Issue #10 of “PUSH” is now available from http://joeenglandbooks.blogspot.co.uk/ including my interview with Roddy Doyle & a story called “Tir na nOg” that I’m very pleased with. This one is my attempt at humour & was in “PUSH” #9….
Most days, I reckon on spending about an hour in Walsh’s chipper, home of the slowest Chicken Burger in the West. Obviously I’d prefer a decent plate of akara and a bowl of ogbono or maafe from the Connacht African Food Collective on Ballyhaunis Road, but the Nigerian lads who run it are ran off their feet with volume of trade in their new franchises way out in Letterfrack and Clifden, so they’ve not got the trained staff to open every day. When they do Svetlana and Katka, the two waitresses from Žiar nad Hronom by way of Swinford, have to double up as chefs when there’s a rush on. The girls do their best, but they don’t have the flair to make a smooth enough ground nut paste or the subtlety to spice the goat curry properly.
Instead, I often stay native and dine on indigenous crap, meaning I get to hang around watching Fat Mary, who’s been working in Walsh’s since I was in short trousers, take 20 minutes to cook the fucking thing. It’s good when it arrives though, definitely worth waiting for; proper breast fillet and loads of mayonnaise. Only a quid (what’s a fucking Euro anyway?) if you’re on the dole, which is grand because we’re all signing on of course. How the fuck else could you afford to work these days, the state the country’s in? A leisurely lunch after a morning’s graft helps break the day up. Gives you time to study the business section of The Irish Independent. Check your shares over a chilled can of Sprite. Watch the NAMA fellas putting up the new For Sale signs outside the latest residential and commercial repossessions as you pick rogue sinews of chicken from between your teeth.
The day the whole pantomime started, this English family called into Walsh’s for something to eat. They were hardly through the door before the woman wrinkled her nose up at the décor, the smell and the punters, while the two kids started bawling the place down. No wholefood diners or a la carte bistros round here; well, not since late 2008 anyway. They ordered cheeseburgers to go and left the bloke to wait inside for them while the rest sat in the car, disgusted that they couldn’t get a WiFi code for their iPads. According to the fella, they’d only stopped off here to see us on account of the fact they couldn’t get parked in Knock. Apparently a huge load of caravans and pick-up trucks arrived just ahead of them. He wondered whether they were part of a touring circus, which wasn’t far from the truth I suppose.
To be honest I hadn’t a fucking clue what he was going on about. I’d been down there that morning as usual and everything had seemed as normal as it gets in devotional Disneyland. He mentioned how “the Cathedral” car park was shut to the general public. I just smiled and nodded. Couldn’t be bothered with an argument. Anyway, the thick English cunt wouldn’t understand what I meant if I told him it was a Basilica not a Cathedral. Religion is very important in County Mayo; the spirit of Father Horan keeps us all the right side of the Poor House door.
Eventually, Fat Mary brought my burger over. I ate the thing slowly and watched them drive off, showering the shop front with water from the storm drains. The bloke looked pissed off with the whole business. Family pressure pushing them onwards to Castlebar. Jesus, if they thought there was fuck all in this town, then they were in for a real treat over there. Proper visitors, the kind who stay for more than half an hour, are rare round here. Most people who stop off are just looking for a cash machine or the jakes. We’re the only town in Ireland that exchanges hard currency for piss in the name of tourism. Fáilte Éireann should market us as “Mayo’s most accommodating shithole; a town that’s perfect to shit in.”
It was after one o’clock when the Da turned up at Walsh’s, cursing the weather and declaring he was starved. He was late. The old fucker’s normally in ahead of me, by about half twelve, making sure I’ve not sneaked off early. Me and him are the family business. Not a partnership though. He’s definitely in charge; the ideas man. The operational and logistics manager. I’m just the workforce. The lowest ranking foot soldier in a small army of semi-professional no-hopers. And every single day of my life, I curse the fact I didn’t get the fuck out of this place years ago. Unlike my Sisters. Unlike my Mother, though we don’t talk about that.
