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FLOTSAM & JETSAM, and then some.
A Collection of  prize-winning short stories.

Currently out of print

                                           

   [Gas Man] [God's Backside]

******

Reviews and two stories follow

REVIEW IN THE SOUTHERN STAR, JUNE 2001, by Ian Wilde

Flotsam & Jetsam, by Chuck Kruger (Bradshaw Books,)

Bradshaw Books has been promoting first time poets and authors for ten years, giving vast encouragement and support to new writers, and receiving only a fraction of the recognition they deserve. Amongst the talented new writers they have championed have been Ciaran Ruby, Giovanni Malito, Liz Willows and now Chuck Kruger. Kruger is an American who has been perched, like some strange sea bird, on Cape Clear for many windswept years. He’s organised the Island’s storytelling festival and won the short story prize of the Cork Literary Review enough times to make it seem like it’s just his. So it’s heartening to see that a collection of his stories has been picked up and published by Bradshaw under the title: Flotsam & Jetsam.

The stories are a hymn to Cape Clear – as Kruger says in the introduction: “Cape’s a poem I read every day, every night. It’s a point of reference, a metaphor by which I confirm my very being. It’s the place I love more than any other.”

Approaching the subject from a variety of angles, the author gives us fables, historical sketches, Hemingwayesque thrillers, and descriptive masterpieces, all with Cape Clear as a setting or starting point.  Several stories stood out for me: The brutal tale Looking Back At Yes And No, tells of a child who dies as the result of a Priest’s beating. The final moments, when the priest asks for forgiveness, are related with a sparse spare simplicity that hits the reader almost as hard as the priest’s stick. Yahweh’s Tears manages to get all the way to Israel to celebrate the healing power of stories. Whilst perhaps the two finest stories “Click, Click” and “Gas Man” fittingly explore the untamed elemental mystique of the island, and set this against the inner struggles of each story’s protagonist. In Gas Man, this is particularly successful. An islander’s attempt to salvage a rotting whale fails when people object to the stink. In the end it’s hard not to feel that the man is trying to salvage himself, and his disintegrating life on the island.

Above all, one has to admire the sure footed, confident nature of Kruger’s prose. It is immensely solid and well structured. Like a crafted stone wall it gives the feeling of rugged permanence that will last centuries, however hard the winds blast.

Short story collections are great to dip into and this volume would make a fine gift to a friend or relative who loves the area. My one regret was that some of Kruger’s Cape poems were not published in this volume. Whilst poetry and prose sometimes jar when set beside each other, in the case of a collection like this, I think the subject would have been enhanced as some of Kruger’s poetry is wonderfully idiosyncratic and deep. Maybe Bradshaw Books might issue these if Flotsam & Jetsam sells as well as it deserves.


REVIEW IN THE  IRISH EXAMINER, p. 18, 25 July 2001 by Jo Kerrigan.

Book of the day: Flotsam & Jetsam: short stories from the Cape, by Chuck Kruger (Bradshaw Books,)

The short story is a notoriously difficult form of writing. Chuck Kruger, in this collection of prize-winning tales, shows himself to be a master of the art.

Kruger is a storyteller in the old tradition. He uses a richly decorated language, reminiscent of James Joyce and Dylan Thomas in its tumbling words and rhythmic repetitions. Each story echoes musically from the page, as if it is being recounted by the fireside on a long winter evening and the subject matter matches the leisurely style. These are not terse accounts of a series of events, but rather peaceful relatings of thoughts, times, and attitudes which bring to life vividly the complexity and richness of Cape Clear, the West Cork island he has made his home for many years.

An American adapting thoughtfully to life in a small, isolated Irish community, Chuck Kruger notices the world around him and describes it with affection and respect. The humour is lively and infectious as in Gas Man, where a fisherman tries to make his fortune by commandeering a dead whale so that he can make souvenirs of its bones, or the delightful Do, which encapsulates that summer in our lives when we start to grow up and explore our world.

There are vivid recreations of ancient times on the island when St. Ciaran was a boy, and a moving account of a journey to Israel which brings starkly to life the tragedy of man’s eternal inhumanity. Temper Temper recounts a stormy day in such dramatic imagery that the reader can feel the waves breaking over the island.

"Here, here’s your basics: Sittin’ before a coal fire, the missus – God bless her – hummin’ in the kitchen. A field of spuds set in March without no sign of blight and it already July. Findin’ the day’s post delivered straight to the middle of the table when nobody’s t’ home. Your children checkin’ up on ye. Them things now, them’s basics."

Jo Kerrigan  


Gas Man

For Joel ben Izzy, who saw Jonah's friend & lived to tell of it

From the kitchen garden Diarmuid spied it, a short solitary stretch of thick tannish-white foam heaving with barely discernible swells right at the mouth of the inner harbour. He rubbed his eyes. Looked again. No, no foam line, no apparition. A curious hump in the hump of sea.

"Stop," he exclaimed.

Last night had been what Ciarán, his Boston-based big brother, had learned him to call a ‘wing doozy’. Anne-Marie, no, ouch, she weren’t speakin’ t’ him again. He’d heard nothing but battened-down silence in the steamy kitchen, watched trickly runnels of moisture inside the single-glazed windows to the south. He’d raised his knife and fork upright, his freckled fists either side of his place, but she’d taken his gesture literally, had bustled brusquely about, as if to say she was after fitting his breakfast in amongst her rosary of main chores – caring for three B&Bers in the dining room, organising dinner, placing the grocery order by phone with the mainland supermarket, and preparing martyr-like the mixture of Sow Breeder and table scraps for the saddleback pigs – and here it was going on eleven, Jesus Mary and Joseph.

