the village. Education would get them nothing better. That’s what people believed because that’s all they had ever been taught. The village was accustomed to controlling its population, making the recourses it had stretch to take care of its own community; those who wanted to leave, who sought some higher status had always been treated with suspicion, criticized for abandoning others to suffer rather than praised for attempting to search for improvement. This was also official government policy: it was believed that traditional selfsufficient communities would still provide a more just lifestyle than interrelated unfairness. The argument ignored, however, the evidence which suggested that irregularities and injustices grow firmly rooted in the smallest of communities and that their destinies are entertwines not just historically but, increasingly, economically. Buying and selling was no longer a question of family or tradition. Like the river itself, the tentacles of the market slithered to cover the country in a mesh of entertwined interests, festering in the process needs to control the sources, at both ends.
Meanwhile, dumped into this sludge, teachers huddled over the stove, monotonously murmuring age old rules, halfremembered hypothesis, watery equations. Their masters were as worn as the slogans, as absent minded as the chattering rows of bare knees below them. A tap on the table. A pounding of the board. A rap on the knuckles. And everyone woke for another round. The classes, thus, were orderly enough once the teacher was trapped inside.
The minutes before school began were different, however, as were the ten-minute morning break and lunch hour in the wildness of the untamed yard outside. Out of the teacher’s stare the rowdy confusion of three hundred screaming pupils made the uproar of Sonnyjo’s own house assume the subtly of the afterworld.
Sonnyjo’s first encounter with school was obviously one of shock. He hated it and only his father’s feigned boot and his aunt’s roar forced him back. Afterwards he had grown accustomed, had fought to drag form his soul the remnants of his father’s, his family’s zest for noise, rowdy company and dawdy jokes. However, he never grew to like it and in the beginning he did little else but hide, in some temporary seclusion, until his cousins would race for him, drag him out into mayhem largely of their own creation. Under the guise of being friendly, taking care of the family, Sonnyjo became their favorite sport. Games were always more fun, louder, stomachwrenchingly hilarious with Sonnyjo stumbling blindly in their centre, lost, redfaced, eyes streaming through the intense pain of unacceptable shyness. Even inside there was no escape. His cousins placed him in the centre of their own family pew and for three years the teachers hounded poor Sonnyjo on the basis that if they were hard on him from the beginning there was some hope that he wouldn’t become as bad as his cousins. His cousin’s family haunted him in his dreams: between the kids and their mother he was driven to despair.
For weeks, months, even years Sonnyjo all too frequently played the scapegoat at school. Goaded on by his own family, quickly adopted by others, his fearful silences became the centre of attention until, in his own way, playing like everyone else the role he was ordained, he became part of the gang, another link in the chain that fenced them all in.
There were of course occasional breaches in this invisible boundary. Sonnyjo got to know Scottyboy half way through third year. YoungJed was from a farm also out the North side, half way up the mountains almost. From the distance of his abode and the reputation for foolishness that those closer to town attributed to the mountain folk, Billy from up yonder, like Sonnyjo was often subjected to what adults termed “childish teasing”. As they grew in strength, and perhaps despite the rigors of chalk and dust, Scottyboy and Sonnyjo became allied. Together it was easier be the centre of jokes; as a tandem they too could see the humor and occasionally turn the tables, an advent which was further aided by their skill on the football fields.
Football was the one subject everybody took seriously, all their life. Later Sonnyjo gave it up to concentrate on his land, but as a child he was a great centre field along with Scottyboy who, more naturally, kept to the game on or of the field until the very day they took him over the mountains never to be seen again. On the mud splotched patch of land beside the school, fencing the unpredictable bounce of rag stuffed leather, Scottyboy and Sonnyjo were for once the stars. Here, it was they who could shout the orders, scream for attention, scold when someone didn’t know what to do, until in their fifth and final year they had finally become accepted as being ok, as being men, one of the crowd.
Success didn’t come immediately. Even their skill with the told ragstuffed ball was slow to be spotted beneath the stereotypes people are all to free to christen each other with. Ironically, it wasn’t until after they were sent to play for the enemy team that their talent was realized, recognized, reclaimed: they were quickly brought back into the fold by their masters and two other loafs sent off to the other team in their stead. Football, like everything in the town was politics and Sonnyjo was never quite sure he understood it. He simply changed sides as he was told.
Like most traditions in the town school politics followed the golden divisions of North and South. The building itself was, for Sonnyjo and his companions, over the river on the south side, behind their own church, nestling up to the back wall of the woolen mills whose spinning machines provided a sleepy backdrop to the everyday rhythm of rote learning. The school was integrated according to state law but the kids knew that even on a simple level integration is easier spelled than defined. For starters, and most importantly to the majority of boys, there weren’t any girls; as everybody knew they had their own building up the street, fenced in behind the General Store.
Games lead to sides as children from one home team up against the other, or one side of the street fights the opposite until streets join and attack each other and then they grow together as the people from the town play those in from the country: in Hillstown the river provided the natural divide as one bank’s goal posts were posted opposite the other. Nevertheless, fifteen to twenty of the best of the northern bank facing a raggle baggle ten to fifteen that was available for the other side, was seldom considered just at any time. Children have an innate sense of fairness whose magnanimity throws scattered crumbs of condolence to the soon to be losers. To make up numbers, to fake evenhandedness, a handful of sacrifices were awarded to the opposing team. Being outsiders themselves, if not by birth by inclination or general consensus, Scottyboy and Sonnyjo were frequently given to the south side to make up numbers, to give the appearance of justness so that victory would be all the sweeter, all the better won. It was here that they finally proved themselves as being able to belong. It was also here that they encountered YoungJed for the first time.
In the everyday adult world of business transactions Southerners were accustomed to have hats tipped their way in the process of selling, buying, borrowing or repaying. In the village school, however, Southerners received far less respect. On the one hand they were simply outnumbered, while on the other, stemming from this fact, they were considered inferior for the simple reason that they were from the South yet refused to study elsewhere, they were obviously even worse off then the Northern farmers themselves. Rather than respect they received bullying and the indignity of always being on the loosing football team.
YoungJed was a farmer’s son. The farm briefly spanned both sides of the river, a couple of fields stretching out beside Sonnyjo’s own but the majority reached across the river and spread to the northern plains behind. There was a lot of land. It was a far bigger farm than average; Sonnyjo would often gaze upon it when he was younger with tender, admiring envy. Yet, despite its size, no one was quite sure what happened the money it obviously generated or why they couldn’t afford to send their YoungJed away to school as was to be expected from a rare northern family like that. Lost in the silence of his own world, Sonnyjo never thought about this, seldom heard the rumors, the pointed conclusions or gathering reputation of YoungJed’s father. Sonnyjo was simply happy to have briefly found an ally.
YoungJed himself was continuously tall and gangly, long arms and legs always dangling loosely from the sleeves that never managed to run fast enough to keep up. His mother used to curse him: some kids could fit the same blazer for two, three if stretched, school years, while by the end of a single term YoungJed was already seeping over the edges of his cuffs. His mother gave up. Let him. And she did. Memories of YoungJed would always centre around the delicate wrists free flowing in space or the chalk pale ankles glinting between tattered boots and the rough flannel of his home made trousers. Many mothers made their own clothes, however, YoungJed’s had a distinctive skill, a rawness which made the coarse thread stand out, stand up and gaze at you almost. His mother was mad. The rumor would ring but seldom to his face. “His father’s a drinker,” was the word around town. But nobody ever said it to his face.
