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Short story-Red Scarf.

September 16, 2008

He leant forward, looking at me earnestly in the eyes. I felt somehow threatened by this man who was three heads shorter then me, bald and paunchy.
Perhaps it was the heavy gold teeth, wider than they should be, ornamenting his mouth or the soft tufty hair that he brushed back every few minutes, rambling on rapidly, sometimes leaning back with his eyes half closed as if he were in a trance. I’d met the man only a few minutes ago and already I knew half his life story, not an uninteresting one as they go.
He’d asked me for money to make up the change for his drink. Fair enough, I thought and put an euro into his broad hand. I noticed his fingernails were immaculately clean, but his hands were smeared with some sort of stinking crude oil.
It wasn’t long before he started waving his finger at me purposefully in that rambling way that drunkards have and the story started to come out. All stories begin pretty much the same way, a general intro that people don’t really listen to, then they start getting interesting around the same time that someone speaks.

‘I was a young man then, I’ll tell you. I was born in San Fipilino de Cuididad, down the street from where Castro’s cousin used to brand his cows. We would all turn out, all of us, about six years old, black hair cut close to the scalp (for the nits, you know), black- legged and horn-footed. The cows would bellow in the hot summer sun and stumble between the cracks in the heat-seared soil. I loved that red soil- if I close my eyes when I walk over cobbles, I can pretend I’m walking over the little tufts thrown up by the cattle as they ran away from the cousin. The cousin wore a yellow tunic and a broad-brimmed hat. His moustache was the pride of the town, long and carefully trimmed twice a week. He would lean over and tell us all that if we wanted a woman when we grew up, we would need to learn how to brand a cow beautifully, so she would know that we were artists as well as men of the land. I can still feel his hand on my shoulder, gripping tightly, as he saw the blood dripping down the hairy side of the beast I’d just butchered. That was the first cow I ever killed, and I cried. I couldn’t help myself- the white hide was still soft- it never had a chance to harden with age. I couldn’t bring myself, though, to eat the meat and my helping of the steak was given to the cousins. When I got older, I went to school. It was a barefoot school, with the ground well polished by swinging feet, a well-toed knot in the plank here and there, toed by generations of illiterate students looking at the sky out of the window (it was always blue, but now and then there was a cloud which caused much excitement.) I did OK, I guess. I was good at the maths- it was simple, I used my fingers and the other fellows used to gather over my shoulder as I rounded off numbers, using toads and willow trees to explain my analogies.
 Ä bit older I got, my hair grew a little longer and I spent my time talking to landlords about their exorbitant rent prices, while at nights I would flit in between the shadows, people with flat faces  who seemed to know what they were talking about gravitated towards me and, more than ever, I felt the grip of a heavy hand on my shoulder. I had no control over the thing and even now I wonder if I could have changed the way things went, even if I’d had a choice. Heavy hands started to feel light, though, when I started taking the drugs. The hurricane came then and ruined the town. Afterwards, we all walked through the town, tall figures dressed entirely in a tasselled red tunic, our faces covered with white masks and a felt black hat over it all. It was a terrible sight, the row of coffins in front of us, ranging from the large coffin belonging to the keeper of the general store who thumbed through his ledgers and marked down a price a peso or two lower than the original price, just because you’d smiled at his daughter the day before, right down to the smaller coffins that were too painful to look at, white against the red ground. It wasn’t a good time, the ground was littered with palms and white sand from hundreds of miles away. It was around then that I decided to travel and get away from things.
I needed to develop my own life, so I went first to the continent, then got a ship here and there, working like a rat and living like one too. I developed terrible hygiene, scabbed lips with bristles between the plaques, thick and warty hands and if I looked in the mirror (which, generally, I avoided doing), I would see before me stringy hair, greyish skin, not the glowing skin enriched in my youth from eating papayas sent in the boxes from the families abroad. I stopped looking after myself and was concerned only with getting on. After a while, I suppose, it was inevitable, a friend moved the paper with the crystalline powder towards me as we knelt on the floor near a coffee table, watching a football game, Cyprus vs. Monaco. Cyprus won and I was won over. From there, it was even more downhill. I found myself on the streets of Dublin, shivering in the cold and arguing with the owners of chinese restaurants (not the nice ones- the old ones with spindly wooden table legs and linoleum tablecloths) for money in return for opening their door for their customers. They said I wasn’t the type they wanted around the place, I called them racist and they called the gardaí. The gardaí brought me down to the station and gave me a cup of tea while I waited for an interpreter. The irish walked past me on the street when I left the station, a good few euro in debt to the shark O’Reilly. The name of O’Reilly became a scar on my conscience, after evading the man and his echelons for so long, I still wince when I read or hear that name…I think he gave up looking for me about twenty years ago. I was good at hiding- it was my thing. I fell in with a crowd of romanian gypsies who would gather together old newspapers and sell them to fish and chip shops to wrap their produce in. It was good money, but I couldn’t help feeling as if there was still better money to be made. I could get an apartment! Oh, even a bed would have been wonderful at that point.
I would be shaken awake in the bitter cold of the morning, the freezing cement beside my cheek and the rumble of the city in the background. My backside would be gently (or sometimes not so gently) poked by the foot of the gardai waking me. I’d wave to him and generally act as if I was getting up. He’d move off, looking for another person to torment. I’d wait till he’d gone, then refold my newspaper pillow and lie there, the sleeping bag obscuring my vision until all I could see was the feet of the people passing me by. Sharp business shoes on the feet of the CEOs passing by, late on their way to a meeting. Heels on spindly ankles, wobbling. Students with the hems of their jeans worn beyond recognition. Large Doc martens, studs, together with New Rock shoes, tall and dark. Then, the best ones- small and pink with flowers on. Now and again, I’d look up at the faces belonging to the shoes- Converse shoes over narrow-leg black jeans generally belonged to the tanned and dark-haired spanish students with backpacks meandering around the city. Bright white trainers belonged to americans with matching white hair and cameras with large lens. Motorbike boots belonging to grad students trying to compensate for the fact that they studied data points until eleven o’clock at night.
 I ended up sitting outside a tattoo parlour (more interesting people watching in that area) and that’s where the story begins. I was talking to the tattooists, smoking outside in their white aprons, when a woman stopped and asked the tattooists the way to a landmark. I couldn’t help myself- I pulled back my hair into a ponytail, shrugged up my leather coat and told her that I’d bring her there. Just come along with me!
‘No thanks’, says she, and I suppose I understand, looking back. ‘ I’m OK. Down that way, right? Thanks ‘gain..’ and started walkign in that direction. Well, I had to follow her. Long black hair reminded me of the black hair in San Fipilino de Cuididad, when the opera singer came to town to celebrate the installation of the first cinema, an outdoor screen with the projector flickering in the back. The high music would play and she would come out with so much energy that everyone could almost hear the music without it being played. Well, this was the same thing. It wasn’t the way she moved either, it’s hard to describe- Ifelt connect to her, as if at her centre was an immovable metal pole and I was tied to it with an unbreakable rope. So I followed her. She was scared of me, didn’t talk much….at all. I tried making some small talk, asking her where she was from…..I think the answers she gave were probably wrong, she wasn’t listening to what I was saying, focusing most likely on getting away. I admit, OK, I must have been a bit of a sight then, the scabs on my face were the worst they’d been in a while (which I attributed to a bad diet and too much stress in my life) , but still, couldn’t she look beyond that? I had the soul of a poet, dammit!
We got to the landmark and she turned to me and thanked me rapidly, not unkindly, mind you. I fancied a saw a bit of a kind look in her eyes- there was hope yet! I squeezed her hand, felt it retract a little, but then again she have been afraid of her own feelings for me! We can’t help who we feel attracted to, you know! She might have felt the connection I did!