When she’d turned on the Pat Kenny show, he knew she’d roll away from him that night too. Ships passing. Hoot hoot. Long Fastnet foghorn hoots. Eerie, relationship. Tangled fishlines. Longlines at that. Sometimes you just have to cut bait. But they don’t teach you that in school, not here, not then. Just inform youse like the church, don’t, don’t, don’t. How to untangle, you God, you goddamn God you.

He could suddenly not remember what her inner thigh looked like, felt like, once white as pollack flesh, smooth as a buoy at sea. Fourteen years married. Sure but he might as well, tonight, go out. Bloody hell but a chat in the pub’s people, a night at home’s TV. But not for more than the count of eight; ten and ye are out, my good lad, and out’s out and ye be one scrapper of a boyo.

Aware of her movement behind him, he saw from a prickly corner of his mind’s eye his long-dead father, right index finger rubbing left side of upper lip as if combing it down, and saying, chorus-like: "Take no notice, son, take no notice. Sufficient unto the day the evil thereof."

Diarmuid came fully awake, found himself alone on his lookout point, the alien foam breathing there before him. He walked back, as if a young man in his determined and rapid head-down stride, fetched the battered binocs from above the dresser, returned to his favoured spot above the sea, and trained them on the patch, a quarter mile southwest. As usual, he had to adjust the left lens before he could gain focus. Gremlins my foot, bloody kids up to nothing but tomfoolery. Useless, plain useless.

There, the middle rose and fell oddly, languidly, twelve to fifteen inches above the gently breathing sea. He saw a curtain of tide coming in with its gift.

"Now what the be-jeeps?" He decided to give Anne-Marie’s garden weeds another afternoon of reckless freedom – the kind in which he stoutly believed – and sallied forth to investigate, grabbing a pair of oars and spurs from the shed. "Damn tourists, eat their picnics in my boat, they do, they do. Can’t trust nobody," and he added, chuckling as he rubbed his eyes, "not even me. I’m a gas man, I am."

Five minutes later he leaned over a bollard, around the base of which lay his chain, padlocked. The swollen top of the bollard prevented his loop from being lifted off by idle curious and Cork city marauders alike. Bloody hooligans. The chain stretched ten feet out over the harbour, there tied to his stern line, the new blue rope not yet stained by algae. Too much taut tension from the boat and bow anchor for any eejit to pull the chain in, undo the knot, help themselves to my punt, thank you very much. One day I’ll catch the buggers who fling stones at it, I will, wait and see I will. Upside down with ’em and over the edge, a boot up the backside, that’d learn ’em quick as petrol fire. Real medicine, none of yer mollycoddlin’ modern muck.

He saw a contradiction, remembered the swish of a certain soutane, growled, "Some people don’t know no don’t, others don’t know nothing but."

He fitted the key, ready for the increase in tension, and, with the released mooring line, pulled his red-gunwaled punt in toward the stone steps. He leapt aboard, fitted the spurs, began bailing, one motion. The bilge water smelled vaguely of mackerel, pollack, eel, sandy-bottomed dogfish. Next year, like eleven years ago – the past a terrier with a bone, ye can’t no way shake free of it, and why should ye? – why I’ll pry out the dried oakum and do a thorough job re-caulking, I will. Stop. The smell of oakum, the feel, the pounding in. Time for a new gunwale too, almost now – brother Ciarán – better dead than red, but no matter, if ye get my fecking meaning. Jabber jabber. Paint the town red too. And God He my hair. God’s politics politics for all that.

Securing the bow line, one end permanently attached to his buoy, to the hole in Rufous’ Rock so that he could re-moor easily, he pushed off with memories of how knacky his father’d been with ropes. Now, he grinned, let’s put the priest to proper use. He took a sightline from the priest’s chimney to the patch; then sighted a corner of a field, filled with flowering ragwort, well past the chimney that would keep him straight: keep me in line, a wife of a corner of a field, steady as she goes is old Anne-Marie, thigh or no thigh.

Back into the oars, sore back, back into harness, long harness. He realised he felt good rowing. This who I am. He valued it, as if it were a friend: ye know right where ye be with it, no mystery; ye can count on it to do exactly what ye want it to do. No moodiness in an oar, by God. Yes, but what surprise either? Still, I could’ve been born with an oar in me hand. Better than a silver spoon in me mouth. An oar for a sceptre. If kings had calluses wouldn’t the world be better steered! Tell that one in the pub tonight. To the right person. The wrong. Who cares. To God. Gas man.

He feathered the oars even though there wasn’t a puff of breeze, establishing rhythm, and it wasn’t but ten strokes before he felt he’d always been rowing. Forever and ever. Non-stop, my man. He was losing himself in a sense of rhythm, yes, but damn Anne-Marie’s rhythm, each stroke, or lack of stroke, a nail driven home. Coffin. Fetters and freedom. The point, not just to finish, to lay ahem the slates, to have the roof watertight, to conceive boom diddle-oh, but to climb inside each whack of the hammer, to listen to the sound as it goes up the scale, the nail first long and deep, short and shrill, in and home, next please. Oh bollocks but for a family of fifteen, not this modern conservative everything-in-its-right-place bit, damn the rhythm method, but sprawling, neat when necessary, say on Sunday, but unkempt and spontaneous too, just to live now and then in an all-of-a-sudden way, like now, like off again God knows where, the devil. And give the old boy his due. Under the oxters too.

