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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 


Frank McGuinness

He came from out foreign and he spoke wild funny. All the older girls thought he was the last word from the day and hour they set eyes on him but they were stupid, and he would no more look at them than if he was the man in the moon. I don't know where that shower got the notion that he was the kind of fellow listened to the likes of them. Was it because of the way some of them sprawled in front of him, were they expecting him to draw them? I doubt if he even noticed they were making a show of themselves. He certainly didn't breathe a word in front of me if his stomach was turning at the sight of those eejits. Maybe he was blather­ing to himself in his own language, so we would never make out what he thought of them. It was hard to know what he thought. My mother said, he keeps himself to himself, and will you let the poor stranger alone? He has his work to do, he wants to do it and get home. Like the rest of us, he's missing his own bed. Making all the beds — his as well — that was one of my jobs about the houses, the upper and the lower. We owned two houses down the lane. We weren't swanky, just that one belonged once upon a time to my Granny and Granda. Anyway, I was saying about his bed, it smelt like none of the rest. It was just always fresh. Mammy changed our sheets once a week and his sheets were washed at the same time, but there was a scent like himself on them, and it was nice, I thought. He must have cleaned himself very thoroughly. I know he did, for I saw him once. The man is meticulous, my mother told her sisters, my two aunts. In fact, to tell the truth, if I were being honest, I'd say he was pernickety, she whispered. I left them to their whispers but they didn't know I'd seen him soaping himself at the basin in his room. He was browner than anybody I'd ever seen. And even though he didn't know I was watching him and I didn't want him to know, I nearly asked him out loud if all the men were as tanned as he was back where he came from, but I didn't. Here the sun turns everybody beetroot — especially our ones with our red hair to a man and a woman, especially my mother.

He said to me he liked red hair. Not like his own, that I saw on his chest, wet from the water in the white basin, the hairs black as your boot, and fine as the ones on his arms. Yes, he was meticulous in the morning but by evening time he was anything but. Then he was stained with the colour of the paint.
His clothes were stinking to high heaven by the weekend. Mammy fetched them herself down from his room come Friday night, so they could be soaked and the dirt got out of them by Saturday evening, for it is a sin to wash clothes on a Sunday. A venial sin. But to iron on Sunday — well, that is mortal, and if you do and you die, God will brand your bare back with the mark of a red hot iron. Imagine the squeals out of you suffering that. And the smell of your skin burning. So the Sunday was not a day for work, but plenty of times he did. He would lock the door to stop anybody coming in to annoy him. Not that I did so after he lost his temper the first time I juked my head round to see how he was doing. His face turned the most awful shade and he just roared at me. What did he say scared the living daylights out of you? Mena Kiely asked me. I told her I couldn't tell because I didn't understand one word. Mena said, God forgive him, he must have been cursing in his own language. Well, he was very angry what­ever he was saying, he put the heart crosswise in me, Mena, I thought I was going to die, honest to good God, I told her. But you didn't, did you? Mena whispered. And my cheeks burned scarlet. That was because, well, Mena was expected to die at any minute, God rest her. No — no, I mean, God love her. She wasn't exactly my best friend, but you had to mind her all the time at school, or out playing. She was very delicate and she couldn't run fast. If you hit her hard she would lose her breath as if she raced all the mile from Cockhill cemetery to the town. We all took a turn to give her a wallop to hear how she panted. She didn't care the first time you did it because the noise of it was a good laugh, but if you kept hitting her then she'd tell your mother or the nun. Nobody minded her being a tittle-tattle because she was sick, but it meant you couldn't trust her.
You could trust me though. I'd say nothing to anybody about any­thing. I had eyes in my head and ears that could listen but that doesn't mean I would let the world know my own or my family's business. That's why it was really stupid for him not to let me see his old paintings. God strike me down dead for saying that because it was holy pictures he was doing. That much I knew for sure from the start because it was Fr O'Hagen brought him to us in the first place. I thought Mammy was going into a fit when she opened the door to see a priest standing there with a smile on his face, and he wasn't looking for money....