The da’s first venture into the world of the self-employed was a window cleaning business. Fairly fucking pointless when you live somewhere that endures 300 rainy days a year. Next up he answered one of those MAKE A FORTUNE WITHOUT TRYING!!! adverts from a flyer someone gave him when he was up at Ballybrit for the races, but lost a load of cash, as the resulting scam involved trying to sell burglar alarms in an area where most people sleep with their doors open. Five grand that brainwave cost him. The West provides barren soil for the fertile imagination of the would-be small businessman. Fact is farms, pubs and shops were the only things that ever kept their heads above water in this county when I was growing up. Trouble was, we didn’t own any land and every village was choked with bars and mini marts. You have to try and find a niche, but that’s hard. End of the Millennium time, this fella in Claremorris got loads of EU money to open up a place selling PCs. Called it Connacht Computers. They ran features about it in all the papers and on the news, using it as evidence of the Celtic Tiger extending beyond The Pale. Six months later and the place went bust. Only sold about four machines the whole time he was open. The banks took the rest of his stock and he ended up serving pints in The Auld Triangle in Tallinn last I heard.
Then, a few years later, the whole fucking country went mad. For half a decade, every fucker else apart from me and the old fella went giddy with entrepreneurship based on bad credit. Houses, hotels, thousands of the cunts, sprung up everywhere. Glass, chrome and a seemingly bottomless pit of money. And then, in the hangover following Katie French’s funeral, it all came to a halt. The whole of the 1980s concertinaed into six mental months when Ireland died penniless and in the gutter. Deserted retail developments, containing shops and factories no-one had ever seen the inside of; half built estates with about 60,000 empty houses for sale, rent or to be given away to anyone who fancied living the proper Mayo experience without heat, light or running water; developers up in court owing billions, or running away from the tax man and the bailiff. That was the boom’s legacy. Captain Boycott had been reborn and was working for the State. That’s when me and the Da started the taxi business.
The old man thought the scheme up after an English bloke in a hire car broke down on his way to the airport and came into Walsh’s desperately looking for a cab, else he’d miss his flight. The only two fellas who did that sort of thing back then worked exclusively out the airport, so I ended up giving him a lift in the minibus full of unsold burglar alarms and a business opportunity was born the minute I mentioned to the Da that he’d palmed a fifty note off on me for taking the trouble to get him to departures in time. The new Big Idea was to provide a gateway to the counties of Mayo, Galway and Sligo for locals and tourists without cars, but that wasn’t how it worked out.
The reality is that since then I’ve spent half my waking hours ferrying devout cripples from Horan’s International Airport to Knock Shrine. It is a fucking joke. Parking up each morning outside an airport that takes a maximum of four scheduled arrivals a day and shuts at six each night, or probably 6.01 after they’ve seen the Angelus on telly, except in mid-August when there’s more charter flights than go to Ibiza, solely containing spastics and incurables who want to blow their life savings in search of a miracle. I charge them a tenner for the privilege of a twenty minute journey down there. History lessons thrown in for free. I’ll even join in the Rosary if it means a bigger tip. Thank fuck there’s plenty left who’ve still got their faith, because none of us round here have.
We won’t get rich, but to be fair to the old fella, he tried his best to make a go of it at first. Got some business cards made up by a printer mate of his in Ballina; Charlestown Cabs – No Job Too Big Or Too Small – 24 Hour Service. We stuck them all around the place. Even took an advert out in The Western People. Five years on, he’s still sitting back, waiting for the punters to come pouring in and blaming me for not drumming up enough local trade.
Dad was in great form that lunchtime, acting like he was worn out from three hours of channel hopping, ordering up a couple of battered sausages and informing me I’d a booking for the afternoon. A load of English fishermen coming off the Manchester flight needing leaving up in Foxford. Seemed a decent gig, but the old man had ambitions for more. “When you’re done, come back to the airport and see if there’s any spare Holy Joes want taking down the road.”
He needed to see that I was working hard. Made him feel better about mapping out my life in minute detail, while he was lying around doing nothing. He didn’t drive. Never learned. Wasn’t bothered. I got left with all the tearing about and he sat on his arse, waiting for the phone to ring. He was shovelling chips down his throat double quick, but still found the time to give me advice. “You’d best get back early this afternoon. Don’t want to keep the fishermen waiting. Fierce good tippers the English, if you show them some respect. I’ll head home and see what’s what, then bell if there’s anything doing.” Time to go. I had work to do and the Da had an afternoon appointment with the Racing Channel. He ploughed through his meal, acknowledging my departure with a wave of the fork. The old bastard.
