CANARY IN A COAL MINE

© Pauline English

I’m walking along the marina, like I do when I’ve got to get away. Away from the nagging, from John-where-are-you-going, John-stop-drinking, John-have-you-lined-up-the-next job, oh-John. I tell you, she’s like a bird at a mirror, peck, peck, peck.

She works hard, I’ll give her that. Keeps our little place clean, along with most of the peninsula. I stop briefly, roll up, shake my head. Can’t even smoke in my own house. My English flower. Drive me to an early grave.

I picture her as I walk past the flash yachts, nod at some of the fellas I’ve done work for.  She still has those pretty apple cheeks though her smile’s a bit gappy these days and the cornflower blue of her eyes has faded. Now it’s more the grey blue of the sea I peer at when I kiss her good morning. I dread the day I just see grey.

It’s so different from Dublin here. There’s this nice wee walkway for old folk to walk on, not that I’m old mind. Let’s get that straight. The marina water on my left is clear, so clear you can see the pebbles and the odd fish leaping out and landing in a circle of spray. It’s one of the reasons Ava wanted to come here. A fresh start she called it. I come here every day to remind myself. If I just keep walking something’s bound to come up. A man’s gotta be out and about to be spotted by Lady Luck.

I lost my license. It’s harder now to find work as an electrician, a good ol’ sparky. Got to have all the papers and bits signed off in case of fire. Some cash in hand would be good right now. I sometimes wonder if it was worth all the hassle coming here. But Ava’s happy, most of the time. I think she just liked the name Whangaparaoa. Said it tickled her tongue to say it. And when she found out it meant Bay of Whales, well that was it. So I let her have her way.

I walk, leaving the marina to cut through the boat yard on my right. You can’t get through any other way unless you make like Jesus. The boat-hauling machinery blocks the path, a giant travel lift that can hoist up to eighty tonnes. I stand and watch it for a moment, whistle at the painted red beauty in its clutches. Some serious coin here. She’s been pulled out to scrub off the barnacles. I wonder idly if they might need an extra hand, figure not.

Got to keep moving so I pop back to where the marina path runs away from the travel lift, the water one step to the left. A big ray follows me, probably thinking I’ll chuck him some fish heads. Not likely mate. If I had any they’d go straight back to the missus for the pot. I think about tripping, knocking my head on the way down, a splash before the sinking. It’d be quiet and worry free down there with him. But then what would my Ava do?

I roll another smoke. Then it’s a dog leg down the ramp to the ferry terminal, if you can call the little glass shelter a terminal, and back up onto the tip of the peninsula. I like it here, in this spot. The grass is bright, fresh like hope. I once found a four-leaf clover here, took it back to Ava. She told me each leaf means something, one for faith, two for hope, three for love, and four for luck. She said it like a poem. Then she kissed me, once on each eye. Knocked me right off my feet that did. I even told her I loved her. And she laughed. Said the only cure for that was marriage.

Off in the distance I can just spot Tiri Tiri Matangi, another name you can chew on, although I guess Irish is the same — gets the gob going. Sounds prettier though.

Look at that pasty tosser. Probably looking for treasure. He’s standing on another patch of shamrock green that reminds me of home. Not here. Proper home, back in Enfield, County Meath where you can get a decent pint of Kilkenny and a man’s a man. None of this PC stuff.

He’s got on one of those stupid floppy khaki hats that old men and poofs wear, with matching long shorts, like a school boy. His headphones are as big as the disc of his metal detector. He’s doing it all wrong. Me and the lads sorted one once so I know. Big Larry had just gone to the ‘joy and we figured he’d buried his share of the job in his nan’s garden. He hadn’t and the old lady chased us off with a pan. We had a laugh in the pub that night while poor Larry drank water behind the bars of Mountjoy Prison.

This fella has all those skinny ropes set up like he thinks he’s some explorer from the National Geographic channel. He’s built like a keg of whiskey, sweating buckets, skin shiny like some pig about to be butchered. As a lad I spent some time at the distillery in between jobs on the farm. There’s nothing like hauling kegs to help you size up a fella in a fight.

I watch him run the detector over each square. He grunts and snuffles as if it’s hard work, making him look even more like those shifty-eyed, fat hogs. They were good eating but a bugger to catch. I saunter over. Nothing better to do. I can ask about jobs on the way back through the yard.

I look up at him. What I lack in height I make up for in attitude. “What’s the story? Think the leprechauns left something behind?”

