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At the Timber – A Short Story

George waits in the parked van. His mind is somewhere between sleep and the wood and the few hours that have passed since he tried to tell her it was over. Somehow he couldn’t pluck the words. The diesel cab reeks fags. The fan heater lifts condensation from the cracked windscreen. Usually these matters fizzle out of their own accord. They slip back due to various pressures. Time passes, wounds heal, George moves on.

Dandy lives three houses in. The estate has no name. Merely: ‘The Houses’. Dandy still has the box room, filled with the same comics and football posters, a childhood he hasn’t quite moved on from. George beeps the horn and the light goes on. Dandy is idle to the bone. Always has been, though he’s a way with the horse and without the horse George has no means of drawing timber off Mucklagh ridge. Dandy’s mother has him spoiled: the flask and lunch bag ready, heels cut from the sambos.

George puts his hands to the fan and surveys the sorry row of houses: cracked cement and blocked gutters, slipping tiles and rusted cars and the half-cut green filled with burst footballs and broken prams and speckled with every brand of rubbish. She lives fifth house in, two houses on from Dandy, and the light is on. She’ll be flicking channels for the young one, brewing tea, trying to get up and out before the husband wakes.

“Morning, George.”

“Morning.”

“Bite to the air, George.”

“It’d cut you.”

The road meanders up and out of the village with the contours of the river. First grunted pleasantries exchanged, Dandy leans into the passenger window and feigns a few precious moments of sleep.

Next pick up is the ‘Trap Byrne’ or ‘Trapper’ as he’s known. Trapper’s homeplace is an asbestos slate cottage on a bend three miles out. Trapper keeps a handful of heifers on the couple of reed-strewn bog acres below the road. They cost more to keep than he’d ever hope to earn out of them: but he lives for the beasts. They give meaning to his little world, keep him in touch with the land. The Trapper works dog-hard on the Husqvarna, the saw-like an extension of his arm. Though you’d be wary enough of him. Just last week George had to have words. Trapper has a fondness for the young ones. Only these are his cousins, and they live in the adjacent cottage. It was the Dandy whispered it to George down by the stream out of earshot.

“You might put a stop to it, George, or there’ll be trouble, so there will.”

George caught up with Trapper refuelling the saw and he took the words to heart. At least he said he did.

“Won’t do it again. You’re right. It was only talking anyways.”

Trapper didn’t question how George might have heard or seen him, just nodded. Trapper needed a tight leash and as his employer George reckons himself the man to do it. Trapper listens to George. The trouble is, he doesn’t drive and seldom gets into town; but for Paddy’s of a Friday evening, he has little touch with a world beyond the cottages and the few bog acres.

Trapper waits at the gate and jumps in, pushing Dandy to the middle.

“Morning, Trap.”

“Morning, lads.”

“Bite to the air,” Dandy grunts.

The cab goes silent as the van pulls out and moves up the last few miles to the wood. The lads have taken George’s mind off of her and the husband and having to tell her it’s over and he thinks timber.

Harvesting machines, the size of small houses, rule the hills round here. There was a time when it was only men and horses and lorries but now the tree-swallowing harvesters are more economical. George has one of the last bands of men and they’re used for cutting the slopes and cliff faces too steep for the machines to travel. He has four men and a horse, a piebald cob called Trigger, ox strong and good to go from dawn till dusk. Sure as the lorries come, Trigger has the stacks ready.

They leave the lane at Mucklagh and Trapper jumps down to unlock the yellow bar. The van groans under the weight of men and saws and fuel cans and a big bag of oats for the horse. They pull in at the top where the lorries load, light three fags in unison, wait for Jack and Chiseler to arrive.

Jack is quiet and steady, did a spell in the army, though he gave it up, missed home. He’s a decent fellow, Jack, though he’d take any old word as gospel. The lads have him wound up to ninety. Tell him George’s hasn’t him registered, that any day now the suits will be up looking for his stamps. George has to watch what Jack’s cutting, make sure every last tree is marked, save he doesn’t venture over into the Douglas or the Larch.

