two aluminum extension ladders side by side on ground covered in dead leaves

The Saving of Little Miss M.

Everybody knew that the old man was mad. Dibble knew it, and so did the crew, but it was just one of those things, like a sudden shower; what good would it do a man to dwell on it? They had work to do and they did it, besides, there was a lot of madness here; you might say it was in the air like the ever-present helicopters. In the end it didn’t really matter what you might have said, because it wouldn’t have changed a damned thing.

Dibble rubbed at his stubbled jaw and struggled to concentrate on masticating the glutinous hulk of a cheese ‘piece’. It must have been in the high twenties—a humid vacuum down here, only the infinitesimal wisp of wing disturbed the turgidity as a bee spun drunkenly close; fighters limping back to ‘Blighty’ on one engine, the old man’s ‘white cliffs’ of four or maybe five hives, Dibble could never remember. He liked the bees, but they didn’t like everybody. Now that they had reached wall-plate height the Bosun would flick the point of the trowel to kill one of the little wonders as it traversed from the bog to the hives, but his sniggering stopped when he was stung in the mouth by one trapped in the can that he was slugging from. Ho-ho-ho! Or was it, buzz-buzz-buzz? Justice it was: quid pro quo. That’s what they all agreed on

The heat had been a curse down here—not for the work, but for the men. Everyone was as red as a Baboon’s arse, apart from Dibble, who had one of those skins that weathered better than most, although he didn’t realise it.

Truth be told, he didn’t realise much; he wasn’t a great thinker. But that was to change, as things tend to do. The things that Dibble ponderously plagued himself with centred on this one moment. They flitted in and out of his mind like the Swallows from that summer, where one world touched another one for an instant.

It was a Friday and that meant that the ‘end’ was in sight. Actually, it really was in sight, because they only had the peaks to raise and the chimneys to finish and they were out of there for good. But a Friday here meant pay and drink. And when both were done to death, you returned to work on Monday, usually. As Dibble swallowed the last mouthful of warm mulch with a slurp of tea, the one o’clock break was almost done.

They kept the cement in the big shed, which also held an impressive supply of home-made spirits and a bright pink Volkswagen Beetle. The dust was alive in the bright sunlight as he looked out from the recess, up the lane, to see an approaching vehicle. It was the old man’s son. Sometimes he came down to track progress but more usually he was carrying the crew’s purse, as was the case today. The massive extension was for him, built on, as it was, to the dwelling the old man had spent a whole life in. It was a secluded place; the road ended not far from the lane mouth, and the habitation surfaced in a sea of ancient moorland: Ireland’s once mighty oaks submerged in a black soup.

The Army had poisoned the little bitch the other week; fed her the ‘strick’ they had. When Dibble found her she was bent back toward her tail like a piebald banana. The old man had put a curse on the soldiers. Mad he was. He used to leave bread out for the fairies and watch his bees conducting parliaments, court-martials, and executions from the comfort of his armchair. He blew hot and cold, as they say, but what could you expect from an old man who had come home from the Grocers to find the body of a woman hanging from the crossbeam of his porch? What would you expect? Dibble saw the rope burn on the beam every time the old man called him inside to talk of monsters of the mind.

It was tough enough being the only labourer on the job. He had to mix all the mortar, hod all the blocks and bricks up two strategically placed extension ladders, erect the scaffolding at the back and reconfigure the trestles and planks as required. In fairness, none of this was as hard as conversing with the old man. He had taken Dibble amongst the hives one day.

“They’ll not touch ye boy; as long as you’re with me.”

And it was true. They landed lightly on his hot skin and departed just as quickly. The crew had laughed hysterically, too hysterically perhaps, but that’s what they were like. It’s what men are like, he thought.

“Don’t be afraid boy, never mind them Gobshites,” the old man had said.

In his heart, Dibble felt sorry for him. He was glad that the son was going to live here in his castle beside the Father. Nobody should have to live alone up here. Dibble didn’t like it even when he was with the crew. Only work took his mind off the strangeness of the place, but when he sat down to eat or drink it closed around him like a cape; it filled his head with tendrils of fern and dry heather. It itched at his eyeballs from the inside. It was oppressive, and the heat made it worse.

She had run away from home they said. Seventeen and with a ‘bun in the oven’. Found his door open. Found a rope. Dibble thought that this would be a terrible place to die. The old man had said that it had affected the bees. He had lost three quarters of his stock.

He didn’t say that one day they had flown into the burning heather like miniature kamikazes; maybe he had thought that that would have been one truth too many.

As Dibble swung the buckets of mortar in arcs, the lads waited on the outward swings and hauled them up the blue nylon ropes to the top trestles.

“One more batch and knock her out Dib.”

