Deo Dona Nobis Pacem
The glow of the last cinders warmed him as a milky white spread across the eastern skyline.The insipid shades and hues of grey creeped inoxercibally on his day.
He unscrewed his last bottle and through the haze he read .. Something …Nappa Valley California. 12% alcohol . That’s all that mattered.
Even after the six or or was it more or less ? sleep had not come . No rest , only the continuum of the blur which had suffused his brain for days now. It was like this when that sickness had first brewed up inside him.
He kicked the barrel and a few sparks rose up.
He followed them up to the heavens as the last stars were disappearing. Soon the early boys would be around.
They all knew him by now. They all had their stories and weren’t that different to his own. Just put different words on them. Posh them up . But it’s the same old story everywhere. Every one had the same problems ; people just told them differently.
Some liked to be wayward heroes; some the eternal suffering victims . Some dolled theme up, and others dressed them down, ; some died from the yearning for love , and others yearned to die for love.Some were just unloved , and others cared not a whit for either love nor compannion ; they just grew or decclined that way
Either way it was the same old record , playing over and over .
Jay’s story was just the same old same old same old.. Only he didn’t talk. He got no relief from talking a. It just was . Things were as they were . And yet things change but remain just the same . People come and go . Die and slowly suffer which was worse , but it was all the same . As predictable as the dawning sky, another day would come. And the sky would dim again and the night would return , That was all. Things just came and went . And they might weep bitter tears as you went down , but it would be all the same in a few days.
He liked to listen . He had to now . How many of these poor souls had passed away in the past year. Three ,four. Who was next,. No was it more .but those who passed away last winter ? He didn’t know them . It was before his time .So whenever their names came uo, he just went with the flow if te general sadness , and at last they stopped asking even peripherally about his circumstances.
All that mattered was keeping the fire going in the barrel and sufficient ethanol in his veins .
He had declined to tell his own story. It would bring no particular comfort to him nor no revelation to his audience. His narrative , however sad ,unfortunate ;how reasoned his position or however unreasonable his circumstances ,it didn’t matter a great lot. They’d heard it all before ,one way or another.
He heard Willy coming along the canal path before he could see him. Willy had a twisted leg. Got it caught in a machine in the factory or something. He was in his 40’s . he would never work again.
- Hiya doin there Jay old guy ?- Willy greeted him.
- Cold .. You know. ..Just cold ...Just a bit ..
-Yea !. Shure was a cold one last night . You stay here all night…….??
- right here … Just here Man . Just here .
Willy sat down and studied his boots.
- not much walkin left in them- he said dolefully
-no sir. . And you know a funny thing . ?
He twisted his deformed leg in a grotesque manner for the other to examine
- The good one always goes before the bad . Cant ever figure that..- he said taking off his boots.
The fire warmed his feet and the glow sent a wave of contentment up through him.
Only the little eddies of the current beneath the locks disturbed their contemplations.
He offered the bottle to Willy ,who took it without a thank you . It was the way.
His hands were unsteady , and he had to use both to bring the bottle to his lips..
- you been at it since..?
- yea . That’s right Willy .! He said it a little louder than their conversation demanded , severing the ordeal of that discourse . But Willy pushed on.
- Ya know I see a lotta guys comin and goin here , some stay for a while .. Move on to another city.. But me I like it here.’ Sides I cant move so quick anymore.. Jumpin them trains.. Cant do that now.. So me I stays put .. ‘sides I always liked it here. Like to die here. Lota guys gone now…
He stopped as if in respect of the dead , his head bowed.
- Think I’d like to die just there .. Just when the sun is a little higher. .. And a bit warmer .. Hey!
He seemed to reflect on this then ;
-I’d like for it not to be rainin though . No sir ! I’d like for the sun to be up or just goin down,, Ever think about ..
- no , I cant say I do. Never ..
- You’re a believer an all that .. Yea?
- Some of it.. - He took a long swill and handed the bottle back again..
Willy’s hands were steadier now but he still needed both to guide the bottle.
- Never talk bout yer family .. Most guys do some time ,, you .. You never done .. You got a family ..one that’d bury you ..?
- I did have - short. Curt . But sympathetic with Willy.
-Yes I did have Willy , but they don’t know about me now. They think I’m in Australia . So I wrote to them before I left.. No they’re not lookin for me… now give over with this death stuff Willy.. Willy you ,if you don’t mind .. Ok Willy Ok ?
He sobered for a moment remembering Willy’s vulnerable nature..He continued.