Scottyboy, like many who physically outgrow their peers, had a gentleness hanging like a sheet over his crude bony frame, a placidity which bred calmness, which cracked like ice if prodded too deeply. No one had ever laughed to his face since the day he had torn Honeypup’s jacket off his back into shreds. “Look at you,” the slumbering voice had proclaimed. “In a far worse state than I’ve ever been.” Trembling, the kid ran home but his parents failed to respond. They didn’t want any trouble. Scottyboy’s father was equally big and his mother rumored to be highly unstable. “It was only a torn jacket,” they reassured their son, it could be sewn back. The jagged stitching, up and down the sleeve and back, was a reminder to everyone for the rest of that year: “Scottyboy is ok but as mad as his parents. Don’t say a thing to his face.” The restraint didn’t bother anyone. There were always easier targets.
Scottyboy took football seriously. In the midst of the ever advantageous northern mob and his own disheartened knot, he was the only one who did. Scottyboy, while recognizing the innate one sidedness of their game, constantly sought improvement and hope. Decreasing the loosing score of the day before became a triumph; scoring more goals than last week was a win; beating the bastards when half the enemy were at the harvest was the World Cup in his huge hands. Every slight improvement, twist of fate, on YoungJed’s scoreboard at least, proved that you could always win, forever maintain your pride. Therefore, even the Northern’s flung carelessly as crumbs to his team became involved. A tatty gift they were expected to overcome this insult and, if nothing else, stand in front of the goal mouth and use the blunt force of their bodies to block bone splintering strikes.
Sent to the other team it was Scottyboy who gave YoungJed and Sonnyjo a place, indeed, it may have been his subtle coaching, the endless gush of authoritarianism if gently spoken commands, encouragement, insults, which etched on Sonnyjo a sense of where midfield was and how simply it could be dominated with a twist of intelligence and a crafty foot in the face of the mad rush opposite racing out of control. Discipline could create just as hot a fire as good coal.
Under Scottyboy’s eye Sonnyjo and YoungJed were thus lunged into the game and expected to give the full of whatever they had to offer. His enthusiasm was as unfailingly infectious as victory itself; and they finally had the space, the encouragement to urge themselves forward and prove they were worth something. When they were reclaimed by their own side as being too good to be donated, Scottyboy bade them no ill will, rather saw it as another personal achievement. Too happy with their success YoungJed and Sonnyjo failed to thank him: Scottyboy’s input had been so subtle, their own sudden assent so fast, their heads were filled with too much pride to have the thought cross their minds. Such is the gratitude of success. They were part of the winning team now. They would never lose again, never suffer indignity anymore.
Beaming in the starlight of their progress they would only occasionally recognize their humble origins. Once Sonnyjo defended Scottyboy’s call of offside. He was immediately glad his instincts had forced that brief shout for justice. The brief twinkle in the tall boy’s eye softened the up righteous disbelief of Sonnyjo’s own team. The goal was still allowed. Nothing was lost so Sonnyjo reckoned the few insults were worth his unconscious instinct and his mentor’s gratitude. As time passed such fleeting tenderness faded. With the childish insistence of denying friendship and replacing it with the illusion of animalstirred pack belonging, neither Scottyboy nor YoungJed nor Sonnyjo exchanged further glances. Gratitude was hastily replaced by the stronger memories of insult, from your own team. Heretical feelings were brushed aside, deep down, into the unspoken collusion of fumbling loyalty, those wrenching sensations which are hidden for fear of being childish, a sissy, plain soft or simply mad: there was no room for brooding sensitivity when there was a game to be won.
Woven into the bindings of their origins, the limited scope of human nature as it struggled to belong, to be accepted, they grew up within these circles until they eventually spiraled out of control, into a cortex of annihilation.
School ended. No one was sad. Many scarcely noticed: they were already spending far more time at work than within the grey walls of their winter confines. Scottyboy returned to his farm up the mountains. Sonnyjo would see him occasionally at the weekly market, or down the cafes in winter, or just passing through the general Store. Then they would nod and comment on the weather, prices, their progress on the land in relation to the time of year, and avoid all reference to their younger attachment. Their childhood reliance was to be skimmed over later under the solitary weight of being a man; group belonging was still accepted, essential, but individual friendships were always regarded dubiously, as unnatural as a man entertaining a group of unknown women. Social limits were clearly defined if unspoken.
Sonnyjo saw more of YoungJed, at a distance. Their land bordered so the hulking shadow of the big man next door was frequently spotted, nodded at over the ditch. YoungJed grew even taller but put on weight which took his scarecrow look and adapted it to a Frankenstein presence, a lone monster bent under the burden of increasing madness. His mother finally died, crazy as everyone had presumed; and his father, by common consent, was drinking himself down the same road. YoungJed alone was preserved from this fate, saved by a woman. Marlene was strong enough to banish all madness save that which her own actions urged in others.
Infrequently, when their paths did physically cross somewhere in town, they would tangle awkwardly. Unwilling, or unable to recognize the subtle debt he owed the taller man, Sonnyjo would lower his eyes and mumble inanities. YoungJed would return in kind. Work, or his parents, had twisted the gleam from his eyes, the gentleness from his hunch. His old enthusiasm for difficult causes sparked briefly again under Marlene’s gaze; then the onslaught of kids kept it at bay until with their disappearance it faded to scorn.
Through the tumble of his exhaustion a ragged ball raced. It spun closer a tattered end flying out behind like a flag. It wasn’t going to stop. It had the solid determination of a cannonball. He was running then jumping, then stone steady, paralyzed, in its path. He couldn’t move. His feet froze. They would never control it. Voices screamed from the dead.
“There. Go. Go. Go.”
Laughter as they knew he’d miss it. “It was only poor Sonnyjo. Never any use.” Knees buckling, he stumbled to run. Fell. Begging. Shouts. Hoots. The black blob growing. Hands. Arms. All he had left. His right fist rose as the whoosh crowded his ears. With a lunge of desperation his hand reached out, opening uncontrollably to welcome the black thunder. Finger cracked, snapped backwards under the force, to hang there, poke him in the eye, beckoning him closer to laugh in the face. Couldn’t stop it.
“Never make a footballer.”
“Useless that Sonnyjo.”
They were all grinning. Faces all around, staring down, teeth bared in mockery. What was he doing down there? He twisted a mutilated hand in feeble explanation. The laughter rose as they rocked back and forth their own neatly knuckled limbs wagging in disgust.
“Use your feet you lazy bastard.”
“Gave it away.”
Insults stretched lips to breaking. Sweaty dark tongues lapped his nose. He fell further, until lying beneath them, staring into the faces that were growing before him into the desperation of adulthood. His own father was among them, roaring, jaws quivering beneath the gales of wrenching laughter. “My son?” he was screaming. “Call yourself my son?” Teeth snarled. His father’s face loomed closer to bite off his nose. Drew back to reveal the anger of his cavernous lungs. Cannibalistically it stared. A whoosh. Sonnyjo recognized the sound. It had grown too familiar. The chisel rose from behind his own head and jammed down that ugly black throat. Before him, splattering eyes, dribbling tearfully down the rivulets of his nose, his father’s laughing face exploded with the deadly impact. Revenge. The terror of revenge. The crisp burnt beauty of reborn impulses. No one was laughing now. Sonnyjo was alone. They’d all disappeared. Only his father’s corpse covered him, shielding, still soft and warm. He threw his arms around it. Childlike he rocked. Back and forth, shoulder blade digging, urging himself down into the safety of his own grave. Eyes snapped in the darkness. Head crunched stone. Cheek scraped. Only blackness. The ground was hard. His back stopped scratching. Light. No. No. No. No. Not the light. Sweating in the cold air Sonnyjo trembled in the fear. Staked between the empty horror of his nightmares and the gutspilling fear of being awake, he couldn’t even accept the light to blot one of them away; they became indivisible as darkness had blurred the borders between good and bad, pain and dream. Blackness was all that remained, a numbing escape from the light of pain. Night had finally overcome day as he lay in its grasp, praying it would extend out forever, to cover the fields, suck them in its grasp until they lay beneath him, soaking him up, eating him away. Eyes wide open, staring into the ice, he lay shivering. The flow was no longer hard or soft or cold or hot. Beyond feeling even the pain in his hand he attempted vainly to push his mind out into an oblivion where there were no longer thoughts or memories, evil dreams and sorrows, to where he could float sightless, emotionless, beneath the ice cap that would prevent him from having to surface ever again.
