Wednesday 21 June 2023

Do You Believe In SHC?

Image: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc./Patrick O'Neill Riley

The leaves of Dublin’s trees shrivelled and cried in the cold north wind.

Padraig arranged the turves around the burning coal.

“It makes a nice fire. A jolly nice fire.” said Paul.

‘And what would you know about fire?’ thought Padraig.

He didn’t like the young man, with all that button-down collar malarkey.

‘And him sitting in my own armchair. I do not like him, and I do not have to like him. Ice in his Jameson’s. It’s as well I didn’t offer the Redbreast.’

Paul stuck his finger into his whiskey, twirling the ice around in the glass.

Padraig stood in front of the fire. The heat was good, and soon the backs of his legs were roasting.

He stayed put, lest Paul might feel too warm.

“So, where would you stand on the issue of spontaneous human combustion then now?” asked Padraig, with mischievous flourish.

Paul sat up in his chair. What a startling non-sequitur! Still, it was interesting enough. Maybe there was more to Padraig than a nicotined beard and a shoulder chip the size of the British Empire.

“Well actually, I must confess to a latent fascination for S.H.C., now that you mention it.”

“What was that? What was that? What’s all this S.H.C.? Oh, I see, yes, and tell me this. Would that be what they call a ‘buzzword’ these days, young man, is it now?”

Padraig made it clear that his question was rhetorical, sniffing deep and long. Then, groaning with invented pain, he settled himself into the other armchair, all the while casting covetous glances at his own.

Paul showed no telepathic tendencies. So then, ousted Padraig was, and ousted he would be.

Slowly, deliberately, Padraig packed his pipe, allowing time for Paul’s mind to wander.

With smoke rising from the freshly-lit bowl, the flames from the fire reflecting in his eyes, Padraig turned to the young man.

“Now, let me tell you about your S.H.C. Yes, let me tell you about he-he–hexploding people. Listen now while I tell you the story of Bernie Collins.”

In some matters Paul knew his place.
He leant back in his chair.

“Well, Bernie was a Traffic Warden, off in County Kildare. You wouldn’t know the place so I’ll not waste my time telling it to you. Anyway, this would be a good few years from now, oh yes. This would be maybe in the next century, d’you see?”

“Ahhm, I think so.”

“Well, either you do see or you do not see.”

“Oh, well, yes, I see. A good few years from now.”

“So what was your problem?”

“I didn’t think I had a problem. Please, please go on with your story.”

“Well, that would be a lot easier without all of these hin-hin-hin-hin-h-interruptions.”

“Sort of ‘Stop talking while I’m interrupting’ kind of thing? Sorry, it’s a joke. Never mind. Do go on.”

“Yes, and I should think so too. Ah, but you’ll have that. Now, Bernie Collins was a Traffic Warden, and his uniform was brown. Bernie loved his job and he loved his uniform. He lived on his own, after his Mother died of course. All alone in his own wee house.

"The outside of his house he painted brown, and the insides he painted brown, and all of the things he bought to put inside his house were brown too. All of his everything matched his uniform, and that made Bernie very happy.

“He had one suit - brown it was - and he’d wear it every Sunday to Mass. Funerals and weddings he wore his uniform. And sure, every other second of his waking life, Bernie wore his uniform.”

“Did he sleep in his uniform?”

For a few seconds Padraig stared at Paul, lips drawn tight white with contempt.

“Sorry, I just wondered. You said he wore it every second of the day, didn’t you? Or was it every second day?”

Padraig exhaled slowly, shaking his head, and continued regardless.

“Yes, well now, Bernie wasn’t one for doing much. He was the shape of a barrel, a short barrel on legs, hoho yes. But he did love his job. If he could have he would have worked from dawn to dusk and through the hours of darkness.

"He knew every single, double or dotted yellow line in his town. He knew just exactly who owned every vehicle, and he tried his blessed best to know who was driving which car and where and when they were doing it.

“Y’see, he knew that the Undertaker’s pretty young assistant was out driving with the Mayor every Tuesday afternoon. Then there was the manager of a big insurance company down on the High Street, who was parked outside of his own wife’s si-si-sister’s house every Friday, between the midday Angelus and a half past the hour of One. He saw it all, and the more he saw of them the less he liked them. Their secrets.

“He just plain couldn’t face the horror of the world. Bernie, d’y’see, he’d loved his Mammy, and never had he felt the slightest h-inclination to step out with a young lady. Ohno. Not the slightest bit. Some are like that, so they are.