I did the job with the fishermen, boring wankers. Then drove slowly back, waiting for him to call. No messages and no stray pilgrims outside the terminal, so I clocked off, waking Dad up as I slammed the front door. Lazy fucker. We split the money I’d taken including tips in the usual three ways to cover housekeeping, him and me. Then he fixed us some food and we sat eating it in front of the news. There was this feature about a crowd of Gyppoes on their way up from Limerick, of course, to some horse fair in Cavan. The annual King of the Travellers bare knuckle contest was supposed to be taking place in the next week and this crowd would make up most of the audience it seemed, but the Knackers were saying fuck all in public about that. Apparently they’d decided to use the car park in Knock as a halting site to break the journey up, which explained what that dozy English fucker in the chipper had been going on about.
Live at the scene, some nervous UCD graduate college boy in glasses was trying to seem interested as this WC Fields lookalike priest droned on about respect for property, promising legal redress and asking for local businesses to support the Church by having no truck with the Gyppoes. Especially as another two hundred of the cunts (I’m paraphrasing the old fucker) were believed to be on their way to join them. I just laughed as the camera panned out on a washing line stretched out from the side of a Transit to a statue of Mary. All the while these Knacker kids in Celtic and Liverpool tops were giving the finger to the camera and throwing dirt at each other. Back in the studio some Sociologist from Pavee Point, who called them Itinerants, talked about “traditional yet non-conforming lifestyle choices” and appealed for calm and tolerance from the local community.
Despite the fact that the appearance of the Knackers would make little or no difference to the old fella’s hectic schedule of snoring in front of the telly, placing bets and lunching at Walsh’s, he was incensed. “The fucking bollix. Imagine some nice English family seeing that shower of cunts on the news the week before they come over on holiday. They’d cancel the whole fucking trip. It’ll cost us business, I’m telling you.” Then it was time for Eastenders so I went off for a shite.
Later on I left the Da snoring in front of the telly and went for a pint. I got into the bar just as the late news was starting. There was a good crowd in for a Tuesday, which meant there’d been a load of Department of Social Protection electronic drink tokens gone out that morning; punters all silent, watching the telly. An on-the-spot report showed College Boy, now shivering in his pink Ralph Lauren, swamped by the arrival of a procession of about 50 motor homes, caravans Transits and Hiaces. Cheap, shitey drum and bass drowned out half what he said. In the background rough looking birds drank cans of cider, while barefoot kids held a spitting contest. The same fat little priest as before, now even more furious and probably half pissed, was waving an emergency court order that confirmed it was illegal for “these savages,” as he called them, to turn the car park of the Basilica of Our Lady, Queen of Ireland into an approximation of Glastonbury after the festival. Next up College boy interviewed this seven foot Inspector, who looked like Robocop auditioning for a part in The Quiet Man, who promised to uphold the law in all circumstances and denied conflict was inevitable.
“Give the big lad a baseball bat, then set the Heavy Gang loose on the Knackers,” someone shouted and everyone laughed. Then the telly got flicked over to the golf on Sky Sports 3 and we all got busy with our pints. I found a stool at the bar next to Francie Cullen, who drove a lorry for O’Hara’s Bakery and had been as far as Galway from Foxford that day. He seemed to be the fella in the know as far as the Gyppoes were concerned.
Apparently it was all to do with some young girl who’d drowned in the swimming pool up in Tuam the week before. Turns out she was from a Knacker family and the Guards had broken up the wake, lifting about twenty of them on outstanding warrants. Drink. Fighting. Fraud. Diesel. The usual things. Seems the rest of the mourners had decided to run in case any more warrants showed up. They decided on Knock as it was high profile this time of year. “Looking for sanctuary you might say,” said Francie. Heads nodded thoughtfully and pints were intelligently drunk.
Around midnight Chris Quigley turned up. I don’t think much of priests in the main, but Chris is alright. He’s from round these parts and doesn’t go on about God all the time. Nice fella; big Villa fan. Always in on a Friday and a Monday, so it was a surprise he’d called in now. He looked a bit troubled as he took a seat at the corner of the counter by himself, then sat fiddling with his iPhone, sending emails and the like, downing a large Powers while he waited for his pint to settle. He did that one double quick as well, ordering up another within ten minutes. When that came over, he’d still not spoken to anyone bar the usual round of hellos when he got through the door. Eventually, I went across.
“Alright Chris. Been told to take the pin or something?”
“Nothing that serious thank fuck. It’s this business with the Gyppoes. Bad for trade you know.” Obviously any drop off in visiting pilgrims and passing trade would mean a consequent fall in donations. As a result, the diocese might not be able to get Chris the new car he’d been promised, which would be a disaster as his Audi’s coming up 3 years old this winter. “I’ll be relying on Charlestown Cabs if I want to get anywhere. Providing I’m not in a hurry though.”
