Noel King, Pole Horses

They had a horse at the funeral, Paddy’s favourite mare. It reminding me of the funeral scene in Oliver, the horse adorned with black feathers and stuff. Her head remained still, almost reverent. Her clip on the streets took me back to the day Paddy and I met, aged ten; the friendship my father never knew about, that my mother only gave blessing to when Paddy saved me from drowning.

I’d been a bigot too, listened to my father and uncle’s prejudices towards the tinkers until the day I got beaten up by a visiting group of them during the summer fair, and Paddy stood up for me.

After he’d kicked the arses of the perpetrators, we fell into strolling out of Cannon’s field, I nursing my wounds and fighting tears, he falling in a few feet parallel. The Four Crosses defined our habitats and with a handshake we parted.

It was a small town and friendship grew on us. There was, I suppose, a curiosity on my part, a boredom with convention. Paddy introduced me to the old ways, showing the shallowness of 20th century living. I envied him, roaming free while I went to school in shoes and a uniform.

‘What do you want that readin’ and writin’ for anyway?’ he would ask. I said I only did it because Mom and Dad made me, but I knew even then that wasn’t true. It took a few years to convince him that it would be good if he got some learning into him too, with me as teacher. There were three ‘R’s’ I told him, ’readin’, ’riting and ’rithmetic’; that’s all he needed.

Paddy’s dad, indeed most of his family, had a horse of their own, but we were only ten. We prayed very hard for horses while making makeshift ones, long smooth poles cut from trees with baling twine reins on wide head stumps. His horse fantasy was a snow-white thoroughbred, mine jet black with a dash of white anywhere on his head.

Paddy teased that that was because of Black Beauty. I didn’t mind at all because at least he knew who Black Beauty was. I made him read it for himself. It took him a whole summer. We sat on the grassy knoll above Burns’ quarry, half a chapter a day. I never lost patience; felt it was my great contribution. Paddy scoffed though, how could one horse go through so much. I told him it was fiction, that he had to use his imagination, suspend disbelief.

At twelve and a half we got our wish, well, one horse between us, and Paddy was always telling me ‘Everything that’s mine is yours too.’ The nag was part of a pay-off. One of his clan who was in a spot of trouble with Paddy’s dad, something to do with money. We called him Blackie, although he was dark brown, shaggy and more suitable for fronting a plough than being ridden by two lone rangers chasing Indians at top speed.

Paddy became the most literate of his family; I didn’t do so good. My Cs were his As and after a modest Leaving Certificate, I went to agricultural college and hated it.

I soon gave up, became a painter, a handyman in people’s houses. That was how I met my wife, Patricia. He mother had me in to ‘do’ her sitting room after her husband died. Patricia’s mother didn’t like the idea of us as an us; No security in paintin’, I knew she was thinking. But we got married eventually and have three children now, all in their twenties.

Paddy and I never got to each other’s weddings; that wouldn’t have been right, no more for him than for me. He married Mary, his first cousin, asked me to be godfather to the first born. I had to remind him we were adults now, regretted that refusal years later.

The real world cracked the outer edges of our friendship as our families grew. I see my would-have-been godson now with a young family of his own.

Burial done, we go to the only pub that Paddy’s people are admitted to. Countrywide relatives push to the counter, eager to drown the first in a long ritual. I brace myself against rough smells under new clothes; heavy hearts.

Sipping a pint I remember our first. Clancy’s was the place, a back street bar that served the under-aged but never the travelling community, so if it weren’t for me he wouldn’t have been left in. I’d gone in ahead and trembled the order.

‘Hullo, Mr. Sullivan… John.’ I turn to see Paddy’s face, at about twenty, only rougher, even bigger build, try to figure where this son comes in his family. I mumble something about what ‘a great man’ he was. I see longing, a need to ask me things. They don’t vocalise but there’s a sense of respect, of welcome.

I meet Paddy’s sister Annie, she half-fancied me years ago, now mid-forties and a grandmother. We joke about the time she came to a dance with us: ‘All dolled up I was, but Paddy didn’t get in,’ she laughs.

‘And he waited outside all night’, I continued, ‘smoked his whole week’s ration, wondherin’ what I was up to with his sister.’

‘Ah, but he trusted you, Johnny, you was a great friend, a great friend.’ From her knee a grandchild stares wide-eyed, aware that I’m an alien.

My would-have-been godson seeks me out over my third pint in the corner. His shyness after not seeing me since boyhood dissolves into his glass.

In private he calls me uncle Johnny again. We recall good times, fishing trips, trivia. There is trust in his eyes. I open and break the silence of the day I nearly drowned; he hadn’t known until now. He searches for more to say, asks a bit about my family.

He is grasping moments of me. He knows that, after today, we will never meet again.

Noel King was born and lives in Tralee, Co Kerry. In this his 50th year, he has reached his 1000th publication of a poem, haiku or short story in magazines and journals in thirty-eight countries. His poetry collections are published by Salmon: Prophesying the Past, (2010), The Stern Wave (2013) and Sons (2015).

Noel has edited more than fifty books by others (Doghouse Books, 2003 – 2013) and was poetry editor of Revival Literary Journal (Limerick Writers’ Centre) in 2012/13. A short story collection, The Key Signature & Other Stories is published by Liberties Press in 2017. 

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