It was raining, but the sky was bluer than it had ever been in San Fipilino de Cuididad. The traffic and crowd sounded purer than the passion birds flying past us all in the crowd as the bulls ran down the slopes, looking for water. I felt absolutely wonderful! It was then that I made up my mind- I had to go find her!
It needed to be subtle though- poets like me work in quiet but effective ways. So I followed her home. She took the tram and I stood two carriages behind h er , looking at her stripy backpack as the tram wound and twisted around the tall red brick buildings. I got off after her as it stopped on a flyover with small palm trees planted in large pots- I hid behind one as she met a friend briefly. The rain on my head felt like tiny taps from angels on my consciousness as I finally saw the house she lived in- a three-floored red brick house, with white cast iron and topiary at the door. Well, I knew I couldn’t go up and knock on the door. What could I do? I hung around for a while, then I walked back to the tattoo shop, being sure to remember the way for posterity- here, a small groove in the wall which could have been worn down by her hand, there, a twig on the ground that could have been dropped by her as she walked into college in the mornings. It came to pass, eventually, that I would wake up early in the morning and, as the sun rose and the sky pinked up, I would be standing across the street. The golden sun on her window ( I saw her at the window sometimes, paerhaps putting on a necklace or some jewellery in the mirror) marked a new day for me. The cold bitter days I welcomed, as it meant that she would wear her (my favourite) red scarf. I decided that, since I knew her now like I understood the feelings of my cat Bonessa, when I was young (my grandmother taught me how to talk to and understand animals and ever since I’ve been able to guiile a pigeon into sitting on my knee, trusting even as to the quick snap of the neck, a dinner for that night.), it was inevitable that a letter must be written. I saved up the money from the necklaces and purloined for myself (the very best, of course) in the stationary shop (it never moved) some wonderful stationery, ivory (it said on the front of the packet) ‘tinged with gold, ideal for all occasions.’ I also got a pen, one of those fountain pens that write in a flourishy way. I wasn’t very good with it, though (a lot of black marks appeared where they shouldn’t) and I ended up having to put most of my attempts aside ‘to finish later’. Eventually, I finished one letter that I was proud of. I’ll tell you what it said. It went something like this’-