Funny cunt. At least with Chris you could give as good as you got without him taking offence. Outside over a smoke, I told him to get a few of the more devout locals to say they’d seen another apparition. “That would boost takings no end,” Chris laughed, then drew deeply on his cigarette, holding the smoke down in his lungs for an age as he massaged his temples with his right thumb and index finger. “Nah. Times are changing. Try that one and we’ll be up to our necks in New Age mystics and the like. It’ll be like Donegal before you know it. Instead, we’re putting our foot down. The word is that if the Knackers are here tomorrow night, they’re getting shifted. By force if necessary. Let’s have a decent drink eh?”
Pints and whiskey flew down our throats and though I’d promised myself an early night, it was half two before we left the bar. I turned Chris down on the offer of a nightcap and staggered home. The town was quiet as I took a piss up against the side of one of the concrete sheep statues in The Square. The whole place was deserted and no-one shouted stop.
I woke up needing another slash around nine o’clock. When the phone alarm had gone off an hour before I’d clattered the cunt across the room. Coming out the bog the old fella gave me a traditional good morning, telling me to get my lazy arse into gear as I had less than an hour to get to the airport for the morning arrivals. Suddenly I felt a wave of sympathy for the Knackers. This is it what it must be like to be spoken to as if you were low life. To be honest, I was fucking amazed to see him out of bed before me and when he said he’d not be in Walsh’s for dinner, I got suspicious, but there’s no point in questioning the cunt as he’d never give you a straight answer.
Despite finding time for one of Dad’s fried egg sandwiches, I got up to the airport in time for disembarkation. The Tourist Information Office had come up with a winner; a family of six who’d taken a cottage up in Inishcrone. The round trip took a couple of hours, so I missed out on the Manchester flight. Probably a bunch of spastics from St. Joseph’s in Altrincham or something similar. Not that I was bothered. The big fare had set me up for the day, so I decided to hit Walsh’s straightaway for some celebratory trans fats.
Waiting for the burger, I saw the paper was full of stuff about the Gyppoes. Mainly sympathetic; contrasting Irish tolerance with the English and their prejudiced take on the Slovak Roma in Sheffield. They’d obviously not interviewed Fat Mary who reckoned the best idea was to get some Dissidents down from Dundalk to sort the problem out.
The mobile started ringing. The old fella telling me the news was running a feature about the Gyppoes blockading the car park in Knock. There’d been a few scuffles and a cameraman had been shoved to the ground. The reception was terrible and the line went dead before I could ask for more info. I tried calling him a few times, but it went straight through to his voice mail. I just assumed the lazy bastard was having an afternoon on the gargle with some of his cronies. Immediately I gave up, the phone rang again. Chris Quigley; “Knock. Very fucking fast.” This was brilliant. I’d not been to the circus in years. In some ways it was sad to miss out on the afternoon pilgrim trade as they’d be up in arms about the Gyppoes, but this was the Lord’s Work. I even told Mary to cancel my burger as it’s not often front page news happens right on your doorstep.
As soon as we hit Knock, the place was in chaos. I left the bus on the drive outside Carrowmore House B&B, scribbling an apology on a Mass Card Chris had been using to work out his bets on. The car park was like It’s A Knockout filmed in the Ardoyne on the night of the Twelfth. The Gyppoes had blocked the entrance with half a dozen Transits. A crowd of pilgrims stood around looking confused while the Guards got it in the neck from all sides. Father WC Fields, purple faced, screamed at The Knackers to fuck off and told Robocop to start sorting the cunts out.
You had to feel sorry for the Cops. Robocop was obviously in charge, but spent most of the time on his phone, spare hand wedged in spare ear to cut down on background noise; a bit like me, he had to spend an hour on the mobile before he could find out what he was supposed to be doing in the afternoon.
I spotted Francie Cullen in the crowd and we made a beeline for him. He wasn’t best pleased. “This is a load of shite. I’ve two more deliveries to make in Claremorris and Ballinrobe. The fucking bread’ll be off by the time I get through this carry on.” I was about to tell him we’d get Chris to sort out a couple of fishes so we could feed as this lot when an empty cider bottle sailed over from the Knacker ranks and smashed at the feet of WC Fields and Robocop. The look of resignation on Chris’s face told us he’d not learned what to do in such circumstances when he was at Maynooth.
