Hugh John McClean was a perfect example of a rural Irish man; he was a good neighbour, a hard worker, and a man always on the look-out for an easier way to make his living. All of his life he had lived in a small country cottage, which was eventually left to him in his late father’s will. He had died quite unexpectedly when Hugh John was just a young man of eighteen years. In his father’s will, however, it had been stipulated that Hugh John’s mother would be ‘given her day’ in the cottage. In short this clause meant that the mother would be guaranteed to be able to live in the cottage for the remainder of her days. This was something, of course, which Hugh John was very happy to allow his mother to live in the cottage for the rest of her life, because he had no other person who would wash and iron his clothes, cook him hearty meals, or make his bed in the manner in which he had become used to.
It had been Hugh John’s father who had gained for him his first job in ‘Deeney’s Bacon Factory’, which stood about two miles from the family cottage and to which he could cycle his bike, both evening and morning, in just over fifteen minutes. Unlike his father, Hugh John was not exactly ‘the brightest knife in the drawer’ and he was, therefore, not suitable for many of the tasks available within the factory. His first job was simply to count the pigs that farmers had brought to the factory for slaughter. On those days when there were no pigs arriving Hugh John was given the task of keeping the yards and buildings clean, and for packing produce in preparation for delivery. Mick Deeney, the factory owner, took a particular liking to Hugh John, ignoring his lack of ability and often praising his work ethic. There was none who could deny that Hugh John worked hard from Monday to a Friday and socialised well at the weekends. On the occasional Thursday evening he would, however, gather with several local friends and fellow workmates to play a few hands of cards.
To the rear of ‘Wee Jimmy’ McGinn’s house there was a ramshackle hut that had been constructed from various bits of spare wood, packing cases, corrugated iron and many other recycled materials, all of which had been painted a deep red colour. The local men who had come together to build this ramshackle, but solidly constructed, hut decided that they would call it “The Pigeon Club” though it never covered one pigeon in all of its existence. It was supposed to be a private, members only social club although only one of its members kept a pigeon coop. The main purpose of this building was a social meeting place for the local men, where they could enjoy a game of cards and a few pints of beer. They had no license to sell alcohol but you could bring in whatever you wanted to drink on the premises quite legally. Each Friday one of the committee members would buy a hundred or more cans of various beers and a few bottles of whisky, brandy, rum and vodka. The members would then ‘ donate’ a certain amount of money each time they wanted a drink and by ‘donating’ avoided the illegal selling of alcohol.
The nearest public bar for this area of the country was four miles away and no one wanted to risk drinking and driving. Some would have called it a “Shebeen” (Illegal Drinking Den), while others referred to it as a members only club and its membership continued to grow. The local women would have avoided “The Pigeon Club” because it was seen to be mainly for the men of the district, who enjoyed the various gambling games that were played there. It was even decided to buy a television for the club so that they could watch the horse racing on television, betting on the races by telephone call from “Wee Jimmy’s” house. There were occasions, however, when the wagers placed could be quite high and the losses significant, especially on those nights when “the drink was in and the wit was out,” as people say.
One particular night Hugh John reduced his alcohol intake, drinking considerably less whisky and beer than some of the other members. It was one of those rare occasions when he came home from the club reasonably sober and with a considerable amount of winnings from playing cards. The very next day, Hugh John went into the factory and began negotiating with a colleague for the purchase of a small Honda motorbike. Several men within the factory advised Hugh John that he should avoid buying the motorbike, but he was not to be deterred and spent all his winnings on the purchase. He was determined that he would have a mode of transport much better than a bicycle to get him to and from his daily work.
The Honda motorcycle was black in colour and its chrome handles shone brightly in the afternoon sunshine as he rode it home at twenty miles-per-hour with the red crash helmet on his head that had been thrown into the deal for free. When he reached home Hugh John’s old mother was very surprised to see him on a motorcycle and marched up to him, telling him, “In the name of the good Christ Hugh John, what the hell are you doing on one of those modern contraptions.”
“Ah, Ma! Sure I’ll be alright once I get used to driving it,” he told her proudly and proceeded to park the vehicle at the side of the cottage.
