…He saw me, looked down at me, smiled I think, or perhaps smirked. The cigarette burning red hot ashes from the corner of his mouth as both hands were needed to control the pressure of the water hose.
“What can I do for ya, young lad” he offered in a lyrical brogue.
Somewhat embarrassed and off guard I returned:
“Just watching Sir, that’s all.” and then “Tomorrow this will be an awesome piece of ice”
“Aye, with any luck, if the weather holds.”
“So, this must be some neat job you have here, looking after things at the park?”
“Yes, but this is only part of it. I have three other rinks to look after besides this one”
“Wow” is about all I could muster. Then, continuing on:
“When I grow up I want to have a job like this. So cool.”
He chuckled “No you don’t, and no it ain’t” he said rather emphatically, then adding
“I have to do this. You don’t. I have no other choice. You do. So stay in school.”
“But school sucks. I hate it. The nuns, the priests, the rules and the strap.
He chuckled somewhat.
“It’s not funny.”
“Oh, I know. I know it’s not funny. But thinking back, I got it good too from those nuns and priests. Real good. But not here. Over in Ireland, where I come’d from, where I grew’d up, – some of those priests and nuns were the devil’s own, the devil’s fire brigade.
“Really,” I thought aloud, “Just like here?”
“Sure, sure” he said. “They’re everywhere. With fire and brimstone they spoke with the brimstone and fire they breathed. And they sure set the standard for all of the physical pain and grief that a Catholic young lad or lass could harbour, without being dead, the world over. Some were good I would think. Just not mine”
“What school do you go to.” he asked
“Our Lady of Peace” I answered.
He looked right down at me and into my eyes, into my very soul it seemed.
“Is that so” he said. “Well I think they had a school for it over there as well. Our Lady’s School of Perpetual Abuse, I would think. For they knew how to give it and we got it good, day and night. Black and blue we was, then black again. The thing is though we fought back, but in such a way that the bastards never knew they was being conned. We had a lot of laughs outsmarting them, doing that. That was the key for us to survive in these schools.”
He chuckled but in remonstrance, remembering perhaps that it would seem to be a memory hidden or repressed.
“Listen to me young lad. Adapt, and don’t let them get you down, or get to you emotionally, in your brain like thoughts, and if you do it right you will have fond memories of you and your mates’ experiences and a lot of laughs. But I’m sure it isn’t as bad as when I went to school. That was day and night back then. No rest for the wicked boys and girls, as they said. We was all orphans.”
He paused, as if to let that last comment sink in. Then he turned, slightly, to blanket another part of the rink with water. Silent! I followed him around.
“Orphans? in Ireland?, Wow.” It seemed so far away, and too much to sink in.
“Orphans, yes. I don’t remember my mother or my father. Just the school, the orphanage, the nuns and priests. But I got out of it. Ran away and joined the Navy”
And as if sensing my next question. “I was 14.”
“Yup, Royal Navy, the Senior Service, as they say.” He volunteered “It was also harsh discipline thar, in the Navy, but I thrived on it cause I was already used to the abuse…Aaaargh” he laughed out loud.
“But in the Navy they had free rein to kill ya if they so choosed. For being out of line, AWOL, or desertion as they called it. But again, my mates kept me sane and my wingers safe. And justice? For the smallest infraction, there was shipboard justice…before the mast, before the Captain… the Coxswain would cry out in his loud and booming voice: “MARCH THE GUILTY BASTARD IN!” As I said. I loved it. Rum was dirt cheap and the cigs even dirtier cheapier. Clean sheets and three squared – if you liked kippers and hard tack that is. But compared to the boarding school, and the Army, I thought I had died and gone to heaven”
“I came through the war unscathed though. Only once did providence come to my side.”
“What’s providence?” I interrupted
“Providence is a sort of destiny’s luck.” he continued. Like something that happens to you in the present that makes no sense at all except that it has an enormous impact on something in the future.”
He looked at me whimsically, quizzically, probably knowing full well that I didn’t have a clue of what he was getting at.
