A short hard sci-fi story that I wrote earlier this year about the clash of memory digitisation and the law. It was originally intended to be a one act play with Frost becoming a lot more sinister before realising what a bastard he had become, I might fix this at a later date.
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The paramedics had rushed to the hospital and the surgeons had taken her straight into theatre. She had stabilised as best as could be expected under the circumstances and now it was in the hands of fate and her own will to live that would determine the next twenty four hours.
Detective Michael Frost had sat outside of her door since getting the call that she was in surgery, his head was in his hands, he was tired, and he was scared. His partner, a rookie who had just made detective was in the canteen seeking out two coffees and any kind of product that could be called food.
He looked back through the window behind him at the girl, she was blonde and was once beautiful but after the beating she had sustained today she would undoubtedly require reconstructive surgery.
“Detective Frost,” a tall African American woman approached him, she was wearing a trim business suit under a white lab coat, “Doctor Christine Tambor, Libra Neurosciences.”
He stood and accepted her extended hand before turning to the young, red haired man who accompanied her, he was a man Frost knew to be an adjunct from the District Attorney’s office.
“Nathan,” he shook the lawyer’s hand, “sorry to see you under these circumstances.”
“Indeed, Detective,” he looked in to the girl, “how are her vitals?”
“Not great,” Frost sighed, “it has been touch and go since she came out of surgery.”
“Who is she?”
Tambor set the case that she had been carrying on the chair Frost had not ventured far from since he had got here.
“I don’t know,” he looked in at the girl with an almost fatherly concern, “we haven’t been allowed in to run a genetic ID yet.”
That was why Christine Tambor was here. The girl had inadvertently become a material witness in one of the biggest investigations in Boston history, but she may not live through the night.
Libra Neurosciences had developed a technology for backing up memories and there had developed a whole new industry of mental preservation and display technologies. Commercial memory-frames bad become commonplace in households the way static picture frames once had been.
But being unconscious she could not consent to the imprint so Nathan Hagan had to come down from the DA’s office to view the memory and sign off that only the memory relevant to the crime had been extracted.
“How soon until we can get in there?”
Doctor Tambor had opened the case and had began assembling the sleek imprint kit; unlike the commercial units that were plastic and looked like headphones this unit was brushed aluminium and had two additional probes that sat on the forehead and fed back to a tablet pad. The high end kits used to ensure accurate collection and preservation of evidence for prosecution.
“I’m waiting on a doctor coming down to give us the go-ahead,” Frost paced back and forth in front of the door, worried his witness might not make it that long.
His partner, Carl Fairgrieve returned with two plastic coffee cups and a bag of potato chips, he handed over the chips and a coffee with an apologetic look on his face. Bad coffee and worse food came with the job, Frost was long enough in the tooth to ignore it.
“Any change in the girl?”
“No,” Frost looked back in on her for maybe the hundredth time this hour, “there was a small spike in her heart rate but it settled again.”
“Listen, boss,” Fairgrieve pulled an evidence bag from his pocket; lipstick, address book, some jewellery, some money but no ID, “I was going through her address book trying to find some reference we could use, mom, dad, anything like that.”
“No,” the young detective frowned, “it’s all guys.”
“Yeah, boss,” Fairgrieve said, “it looks like a client list.”
“Wow, hold up,” Hagan said from across the hallway, “are you saying she is a prostitute?”
“I think so,” Fairgieve tossed the evidence bag across to the adjunct.
“I’m sorry, Detectives,” Hagan held up his hands, “you can’t extract that memory.”
Frost had practically dropped his coffee in a mixture of shock and anger, “What the hell do you mean we can’t extract it?”
“It’s a Fifth Amendment issue,” Hagan took a step toward Doctor Tambor, “Prostitution is illegal in this state, if she was working at the time of her assault and we extract her memory while she is unconscious it would be a violation of her Constitutional Rights.”
“She could die,” Frost practically spat the words.
“It’s not a nice thing to say but we can attempt an extraction in that case,” Hagan looked to Tambor, “can a post-mortem imprint be done?”
“As long as there is some brain activity we should be able to get something,” the neuroscientist replied, “I can’t guarantee how accurate it will be though.”
“I can’t build a case on that,” Frost said, “I need to get an accurate snapshot.”
“And I’m telling you that it will not be admissible in court,” Hagan said, “no judge in the country will take on a case that from the beginning has been a Constitutional Violation.”