“So there he would sit, in his brown uniform, his head swimming with all their secrets. Their lies. Their deceptions. Their lies and their sinning. It was too much for him, d’y’see? He just plain didn’t want to know.

“So he’d settle into his tatty brown leather chair after eating his brown pie and brown gravy, and he’d watch his old black and white television. It was so old that the picture was all faded, like. You could almost imagine it being brown.

“But my, did he watch it? Oh my, did Bernie Collins enjoy his televison? Oho! He watched every soap opera, every chat show, game show, and he loved to watch a fil-m. He’d watch just anything that wasn’t a news programme or a doc-humentary.

“As he watched all those soaps and that, he’d think to himself he was watching the lives of all the liars in his town. D’y’see, he had not the slightest knowledge of anything that was happening in the world. All he knew was the inside of his troubled head, and the stories that the television told him. If it didn’t occur within his own sight and hearing he remained ignorant of it, and - oh yes - that was another thing.

“Bernie Collins was as near to deaf as a man can be before you call him deaf. His television was turned up so loud you could hear it from a half-mile away, and there he was himself, sitting there, just right up in front of it all the time. Mind you, that’s not to say there was anything wrong with his sight, hoh no. Sharp as a kestrel.

“Bernie, he enjoyed his deafness. Oh yes. He thought himself lucky that he didn’t have to be putting up with hearing all the blaspheming that folk shouted at him when he gave them a parking ticket. Not at all. Not a bit of it.

“There were some who thought Bernie loved giving tickets, but that wasn’t the truth of it. Sure, he loved his job, but he would have been even happier if he never saw an illegally parked car all day.

“Bernie was not a man with an evil streak inside of him. Truth be told, he just felt sad when folk tried to get away with illegal parking. It made him sadder still when they shouted at him, as if it wasn’t them who had done wrong.

“Worst of all was when he’d be finding the same car parked on the same illegal spot, time and time again, day after day. That would make him feel redundant, d’y’see? What was the point in him being there, of him telling them not to park there, if they simply ignored him?

“It was the only thing that made him angry, and maybe, just maybe deep inside the heart of Bernie Collins, he knew that his tickets were nothing more than minor irritations to these people, and he - well, that meant to them he was nothing more than the bearer of minor irritations.”

“Was Bernie the only Traffic Warden in the town?”

“He was. The very sole purveyor of the parking tickets.”

“And what, pray, does this have to do with S.H.C.?”

“Well now, if you were a more patient man you’d find out. Now, so there was Bernie sitting in his chair, watching one of his soap operas, with the sound turned up terrible loud, so loud that he couldn’t hear the singing outside.

“He just plain couldn’t hear it, but every other soul living on the planet that night could hear the singing. It was the singing of Angels. Yes, Angels, singing from the skies, calling folk to come outside. Some say it sounded different to every soul who heard it, but certainly, to each and every one of them, it was the sweetest sound. A sound that had to be heard. Listened to.

“Outside, outside they went, onto the streets, looking up to the skies, looking for the source of that heavenly music. Children woke in their beds and followed their parents onto the streets. Nurses wheeled the old folk out to hear the cherubim, and soon enough there were great multitudes thronging the streets.

“When the sounds started to move away, the crowds followed, as rats to the piper. Off into the darkness they went, without so much as the slightest he-he-hesitation. Off, away, never to be seen again.”

Paul was engrossed. What a splendid yarn.

“All of them. Every man, woman, child and babe-in-arms. All except for Bernie Collins, who sat watching his soap opera until the picture went dead. All the lights in his little brown house went off, and Bernie grumbled to himself about power cuts and took himself to bed for an early night.

“Come the morn, and still he had no 'lectricity. No power. Bernie shrugged, shivered by the embers of his fire, and groaned when he found no milk bottles delivered to his door.

“Outside on the street you could have heard the flap of a lark’s wing. Of course Bernie noticed that there were no folks up and about, but why would that worry him? Wasn’t it good to walk the streets and do his work without all those eyes staring at him? All those nasty eyes, always just a pen stroke from shouting at him.

“So Bernie was not upset to have the world to himself. It took more than that to upset Bernie Collins. So now, tell me what would it take to upset Bernie?”

Paul had been off, walking the empty streets of County Kildare. He wasn’t ready for tests of mental alacrity.

“Sorry? What would upset Bernie? Well, I, err, illegally parked cars?”

Padraig nodded slowly and deliberately, as if Paul’s answer should have revealed a deep hidden truth.

