map One Night In August Sang

by Kevin Barry

Published in Issue No. 56 ~ January, 2002

It’s June, in the evening, a little past eight.
The day has been warm, with lots of sun. The sky is bright still, but soon
a stretching dusk will come. Residual traffic surfs along the main road
to the city. Car radios hum. In the petrol station Morrie switches on the
Texola sign–red on black. There are four pumps and a small shop. He likes
this time of year best. From morning until close kids scam in and out for

He has had the franchise ten years, and business has been good, more
or less. There has been some luck in his life. The station is on the main
road if you’re heading for Limerick or Galway, Mallow, the west. The shop
is popular with people who live nearby. Outside the light thickens and
purples the roadway. It glints off the roofs of many houses, a sight that
deeply satisfies him. He’ll close at eleven, go home and have supper, a
few drinks. The weather is expected to last. He can hear the birds settle
in their nests in a swathe of waste ground across the road.

Just before nine o’clock a car pulls up by the waste ground. A skinny
man takes out a hammer and a timber post and thumps the post into the ground.
Then he tacks up a piece of paper, covers it with clingfilm, to protect
it should the weather change, and the weather will change. The job takes
five minutes.

Morrie is excited. There has been talk that city hall is going to do
something with the waste ground. A little park, or houses. Either way,
good news for his garage. He crosses the road and reads what turns out
to be a planning notice. Harland Holdings has made an application for a
retail/service station.

The gases in his stomach bubble and whine, louder than the surfing traffic
and shrieking teenagers. He locks up the shop and is home before half-nine.

His wife is shaking lettuce dry in the kitchen sink, and the thought
comes to him that the motion of her wrist is overtly sexual. Surprise slips
over her pretty features. What are you doing here at this time, she says.
Jean, he says, would you make me a cup of strong tea. He sits at the kitchen
table, and his head falls into his hands. Sweetheart what’s the matter,
she says, and she is behind him quickly, her damp hands on his neck. There’s
a planning notice gone in, he says, for the land across the road, retail/service

The fluorescent kitchen light overtakes the last of sunlight’s glow,
and he sees his wife reflected in the window. They can’t do that Morrie,
she says, not just across the road from us. We’ll object.

But that is business for you. The city hall can sell that land to whoever
it wants and bam, goodnight Vienna. Even so, the next morning, a little
after ten, he makes his way to town, wearing his one suit. He and Jean
tried to brush it off last night. They assured each other the new station
would never go up and drank two bottles of wine on deckchairs in the back
garden. The kids were inside watching TV, oblivious. Even if it happens,
he and Jean said, we have our customers, people are loyal, you have to
trust the good in people. They left the windows open in the bedroom and
fell asleep as an unclean musk floated in from the river. He awoke an hour
later and was quickly at the kitchen table, with the books out. A harsh
eye showed him that in reality they weren’t so very far from the precipice.
If they lost a quarter of their trade, they would be close to trouble.
What happens, he thinks on his way into town, if we lose half?

The city hall is imposing until he gets through the door and then he
could be in Bulgaria. Beige walls and beige tiles and little glass windows
with bitter-looking people behind them. He asks a woman at a counter to
direct him to the planning department. What’s it about, she says, fiddling
with her bra strap. He wants to strike her but mumbles his question again,
and she sends him to a creaking lift that smells of furniture polish and
baby spew. Then he sits on a chair in a warm corridor.

One seething infinity later a door opens and a man in a brown suit beckons
him into a tiny office. Morrie says he has a query about the Harland application
for the New Road.

Oh it’s all gone through, says the man, and I believe work will start

Is there any such thing as consultation with the local people, asks
Morrie. That was supposed to be turned into a park.

Says who?

That was always the idea, that’s a green area for that whole part of
the city, it’s a lung for the entire North side.

A lung, says the brown suit, peering over his glasses. All it is is
a few nettles and rocks.

Look, says Morrie, I have a garage fifty yards across the road from
that site.

Now we’re cutting to the chase.

And there is no way the same type business can be allowed to open up
across from me.

Says who?

Fifty yards!

Have you never seen a garage near another garage? Drive out the Red
Cow in Dublin and there’s garages up on top of each other.

I’m not the Red Cow, you’re not comparing like with like.

Listen to me–the brown suit leans over the desk, his temples pulsating–do
you know what country you’re in? This isn’t China. Free enterprise is free
enterprise. This development will employ thirty-eight people.