“What about her right to live,” Frost was trying to control his anger, “what about her right to justice?”
“What about her right to avoid giving self-incriminating evidence,” the adjunct said, “bottom line, Detective, when it isn’t a matter of national security the constitutional rights of another cannot be suspended.”
Frost stomped the corridor in frustration whilst Tambor stood helplessly between them, she shared a look with Fairgrieve who for his own part bore the expression of one who wished he had remained silent.
“What about the McKenzie Act,” Tambor held up her hands in a conciliatory gesture, “can you get DA Haugh to activate it?”
With the advent of memory digitization a congresswoman from Los Angeles recognised the potential for evidence gathering in cases of violent crimes in which the victim may be a terminal case or otherwise be rendered incapable of giving evidence. She successfully lobbied Congress and thus was born the McKenzie Victims Neural Evidentiary Act that enshrined in law the emergency collection of a person’s memories in case of homicide or attempted homicide.
“Do you still suspect that she is a sex worker,” Hagan said, his palms open, “because if you do the McKenzie Act cannot apply whilst she’s stable.”
Frost was getting angry with the adjunct, the cocky young lawyer was interfering with the first break in the biggest case currently going on in the city. Of course he cared about the girl but the man who had beat her was one of the largest importers of narcotics into Boston, there were more important issues at play here.
“What about you perform the imprint just in case,” Fairgrieve spoke up, “if she doesn’t pull through at least we’ll have the memory, use McKenzie as our defence, and if she pulls through we can hold the memory and ask her to prosecute?”
“Detectives, I understand your frustration,” Hagan sat down next to Tambor’s case, “and I am not trying to get in your way, all I’m doing is telling you how it is viewed by the law. And if I don’t do this now then you’ll get to watch your case get pulled apart in Court by the defence attorney.”
Frost was thinking about what his partner had suggested and it had merit. But he would still have no case if they did, that was the whole purpose of the DA having a representative at evidentiary imprints, the adjunct had to ensure that the evidence was admissible.
He thumped the wall in frustration and took several deep breaths to calm himself, to try and focus his thoughts into something useful. He could come to only one conclusion, this case was too big to let the evidence fade away.
“Doctor Tambor,” he said, staring through the window at the unconscious girl, “get set up to take an imprint.”
“Detective, you can’t,” Hagan was on his feet and crossed the room to Frost, “you cannot violate her Fifth Amendment rights.”
“I have no choice,” Frost rounded on the lawyer, “that girl’s memory is the only solid evidence we have to convict one of the biggest felons in Massachusetts and it is too important to lose on a legal technicality.”
“It’s not a legal technicality,” Hagan slapped the evidence bag with the little black book into Frost’s chest, “it is the fundamental principles of this country. To take those away from her makes you no better than the man you are trying to convict.”
“When the only choice you have is the wrong one then it isn’t a choice,” Frost snatched the bag from Hagan, “my back is against the wall and this is what I need to do. I think you’ll agree, Doctor Tambor.”
“Leave me out of this,” the Doctor set the headset back on her case and stepped out of the line of fire, “I’m just a neuroscientist, the legalities of this imprint are nothing to do with me.”
“Actually,” Hagan turned to her, “if you imprint without her consent and she comes around you will be equally indictable for violating her Fifth Amendment rights.”
“That settles it,” she sat down, crossing her arms and legs, “I’m not touching this until either she is determined to be terminal or we get consent.”
“God damn it,” Frost threw the evidence bag across the room.
“Boss,” Fairgrieve placed a hand on Frost’s arm, he wished that they had never found that damned book, “they’re right. The girl is already a victim to the people we’re trying to put away, she shouldn’t be a victim to the people who are meant to protect her.”
Frost looked at his partner and then through the window at the girl, wishing that she would hurry up toward the pearly gates so that they could enact McKenzie.
“Oh my God,” he said with the realisation of the thought that had just passed through his mind, “what kind of bastard have I become.”
“It’s not so bad, boss,” Fairgrieve knew his partner to have the determination of a dog with a bone once something got under his skin, “you just want to catch this guy.”
“I just wished that she would die,” Frost said as tears formed in his eyes and he had to sit as the strength was leaving his legs, “I’ve become so obsessed that I wished that girl was dying so that we could collect our evidence.”
Fairgrieve took a step back with no words to say, Hagan shook his head and stared at the floor, and Tambor simply turned away.