He twisted to check his progress. A hundred yards to go. One end of the patch looked considerably narrower than the other, the whole thirty-two, thirty-four feet long. Maybe, just maybe, the little boy in the middle-aged man whispered, I’m approaching some treasure, some mystery floating in on the tide. But he knew. He could still think it, but he knew. Thought don’t have to have boundaries, like relationships, like farms, this mine, that yours, you may go no further, halt. Danger: Bull. He imagined a new sign at the foot of his harbour-side farm drive: "Warning: Proceed at your own delight."

A putrid smell reached him well before he the carcass. Whale or basking shark he couldn’t determine, so rotted was the almost amorphous mass. He could tell which the head, which the tail, little else. The flesh, pitted, had a hard rubbery texture, some twisted white strips dangling down like kelp. Conjuring up miles of intestines, he rowed around and around the corpse, occasionally poking the mass with an oar blade. He laughed and said aloud, "If that porridge don’t put hair on your chest, it’ll take it off. Fit for a fucking king. Fit for someone what says don’t."

He discerned a two-foot-long fin at the base of the head, noted that the tail spread evenly apart, some five feet, that the dorsal fin had all but disappeared, that a small eye, like a pig’s, looked mournfully blank.

Then the thought struck him, making him grin: if he could secure the putrid, decomposing hulk in a little cove, he could cut him up, salvage the bones. Wouldn’t they, weather-blanched on the garden wall, attract the B&B crowd into the house? Maybe sister Moira could even sell some in her craft shop, "Whale ribs for sale. Special once-off offer. £19.95." How many ribs in a whale? And was the female made from one too? Yes, maybe them bones would rise again, pay for a kicker for the boat, fifteen hundred quid worth. He saw his fanciful thoughts, like the weeds in the garden, spread out and run riot. He knew it, and could hear, as if on the muted sound system in the Skibbereen funeral parlour where he’d been for Aunt Mary’s memorial service, his father’s quiet refrain, "Take no notice."

He slowly returned to the pier, to the bollard, to home, sat on his lookout point beside the garden, pondered.

Anne-Marie brought him a plate of sandwiches, a mug of coffee, said awkwardly, "I hope you’re not planning on more mackerel, Diarmuid. The freezer’s full, over-full."

All he answered was, "No girl, no, no, no, not today girl," and keep looking off into the middle distance.

She hesitated, finally couldn’t ask him again about the garden, her garden, with his help, for she’d no back, not since Roisín, their second daughter. He in one of his mulling moods, she knew better than to provoke. "Marriage be better than no marriage," her mother had counseled her over the years, but hadn’t mentioned what Anne-Marie had come to call "them dead-end days." What, after all, did he give her? Hangovers?

He seemed, she thought, looking back, part animal. He can sit there for hours, alert as a feral cat in first light in a field, crouching statue-still but brimming with pounce for mouse or vole. He do nothin’ and then everything bang. Work, or drink, or suss out. She returned to the laundry. Or me.

He didn’t turn but could visualise her walking off, the way her head bent slightly to the left, the way her right foot turned in the last six inches of each of its thrusts forward. But he noticed that he could not see what he wanted to see.

So he looked out, trained what he called his crow’s eye – his left eye had a clarity his right lacked, at least at distances – on the leviathan’s tidal movements; he corrected, his leviathan’s movements.

The next day he watched a lobster fisherman who normally berthed beside the pier in the other island harbour motor in to the corpse, for it still lolled about in roughly the same area, just a bit nearer the far foreshore. But Pádraig soon moseyed off about his business, certainly not about His Father’s, thought Diarmuid, who remembered a story of how Pádraig had used a grant to buy his boat for the sake of "educational tourism". The only thing he’d ever educated was a conger eel when he broke its back for having stole into one of his pots. And no harm in that, no, not in neither.

Biding his time, Diarmuid waited until Pádraig, as was his wont, clambered up onto the pier where he stored his second string of twenty-five pots. He asked all the usual, until finally, with all the inconsequentiality he could muster, he wondered if Pádraig might give him a hand towing "the visitor" – Diarmuid pointed – to a nearby secluded beach where they could cut him up, mince meat. His neighbour looked strangely at him, grinned, suggested he hop in and they reconnoitre. Diarmuid told him his ideas. Pádraig looked him over again, carefully said not a word.

Once more thick in the stench, it wasn’t long before Pádraig made it clear that he’d help tow the whale – for whale he was sure it was, "too big to be one of them bovine basking sharks, and bony besides, and the skin not sandpaper" – but wanted "nothing else whatsoever full-stop to do with the glop." They tied a weight to a piece of rope, tossed it over the tail, fished it out on the other side, made a loop, pulled it tight around the base of the tail. Then they started towing the beast, the engine working hard, exhaust fumes engulfing the men, the massive long-dead weight behind dragging what Diarmuid called its nonexistent heels. Gas man.

He pointed to a sandy cove and they pulled the wreck in as far as they could, then nudged it further into the shallows with the bow. Diarmuid hopped out, adeptly secured the tow rope to a boulder. If the rope held, the whale – please God no shark – would stay put and at low tide, he reckoned, at his leisure, he could cut off the flesh, separate the bones. Sell ’em, make a week’s wage for a day’s work.

The next morning, while putting two pounds of diesel in his car – more would bring the level up to that tiny hole in the tank that leaked going up the steep hills – Diarmuid chatted with old Johnny, cap down over forehead, who recalled that some eighteen years ago, when a whale washed in, several uncles and he had cut up the tons of flesh with bread knives and collected vertebrae, still relics about the island, some bones west of the Bird Obs, others beside the Master’s gate.

Half an hour later Diarmuid set forth, armed with Anne-Marie’s bread knife, and, waist deep in stained water, began making incisions. After three hour’s surgery about the head, and succeeding in nothing except covering himself in a viscid noisome grease, he had to call it a day, the tide now in. But I’ll show the bugger who’s who. The winter waves’ll do my work for me.