Two fags later the car pulls up behind them. Jack jumps out with a smile and a nod and helps Trapper lift the saws and fuel cans from the back of the van. Dandy goes into the wood to untether the horse with a bucket of soaked oats and George is left, face to face with Chiseler.

“George.”

“Chiseler.”

“Heard you were out late, George?” His voice is high-pitched and nasty and he lifts himself from the car with a rat-like slither.

“None of your business.”

“None of my business? Isn’t she my family?”

“That’ll do, Chiseler. Leave it at that, we’ve work to do.”

“Only she’s married, to my nephew, did you think of that before you got to work on her?”

“I said that’ll do. Now you can get up into that wood or you can turn round and go home. I’m paying the wages here and my word is the last word.”

The Chiseler lights a fag and opens the boot of his car. He’s short and wiry, pock-marked skin and weasel-tongued though he can work a saw quick as any and he’s light on the steep ground.

“There’ll be trouble, George. He’ll fucking lynch you.”

The threat is spat from a distance. A weasel taunt, though Chiseler knows George won’t rise. Knows as long he gets up quick sticks and starts felling, George won’t go near him. When the saws start nothing is heard anyways and George walks on. It is to be expected, he tells himself. Chiseler is only doing his duty. Only marking his gob-hacked ground. Letting him know where he stands. Firing the warning shot across the bow. George pulls the saw and lets the angry oil-glistened bar bite into the first spruce. Two quick incisions into the foot-deep trunk leave hinge enough and he turns to the back to finish it. There is no need to shout, the sound of the saw caution enough. The trunk tips on the hinge and the spruce rustles free from the plantation and lands with one loud crack.

“Timber,” shouts Trapper, coming up behind with a black-toothed grin.

“I’ll start over here, George. Fell ’em down into the gap there.”

“That’ll do,” though George’s mind is elsewhere. He’s thinking of the Chiseler’s nephew, a mean little low life. Sort of chap to catch you when you least expect: make it look like an accident. Usually George wouldn’t get too hung up on dropping a young one. Only this one is a tidy piece and she’s had a hard enough time of it. The Chiseler mightn’t know it but the nephew has been taking the back of the hand to her. She hides it well and the nephew’s measured enough to crack her where it won’t be seen. She knew what she was getting herself into when she married into them. We all make mistakes.

Dandy tacks out Trigger by the van, bridle and chains and blinkers and the cob swooshes her tale at the horse-shit flies that hover round in one endless cloud. Trigger gave into them long ago and stands motionless in her infested misery as Dandy lathers himself with Deet. It is not an easy set, the rain has muddied the ground and the horse must pull each tree three hundred yards from the spruce clinging to the ridge, down through the stream where the diggers have cut a ford, and up to the lorry pull in. Trigger would pull eighty trees of a good day and is worth every bucket of oats. At night they leave her tethered in the larch where the fresh grass grows and the fresh wind keeps the flies at bay. George has had Trigger ten years now. He bought her off a tinker on the Gorey road. He’d been seeing one at the time who was into the horses and she put the tinker on to him. George heard later that the tinker was killed in a car crash, the bald tyre horsebox jack-knifed coming down off the gap. The one went back to her husband like everyone said she would and it is only Trigger that’s lasted from that summer of midnight car parks and hot flush horse yards.

Ten o’clock tea is an institution. Thirsts, headaches and appetites are quenched and all little worlds crash together in one slag-drawn sorting shop symposium that riddles the measure of each of them.

“How are the cattle, Trapper?”

“Still rubbing their arses off of the new fence. How many times have I to drench the worm-riddled bitches? They’ve it near down and then it’ll be war when they get in on the nursery.”

“Would you not get a strand of electric?” Chiseler taunts. “I’ve an old battery I’ll lend you.”

“Good man, Chiseler, you and your old batteries, like the one you swiped from me car when I left it outside of Paddy’s.”