From within the room alarms started bleeping insistently, the lines on the monitors turning red and signals would be firing out to the nurse stations about the emergency.
“Oh God no,” Frost said as he stood and stared in at the girl.
“Crash cart,” Doctor Tambor shouted to one of the nurses running to the room.
Nobody said to Frost that it looked like he was going to get his wish, and right now he was praying with all his heart that the girl would pull through.
No case was worth the life of another. They’d get the evidence another way, there was bound to be a trail somewhere and all they had to do was dig like old fashioned police officers. He’d gladly do that. Any amount of work was better than the cost of an innocent life.
Doctor Tambor returned to her case and began to set up the imprint kit, the neural monitors glowing to life as the blue text of the boot-up sequence scrolled by.
She began to sync the headset when Frost put a hand on her shoulder, when she looked up he shook his head.
“No,” his sad eyes penetrating her soul, “let them work without distractions, she might come through.”
Tambor simply nodded and set down the headset. She stood up and joined Hagan, Fairgrieve, and Frost in earnestly watching the medical team, hoping against hope that the girl would pull through.
It was out of their hands now.
Hours later, long hours that had felt like days for Detective Michael Frost the corridor was now quiet. Most of the lights were now out and he say alone in the chair, his head in his hands.
His hair was ruffled and he had a growth of grey stubble on his face, but most tellingly of all were his eyes. They were black with fatigue and tears.
He had cried for hours. Cried for the girl whose name he did not even know, cried with the shame of what he had nearly done.
And he had cried because he was deeply ashamed of the kind of person he had become. However briefly it had been for it still had been him, he had thought those terrible things.
Years of life as a defender of justice, seeking out those who had done wrong to others, and in one night he had thrown it all away by wishing one innocent girl dead just so he could harvest her memories.
He hated himself right now.
The door beside him opened and a young doctor stepped out, himself looking ragged from a long night and Frost turned his tired eyes to him with hope.
“She’s stable,” the doctor said and Frost’s heart leapt, “she’s conscious for the moment and has asked to speak to you, Detective.”
My first novella, actually written over October and November 2008 didn't see the light of day until 2016. At the time of writing I was doing a course being taught by talented Donaghmore author Emma Heatherington and I had set myself the goal of writing a short novella over the duration of the course. Our task for the first week was to write a short story based on a set of shared parameters, mine became the first chapter of that novella, so I'm throwing it up here as I've been lazy about updating the blog lately.
Although listed on Amazon as the first book in the same series as Murder Incorporated and Murder Syndicated it is more appropriate to say that those novels are a spin-off from this novella rather than sequels. The full novella reached the top 5% in the Screencraft.org Short Story for Screen Competition in 2015 and the evaluation suggested an adaptation for television.
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01- The Art of Theft
"You stupid, stupid man!"
This is me, a transvestite and a criminal walking down the street in this Godforsaken town in the middle American Bible-belt, I'm cursing into my cell phone and drawing perhaps a little more attention than I should.
On the other end of the line is my partner and as you can probably tell I am not particularly happy with him. We had one simple job to do: snatch a case from an empty office building and pass it on, it was that easy. Then my genius partner calls into the bookies on his way to the Fence and manages to get himself robbed.
I can feel the cold darkness of the night closing in around me, the sickly yellow pall of the streetlights and the washed out blue of the full moon do nothing to hold back the trepidation of what lay ahead. Anxiety, fear, call it what you will for I knew full well how deep a hole we were now in.
* * *
Six long months ago we had shot west from New York, an immoral and malefic place that I now look back upon with fondness, but at that time the greater imperative had been to keep my life.
Gene, my partner, got word of a certain city councilman who had just received a rather generous contribution toward his mayoral campaign, a nice off-the-books donation from a waste company looking to keep the health inspectors away from it's Hudson annex. Understandably we thought it only fair that the citizens of New York, namely ourselves, should benefit from the redistribution of this wealth and so a little bit of careful planning saw Councilman Raphael a little lighter in the pocket.
It's truly amazing what you learn after it is too late for you to correct your mistakes. For example I came back to find that Gene had discovered that Thundercat Wastes (Hudson) Inc. is in fact a mob shell company. And more interestingly still he discovered that Councilman Raphael is second cousin to Nicky 'Irish Nick' Ravel, Underboss in the Manhattan Scargetti family.
I should have stuck to art theft.
That was then, this is the nearer now.
