SOME COWBOY – A story from my latest collection WHAT’S THE STORY?. (now available on amazon)
SOME COWBOY by Tom O’Brien
Johnjo’s greatest treasure was a bone-handled imitation Colt forty-five that his uncle sent him from Manchester for his twelfth birthday, together with a real leather holster and a tin star. He made himself a mask and some silver bullets and drove the neighbourhood crazy with his shouts of ‘hi-ho silver’ and ‘Kemo Sabe’. ( he never found out what this last expression meant but it sounded good) He was devastated the day Mick O’ Shea took the gun off him and broke the trigger trying to show how fast he was on the draw. He made several subsequent attempts to break a number of Mick’s bones with a hurley, but a catalogue of painful minor injuries of his own forced him to abandon the idea.
Without cowboy comics he would probably have been illiterate. He devoured them, slowly piecing the words in the balloons together and eventually making sense of them. Comics were his limit though; when it came to reading and writing in the classroom he wasn’t really interested. He camouflaged this to a degree by cajoling, bribing and sometimes by threatening. As a result, the teachers were never quite sure whether he was stupid or just plain lazy. There was however a quality he possessed which went unnoticed in the classroom; he possessed a native cunning which is sometimes better than intelligence. He found out early in life what a valuable commodity money was, and after school he would be found doing odd jobs for anybody willing to pay him for his efforts. He never spent his money foolishly either; in fact he never spent it at all except to pay someone a few pennies to do his homework for him.
He couldn’t wait to leave school. When he was fourteen, without a certificate to his name, he took a job with a local farmer for a couple of pounds a week. He fed cattle, cleaned drains, trimmed hedges, and gave his mother half his wages every week. His sad-eyed mother who was still waiting for the return of his father from Liverpool ten years after he caught the boat-train to his own particular hell. He saved diligently for three years – then his mother caught pneumonia and died. He used most of his savings to give her a decent funeral.
A week later he was in London. Its streets weren’t paved with gold as he had thought, but with solid concrete. This proved no obstacle to a lad with broad shoulders, and who could wield a pick and shovel like Cuchullian wielded his hurley. Digging holes and pulling cable made a man of him he said – mind you it had killed many a man too he later admitted.
He didn’t drink and he didn’t smoke, his only extravagance being cowboy gear. Soon he was a familiar sight on London’s building sites, with his ten-gallon hats, his fancy leather boots, and his real- cotton shirts imported from America. By now he had two ambitions in life; one was to own his own tipper truck, the other to visit Nashville and see The Grand Ole Opry.
He loved country music and in time his collection of country albums occupied most of his leisure hours. Patsy Cline, Flatt and Scruggs, Waylon Jennings, he had them all, their dulcet tones lovingly preserved in their dust-free, scratch-free jackets as if they were works of art. He became a country groupie and hung about pubs like The Nashville Rooms and The Red Cow in West Kensington, making the acquaintance of the likes of George Hamilton the Fourth and Tex Withers. Tex was a particular favourite of his, particularly as he arrived at some of the venues riding a white horse right up to the stage!
Johnjo was fascinated by his tales of being a native American Indian, who had been abandoned in a Texas reservation by his mother, and who subsequently somehow made his way to Clapton . He even bought himself a guitar and learned a few chords. Sometimes, when Tex was on stage, he was invited up to sing a song or two, for he had no mean voice himself.
All this time he nurtured his desire to go to Nashville. He planned to spend at least three months there, and be a cowboy to his heart’s content. Maybe he might even get to sing a few songs along the way! He was in no hurry; if it took ten years to realise his dream then so be it.
