The Stone Jar
The Stone Jar
Old folks sit and holler over the whistle and hum of hearing aids, feeding back like the late and legendary Jimi Hendrix at his very best. Noisily sucking on ancient barley sugars and their loose top set, cackling and coughing and trying to remember if that smell is them or the cat. Wrinkled and raddled, they talk of yester-years and childhoods whisked away, olden days and long agos. Which is neither here nor there really. For these are different long agos, not too far away but definitely too far to walk.
And so, long ago and, as some would say, back in the old country, a man sat down upon a hillock, or perhaps a hummock, pulled the cork from a large stone jar and took a long, soul-searching swig.
Danny Malone set the jar beside him with great care, lest he should spill any, and gave air to a heartfelt sigh, a breathed lament sad enough to bring a tear to a bullseye. Shuffling to get his bum into a more comfortable position, he pulled his coat a little closer and began to root purposefully about in the bottomless, fluff-lined pockets. An overcoat large and woollen and one which had belonged to his grandfather, it had been bequeathed to Danny when the old man died. Since the grandaddy had been in one of the town's many brothels at the time of his demise, it was generally assumed that his wallet had given out with the strain. In any case, the overcoat had been all that was left of his clothes when he was delivered to the grief stricken bosom of his family. From the financially disappointed bosom of a less sentimental soul.
It was that deep, dark time of the new year, the celebrations were ended and the frozen nights were settling in for a long stay, rolling out a crackling blanket of icy green needles beneath his boots. Up above his unruly barnet, the moon was swollen big and bright as a black eye, its stolen glow spread infectiously across the crisp land and rich land around the sighing Danny. The glittering firmament, the fingerprints of a careless Jack Frost, scattered unevenly across the cold and cloudless sky. Over recent weeks, the west wind - which, incidentally, is amber in colour, so they say - had ambled hereabouts with a kiss like a corpse and gentle as a hug from your fat auntie Susan, it had promised snow for Christmas. Even so, the snow had stayed away, skirting the village, to evacuate its wintry bowels in the skies above the City, a mere twenty miles away, but. No snow upon the ground then, and far rarer still, it wasn't raining for once. Indeed no, with neither a white Christmas nor the more traditional forty days and nights of flood, the Yuletide season had passed by, rather short on references to Bing Crosby or the Good Lord himself. And Danny Malone was not a happy man.
Finally, and at last, Danny located the tin which held papers and the unusual brand of hairy tobacco which he favoured. Satisfied, he set to rolling himself a ciggy. The night was clear and bright and more than cold enough for the jar by his side to provide sufficient warmth. An experience Danny felt bound to reiterate once his smoke was lit.
For a long while, Danny sat and sipped and sighed and smoked, and listened to the whispering breeze and the occasional sniffling chirrup of any night birds fool enough to be out in such weather. Certainly cold enough to arrest the attention of that legendary brass monkey, sure enough it was.
In the darkness of the nearby shrubbery a twig bent beneath a foot and snapped in the way only underfoot twigs will. Softly at first, then with more decisiveness, the bushes began to sway and rustle. Danny thought he may have heard them swear also. Cautiously, and without taking his eyes from the shrubbery, Danny took a swig from his pot - which is quite a trick if you want to carry it off without pouring your drink either up your nose or down your shirt collar - and slid it out of sight into a conveniently placed rabbit hole in the side of his hillock. Or hummock.
"Who's there?" he called into the night. "Rossetti O'Toole, is that you? Speak up. There are seven of us and strong lads with stout sticks are we." The trees stopped their rustling and the twigs stopped their snapping. "Plotting the downfall of the English and any nosy parker hereabouts also." The foliage waited, pensively, taking care to weigh the situation.
It should be noted that Danny was not overly concerned with this imminent intrusion. He suspected, as one tended to in this vicinity, a neighbour out strolling in the clear crisp moonlight. A local no doubt, since that was their wont and it was well known that these locals could hear the uncorking of a jar for many miles, and all were possessed of the most startling olfactory capabilities. Should its scent be upon a passing breeze, they would have no trouble picking up the alluring sniff of the true water and would follow such a sniff for miles, counting it an invitation as good as copper-plate on fine embossed and gilt-edged vellum, or a wink from a woman of negotiable intention. Needless to say, as is often the case in such matters, those who lived in the hereabouts were equally adept at avoiding the work and proudly considered themselves to be shiftless but enterprising. All in all, they were basically good people and as unlikely to kill Danny for his jar as they were to leave him in peace with it.