‘Dear UnKnown (since she was unknown to me, see?),

You are in my thoughts all day ( ‘How wonderful!’ she will think, proud that she has influenced me so much) and I have been watching over you all day (she’ll feel protected) and I would like you to know that you have my soul captured entirely! You are like a rose blooming in the snows of winter (a bit of poetry will surely win her heart), a star in the sky where there is none (stars always go down well) . This note is brief, but please know that I would die for you. Please look in the box for my thumb- you see- I would do anything for you! (She should really know how I feel). I have spoken with your father and he says he blesses our relationship (He probably would have anyway and this will make her feel a bit more comfortable about this whole thing.)
Please leave a reply on your doorstep- any time is fine for me, as I am always waiting…

Yours in eternal love (In San Filipino, eternal was a word tossed around like water in a bathroom fight.),

Unknown (I wanted her to feel the mystery and intrigue I myself felt about her.)

That’s the letter, then, that I wrote- if not those exact words, then pretty close- it was over twenty years ago, but I still feel the warm spring breeze on my hand as I put the letter on her doorstep and ran off across the street. I leapt over the wall and looked at the developing scene from between the balustrades. It didn’t go exactly the way I’d intended- but what can you do? The mother came out to get the milk (they still got the pints of milk, like we did in San Filipino, but they had it delivered and we got it straight from the cow) went back inside and nothing really happened for the rest of the day. I was eating my dinner ( a can of mackerel) when the porch light came on and the father left the house followed by the mother shouting at him and my sweet girl crying after him. It was a good development, in my eyes. She was vulnerable now, upset about her father leaving- I could slide in, comfort her and she would see me as her saviour, someone in whom she could confide in her moments of weakness and torment. So I strolled up to her the next day as she walked into college. Tears were dripping down forming perfect little dark circles on the cement.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked, being sure to put my hand on her arm in a comforting way. She looked up and away from me.
She started walking a bit faster. ‘I’m sorry- I’m kind of late…’
‘It’s OK! ‘ I encouraged her on, as I sped up myself. ‘I don’t want you to be late- we’ll get there soon.’
She didn’t say anything, but studied the ground as it passed us by. I pressed on. In my nights of dreaming, I’d considered all the different options and decided that, in this situation, I would be silent for a while, so as to get her used to us being together (and also so she could think I was the strong, silent type, see?) So anyway, after about five minutes’ walking, we were walking across Harcourt Green, where the butchers set up their stalls, each vying for attention with the fattest pig they can find hanging up outside the stall. I pointed out one of the pigs. ‘That pig is nearly as big as the one I had at home in San Filipino.’ I added ‘- it was my pet.’ (Ah HA! I knew she would like that- small (and even rather large) animals were always a way to make yourself seem kind and fragile, even if you had butchered it afterwards, but I didn’t mention that bit to her.)
‘Oh…’ she nodded, not really paying attention.

‘Did you like my letter?’ I blurted out (foolishly, as I thought afterwards, I should have stayed quiet about the whole thing. )
‘You sent that letter? The one at the doorstep?’ she broke into a jog, encumbered by the weight of her bag.
So we ran together. Like as to the spiders scuttling through the grasses in the prairie, so we ran between the epeople as the streets got steadily more populated. Eventually, she ran down a side street into a thick crowd and I lost her. Well, what could I do? I went around. I even went into her college and stood in the lobby, hoping to see her. She’d said she was late after all though- she probably didn’t have time to talk to me just now.

That night I was picked off by the gardai. It had clearly been a setup- I went to my usual place, the grass packed down the way I liked it and with a small cubby where I could hide my things. I found that my camera was missing (I took small pictures of the garden and the house sometimes, to pass the time) and in their place was a dark navy man, brandishing a pair of handcuffs and shiny brass badges. It wasn’t long before I was having my second cup of tea in the courthouse and I made my one phone call to her house,
Her dad was a lawyer and I felt certain that he would be on my side, since don’t fathers always want their daughters to be married off to men who love them? He came down after a while, dishevelled (very insulting to the pride in San Filipino) and wanted to know the whole story. I told him everything, including the story about the bananas in Morocco and helping a monkey running away from twenty gendarmes in Paris, not my fault entirely, but I did profit to the tune of a tidy sum of twenty francs, soon to be spent on croissants and coffee. I told him how my life had changed since I’d met his daughter.

