Looking After Little Patrick
by ALAN McMONAGLE
The child next door to us is always crying. We think up ways of dealing with it. Silver bullets. A stake through the heart. Exorcism. Hours later, Gemma sighs and wonders why his parents allow him make so much noise. As a last resort, I mention some Japanese methods I recall reading about in a faraway museum. In our house, it’s just the two of us and, perhaps, that’s just as well. Once, before our doctor ruled it out as a possibility, Gemma and I spoke about making a baby. We decided on a boy and gave him a fully formed personality. He had a quiet intensity and large arms. He had a wonderful ability to say the same thing over and over again without sounding repetitive. He didn’t need things to be explained to him more than once. We called him Marlon after our favorite actor. If he wanted to join us in a glass of wine at mealtime we said that was ok. During our meal, the child next door started crying again and we told Marlon he must never do that. The crying continued and Gemma and I shook our fists at the wall separating us from our neighbors. Marlon could wait, we decided. Today – a clear though breezy early winter Sunday - we have volunteered to look after Gemma’s nephew. He is known as Little Patrick. He is five years old, and enjoys climbing and starring in home movies. From previous child-minding adventures we know it is a mistake offering to look after him, but Gemma likes to do a good deed now and again. Little Patrick’s parents – Gemma’s brother, Joe, and his wife, Audrey – have a wedding to attend, and their regular child-sitter is temporarily refusing any contact with Little Patrick after he flushed her new earrings down the toilet. They were a gift from her boyfriend. ‘Of course we will look after Little Patrick,’ we say when the call comes through. ‘Send him in on the train.’ ‘He’s five years old,’ his mother reminds us. ‘Well make sure they don’t charge him full whack,’ we say. Instead of by train, Little Patrick arrives in his father’s large car. He arrives with a tractor and trailer, a DVD called Shark Tale, a story book called Abdul, Susie and the Lollipop, a change of clothes and a CD of Johnny Cash’s greatest hits. ‘Would you like a cocktail,’ I ask him, as soon as his father has left. ‘I make a really good Long Island Iced Tea.’ He doesn’t say anything to this, instead just climbs onto the high chair at our breakfast bar and stares at me. I take this as a Yes and get busy with the blender. ‘Who is that silly man making a mess?’ Gemma asks Little Patrick as I slosh around my cocktail shaker, spilling lemon juice and fizzing cola everywhere. Again, he doesn’t answer. He just keeps staring at me. ‘He’s a shy boy,’ says Gemma, patting him on the head. ‘He’s a bit like our little guy,’ I say, pouring tumblers of the cocktail. ‘He has a quiet intensity.’ This all changes as soon as he sees the tumblers of Long Island Iced Tea I have prepared. Quickly, he drinks three and I drink two. I am tempted to pour some Bacardi into his fourth. He can’t get enough of them into him. When he becomes hyper-active and emotional Gemma decides we should go to the beach. She grabs her camera, I buckle Little Patrick into the back seat of our car and off we go. We drive to the beach, find a parking space along the promenade in front of the water, and turn to Little Patrick to make sure he is still excited. As we assist him out of his seat, we close the car door on his thumb. At once, I re-open the car door, release the trapped thumb and pretend no harm has been done. Gemma fusses over Little Patrick’s wonderful coat, points to the waves caressing the strand below us, and, for a moment, we think we will get away with it. However, he starts to cry. As he cries and cries, the thumb turns black. ‘It will fall off if you keep crying,’ I say to him, pointing at his scary thumb. ‘We need a bandage,’ Gemma says and she clutches him to her, and takes turns to kiss his injury and say bad bold door to our innocent car. ‘He is making a really annoying sound,’ I say. ‘So would you if someone tried to take off your thumb,’ says Gemma. ‘Let’s throw him in the water,’ I say. ‘Maybe we should skip the beach,’ says Gemma, when it is obvious that no amount of sand and sea is going to alleviate Little Patrick’s distress. We decide to drive into town. On our way, we stop by the woods. Gemma and I often walk together there on Sundays. It’s where we have some of our best conversations. As well as children and marriage, we have talked about music, places we would like to see, the state of our parents’ health, the economic downturn and Barack Obama. Gemma loves talking about Barack. He has a nice smile, she says. The assassin will remove that smile, I say. He is so charismatic, she says. Tell that to his undertaker, I say. He will fix the world, she says. I thought a woman was