He returned home, dripping, sauntered with a touch of hangdog excitement into the kitchen to have his tea, and finally to tell Anne-Marie what he was about. She sniffed him before she saw him, ordered him out out out, not in her kitchen, how could he, honestly, after all, in God’s name, holy suffering Jesus.

"No buts," she said. "None. The health inspector’d close us down, Diarmuid. Like that." She snapped her fingers. "The immersion’s been on all morning. Don’t touch nothin’ except the inside of the tub. And throw your clothes out the window. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Diarmuid. You’re nothing but a child, a little spoilt child."

"Sometimes I wish I was. I’d get more attention at night."

"You get all the attention you deserve so."

"Ye and your priest."

"You’re not to come between me and our God."

"Why not? He’s come between ye and me. And he’s not ‘our’ God. He’s yours. And ye can have ’im, lock, stock, and barrel."

"We’ve been through this before, Diarmuid. Be a man, not an animal."

"Get off your pedestal."

"If I’m on one, ye put me there."

"I’ve put ye nowhere, Anne-Marie. It’s ye’ve put me somewhere, in a freaking limbo."

"We have sex when it’s safe, and that’s when I’m in a woman’s way, and that’s that. Period."

"And when is that period, tell me, dear major of a wife."

"When the good Lord sees fits, and not before. Please Diarmuid," tears catching light, "I won’t be sinning just to make you feel good for a few bloody seconds."

"I won’t be sinning just to make you feel good," he repeated in a hiss as he stalked off. He left the kitchen door, normally closed because of the B&B guests, open. Anne-Marie, weeping, slammed it, then stood in the centre of the kitchen, hands flat on the table, and stared at the oven door. Feeling her heart crossways, she crossed herself and glanced toward the ceiling.

Diarmuid, stalking straight to the rear of the house, and finally leaning against the outside of the windowless east gable, heard his father’s voice once more: "Three things, my son, we’ll never understand: The ebb and flow of the tide, the work of the honey bee, and the movement of a woman’s mind, which surpasses the speed of light."

Two nights later, by chance, if chance there be – he wondered – he met the temporary island nurse in the pub and fell to talking, number six. He learned he’d run serious risk. "Had ye had an open cut on ye," she said sternly, "ye might have contracted septicemia. Ye never know what infections live in long-dead flesh, Diarmuid. Some treasure that would’ve been, eh?"

He shook it off. "Infections me arse. What else can ye do when your hand’s already in the mouth of the dog?"

And then, number seven, he heard from another fisherman neighbour that that dead whale had been on the shipping news two weeks ago, an object fifteen meters long floating about the Fastnet. To be avoided and posing a serious risk to local fishing boats.

His friend-in-arms, he knew. The bouquet was right. Number eight. Maybe if Anne-Marie wore such perfume, he joked with himself, I’d have no difficulty. That’d teach me better than any parish priest. Island man. Gas man. For three spaces of time.

The next night, no sooner had he ordered number two, than he was pulled aside by the manager of the campsite and discreetly informed, in the corner by the stairs, that that whale high and dry in the cuas at low tide was beginning to reek so badly that his campers three hundred yards downwind were complaining.

"You put him there, you move him, Diarmuid. You’re a master at pullin’ the very devil by the tail. You and him, thick as a cow and a cock of hay."

"I’m after waiting for my friend to rot so’s I’ll have his bones."

"And when’ll that be, you chancer?"

"A month, two."

"I won’t have a campsite by then. I’ll have a cemetery. And no one there save the spirit of your brilliant find."

"The wind’ll change."

"And it’ll change again, and again. But the stink won’t change. You know, Diarmuid, it’d be a shame to have to take legal action. But if my campers start leaving because" – and here he poked Diarmuid in the chest with his stubby forefinger – "of your effing whale, I’m going to court, hell or high water. That’s the cut of my tide, friend."

Diarmuid investigated at midnight, number eight or no number eight. The manager, blast his knobbly balls, he was bleeding right. Dead right, the crotchety bugger. Not only did a stench fill the air, but, in the light of his torch, a gauzy grey petroleum slick appeared to be covering as much of the inner harbour as his light could reach. Blubber? Oil? he wondered. That tail in the same plane as the dorsal fin could well be twisted ninety degrees, don’t you know, high-de-ho. Has to be flukes.

But then again, he’d heard stories of how his ancestors on Cape used to burn basking shark oil in their lamps. Aunt Marie sworn by it, said electricity, when it arrived in ’72, weren’t nothin’ but the work of the devil, the same devil that’d blown off her roof when lightning struck. That was in ’57. Now wouldn’t that have been some sight? How she’d trembled, flesh on a stick, whenever she heard thunder thereafter, poor thing. What a bang that must’ve been. God’s crack. Craic. Gas man. God’s a gas man. That’s the real goat’s toe, me boy.

The next morning, high tide, he rowed over to the cuas, unloosed the rope, bits of flesh hanging from it. Pádraig’s boat no where to be seen, he struggled to pull his whale out to open sea with his punt. After a half hour of putting his back into it, he’d no sense of any rhythm, no Anne-Marie rhythm, no rowing rhythm, no anything rhythm, for fuck’s sake. He could feel back and shoulder muscles knotting either side of his neck. Like pulling a locomotive with your bare hands, and off the track, and through the ditches.

Three hundred yards gained, sweat pouring down him, making his thwart slippery, he heard an outboard approaching: a yachtsman in his flimsy dinghy had taken pity and come along side, his son with hand pinching nose. They took over the rope. With their two-and-a-half horse kicker, they slowly succeeded in dragging the whale another three hundred yards, now back to the mouth of the inner harbour where Diarmuid had first spotted him. And there, at Diarmuid’s gesture, they let him go, the tide having started to ebb.

