Waiting for Tom Gaffney

Author: Alan McMonagle

Cutting it on a Saturday afternoon...

Saturday has come around again. I’m sure it will be like any other, Saturdays come and gone, Saturdays yet to pass. But it’s a day I love. I arrive before seven, slip the red and white pole in its groove, climb the stairs, open up and get ready for my day.

I like to get in early. It means I can get away early. By lunchtime hopefully. Providing Tom shows. That gives me the entire afternoon and there’s nothing quite like Saturday afternoon in this town. I’ll pop into the bar downstairs. Eat a sandwich. Drink a glass. The embalming fluid Tom calls it. I’ll browse the alley market stalls, chance a sweet crepe, enjoy it on the slabstone bench where the church railings start to curl into the market street. It’s a good place to take in the bargain talk, cinched deals and aghast cries at ever-changing turnip prices. Tom will arrive at some point to take over for the afternoon. I’m looking forward to it already.
But that’s a few hours away yet. For now the market alley is a lonely funnel of early morning light trapped by my building and the black iron railings issuing from the back wall of the church grounds.

A beer crate rattles downstairs. I turn away from the window. I strop my blades and dust down the two vinyl chairs. I draw water into the enamel sinks and release it again. I shine the two mirrors until they are clearer than air. There is gel, powder and shampoo; soap, towels and balm. I’m ready.

Ready for rinse, cut and dries and short, back and sides; for out of favour beards and wildly strayed brows. Ready for blade number ones to dole out.

Everybody likes it short these days. There’s even a near-bald man in his thirties who appears every two weeks asking for a blade zero. As if he hasn’t little enough to be getting by with. Each to his own, I suppose. At any rate this fellow always shows late. Tom is usually here. I’m happy to let him oblige.

“No sign of Tom yet,” a customer remarks.
“He has a bad habit,” I say, “but it’s impossible to stay angry with him.”
“Jack, you have the patience of that man there,” my customer says nodding towards a small-frame picture of the Pope resting on the ledge between the sinks, side by side with one of my good lady.
“He’s not in the best of health now but that man had charisma,” I reply pointing my comb at the picture frame. “Did you know I was a reserve fireman when he came to visit? Tom was in the main unit and suggested my name when a position came up. I was reluctant but Tom persevered. “It’ll be good for you Jack,” he said. So I agreed and did the training and we were all summoned to the airport the day the Pope arrived. “Don’t say anything Jack,” they warned me. “Not a word now, Jack, do you hear.” They knew what I was like for the talking back then. I knelt on the tarmac as he moved down the stairs they had rolled against the door of his aircraft. He saw me kneeling and approached. He put his hand on my fire helmet and then removed his rosary beads and draped them around my neck. “God bless you fireman,” he said and so I asked for an extra set of beads for my full-time fireman friend. “What is your friend’s name,” he asked me. “Tom,” I said and he nodded. I got into a lot of trouble over that. When I think of it. But I came away with a second set of beads.
“Isn’t that right, Tom?” I consult with my assistant who still hasn’t arrived and it less than one hour to lunchtime. My customer smiles when he sees I notice that Tom hasn’t yet shown.
“You’re in a world of your own when you get going, Jack,” he says to me rising from his chair. I brush him down and send him on his way.

They’re always telling me what Tom gets up to after I knock off. How he locks up shop shortly after me and puts a note on the door that reads Back Soon. And they love to land him in it because they know I’ll go easy with him. He mustn’t like the long hours Jack, they joke. It’s true for them. He once wrote a letter of resignation. He addressed it to me and put it in the post. But he changed his mind and was in to me pleading a rush of blood to the head, how he didn’t mean a single word he put down and please please would I ignore his letter. And all this before the postman had delivered it. That’s the way he is.