The mayor here is a crooked browbeater who likes to spend his evenings beating his favourite hooker before heading home to his family, the clergy have the usual collection of pederasts and the cops think that they are the Cosa Nostra.
It is as if this town is a sewer draining away all that was once good about the American Dream so all that are left are the deadbeats and drifters like brown scum staining the rim of the basin. The desolate, broken, and depressed of a hundred struggling farms seem to have found themselves washed up on this berg, hoping to drown their sorrows in cheap booze, or in the truly tragic cases the local river.
There could not be a more perfect place for us to lie low until things cooled off back east.
Believing that was my mistake, for you see Gene has two great weaknesses, one is girls, the other is gambling.
For years I have been telling him that there is no quicker way to lose money than fast women and slow horses, but he tends to interpret this as advice to go for larger women and horses with short names so they're lighter.
It all came to a head a week ago when Gene broke down in tears and confessed that he had not only blown his cut of the Raphael job but had run up debts of several hundred thousand dollars.
This was tragic, it was a disaster, and it was ultimately his own mess to which I fully intended to let him sort out on his own. That is until he appeared the next day looking like road kill with fashion. Someone had worked him over good, a professional beating that he would remember but still left him full use of his limbs.
That was when I got the whole story, the money he owed belonged to The Circus.
Don't let the cutesy name fool you, The Circus is the biggest collection of freaks, weirdoes, and sociopaths in this accursed town, and when they were beating seven shades of crap out of Gene he gave them the only thing he could. He gave them the cat burglar he was in town with.
I could have killed him right there. His debt was now my debt, and if I wanted out then I was going to have to do a little job for them.
I packed my bags, slipped out of my dress and into the most nondescript grey suit that I owned, I told Gene that I was getting hell out of this town before I wound up in a shallow grave behind some school playground.
I threw my bags in the trunk of my old Mustang, told Gene to get in his car and head for Calexico and then I drove off.
This was our long time emergency exit plan should we ever piss off the wrong people. Get to the small town of Calexico in southern California, cross the border into the Mexican side, Mexicali, and rendezvous in a small bar suitably named Los Banditos. I kept a security deposit box in a small bank in the town with a couple of forged Mexican passports and ten thousand Euro, by the time anyone found that I had crossed the border I would already be on my way to a quiet Greek island.
Two hundred yards down the road I noticed that I was nearly out of gas, though I felt quite certain I should have had at least half a tank.
I pulled into the nearest Chevron and filled her up, all the time thinking carefully about the possible consequences of my flight.
The Circus would be pissed, but they're small fry in the grand scheme of things. My real concern was that my occupation was now a known fact and it was only a matter of time before a few guys with suits and slicked back hair turned up from New York.
I was about to leave when I felt a bit of a thirst come upon me. The time was as good as any to pick up a few drinks for the road so I headed back toward the whitewashed block of the building.
The attendant was on the phone as I entered and stared intently in my direction, had I been rumbled?
"Hey buddy," he called, "there's a guy on the line wants to talk to the man in the grey suit."
Well, that clinched it, I was being followed.
I took the offered handset and placed it to my ear but did not say a word.
"We only put a hole in your gas tank this evening, next time we'll cut your brakes," a voice rasped, clearly the owner smoked far too much, "then we'll cut your throat.
"You owe us a lot of money, Mr Trillion," he continued, "I suggest you go to the alley behind The Sports Bar and pick up your friend. He has the details you'll need."
The line went dead with a click.
* * *
So here I am strolling down the street tonight, cursing into my cell phone and genuinely stuck for a way out of our current predicament.
It was two days before Gene could walk again and after all the trouble we had went through he then managed to botch the job at the last minute.
My stilettos clicked angrily on the pavement in a mirror of my current mood, a small group of people eyed me warily as I passed by.
Being a transvestite is actually the perfect disguise for this line of work if you have the nerve to carry it off, you draw so much attention to yourself that people never notice what you really are.
"Meet me at the park in twenty minutes, we'll figure something out."
"Okay," Gene replied on the other end of the line, "Trillion, I'm sorry, man."
"Don't worry about it," I said, my anger giving away to something clearer.
A sudden screech of brakes caused me to turn abruptly, "Oh shit!"
A rusted red Dodge had swung broadside to block off the street behind me. The man behind the wheel wore a sickly paint of dirty white with exaggerated features painted in black and orange and had a shock of orange hair. He pointed two fingers at me and dropped his thumb in a movement mimicking the hammer of a pistol.