"Well, speak up I say. Who's there? Ricardo Brannegan, show your face if it's yours and be on your way. I am a man ill-used and I have no wish for company this night." said he, entirely forgetting his recent claims to the company of stalwart men armed with cudgels and violent intentions. The shrubbery rustled once again, shivering thoughtfully for a moment before making up its mind.
Suspiciously, Danny watched the bushes part as the intruder shambled slowly form the undergrowth. For a long, long moment, Danny looked the interloper up and down. And along. Which is to say from one end to the other. Carefully, so as not to fall off his hummock, or hillock, he reached down to the rabbit hole and withdrew his pot from the cold dark earth. He took a long, deliberate drink. Rossetti O'Toole this was not, and nor was it Ricardo Brannegan. In fact, this was not a local at all.
Reaching for his baccy tin, Danny glanced up at the stranger with one mistrustful eyeball.
"And what are you supposed to be then?" he asked.
"A camel." said the camel, chewing and casting a thoughtful glance at Danny Malone, his jar and his hillock. Or hummock.
"A camel you say?"
"Don't get many of you and yours in these parts."
"No. I think, in fact, you'll find that I'm the only one hereabouts. May I sit down?"
Danny shuffled sideways a bit and nodded to the humpbacked fellow before him.
"Are you sure you're a camel?" he asked, some moments having passed without anything intelligent having been said. In a complicated manoeuvre that looked like nothing less than the folding of an old fashioned deck chair performed by a beast with all the knees and none of the flexibility, the camel tucked his legs beneath him and dropped heavily to the ground. He belched noisily.
"Only I thought St Patrick had dealt with the local exotica some years back."
"Well now, that would be adders you're thinking of."
"Ah yes, those lads."
"Thinner I think you'll find. Also with sharper teeth, but not necessarily so hard wearing for your average omnivore."
"Indeed? Omnivore was it?"
"My apologies then."
"A natural mistake." There was pause as the two beheld one another, took in the beauty of a night still crisp and clear, and the softness of the hillock. Or, as it might be, the hummock.
"Danny Malone." said Danny Malone at last, extending his hand.
"Edley Rothschild Montifiore." said the camel, reaching out a foreleg as hairy and damp as my own dear granny's, and clumsily shaking Danny's hand.
"Not Simon then?" asked the lad.
"No. And nor is there any reference to my temperament or my parentage. Just Edley."
"Quite a coat you have there." said the boy conversationally.
"Thank you, it's camel hair."
Danny and Edley gazed evenly at one another for a long, quiet moment.
"What brings you to these parts? Family visits for the season?" Danny asked eventually.
"Indeed no," said the camel. "I am to meet a fellow in two days on business. But I have walked a long while and fear I might have lost my way." Another thunderous rumble began its journey from the camel's innards, resulting in a belch fit to melt the eyebrows off a week old tomato.
"'Scuse me." said Edley.
"Think nothing of it." gagged Danny, almost fainting with the whiff of it. "Urrk. Better out than in."
"It's been several days since I last stopped to eat and my stomachs complain bitterly at such misuse. All of them."
Digging into the deep pockets of his dead man's coat, Danny produced a small bundle wrapped in a large red handkerchief with white spots.
"I have a little food, if you'd care to share it." he said, unwrapping the bundle. "It's only black bread and a slab of the Mammy's potato and onion pie. If you think it won't disagree with your stomachs."
"As a great philosopher and brilliant man once said: 'onions play havoc with my digestion but bugger my stomachs. Should they complain, we shall have to ignore them.'."
"Easier said than done." muttered Danny.
For a while, they chewed in silence, or as near as was possible for the camel, and gazed at the stars up above. Danny took a pull on his jar and offered it to Edley, wondering idly at the wisdom of his good manners. How a many stomached and profoundly flatulent beast would cope with his grandmammy's home-made, he did not dare imagine. Nevertheless, cope he did, and with as little fuss as might be expected under the circumstances. The process complicated only by the scarcity of hands, Edley crooked a fore leg around the jug with an easy and well-practised movement and passed a deal of its contents to one of those several stomachs. Danny watched the operation carefully, just in case he should ever find himself missing an extremity or two. Never a man to undervalue an education, Danny Malone.
It was while watching this complex but somehow dignified performance that a thought occurred to the boy. Retrieving his pot, he took a suspicious sniff of the contents and, with a squint, cocked what is generally known as the 'old fish eye' at Edley.