On the first Saturday that he had the motorcycle Hugh John rode it into town, parking outside the “Bookies’ Shop”, where he always placed his bets for the week-end and had some craic with friends. Unfortunately, friends with much more experience of motorbikes chose this time to inform Hugh John’s Honda motorcycle was actually a Honda moped. When they pointed this out to Hugh John he felt a great disappointment, but this became anger when he told them the price he had paid and they laughed. In their experience they felt that the moped was worth far less than the amount of money that he had paid. Several of his friends came outside to examine the purchase and he was told that the engine on the moped was not sounding very healthy and would need to be looked at. Upset and angry, Hugh John rode home that evening and immediately rolled the cycle into the kitchen of the cottage and fetched his toolbox.
“Holy Jaysus!” said his mother when she saw him bring the cycle into the kitchen, “What are you doing now Hugh?”
“One of the boys in town said that the engine was running a bit rough and needed looking at,” he told her. “I’m just going to fix it.”
“Sure what do you know about these modern machines, son?” she asked. “And the kitchen is not the place to do that dirty work.”
“It can’t be that hard. Sure there’s not a great difference between a motorcycle and a bicycle, mother. There’s only a small motor and sure that can’t make much of a mess.”
Opening his toolbox Hugh John selected a set of spanners and began to strip the moped down to its most basic parts. This was the easy bit of the exercise and it did not take him long to complete it. But, as he looked at the many parts of his moped spread over the kitchen floor Hugh John became totally confused about what to do next. Putting everything back in place and in order was not going to be easy. Hugh John had never thought there would be so many individual parts to such a small engine and he wondered if he could return the engine to its original condition. In the beginning he was convinced that if he took the engine apart in a certain sequence then, by reversing that same sequence, he could easily reassemble the engine. Hugh John, however, did not have the talent for clear and organised thinking, falling quite easily into difficulty through ‘Murphy’s Law’. This unwritten law is familiar to all Irishmen and is quite simple to follow, stating “If something can go wrong it will!” Try as he might, Hugh John could not recollect the sequence in which he had dismantled the engine. He simply could not recall which piece went into, beside, through, or on top of another piece.
Quite a few hours later, lunchtime the very next day in fact, the moped began to resemble the machine it was prior to Hugh John’s efforts at repair with screwdriver and spanner. Unfortunately when Hugh John tried to turn the engine over there was no kick whatsoever from the moped.
“What’s wrong with that damned thing now?” his mother asked him.
“I don’t know Ma,” replied Hugh. “I’ve done everything that I can.”
“Then, what is all that stuff on the floor over there?” she asked him.
“That’s what is left over, after I had put it all back together,” he told her. “There was no room for that stuff.”
“Well, just you take that load of scrap, and that bike, down to young Geordie’s and get him to fix it. At least he knows something about those modern contraptions.”
“More money!” sighed Hugh John.
“You broke it, now you fix it,” his mother told him.
“Right, Ma!” he snapped like a child in a tantrum.
A day or two later Hugh John gathered the bike and the box of leftovers and wheeled them down the narrow country road to Geordies’ house and workshop. Geordie was a well known mechanic in the area who was fully employed in repairs of cars and motorcycles. It was said that what Geordie didn’t know about cars and motorcycles wasn’t worth knowing. For this reason Hugh John left the moped and all the spare engine parts with the man, asking only that Geordie didn’t “stick the arm in up to the elbow” when it came to price.
It took Geordie a few days to strip the moped down again and to put it back together in the right way, ensuring everything ran smoothly. While he was at it he increased the power output from the small engine, making it reach speeds that it had never reached previously, and delivered it back to Hugh John. When he started the moped Hugh John was not expecting the speed at which this small machine could travel, which frightened the life out of him. “In the name of Christ, Geordie, are you trying to kill me altogether!” he complained. “I almost crapped myself going down that road!”
The very next morning Hugh John rode the moped very slowly to work and offered it for sale and little Des Connolly jumped up and offered him his price immediately. “That is just the thing for me and Bernie to get about on,” he said. Bernie was his wife and, while Des was small and thin, Bernie was almost six feet tall and eighteen stone in weight. Hugh John did not choose to tell Des that the moped was incapable of carrying both of them at the same time. In fact he was concerned that the moped might not even carry Bernie alone. But, he shook hands with the man and the deal was sealed. A few days later he watched Des riding the motorcycle along the road with Bernie on the back, and the front wheel at forty-five degree angle in the air. Although Des did not confirm it, there was a rumour that the entire rear of the moped collapsed under the strain, coming home from church one Sunday morning and Hugh John never saw it again.