Maybe it’s one of those Maori pa things they’re always going on about. Might be some money in it.

“My wife’s engagement ring.”

I suck the air over my teeth to show sympathy.

“How’d the missus lose it?”

“New Years Eve picnic. Her and a girlfriend had a few too many champagnes and it slipped right off. She’s devastated.”

I nod, long and slow, wondering if she really lost it last night or if that’s just a story. I gave Ava a ring once, my ma’s, but she had to pawn it to pay some of our debts. I lost a bit on the ponies you see.

She was upset, I could tell by the way her mouth went all straight like the comics in the papers. I can picture it like yesterday. Her hands shook when she took off the thin band of rose gold. It made the flat morning light bounce off the four small diamonds, showing up every crack in the walls. My ma used to joke there was one rock for each one of us boys. Ava never did tell me off about it. But I catch her staring at her hand sometimes, like she can still see it there. My Ava.

“Dublin?” I ask. Now I recognise my mother’s accent.

“Yes,” he says, all proper, just like big city folk. Suppose I can’t judge him too hard, he’s from home. “You?”

“Enfield,” I say. He nods, like he knows where that is but I know he doesn’t. Posho.

“How long have you been looking for her?” I say, nodding at the detector.

“All day. I’m knackered.” It’s only eleven.

“Ouch. That’s gonna set you back a bit, innit?”

“Nah, the insurance will cover it but it’s a one-off design,” he says. “We had it made when we were in London. A canary diamond, for my little songbird.”

God, a romantic fucker. Makes me want to barf. His wife must be a real goer for him to talk like that. Another quizzy couple are wandering over to stick their oar in. I don’t even look at them. I don’t need to hear his love story. Ava would. She’d stop and help and coo at his tale. She’s good hearted like that.

“Good luck mate. I’ll keep an eye out.” I leave, fairly sharpish, before he comes out with more drivel.

“Cheers.” He waits for the couple, drawing the drama out. Probably the best thing to happen to him all year.

I keep an eye to the ground as I wander back to the small jetty, away from him and his sad string draught board. Never know when Lady Luck is looking my way. That Lady, she gives and she takes. Slapper.

Something glints, hard and sparkly, like the sun off the sea. I glance back to see if he’s looking, kick at its mossy cushion with my boot. The couple and him are still jabbering away. And what do we have here? I pocket it. Spin back to get another look at his company. What do we have here indeed?

So that’s his wife, standing there with some fella. She hasn’t seen me, his little canary. Small world. Sally the canary. I called her Mustang Sally. She cast me off a while ago. I was just a fling she said, examining her glossy French manicure. Ava didn’t know. Though I think she suspected. Got a bit funny. Looked at those flowers I brought her like they were lettuce.

Mustang Sally. I used to sing it for her sometimes. Made her laugh. She’d never heard of The Commitments so I told her I made it up. I came to wire up her house and instead, well, let’s just say the lights are still poked. She called me her bit of rough. Wasn’t even phased when I told her I was in the ‘joy for a while. Nothing too serious. Just bottled a fella who was getting cheeky in the pub. Shades didn’t see the justice in it at all.

Who would have thought Mountjoy Prison would be a good line? It made her all hot. She was so different to the missus, all smooth lines and polish, like one of those yachts they’ve got moored here. Exotic. But she’s hard, not like my Ava, whose eyes crinkle at the corners when she smiles. Not that she’s smiled in a while.

Sally smiles all the time with big shiny teeth like squares of white bread. She’s serving one up right now at her husband, a real faker. Gives him a brief peck on his oily cheek and she’s off. I watch her, see her revving her red Alfa Romeo. The repayments on that alone would pay for Ava’s hospital bills.

We had high hopes when we moved here. Had a bit of a record but got in anyway. Knew someone who knew someone. Thought we’d get a piece of land, start over. Then the cancer started eating into her like furrows in the earth. And without my crew, well, it’s the straight and narrow for me and that’s a mug’s game.

I head back.

“Any luck mate? See the missus checking up on you. Bringing you your tea was she?”

Fat chance. That lying bitch wouldn’t lift a finger.

“Nah,” he says, shaking his head sadly. The floppy hat makes him look like a slobbery dog. “She’s got to get to a church committee meeting. She was just stopping by with the reverend to let me know she might be home a bit late.”

