Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Tales from the North West Frontier

The saloon was empty except for the bartender, three hundred customers and a grizzled old-timer propping up the counter. “Howdy,” The Stranger said laconically, and ordered a whiskey. The Old-Timer looked sideways at him, puzzling over the word ‘laconically’ as the interloper sat down beside him. “Care for one yourself, sir?” asked the Stranger, and the wizened old gnome nodded with alacrity. The Stranger was not very good at estimating ages, but he reckoned the Old-Timer must have been about 268, what with his battered old Stetson, long, white flowing tooth and yellow, decaying beard.
“You ain’t from around these parts, are you, boy?” stated the Old-Timer, cradling his newly-topped up drink with his gnarled hand.
“No sir,” replied the Stranger, adjusting his sealskins and feeding his husky a piece of fish. “I’m a stranger round here. Listen, I don’t mean to be impolite, but you must be one of the original settlers of this place.”
“Sure am, mister,” snapped the other proudly. “One of the first Littlepacers. Remember the day we first moved up here, ma maw and ma paw and myself. We came out here on the wagon, looking for freedom, to get away from the big city life. Last time I was on the wagon, sonny. This was prairie land, the buffalo ran free, and a man could set up a nice little home for himself, if he had the will. And a property in the city centre to sell, of course.”
“Buffalo?” the other interjected.
“Well, buffalo, cows, whatever. All part of that great bovine family. We were pioneers, see. Things weren’t easy. The stage coach didn’t come to these parts at first...”
“Ah, come on…”
“No sir, too afraid. This was the Badlands, see? But we didn’t mind, no sirree, ‘cos we wuz all in the one boat. In fact, the thing we had to watch out for was the cowboys. They’d lay a cobble-lock drive for you in five hours flat, and the next time it rained, you’d find there was no drain.”
Here he paused a while and spat in the vague direction of the spittoon, chuckling mildly as the bartender wiped the green globule from his sleeve.
“And boy, did it rain,” he continued. “In them days, we had real rain. Not these ‘light showers’ so popular with youngsters today. I remember, it must have been back in October or November 03, it rained for forty days and forty nights. Never let up once. All the crops were destroyed - well the plants on the roundabout anyways - and all the houses were submerged. The mighty Tolka River burst its banks. We had to live underwater for a week, but it toughened you up. Not easy holding your breath for that length of time, but you had to sink or swim. Mostly we sank. Kids today wouldn’t stand for it.”
The Stranger arched a disbelieving eyebrow but the Old Timer carried on unperturbed.
“Then there was the tornado,” he went on, a faraway gleam in his eye and a dewdrop clinging precariously to the end of his nose. “Never seen anything like it. Never hope to see it again. Slates went crashing through the air, whole vans were picked up and tossed like pancakes, trees were uprooted and re-planted a mile away in Clonsilla. People were crying, “Aunty Em! Aunty Em!” A family of Latvians was sent swirling, house and all, and set down on the strand in Rosslare. Took them ages to convince Sheriff McDowell they weren’t refugees.”
This time the Stranger arched a disbelieving earlobe, but the rambling monologue continued undeterred.
“Aye, we had it tough. But at least a man could ride free, providing he had a bus pass of course. No saloon at first, so many of the men made illicit runs across the border into county Meath, particularly when the womenfolk went to visit their mothers. And more and more people kept coming, ‘cos the land was cheap, and eventually someone had the bright idea to open a saloon, and surprise, surprise, it did a roaring trade. Did you see the two clocks on the turret when you came in, sonny?”
The Stranger shook his head.
“Take a look when you go out. One’s stuck on ten to three, the other on twenty past three. Bin like that for over sixty years. Rumour has it, just after it was built, a short-sighted crow, on his normal route home, flew slap bang into one clock, stopping it dead. Half an hour later, his twin brother did the same thing. That was just before the revolution…”
“Revolution? I never read anything about a revolution.”
“Ah, history books don’t tell you everything. Once upon a time, sonny, and you’ll find this hard to believe, the town cleaners used to take your rubbish away for free. They figured it was better than letting you throw it in the street. Then they decided they were going to charge you for taking it away. There was pandemonium! People went on hunger strike, lay down in front of bin trucks and chained themselves to the courthouse, though many preferred to just click their tongues impatiently. It was the end of the world, the thin wedge. Of course, the government won the day, they rounded up the ringleaders and gave them a good talking to. Faced with that kind of institutionalised brutality, the revolution died away, but there’s many still light a candle on the anniversary of the first bin charge. The Charge of the Tight Brigade, they called it.
‘The buzzword in them days was ‘infrastructure’ or rather, ‘lack of infrastructure.’ Trouble was, nobody in them days knew what infrastructure was, ‘cepting those with dictionaries, because there wasn’t any of it about. For years, I thought it was a variety of pack mule, except with longer ears. The politicians” – another large green missile shot from his mouth at the word, causing the bartender to take rapid evasive action – “the politicians would come into town and talk about it, and say they’d get it for us, if we voted for them, but none of them ever did. Mind you, we never voted for them either.
‘Speaking of voting, did you know that once upon a time, when you went to vote, you had to make a mark on a piece of paper with a small stick called a pencil. And then you’d put your bit of paper into a large box…You going so soon, sonny?”
“Sorry, Grandad,” replied the Stranger, finishing his drink and standing up. “You had me going there for a while, but you overdid it a bit with that voting tale. Still, it’s been a very entertaining conversation, and I thank you most kindly.”
He shook his head sadly at the Old-Timer and threw €100 onto the counter, telling the bartender to bring him another whiskey. Then he put on his wind goggles and sou’wester and strode out the door, glancing up at the broken saloon clock as he did so. “Ten to three,” he murmured. “High time I was moseying out of this godforsaken place.” And, humming an old tune his grandfather had taught him, he rode out towards the setting sun.

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