To escape the torments of his head Sonnyjo tried to concentrate on his hand. He could still feel them, sense what was no longer there. He sought the pain as a reality, a relief from the uncontrollable tumbles of his brain. Unaccustomed to his thoughts, the tangle of his mind, he searched for shelter in the rasp of his good hand through the coal shards on the floor. The crumbled remains clinked without chiming yet their sound drew his attention; the monotonous irregularity chipping away, grating itself into nothingness against the harder floor, soaked up his concentration until his fist could find no more. His hand kept fumbling, anything physical to keep himself from the horrors, from thinking.
A lot of people were surprised when Sonnyjo finally got married, even more startled by the speed. Tongues wagged, eyebrows rose inquisitively:
“You’d never think it of him, would you now?”
“Young Sonnyjo. Such a quiet lad. Never know with the silent ones, do you?”
“Worst of the lot.”
“They are indeed.”
Wiser minds only winked.
“Picked a good one, she did.”
“Indeed. A lot quicker than the idiot she chose.”
“You never know. He didn’t do too bad for himself.”
“No. But it was time she got away from that brother.”
“Would you blame her?
“No. Who could? Anyone would be better than that moaning lout. Never does a tap of work but sits there scolding as if he was the only one to have lost a true love.”
“We’ll see. We’ll see. He’ll find some one yet. If Sonnyjo can anyone can”
“Ah yes. You can never trust the quiet ones.”
Sonnyjo himself was equally surprised. Having left schoo,l he devoted himself to the farm, ignoring as far as he could the noisy racket of the house and the rabble of human companionship in general. He was never aloof, impolite or a hermit, yet he managed to retain the beauty of personal ambitions without turning arrogant. Some thought him simple, others simply harmless, and Sonnyjo didn’t care as long as he was left alone to enjoy the land, the peace he created for himself. In the process he seldom thought of women. For Sonnyjo they were just another element of the society he skirted, a further connection he felt no need to obtain. Until, Sinead turned his eyes inside out and his hormones demanded the attention they had long been denied.
Others had done it earlier. Sonnyjo had been to weddings, several of his cousins, even young YoungJed’s. People had teased him about his own. He smiled. He had seldom considered it as anything he needed. He never thought about it. With the unpredictability of the four seasons and the continuous demands of the farm, he scarcely had the time. School was long forgotten, YoungJed had two boys and his cousin’s family had multiplied even more frighteningly before the axel of Sonnyjo’s ancient tractor snapped on a hidden rock. Sonnyjo didn’t believe in providence but maybe that was what it signaled; or simply the land looking after it’s own.
Old Dawson’s garage lay at the other end of the town. A long galvanized building, it had been tumbling down for longer than their grandfathers could remember. Once it had been prosperous, in the days of the blacksmiths, but that boom had long since dissipated under the rise of machinery, the big new works with all their modern technology the other side of the river, and Old Dawson’s propensity for wine. Old Dawson died leaving a nettled storeroom, a nightmare of punctured tires, engine molds and rusting pumps. His son, already tied to what remained of the business, tried aimlessly to drag it out into the open, to earn a living mending odd bits and pieces, providing spare parts, new wheels, the small business a larger stable wouldn’t deem worthy to handle. He even shod horses on the infrequent occasions when someone came down from the hills in a fix, until later, ironically, it was the horses, the origin of the smiths, which was to keep it going. As the richer families across the rivers began to buy horses for their daughter’s pleasures, he picked up the business of shoeing them. He was the only one left who knew how. But still, despite such efforts, Junior would always be seen somehow as a reflection of his old man, as someone who didn’t work and never wanted to.
Old Dawson’s son Junior was then the perfect man for a broken axel so Sonnyjo plodded down into the town to explain his predicament. As always when he approached the shed he felt a brief tinge of nervousness. Sonnyjo knew Junior, of course, from childhood. Junior was older, was leaving the school the year Sonnyjo entered, but not before stealing Sonnyjo’s tie and ducking his head under the cold tap. Everyone laughed. It was typical Junior. He had been doing it for five years and Sonnyjo had been unlucky enough to arrive before he was quite gone.
Junior had done odd jobs for Sonnyjo before but the broken axel was the first time Sonnyjo had actually entered the garage. There was no one outside when he arrived and at first the hushed interior was equally silent.
The first thing Sonnyjo spotted was a thread worn line of old ties, school ties, watching him from above a sink. Sonnyjo suddenly remembered that he had never got his own back. He trembled briefly as he remembered, a jolt tightened the skin of his back as his father screamed again in indignation. “First day and you’ve already lost a tie. I have to buy another! Where do you think the money will come from?” He had cried all night with shame, his own stupidity.
He had no time to weep again. “Amm ...” His foot stumbled off a pile of heaving metal. Swallowing a squeal of pain he fumbled to explain. “An axel broke. Some hidden old rock ...” The smile cut his concentration to melting point.
“You’re looking for Junior then.”
“Yes.” Shuffle. Eyes floor boarded. “Yes.” he repeated the affirmation as he regained his balance. “Yes.” He was glad of the gloominess to hide his rising shame: never having blushed for a woman before he felt as if he’d sinned.
“He’ll be along in a minute.”
She didn’t leave. She was staring, smile blossoming teasingly over skinwhite teeth. Sonnyjo didn’t notice her hands twist nervously around the basket of dirty clothes and under the weight of his own heart beat he couldn’t hear the whistle of excited breath coming closer.
“That’s mine,” he pronounced unconsciously, stepping backwards as she approached.
“What?” She stopped, puzzled.
“One of those?” her voice pierced the air like a hose. “Good grief. Another? Brother Junior’s a bad un’.” Her long neck stretched to laugh beneath the waves of tussled hair. “Which one?” she finally managed to ask between renewed giggles.
Unthinkingly, Sonnyjo’s arm pointed.
Her body leaned closer as she stretched, bending slightly under the unbalancing weight of her washing.
“The other.” Sonnyjo couldn’t quite believe they were having a conversation, that he had been reduced to such a passive state of childish submission. His heart fluttered as he watched her retrieve the ancient reminder.
He nodded, silent now.
“How do you know?”
“My name,” he could feel his cheeks turn redder than her dress. “Name’s on the back.”
Twisting it from his grasp she turned it and her smile blossomed afresh as she teased a chortle from between gentle lips. “Sonnyjo,” she mouthed Sonnyjo?” Her fingers wove their way down the tie. “Good name for a lad,” and she wondered if it fit the large man coming slowly towards her.
He nodded, mind instantly confused as he remembered his aunt sewing his name together that night before he faced the terror of school.
“Don’t you worry,” she comforted. Her fingers skimmed his ruffled fringe in a carefully calculated wisp of accidental proximity. Quickly, her fingers rushed by his forehead to grasp the embolic tie and examine the deft placing of the needle and pink thread. He had hated the color but said nothing, hoping it would never be seen. Of course it was, bandied before everyone who cared to look as Junior ripped it from his neck. His aunt had never sewn his name to another item of clothes again.
Still grinning she proffered the tattered cloth.
