Sing Ho! Stout Cortez, by Michael W. Thomas

Dave Frankiewicz descends the steps to the jetty and looks around as he’s done several times since leaving the main street of Glengariff.  Someone is bound to come after him to ask if he’s looking for a boat across to Garinish Island and tell him that there probably won’t be one.  ‘It’s not worth it,’ he imagines hearing, ‘if it’s just for yourself, like.’

And it doesn’t look as though there’ll be any other takers.  It isn’t the season for boat trips, it isn’t the day.  Everyone will be indoors with plenty of drink to hand and a warm anticipation of the New Year.  Anyway, he doesn’t want to cross to Garinish.  Down between those two small launches, gently bobbing, will be fine.  At the jetty’s end he looks round one more time.  Vaguely he notes that one boat is The Queen of something and the other is something Jewel.  He places his rucksack on the ground and gingerly retrieves the urn.  Unscrewing it, also gingerly, he pours its contents into the water between the boats.

‘Sing Ho! Stout Cortez,’ he whispers.  ‘Sing Ho, Pete.’

*

Forty years earlier, on a New Year’s Eve as raw as this one, Dave finished smashing up a toilet and laid his lump-hammer aside before saying, ‘You’re a proper case.’

The figure he addressed was a head taller than he was and lanky with it.  Dave’s words didn’t arrest his actions and he carried on making short work of a foot-bath and adding to the mounds of sundered porcelain between them.  Only when he’d finished did he pause and say, as he’d said several times throughout the afternoon, ‘I’m telling you.  Special occasion means a special effort.’

And the occasion was special.  Tomorrow would be the first time that the people of England had New Year’s Day off.  To celebrate, most of the employees at Timperley Builders and Plumbers, Suppliers to the Trade, were heading for the Arden Park Hotel just outside Wolverhampton.   There would be a meal and drinks followed by dancing but before the dancing there would be a speech from the Gaffer and a few turns.  The lanky figure had been working up something for that.  The very thought of it had kept him warm for weeks since he hatched it and certainly through that raw afternoon while he and Dave, on orders from above, had been out in the far yard smashing up bathroom and kitchen fitments which, classed as seconds, were unfit for the salesroom.

‘Look, Pete, you might get laughed out of town,’ said Dave, steadying a sink-pillar between his legs. His tone wasn’t unkind.

‘Pete? Pete?’

‘God help us,’ muttered Dave as he induced a pair of deep cracks in the pillar.  ‘All right, then…Ronan O’Malley.’

They worked on.

Pete Hughes had long regarded his name as sad and unheroic.  Everyone used it.  What else would they call him?  Still it galled him and the official flourish that turned it into Hughes, P on pay packets and delivery sheets did nothing to redeem it.  Pete was a child of fancy.  It had sustained him from his early years in Glengariff, County Cork, and had come to his rescue mightily when his father, of an itinerant turn of mind, had uprooted his family to the Black Country.  Once there, however, he hadn’t found anything to his taste in the plentiful work of the time so he’d drunk himself to a standstill and thence the grave, leaving his family to make shift as best they could.

Pete could only remember two things about him: an excitable right fist and his claim, urged when he was in his cups, to be descended from Grace O’Malley, Elizabethan Queen of Connacht.  This had cut no ice with Pete’s mother:  ‘Descent is right,’ she retorted once.  ‘They’re looking for foundry-men at Stewarts and Lloyds but ye won’t descend into that, erragh ye won’t.  I’d wish for your Queenie to canter up and hoosh your erse into it.’

But Pete was caught.  His mother’s contempt was of a piece with the attitude that he himself endured from peers, teachers, everyone who refused to give themselves up to fancy.  Something began to sing in his blood.  He saw himself as different, the victim of a jest of fortune, like one of those blue-bloods who got swapped in a cradle and spent his life hewing and carrying while some other berk lived it up in wonderland – ‘full of antimacassars,’ he told himself, having heard the word in a production of some Victorian fol-de-rol at his school and held it ever after to his heart as the symbol of a world bright and shiny.  If his father was of such grand lineage but would do nothing except belch Holden’s Bitter fumes at it, it was up to him to take up the cause in order to…what?  He didn’t know or care.  Aim and purpose were what teachers went on about and they belonged among the wooden people, coarse-grained, ignoble.