He nodded and trudged back to the front of the house with the wheelbarrow. He checked his wristwatch and saw that it was approaching three o’clock. Time was strange down here too. It seemed to speed up or slow down at will, it did what it wanted. Dibble knew the Army was scared up here too: he had heard the stories. Compasses didn’t work; equipment failed. ‘Bashas’ sank into the bog without trace. The old man had a radio the size of an upright freezer and twenty feet of outside whip, but his reception was still atrocious.

The temperature had steadily increased since the one o’clock tea and now Dibble was sure that it was heading rapidly for thirty. As the mixer lurched with a full maw, he shaded his eyes and watched the others bedding the cut timber on to the top of the outside walls. No one was talking. It was the heat and the fact that the cool interior of Mulhern’s was beckoning to them with fresh beer. Dibble wanted only water and the relative cooling of the night. He always bought his mother a fish supper and they would eat together on Friday nights talking of old times and dead neighbours and wasn’t it a grand thing that he didn’t have to go to London anymore, now that there was work with the boys at home. She would knit then, and he would fall asleep to the sound of little sword fights and dream of the smell of the underground at Seven Sisters.

He didn’t even know why they had asked for more ‘muck’, surely they had enough now to do them? It was only the wall-plate after all. They were like that though.

Just after Bosun had been stung, the Telecom boys had shown up to shift one of the Telegraph poles about forty feet to the right of one of the gable ends they still had to raise. It had been some operation.

A great mechanical clamp on a beam had uprooted the thing and the resulting hole had been backfilled, but still glowered menacingly in the green like a suppurating wound, or a grave, Dibble thought. They had had no rain for days, but it was never safe working at height near one of them.

With the wet you could get an electric arc which could ruin a man’s day, as well as frying him like a bacon rasher. Dibble didn’t like the scar in the grass, but he didn’t know why. Something tampered with maybe? If he was a betting man, like he once was, he would have laid a bet that this place disliked tampering. But then again, how could a ‘place’ dislike anything?

He knocked the pin out and wrenched the wheel to the left so that the mixer disgorged its load heavily into the wheelbarrow. Sweat was pinging at his eyes and making them teary. He swung the barrel back into position and threw the stones and a couple of buckets of water in. As soon as the lads on the top heard the resulting booming and splashing, a resounding cheer welled up. It was the “Brickie’s lullaby”; the same every Friday: a signal that the end was nigh.

When he made his way round to the back of the scaffold, Sconny shouted, “Fuck it, dump it Dib, throw it behind the wall.”

Dibble scowled, what a waste of time and energy. He knew that they had not needed the last batch. As he wiped the stinging sweat from his eyes he looked out into the heart of the moor and saw the rushes swaying slightly. It was strange, but as the first sickly tendril of the new-born breeze licked his face, he knew the weather was changing- and quickly. Big Tom had left Sconny in charge, and as he watched him enter the old man’s house for the purse he thought he saw a quick movement darting to the right just outside his line of sight, but when he had wiped his eyes and looked again, all was the same as before. In the time it took for this to happen, Sconny re-emerged red-faced and cursing.

They could all hear the old man. “Have ye a brain in yer head? There’s fuckin’ muck the length of the hall!”

Dibble smiled at Sconny’s efforts to remove his work boots—laces snapping and small powder puffs of mortar dust blossoming in the air, before he felt the first big splat of rain hit him directly in the centre of the head–even it was warm.

He spent some time washing out the wheelbarrow and cleaning the ‘Longtail’ and Navvy shovels in the forty-five gallon barrel which contained the water supply. Without looking up, he heard both Sconny and the old man’s son exit the house, talking in muted tones, and watched as the son walked towards the van which, by this stage, held the entire crew apart from himself.

He always burned the week’s empty cement bags on Friday, which gave him the excuse to side-step the pub and have a bit of a talk with Bridie out of his Mother’s earshot. Bridie always picked him up and they went together to the local fish shop to buy their tea. Bridie, with her black eyes and pinched face. His sibling was five years his junior but it looked the other way around. She hated the visits to her Mother just as she hated her life. Bitter and disappointed in her marriage, and childless, like himself, she had been his Father’s princess, and with the old fella gone three years now, the trappings of royalty had fallen quickly into a state of irredeemable disrepair. Dibble didn’t think she liked him much either; those hard eyes of hers resented his Mother’s displays of affection toward him.

God knew that there wasn’t any outright winning in this life, for any of us. He wished he had the words to tell her this in a nice way, but no matter how hard he thought, the words wouldn’t come.

“What time’s she comin’?” Asked Sconny, with outstretched hand.

Dibble took the pay-packet and slipped it into the front of his jeans. “Half Four; same as usual.”

“That’s nearly an hour man, fuck it, come with us for a jar.”