Good-bye law suit, good-bye treasure; ’tis an ill whale that brings no man any good. He thanked father and son, suggesting lamely that despite the smell "ye’ve had an adventure ye’d never have had before, no, nor certainly would never have again, no, no, no. May ye live to be as old as Methuselah’s cat!" Looking at each other, with perhaps something else in mind, they nodded.

For the next two weeks he watched his creature. It had floated calmly back into the harbour the next day, had gotten stuck inside a far cave. Let the manager do something about that, let him sue God for all he’s worth. Should he stay there, he’ll rot – and then I’ll claim the sunken bones, fish ’em up with me grappling iron. And should he wash out on the tide, and the change of wind, so be it. Take no notice, my son.

That thought, he tackled the garden. In one day had it weeded. On the next he started breaking ground for the new shed he’d promised Anne-Marie. He’d have the slates on before gale season started, he would, of that she could be sure.

And sure but I’ll give her a bottle of stinky perfume for Christmas – just to remind me of certain god-forsaken boundaries. And don’t try to sneak off, thigh. Be part of my treasure. Beach me, Anne-Marie, number one. I’m your whale, ye of the thigh-bone mine. Number two. Gas man? Me? Now who, dear brother, ain’t?

*****

[Back to top.]


God’s Backside

He knew exactly where he was, physically. Not only on land but on water. And he’d no need of any navigational fix. Anchored four hundred yards east-northeast of the looming Fastnet Rock and hooking six mackerel as fast as he could remove the previous six from his feathers and toss his heavily-weighted line over the gunwale again, Jamesy still wondered where he was, where he was going, what he could do for his father. Past him winged skeins of gannets, low-flying shearwater, the occasional darting storm petrel, the swallow of the sea – and all seemed to have relaxed purpose.

The tidal race roughened the surface water, made a slight crackling sound. As if the sea debated becoming a mighty river in spate. He was reminded of what the top lid of Davy Jones’ locker must sound like. But, hey, boyo, eight boxes in two hours. "One cute fox," crossed his mind. Still, he felt lost for all that – and prayerless, without the good word.

Somehow mackerel no longer had anything to do with him. Nor pollack, hake, herring. Nor monkfish, sole, plaice. Nor the good money he made from them. Nor the upwelling of fabled nutrients a little further out beside the Continental Shelf. Somehow this fisherman life seemed selfish, introspective, wasn’t him any longer. While he knew he fished well, and supported faithfully his mother and younger siblings from the money he made, he wasn’t – much as he felt a man of the sea – a fisherman. Not in spirit. Not now. Not with the war going on.

And he ached, not from putting his back into oars, not from pulling up line after tugging line, but from feeling lost, like a fish out of water. Him, twelve generations back his blood went on the island. Minimum. That O’Driscoll pirate blood in there too. Back and back. Probably back to the Celts. To St. Ciarán’s forbears – himself the eldest of the four pre-Patricians. Yes, he loved to have Father Donal bless the Maire Cait with spring water from the saint’s holy well on his Feastday, March 5th, loved the ridiculous reassurance that she was unsinkable for yet another year, but right now Jamesy felt like a blow-in both on and around his home island, little Oileán Chléire, its O’Driscoll Castle of Gold showing faintly there to the northeast, good old Dún an Óir. Yes, a blow-in, a bird picked up by a hurricane and dropped down a wild time later on a continent unknown. Not another member of his species within two thousand miles.

What to do with himself, that was the question. He wasn’t only a bird off course, he decided, but one without any sense of direction. In fact, in truth – and he was beginning to realise a gulf (larger than the stream he knew so well) existed between the two – the war made him feel a dispossessed person. Him a DP. Yet him at home. But, dear God, if – if, if, if, he pondered while he unhooked the flopping mackerel – if he left to volunteer his energies to the Irish Republican Army, why, his family’d famish. Couldn’t sacrifice them just to give himself the right perch, the right flight pattern. A bird don’t forsake its young, no, it feeds ’em no matter.

When he finished filling the ninth box, his last, he debated motoring to Baltimore, decided he’d get there not as fast but with more pleasure, more connection, maybe, if he raised sail and went with the wind, what Father Donal called God’s breath, some Hebrew word behind it, and Jamesy loved words. For some reason he couldn’t fathom he recognised that he felt better, indeed, thought better, came up with phrases better, when under press of sail rather than when dependent on this new phenomenon called horsepower. What he nicknamed donkeypower.

Before he hoisted his inherited maroon sail, he peered up at the Fastnet. Sure but it knew what it was doing. Standing there, tough, purposeful, at graceful ease no matter war, hurricane, rogue wave. He’d seen the tower – viewed it from Cape – sometimes totally submerged, all hundred eighty-plus feet of it disappearing into breaking seas. Man, some rocks go down and down. And man alive, how some reemerge – and some words, some people too.

Sail up, safely luffing, a petrel deftly swerving, missing the tip of his boom, he raised anchor from off the edge of his favourite reef, some sixty feet down, that chasm beside it dropping another hundred and twenty feet, more, down into what he privately called the Territory of the Rich Fish. Darting back to the stern, and thinking petrel storm petrel while he did so, he grabbed the main sheet and tiller and swiftly swung his bow north. The sail’s belly puffed, banged out full. He paid out sheet until the boom strained at right angles to the hull. The sound of wake rising, his arm looped over the tiller, reassured him. But he wondered if Baltimore was his real destination. Not his soul’s destination, ridiculous, too much to contemplate. But his spirit’s. And as he peered across Roaring Water Bay, two dolphins arced playfully not twenty feet from his boat. Again and again they appeared, swimming in tandem. West, young men and women, boys and girls, go west.