Still blushing, avoiding her eyes like a naughty schoolboy with bad thoughts, he reached out to collect.
“Junior’ll be alone in a minute.”
Involuntarily, Sonnyjo’s eyes rose to follow her absence, a faint rustle, the bend of an elbow, whistle of hair, scuffle of tiny boots and the heave of tender hips. It seemed suddenly to have grown dark, as if night was falling. His throat caught on a coughing swallow. He was brushing his forehead with the tattered old tie when Junior entered from behind.
Both men paused in their movements. Caught off guard they hesitated in the unexpectedness of an unforeseen situation. Battered tie twisting shamefully in the rough grasp of his fists, Sonnyjo swallowed hard. Years fell on him like an anvil. His cheeks reddened and the tears swilled afresh as they had so long ago. He snorted to frustrate the impulse. Another cough. Wishing he hadn’t entered, that she hadn’t been there, that he hadn’t been foolish enough to speak, his eyes twisted painfully into the sooty floor. Across the murky shed Junior squinted, equally surprised, for the simple reason that he hadn’t expected to meet anyone in the dark confines of his workhouse.
As neither ventured to speak the silence encroached like dusk.
“Sinead?” wondered Junior aloud, knowing too well that it wasn’t. He leaned forward to follow his question, hoping to find light as he moved deeper inside.
“Sinead,” repeated Sonnyjo silently. “Sinead.” He had a name to frame his vision, tame and spur his imagination as only words can. “Sinead.” He was lost now in the churning of those vowels. He jumped as a hand clasped his wrist.
Too intent perhaps on searching for the face, or simply unaware of the significance, Junior didn’t notice the pinkish blur between the other man’s giant fingers.
Fibers creaked within the rough massage until Sonnyjo had the presence to slip it into his pocket with a mixture of shame and feeble defiance it was his anyway, even if it was too late to spare his aunt’s wrath or his father’s money.
“Sonnyjo? What the hell?”
“That bloody machine. Would you never think of buying something new?”
“I know. I know.”
With relief the conversation found a familiar axis. Everyone moaned about his tractor. They all told him to buy another, a good second hand one, which they could usually recommend.
“Not at all like his father,” they would then groan, “mean.”
“Ah now, the old man is cute enough himself.”
“You’re right. Have to learn it from somewhere.”
“Hit a rock up in the low hills. Was wondering if you could come up and have a look,” raced Sonnyjo attempting to explain.
“And how did you manage that?”
“Sinead said you’d be along in a minute.” He’d repeated the word aloud before he wondered if it was blasphemy, if he should have repented before the scantily clothed criticism first. “Never saw it before,” he added hastily, changing his direction. “Only a small one but I think it got the axel. Don’t know where the fuck it came from.” He was babbling now, attempting to hide the familiarity with which he’d used a name.
Junior didn’t notice, or else deliberately ignored. “Come on then. No use standing here. Take me up there before the light goes and we’ll see what the damage is.” He turned towards the door, shoulders blocking out the light. “We’ve both work to be doing I suppose.”
Sonnyjo followed silently. He was tempted to glance back, to seek one more glimpse of that whistling skirt, the gleam of pale lips in the dusty web of Junior’s shed. He didn’t. Shame held him forward. His hands twitched once more through the childish cloth in his pocket. She’d laughed at him. Had Junior seen it? Was he still laughing beneath that stern exterior? Would everyone sneer if they knew how his heart had started beating, how his mind painted images he had never dreamed of before? Confused, feeling once more like the child he thought he had left far behind, he rubbed his nose on the back of a crude hand and shuffled after the departing shadow until they were both shadows, card cut-outs, single dimensioned shadows in the twilight. Neither of them noticed the eyes watching their poetic exit from the gloom.
It took several more evenings before the tractor chugged back to Sonnyjo’s farm under it’s own steam. Many fluent curses rang to the screech of pounding metal, along the slippery surface of axel grease, before wheels turned without jamming and chassis held without sagging.
“Would you never think of buying another. I know someone who has one only a few years old. Almost perfect if you think of this heap of scrap.”
By the time they had finished struggling Sonnyjo didn’t need to respond to such encouragement. As they dragged it all the way down into town, lagging sullenly behind Junior’s shiny monster, everyone they passed had filled the air with the same advice. Junior’s own urgings echoed endlessly, in tune to his clanging, during the three days it took to put the old iron horse back together. Sonnyjo’s stubborn silence became answer enough.
“It’ll last another while,” was the limit of Sonnyjo’s defense. “See me through the winter at least.” or a simple, noncommital, “We’ll see. We’ll see.” He had added: “Depends on the old man,” and for once the argument ceased: he was probably right. Everyone doubted that he could make such a decision alone, if he’d be let; but they all knew it was easier hassle Sonnyjo that his father.
The ploughing was delayed and Sonnyjo was forced to spend three frustrating days struggling in a shed. The confinement, the forced exile from the wild he loved wasn’t, however, as tormenting as the encounter with a nature he had until then avoided, failed to recognize. At the age of twenty-six, when most of the people he had been to school with had discovered, teased, flirted, exaggerated, lied, and finally married, it was Sonnyjo’s turn to become painfully aware that he too was part of nature, not in the passive sense of working and living with it but in the more dangerous recognition that he was made of it and that natural instincts inside are much harder to understand.
While consciously cursing the delay, the immobility of straightening an axel, he went to bed at night to wait for the following day with a pain he had never before experienced. Tossing and turning he could only see her face. As he tumbled awkwardly through the sheets her skirt danced lazily across his eyes. Her smile teased from the foot of the bed, to seep through and interrupt his dreams. His aunt’s raucous tones across supper faded into the gentle music he overheard down the town. The coarse food she provided crumbled tastelessly as he remembered the sandwich Sinead had handed him for lunch. The glance of their hands. The smoothness of hers. Yet firm. Used to working. But gentle. Like a lamb’s neck as it suckled. Sinead. Sinead. The sound waves cresting into a storm. The images were frightening, out of control. Days wasted, he told himself, but longed for. Would she bring them coffee tomorrow? Would she smile again like she had this morning? Would she look at him? Would she encourage them once more or would she have better things to do? In the corner of his mind that scared, he hoped the axel would never be mended, that the tractor would forever lilt aimlessly.
The machinery was, of course, mended and it was with mixed feelings that Sonnyjo drove it back out to the farm. He failed even to admire the smooth rattle of its wheels, the rhythmic bouncing of the hard seat beneath as he steered off the road and into his fields.
Two days of hard ploughing and he still felt uneasy, his thoughts still a mangle as if it were his desires and not the land he was beating into subjugation. Above the crackle of the crows, beyond the scuttle of the distant rabbits, it was Sinead he saw and heard; his scant glimpses of her, those fleeting touches, crowded out what had comforted him for so long. Feebly, to the rhythm of the roughly hewn earth, his mind attempted to puzzle itself out.
The only women he had ever really known were his mother and Aunty Johanna. The latter was too aggressively frightening and while the former had occasionally been gentle, her memory had become too distant to stimulate many dreams. Sinead fitted neither mould. Despite the confusion, he started to absorb the idea of getting married, of having someone to replace Aunty Johanna, of having children, someone to work for and leave the farm too; the concept had vaguely crossed his mind before, like a frightened hare. He had never imagined, however, that such a political union could gain its own unasked for momentum. More worryingly, he hadn’t considered or had to deal with his own hormones before. They were forcing him beyond reason, out of the narrow confines where he had been so happily isolated.
