He started out like the umpteen other skinny fourteen -year-olds that have worked for me over summers past. He finished his tests at school and at the start of the next week I beeped outside his gate and out he came with an embarrassed smile, clambering about amongst the tools as he climbed feebly into the back, Brady in the passenger seat roaring at him to be careful.
—You can sit up front the day you think you can wrestle me out of the seat, he more than likely said. I probably laughed and Steve, remembering his first day himself perhaps, might have told Brady to fuck off and the young fella not to mind him.
It would start from there. I’d pay the kid what would be a fortune to him and he’d work harder than he’d ever worked, to insults he probably didn’t even understand. We are what we are: we work from early till evening all our young lives, lifting blocks or mixing plaster or cutting timber or pouring concrete—whatever the trade might be. We work hard, and we make it bearable by cursing and abusing each other, by messing about and making jokes and whistling at women. And we probably take a drink more often than most people too. Brady can be found at the bar counter in the Crossroads most nights of the week, these days especially.
In my head I can still see this teenage kid falling, his legs and arms outstretched, not quite like a star, his legs shoulder width apart and his arms reaching up, the fingers wanting to grab but finding nothing. He is tanned and his blond hair shines in the evening sun; he’s wearing cement-dirty jeans and sandy boots, a white t-shirt with a tear in it. The boots look just slightly too large for him, like weights on a fishing rod.
There’s also another image in my head, of swans. Some mornings before work, in the summer especially, I leave the house early, before the wife gets up and before I collect the lads. I stop at the twenty-four hour garage, get a coffee and a paper, and drive down to the pier to look out on the water as the sun comes up. It’s nice to have a little quiet before the day starts and the money has to be made and the job has to get done and the abuse is hurled around. But one morning, I saw eight swans coming along in a line on the calm grey water, a parting and long ripples in their wake. The sky was vague and just turning blue. The adults were at the front and six youngsters behind. They were all coming along in the grey morning with their permanent black tears around their eyes. For some reason, the sight of those swans came back to me as I watched him fall, and still comes back to me now.
When these kids start they are the bottom of the food chain, so to speak, the weakest link. They do the shitty jobs, get the worst seats in the back of the van with the tools or at lunch on the site on a bag of lime. But they earn money and become men, and by and large they’ll return the following summer for more punishment. Steve, who’s been with me for five years now, never went back after his Junior Cert. He’s a decent young man and I like to think he’s enjoying his life.
So the kid went through the usual trials his first week. I showed him how to mix a gauge of mortar and watched him try to lift the full barrow, and laughed when it tipped over on him and he went with it. But I helped him up and we went again. Soon, like the rest, he could push a full barrow in his sleep.
And he was treated to the usual interrogation from Brady:
—Do you wank?
—Tell the truth ye bollox!
—No I don’t! That’s fucking disgusting!
The kid flashed an involuntary smile, the smile of the adolescent who has just cursed at an adult for the first time and got away with it.
—Do ye have a girlfriend?
—Mind your own business
—That’s a yes. Have ye done the business yet? Have ye any dirty pictures of her?
—Go on and mix another gauge. And properly this time.
That’s just the way it goes with these young lads, a rite of passage I suppose you’d call it. And then on the really hot days, if I have to go and look at another job or run some errand, I’ll bring back ice-creams or cold drinks, and the lot of us will sit around and there’ll be peace and quiet for five minutes.
Soon enough, as they all do, the kid got stronger, lifting and stacking the blocks along the walls that we built. He filled the mixer with countless shovelfuls of sand and cement and eventually got the formula right and we stopped riding him over it. But, you know what: he wasn’t like other kids at all, and it’s not fair of me to say that he was.
One afternoon, we were working with brick and Brady started antagonising the kid. It was another hot day; the kid was lobbing lumps of mortar up on the scaffold and they were landing in blobs on Brady’s bare back. In response, Brady started on about the kid’s mother. And even though Brady always takes the joke too far, he can’t be blamed too much.
—Is this retaliation for what I was doin on your auld wan last night? I was on her back so you’ve to get on mine?