At some point he’d conceived the notion that Grace O’Malley sometimes tired of queenliness and was a pirate on the side.  He spent more and more time at the local library, earning his mother’s disapprobation at another dreamer in the tribe, another pay-packet lost before it was earned.  Nothing he read, as far as he could understand it, supported the idea of Grace as a Long Jean Silver.  But first fancies can never be completely unmade and his spread further, seeking out other ferocious worthies of the age and finally coming to rest on Hernán Cortés, nemesis of the Aztecs.  As with the Queen of Connacht, he read stumblingly of Cortés’ ranging and roving, his parleys and suppressions.  Perhaps inevitably, something piratical grew like a summer shadow around the man.  Pete imagined the pair of them routing puny ships of the line and bearing away all they carried down to the last nail.  Chronology was as nothing to him.  So what if Grace was only seventeen when Cortés died?  She was a quick learner.  He died with a cutlass in his hand.  Somewhere along the way Pete read that he’d taken time out to stare at some peak or other and whoever it was that wrote about it called him Stout Cortez.  Easier to say out loud, that.

Meanwhile the exigencies of life pressed hard.  Leaving school unqualified, Pete got this and that job, always the shuffler, the gofer, the one dispatched by knowing elders to fetch a special screwdriver (‘Gotta be sky-blue, my mon’) or British Standard Whitworth fandangos (‘Yer’ll know ‘em.  Big ‘T’ cut into the top. T for twerp, all right?’).  So it was that he ended up at Timperley’s but with the good luck of starting at the same time as Dave Frankiewicz, who soon befriended him and, disinclined to take any crap from anyone, mostly ensured that none came the lanky dreamer’s way.

On that raw New Year’s Eve afternoon as the pair of them set about the last demolitions, feet came scurrying between the pallets stacked high to one side of the yard and a face framed by stringy hair broke in on their haphazard rhythms.

Dave and Pete looked up and grinned, Pete especially.   ‘Here’s the bloody waster,’ said Dave, his usual greeting to Bump Wilson, the vacation student, who’d come by his nickname dramatically when on his second day he’d nearly taken a stockroom door off its hinges with a pallet-trolley.

‘Hiding out?’ asked Pete and Bump nodded.

Dave cocked his head: ‘That tiles display again?’  Bump stretched out his arm to show tile-dust up to his shoulder.  But there was no time now for Dave’s usual banter about rubbish students and taxpayers’ money and the bollocks that was progressive rock.  A more measured tread came towards them from another direction.

‘Bugger,’ said Bump and vanished just as a face was looming round the wall at the opposite side of the yard.  Bump clattered against a far pallet.  Pete coughed to cover the sound.

‘Well, well.  Almost forgot about you pair.’  A figure stood before them with shaved head and hands thrust deep into a black puffer-jacket with John Player Special  high across the chest.  ‘You haven’t seen that streak of student piss, have you?’

‘Out on a delivery,’ said Dave hoping that Bump would have the sense to hole up in the dispatch bay for the rest of the afternoon.  He and Pete straightened their backs. ‘What you want?’

Aside from being a foreigner, Cheshire way, Steve Basford had worked on the delivery vans before suddenly and inexplicably turning white-collar.  Power had come late to him and he wielded it like a slapstick.

‘Mr Arthur said’ – a loving roll of the boss’s first name – ‘if you haven’t got this done by four you can leave it till Wednesday.  But’ – now a wagged finger – ‘that doesn’t mean you can slack.  Mr Arthur said,’  he added quickly, for Dave was looking at him as though he were the last cistern in the yard.  He backed away till he was safe. Then, ‘Here, Hughes,’ he called,  ‘what’s this rubbish you’re doing at the Arden tonight?’

Dave turned on Pete: ‘How’d he find out?  Were you practising in the basement like I said and said not to?’

‘I couldn’t help it.  Wanted Bump to hear it through and he’d nearly finished his break.  No time to find anywhere that – ’

‘Well you’d better not eat into our presentation’ – presentation got the Mr Arthur treatment – ‘cos ours is ace.’

‘Our presentation’ was a scene from The Shadows Cry for Death, a whodunit from the Billy Bunn Players, whom Basford had recently joined and through whose ranks, work-style, he had swiftly risen.  The fare they offered rarely strayed from a drawing-room and made frequent reference to things like antimacassars – though not in the dream-quickening way that Pete heard and whispered the word.

‘Pete’s’ll be better than your bollocks,’ called Dave but then, turning to Pete, ‘Do you really have to call yourself Ronan O’Malley for it?’

‘Means “little seal”, you know, Ronan.’  And Dave realised that, as always with Pete, he’d had it explained but not.