He was unleashed like a new born baby, forced to stumble and crawl because he didn’t know how to walk. An ache in his stomach told him to move forward but gave no direction as to direction his steps should take. Twice he had ventured back to the shed with fumbling excuses of buying more axel grease, the needless search for a strong chain. He’d only glimpsed her once, through the window. She hadn’t even seen him. He was sure. He was staring, nodding absently to Junior, but she wasn’t looking. The duster wiped him away as it snapped the pane of glass clean. Then it was Junior’s turn to stare. Sonnyjo shuffled uncomfortably, grabbed the grease and disappeared with scant thanks.
He considered going down to the cafes in the evenings. But it was winter and seldom more than men appeared for their nightly wine and dominos. The women were at home, with the children, the washing, the idle gossip of busy hands.
He did see her at church one Sunday. Sonnyjo wasn’t a firm believer in his orthodox faith, yet he diligently went to church once a week. Most people did, completing another ritual of their neatly planned cycles. There they socialized, wore their best clothes; and the men did some business after the women wandered off home in knots to prepare the dinner. Like many others Sonnyjo only barely understood the readings and the muttered explanations of their sweating priest; and like many men of his age, without a family, he spent the hour or so standing with his back to the end wall of the holy building. The pews upfront were kept for the less unabashed congregation of families and women. It was this distant sight of Sinead at church which forced him to finally make a feeble move.
The first Sunday he spotted her by chance. He hadn’t thought of it before. Then, as she rustled past, down the aisle, he realized that she would always be there. His heart thumped with relief. Like a boy with a naughty picture he was finally relieved to have an assured image, a guaranteed means of keeping his desires captured in sight.
The next Sunday he arrived early to be certain of catching her entrance. Two weeks later he was also leaving late to watch her exit. Hanging there, alone, near the boys in the back row, he saw her down the aisle and out the door. She recognized him. A smile flickered. Eyes twinkled as his own lowered in shame.
The days in between weekends were crawlingly tedious. Farm work no longer fulfilled but gaped like a sandy hole waiting to be filled in. Even the dog noticed he had turned moody, that his mind was no longer where it had always been. Sulking, the animal refused to accompany him beyond the yard; it would stay and wait for the older man, a more attentive stroke.
Infatuation is like any drug: the small amounts that once lifted soon develop a depression of their own. Unconsciously, after three weeks of faltering discretion, Sonnyjo followed her down the aisle and squashed into a pew three rows behind her bustling curls. Trapped in their comforts he stumbled his way through the service forgetting to kneel, stand, bow, mumble at all the correct indications. The knarl of women beside him nudged him and threw eyes at each other.
On his second attempt he finally managed to time his exit (to the further consternation of the women he jammed into the row) and walk her out the door. Side by side almost, they left, Sonnyjo just a couple of steps behind. With the shock of wintery sunlight her face lowered and head turned to avoid its glare. She caught the eyes behind and smiled.
“How are you Sonnyjo?” she mouthed.
Unhearing with surprise he said nothing.
“Not wearing your tie I see.”
She giggled gently, comfortingly. A hand sneaked closer to touch his wrist in apology.
“Sorry. Only teasing.”
And with a wider grin she was gone.
Red faced, he didn’t know what to do now. The whole process appeared to be one obstacle after a next. Having learned to walk, he now had to run; and then there would be the bicycle, the car, and all in such a short space of time: children had years to puzzle their way through, adults just flew into the dark one step behind the event up ahead. Sonnyjo wandered home slowly, depressed despite such a closer encounter, because of it: where did he go from here?
Fortunately, help came from outside.
In a place the size of Hillstown every unexpected movement, uncharacteristic smile, is noticed. It wasn’t just his dog who recognized a change. Voices were soon wagging, taunting each other with mystery, assumptions, gleeful surprise.
“Did you see him!”
“Did you see them both!”
“Well now, what do you make of that?”
“Of young Sonnyjo. Finally growing up.”
“Really? I didn’t know anything about.”
“Well you must be the last. Isn’t everyone talking.”
“Are you serious.”
“With Big Dawson’s daughter! Well now. Well, well, well. Who would have imagined it?”
“Don’t say I told you. Nothing official. But just watch them next Sunday.”
“I thought he was never off the farm. Where did he meet her?”
“Ah now. It’s a small world, a small town. Always eyes for a pretty woman. Even young Sonnyjo. Never trust the quiet ones.”
“Oh, you’re right. They’re often the worse.”
“But do you think it will come to anything?”
“He’s not known for his social graces, is he?”
“I wouldn’t worry. If she’s interested, she’ll do it all for him.”
“She would too. No better woman.”
“Hard as nails. Hasn’t had it easy.”
“And be glad to get away from that grumpy brother of hers.”
“I can understand that.”
“And what’ll he do then?”
“Move in with them I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“Scrounge off a good farm of land.”
“Don’t know about that. Can’t see old man Sonnyjo letting it go that easily.”
“Ah now, you never know. He’ll be happy enough to see the young one married off and to have little feet around the place again.”
“He would. Never been the same since the wife died. A couple of grandchildren and he’d be laughing as loud as ever.”
“Worse than ever.”
“God forbid. Could we handle it?”
“But, are you sure?”
“We’ll see. We’ll see.”
And when the wisest minds of the village reached that conclusion it was deemed by the Gods themselves.
Old women murmured, younger men laughed at his fumbling maneuvers down the back of the church. Even his father realized something was amiss. “He’s in love,” he laughed heartily over dinner one Wednesday, when Aunty Johanna was berating Sonnyjo for being moodily unhungry.
His sister’s look of confusion convinced the old man that the subject was even funnier. “Go on. Who is she?” he shouted between squalls of mirth. “Go on. Tell us.” Noticing Sonnyjo’s blushing cheeks Aunt realized the old man was closer to the truth that he knew.
It took the Sonnyjo’s Old Man some time before he realized his humor had been quicker than his sensibility. Aunty Johanna, however, trusted her instincts. From experience she realized that those who are closest are the last to hear the gossip. A few well aimed allusions and her fears were proved true. Soon she was the first to know each new development as gaping mouths sought her ear in the hope that she could, from the vantage point of her proximity, add accuracy to the speculations.
All she had were her own eyes, which provided evidence enough: halfcleared plates, unrested features, nervous fiddling at the table. Watching him in church told her it was all too true and immediately her mind spun through the conclusions, seeking out the strands she could wind in her own favor. The thought of having to return to her ownhoem turned her stomach, hovering like a lost chick coming home to roost.
Over the past years her life had grown comfortably ordered after taking over her brother’s house; and having escaped the thankless drudgery, the eternal infighting of her own she had no desire to return to it full time. Another woman in the house could only mean that. She would no longer be needed. Her brother wouldn’t care. He never had. He would send her back without a word of thanks. A quick smile as reward, which was as worthless as the endless taunts she had to put up with as she provided his meals. Ungrateful slob. She could be at home taking care of her own but he gave no credit to her sacrificial journeys to keep his house in order. Had always been selfish. They all had, those men. Her mother had spoilt them rotten. Used to the best of everything with the women slaving all day and sometimes night to provide it! No, there would be no thanks, no pension. A quick dismissal and she’d be surrounded once more, twentyfour hours a day, with her own hovel of endless squabbles.
Even as her calculations raced bitterly Aunty Johanna knew she was simplifying. He hadn’t asked her to come down of course. She realized all too clearly, but kept it deftly to herself, that it was for her own comfort and ease of mind she had bothered. Nevertheless, in the twisting torment of having to leave, her anguish provoked anger. They would gladly see her go. The old man would be all to happy to have a younger beauty around the house to impress; and then there would be the children.
It was an obvious progression, had been for a long time except that Aunty Johanna, like everyone else, had never thought Sonnyjo would find a woman. He portrayed the typical image of those lone farmers who never want for anybody, who have never been taught to need anyone else, or who simply never had the opportunity to learn the power of sharing.