In five years he had acquired his own tipper lorry. It was then that he began his reign of terror on the streets of London. He became known as the fly-tip king. London was full of derelict sites waiting for someone like Jonjo to come along and fill them up. Jonjo was only too happy to oblige. He didn’t believe in paying good money to dump on official sites when he could do it elsewhere for nothing. He filled London full of rubbish wherever and whenever he could. Time was money, he was fond of saying and reconnoitring in his spare time ensured him a constant – and convenient – network of locations for his activities. A certain amount of subterfuge was often required because his ‘nose’ for suitable sites was soon common knowledge with other would-be fly-tippers.
It was this obsession with secrecy that almost caused his downfall. One morning, in his hurry to get away from his chosen location, he hadn’t made sure that the tipper body had been fully lowered by the hydraulic rams, only discovering his omission when he smacked into a low railway bridge – the impact sending him clean through the windscreen and depositing him on a grassy bank ten yards away. He used up most of his ten lives that day – walking away with hardly a scratch, and causing more damage to the bridge than his beloved truck. Thankfully it was a quiet country lane outside Barnet, and he managed to drive the lorry away before anyone was the wiser.
He wasn’t so lucky in love though. She was a green-eyed colleen from Limerick – by way of Kilburn – and she caught his eye on the darkened perimeter of the Galtymore club in Cricklewood one night. Something about her drew him straight away, and from the very first glance he was a goner. Afterwards, when he tried to analyse what it was all he could say was ‘it was the look of her, the way she looked’.
Her name was Marie and she worked at a Cricklewood factory, soldering bits of wire on printed circuits for car radios. It was his first real entanglement with the opposite sex, and he wasn’t too sure what the rules of engagement were. Back home in Ballysteen, at the local hops, to get a girl to dance you first had to pass the interview. She sized you up from head to toe then looked inquiringly at her friend. If the head nodded the answer was yes, if it shook then you might as well forget it, wild horses wouldn’t get her on the floor with you.
Old habits die hard, he discovered. Marie’s answer to his tentative inquiry as to whether she was dancing was a rather disdainful ‘I’m waiting for my friend’. Not sure how to react he replied ‘I’ll wait with you’, which made her laugh. When her friend returned he must have got the nod, for she danced with him most of the night. Then she disappeared.
He didn’t see her again for a couple of weeks. A couple of frantic weeks. Then one night she was at The Galtymore again. This time he made sure he didn’t lose her by keeping her and her friend well supplied with drinks in between their sessions on the dance floor. He even got them a taxi home, and though his only reward was a peck on the cheek, he went to bed ecstatic.
Marie kept her legs together for as long as she reasonably could; and by the time he prized them open it was already too late. By that time he had already showered her with presents, wined her and dined her, and bought her a five hundred pounds engagement ring. They talked about getting married, and he dragged her around Wembley in the long evenings inspecting run-down houses. She persuaded him to open a joint bank account and he paid most of his money into it. Then she cleaned him out.
It took about three months. He only found out when a cheque he had paid for fitting a new gearbox to his tipper truck bounced. By that time she had hopped it.
He never did get to Nashville. Somehow it didn’t seem that important any longer. And he never succumbed to a woman’s wiles again. He became even more determined, worked harder and fly-tipped on a scale never seen in the Capital before. A lot of people wanted to catch him at it but they never did. ‘They’ll have to get up early in the morning to catch me’ he boasted. In a few more years he had several more trucks on the road, and Mick O’Shea, his old school foe was driving one of them. He still referred to Jonjo as ‘The Lone Ranger’.
In the years that followed he acquired a fleet of trucks. He gave up fly-tipping and became legit. Mick was now his right hand man and ran the operation with an iron fist. Jonjo allowed himself only one pleasure – and that was two weeks holiday every year in his old home in Ballysteen. There, he visited his mother’s grave, cleaned it and put fresh flowers on it, and cursed his father over the occasional whiskey which he now allowed himself. In between times he reconstructed the derelict homestead and spent most of his days in solitude there.