"So," he said at last. "What's all this camel business about then?"
"I don't know what you mean." replied the camel through a mouthful of potato and onion pie.
"My eye you don't. Camels we don't get in these parts. Renowned for it. Not unless someone's spiked my jug with exotic herbs and the like."
Edley raised an eyebrow and smiled his best smile at the boy.
"Get a lot of peyote growing in these parts do you?" he asked.
"Not that I'd complain mind you," Danny rambled on, ignoring the question. "I'd just like to be warned, that's all."
"So I'm a hallucination now am I?"
"Is that an admission?"
"It is not. Don't be a fool. If I were a drug induced fantasy, I shouldn't be sharing your Mammy's pie and that jug."
"An interesting thought but," mused Danny. " If a hallucinatory camel shared a spiked jar with its hallucinator, would the camel itself hallucinate? And if so, what? Me? More Camels? Good God, take care with that stuff before we're overrun with ships of the desert. There's no more pie left and that jar wont last for ever."
Edley looked at Danny for a long, searching moment. With a sigh and a shake of his head, he took another sup from the pot.
"Do that often do you?" Edley asked. "Rambling on like a buffoon, I mean."
"Just a thought." he said testily. He was beginning to wonder how long this intruder was likely to stay and how much would be left in his pot at the end of it.
"Don't worry, there's plenty left." said Edley, apparently reading his mind. "In any case no, I am no hallucination, phantasm, vision or dream. You are awake and I am here."
"I know." said Danny as the camel passed wind once again. "I can tell." When the lad had stopped coughing and gagging for breath, and his sight had returned, he scratched his chin thoughtfully and stared hard at the camel. Edley grinned a fur-lipped grin and began idly re-digesting the potato and onion pie.
"A pooka then." said Danny at last.
"Do I look like a six foot white rabbit?"
Danny looked blank and shook his head.
"You do not. As you already pointed out, and quite accurately too, you are a camel."
"That I am, I'm no pooka."
"Then, I confess, you've lost me. Perhaps you're simply a camel, but hardly an ordinary one."
"That is also true. I am anything but ordinary." nodded Edley appreciative of Danny's astuteness.
"Well," began Edley slowly. "I am, you might say, by way of being a...." he paused, raising his muzzle and gazing thoughtfully into the distance, as much for dramatic effect as a search for just the right word. ".... a metaphor."
"Now you are a metaphorical camel, you don't say." smirked Danny, without the least shred of conviction.
"I do, I am." nodded Edley with evident satisfaction.
"And what kind of metaphor might you be?"
"Oh, the usual."
"Oh yes, you know; 'humble beast of burden bursting at the seams with nobility and dignity', 'camel - eye of a needle - rich man' type thing. I think that's one of mine too."
"It never is, really?"
"Indeed it is," continued the camel, apparently oblivious to Danny's attempts at sarcasm. "Not to mention," he leaned forward conspiratorially, "the whole 'nature of the human condition' thing. I do that too of course."
"Of course, of course." said Danny, "Nature of the human condition, eh? Well now, that is impressive. I should be highly honoured I expect."
The camel waggled an eyebrow at Danny and nodded once again.
"In that case, you can just bugger off now. And give back that jar." snarled the boy.
"What what?" spluttered Edley, doing a passable impression of Harry Secombe, as the pot was snatched from his crooked foreleg.
"Go on, be on your way, and take your foul smells with you."
"But Danny, Danny boy. I thought we were getting on fine, you me and your pot."
Danny hugged the pot to himself and snapped:
"Bugger off I say, Go on, we don't need the likes of you round here."
"The likes of...."
"That's right, the likes of you. Bloody good for nothing, clever-clever literary games. You're nothing but a bloody pseudo-intellectual swanker. Go on, shove off."
"Swanker. It means show off."
"Aw Danny, don't be like that now...."
"I said bugger off, if we've stories to tell, we'll just tell 'em. Now bugger off, we don't want metaphors round here."
"Intertextual reference? I could be one of those. You could even call me Simon."
"What about subtext? You have to have subtext."
"In you're arse you do. Now be off." Danny turned his back angrily on the camel and began to roll himself a cigarette. Edley thought for a moment, then said:
"What about parables?"
"Do you want my size nines up your Khyber?"
Edley shrugged and sighed.
"Alright alright. No metaphors, allegories or intertextual references." he said. "Not even, since you seem to have no respect for the Good Book, parables."
"What?" asked Danny, half turning.