-Too early in the day to be talkin about dyin…. Ok Ok !!
Willy rebounded as was his disposition.
- Hey ! I Went to the church yesterday morning.. Was it yesterday.. Well some day.. Yea .. Maybe yesterday. And it was real nice.. And the priest just said a few words about some man who’d died. His coffin was on the altar . Don’t know why it had to be so early. Anyhow this priest he starts goin on about Jesus on the cross and the thief on his left sayin .. Hey ! if yure God then get us down off these crosses and the other thief on his right says. Hey Jesus like I don’t know what you done only some preaching and them Romans they don’t like what you’re sayin .. But you done no harm man.. And like .. You don’t deserve to die not like us you don’t…- Willy’s body quivered from his lean shivering shoulders .
-And Jesus says to this thief.. This day you will be with me in paradise .. And then it all started commin back to me too.
He took a swig from the bottle ..
-And then this priest he said a funny thing.. Like dam peculiar for a priest to say. He says we’re all humans . We all find it hard to forgive ..he says .. And he says that we just gotta ask Jesus to teach us to forgive .. Cos its not in our nature to forgive ..he said it again too just so’s we’d remember it.. He says to ask Jesus to teach us to forgive ..cos its not our nature to forgive . It‘s not innate.. that’s what he says innate ..meanin..
- Yea , Wily I know ..innate …know what it means… like you say it’s a funny kinda thing for a priest to say .
Jay seemed to be thinking this over.
- That what he said ..?? That Jesus thinks its not innate in us to forgive ..?? Thats what he sais ?
Willy looked a little befuddled and his hands began to tremble again ..he had to concentrate and held his head at the temples and started slowly..
- No .like it was . what he said was ..him.. the priest said its not innate .. So we have to pray for the gift of forgiveness from Jesus.. No he didn’t say Jesus said it.. He said it. The priest said it….I think it’s the same thing cos of what Jesus said to the thief.. Because this thief showed Jesus he was a believer…. Anyway that’s what he says..
He paused unsure how his point was received , then added .
-And I believe it too .. Jesus could have said .. He coulda !
He stared into the lifting light and it played on his forehead , darkening his beard in the silhouette .He seemed transfixed, and his hands began to tremble again.. He reached in his pocket ant took out a bottle of paint spirit and fumbled at it with an urgent clumsiness; as if a sudden fear had washed over him .His terrors at the coming day seemed to leap from the rising dawn and knock him with a bolt of their torrents ... He took a long swig, the spirit splashing down his front , drops trapped in his twisted whiskers, which concealed a gentleness of features beneath.
He waited a moment and started to say something , but his mouth hung open.
They looked at one another and a screen seemed to have come between them , for a moment . And in that instant , neither wanted to reveal himself.
Willy was lacing his boot with a length of twine . He studied his bad leg for a moment .
-’ pon my word - he said , which slightly startled the other man; as if a voice had spoken from another place
He sensed Jay studying him. And the penetrating look intimidated him.
- Hey , Jay 1 .Look ! The boot man. See where its all worn all along this sole .. See here .. And this side ..well like new..just never could figure that out ..real curious ..’
Jay considered this for a moment .
- it’s the extra wear. Like when you favour the good for the weak one .. that’s all that’s happening there .. Just that its taking the extra load.. Law of physics.. Well phasing really..
- Oh Yea ? well glory be ! .. So that’s it..- Willy sat there just gazing at his boot. Then he compared the worn sole with the other
- Well Glory.be !.Glory be!!.. that’s had me doin some figurin , and you just got it in one ...
He was silent for a moment and his hand was steady as he seemed momentarily transfixed.
-.Hye Jay.. You should do something with that brain a yours.. You got a real good thinking head man..
He handed him the spirits. Jay shrugged and waved the bottle away.
The early commuter traffic had begun to rumble into town , crossing the canal bridge below their perch where two of the mill streams merged . Here they were out of sight and the police rarely bothered them. They were all beyond all but the pettiest crime and were of no interest to the police.
There was an understanding that the fire would be out during daylight and that they dispose of their rubbish , particularly their wine bottles in a nearby bottle bank.
Coming along the canal they saw a furtive figure .Stopping every so often to peer into the race with his Polaroid glasses he stepped gingerly along the toll path.
- Hey there Mick !!- Willy called as he neared , creeping along guided by the rail , deeply absorbed in its dark swirling currents above the lock gate.
- Hi guys, Hi Jay .Hi Willy.- Mick said as he drew up .
-Man its cold … ! he said embracing the dying heat of the barrel.