It was that woman’s fault. Sly little bitch. Twist her lips into hips until the poor innocent was well captured. Aunty Johanna knew the tricks all too well. Hadn’t she done it herself once? Well good luck to the woman! In a couple of years all his shy charm will be lost in a mountain of tattered socks smelling worse than his filthy breath heaving overhead when all you want to do is sleep.
Oh, she was smart all right. Aunty Johanna recognized that. Everyone did. It wasn’t his sheepish innocence she was chasing, that fumbling charm: it was probably wonderful at the beginning to have some idiot stutter after you down the aisle at mass, but no one doubted that meekishness was the real attraction. “And a fine farm”, Aunty Johanna hastened to add to anyone who would listen: timidness was a bonus, nothing more.
“A smart one.”
“Couldn’t do better for herself.”
“And he certainly couldn’t think of it himself.”
“Who needs to think when you have one the likes of her doing it for you? Look at the poor lad; like a new born babe. And she there rocking the cradle.”
“Well, maybe she deserves it.”
“Yes, maybe, but does he?”
Aunty Johanna wasn’t thinking of Sonnyjo She was more concerned with her own predicament. After the initial shock her mind had narrowed down the possibilities. If she was allowed, she knew she could steer any newcomer into the ways of her house; unfortunately, from what she’d heard of this Sinead that wasn’t a realistic option. “Strong willed. Smart. Nothing passes her by,” were the adjectives Aunt Johanna was left fearing. If she could deal with that father of his she could knock anybody into shape she told herself.
The other possibility was to move him out. Herself and the brother could enjoy long years yet together in their own sniping way. Was it viable to move Sonnyjo into her place? Then they could both take care of that dammed Junior, keep him well out of reach. The idea was attractive. What could her brother do by himself anyway. Not much good for anything by all accounts; and too late now to find anyone for himself after that fiasco with that Marlene girl. It wasn’t as if it was miles away. Just down the road. Sonnyjo could still eat lunch there and go home to her at night, keeping the woman far from sight except for those occasions when families are supposed to be close. Aunty Johanna liked the idea. If they had thought about such practicalities in her own house life would be easier for everybody.
“Ah now, someday you’ll move out of here and leave us old folk to ourselves. I know what the young are like. Anything for peace and comfort. Look at my own sons. All they want to do is leave.”
Sonnyjo understood exactly why they wanted to leave but couldn’t grasp the unexpected turn of a midday conversation.
“What are you talking about woman?” demanded his father.
Aunty Johanna backed down. “Nothing. Nothing. Just thinking of YoungJed who went and built his own house down the field.” She flustered around the stove to hide her shame.
“Wouldn’t anyone with parents like his,” grumbled the old man. “Glad to get away.”
Sonnyjo said nothing. Pondering over coarse bread he had a fleeting glance of his Aunt’s aim.
“And seeing that you mentioned expanding the kitchen I just thought.”
“You thought what?”
“Nothing. Nothing. Eat your food you grumpy old sod.”
“Women. I’ll live yet to understand them. Creatures to themselves.”
“And aren’t you glad they are? Where would you be without them? A dirty old man without an unholed sock.”
“There are holier things than socks!” and the old man burst into one of his fits of uncontainable laughter.
The other two remained silent. Partly because the pun took time, partly because they didn’t see the humor, mainly because they were wandering down different trains of thought. they failed to respond.
In a huff the old man stuffed a fist of bread into his mouth and left.
Aunty Johanna caught Sonnyjo’s eye in a painful mixture of deliberateness and embarrassment. She was never sure if her nephew’s continued silence was wisdom or sheer stupidity: did he know what she meant or was he as lost as those foolish eyes indicated?
Sonnyjo was indeed lost. Everyone seemed to have guessed his innermost secret. Having grown up with nothing to hide but himself, the shock of realizing that his private desires were public gossip was almost enough to make him bitter. Sonnyjo, however, was too trusting for such strong feeling; or perhaps his emotions were twisted enough without the need for further gravities. Nevertheless, spinning endlessly around the orbits of his troubled lust, Sonnyjo eventually became grateful for outside interference; and in the process of acceptable routine, recognizable needs, Sonnyjo finally became, momentarily at least, sucked into the patterns of normal society. For the first time in his life Sonnyjo slowly realized that that there was more to emotion than the land, that the earth belonged to more than him alone.
The process was a slow one. Despite his aunt’s oblique hints, his father’s unknowing precision, Sonnyjo remained slow to recognize the unnaturalness of his new behavior. Sly looks, not so superstitious giggles, passed him by until it was Junior who finally made it clear.
He caught Sonnyjo’s arm on the way out of church one Sunday. Trapped in his fantasies Sonnyjo turned with surprise.
“Stop making such a fool out of yourself for fuck sake. If you want her think of something better to do than this childishness.”
Struggling to release his arm Sonnyjo couldn’t begin to reply. He wasn’t sure what was happening, what Junior was talking about.
“Don’t act so innocent. Don’t think everyone doesn’t know. And she’ll run rings around you if you let her carry on like this. She has you where she wants. Spends all day around the house whistling. And the food only half done.”
Junior let go of the arm with a last squeeze, a pinch of painful advice. He strode out the church yard without looking back at the panic he’d created; without catching the eyes he knew all too well were watching him. Let them think what they wanted. He could imagine the tongues wagging, few of their thoughts favorable. Who gave a fuck. Fuck them. He had to do something. Maybe it was he who was the fool.
Sonnyjo stood paralyzed as the crowd shouldered him by. She was long gone, faded from sight. Only her torment remained, the public embarrassment of finally glimpsing himself from everyone else’s eyes. The concept was too much. Sonnyjo, in turn, plundered out the gates, down the street, out the fields. He didn’t even appear for Sunday dinner. Everyone knew it was time to make a move.
Aunty Johanna was the first to take the plunge. Having the most to loose she deemed the risk worthwhile.
“What?” was the old man’s only response. “What!” he roared again over his shimmering stew.
His spoon dropped. The splash stained his shirt. He didn’t notice. Aunty Johanna did, cursing lowly, wondering how she’d clean that and it only washed fresh the day before.
Then she saw the shock brighten into pride.
She wasn’t surprised. All too easily she could imagine the comfort the rapid heart beats provided the old man’s soul. “Yes,” she whispered dejectedly. “I didn’t think so either. But yes. Your young lad has found a wife.”
The food started gurgling down the wrinkled throat. Great spoonfuls of zest bobbed his Adam’s apple with uncommon strain.
“A fine meal. Pity he’s missing it,” he remarked.
First compliment I’ve ever got here. And probably the last, she thought.
His sister ate more pensively. While cursing the awkward dob and his good luck, she also knew that no one would be malicious enough, including herself, to destroy his future, except perhaps Junior. You could never quite trust that man she decided. How was he going to survive without a sister and damn him if he had ideas of coming to look for a spare room or a share in the farm. There remained far too many questions to be answered before she could give herself full heartily to the embrace.
“There’s a lot to think about there,” she finally encouraged.
“Ay.” was all the old man said, with nothing left on his plate.
She heaped him with more. It was good at least to see his old appetite back, she thought plainfully.
“Ay. There is.”
“I mean,” but she broke off. She had to give him time to overcome the initial glow.
“The details. There are lots of things involved. You can’t do these things with your eyes closed.” Growing panic introduced themes she knew would be better held in reserve.
“I’ll tell him all he needs to know.”
“Christ,” she muttered forcing a spoonful of bubbling rabbit down to soften the sound. You dithering old idiot. No doubt he has a lot to learn but that’s not what’s worrying me.