The fat priest grabbed hold of the boss Guard by the lapels and started shaking the fuck out of him. The cop remained impassive, like someone has just taken his batteries out or something. “This is where I come in,” sighed Chris and he led Fields, now speechless with anger, away for a few whiskeys, a bit like James Brown when he got overwrought doing Please Please Please way back in 61 or whatever; round about the time Horan started running his fundraising dances for the Basilica in point of fact.
Me and Francie thought this was a good time to head for a pint. Half a dozen priests were at the bar, shouting into College Boy’s Dictaphone, so we left them to it and commandeered a table by the window. The prime spot to see the Guards charge into the Knackers.
But nothing happened. Robocop was the only one who went over to see the Gyppoes. After a ten minute chat, he came back again, almost smiling and stood the cops down. Straightaway the Guards all piled off into the distance in a procession of vans, like a load of Knackers off to a fancy dress party. Fields came tear-arsing out the lounge, glass in hand, waving his other fist at the disappearing cop convoy. The pilgrims drifted away and we settled down for another night on the drink.
I was on my third pint when the mobile rang. The old fella; sober, amazingly enough and asking where I was. He’d just got back from Ballina, there was nothing for his tea and he needed his share of the readies from the day’s takings before he could feed himself. Shite like that from him keeps me awake at night, dreaming about starting over in London, New York or any fucking place he’s not around. My sisters had the right idea; one’s in Luxembourg and the other in Swindon. I told the old fucker where I was and that if he was really that skint to head over and see Fat Mary who owed me a chicken burger. This cheered him up and the line went dead. Greedy cunt he is.
When put the phone down I saw the bar was filling right up. Newspaper types getting slaughtered and going round interviewing everyone, including each other, while the telly lot set up cameras. Something was about to happen here; us against them in some way. Some sort of commotion in the entrance was followed by the sight of Fields climbing up on the counter and announcing he was about to make a statement live on television. Chris Quigley stood round-shouldered by the door and made a sign he needed a pint. I got some more drinks in just to be on the safe side.
The gist of fatso’s speech was that An Garda Síochána had failed in their duty and he was calling all true Catholics to come to the aid of the Church by helping rid Knock of “the invaders” and for the Guards to redeem themselves by acting in a manner befitting their uniform. Chris was beside himself; “the daft cunt’s only after suggesting we need a squad of vigilantes to kick the shite out of the fuckers. Let’s get out of here before the lynch mob arrives. There’s a stool with my name on it at the counter in Healey’s.”
Just as we prepared to go, the air was filled with the sound of engines revving up, followed by the same awful drum and bass at deafening volume as before. As suddenly as they’d come, the Gyppoes were off again. Within minutes the road going north was choked with a stream of Transits and Hiaces, followed by old Volvos towing caravans, leaving the car park knee deep in scrap metal, cider bottles and dirty nappies. All of them escorted safely away by cop outriders. Next stop, Ballyjamesduff. If I hadn’t a full pint lined up, I may have gone with them. Now the traffic was moving again, Francie located his lorry, even though he was too pissed to drive the fucker.
He came back in with armfuls of bread that got thrown around the place like farinaceous confetti and the news that this Knacker exodus was the result of Robocop and the Gyppoes brokering a deal, while Fields had been writing his speech. In short, fuck off before it gets dark and nobody gets lifted. This way everyone saved face, apart from the Church of course.
As soon as the street was clear, we hopped on the minibus and I floored it back up the road home. Well, Healey’s to be precise. In the bar, every fucker was wearing these brand new t-shirts that showed a massive boot hoofing a Transit into the distance. On the back was the slogan; I Kicked the Knackers out of Knock. Dad was flogging them to all comers at a tenner each, from a table just inside the door. Everyone was after them; seems like it’s the Connacht African Food Collective’s new staff uniform. Beaming, pissed and already half hidden by a rapidly growing pile of notes, Dad got me up to speed with his day.
Turns out he’d sensed the cops wouldn’t allow the Gyppoes to stay any longer than a day or two, so he’d called in a favour and got a job lot of the shirts done for two quid a throw by his printer mate in Ballina. The same one who’d done the business cards years back. I tried to imagine the old fucker wrestling a bundle of five hundred t-shirts on and off the bus, but gave up. I was about to break down in tears when Chris Quigley handed me another pint and put his arm round my shoulder, so I let the old fella talk.
“Sell all these to pilgrims and pissheads and it’s four grand profit for fuck all work. I tell you, we’ll breathe some life back into this Celtic Tiger fucker yet.”