“Let me explain it this way. I was transferred to an oiler – that’s a ship that refuels other ships at sea, like a floating, moving gas station on water – and just before boarding that ship to leave port and to go out to our war station at sea, I was called back. Some sort of emergency at home. How could that be I thought? I had no home! So the ship sailed without me and when I arrived back in the town where I had lived at the boarding school it turned out that I did indeed have a younger sister who was quite sick, had been given last rights, and had asked for me. Turns out she, like me, had also been given up and had been sent to another boarding school, but in the next village. Damnation I thought. I had a sister. As it turned out her school was a front for what they called laundry houses – or asylums. You wouldn’t know about those places but there was nothing asylum about them I can tell you that. They was an affront for sure, those sweathouses. An affront to humanity, human kindness, compassion, empathy, everything civil and just. The laundry school from hell. And that’s all I’ll say about that.”
He paused briefly, then continued
“But, as unluckily as it was for her that this was, it was also luckily for me because that oiler took a hit and being so full of oil went up like a some heavenly torch, burnt the sky crimson, in spectacular fashion it was with shades of reds and oranges and yellows, before being doused to eternity’s sleep as she slipped, stern first, into the sea breaking up below the waves to the bottom below but with one last glorious belch of sea salt from old Neptune himself, or so they told me after. No one survived.”
He let that sink in for the moment. Then continued
“I survived the war though death really hit home. I cried and I cried and I cried. I don’t know why I cried so hard because I didn’t really know anyone on that ship thank God for that.” And I didn’t know my own sister either yet I cried so hard for her. He made the sign of the cross with a free hand.
“What happened to your sister?” I asked, politely
“Died… a lung disease. But she really died from one of life’s broken hearts, and broken promises. I never knew her but I think I loved her. Funny that. Not knowing somebody but still loving them, potentially I guess, unconditionally perhaps, for I never knew, I never knew her. The ties that bind I think. You understand me boy?”
“I think so.” I said. I didn’t
“Good, cause I’m not sure if I do… understand me or my life that is”
Silence again. Much longer this time as the time was needed to take in this account of his.
“You should be getting home” he said as he turned again to strike out at another area of the rink.
“Stay in school, and don’t let them penguins get to you. By the by, what’s your name?”
“John” I answered, awkwardly.
“Well John. I am Desmond O’Brian. Des for short, but not for long”……he guffawed. You can call me Sir” he guffawed and guffawed again. Then suddenly snorting, snorting then coughing, coughing hard, a bronchial, nicotine laced cough that went deep into his own form, shook his entire physical being relentlessly before dying down and out through his throat.
“Glad to make your acquaintance John.” he choked again, waved me off with one arm, coughing again.
I left, turned away toward my street and off I went, carefully as the ground was extremely icy.
It always seemed weird, but nice to me, when an adult of whom I had no association with at all called me by my first and given Christian name. John…John, yeah John. A simple name yet the sound of it from someone else’s voice directed at me and at me alone gave me a sense of well being and a confidence in myself that the adult had the respect, and acknowledgement of my own existence in this world, however small my own worldly horizon or vision may be. It was as if we shared some of life’s experiences, good or bad, in some sort of way, synchronicity perhaps. It was always a nice, heartfelt gesture to hear one’s own name in that manner by a relative stranger. Instead of the usual …MORRISON PAY ATTENTION OR I’LL PAY IT FOR YOU!
Before I was out of sight I stopped, turned and looked back at the rink. I could see Mr O’Brian ever so faintly, or should I say his silhouette, which really resembled a dark lifeless shadow in the stillness of this winter’s night. The stream of water continuing to rise, then arc, then cascade out and down and out again in a frost-like icy fog over the surface of the rink. Tomorrow that ice surface will be an awesome shade of greyish blue, a smooth virginal sheen of ice, as fragile as frozen glass, bordered by the brilliance of clean white snow, until the inevitable cut and crunch of the first set of cold steel blades hit its surface.
I never saw Mr O’Brian again.
In today’s world, that park is bereft of young boys and girls playing. Sadly, it is deserted all year long. Its lifeblood is a distant memory.