After the moped incident Hugh John, as is the case with most young men of his age, began to take a healthy interest in the female sex. Encouraged by his friends Hugh John began to attend the various dances that were held in the local “Calypso Ballroom”, but he did not actually dance very often. He would often be found near the soft drinks bar admiring the young ladies on the dance-floor, displaying themselves in their best dresses. Unfortunately for the young man he could never have been considered to be among the best dressed males in the area, and he would never have been considered a “Gene Kelly” on the dance-floor. The man had two left feet and the only foxtrot that he knew was the one a fox did after a farmer shot at him. At one time he spent a considerable sum in buying himself a “Teddy Boy” outfit with drainpipe trousers, long jacket and blue suede shoes with crepe soles. Rather than improve his reputation among the ladies he became known to them as “The Calypso Kid.”
Fortunately for the “Kid” not all the female attendees at the ‘Calypso Ballroom’ thought he was a fool. One night he was persuaded to ask a young lady to dance, while his friend asked her companion to dance with him. That was to be his first introduction to Winnie Lavery, who was a big girl in more ways than one.
Winnie had the build of a Russian weightlifter and the voice to match. Many people suggested that Hugh John only continued to date her because he was afraid to say that he didn’t want to see her again. When he danced with Winnie it appeared that Hugh John simply floated across the dance-floor, but it was more likely due to the fact that Winnie held him so tight the man’s feet never touched the floor. For a considerable length of time, Winnie had been seeking a man who just might make a good husband for her, and Hugh John McClean fitted the bill perfectly. He was a quiet sort of man whom, she felt she could dominate. He was a good worker, well-mannered and, best of all in her book, not too bright. Winnie had now set her sights on marrying this man and becoming Mrs. McClean and assuming control of his house irrespective of the fact that Hugh John’s mother, Mary, still lived there. Not surprisingly, with a woman so determined, within six months of their first meeting in the ‘Calypso Ballroom’ Hugh John had been persuaded to believe that he had met the woman of his dreams and, as she expected, he proposed to Winnie. She ensured that the engagement was a short one and they were eventually married in the local church and honeymooned in Dublin for a few days.
On the return of the happy couple Hugh John had little choice but to settle down into married life, while Winnie immediately gave up the job and began to make the house her own, much to the Mary’s resentment. Instead of involving the elderly woman in any of the changes she was making, Winnie began changing the furniture and fittings to a style of her own liking. By ignoring the feelings of the elderly woman, Winnie had stoked up years of animosity between the two women in Hugh John’s life and the years that followed could not have been worse for Hugh John. The happy life that he had thought he was getting when he married, suddenly became a nightmare.
The constant battle of wills between Mary and her daughter-in-law gradually wore the older woman down, causing the old lady’s health to deteriorate. When Mary eventually passed away some months later there were many of her neighbours and friends who were deeply saddened by the passing of such a generous, kind-hearted lady. Hugh John was particularly upset by his mother’s death and he never quite forgave Winnie for all the grief she had caused the old woman. From that day they continued to live as husband and wife in public, while they lived like strangers in private. Although Winnie quickly discovered that she no longer had the influence over husband that she once had, Hugh John did not prevent her from continuing to furnish the home. Perhaps it was this growing distance between them that the couple never experienced the joy of having a family of their own. Over the years that followed Hugh John spent gradually began spending less and less time at home. He preferred to spend much of his leisure time in the company of friends in “The Pigeon Club”, or in the public houses of the nearest town.
“McKeever’s” was noted in the town for quality of its draught Guinness stout and became the favourite drinking place of Hugh John, where he would spend two or three nights every week, drinking with friends and workmates. The bar was also noted for being the oldest public house in the town and attracted all types of people to it. There were, for example, quiet, easy-going types who enjoyed the occasional drink among good company. But, as is often the case, the bar also attracted the more boorish type of person who could not enjoy a few drinks without causing or encouraging trouble. One such visitor to the bar was a well-built young man called Jimmy Duggan, known to all in “McKeever’s” as ‘Mean Jimmy’ because he was the greatest bully in the town. Jimmy was so filled with well toned muscles that he always appeared to be ready to burst out of his clothes. Hugh John was a quiet peace loving man who had never given Jimmy any reason to confront him. But, one particular evening, something about Hugh John’s appearance changed everything. It was a typical Saturday evening in the bar when Hugh John walked in wearing his best suit and a brand new pair of brown leather brogues.