The next day Jamesy woke to the sound of wind rustling thatch and the sudden thought, like a rare match struck before first light to reignite the kitchen fire, that the coming day, someday, will be a long time ago. Here he was, all twenty-two years of him, a corporation of a man – or so proudly proclaimed by his mum – and the rest of the brood, four younger brothers and six younger sisters, in the room with him, packed like fish. He thought of salted pilchard in a hogshead home. To take a leak meant stepping over bodies in the dark before stepping outside – or putting the bucket to use by kneeling down beside it and letting loose down its side so that no noise woke a sibling. Yes, he could, he must, do something more than fish to help, father or no father, Reign of Terror or no Reign of Terror – and those blasted Auxillary Forces who’d arrested his da for "terrorist offences".

What dangerous act or crime had his father ever committed? he asked. No more crime on ’im than on a child in the cradle. He’d just kept a passing gunrunner from drowning. Why, he’d been a valued Lightkeeper at the Fastnet Lighthouse from 1914 to 1917. The only Cape Clear Islander ever so to be. So of course Jamesy knew the ins and outs of the place not only from his recent boyhood excursions there with his da, not only from of late providing the English keepers the occasional fish. Gratis as the air God gives us, too. Yes, maybe he’d join the Schull Company of the Irish Republican Army after all, having said no a month back, but he’d make it clear he’d be for duty around home as much as possible. They’d have to let him keep fishing.

Under cover the way to go, the way those dolphins yesterday had suddenly disappeared, never shown themselves again for as long as he watched. But then, who wasn’t under cover? Even his Auntie Margot – and he was honoured to have been confided in by her – had joined the Cumnann na Mban, that group of women who knew as much about smart spying as a conger does about the bottom of the sea.

Why, it wasn’t but three weeks back he’d taken his squeeze-box out to the lighthouse to play for a party. He’d piloted six of his closest friends there in his twenty-three-foot boat – this time without sail – landed them safely, secured a stern rope to the iron landing ring, and moored his craft thirty feet out from the closest rock. Then he operated the lighthouse crane, lifted the three young women off his boat in a giant basket, them shrieking in a wild mix of glee and fear. And didn’t they dance. Didn’t the English keepers get a kick out of the illegality, to say nothing of Betsy’s antics. Jesus Mary and Joseph but she could dance. And the ankles on her. And that lightning mind. Her words. One day. This Godless war ever over.

But today now, up since dawn, Jamesy had a serious predicament. Twelve men from the mainland town of Schull had landed on Cape the previous night, the seas too high for them to complete their mission. Their leader, Roger, called on Jamesy. This flock weren’t no birds off course.

Together Roger and Jamesy sauntered off Sean Duffy’s pier, where Jamesy’d been tying new leaders and hooks onto his long-line, three hundred hooks spread out over a mile of line.

"Every six yards I tie a leader," he was explaining, "with just that touch less line strength so that if a hook snags, the leader rather than the line gives, breaks. Ye’ve got to think that way."

"That’s like us, Jamesy," said the fatherly Roger. "If one of us gets caught, he’s got to break in such a way that no one else is hurt. The I.R.A. comes first, the individuals that make it up come second."

"Yes, yes. I understand."

They gestured as though they were talking weather, fishing, male jokes. But they had carefully established distance so that no one could eavesdrop.

"Jamesy, you’ve heard how we’re turning the tide against the Crown Forces, how our skirmish at Kilmichael taught the R.I.C. a lesson or two?" The young man nodded. "And we’re blowin’ up their lorries and armoured cars. Last week we got one a mile outside Drimoleague. They’re getting’ scared. But we’re running out of explosives."

"I’m afraid you won’t find any here on Cape."

"No, no, no. Listen, we’ve heard a leak. We suspect we know where there’s a right store of ’em."

"No."

"Will you join us? The Schull Battalion?"

"That an invitation?"

"We don’t twist arms – until you’re one of us," Roger chuckled. "Yes," he continued. "And you’re the boyo who knows how to land us on the Fastnet no matter the weather – or the time of day . . . or night!"

"The Fastnet?"

"You heard me."

Roger looked hard at Jamesy before winking.

"Could you take my men there in your boat, Jamesy? Tonight? I’ve heard all about your recent visits. I’ll take our boat back to Schull after this meeting, all in order. No suspicions. The others got aboard my Golden Fort at Gun Point after I left the harbour coming here, well, we were going to raid the Fastnet last night, but conditions became too rough. Anyway, to the people on the mainland we’re not even here, I’m just out to sea again."

"Gelignite on the Fastnet?" said Jamesy, as if speculating aloud. "The tear-drop, the most prominent spot in all West Cork, a secret site for munitions?" He was talking to himself.

"You know how to land there at night. How to grab that iron ring. How many times have ye done the deed?"

"A dozen. Maybe fifteen. Don’t know. Plenty."

"At night’s something else and ye’ve done it then?" asked Roger.

"Yes."

"The keepers, they know you, right?"

"Yes."

"So you stay with the boat, and the rest will surprise the keepers, two can keep ’em under control, tie ’em up and blindfold ’em. And the nine empty the storeroom. We know how to work cranes too – and your boat can hold two tons?"

"One, one and a half. Yes. If no significant swell. And there isn’t much today."

"Well?"

"Nothing I’d rather do, be. I’m a member? And can go on living here on Cape?"

"You’re a member – and we’ll put you to the test tonight. Make a man of ya. You’ve a full tank? With reserves?"

"Yes."