"I shan't, I wont. Just camel, unusual admittedly, but just camel."
"No precious and pretentious literary references?"
"Not a one."
"No feeble attempts at profundity or moralising?"
"I promise," said Edley, raising his right fore leg.
"This is no sit-com from the colonies you know."
"Right then. Apology accepted." And with that he passed the jug over and Edley took a long deep swig.
"I'm off duty anyway."
At long last, and after some while of sharing the pot and a smoke or two, Edley produced further evidence of the efficiency of his digestive system.
"Think nothing of it."
"Now then, Danny boy, what troubles you?" asked the camel.
"And what makes you think I've got troubles? You're the one that's lost."
"Geographically disadvantaged." said the camel. "And only temporarily so."
"My eye. You're lost. A ship of the desert without a desert."
"Quite so, and this is no heaving metropolis I'll agree."
Danny nodded thoughtfully.
"Still, a young fellow such as yourself, alone, out here at night. It's hardly the vogue for a contented soul."
Danny nodded again and sighed again.
"True enough." said he. "And truth to tell, I am not a happy man."
"I thought not. So what troubles you?"
"The same thing that's troubled men since Adam was first offered the vegetarian alternative."
"Women." said Edley with as much understanding as can be expected of a creature to whom 'relationships' tend to consist of a lot of braying and shouting, kicking, biting and spiting, and being walloped across the hind quarters with a big stick by a little man with tea-towel tied around his head.
"Indeed." said Danny, for whom much the same could be said.
They sat in silence for some moments, still sharing the jug and the cigarette Danny had been rolling. At last, Danny continued:
"Her Mother thinks I am a shiftless lay about. I have been told to find the work sharpish and make something of my misbegotten self or else."
"You're beloved will up and return to the bosom of her Mammy."
"Worse. The Mammy and her elephantine bosom will be moving in with us to help - and I quote - 'straighten me out'."
"No wonder you're driven to the drink. Threats such as that are more than any man could stand." said Edley with sympathetic indignation. Danny nodded gloomily and upped the pace of his sighing.
"I am a man afeared. Running scared from my own home."
"And so you would be. No man could bear such a terrifying prospect. A terrible sight is this Mammy?"
"Face like a bag of spanners."
There was a pause while Danny sighed some more and Edley thought. After a moment or two several of his stomachs joined in.
"Is there food on your table?" he asked at length.
"Of course! What do you take me for, a wife-starver?"
"Now now, don't take on. I merely make the point that unreasonable expectations might be laid at a man's feet.
"They might, they are."
"Still...." said Edley, waggling his eyebrows meaningfully at Danny.
"Still, there might be some way of buying a little time, if nothing else."
"And how might I do that may I ask?"
"You may, and pass me that jar."
Danny watched carefully as Edley took a large swallow from his jug and looked pointedly at the boy's ciggy. With an impatient sigh, the lad rolled a second, lit it and stuck it between the camel's smiling lips. With precise and complicated rolling of his large and hairy grin, Edley manoeuvred the fag to the corner of his mouth and made with the significant eyebrow movements once again.
"Well, I was just thinking, what with the time of year and everything...."
"Ye-es." said Danny cautiously. Edley sighed, exasperated by Danny's apparent inability to catch on.
"A well placed and timely gift or two might do the trick."
"What trick? And anyway, Christmas was weeks ago."
"Indeed it was, but it never hurts to bank one or two for the sake insurance."
"One or two what?"
"Gifts, unexpected and unprecedented generosities. Marks of affection and the like."
"I have no idea what you're talking about." sighed Danny, snatching up the pot.
"Obviously. What I mean is, if you return bearing gifts for herself and her ugly Mammy, evidence of your worthiness as a provider, it might just ease the pressure for a bit. Get you off the hook as it were."
"Very fine I'm sure, but where am I supposed to find the kind of gifts that might display my canny ability to provide the finer things my true love longs for?"
"Well now, I should be able to help you there too. See that wine bottle sticking out of my pack (neither of which have yet been mentioned presumably because of the darkness of this particular night)? Pass it down, my bladder's nearly full."
Danny Malone strode purposefully across the fields that lay about his village. The sound of frosted grass crunched beneath his boots, like someone eating carrots with their mouth open, away and ahead, he could see the warm and homely glow of his own dear windows. As much at the prospect of carrying out Edley's magnificent plan as the comfortable sight before him, Danny picked up his pace a little, almost running the last few hundred yards, but not quite.