“Didn’t I save you from the checkpoint? What? You can thank old Chiseler you didn’t go trousers down into that one, no tax or insurance, no license, drunk as a fiddler’s bitch. Besides, I’d say the walk home did you good. Saved your Mammy the trouble for once.”

“Good man, Chiseler, an answer to everything what?” and Dandy pours his tea and looks out on the horse, munching its way through a second bucket of oats.

“We’re making an impression now, George.”  Jack tokens, his head nodding toward the ridge.

“Getting into it, all right,” George agrees.

“Not the only thing you’re getting into, is it George?” Chiseler bites.

“That’ll do from you.”

There is a gentle under-snort all round. Usually it is open chat and George’s liaisons the underlying belly laugh of teatime banter: but this one is different. This young one is a little close to home and the boys know Chiseler isn’t happy. Knows he’s not going to let this one go.

“I’d say there’s two more weeks in it,” Jack continues.

“Two, handy,” Dandy agrees, eager to move on, nobody likes a fight, not at teatime. The small talk ebbs with fags and milky sugar-brimmed teas and the banter is soft deflections around Chiseler’s iceberg.

They make quick work of the ridge and the light pours in on the quartz-glinting outcrop. There is no talk when they work, each man knows his place in the small band and the sound is the drone of saws, a file scouring a blunt chain, the crack of a falling tree, their thrill and deafening harmony. The horse has cut a mud hoof track up to the lorry pull in where the neat-stacked piles wait for the trucks and the potholed road to Aughrim. The lorry men are a different creed: overalls and humming engines and the long hydraulic arm lifting the timber into place.  They’re paid by the load and move with a wire-eyed efficiency, conceding little more than a back-handed wave from air con cabs.

George has arranged to pick her up at eight tonight. She says the husband will have gone back to the garage by then and she’ll be able to slip out for an hour or two. Says she’ll meet him down by the river. She wouldn’t be George’s usual type. It happened at the back of Phelan’s lounge one drunken night a couple of weeks back.

“I’ve had enough. Feck him!” slurred surrendering words.

The husband worked late and it was just a few short hours of rough cat tumbling and long drawn-out sobs before she slipped back to her sister sitting in on the child. Though it is all too close to home. George has told her that. He’s worked with the Chiseler a lifetime and he isn’t out to rile him. Nobody ever liked the nephew. George didn’t imagine Chiseler did either: he was just making his point, drawing his line in the sand. That dirty little maggot with a bite like a terrier, and he was a lousy mechanic, and when George saw the bruises on her it made his blood boil. It would be easier just to leave it but the damage was done now. People knew, it was no secret: nothing ever is round here. There’d be no sympathy for her, not now. Usually George would ride it while the going’s good. It never lasts. They always go back in the end. In many ways they never leave.

The day passes in a haze of sap and oil and the slope has tightened thighs and blistered toes and the midges have started. Trigger drags a last log up to the pull in and Dandy untacks her by the van. They gather by the stream for a final fag and debrief. The horse takes deep sups from the brown water lapping at their toes and the flies cling mercilessly to her raw harness-rubbed flesh.

“I’ve to go, Jack,” Chiseler shouts from the car, as he changes from boots and sap-stained jeans to a pair of old slacks.

“Coming, see ye in the morning, lads,” and they watch as Jack leaves his gear by the van. They wave as the car pulls past and Chiseler, fag lit in the passenger seat, points his index finger to George like a loaded gun. The boys stay quiet. There is nothing to be said.

Dandy tethers Trigger in the fresh grass larch and Trapper helps George load the van. They have laid waste to another acre of spruce and all eyes settle on the branch-strewn wasteland of fag buts, thrown out lunch wraps and empty oil cans. They’re making progress. Another week the wood will be beaten to a corner.

Dandy sits in the middle and fiddles with the tuner. Rare the radio finds a station but this evening he’s caught some daft pop song and he leans back, miming the words and eating a bar left over from his lunch box.

“Where are we after this, George?” Trapper asks.