going to do that, I say. Gemma says a lot more things about Barack. She reads everything about him in the newspapers too. And turns on the television whenever he is due to make one of his inspirational speeches. Barackitis I call it. So bad is her condition I had to order his book for her from Amazon and, then, bid outrageously on e-bay for a New York Times the morning after he won the election. When we finish this Sunday’s conversation Little Patrick is nowhere to be seen. He has disappeared. At once and with both hands, Gemma starts pulling at her hair. I try to stay calm. ‘Please tell me this isn’t happening,’ Gemma says scanning the leafless trees all around us, her hands now clamped to either side of her head. ‘This sort of thing happens all the time,’ I say. ‘How are we going to find him among all these trees? He’s very small. He might have fallen down a foxhole.’ ‘Maybe he’s chasing that fox,’ I say, pointing to a fast-moving reddish thing upon the ridge ahead of us. ‘I’m going to kill that fox,’ says Gemma, hurrying off. As I watch her scurry onto the ridge, then fade inside the trees, I think of the time I disappeared. It was when I was little also, though perhaps not quite so little as Little Patrick. As a boy, I used to like hunting for horse chestnuts, and every autumn I threw my stick at the tree growing beyond the back garden of our house. One autumn, my father brought me to a forest along the edges of our town – at least I thought it was a forest, everything was so large back then. He threw his sticks at the tallest trees while I sought out one short enough to accept my feeble throws. I wandered away from my father and looked for a suitable tree. I remember drifting deep into the forest. As I wandered further and further among the trees I could hear my father calling out, but I ignored his calls and continued my search. Eventually, I happened upon a small clearing and, growing out of the ground at a skewed angle, was the tree I had been searching for. It was so skewed it looked as though it wanted to grow along the ground instead of taking its place amongst the others. ‘Leave that one alone,’ I remember my father saying when he got to me. ‘A tree born crooked will never grow straight.’ When we catch up to him, Little Patrick is standing on a tree stump, swinging a squirrel by its tail. I tell him we will cook the squirrel for dinner, but that first I have to check it for signs of ringworm. When he stops swinging the squirrel and presents it to me, I pretend I am afraid. Little Patrick starts laughing at my fear, and in the ensuing trepidation, the squirrel evades my nervous hands and scurries up a tree. Then Gemma clutches Little Patrick to her. He is still laughing when we get back to the car. On our way into town, we stop at a pharmacy and purchase an elaborate bandage for the injured thumb. Further on again, we park near the open pier, where the river surges into the bay. It’s our favorite part of town. Sometimes the tidewater is so high it laps over the pier walls. Other times, the river and sea waters are angry, and they clash mercilessly. Today, the waters have declared a temporary peace, the swans have made an appearance, and we take Little Patrick over to see them. Some swans are bobbing on the water, resting. Others drift with the current. And one or two have waddled out of the water, up the boat ramp and onto the pier, and are accepting crumbs of bread tossed from un-needed loaf-wrappers. Little Patrick walks right up to one, and stares at the orange beak pinching the ground before him. He shoves his bandaged thumb up in the air just as Gemma takes a photograph. We walk further along the pier. It juts right out into the bay and the further along it we walk the deeper the water becomes. Little Patrick likes keeping close to the edge in order that he may better see into the water. Mentally, I prepare myself for when Little Patrick disappears again, and I must plunge into the deepening water to search for his little body. Gemma takes more photographs. At the end of the pier a spiky breeze is blowing in off the open water. An old man and his dog stand at the edge of the pier. Two fishermen cast their lines and hope for the best. I notice that they have already caught something and thrown it in a bucket placed on the wall raised along the windward end of the pier. I point out the bucket to Little Patrick and he saunters over to inspect it. ‘Do you think we should get a dog?’ I ask Gemma, turning my attention to the old man. ‘Before he moves in to the White House, Barack is going to buy his little girls a puppy,’ Gemma says. ‘He’s hoping to get one from a shelter. A mutt, he says. Maybe, we could do that.’ ‘He sounds like the right man for the job,’ I say. ‘He is the only man for the job,’ says Gemma. ‘You do know he can’t count,’ I say. ‘He thinks there are fifty seven states in America. I suppose there are if you include Ireland and England, and a few other places. But I don’t think he was thinking along those lines.’ ‘He gives great answers,’ Gemma says. ‘All he says is Yes we can,’ I say. ‘That’s a great answer,’ Gemma says. When we turn to him, Little Patrick is up on the wall. There is no barrier. Just a thirty-foot drop into the water below, which Little Patrick will know about if he runs for a couple more steps. ‘Oh Jesus,’ Gemma says and freezes to the spot where she is standing. I launch myself, and manage to wrap my hand around one of his busy legs, and haul him from the wall. Gemma takes him from me, and sits down with her back to the wall, holding Little Patrick. She clutches him close to her, rocks him gently, and they sit like that together until long after the fishermen catch another fish. Eventually, we gather ourselves, and go for a Pizza. Little Patrick chooses toppings of Chef brown sauce, Heinz ketchup and Hellmann’s mayonnaise. In no time his head resembles a large multi-colored lollipop. Gemma takes another photograph. Then we bring him back to our house. Back at the house, Gemma transfers her photographs from her camera to the computer. She has a file called my pictures and in it she keeps photographs of our child-minding adventures. She has one of her two-year old niece, Saoirse, who has no hair and looks terrified, possibly because kneeling towards her is a green-faced man with a set of Dracula fangs protruding from his mouth. There is one of her three-year old nephew, Paulito, who divides his time between Portugal and Ireland, and can speak three languages. He has a great mop of curly hair and doesn’t look too happy, possibly because he is sitting in the black vinyl chair at my local barber shop about to have his curls cut off. Then there is one of my eight year-old nephew, Cian. He is holding up a drawing of a burning-down house which, if memory serves, he told us was a drawing of where Gemma and I live. Gemma often prints out her own favorites, has them framed and hangs them on the walls of our home. When the child next door starts crying, I stick on the Johnny Cash CD and twice read Little Patrick the story of Abdul, Susie and the Lollipop. It’s quite boring, so we drink another Long Island Iced Tea and examine his tractor and trailer. I put on my Corpse Bride DVD but Little Patrick doesn’t like the look of the bride, so I watch it on my own. I consider putting on his DVD about the shark, but I have seen enough water for one day. Instead, we write two poems. One is for his granny who worries all the time. One is for his father who has a sore leg. ‘When you get back to the farm, give your father a message from me,’ I say to Little Patrick, as our time together draws to a close. ‘Tell him, soon the big house and all the fields will belong to Uncle Ronan.’ Later, after Little Patrick has been safely returned to his grateful parents, Gemma is still looking at the computer screen, flicking through her photographs. For a moment, she pauses at the one of Little Patrick at the pier, his uncertain expression before the swan, his bandaged thumb sticking into the winter air. ‘Before he left he asked me how Johnny Cash fell into the ring of fire,’ I say. ‘I think he enjoyed playing with you,’ says Gemma. Soon, she switches on the TV. Barack is due to make one of his inspirational speeches. During the speech, Gemma hangs on every word. Afterwards, there are questions. Barack smiles at everyone who asks a question and says yes we can. I wish he would tell the reporters what he really thinks. Go to hell the lot of you. Shove your questions where the sun doesn’t shine. Stop going on about things that are unsolvable. During my litany, the phone rings. It’s my sister Lisa. ‘Cian is dying to see his Uncle Ronan,’ she says. ‘Can you and Gemma take him for a night?’ ‘Yes we can,’ I say. ‘Send him in on the train.’ That night, Gemma shudders when she thinks about Little Patrick on the pier wall. ‘Don’t talk about that,’ I say. ‘It gives me the gollywobbles.’ Instead, we resume the creation of our make-believe baby. Gemma adds a nice speaking voice. I give him an inquiring mind. To make things interesting, we weave a mesh of conflicting emotions into his curious psyche. If he wants to sit up and watch a horror movie we say of course you can Marlon and make room for him between us on the sofa. And if he wants to pack a rucksack and go see the world we say that is ok too and bid him a teary bon voyage. And, later again, in the soundless hours, when we catch ourselves not sleeping, and we ask each other where on earth he could be this quiet night, it’s then that it hits us: that though he never cries, he has our hearts broken.
ALAN McMONAGLE lives in Galway, Ireland. In October 2008 his first collection of stories, Liar Liar, was published by Wordsonthestreet Press.