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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