“I mean,” she was stuck once more. She knew there would be time but also sensed that it was now the euphoria had to be tinged with reality, before it developed a logic of its own.
“There are lots of practicalities.”
“Yes. There are of course. But nothing we can’t solve with a bit of quick thinking, eh?”
Aunty Johanna doubted they were thinking of the same intrigues but she said nothing.
They finished the meal in silence.
Sonnyjo’s Old Man swallowed each mouthful in an ecstasy of selffulfillment. Finally, he would have a daughterinlaw, and then granddaughters and of course a grandson to take over their labor, bring their surname into the next century. Finally.
He had often doubted the event. Lost in a personal world his son, while a fine solid worker with a good head on his shoulders, lacked what the old man thought of as his own ‘spark’ of humanity. Sometimes his son just didn’t seem to need people and his father couldn’t conceive of such independence as being anything but strange, somehow unbalanced. He had never said it to anyone, not even to his wife when she was alive, but it had been his constant preoccupation: he could never really understand his son’t desire for the freedom lonliness embued.
Aunty Johanna was less satisfied and far more troubled. The old man has gone soft, she thought. He wouldn’t see a bear trap nowadays if it was planted on his own doorstep. In a les romantic way her own mind was wandering down the same tracks as her brother, along routes, however, which led to more slippery endings. She didn’t trust that Junior. Didn’t really trust either of them. There was a good farm of land here and wouldn’t anyone be interested. Especially marrying an innocent like Sonnyjo. He’d never be any trouble. Keep out of your way. The house could be run any way you wanted: didn’t she know that herself. A fine haul for any woman. And what about the brother? And if there weren’t any kids? Who’d get it then? She’d be damned if she let Junior near and her own nephews scraping over a few acres down the road. Some people had no consideration. It mightn’t be the time yet but once the initial excitement died down she would have her say.
Struggling through another rabbit stew, Junior himself was also racing through the looming possibilities. He wavered between acceptance of inevitability and the surprise of its arrival. He had known, in his heart, that one day she would leave yet he had never wanted to face the lonely fact; and now that it had happened that was all he could think of.
Bitterness broadened his teeth as they picked a slim bone. Across the table Sinead said little apart from comment on the wet weather. Junior considered broaching the subject, lacing their conversations with a shade of uncommon familiarity. He resisted. The pain would be too much; and in the back of his mind he wanted her to do it, to assume the guilt of outlining his destiny. Get it over with, he whispered silently. Abandon me like the rest. Fucking women. Never rely on them. That was his mistake or his providence. Not from no on, he swore. No more. Even though he recognized that he would have little other choice.
Sinead ate on silently, chewing firmly, keeping her eyes to the plate as she mentally sliced through her own indecisions. He was a good man. No doubt about that. Everyone said so, if a bit slow. She didn’t mind that. A hard worker, would take of her, had a good farm and worked it well; she could deal with naivety as well as any woman could, and minded it less than some. He’d keep out of her way. The real question was how to get to the next step. If he didn’t move soon the whole affair would become nothing more than one big joke to be added to the oral heritage of the village.
With fears and desires spinning blindly through the night it was fine time for the strings to be pulled together until the weave was completed and another story ready to be started. While the main characters had reached the dept of selfimmolation, it was the minor spectators who grew bored and decided, as usual, they had to put an end to the show. Gossip stales quickly once fact stains its flow.
As the village had been doing through the centuries of its existence, it took it upon itself to get this marriage organized and over with. It was a good match. It was more than acceptable for the continuation of the community. All they needed was a shove. Yesterday’s wagging tongue becomes tomorrow’s ringmaster. Mrs. Doormouth who had been one of the first to ‘suspect’, to spot the warning signals of young love, saw it as her mission to finalize the details; anyway, she owed it to the old man, a decent man, always had been good to her when she had needed a bit of help around the farm after her own spouse died. For the new year she decided to throw a party and give the young love birds a chance to be formally introduced.
Parties in Hillstown were a modest if boisterous affair. Heaps of roast potatoes, fiery whiskey from the hidden distilleries up the mountains, and foot pounding music from Honey pup, Patty and the other cousins were always enough to fill a draughty barn with the sweating heat of loud bodies and clammy hands.
Laughs and shouts, the bustle of rough cloth and angular limbs were gathering momentum when Mrs. Doormouth got Mrs.Riverside from across the lane to bring them physically together.
Sober, he seldom drank, Sonnyjo shuffled, tensely nervous. He’d been told to come. It’s New Year. You be there. He wasn’t sure who had told him but Sonnyjo knew when to obdy.
He saw Sinead down the back, through the haggle of men, and blankly ignoring the conversation all around he could only think of how to get closer to her. Hands clattered his back in search of approvement or collaboration. He nodded, forced a feeble smile as the faces turned away to tell another joke.
At the other end, hands juggling hot potatoes from the fire, Sinead sensed something was happening. The collusion of the women around her hinted at more than just humorous winks. When her arm was grabbed and the fatal words assured she was only faintly surprised, yet still unable to hide her embarrassed pleasure.
“This is Sonnyjo.” and in a hush of flying skirts they were left alone in the corner.
There was no one else to listen. Sinead’s shy opening hung emptily in the air. Not wanting to be anxious Sinead said no more. Her lips twinkled encouragingly but Sonnyjo had no answer. Trying to smile he resorted to politeness and offered to get her a drink. Voices sighed as they saw him leave her so quickly. “Couldn’t fall over a cliff if he was pushed, that one,” someone muttered to general approvement.
“Well. We’ve done our bit.”
“Yes. Leave them to it.”
The wedding was the following autumn, a little over a year since they’d met. Tongues wagged at the speed but more out of routine than genuine doubt, Sonnyjo of all people would never have got her pregnant was the common consent. “You can never trust the quite ones,” echoed an old adage, but everyone knew there were limits.
Their first fumbling introduction had paved the way for formal liaisons. Sundays at church could now be shared; and he could walk her home afterwards, even down the farm as the months sped by. Later, Sunday lunches were exchanged as Sonnyjo savored the grumpy hospitality of Junior’s table while Sinead suffered the stony inquisitiveness of Aunty Johanna and the growing crudity of his father. Sundays were, however, what made the isolation of the week worthwhile.
Alone together, Sinead’s sense of fun kept them from silence. Some say men search to marry their mother but Sonnyjo, outwardly at least, appeared to have found more solace in the shape of his father. While the tenderness of a fleeting female touch reminded him faintly of his mother’s worn hands, the ease of her laugh, the freeness of her teasing, or simple ability to talk, allowed Sonnnyjo the comfort of reacting as he did to his father. Initial paralysis in such close proximity to a stranger thus slid gently into familiar behavior; not much was required of him apart from cheerful consent and silent grins. She did the rest, led him through the steps, the fumbled kissing after shaking hand clasps, to the process of formally deciding to marry.
Sonnyjo was happy. He finally pronounced the words after weeks of sleepless anxiety. Her ‘yes’ freed him from one more torment of twisting turmoil: he would never have to go through these months of terror again; his venture into the social world was ending as she agreed to stay. He could imagine their future, himself happily out the fields and Sinead at home in the evenings. He painted the picture with confidence after the initial fright of continually having a stranger in his home faded as she became one of the family.
Urged into homemaking Sonnyjo even decided to paint the house. One day towards the end of summer he launched into the job unannounced. His aunt shook her head as she watched him fiddle with the whitewash. Her tongue lashed as he splattered the floor. Sulking with the mess she went home early and didn’t turn up the next day. Nothing was said, by any of the three, but there was a clear understanding that with such an uncharacteristic retreat she was preparing for, or enquiring about, her potential exile.