The Clown, the biggest psychopath in The Circus and the only weapon I had on me was a derringer tucked into my garter belt, not the ideal weapon to bring to a gunfight.
I hung up the phone.
An old short story I wrote way back before I started writing about Fallen Angel Detectives, transvestite cat burglars, and wee girls who could change the world around her with a thought.
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A long empty blackness lay ahead, the lonely highway rumbled beneath her tyres and she sighed to the melancholy thoughts that played over and over in her mind. Raindrops fell in heavy tears upon her windshield causing the intermittent flashes of street lighting to blur as they cast their sickly yellow glow that seemed to make everything appear just a little less real.
As the flashes washed across her face in steady rhythm she wished only that the sense of unreality were a reflection of the truth, she wished it with all her heart. She was drained, both physically and emotionally she was without energy, her tired eyes had a red puffiness and she could feel the tears running down her cheeks.
Her thoughts were of those slow, tentative steps that she had taken, shuffling across the darkened hallway. She remembered how she had gently cracked open the door of the room to make sure that he was asleep.
She had picked up the chairs toppled on the kitchen floor and swept up the broken glass that lay shattered like her heart, half the night had been forever lost to a torrent of heat and rage, one night more in a long and bitter cycle of despair.
She needed to get away from here, she needed to escape, the screaming echoed in her ears, she needed more than anything to be free at last of this anguish.
Slipping quietly into the dark of night she packed up the kids into the car and pulled out of the driveway heading for destination nowhere, heading for anywhere that was away from this prison of fear.
Making an excuse for another bruise, lying to others and lying to herself, another excuse for her to make up, another cover to invent as she found herself once more on the same lonely highway in a wet, black night.
The road rumbled loudly beneath her tyres and she kept on driving, another junction, stop sign, another set of lights. She left her path to the hands of fate, so long as she just kept on driving through the rain destiny would wind out its hidden course to whatever end lay in the uncertainty ahead.
The children in the back seat slept in quiet dreams of candy and new toys, oblivious to the living nightmare around them as the car was embraced in the welcoming night. Children have such beautiful minds, so innocent and open, ready to absorb the splendour of the world, they coped because cynicism had not yet extinguished the light of optimism at the end of the tunnel that was their lives.
She let them sleep as she wondered if this was all there was for her in life. Night after night she prayed to God but so far He had given no answer, no comfort or respite, and His silence hurt as much as the bruise on her cheek.
Eventually she would have to steer a course towards home, she was aware of that in the very pit of her stomach and in the bottom of her heart.
The children couldn’t be separated from their father, not forever. They wouldn’t understand her turmoil, they couldn’t understand the torture that she faced, taking them from him would lead only to have them suffer as she did now. If there was one thing that she was sure of in all her heart it was that she did not want her babies to feel her pain.
For now all she needed was a cheap motel somewhere, it didn’t matter where the place was so long as she could feel free if even for only a short while. She wanted a place where she could cry, a place where she could imagine that the world was better than it really is, a place in which love was true and life was just.
In time she would have to go home but for now she just wanted to be with her babies, to hold them in her arms and to remember how important her family really is.
Cable and air conditioning, that’s what the motel sold itself upon with its flickering neon sign, a cheap room paid for with cash and any name would do, the last chance saloon along the highway of broken hearts and shattered dreams. It was like a thousand other dank stopovers up and down the country, the last refuge of those lost to love or fugitives from their desires and fears.
And here she was back in this horrendous situation once more, the cycle of her life repeating in its torturous reciprocation that slowly wore away at her spirit and weakened her already fragile soul.
The flickering glow of the gaudy roadside advertisement brought tears to her eyes as her heart broke once more, another argument and another cheap motel, her strength crushed and her life feeling like a void.
Out of nowhere came a clarity in her heart, that her life was not meaningless. Her children gave her meaning, she had to be there for them and she had to protect them. She had to get away from it all, she needed the change before her heart broke for the final time.
She turned at the junction looking once only in a fleeting glance at that flickering neon sign, an apparition of her past, something that would continue to haunt her years if she didn’t make a change.
And so she kept on driving, the rumble of the road, the flash of the streetlights and the lonely highway in the dark of the night like a curtain waiting to be drawn back to reveal tomorrow. Destiny could do the navigating, the future lay on that dark and rainy road before her, all she had to do was keep her foot on the peddle, her hands on the wheel and her heart on the future, a future that could be so much brighter.