“No, it’s okay. She wouldn’t know where I’d gone.”

“You’re the boss Officer D. But the Top-cats are outta here!”

Sconny slapped him between the shoulders and jog-trotted back to the van. Soon they pulled away and disappeared into the jungle of the hedgerows.

The rain came down like five-inch nails then, and Dibble ran for the shelter of the shed. Through the sheeting summer storm, he thought he could discern movement at the top of the building. He squinted and could just make out a small figure in red climbing the end trestle.

Dibble’s heart ricocheted in his chest like a rubber bullet. It was the son’s little girl! She was no more than five or six. He hadn’t seen her come in with the father; normally she would have come over and regarded him in that cool manner that she had. A strange little thing she was, never spoke much, not even to say ‘thanks’ the day that he had given her a chocolate bar from his lunch box. Panic rose within him like the billowing storm clouds zeroing in all around. Quickly, he sprinted around to the back of the extension where the ropes and buckets were. He figured that his best chance was to climb up from below and move his way towards her as quietly as he could. Christ knows he didn’t want to spook her and cause her to miss her footing at that height. The little bugger must have climbed up one of the extension ladders, but that couldn’t be right because he would have seen her, surely?

He didn’t even want to think of her scrambling up the other way he was climbing; it made him sick to his stomach. There were huge gaps between the stages, and what had previously been planked and tied in, was now just a bare skeleton ready for dismantling. The rain increased its ferocious onslaught and he nearly ruptured himself, twice, as his feet skidded outwards across the slick metal poles he was ascending. One good thing, he thought, at least she can’t hear a bloody thing in this rain. ‘Neither can you’, was his last thought as he reached the wall-plate ledge from its hardest side. There weren’t even trestles there, as they had been moved further along yesterday.

He prayed that the masonry joints and beds would be set enough to allow him to walk along the plate to just short of the ‘green’ areas, where the crew had been working that day. At least that’s what he told himself he was praying for, really, he was just praying.

Sometimes action brings its own luck, and that is precisely what happened when he reached the top. She was sitting with her back to him right on the end of the nearest trestle, talking to herself.

Relief coursed through him as he nimbly hopped up onto the timber and gingerly made his way towards her position. As he approached her, he heard her say,

“…but Daddy wouldn’t want me to, no… Mammy calls me Little Miss M… I only… what man behind me?”

Confused, Dibble spoke very softly, “So there you are, I’ve been looking all over for you, close your eyes, I’ve got something for you, stay still now, it’s a surprise!”

Suddenly her arm shot out in front of her sharply, as if an electric current had been applied. “No, I don’t want to, leave me alone!” she screamed.

Dibble watched in disbelief as the child was pulled to her feet by something that was most certainly invisible to him. He didn’t let the sight stop him however, and leapt from his precarious position on the ledge to land heavily on the trestle below.

Whatever it was, he broke the connection and felt it course through his body like a squirming, freezing sting. The smell of the air all around them was of fish left to rot in the sun. As the adrenalin pumped through his system he realised that he was squeezing the girl too tightly to his body and she screeched again.

“Mary, what’s going on here?”

The girl was blubbering into his chest, and her grip was almost as fierce as his.

“Come on now, you get on my shoulders and I’ll take you back down, close your eyes now like a good girl and we’ll go and see your Dad, okay?”

He said it in the kindest and softest way that he had ever spoken, but every hair was a darning needle in the grip of some nauseous magnetism. He could feel a hatred, taste despair in the sodden air, saw a flashback of the rotten-egg eyes of a dead tramp on a winter pavement, so long, long ago. Loss, loneliness, all heat had gone from the day.

“Just grab hold of my ears.”

The descent down the treacherously slick aluminium took a week for every rung, but at last they reached the ground. Mary released his burning ears and scampered, crying, into the old man’s place. For a moment Dibble looked back up and was startled by a black shape flapping wildly towards him. It took him a long time to realise that it was just a piece of ripped polythene. They told him later that he had been screaming for almost a minute by then. He could never remember.

Every Friday he still has fish and chips, but Bridie never visits anymore, now that Mother is gone. After all this time he still cannot quantify what happened that afternoon, even though he thinks more now than he ever did.

All he says, by way of explanation, is that when he asked little Mary why she climbed all the way up to the top of the house, she said: “The lady with the crooked neck told me not to be scared because she would save me.”

When the night comes, he lies still in the blankets. He sees crookedness everywhere: a bent television aerial here; shadows of snapped things in window glass there, and so it goes on. And as the silence intensifies around the bone-white Christ on the cold wall, he thinks that loneliness is a hell, and that madness is seldom a sudden shower. He thinks that whatever it is you might say, it doesn’t change a damned thing. Not a damned thing.