I stop the snort before it comes out. Turn it into a cough. She’s still using that old chestnut. Sally at church. She may be on her knees praying but I doubt it’s in church.

His eyes go misty. It’s embarrassing. He thinks I’m a kinsman, a brother. Guess on this side of the sea we are, although back home he probably wouldn’t piss on me if I was on fire. Funny how that’s always the way.

“I don’t know, I feel, I feel, you know, like if I don’t find this ring, it’s over. She’s counting on me.”

Poor deluded bastard. I’d counted on her. She said she could get us fast tracked for citizenship. Knew someone who’d change a few numbers so it looked like we’d been here longer. Then we’d be in the system and Ava wouldn’t have to worry anymore. Sure there’d be a waiting list, isn’t there always but at least there’d be a chance.

“Well, a man’s gotta eat,” I tell him. “You’ll probably look better once you’ve got your strength up.” He nods, as if relieved someone is telling him what to do and we walk over to the pub.

Ava would have corrected my English, gently. A man has his pride but I let her get away with it. I love her accent, all posh. She’s not stuck up though. Comes from a good mining family. Her da came over to work in the mines at Tara. She told me some funny stories – funny peculiar, not funny ha ha –  like how he used to have a cage full of yellow canaries that she had to feed twice a day. Every day he’d take one to work with him. Sometimes they didn’t come back. Then she’d cry.

“Name’s Jim,” he says, stuffing mouthfuls of mince and cheese in between the words. He swallows and raises his drink. ‘Here’s to our wives and girlfriends. May they never meet!”

More like here’s to the husbands of our girlfriends. What the fuck? He must know something.

“John,” I say, with a curt nod. It took me years to get that nod right and now that I’m 40-ish and had to shave the ol’ bean it gives just the right edge of menace. Not that I can do anything with it. Can’t risk trouble right now.

I think back to Ava, crying over those birds. Can’t see Sally doing that. Anything that makes my Ava cry is bad luck. Those birds her da had, every time they took one down, men didn’t come back up. I reckon they’ve got it all arse about face. They’re wicked; yellow feathered poison.

That’s what she’s like, that Sally. A canary in a fuckin’ coal mine. It was alright before she came along. Then I lost my job and Ava got real bad, fast.

I feel a buzz on my thigh. I think about ignoring it, probably just Ava wanting me to get some milk on the way back. I pick up the beer he’s bought me, take a long draw on it. It tastes like cats piss but it goes down easy enough. Then I check my phone.

Say anything to Jim and I’ll tell your wife.

I squeeze the phone hard. I could crush it if I wanted to, my hands are that strong but then I’d have to look out for another one. Jim would ask questions. I neck the rest of my beer, angry now. I haven’t let go of the phone and it buzzes again, like some insect stinging me.

Answer me or I’m going in. I’m outside your house.

I jab at the keys. K.

K what?

Bitch. She’s enjoying this.

Wnt say anythng.

Jim is clueless. He’s just sitting there, stuffing his gob, talking round the food.

“That ring, it’s beautiful,” he says. “I saved up for a year to get the sparkler in the middle and then another to get the little diamonds on the side.”

He’s sharing, dropping back into a rougher accent, showing me he’s a man too. It’s the nod. It always gets them.

“She wouldn’t have married me otherwise.”

I lift the bottle for the dregs and realise it’s done. My hand aches; it wants to smash it in his stupid face. I want to tell him his wife is a lying slut. That she’d lie in nettles for it.

“Yeah she would’ve,” I say, carefully putting the bottle down.

“No. She told me. ‘It’s a canary diamond Jim, or nothing’.”

I finger the tiny circle in my pocket. We’ve had a few and my conscience is talking. Getting soft, my da would have said, soft in the head. I consider telling Jimmy I’ll have one more look in the fading light. Producing it triumphantly so he can give it back to that lying bitch. Us Irish gotta stick together.

“Never mind mate,” I tell him. “Insurance will pay out. May as well drown your sorrows in the meantime. That tab of yours still behind the bar?”

I’ll give it to Ava. Tell her the ponies came through for us. It’ll make her smile again, one last time. We’ll walk together down the marina and head for the peninsula edge, look for another cockeyed shamrock. I’ll give her the ring there. I might even tell her I love her again. That marriage wasn’t the cure after all.

But first I’ve got to wring that bird’s neck. End the bad luck, once and for all. Can’t have my Ava cry.

© Pauline English