Bad news on a sunny day. Walking back from the city hall Morrie stops
at a pub and calls for a whiskey. He is not used to calling for whiskey
at half-eleven in the morning and he is uncomfortable with it. By instinct
and experience the barman knows something is up and he knows too, of course,
that it all roots down to money. He serves up whiskey after whiskey without
a question. Morrie has a headache by the time he gets home.

As it turns out, Jean is far stronger than Morrie. She tells him not
to get down. What good are we depressed?  She talks to some local
politicians, but they do nothing. She says, Morr, fuck them, we’re here
ten years, people know us, we have nothing to worry about. It has turned
into the most glorious summer; weeks pass without rain. He tries to keep
his spirits up, for the sake of Jean and the kids, but he knows that he
is walking around the place like a cold morning. He develops a pulsing
vein at the side of his throat; it throbs away hours on end, and he is
paranoid that people can actually see it. His stomach constantly churns.
That’s stress, says Jean.

The Tuesday after the August bank holiday, the bulldozers move in, a
whole squadron of them. Their rate of progress frightens him. By the end
of the week, the whole site is cleared, smooth as a snooker table. Everybody
who comes into the shop is talking about the new place; it is extraordinary
how insensitive people can be. Competition never hurt anyone, Morr, says
one guy. He feels like jumping over the counter and hitting him a dawk.
His brother stands in at the garage the third week in August, and Morrie
takes Jean and the kids off to Tenerife. He’s usually great on holidays,
he has a child’s enthusiasm for them, but he cannot buck himself up. He
goes for long walks by himself so he won’t depress the rest of them. It
is amazing. On a golden beach in August sun with the kids and his wife
and all he can think about is bulldozers.

Driving in from the airport, he hits the bends of distraction, he leans
into them as best he can. He half expects the new place to be up and running
already. But instead hoardings have been erected all around the site, blocking
the work from view. This makes him worse. Not knowing how quickly things
are moving is terrible. By the time the kids are back in school in September
he is barely sleeping. At four one morning he finds himself pulling on
his clothes, sneaking out of the house like a robber and crossing the road
under the chilly light of the street lamps. He climbs the hoardings to
get a look. Ridiculous, because what can you tell from looking at a building
site at four in the morning?  He is clinging to the hoardings with
his fingertips, heart thumping, when a car pulls up. He hops down to find
two police looking at him.

How’s it going, says one of them.

I have the garage across the road, he says. I was just having a look
to see how things were going.

At half four in the morning?

They ask him where he lives and he has to tell them. Then they say they
are going to bring him home.

Imagine Jean. First waking in the middle of the night and no sign of
Morrie, then racing down palpitating and there he is between two police
with a big stupid grin on his face. They are good about it, at least, and
they go away. Jean puts on the kettle and makes a pot of strong tea. Maurice,
she says, the most important thing now is your health, do you know what
I’m saying to you, love?  This thing is driving you off the rails,
and you’re not going to be much good to us on the flat of your back in
the hospital, sedated.

Jean, he says, you have a way of making me feel like I’m six years old.

Well if you’re going to act it, what am I supposed to do, she says.

It is actually a relief when the hoardings come down. He had found he
could not keep away from them. He had taken to sauntering by in the quiet
of mid-morning, checking over his shoulder to see if anybody was looking.
Then he’d put his ear to the hoardings to try and hear what was going on
inside. But what can you tell from the thump of a kango hammer?  Jean
passed one day in the Micra and started beeping like crazy. Maurice! she
roared out the window, I’m warning you!

With the hoardings gone, there it is suddenly, agleam on this November
morning, a gorgeous winter morning with an icy bite to the air and a blinding
light. It is enormous. A forecourt with rows of pumps, computerised, laid
out around a cobble-paved yard, all leading in towards a vast superstore.
Once your worst nightmare has materialised before you, it almost acts as
a balm to the soul. Here is the worst thing, you think; life cannot get
worse now.

It opens a week later. The pristine chrome pumps stand like a royal
guard, shimmering. The store has everything. There is an in-house bakery
and from early morning the scent of fresh bread wafts across the road and
over the roofs of the small houses, advertising its luscious farls. A pizza
counter lists daily specials. All kinds of wine line the shelves, and condoms,
and at the back sit magazine racks raucous with soft core pornography.
The walls are ceiling-high with trinkets, Walkmans, disposable underwater
cameras. Handy, says Morrie, for the coral reefs of the Lee. There are
rows of fresh and exotic fruit, peppers that look as if they’ve been blown
up with a pump. There is a deli counter with produce from farms in Italy,
stores in Paris; a photo-booth and a copy machine; a flower stand. Morrie’s
Texola sign dates from 1973. The sign on the new place looks like something
from Disneyland, a fiery herald for the winter nights:  Exxon!