The kid just started throwing bigger lumps, his tongue jutting out of the corner of his mouth in the concentration of the launch, the need for accuracy. Brady could’ve just thrown mortar back down, he had a bucket full, but he didn’t. He kept on about the kid’s mother. I thought the whole episode was quite funny.
—You’d better stop you little bollox, Brady continued, ‘Tis no way to be treating the man that gives aul Trisha Morrigan so much lovin! Do you hear me? I could be your aul fella for all you know!
I told them to cut it out at that point. Brady, without knowing it, wasn’t too far off the mark in his taunts about the kid’s mother. I looked down at the kid, who stood there looking up, his bare chest sunburn-red and his hands at his sides. He was squinting up into the sunlight. Start cleaning up around the place, I told him, we’ll be moving on after lunch.
Putting on the last block, I accidentally dropped my trowel down along the wall of the house. Cursing myself, I called to the kid to get it and clean it off. I looked down to point out where it had landed and he hopped under the scaffolding to retrieve it. Brady was down there at that stage too, putting some of the tools into the back of the van. Leaving Steve to lay the last of the course, I turned about and began to climb down the ladder.
By the time I got to the bottom, the kid was stood over Brady with his teeth bared and a piece of brick raised in one hand over his head. Brady was on the ground, halfway between flat out and kneeling, and he had a look on his face like he’d forgotten his keys or lost his wallet. It had all happened so fast, I couldn’t understand it. I ran to the kid but, as I did, he threw the brick away and it landed with a thump in the dust. Whatever he had done to Brady, he was finished now. He turned his back, walked over to the van and climbed in. Brady tried to go after him but I was close enough to grab and hold him back. Steve was still whistling away up on top of the scaffolding, completely oblivious.
Yes, to say he was like all the other young lads is a cop out. I suppose none of them are ever the same. The routine may be unchanged but I suppose the story is always different. That kid’s name was Michael Morrigan, though we called him ‘kid’, as with the rest.
Michael played centre-forward on the under-15s hurling team. He had a strong heart for the game and might well have gone on to star for our senior team one day. They tell me he once played half a hurling game with a broken thumb. And he put in a man-of-the-match performance at that, too. He was a thin, handsome lad with fair hair and green eyes, and I watched him tan and grow stronger under the heat of the sun.
That night, the night after the drama with Brady, I was driving home from a GAA board meeting and for some reason I wasn’t surprised when I saw him sitting on the wall at the bottom of the hill. I pulled over and hailed him. It must have been after eleven because it was July and yet it was dark out. He staggered slowly over to the van with his hands in his pockets and it was clear that he was drunk. I pulled the door handle and let him in to the passenger seat.
—What the fuck do you think you’re doing in this state? I said to him.
—What does Brady know about my mother? he mumbled.
—I don’t know what you’re talking about, I said. Don’t mind Brady, he was only messing with you. You were out of order today, Michael.
—I’m going to kill him.
—Ah cop on will you, I said. How much have you had to drink?
—More than enough, I think. Listen, Michael…
He was glaring drunkenly into the dashboard. I told him that whatever was happening at home, we knew nothing about it. That Brady didn’t know what he was saying—if he hit a sore spot, then it was by accident. That Brady never meant any harm. I told the kid that he was too young to be drinking and that he didn’t want to end up like the bums of the town.
—You’re a nice young fella, I said, and you’ve a bright future.
We were looking out the window along the main street of the town. It was all shadows and yellow streetlights.
—I just don’t know what to do, he said.
I didn’t look but heard the tears in his voice. They must have been streaming down his face.
—About what? I asked. —My mam, he said.
I thought about putting a hand on him to comfort him. It would have been a stupid thing to do. John MacKenna was coming along the road, so I started the engine as if we were about to drive on. He waved and I waved back. I could smell the cider from the boy’s breath. I glanced over and he was rubbing his eyes with one hand.
—Will I take you home? I said.
—Yeah, he said. Thanks.
So I drove him home and we said nothing else really. He asked me was Brady going to kill him and I said no. I said I’d have a word. Besides, I told him, Brady wasn’t in the habit of fighting scrawny young fellas. As he got out of the car I told him to take the day off and enjoy his first hangover. He was a little confused by that I think, but he didn’t complain and I didn’t leave until I saw him go in the back door of the house.