That camel had shown himself a true friend well met, he'd offered his hand, or hoof, or whatever, to a stranger in need, sat on a hillock in the middle of the night. Or it could have been a hummock of course. True, he'd taken Danny's jar, which was still a good half full. Considering what he'd given up for Danny, it was a small price to pay but. Still, mused Danny as he crunched onwards, it had been a good pot that, it had served him well, especially when the Mammy was visiting. God's holy trousers, that woman had a face like a bulldog licking the piss off the old flower of Scotland. Indeed, it had been a good pot but it was a fair trade and he'd get another. The grandmammy's powerful home-made was ever in plentiful supply also. And home was here before him. Shifting the weight of his bundle, he opened the door and cautiously peered in.
It took some time and not a little of his persuasive charm to convince his one true love that he'd not been wasting his time that night and hurling breakables wasn't necessary. Naturally, this she would not believe and, although the barrage of china did cease, the full-blown blitzkrieg from her tongue continued for some time.
"Don't you 'darling' me you good for nothing son of a....'
"Now Maggy, " he said sharply. " 'Tisn't nice to cast aspersions on the character of a fellows Mammy."
"Especially when he's still tied to her apron strings." snapped she in reply.
"Just you hold on one minute."
"I'll do no such thing! Why...."
Raising his eyes to heaven, and praying to whatever gods spectated at such events for a non-violent outcome, Danny stepped smartly forward and put his hand over his wife's mouth. It had been quite some while since he'd been that brave. Naturally, the good woman struggled, muttering abuse and foul language from behind his palm, but she was quiet enough for Danny to speak.
"Now just hold on there," he said, wasting precious time when violence was imminent. "As it happens, my evening has been well spent. I come bearing gifts, unexpected and unprecedented generosities, and all that sort of thing."
"In your arse you have." said she, wresting his grubby mit from her face. "Bastard."
"Not yet you're not, but give me a minute."
"Wait, wait! I have brought peace offerings, gifts to show how seriously I take the concerns of you and your Mammy."
"Pull the other one, it tinkles."
"For you and your Mammy."
Maggy paused, cocking her head to one side and giving him what is still known as 'the old fish eye'.
"It's true, I gave some thought to what you said, about wanting the finer things and such."
"Well....' Danny held up a finger and grinned the grin of a man who sees the possibility of biting and scratching and being walloped with a big stick in his future. Ducking swiftly through the doorway, he reappeared with his bundle and drew a wine bottle from within.
"For your Mammy." he said proffering the bottle, label uppermost for inspection. "Vintage it is, I think."
More or less, he thought, or at least a by-product of similar.
"And a Rothschild too?"
"Definitely." said he. "Rothschild's it certainly is. Or was anyway."
"But isn't that expensive?"
"Nothing's too much for my favourite mother-in-law."
"Ah Danny, you're flannel's no better but your taste is just fine."
"It is, it is."
But where did you get such a thing in these parts? It's not stolen is it?"
He said: "It isn't, don't be ridiculous."
He thought: a half of my jug, a little patience and my friend's good aim was all it took. "This bottle, and most particularly its contents, came to me by way of a good friend who had acquired it himself from a good friend."
"Oh Danny love, I'm sure she'll be pleased, you know she likes a drop of wine now and again."
"She does, she does, and I would very much like to see her back teeth a swimming in such a fine brew."
"It's sweet of you Danny but Mammy keeps them in when there's company."
Which is all you know, thought the lad, you should have seen the Mammy on the last day of the year, she'd left behind more than her teeth that night, and there was a great deal more than her gums on show. Danny shivered.
"You're a good man Danny Malone." said she, putting her arms around his neck and kissing him.
"The truth cannot be denied, I am that and you'll be all the happier when you've seen your present." With that he swept up his bundle and with one shake, let it dramatically unfurl before his one true love.
"Oh! Oh my God, Danny. Where did you get...?"
"Now now, no more questions. After all, it's the thought that counts."
"But Danny, sweet boy." she said, twirling elegantly and draping the long coat around he shoulders.
"Finest camel hair it is." said himself, with a grin.
"It's beautiful but where did you get such a thing?"
"Ah, now, that would be a tale." said Danny, pulling significantly at his lower eyelid. "Let's just say that a generous and good hearted friend helped me out. And no, that's not stolen either."
"Oh Danny, it's beautiful." she said once more. "But, it smells a bit reesty doesn't it?"
"Ah well," he said breezily. "I'm sure it'll air off."