One night, maudlin with drink, he recounted to Mick O’Shea the fiasco with Marie. Several weeks later Mick had a story of his own to tell; ‘A fella I know from Limerick knew that woman of yours, and he reckons she’s not too bright. Certainly not bright enough to clean you out on your own. I found out she was crazy about an English bastard called Tim Reed before she met you, but he had dumped her. The story goes that he was heard boasting in certain pubs around Shepherds Bush about how she had come crawling back to him , and how he had gotten her to clean out a ‘stupid Paddy’ for him. The story also goes than when he got his hands on the money he threw her out again’.
The news didn’t seem to upset Jonjo too much, but unknown to anybody he went and hired a private detective. It cost a lot of money but he reckoned it was money well spent. Reed, he learned, was still frequenting his old haunts, and never seemed stuck for female company. They were attracted to him like flies to shit. One night as he staggered home – alone for a change – Jonjo emerged from the shadows of a church graveyard and laid into him with a hurley. He was sure he heard his skull crack from one of the blows – but he didn’t care. And he never bothered to find out if Reed had survived the beating. ‘Good riddance to bad rubbish’, was all he said to himself..
Shortly after this he tired of all the trucking. He presented Mick O’Shea with two of his finest vehicles, and sold the rest of the business for nearly a million quid. He returned to Ireland, bought a run-down roadhouse a few miles outside Ballysteen, and spent a fortune converting it into a country-and-western nite-spot. He named it the Nashville Rooster and filled the countryside with the sound of bluegrass and Cajun music. Soon he was pulling in the crowds, and money was rolling in faster than it had ever done.
One night Marie turned up. She had a young boy with flaming red hair in tow. The twelve year interval hadn’t treated her too kindly.
If Jonjo was surprised he didn’t show it.
‘You should have stuck with me, girl’, he waved a hand expansively. ‘All this could have been yours. You backed a loser in that Tim Reed’. He watched her eyes widen in surprise. ‘Oh yes, I know all about that piss artist. He’d pass blood before he’d pass a pub’. He shook his head at her. ‘And you gave my money to that wanker’.
She didn’t say anything but he could see the pain in her eyes. He marvelled at her nerve in coming here.
‘Give me a drink, Jonjo’, she spoke finally. ‘For old times sake. I can’t say I am sorry for what I did to you because it would only be empty words. I never meant for it to turn out the way it did, though. You must believe that…’ Her voice trailed off.
The boy had wandered off to watch a game of pool. Jonjo studied him for a moment before picking up a glass and jabbing it at an optic. ‘That’s what you used to like’, he said, placing the drink before her. He waited until she had wrinkled her nose the way he remembered then lick her top lip before taking a sip, before he spoke again.
‘What do you want? he asked harshly.
She sipped some more, watching him all the time with those forlorn eyes of hers, the look that had bamboozled them all those years ago still shining defiantly across the bar counter at him.
‘I thought you might like to see our son’, she said softly.
Jonjo clenched his fists hard and pushed his left knee against the wooden counter to brace himself. Being told he had a son was the last thing he had expected.
‘I don’t believe you’, he spoke eventually.
‘For God’s sake’, she hissed, ‘you’re not stupid. Look at him; same hair, same jaw-line, same eyes…of course he’s yours. If you never again do anything for me, do something for him. Give him a start in life’.
‘You never said anything…at the time’.
‘I didn’t know, did I? Not until …afterwards’.
‘Not until you done a runner’, he was almost shouting now. ‘Well, you mean nothing to me…he means nothing to me. Take him away and leave me alone’.
She didn’t speak to him again. She slowly drained her glass, wiping her lips – caressing almost – with her middle finger and sucking the residue in that endearing way he remembered. Then she flicked her hair back with a casual sweep of the same hand and called the boy to her.
‘Say goodbye to the man, Johnny’.
‘Goodbye Sir’. The boy extended his hand, ‘nice to meet you’.
Jonjo watched them retreat. There were tears in his eyes. Why should he believe her? Why should he believe a word she said? It was a gimmick…a trick to con him out of his money. Just like the last time.