Trade doesn’t just gradually drop off. It goes completely, straight
away. The very first week, hours pass without a sinner coming near the
garage. People whose sick children he has asked after won’t cross the road
to give him the time of day. They are over sniffing at the fresh bread,
being served organic coffee from Papua, New Guinea by bright young assistants
in pressed uniforms with cute red caps.

In December the take is down seventy-five percent. The books indicate
they could go under before the summer comes around again. Texola doesn’t
want to know. It is a multinational, what does it care about a tiny franchise
deep in shit on the New Road outside of Cork?

After the horrors of anticipation, Morrie fills with rancour and bile.
The doctor puts him on Halcyon. It kicks in nicely, and while he hardly
forgets his troubles, he is swaddled against them and his thoughts seem
less antagonistic. They get through Christmas. The kids are bright and
can plainly see the business is crippled. It is difficult to be ten years
old and to see your parents flail.

Jean is a woman with the sweetest disposition you will ever meet, but
she is no longer herself. Small things, snapping at a child over a slice
of burned toast, stupid things. Sharp comments, picking at her food, headaches.
Suddenly he is the one on steadier feet, coddled in his Halcyon daze. He
talks to her one evening in January.

Jean, he says, we have to be strong now.

Listen to mellow-yellow, she says.

He loves the start of February. He loves to see February 1st put in
an appearance on the calendar. Though the weather doesn’t change, and there
isn’t much more light, it is a psychological boost when February comes
in. There’s another winter beat, you think. But the joys of spring are
scarce this particular February. Morrie and Jean spend the days in the
shop, elbows on the counter, like the last survivors of a ghost town, waiting
for tumbleweeds to bounce across the petrol pumps. They stare sombrely
at the never-ending streams pouring into the Exxon for French sticks and
Haagen Daaz and disposable underwater cameras.

Jean, he says, maybe the only way to look at this is as an opportunity.
Could we not think about starting up somewhere else?  Reinvent ourselves! 
Why give in, she says, we’ve been happy here. Which is true, and it is
also true that it is hard to reinvent yourself in a town where everybody
knows what you had for tea.

They make some half-hearted attempts to fight back. He goes to a bakery
in town and arranges a delivery of donuts each morning. They put up a sign
outside saying “Fresh Donuts!” but they end up eating half the donuts themselves.
They cut their prices, they sell for close to cost. He is down in the Cash
‘n’ Carry wholesale a million times, looking for gimmicks, fresh angles.
He arrives back one day with forty-eight digital watches in a special display
case. Jean says he should be committed and makes him bring them back.

He knows there is something seriously wrong when she says she isn’t
going to his brother’s wedding. She likes his brother and she loves a wedding.
Couldn’t be bothered, she says, I have nothing to wear and I can’t afford
anything. He looks at her then and sees her for the first time in many
months. The colour has changed in her, she is liverish. She has aged three
or four years. She is round-shouldered, slumped, and she always had a lovely
walk, very erect, it was the first thing that attracted him to her. He
stops taking the Halcyon. He says, there is no way I am letting this happen
to my wife. Be a man for once in your life. Act!

Desperate measures. He phones his cousin Carl. There is a favour owed,
you could argue, because Morrie stood bail three years ago when Carl got
arrested for organising dog fights; Jean didn’t talk to him for a week,
but family is family. They meet at a bar, Carl thinks nothing of meeting
in bars at half-ten in the morning.

Morrie boy, says Carl, you’re gone off your fucking game altogether.
There is no way, he says, the insurance will take a fire serious. Morrie
asks for some advice anyway. Morr, says Carl, if the pumps go you could
take half the town with you.

The bad luck is that Morrie trips as he races for the door of his flaming
shop. He is mildly concussed and takes some burns. As he is carried away
on a stretcher he sees Jean run down the road towards him, screaming. He
thinks he is dying then, though he doesn’t die, and he thinks that final
things should be said. And what he wants to say is that he can remember
when he was young, and it had been a miserable summer, but one night in
August sang like a summer night should sing, and she was in the park surrounded
by pink light, tawny, skinny as only nineteen can be skinny.

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Kevin Barry is an Irish writer presently based in Edinburgh. His short fiction has appeared in Phoenix Irish Short Stories, an anthology published annually in London. Along with preparing a short story collection, he works as a freelance travel writer and commentator for the Irish Times in Dublin, the Sunday Herald in Glasgow and other papers. This is his first on line publication.