“Where are you going?” asked the barman.
“I’m going to Wilson’s wake,” Hugh John told him.
“Jaysus, I heard the man was dead. When is the funeral?”
“Tomorrow, after twelve o’clock Mass,” replied Hugh John as he took a drink from his pint of Guinness.
“Those are nice shoes, Hugh John,” commented Jimmy Duggan, interrupting the conversation between Hugh John and the barman. “I wouldn’t mind those shoes myself.”
“Thanks,” said Hugh John. “I bought them in the sale at Clarkes.”
“Good for you,” replied Jimmy in a quiet, but more threateningly. “You’ll be able to get yourself another pair easy enough, then.”
Hugh John laughed, “And why would I want to buy another pair?”
“Because, Hugh John, I want those shoes you have on your feet,” Jimmy told him coldly. There was no sign that he meant it jokingly.
“These?” laughed Hugh John. “Are you joking?”
Jimmy Duggan drew closer to Hugh John and told him, “I never joke. Now take the shoes off.”
“And what am I supposed to do?” asked Hugh John.
“Have you never been in your sock-soles? Now, just take them off before I rip them from your feet!”
Not one person in the bar saw where that punch came from. They only heard the loud crack as the fist connected with chin and, as they turned to see what had happened, they saw Jimmy Duggan’s body rise into the air. Hugh John had hit Duggan so hard that he was lifted off his feet and seemed to float, airborne, for several yards before he finally crashed to the floor. Jimmy Duggan lay unconscious on the floor of McKeever’s bar and from that moment Hugh John’s reputation in the town was made. He became a man with the courage of a tiger and the strength of a bull elephant, making him a man that nobody wanted to upset or trifle with.
Hugh John’s new reputation as a ‘hard man’ with great courage could have taken a very serious knock if news had been spread, about his fear of mice. Even Winnie, for such a large woman, could not her paralysing fear of these small creatures and she did everything she could to ensure none would ever enter their home. But, there is no such a thing as complete security in anything, and there is always “Murphy’s Law” that applies to most things in life – “If something can go wrong, then it will.” One morning as Winnie cooked the breakfast she noticed a mouse, scampering across the kitchen floor and immediately squealed, in her terror, “Mouse!”
That terrible squeal of anguish that echoed through the house caused Hugh John to run immediately to the aid of his terrified wife. But, when he heard the word ‘mouse’ he suddenly stopped in his tracks. “Just you hold on here, Winnie!” he called to his wife. “I will be back in a few minutes!!”
Hugh John left the house and ran the entire distance to Billy Robb’s shop and garage, which was about a quarter of a mile distant. Breathlessly he asked Billy, “Have you any mouse-traps?”
“I have,” answered Billy, “How many do you want?”
“How many have you got?”
Surprised by Hugh John’s question Billy pulled out a box from under the counter and, after a moment, he told Hugh John, “A dozen.”
“I’ll take them all!”
“Jesus, Hugh John, you must have a plague of the wee devils!” said Billy.
“No, thank God, just the one,” explained Hugh John as he reached into his pocket for his wallet.
“Twelve traps for one mouse?” exclaimed Billy. “Do you call it Houdini?”
“Aye, very funny. Just give them here,” said Hugh John.
Still laughing heartily, Billy handed the box of traps to Hugh John and took the man’s money. With a box of traps in his hands, Hugh John returned home and found Winnie just where he had left her, standing on the kitchen table shaking in fear. One by one Hugh John laid out the traps across the kitchen floor and just as he set the last trap one suddenly snapped as it was released. The spring in the trap had been tripped and the trap snapped on to the fragile neck of the little creature, killing it. A dead mouse, however, did not suddenly cure Hugh John’s fear of the creature and, despite Winnie’s continued for him to remove the little corpse, he would not go anywhere near it. Instead, he went outside and retrieved a long-handled shovel with which he scooped up both the mouse and the trap. Keeping his catch in the shovel she guided it through the back door of the cottage and disposed of it in the bin. With the terrifying creature gone, Winnie came down from the table still shaking and the domestic life of the cottage continued much as it had previously.