She hoped that one day the children would understand.
Never shared this one publicly. Wrote this for the 2017 Costa Short Story Awards, wanted to do something different to the violence, swearing and cosmic horror that appears to varying degrees in my other stuff. It's a bit talky and doesn't really go anywhere but it was fun to explore something with a bit more heart.
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‘Marie, time to get your arse out of the office.’
That’s how my editor put the story to me, fed up with watching me stare out the broad second floor window into the great horizon beyond the Bay. Time to focus on a story because I wasn’t being paid to mope around like a lonely city girl assembling fluff articles from the internet, so I was given a human interest piece for the Sunday edition that I was promised would put a smile back on my face if no one else.
In the afternoon I met the old man by an abandoned piece of railway line outside of Galway. True to legend he was living in an ancient boxcar that looked as though it had not moved from this spot since Ireland was ruled by the English.
No one could say how long he had lived here and he did not record the time, a waste counting away the past and putting a limit on the future he had said. Green fields and grey mountains, what did the hours mean to them? Little more than it meant to the stars in the sky.
Papa Joe was known as the Last King of the Boxcars, an American originally, Tennessee or Louisiana perhaps but through sheer desire or force of will had become a citizen of the world. A man with no means who had took himself around the globe on a shoestring, and who had come to our rugged West Coast to see out his days.
The newspaper had heard of the arrival of this urban legend and had sent me to get the story, time for the Dublin girl to see what the Irish countryside really looked like. So I put on my wellies, parked my car at a farm and hiked my way across three fields of grass in the Galway hills to reach the abandoned line.
Rusted tracks that led to nowhere across an old stone bridge were the final home to the creaking railcar of bygone days, its paint long since faded and peeled leaving exposed wooden panels that had seen too many winters. The side door was pulled open slightly revealing a deep darkness inside, not an imposing black but an inviting dark like it would be home to a crackling fire.
And sitting with his feet over the edge was the venerable Papa Joe, long grey beard and equally long grey hair, neither of which were unkempt; he wore simple clothes that looked as if he had made them himself and a robe that doubled as a blanket on the cold nights. His piercing blue eyes followed me as I climbed the grass verge to the bridge, a small smile on his weathered but strangely compassionate face that was all at once warming and disarming.
“It has been many a year since I have had the company of a young lady,” he said, his voice confident but kind, and just a little bit tired, “what can this old man do for you, my dear?”
“There are stories that you have seen the world,” I said as I reached the old sentinel on the bridge, “I would like to hear the story from you, my paper would like to print your tale. We’ll pay you of course.”
“I have no interest in money, child,” he said, and with a bit of force pushed his door open wider, the rusted runners groaning, “however if you would care to sit and hear the ramblings of an old wanderer I will happily talk to you, something people don’t do often enough, don’t you think?”
Accepting his offer I gave a small jump to sit up next to him in the old carriage, uncertain of what to expect as I landed on the ancient wood. Truth be told I probably expected there to be a smell, there can’t have been many showers on the long road from the American South to Galway. To my surprise the only scent was that of old, weather-beaten wood, the aroma of a long history coming near its end.
“There are all sorts of social media these days,” I said as I sought out my notepad in the confines of the overlarge bag I had carried with me as a memento mori from Dublin, “people have more opportunity to talk and engage than ever before.”
“It’s not really talking though, is it? Peoples’ faces constantly in their phones, carefully editing what they say and mounting any soapbox because it’s so easy to be angry now, I’ve seen a lot of that on my travels. They are marketing a brand of Self,” he summed up his opinions of our Information Age culture, then his square shoulders slouched and he leaned toward me, “but you didn’t come here to listen to an old fool rant about how things were better when people had to make an effort to build relationships.”
“I’m here to listen to you talk about whatever you want to talk about,” I crossed my legs and gave what I hope was an honest smile, “legend says you’ve seen most of this world, anything you say is of interest to the paper.”
“You have very pretty eyes,” he said and I blushed, “but sad. Would you care to talk to me about it?”
“Just a bit tired,” I looked down at the blank page before me, “how about the story of what set you on the road?”
“Love,” he said with a smile, “the most powerful force in the universe. You see, I love people, but I just don’t understand them.”
Papa Joe told me of how he was outside a black church in Memphis one Sunday morning in June, a glorious day and the singing inside made his heart soar. The day could not be more perfect he said, everything was right about this day.
