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Tom Phelan

Excerpt: Nailer

In the gloom, in a battered armchair the old man slept, sprawled. On his stubbled chin, drool glistened and stretched toward his swollen, heaving belly. Nostril hairs wisped out of the red and bulbous nose. His fat ears, corpselike in their pallor, were as finely haired as a pig’s twisted tail. Sparse strands of silver hair meandered across his pink, scabbed head.

The open-necked, white shirt was grey with grime and age, and the underlying pattern of the greasy jacket was reminiscent of tartan. The top button of the jacket kept the flaps together over the bulging belly, the collar turned up as if the old man had been cold or careless. The turf fire had been reduced to dead ashes hours ago. Like two ponds streaked with the glow of two distant moons, the greasy thighs of the black trousers were lined with reflections of the kitchen light. Each big toe, with yellow, unpared, dirt-lined nails, protruded through holes in the ancient, faded green slippers.

An unpleasant smell, mindful of sour milk, wafted off the old man. On the floor beside the broken-armed chair sat a large glass ashtray. An empty pint bottle with WHISKEY handwritten on its misaligned label stood in the ashtray among the butts.

The kitchen on the far side of a four-foot divider reflected the occupant’s personal uncleanliness: sticky floor, sink piled high with crockery and saucepans, countertop littered with the crumbs of many meals. Bits of flung leftovers and water-soaked cigarette butts were scattered on the floor near the rubbish can. The can itself was pockmarked with dried splatters of color—red of tomato, brown of tea bags, blue of something, green of something. Black beetles, which had set up a colony under the sink, were sniffing at the rubbish with flicking antennae.

The pull-down shades on the two kitchen windows were smoke-browned and cracked along the sides. Both shades had been yanked down carelessly and their shredded bottom edges bore the prints of filthy fingers. Four stacks of newspapers, each four feet high, stood against the end of the counter. The shade of the twenty-watt bulb hanging from the ceiling was coated in years of grease and dead flies.
It was nighttime.

The old man stirred. Without opening his eyes, he brought a hand up and rubbed the drool off his chin. He closed his mouth and sucked in his cheeks as if he had bit into a sloe. He grabbed the loose arms of his chair and levered his body out of its various pains. Then, like a cat using the back of its paw for the same purpose, he poked at the corners of his eyes with his knuckles. He opened his eyes, and dropping his right hand to the floor, he gingerly fingered his way to the whiskey bottle. He held it up to the light.

"Scutter," he muttered. He put the bottle to his mouth and waited for the trickle to reach his wet, red lower lip. Like an unsatisfied calf searching for more when its feeding bucket is empty, the old man flicked his tongue into and around the neck before letting the bottle fall out of his hand and onto the floor. He sighed and grasped the chair arms as he prepared to stand.

It was then he saw the two greenish things.

They were on the floor in front of the wooden chair that he used as a hassock whenever he felt sleep coming on. He narrowed his eyes and peered as if trying to remember. After some thought, he decided they were paper galoshes used in sterile rooms or operating theaters.

Beside the galoshes was the cardboard box filled with the food and whiskey and newspapers and cigarettes that Frank brought once a week—brought and left outside in the bushes in the dark, Frank ashamed to knock, ashamed to look at his own brother. A flash of alcoholic relief spread across the old man’s face, then vanished almost immediately.

"I didn’t bring the box in," he muttered. His eyes had now adjusted to the weak light and he saw the shape of a man sitting on the wooden chair, saw that the paper galoshes belonged to him.

"Frank," he whispered, afraid it might indeed be his brother. The intruder did not answer. "Is that you, Frank?" the old man said. But still the man on the straight-backed chair was silent.

Then the old man knew he was going to be robbed. There had been many rural robberies in The Telegraph lately. But he wasn’t afraid. It was simply his turn and he wasn’t going to put up a fight. As well as that, he wasn’t afraid of losing his money, because he had none, and he would have none until the next payment of the old age pension. "You can look all you like. I have nothing," he said.

The man in the shadows didn’t speak, didn’t move.

The old man peered at the face but the intruder might as well have been wearing a mask made of the dark. "Who are you?" the old man asked. "How did you get in here?"

The intruder said nothing and the old man moved forward on his chair, prepared to push himself up.

"Don’t get up," the intruder said. His voice was flat, commanding.

"Go to hell," the older man said, and as he struggled to raise himself onto his feet he felt a severe, breathtaking pain in his chest. He remembered an electric fence beside the Barrow River he had accidentally touched in the dark. His body collapsed back into the chair with such dead weight that the chair moved several inches on the floor. "My heart," he whispered. "My heart..." His fingers, their tips demarcated on the faded shirt by the lines of dirt beneath the nails, bunched the shirt, squeezed the pain. "Heart attack... I’m having a heart attack," he gasped, and he pleaded with his eyes into the gloom.

"You’re not having a heart attack. I hit you." The visitor’s voice was devoid of emotion, devoid of the breathiness that should have accompanied a physical attack.

Fear seeped into the old man’s eyes. The old lips moved, got into gear to say something. He continued to bunch the shirt in his squeezing fingers. He stared into the place where the man’s head should be, and the fear leaked out of his eyes into the rest of his face. Finally he squeaked, "Who are you?"

There was no reply for several minutes. Then "What’s your name?" came calmly back to the old man.

The fleshy lips pushed each other around before the words came. "Dan... Daniel Geoghan," he said.

"You had another name."

The old eyes narrowed. "My name is Daniel Geoghan," he said, and as he spoke his left foot erupted in pain that surged up his spine to the top of his skull. His scream was the sound a dog makes when its belly is in the teeth of a bigger dog and the bigger dog shakes its head. Bending forward, Daniel Geoghan squeezed his shin with two hands, desperately tried to cut off the alarming messages flashing to his brain. "Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus," he prayed, or cursed. He moaned. Then he saw his smashed big toe, saw the shards of bone in the mashed flesh, saw the gathering purple, saw the bloody nail on the floor. Pain sloshed through Geoghan’s body like rancid watery muck slopping around in a ship’s bilge in a storm. "Oh, Jesus, Mary and Joseph," he whispered. And then he screamed, "What did you do to me?"

It was a long time before the intruder spoke. "You had another name," he said.

The old man was on the verge of passing out. He sat up, brought his hands to his face. He rocked back and forth. "Boniface. Bro... Brother Boniface," he said.


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ISBN-13: 978-0615434414
ISBN-10: 0 61543 441 X
E-Book ISBN: 978-1-4392-8366-0
440 pages
Published by Glanvil Press, Freeport, New York