‘I cleaned my clothes (it was expensive and I had to stand in my underclothes in the laundromat watching the clothes fall over one another as the drum spun around) and cut my hair….I’ve looked for jobs (I hadn’t) and I’ve been writing poetry (I had) for your daughter, you need to understand I truly love her.’ I grappled for his hand, soft and pink in mine. He pulled his hand away.

‘I can get you off on insanity…but do you understand what you’ve done to her? To our family? He told me, but I didn’t really understand…what they had to do with me, though of course I understand now, apparently they had understood that the father had somehow met me (they at this point thought I was a stalker, ha ha!) and promised his daughter to me (I brightened up at the thought), the mother was horrified at the idea and fainted away entirely, then the debacle led to him being ejected from the house…he patted the back of my hand and spoke to me in soothing tones…what could he do? Get me out of here, I said, and I knelt down. Yes, I say to you, I knelt down on that hard tile floor and said that I would do everything in my power to make his daughter happy— bring her in here for me… he said he would do what he could…’

So ends the story…he left…the court let me off with insanity and shipped me back to San Filipino. I ended back up where I began, with O’Reilly’s name no longer a threat. I went back to Castro’s cousin’s farm with my friends and it was as if the whole thing never happened. It was quiet. I started up a farm (it was hard to get proper employment with a record like mine) on the proceeds from the money from the family (sent with the proviso that I would no longer contact them). I always wondered what exactly had happened once he’d left the room. Actually, it came to gnaw at me after a while, more so than the tiny mice in my room at night. I started waking up earlier in the morning and one day I decided to return to Ireland to find out what happened. Bear in mind this is twenty years ago. I returned a week ago. The family no longer live in that house, so I looked up her name…I guess she got married or something, her name was no longer in the phone book. But then, guess what! I was walking in Abbey street, not far from the tattooist’s, although now it’s a clothes shop, when I saw a red scarf..and black hair. It wasn’t her, though, but it could have been her. I felt reinvigorated! Äs if God was trying to tell me to keep going! I could have gone back home to San Filipino before, but now I knew there was no chance! I had to stay and find out what happened!
So I went to donate blood one day, you get free cookies if you do. I put them in my pocket and watched the blood drain into the bag. That’s when I noticed the other names written down after mine….and one name was hers! I could hardly believe it. What were the chances? Seriously? In a city this big- and she goes to donate at the same time! But of course, it was someone else.
 I grew discouraged and the days grew shorter and I decided to return to San Filipino- I can’t leave my farm too long, you see? So here I am- I have a flight in four hours. I’m disappointed- but I can’t say I didn’t expect this. At least I tried, you know? I went into all the right places. What can I say? The poetic soul in me needs fulfilment. It’s not long for the world I have left, but I can say I spent most of it well. Excuse me now though…I have to go to the bathroom.’
Well, what could I say? I sat there as the man went to the bathroom, his hair (soft and supple after the last twenty years being washed in olive oil and castor soap) flowing behind him, what was left of it. I felt sorry for him and enthralled in equal measures- this wasn’t a story you’d hear too often. I liked the mystery it held, but was amazed at his naievety and inability (or unwillingness?) to understand her timidity at his mode of approaching the whole thing. He’d been unfortunate in love, but at least his stories would brighten many a dark hearth back home, this installment with a few hours to go and no real possibility of salvation. He returned from the bathroom, his hands glistening slightly and reached out for the last dregs of his drink.

‘I’d better be off now’ he cried, shouting to the public in general. Ä general reply was issued forth, with some patrons waving goodbye to the stranger. He clutched his coat under his arm and stumbled from the pub. Shouting came from outside and I went over to the door….someone pushed the door open and pushed past me and I went past the person- the world opened up to me and I could see the road, with the traffic stopped around the body- lying prostrate with a slowly widening dark stain around it. I couldn’t quite believe this was happening. Mobile phones were being produced at an astonishing rate. The traffic jam worsened and the ambulance appeared, lighting up the dark places with the electric blue light. All was illuminated. His story never ended- but it certainly took a turn for the stranger when the ambulance man called for people with him- the last I saw of him was a brown leather shoe going into the ambulance and, clutched tightly in his hand, a red scarf…………

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