Just after his fortieth wedding anniversary Hugh John woke one morning to find that Winnie had passed away, while sleeping beside him in the bed during the night. Although Winnie and Hugh were no longer a loving couple, it was still a shock to him and he was a little sad that she was now gone. It may not have been a marriage filled with romance and good times, and Hugh John may have found it difficult to be in her presence for any length of time, or truly communicate, but he did retain a certain affection for her and he missed her when she went from his life. Hugh John was now left all alone in that small cottage, retired from work and with plenty of time on his hands. But, housekeeping and cooking were talents that Hugh John did not possess and the house began to quickly fall into a very untidy condition. Winnie’s sister, Bernie, was the first to pick up the courage to tell him that he needed to do something about taking care of himself and the house.
“You need somebody to do the cleaning and cooking for you, Hugh John,” she told him.
“Can you not do it?”
“Certainly not,” Bernie told him bluntly. “I have my own home, husband and children to take care of. Why don’t you advertise for help in the local paper?”
“Sure I wouldn’t know what to say, or pay,” he told her. “You do it for me, Bernie.”
After giving the matter some consideration Bernie placed the following advert in the local paper – “Young, single woman required as live-in housekeeper for an elderly gentleman. All interested parties please apply to 4 Damson Terrace.”
When the newspaper came out, the following Thursday, the news of Hugh John’s search for a housekeeper became widespread throughout the entire area. The idea of such a search caused considerable humour among the neighbours and several jokes did the rounds of the various public houses, many suggesting that Hugh John was searching for a new wife rather than a new housekeeper. There were quite a few of Hugh John’s neighbours who thought the old man should be thinking about his ‘plot’ rather than a young housekeeper, whose very presence might cause over excitement in a man who had been so deprived of female company for such a considerable time. One local, young man with a mischievous mind thought he could get some fun out of the situation if he was to dress up in female clothing and present himself for interview. He decided to put his plan into action on the Saturday morning, and encouraged several local people to observe the practical joke at first hand by secreting themselves at various observation points.
Tommy was the young man’s name and he convinced his sister, Mary, to assist him with his female disguise. She began by dressing him in a brassiere around his chest, filling the cups with tissue paper and couple of pairs of socks. Over a pair of football shorts, Tommy wore a brightly flowered skirt that stretched almost to his ankles. He borrowed a large woollen jumper and on his feet he squeezed a pair of black, patent-leather high heels. Once her brother was dressed , Mary sat him down in a chair beside her dressing table and began to apply make-up to his face. She applied foundation before applying eyelash and eye-brow make-up, and finally red lipstick. To add authenticity to this great plan of deceiving old Hugh John, Mary finally placed a wig of long, shiny, flowing black hair upon her brothers head. So complete was the disguise that, when Tommy left the house, it was virtually impossible to tell that he was a man and not a female. Those who witnessed the transformation were certain that Hugh John would not recognise the deception which was going to played upon him.
Tommy walked down the terrace of houses until he came to the entrance into Hugh John’s cottage and stopped. In his best female manner he opened the ornamental mental gate and walked up the path to the front door, which he knocked loudly. None of those watching the scene could be observed, but they could see all that was happening. Tommy was standing on the doorstep when the cottage’s front door opened and Hugh John came out of the house leaning on a walking stick. “Hello,” he greeted what he thought was a young woman standing before him.
“Hello, Mr. McClean,” Tommy greeted the old man. “I have come to apply for the housekeeper’s position.”
“Come on ahead in,” Hugh John invited the visitor cordially and Tommy went into the cottage. When the door closed behind Tommy, those who had been watching the action began to giggle and snicker at the thought of Hugh John being so easily fooled. But the laughter was quickly silenced when a loud scream of terror echoed from the house and all the neighbours waited to see what had happened. There was another loud scream and the sound of raised voices that seemed to originate from the rear of the cottage. Several of the neighbours now rushed to better positions that would allow them to see exactly what was happening and the sight that met their eyes was almost unbelievable. They saw Tommy, dressed as a young girl, running as fast as his feet would carry him across the field that stretched uphill from the rear of the cottages. Holding his dress up with his hands and having no shoes on his feet, Tommy was making good progress and putting good distance between himself and his pursuer. Behind him, Hugh John was limping after Tommy with his walking stick in hand and he was shouting at the top of his voice, “Come back wee darling. Let me show you just what I want you to do!”
But, Tommy was not answering.