The Klan had a rally planned for the day; they were marching up the street in their hoods and robes, paint in hand to daub the church with their slogans and pickets of hatred ready to plant in the grounds. The perfect day was so close to being awful.
Hell’s Angels have a reputation ranging anywhere from fearsome to terrifying, so when the local chapter set up a blockade in the street with their motorcycles the Klan was stopped in their tracks, they knew better than to touch the bikes. A huge man hidden under tattoos and beard approached the church as the congregation began to file out, he removed his leather hat and held it to his heart as he spoke to the pastor, who embraced the man as his brother.
“Understand that this was during the Civil Rights Marches and I was a much younger man,” Papa Joe said, “but that one act of love told me that there was so much more than the apathy and wickedness that I had come to associate with the world. That inspired me; I wanted to see more small acts of kindness making better a world fast becoming indifferent.”
Furiously scribbling every word he said, trying to capture the tone and emotion of what he was saying so that his tale would ring true on paper, to weave the nuance that would capture the heart.
“On this quest I have seen much love, and much bitterness, anger, and sorrow, like the loss I see in you.”
“It’s nothing,” I said, my pen hovered over the page as if the words had suddenly drained from my mind, “um, where did you visit after Memphis?”
My sins were not something that I wanted to talk about, was not ready to talk about not with a complete stranger. I understand the hypocrisy in that, but this hurt was my own cross to bear.
“I brushed floor and cleaned dishes across the US until I found myself unpacking ships at the docks in San Francisco,” he smiled and closed his sharp eyes, turning his face to the sun as if remembering better days, “tough work with tough men, but they were kind. The fishermen let me work with them to earn a wage; they let me sleep on the boats so I could save my money. I had decided to cross the Great Ocean, to give myself as huge a culture shock as possible.”
Fiji was where Papa Joe next found himself, a tear forming in his eye as he told me of the poverty in the villages there, simple huts without even running water. But the tear was not one of sorrow, no matter where he went he saw generosity and compassion, they had nothing but in their hearts they had everything.
The people there were so full of joy, so open and welcoming; he said he never ate so well with nothing asked in return, so he put his skill as a fisherman to work to ensure that he could provide his fair share. Language was not a barrier when a gesture such as the offering of a fish in friendship could speak a thousand words.
Sometime later when his feet got restless he crossed to Australia and was met immediately with a return to Western arrogance; less compassion, more distrust, fewer smiles.
Papa Joe panned for gold in Victoria, took his time, was patient, lived in an old shed in a dusty field, and over a few years he amassed enough to continue his journey. He watched the cost of living rise in Australia and laughed at the irony of it all: life was a gift but to keep living came at a cost.
“So, was it a boyfriend that has darkened your eyes?”
“No, it’s something more than that,” his own eyes took on an almost fatherly concern, “something far deeper.”
“Papa Joe, please,” I swallowed back a wave of emotion and thought about cutting short the interview, “this isn’t something that I want to talk about.”
He touched my arm with a hand calloused and strong, but the touch was gentle, meant to soothe my discomfort. I could see it in his penetrating eyes and feel it in my heart that he did not want to see me upset; I don’t know why I felt that way.
When the Wall that split the world in two came down he had decided to go north and see a nation where everyone in theory was equal, and said it horrified him to see that when a State sets the value of life that value is not high. There were so many good people he said, proud of their land because it was their land, it belonged to the people. Most simply chose not to see that the people in turn belonged to the State, and sometimes the State could be brutal, but in that time of upheaval it became more ambivalent, neglectful even. So the people did what they always did, they went about their work and did their best to look after their own.
It was on an old steam train crossing from Asia to Europe that a young soldier gave up his overcoat for an old man shivering on the carriage. An old man with no money, and the soldier probably not paid in months was unlikely to be able to replace the coat, and such a warm coat it looked to be on that cold and rickety train. The old man immediately got up and draped it over a young woman already wrapped in a shawl and heavily pregnant, he said something with a smile and placed a kindly hand on her face.
“I asked the soldier what he had said to her,” Papa Joe had tears welling in his eyes now, “the young man said ‘In my twilight I have God for warmth, in you there is the future’, I never forgot that.”
The tears, the river of emotion swelled up in me, I could no longer hold it back, the valley ran low and my defences were gone. Papa Joe put his arms around me and made soothing sounds; he squeezed me tight and told me to let the river flow.
