He revs the engine, revs it so hard a plume of black smoke erupts from the exhaust and hovers menacingly in the still country air.
“Come on to fuck…” he mouths at the stalled car up ahead.
Maurice is never late. “Punctuality and organisation,” he would often tell Catherine, “that’s the difference between me and that shower, the dole farmers”.
He mounts the grass verge and maneuvers free, beeping the horn wildly as his jeep moves past the stranded Ford Fiesta. In the rear view mirror, a young man leaps from the car, waves a fist in the air and gives Maurice the finger.
“Save it for your wife,” Maurice says out load, working the gears quickly from first to fifth as the young man dissolves into a horizon of hedge and county road.
“Shite,” says Maurice, catching sight of the digital clock on the dashboard. How has this happened? Where had the morning gone? As the jeep roars past 100 kilometres per hour, he searches his mind, trying to pinpoint where the time had been lost. He had woken on time, a little early even, plenty of time to finish the milking, feed the cattle and then have breakfast himself. That was the morning routine. Milk the cows before you feed them; it concentrates their minds and encourages them to milk quickly. And the cattle always eat first, as an encouragement to himself. He could see his breakfast, laid out as usual on the kitchen table as he removed his wellies and left them to stand in the shadow of the back door. One boiled egg and the heel of a brown loaf, freshly toasted on the griddle of the range.
“You’ll give him a good price,” Catherine had said, as she got his cap and the good jacket from the front hall. “He’s a neighbour. He’s a good man.”
A good man, thinks Maurice as, he turns into the mart and brings the jeep to a halt. A good fucking man. He’d have gone under years ago but for the socialists in Brussels. Paid to do nothing, fields left idle with crops of thistle and ragwort and the big cheque in the post from Europe each December.
The desperate bellow of a frightened heifer brings Maurice back to himself. He looks at his watch.
“Shite,” he says, unbuckling his seatbelt quickly. “Shite, shite, shite.”
“Shite,” he says, unbuckling his seatbelt quickly. “Shite, shite, shite.”
A vague ache begins to creep across his forehead as he climbs the cast iron stairs, moving as quickly as he dares without seeming to rush. As he reaches the large open doorway, beads of unwelcome sweat have gathered on his temple.
“Mossy,” nods a dour farmer, smoking in the doorway.
“How’a’ya,” gasps Maurice.
“Your spot’s above,” says the farmer, pointing to an empty space in the centre of top terrace with the butt of a half-smoked Major. “We weren’t sure ya were coming.”
“Good man,” says Maurice, hurrying inside.
A good man, Maurice thinks, as he makes his way to his spot high in the concrete coliseum. There are no good men here.
Maurice always sits in the same place in the mart, on the highest terrace, directly across from the auctioneer. No one ever sits beside him. From this perch, he can see the other farmers rise and fall with every bid. He can see their worries and fears, when they are ready to sell and when they need just a little bit more. He can see the auctioneer and he makes sure the auctioneer can always see him. Over the years Maurice has bought low and sold high. He has never taken a dud animal from any man, never paid more than was absolutely necessary.
But now, as he settles onto his familiar patch of grey concrete, something feels different. Squinting, he spies his neighbour on the opposite side of the mart, loitering outside the auctioneers hatch. Best not make eye contact. It would only complicate things. Make things… difficult somehow.
A good man, the words enter Maurice’s head uninvited. He brings his hand to his forehead and presses softly. Why had Catherine said that? What is it to her what this fake-farmer gets for his one decent animal?
Over the years, Maurice and Catherine had developed a number of unspoken rules. Breakfast at nine, dinner at three, wellies to the back door, shoes and the good jackets to the front. Things had been better since they moved into separate rooms. With the possibility of children long since gone, he enjoyed the simple convenience that came with the guest bed. There was no more shouting. Nothing unnecessary, nothing difficult.
A good man. The words revolve in Maurice’s head, pushing his headache one way and then the other. He closes his eye. A good man…a good man… a good man… Has he touched her?
“Can you not hear me?” a male voice finds Maurice.
“Wha?” replies Maurice breathlessly. He turns and sees a young man sat beside him on the cold concrete. “What did you say?”
“Is it yourself?” says the young man.
“What? Do you know me?”
“I know you, but I’d bet you don’t know me. You’re Maurice Murphy. Right? A brilliant farmer. Top class. That’s what they say. Top class. King of the mart.”
“What… how do you…”
“Sure doesn’t every farmer in here know you. What have you your eye on today?”
“Sure you’re hardly here for the company and the lively conversation. Not from the likes of us anyway.”
“I’m just here for a look,” offers Maurice, his head now throbbing freely. “Nothing here today worth buying.”
“Is that right?” says the young man. He takes a packet of Marlboro Lights from the breast pocket of this jacket. “Smoke?”
“No,” says Maurice. “And you can’t either. You’ll have to go as far as the door, or at least close to it.”
“Fuck that,” says the young man. “I’ll do what I like. Who’s gonna stop me? These fuckers? Ha!” He taps the butt of the cigarette against the closed packets and then lights it with an oversized Zippo. He exhales. An impossibly large cloud of smoke fills the air. “That’s what we’re like,” he continues. “Isn’t it? Men like you and me. If we want something, we get it. We just take it.”
“Listen,” says Maurice, rubbing his temple. “Just quiet down? Will you? And don’t blow any-a that smoke in my direction.”
“Ha! Would you look at in,” says the young man, pointing as a two-year-old bull is led into the ring. “That’s him. That’s the neighbours bull.”
“What?” says Maurice. “How do you…”
A ruffle of noise circles the mart as the auctioneer begins to crackle out over the loud speaker.
-A fine animal-a fine beast-who will start me at three hundred?-three, three, three, three, three-I’m bid three- who will bid me three fifty, fifty, fifty, fifty…
The young man leans close to Maurice. “He’s a good man, your neighbour.”
-We have four fifty-can someone give me five, five, five, five-
“Stop it,” snaps Maurice. He searches the crowd for a sight of his neighbour, but the smoke is too thick. He closes his watering eyes and lifts his hand blindly to the auctioneer.
-Five hundreds-we have five hundred from the top table-can anyone give me five fifty for this beautify animal-five fifty, five fifty, five fifty, fifty, fifty…
“I can see why she likes him,” the young man whispers.
“You shut your mouth,” says Maurice. “Shut your mouth or I’ll box your nose for you. I’ll wipe that smile right off your face.”
-Six hundred!-we have six hundred-let someone give me six fifty-six fifty, six fifty, six fifty, fifty, fifty, fifty…
“That’s it! That’s the Maurice Murphy I know. No one takes anything from you. No one.”“I don’t want to hear another word from out your mouth, or God help me.” Maurice pulls his fingers together to form a fist. “God help me.”
-Seven fifty-Holy Moses-can anyone give me eight, eight, eight, eight…
“You’re right,” says the young man, blowing one last cloud of smoke into the air around Maurice. “You have work to do. Maybe if you buy that animal, maybe then she might love you again.”
The words strike Maurice. Heavy and dark, the mart begins to circle around him, like leaves caught in a November wind.
- Nine hundred euro-come on lads-is there anyone will give me nine fifty, anyone?
Maurice clutches the cold concrete. He closes his eyes. He breathes.