-Man its cold this morning-
- Hear you’ve been doin well at the snatchin..??
- yea.. Yea .. Not bad Willy.. Man its dam cold.
-hear you got a ten pounder ..
- No , short of ten.. Got a few sixes .. Few Fives.. run is nearly over..
- Hey Mick , said Willy - I’ll show you one lyin nice an peaceful .. For .. For a consideration.
Again Jay looked at him keenly.
- yea .. Where’s your fish man.. Come on .. I’ll cut you in .
- Promise - said Willy .
- Shure- Mick said sitting down , and drawing his own bottle out furtively.
- Jem.. Willy ? - he offered them his bottle.
Everything he did was with a furtive and menace. He gave the impression that he was in imminent danger of being foiled .
- Ok .. Come on.. Said Willy - dragging his bad foot into operation.
- just say it man .. don’t point.. Just say it…. Don’t fuckin point man .. Just say.Ok .. Just say it man ..
Willy was between distress and disappointment, but he recovered
- ok .. See the buttress of the lock..
- the which ?
- under the left gate .. See the ledge .. Follow that down.. Down ….
- Don’t n’t point man …Jees.. Buttress .. So that’s a buttress..Hey Jay ..you know what a buttress was before.. ? Hey Wily , wher’d you learn to talk like that ..I heard you doin it before..
- What about my …my..
-Oh yea.. ! .. There’s another one .. My ‘consideration’ .. that’s really sweet talk Willy . Bet you drove the birds crazy.. Hey Jem .. You hear this guy.. He’s a real sweet talker .. I’m telling him …..
- heard you - said Jay
- he’s telling you ‘bout a fish .Mick ..
There was an authority to his voice which forewarned .
- Go on Willy.. - tell him about the fish .
And Jay rolled over and away from the conversation . Just rolled out of mind , he threw the butt of his joint into the swirling current below
- well I just showed em !- Willy was alone now .
- Willy, my Man .. I seen four fish like that one between here and the gate .. All in the still water my friend .. And that’s nooo good to Mickey here !!! No good fer me my man ..cant get the treble near them man , ..Life’s a bitch .. What’ya say Jay..
Willy sulked. Mick acknowledged the frail little man’s offended sensitivities.
- Hey Willy my man , sorry ..like I didn’t want to sound like I don’t appreciate it.. Sure I do.. Tell ya .. I’ll cut ya in for my next one .. Ok.. ?
- no need I can assure you.. ..
Jay turned back from his slumber and Mick and he exchanged a glance
- no problem Mick ..no problem….Willy said brightening.
The traffic mumbled along , and the swirling races reaching out from the canal held their salmon in their still pools .The sun was rising lower in the September sky .
The winos came and went .
Willy returned to the church but failed to meet the preacher who’d left such an impression upon him.
Jay was found unconscious beside the fading embers one morning by a group of boys fishing the canal .He was hospitalised and diagnosed with liver failure. He had advanced cirrhosis .
Mick flirted of the fringes of his poaching expeditions , and drank whatever profits he made when an unfortunate salmon unwisely nudged his head out into the pulse of the current .
September pushed in to October and the salmon ran upstream with the first flush of the autumnal floods and swam without respite all the way upstream to their winter spawning beds in the boggy streams above the lake .
Winter came earlier than usual along the canal. But the metronome of time pressed on and the embers of the fire dwindled and went out .
It froze that winter . The canal was stilled and only rumble of the traffic with its early morning commuters who disturbed the only swaying pike under the lock gates deep below the clawing ice. The swans , dispensing with their austere gravitas waddled without temerity up to the backyards banking the canal and befriending the community , feasted on bread at the hands of delighted children .
When the moon had swung three full circles around the ecliptic the old barrel again became the hearth where they met .
Willy had over wintered best. He’d gone into a hospice where he’d told his story of misery once more , and was rewarded on condition that he tell it to a classroom of well bred children of how not to live a life . The script was handed to him by a bullish unshaven Christian Brother, And he read it as he was bid.
Mick took the boat to England and applied himself to his trade as a plumber .
Jay looked more feeble now. His shoulders hunched . His powerful chest decavitated and a yellow tinge in his eyes and face .
He seemed more listless around the barrel , but they took his apathy for disenchantment , and no one bothered him as he swigged and smoked away drifting silently into his own oblivion.
He died one night silently as the others huddled round the barrel . Without a sound he just passed away into the night.
They turned him over , shook him ,but he was by then gone cold . And the once handsome face flickered for an instant .His features without a troubled wrinkle in the moonlight .