“I was pregnant,” I sobbed, the words no longer would be held back, “but not to my boyfriend. I broke his heart, I broke our love. I lost him, I loved him so much. I still love him.”
“It’s ok,” he said, gently patting my back, “it’s ok.”
“No it’s not,” I pulled back, I knew my makeup was running down my face with my tears, I hugged my tummy, “not long after we separated I lost the baby. I lost everything, my child, the man I loved.”
Papa Joe hugged me.
He didn’t do anything else; he just held me as the tears ran down my cheeks and stained my blouse. He let me pour my heart out. He let me expel the dark cloud that had been in my head and heart and had driven me from Dublin. I had run away from the city lights to Galway to try and find peace or a new start but it had followed me here.
“I ruined everything, and my child was taken from me for it.”
“God would never punish your child because of a mistake,” Papa Joe stroked my hair, “you know your mistake and the hurt in your heart, but in time that hurt will fade if you let it. God does not want you to live filled with pain and anger; such a life would make you miss all that is good and beautiful in this world. Your child was blessed with a spark of life, but some sparks simply fade quicker than others and are all the more beautiful for it. These things are not for us to know why.”
“The Divine Plan,” a childhood of sitting in the back of Church terrified of these all-powerful men in white who held the destiny of my soul in their hands came flooding back, “God’s ineffable will?”
“There can’t be a plan and also free will, people see things and record things and do things and the interpretation of these can vary from person to person,” he was still holding me, but softer now, “I once saw a Rabbi intercede in an armed robbery right outside a mosque in Vienna, the Samaritan ended up taking a bullet for his trouble. The young Muslim man who was the intended victim held his hand whilst I fetched the ambulance; he stayed with the Rabbi all the way to the hospital.
“Some might interpret that as ‘no good deed goes unpunished’, others might see two enemies finding common cause,” Papa Joe sat back, he was looking tired now and I came to realise that we had been talking for hours and the evening had long since drawn in, “others will see simple charity between one human being and another.”
“And what do you believe you saw,” I wiped my tears and held my pen ready again, “how did you interpret it?”
“I saw compassion,” he said, his voice breaking slightly, “and all hurts no matter how old or deep can be forgiven. Sometimes it takes pain, and sometimes it just takes the courage to ask.”
I couldn’t help feel deep inside that somehow he had been speaking to me this entire time, that there was some destiny or providence at play that had brought us together in this old wooden car on broken tracks laid over an abandoned bridge.
“For someone who set out to understand the human condition it sounds to me like you have found the answers you were seeking.”
“If only, my dear, I can bring comfort with my words,” the first stars were appearing in the sky, “but there is so much I don’t understand. So many terrible acts committed in this world and all for the wrong reasons. Land, dogma, money, to feel stronger than others, to have control over others. And yet all to come to the very same ending after so much life and time invested.”
“We are flawed, but I think if we were able to work it all out then a lifetime would be too long.”
Papa Joe looked at me then with eyes suddenly understanding something that was beyond me, and then he smiled, just a soft smile.
“I hope that I have been able to help you.”
“Oh yes,” I had filled pages of the notebook, the day had hardly seemed to have passed, and my heart felt lighter now than it had in a long, long time, “the story will be fantastic, you have led an amazing life.”
Saying nothing he gave me another smile and leaned back against the doorframe, staring across the darkened countryside, not a cloud in the sky and the Heavens opening in all their majestic splendour above us.
“Your next step after Galway,” I said, “your next journey would be a nice way to finish the story.”
“My journey is finished,” Papa Joe smiled, “so tonight, at last, I am going home.”
“Tonight? Can I take you somewhere?”
“You already have, my dear,” he placed his hand on mine, the rough skin warm, “you’ve taken me over a lifetime.”
A shooting star streaked across the sky momentarily above us, burning out in the cosmos under a twinkling sheet of stars all watching us. And I came to realise with horror that he was becoming physically drained and my heart told me what he had meant about going home.
“Papa Joe,” I tapped at his hands trying to keep his eyes open, didn’t know what else to do, my own heart was racing, “stay with me, I’ll phone for help, just stay with me.”
“I always will be,” he smiled, and then the Last King of the Boxcars closed his eyes, “finish your story with what the old man said on the train, in my twilight I have God for warmth, in you there is the future.”
Views expressed may not be representative of reality.
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