*

A huge upstairs room.  Lots of velvet swagging and Christmas decorations.  A banner above the stage area, Chas. Timperley, Builders’ Merchants to the Trade, Est. 1920.  Chunky water-jugs on every table.  Turkey-and-two-veg mostly, though some of the younger staff have gone for vindaloo or chow mein.  Pints of Banks’s or Harp, thin-stemmed glasses of g & t, rum-and-black. Arthur and all the Timperleys at the top table, delicately forking things which might be French.  Variegated puds and then Mr Arthur’s speech.  Heartfelt thanks, the joke about his first day in the swivel-chair which never fails to exact its due. ‘We worked like the bee in ’73.  Let’s buzz some more in ’74.’  Applause, cheers, one elderly voice muttering sod that, they were still stalling about his pension.

The turns.  ‘The Ballad of Timperley Yard’ by Mr Arthur’s youngest, who had yet to set foot in it.  Two secretaries and the wages clerk with a wayward medley of Slade and Gilbert O’Sullivan.  The Billy Bunn crew were scheduled to finish up before the dancing.   But now there was Pete.

There was Ronan.  Breeches, wide-awake hat, jacket flared and velvet, red sash, cutlass in hand.  He was transformed, magnificent, much to the relief of Bump Wilson who’d put his offering through final revisions and, until it began, had been coiled like a spring beside an exasperated Dave and his wife.  To dead silence, the ballad of Grace and Cortez unfolded and Pete’s years of obsession made of his voice a thing apart.  Grace and Cortez met amid the wafting winds of Hispaniola, she seventeen, he sixty-two.  They avasted and belayed around the globe before ascending a peak in Darien (‘Keats, that,’ Bump had explained and Pete had said, wow, nice one).  There, the greatest treasures of the world were hidden beneath the unwatchful eyes of dozing gods:

Plunging as one, their two hands did a-meet

To scoop and plunder, brave, defiant, fleet

Then to return…

But there was no return.  A commotion erupted behind the swagging and an unknown voice said ‘Do it, he’s gone on long enough’ before Basford leapt at Pete in ill-fitting black tie.

‘Aha, so there you are!  The parson said he’d seen some ne’er-do-well lurking at the lych-gate!’

‘My, my,’ said Mr Arthur, ‘this is awfully good.’  His table applauded palm-on-palm.  Pete gawped and dropped his cutlass.  His sash fell away.  Dave was on his feet: ‘Basford you mad-arse!’

But Basford ploughed on uninventively – ‘Aha! Aha, I say!’ – and the dagger was at Pete’s chest.   It was a theatrical dagger.  The press of a catch slid the blade back into the handle.  But Basford’s power fogged his mind and eyes and sweated out over his hand.

*

Walking back from the jetty, Dave Frankiewicz recalls the apologetic look in the eyes of Pete’s youngest brother when he stood on the doorstep.  Pete’s mother had wanted nothing to do with the ashes – ‘Like feyther like son – Waster!’ –  and they’d gone from hand to hand around the family before coming to rest with his youngest brother, who’d kept them forgotten in a shed.   But now, ‘See, it’s impractical’,  he’d said to Dave.  ‘I mean you can’t hang onto an urn and emigrate at the same time – can you?’  ‘Wished I’d had ‘em first off,’ said Dave, closing the door as he spoke.

He kept them a long, loving time.  But at last, with that anniversary coming up, forty years since the first about-time-too holiday, he judged it only right that his unfathomable pal should be returned to the town of his fathers in the land of the only woman who’d ever made his eyes mist up.

By the Garinish Island ticket office a figure comes towards him, tall and trim, no longer stringy-haired:

‘All right?’

‘All right, our Bump.’

‘I phoned my sister.  Her friends in Listowel say no problem for tonight so we’ll be nice and early for Shannon.’

‘They expecting us any time?’

‘Well…guess we should see the New Year in with them at least but…no, not specifically.’

‘Sound.’  Dave points across the street to The Beara Bar.  ‘Let’s go up the peak, my mon, and get bladdered.’

.
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Biography

Michael W. Thomas’s latest novel is Pilgrims at the White Horizon.  His poetry collections include Batman’s Hill, South Staffs (Flipped Eye, 2013) and Come to Pass (Oversteps, 2015).  His work has appeared in The Antioch Review, Critical Survey and the TLS.  In 2015, his novella, ‘Esp’, was shortlisted for the UK Novella Award.  He is currently working on Nowherian, the memoir of a Grenadian traveller. 

 

This story first appeared in Dark Lane Anthology 8 and is reproduced with kind permission.