Paul stuck his neck out, motioning Padraig to carry on, but Padraig merely continued his sage nodding, his lips turning down into a sad pout as if to infer that Paul had let him down in some small but significant way.

“Now, so, of course, all the cars were parked in just the same places they were the day before. So off went Bernie, giving out his tickets, slapping them onto the windscreens, over the ones he had given out the day before.

“Not one soul had seen fit to move their car. Not one soul had spared a moment to ponder how their illegal parking might have caused inconvenience to others.

“Not one soul had taken Bernie’s tickets seriously. Back home that night Bernie sat in the dark, unable to see his wee brown world. Indeed, of course, without d’lectric, he couldn’t watch his television, nor cook any food, so he sat there entertaining thoughts as dark as the air in his living room.

“That night he was barely able to sleep. Around and around poor Bernie’s head, illegally parked cars, imagined conversations he would have with all those folk on the morrow. Oh, he would tell them. Yes, how he would tell them what he thought of their selfish parking.

“Bernie set off at first trace of dawn, only to find every single car unmoved.‘Surely,’ he thinks to himself, ‘surely there must be one, just one person who cares.’

“No more the leisurely amble for Bernie now. Oh no. He was a man a-fired, walking full pace around the whole town. And then around again, and again, until his feet were sore, his soles burning hot on the pavement.

“Each and every time he passed a car he wrote another ticket and slapped it on top of the old one. And each and every time he did that, he felt a little more angry about it all.

“By lunchtime the sweat was pouring from his brow, his fingers were sore from the grip of his pen, and his shoes, well, he was sure that they had shrunk, hugging the skin on his swollen feet like that.

“ ‘Two more rounds, just two more rounds’ he told himself, ‘and then I can call it a day.’

“The quiet private voice of his soul started singing a song, a song of hope that he might find just one car that had moved, just so that he could feel like as how he really did h-exist, d’y’see?

“But, of course, he found all the cars just as he left them. Covered in tickets from top to bottom as they now were.

“That night, exhausted, dejected and desolate, Bernie lay in the dark on his brown bed. All his feelings melded together to form anger, and a particularly fearsome anger it was. 

“Hadn’t he only been trying to do his job? So why was it that they were all out to stop him? 

“That was it. They had all met together and decided to defy him. They had decided that life would be better without him.

“Had they stopped to consider what would become of their traffic flow once he was gone? What singular chaos might ensue once folk were parking wherever they felt like it, at whim? 

"Had any of them just once asked themselves why he was needed? Had they thought about that? Had they?

"And what did he ask from them? Was it so much? Was it really so very much? No, it was nothing. Nothing at all. Not a thing. And what did he get in return? Disrespect. Yes, disrespect, and parking on double yellows, that’s what he got, ho yes.

“What stupid senseless people he served. And why should he serve them? Why should he be their Public Servant, these folk who didn’t deserve to be served? And now they had taken his lights away. Taken the power for his television and his cooker away, and all the while not one had the decency to show their face.

“Pah! He would show them. He wasn’t one to be defeated so easily, not Bernie Collins, not a bit of it, oh no. He would be back out there tomorrow, just as he was today, just as he always would be. If needs be he would cover every single car in tickets, if that was what it would take. He knew his duty, even if other folk knew nothing of theirs. Stupid selfish evil folk ...

“Now, if there had been even just a trace of light in Bernie’s bedroom, he would have seen the smoke arising from his tummy button, his navel, d’y’see? But it was dark as coal in Bernie Collins’ brown house, and so he lay there, stoking the fire of his own demise.

“As he glowed with rage he braised his liver, grilled his guts and stewed the bile that had risen in his stomach. As the juices boiled inside of him, his thoughts became more terrifying, more tormented, more tortured. Down in his bowel, his gases had expanded until they could expand no more.

“And so it was that in a flash of flame and fart, Bernie Collins h-exploded. The fire leaped from his torn torso onto to his sheets, his room, his house, until there was not a trace of Bernie Collins left on the earth. His parking tickets were the only things that remained, as a testament.”

Padraig leant back in his chair, satisfied and slightly wearied by the effort of the telling.

Paul felt the onus on himself to offer a comment of some kind.

The silence was pregnant with Padraig’s expectation.

“You tell a good tale, Padraig. I wonder, would you mind if I built the fire up? It’s getting just the slightest bit chilly in here.” 

“And why wouldn’t you? Go ahead young man. But do me this. Build a good fire, or build a bad fire, but save, oh save me and spare me from a jolly fire. The idea of it. Indeed.”


© Charlie Adley