"And you could land the gang at Gun Point afterwards and be home to Cape before first light? That is, if you leave the Fastnet by two a.m."

Jamesy looked out to sea, saw three herring gulls beating past, said, "It’s new moon tonight, which I’m sure ye know." Roger gave his friendly wink. "And it’s summer solstice time, so it’s light until a good eleven, not pitch black until midnight. We leave then?"

"You got it."

"I’ll moor this afternoon alongside the Bull’s Nose. After dinner I’ll depart as for fishing, make plenty of noise going out."

"Everything matters, Jamesy."

"The speed of the spring tide too," mused Jamesy, then said briskly, "You’ve a hiding place ready for the explosives?"

"Ready and waiting. Leave it to me. A bunker in the most innocent of places. All but under noses. Ask no more. Just get my men and the materiel to Gun Point after you’ve done the deed."

"Rock, here we come."

Roger solemnly shook hands with Jamesy.

"I’m a member?"

"A member of the Irish Republican Army in good standing or sitting. No ifs, ands, or buts so."

"Roger, one question. Do you know if my father did any more than rescue that gunrunner before being arrested, incarcerated, solitary confinement?"

"No, but I know" – he placed his patriarchal arm over Jamesy’s shoulders – "that everything we see and can’t understand – all them twisted knots of our behaviour – them’s is God’s backside."

"Ouch. That hurts." Roger removed his arm, giving a few pats as he did so. Jamesy added slowly, "Bollocks, but that helps too. God’s backside. Yes," he mused, "everything can’t be face to face, heart to heart. Thanks, Roger," he added, looking straight into the eyes. "And now an idea."

"Shoot."

"You leave with the men. Then, if any word ever gets out, which I doubt, given the solid Republican nature of my neighbours, you’ve all gone, left Cape lot, stock, and barrel. You motor past the castle, on to that point with two caves tucked back around it. You know the one. Go into the first one, the outer one – it’s plenty deep for the likes of your boat – drop off your crew, and get on home with ye. That way you’ll all have left here – and you arrive home just as you left home and no one the wiser. Late evening, nightfall, after a string of lobsters, I’ll poke in there, pick up the lads – and in there they’re out of sight to anyone at sea or on Cape – I’ve never known anyone but me even go in there – and, pitch dark, we set off for the Fastnet. How ’bout that?"

"That’s why we want you aboard – and piloting your boat, and being knacky not just with words but with ropes," replied Roger.

Mid-afternoon, the twelve mainlanders walked unescorted back to North Harbour, untied the moorings for the Golden Fort, pulled the fenders aboard, and purred out of the harbour, nodding to a few local lads on the pier. Roger explained to his men how essential it was for him and the Golden Fort to return home, be visibly present in church at 11 o’clock Mass the next morning. Maybe they could be there too. It would be an alibi for them all, for, he being innocent, and his boat in the day before, they were all innocent.

To be on the safe side, once well outside North Harbour, all but Roger slowly sank out of sight. Ten minutes later he nosed his boat into the cove known as An Fhaill Mhór, and on gingerly into the cave Jamesy had designated. The eleven had no trouble jumping onto a ledge, where, with slabs of bread they’d coated with lard and ham while underway, twelve revolvers, and four bullets each, they’d wait. And, just in case, should anything happen to Jamesy in the meantime and he have to leave them stranded, Roger’d come back the following afternoon.

After dinner, telling his mother not to worry if he was late, Jamesy strode to the harbour, gunned his engine twice before casting off, and departed North Harbour, the Maire Cait at full throttle before he passed the Bull’s Nose. Out from the Stacks he swung northeast, felt as though he was going into another world even as he avoided the treacherous Óglach region, which he knew like the back of his hand. Soon he was hauling a short string of fifteen lobster pots close to Bird Island. He reset the pots with some ripe rabbit meat, shot them in almost the same place as before, tossed his catch of five lobsters into a holding cage having tied their claws shut, and headed west into yet more of this known but unknown world, dusk falling fast.

The harder he tried not to think of the forty-seven armed Marines at the Schull Coastguard Station, forty-five minutes across the bay, the louder their alarm bell went off in his imagination. Finally, through the almost fully fallen darkness, he called out to them, six miles away, "Come and get me. Try it. I’ll lead you between rocks you won’t even know are there – until it’s too late." He laughed aloud, seeing them flounder. And in his mind their alarm bell fell silent.

Under engine only, hand light on the tiller, he powered past the castle, past the rock known as Tón Loinge, or Ship’s Bottom, and, rounding the point, began edging his way toward the mouth of the cave. In a series of quick reverses and forward shifts, he held the boat steady, his eyes getting used to the hole of utter darkness ahead. He wondered if it was the gaping maw of hell, wondered what would happen if some surprise rogue wave decided to pay a visit, and then again he laughed aloud: he could feel more than see the presence of the men there, perched like nesting gulls. He shifted forward ever so gently, moved ahead half a yard, slipped into reverse, slowly made his way to within three feet of the ledge. Holding her there, hoping, he called out, "Jump two at once, every time the boat’s close to the peak of her rise. Grab the stays as you swing aboard. Now!"

In no time the eleven were aboard – only Tim slipped into the sea, but grabbed the gunwale first and quickly hauled himself back in – and Jamesy was reversing out into the cove, a few waves pouring over the transom, but no matter. He turned the Maire Cait, headed through the choppy seas below the cliffs.

Black midnight it was. Except for the swivelling lighthouse beam. Jamesy, to his complete surprise, felt good, felt found. He could feel a gift of grin widening up to his ears as he had the men spread their weight evenly on both sides of his boat.