“Ballycoog. There’s a ridge there they can’t get the machines on.”

“Much in it?”

“A week or two: I’m going this evening to take a look.”

“I’d say you are,” Dandy interrupts with a snigger.

“That’ll do from you,” and George jabs him in the ribs as they move round the bend.

“Weren’t you seeing some young one out of Ballycoog. Last year was it?” Trapper is too far across to jab and George looks ahead.

“One of Murphy’s was it? Do you remember? She came up to Phelan’s one night and got more than she bargained for. What happened her?”

George looks ahead unflinching. It is the usual going-home banter and Dandy sniggers.

“Course he remembers,” and he lets another groan as George jabs him in the ribs a second time.

“Seriously, George, you’d want to leave Chiseler’s one alone. That nephew of his is a madman. He’s done time so he has. Bottled a lad out of Avoca one night over pool. You wouldn’t know what he’d do, he’s an angry little shite.”

“That’s right, George, you won’t win favours going round with her.”

A contemplative silence descends over the van and the pop song crackles out and fags are lit. They’ve had their say. Got it off their chests and they all stew in small familiar thoughts. It is a good little team up in the wood. No one wants the boat rocked. No one wants trouble.

Trapper steps out at the asbestos slate cottage. His cousins are stood out on the lane, skirts and school bags, but the Trapper turns to the cattle shed.

“Leaving them alone, Dandy?”

“You nipped it in the bud there, George.”

“He’s not a bad sort, Trapper. A few short, but not a bad sort. Sure what do you expect sitting up here, three miles out of nowhere, it’s a sorry little life.”

George leaves Dandy at the bottom of the Houses. He can walk up. Do him good to stretch the legs, have a last fag before he gets in to the mother. George shuffles back in the seat and turns for his sister’s. He has a mobile home set up there behind the sheds. It does for now. It’s dry at least.

He stops on the bridge and looks down at the debris caught in the buttress: branches, tyres, an old green mattress wedged by a fallen tree. The river is violent here, ripping down from the hills, plucking the banks and smashing against this, the last bridge before the big weir. It is a wonder it still stands and George’s mind drifts to Chiseler’s finger pointed like a gun. He will tell her this evening. It has to end.  Next week and there’ll be on to a new wood and a fresh start. He’ll tell her it is for the best. Somehow he will pluck the words.

George gets it in his mind to look over the wood at Ballycoog before settling down for the evening. He’s only putting off the inevitable but the drive will do him good, sharpen his mind for telling her. The ridge at Ballycoog feels vertical on tired legs and he steps out the distance to the track. They’ll need a tractor and winch: even Trigger will struggle on this angle. Though George knows all this, he doesn’t need to look, the timber is merely a distraction.

“Go home, George,” he says to himself. “Go home and tell her. She might slip back. They both might forget it. Life goes on. These things never last.”

When George pulls up to the mobile home he finds Chiseler’s car parked outside. His stomach turns. This is unfamiliar ground. He jumps from the van, heckles up. This is his patch. The door is ajar and George pushes through.

“Chiseler?”

George steps back. Chiseler is stood by the sink, arms folded, and there’s herself sat on the couch, the little boy on her lap, and her face all bruised and battered and tears running down puffed red cheeks.

“Well, George, you started this mess, you look after her,” and Chiseler lights a fag.

“What? I’m not, I started nothing,” but Chiseler interrupts.

“You’re not to worry now, George. That nephew of mine won’t go near you. I’ve him marked. But you listen to me, George. That women and that child are in your care. You watch them, or I’ll be marking you same as the nephew.”

The evening has drawn in and the dark has mustarded the yard and blackened the bare glass. Chiseler’s car pulls out and the headlights shift across the torn linoleum floor. The stark beam catches all eyes before turning to the road and plunging them into the bleak uncertainty of the night.

Rory MacArdle lives in the Wicklow hills, where he stores peculiar poems and fiction badly in need of editing and rejigging. He works in construction, likes gardening, heritage buildings and walking in quiet places.

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