Down the road, on the edge of town, the dullness of his garage, Junior had similar sulks. Between frequent slanderings of Sonnyjo’s timid character, he also managed to bemoan his own future although with decreasing intensity as the weeks passed: somehow he appeared to have realized that there was little point in locking two souls into a prison where only one need go. She was better off getting married he recognized, even to a dim wit like that Sonnyjo.
With the relief of finally getting out, his sister paid her brother’s frustrations little heed, assuring him that he would be taken care of while unconsciously wondering if, after the initial romance withered, she was only exchanging one dreary plot for another.
Thus, each caught up in their own worlds, lives were formally intermingled and the ingredients of more than the wedding cake set in motion.
Locked away in his cage Sonnyjo’s mind wandered selectively. As he chose only the comforting words from that tattered book, he did the same with his memories.
Little things assumed unnatural importance. He saw again, clearly, the day the young dog finally had her pups and the old grandmother bitch looking on proudly, knowing finally that she could rest in peace. In the darkness he could feel their blind little tongues seek his fingers as they searched for their mother’s food. When they grew bigger he took them down the fields in training for their future; the old dog was long past long days spent away from home. He gave one of them to Junior and for the first time thought he glimpsed a flash of gentleness, as if Junior too really was part of the family. Spring blossomed into wooly balls of stumbling, then spritely sheep. And winters covered the ground with warm smells of heavy stews and rich cakes. Sonnyjo put on weight. So did his father. The bitter frost of early mornings licked his lips, enjoyably real, even more welcome as it heightened the delight of going back to a homely oven. Sinead had repainted, decorated, glossed over his own feeble whitewashing, until the house had a prettiness which overcame its hunched practicality. They built the kitchen extension. The old man would adjourn there at nights, with his cronies, cards, and a few bottles of country wine. Deeper inside, Sinead and Sonnyjo would drink tea and sit happily silent, content with the comfort of simply being. It was so far away now but Sonnyjo refused to contemplate the distance. Within the struggle to cope his mind was slowly adapting too well, as brains do under the pressure of shock. Life had been warped out of existence and the only way of continuing it was to force himself down the new trajectory as if it were the old. Shutting out the coal, the cold, the scuttle of rats, the click overhead, the tap of feet coming closer down the stairs, he retired to his fantasies, the weak support of what is forever lost. And having accepted this defeat he refused to contemplate anything other than beauty, sweet smells, the rustle of a tamed wind, the gurgle of a young river, the lick of innocent pups; through the numbness of his tattered hands he could feel her softness as if she was right there beside him, as if it was she coming down those steps.
Thus the mind flees the unsupportable nearness of reality with flights of fancy, dreams of grandeur. Clicks and metallic poundings, the terror of his wedding night, of physically belonging to a woman, paled under the glow of her face on the pillow, the frightening ecstasy of creating children. In the dark, trembling, he no longer remembered the stuttered familiarities and the fact that his hands had been as clumsy as they were now, but the confidence he grew to assume under her guidance. Painfully close, those initial years of innocence grew to dominate all other thoughts.
The first glow of marriage brought Sonnyjo the happiest years of his life. It had happened to others of his age earlier but finally, one step behind as usual, it was Sonnyjo ’s turn to feel the awkwardness of youth fall away under the grace of finally belonging as the thrill of making a home and family hadn’t yet fallen into the trials of maintaining it. If he had looked around at his companions he should have realized that all bliss is paid for, every commitment has a price. His own father could have told him if either had been articulate with emotions which ranged beyond the banalities of day to day living. At first, however, clouds bolted over the horizon before they had time to stain.
Sonnyjo’s happiness was further heightened by his own innocence, that selfish ability of seeing the world from only one point of view, one string of necessities. Having successfully ventured out to capture the joys of a wife he anxiously retreated back to the land. He didn’t spend as much time out as before, tempted homewards as he was by the growing comforts of the house, but it remained his life, his one true passion. Lost in its folds he seldom noticed what was really happening at home, which suited Sinead.
Left unharnessed, for the first time in her life, she assumed the responsibilities she had always had, but with the advantage of having the unquestioned power of making the decisions.
From an early age she had being running a household but always under the unending dissatisfaction of the men who controlled it. Having beaten her mother to an early grave, her father was equally unsympathetic to his daughter; a woman was a woman and through the fits of his violent drinking the odd moments of tenderness were washed away by hatred. Once he was dead, Junior’s grumpy disquiet was little improvement. Bullied and bossed she kept a home, but it wasn’t hers. She never wanted it. Sonnyjo finally offered the chance of being free and in return for his unthreatening security she lent him a touch of social competence, a glimpse of a more human world.
Sinead quickly set about getting her new house in order. Long used to dealing with men she soon had things the way she wanted. She immediately realized that Sonnyjo would be out the fields and little trouble, and that anything she wanted done would have to be approved, through a mixture of Sonnyjo’s reliance and simple courtesy, by his father. Both lovers of easy banter they were quickly friends. The old man adored her for simply being there, rosey cheeked, blushing arms, a slight shuffle as she raced from one chore to another; and loved her more for the joy of her tongue, a soft, gentle tongue, a million miles removed from the sting of his sister.
“She’s been well brought up he told his friends. A great lass. That son of mine got lucky,” he’d muse aloud, hinting that it was more than just luck, that there was more to young Sonnyjo than many thought. Looking on in admiration, there were many who unwillingly agreed with the speculation. The smoothness of her tongue, her good humor, had been bred, however, under a far more demanding mixture; as Aunty Johanna recognized, her good nature was laced with a welltried will. Under her gentle manipulation the old man gave her anything she wanted.
His sister was the first to go. After a couple of weeks with the younger woman, she knew she had no choice. It was her own decision. The new woman had a quiet determination which would wear her down. She could see it in those big brown eyes. There was a steel behind the smile which only another woman could properly identify. With enough fights on her hands at home Aunty Johanna retreated from further confrontations in what had once been her paradise. She said nothing directly, contenting her disappointment with selfdemeaning statements to her brother.
“No need for me around here any more I suppose. A younger woman will do far more than I ever could. Just go back home. At least you had me here all those years when you were alone, to help bring the boy up, and me with my own family.” Her loud sighs were scarcely noticed.
There was little thanks. It was Sinead who told the men that they should give her something, a token of gratitude. Snorting, cleaning his throat loudly, the old man handed over the sweets as if they were coins. “Am ... “ but he was too unaccustomed to such gestures to explain them orally. “Come down anytime you like,” was all he finally managed, and the simple awkwardness of the gesture was enough to take the edge of his sister’s initial bitterness.
She did venture down to the house, “to help the young lass out and show her the ropes”, as she explained to anyone who would listen, but the visits grew less and less frequent as inevitably she was sucked into the vortex of her own family entanglements once more.
With a free hand Sinead got the house in order. Despite Aunty Johanna’s best intentions, the building retained that cold, halfdirty purposefulness of a woman’s absence. Scorning the crude stains of Sonnyjo’s previous attempt, she insisted that the house be repainted, the floor layered with lino. Cheap material added further color to the windows and before the first year was out she had the kitchen extended which allowed space to cook and area for her fatherinlaw and his buddies to be kept at a manageable distance during the long winter nights.
The house fell into order as did married life. Originally painfully timid, she eventually drew from Sonnyjo a certain confidence in himself when it came to more intimate matters; until her gentleness stroked as much tenderness as either of them ever wanted, ever expected.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to have children,” she whispered beneath the winter folds. His breathed consent was what she’d expected. For Sinead the issue was looming. It was their next step, the confirmation of their union. And she wasn’t that young any longer, older in fact than any of them realized. Her original birth certificate had long been lost by a drunken father, but she could feel a certain age creeping through her bones.