"We’ll motor another half a mile, then cut back on the engine, make ourselves quiet as a marauding mink," said Jamesy to the fellows closest to him. "Wind’s perfect, from the east. Always knew the east wind had to have some good in it. We’ll just glide in to the loading area––"

"Look there. Searchlight. Christ, it’s coming this way."

"British patrol boat."

"Circling the Fastnet."

"And we’re just cruising around the Bill of Cape," said Jamesy, having already given the Maire Cait a southeastern direction of innocence.

"Just what we wanted. Seriously. Now we know where she is – and if she doesn’t spot us, she’ll not be back for a good three hours," whispered Michael. "Normally. I’ve been watching her manoeuvers for weeks now. Never know when she’s first going to appear, but after you’ve got those hours of grace."

"Grace it is, lads. See? She’s heading for the Mizen so. Let’s start countdown now. How far, Jamesy? Four miles?"

"Three and a half now."

"Twenty minutes?"

"Up sail. We’ve a perfect following wind. That’s it, pull that halyard. Tight. Cleat her there. Watch your heads now. Hard a-lee," cried Jamesy, letting the boom swing abruptly from port to starboard, the sail bellying. He throttled down a notch, the engine quieting to a barely discernible hum. And he had the strangest sensation, as if he knew exactly, down to the very inch, where he was in a world in which he’d never been. On course. Straight ahead. Straight toward the Fastnet Rock. Straight toward the destination that would do the most for effecting the freedom of his father. With the swathe of the Fastnet light passing overhead every five seconds, he saw himself a grey heron, slow wings propelling him along to the very perch he sought prior to nabbing his prey. He a grey heron preparing to stab, a grey heron on the nightly prowl not far from home.

"Lads, when we’re there, ten minutes left, I want Michael to lower stern anchor when I give the word, pay out the rope until we’re right up to within jumping distance of the iron ring. I know, we might not be able to see the ring exactly, but I’ve jumped for it before. At night too. With a rope around my waist––"

"You can’t see your hand in front of your face. You can’t do that. Isn’t there a ledge like in the cave?"

"Just that ring. No ledge. And when I get it––"

"If you get it."

"When I get it, we’ll be there, ropes fast, all swarm ashore on a little boom just for that purpose."

"The keepers?"

"Two’ll probably be asleep, the other up in the tower, way up at the top of the spiral staircase."

"You get us there, Jamesy, secure us there, we’ve practiced the rest, know the sleeping quarters, the stairs, the room at the top, how to dismantle the wireless. You work the boom, then the crane; you men, you know your duties: who’s to watch over the two off duty, who’s to march the keeper on duty to the other two, the four to load the basket, the three to offload the crane. If we’re lucky, it’ll take three, maybe four hours before someone comes to the keepers’ rescue, probably that patrol boat – and we’ve left nary a trace. We’ll be on the mainland, in Church, and Jamesy, you home, tidying up your poor catch before bed."

The iron ring, that was all Jamesy could think of as he headed toward the northeast corner of the Fastnet. He remembered slowly every jump he’d made for it. But never in a swell the size of this one. The wind had freshened that bit since leaving Cape, and the swell, well, it was always higher at the Fastnet than on Cape, two to three feet higher. Could be a six-foot rise and fall. Yes, with a rope around his waist, a revolver in his pocket, and, please God, his heron talons at the ready, he’d go for it.

Engine quiet; stern anchor down and fast, no drag; rope being paid out; Jamesy gave the tiller to fellow fisherman Alex, and walked the narrow side-deck to the bow, where he waited. Waited. The engine was now off, the sail lowered, the ring ten feet off, nine, eight. He peered through the darkness, the now slightly starlit base of the little island before him. He was rising, falling, rising, falling, and believed that touch of glint there – it had to be – didn’t it? – the ring. Up and up and up. From his perch, he leapt, heart sideways. With his heron self, he stabbed. And it was cold, and it was solid. A wave washed over his head, a hump of ocean, and he clung there, thrust the rope through the ring as another wave washed over, had it tied before the next, the boat made fast, the boat suspended safely between anchor and ring. He scrambled up onto safe stone, swung out a boom for the men to grab, be swung ashore. No noise, no squeaking of cogs. While he was a bit bocketty at the knees, and dripping, in five minutes all the men save three were on the Fastnet and swarming silently toward their duties. The ten-foot steel door to the lighthouse wasn’t locked, the single keeper was fully surprised, offered no resistance. They yanked three tubes from the wireless, rendered it useless. The three keepers – the man on duty having been marched below from his bright post – face down on the floor of the sleeping quarters, were blindfolded, trussed as tight as if they’d been pigs before a slaughter that never came.

All together, seventeen cartons of guncotton, three of primers and detonators, two of ammunition, and fifty-three rifles were swung out to the Maire Cait in the crane’s net basket. Roughly a ton of spoils. And they were off one and a half hours later.

Engine full throttle all the way to the mainland, Jamesy dropped the eleven off at Gun Point at three-thirty-seven – according to the only watch aboard – arrived back in North Harbour as first light began to illumine the scene. He berthed the Maire Cait, dropped the lobster holding cage into the harbour, tied it up alongside two others, coiled and stowed the extra ropes, cleaned up a few scraps of evidence from certain cartons. He didn’t know what was next, be it tuna on the long-line or Crown Forces on the short, but he knew he’d deal with it as best he could. So despite what human beings do to fellow human beings that they cannot comprehend, the grey heron folded his wings and waited.

*****

These stories are examples of the stories that make up Flotsam & Jetsam.

And if you'd like to read about Chuck's other books, then click on The Man Who Talks To Himself , Cape Clear Island MagicBetween A Rock or Sourcing.

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