When he did come back to work, two days later, he got straight into the back of the van. Things were back to normal and we never mentioned it again.
The day of the fall, probably a whole month later, we were nearly finished on a detached two-storey. Jack James was building it to sell it on and I’d gotten the contract for the block work.
It was a real scorcher, maybe the hottest day of the summer. Everything was incredibly bright and distant lawnmowers and hedge-trimmers churned up the country silences all day. From the morning we built the gable ends of the house right up to the height of the timber-frame roof. Brady and Steve were on one side, stringing out a ream of constant banter, cursing the sun and each other. Michael was tending me on the other side, the quieter side of the house, as you’d imagine. But he was in high spirits now with the sun and his new-found manhood and he managed easily. The summer had lightened his hair and his arms were much thicker now. The shaking of the scaffolding no longer bothered him; he strolled around at ease. When the mortar buckets were empty he swung down the scaffold bars, grabbed the shovel and filled them quickly and neatly. Seconds later he landed them full at my feet again, and without any complaint he’d go back to stacking the blocks or throwing the broken pieces into a pile on the ground below, all the while humming some tune or asking me questions like who did I think was the club’s best hurler or would we win the championship this year.
At five there was still a bit to be done. I wanted to get out of that particular site on the day, because we were scheduled to start stonework on an estate wall the following morning. Those were busier times, and I had lots of work to keep up with. The lads weren’t happy about staying on—you knew Brady was pissed off in the rare times that he kept his mouth shut.
We eventually finished the block work, and the only thing left was to fit the chimney cap on the top of the shaft. Putting the chimney cap on is a five or six man job at least, because it’s concrete and incredibly heavy, and even then it’s extremely difficult, because you have to balance on the thin lath framework that covers the felt. But there was nobody around to help us—the carpenters and plasterers had all gone home—so we placed it with just the four of us. Three and a half counting the kid, Brady had grumbled.
In blinding light, we carried the chimney cap slowly from the scaffolding onto the roof. It was dodgy, trying to lift and balance at the same time, and I could see that all four of us were struggling. I remember seeing the small, empty site in my peripheral vision. A dirty red digger was parked up, and there was the sand pile and the water barrel and the mixer that Michael had only just washed out. There were some blocks left over, about thirty maybe, that I could come back for if I had a small job on somewhere, and the pile of broken pieces that Michael had made too. One day it would all be a garden with a drive and a lawn and shrubs and all that. A breeze had started to come up and the shadows were beginning to lengthen. The only sound I could hear was our huffing and growling and wheezing as we tried to get the cap in place, grunting instructions to each other and hopping back and forth between the thin lengths of two by one and a half. Finally, muscles screaming and hot, we lowered it onto the top of the shaft.
—Now! Brady gasped, and we eased it down.
It was done. Brady leaned forward and rested on it. On the far side of the cap, Steve looked past me and let a sound out of his mouth—barely even a sound. I turned my head, following the path of his eyes, and there was the kid falling.
Sometimes I try to think about what other people might have been watching at that same moment. My wife and daughter were probably watching some Australian soap opera on the television with cups of tea in their hands. Home and Away or Neighbours or something like that. John the barman at the Crossroads was probably watching the stained glass front door, waiting for the first punters to come in for a post-dinner pint. Two men on Main Street might have been squinting up at the sky and wondering when it would finally break. Some of Michael’s friends might have been watching the senior team begin training, or two dogs on the road fighting, or whistling at a couple of girls walking past.
But I was watching this young kid falling, with his legs out and his hands reaching towards us, grabbing at thin air, the ground still far below him—the sand pile, the barrow, the mixer, the blocks, a stray length of timber. All this, and at the same time the swans on the grey water early in the morning.
At the last moment, before he hit the ground, the kid turned his head. He did it quickly, turned his head as if someone had tapped him on the shoulder in greeting. And then the ground, his broken body, death and whatever after. And Brady, Steve and I rushing down after him, hoping it wasn’t too late.