After the ceremonies , they said a mass in one of the side altars, and as the bells chimed out on Easter Sunday , his funeral departed the church.
Willy tried to walk some distance behind the hearse . But finally he acquiesced and got in the taxi with Mick .
They drove to the paupers cemetery and buried him that morning.
As they threw more timber into the barrel that night there was a solemnity which each dreaded like a death itself .
They’d talked of Jay and how he’d like to have lived to see the swans and another Spring -But who was Jay... Willy asked , and they agreed that whoever he was he was different to the rest of them
-An educated man , I’d say - ventured Mick ,and their conversation ebbed yet again with the fresh flare from the brittle timber as it fell into the deep red embers .
But their talk brought no solace to the company and now there was no more to say.
Under the glow from the barrel Willy was the first to speak .
- Well - he started uncertainly
- Here’s to you Jay..!- he held his bottle stoutly .and with defiance up to the rising moon.
They raised their bottles .
- To Jay ..
-To Jay ..
- I’ll just say this much .. - he said looking up at the rising moon in it’s full.
- You never did no one no harm..
- to Jay
In the sacristy of the chapel the priest was troubled with the questions which were coming like wrathful lashes .
The family were deeply distressed but it was the suddenness of the change from distress to wrath which startled him.
They had been contacted by the police after the death. His wife had identified the remains . But none attended the funeral . There were legalities to attend to. The dead man had been left a considerable percentage of the family firm . The old man had insisted that he be included in the will even when he disappeared . They had trued to change this but the old man’s state of mine was legally sound .
The priest had spoken to him . He knew he was dying . He knew the next drink could kill him . He had refrained from making a confession , but accepted the priests blessing .
And in the week before he died he had gone to a solicitor and in full compus mentis had bequeathed his share of the property to the Franciscan Abbey.
The oldest sister was the most vehement.
- If that’s the way you run your parish … -
And the daughter
- could you not at least know who your parishioners are..what sort of ministry is that to run..?
And fire and loathing begot one another , and fuelled the acrimony , and the flames of anger grew higher like a forrest fire when the tinde was crisp and volatile , and the wind fanned the flames.
- To have left his family .. And we thinking he was in Australia .. And You ! You not to even know…. What sort of a minister are you …?
- It is quite unforgivable - said the brother who had held his council for so long.
- Quite unpardonable.. It seems to me that this is a matter for the Bishop. Very wrong ..so very..
-Bishop my !! … My God ! May God forgive you.. Have you any sense of decency at all - said the other sister .
- Its typical .. Typical of what weve come to expect from the clergy .- said the wife
- you thought you were in for a soft bit of money. Well by Christ I van tell you .. You’ll have a fight on your hands if you try to claim any .. Just one single penny from his estate .you’ll have a fight that I can guarantee you you’ll regret - her voice was so full of a festering venom that she had to clutch the pew to steady herself.
The priest took off his stole and placed it beside the cruets.
He framed his fingers in an A and he waited .The incriminations and the hectoring continued..
His placid nature lent him the serenity to desist disputation , and with unfurrowed brow he went to his stole , and he robed himself in the humble piety of St Augustine
-I only met him once , - he said with slow deliberation
-And that was in the sanctity of the confessional .
He took from his stole a crumpled envelope .
- His only wish was this - he held aloft the envelope .
- He had been touched by a sermon which one of our brothers made.. It concerned the last words made to Jesus -
Here he paused .
- It is I believe s his last will and testament , and I have it on the best authority that it is a bona fide legal document
There was silence in the sacristy
- I gather that its contents will affirm his wish that his share of the family enterprise should go to the church . His personal estate , I do believe amounts to some millions.
The priest looked wanly at his audience . So this is all they wanted to know- he thought .No thought for the dead . No request to see his grave . This is what the mans life amounts to. A piece of paper .
He braced himself for an anger which after years of imploring the Lord to grant him the power to suppress assailed him now . But his countenance betrayed nothing of his inner turmoil. He regarded them blandly .
- I do believe that in these particular circumstances that I can deliver this back to you ..You may decide collectively what best to do with it.
He paused and ran his hand along the chair he’d vacated .
- I should tell you that our only conversation .. if I may call it such … was about deliverance .. In fact about the comforting words which Jesus derived from one of His co- crucified .
- This day you shall be with me ….
He paused and with a faint smile he handed them the envelope and softly continued ..
- Well you all know the story of the Bible ..
- May God Bless you all.
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