The room is full. They shift in their seats. Restless. Ill at ease with my methodical snipping.
“Where is Tom Gaffney?” one of them yawps.
“Jesus Jack, we’ll be here all day.’
“How do you think I feel?” I reply. “Take a magazine. Do a crossword. Check your stock prices.”
“We’ve read all these magazines, Jack.”
“At least turn up the radio.’
“Come on Jack; let us hear a few tunes.”
They’re rowdy today. I rotate the dial. The local forecast is just finishing. A hush of anticipation silences the room. Becoming showery, it will be dry for a lot of the time this weekend. Now back to Noel with Saturday’s Legend. Sighs and guffaws compete with momentary static. Thanks for that Patricia. Ok folks time for more music. It’s just after one on this weekend Saturday and I hope you’re all enjoying yourselves. Unfortunately some of us have to work, and this one is going out for Tommy Gaffney who is on his way to work as we speak. He’s running a little late we gather � you must have had a rough night Tommy. So don’t let them work you too hard today. Ok. There’s a lot more to life. And to prove it here’s one from the man with the velvet voice. There is an instant round of applause and one man, I haven’t noticed him before, can’t stop laughing.

“Good man Tommy Gaffney” he says.
Others join in.
“Don’t work too hard Tommy. Hah! That’s a good one.”
“There’s more to life Tommy. Hah! If they only knew.”

Everyone is smiling and chuckling as they relay radio talk to each other. The gathering hum of happy conversation smothers Tom’s song. When his turn comes, I ask the man I don’t recognise how he knows Tom. His laughter-red face simmers down.

“A long time ago,” he says, “I was at primary school with Tom. When the bell rang, we’d all be sitting at our desks except for one boy. And as sure as I can see my reflection in that mirror, twenty minutes after class started you’d hear the pounding on the stairs. And everyday the same. He was always late. “You’ll be late for your own funeral Tommy Gaffney,” we’d say to him.”
“Old habits die hard,” I say.

And that cracks it open. Everyone waiting for a haircut has a Tom Gaffney Late Again story. They can hardly wait to take their turn. One fellow skips his turn in the chair so engrossed is he with his tale. One waits on after a blow dry because he didn’t catch the end of another episode. Some decide to leave their hair alone altogether. “Another day Jack,” they say and slide their chairs into a curving arch that blocks passage from the room. A very old man I know with bad hearing gets up and wobbles out as best he can. One hour later he is back, pointing at his hearing aids and demanding to hear what he has missed.

The stories continue. Lunchtime comes and goes. I look at them with their burst capillary noses and mangled ears and emphatic eyebrows careering this way and that. At punch lines, they slap their flimsy knees and splutter through gaps in their teeth. And it’s always the same. Tom Gaffney – Late Again. Well he’d better show to help me get rid of this lot I say to myself. But it’s ok. I’m in a great humour. We’re all in a great humour. And something tells me Tom is aware of this because he still hasn’t shown. But it’s impossible to get mad at Tom.

Then they’re up from their chairs, pushed into the space between the two mirrors, examining for the one hundredth time cuttings pinned to the strip of wall there.
“Where is Mount Kilimanjaro?”
“In Africa.”
“Where’s that?”
“And how did he get there?”
“And up twenty thousand feet of it according to this.’
“I walked up the Prospect the other day and it nearly killed me.”
“He’s a fit man young Gaffney.”
“Was he really fifty eight when he made it to the top?”
“How would I know?”
“I’d love to know what age he was when he left the ground.”
“Look at this photo from the Tribune.”
“That’s an old one.”
“Taken the day they won the Connacht Cup.”
“A fine side.”
“And him bang in the middle of them with his cheeky head under an upside down cup.”
“Late Gaffney Goal Wins Cup.”
“That’s a headline.”
“Late goal he says. And it not a second less than four minutes into injury time before he decides to start playing.”
“He made us sweat that day.”

And on it goes until at last he is among them, with the air of a man just happening by at the time and deciding to drop in for catch-up talk induced by a big Hello Everyone through his happy unaware grin.

They crowd around him and slap him on the back and shake their heads in mock-wonder at this apparition. He scans this strange band of death-owing men pressing around him and shouts out Who’s Next For A Haircut. There is a clamorous roar and through the window I watch some market browsers gaze above themselves as though something integral to them has been sucked suddenly heavenwards.

I’m having so much fun I decide to work on. The glass of embalming fluid can wait. As can my stroll about. I’ll stay on for the afternoon. Cut some hair. Shave a beard. Get the suds going. Tom is here at last to lend a hand. We can share the workload.

We’re down to the last customer. An Englishman. On a driving holiday. He wants a trim. A bit off the top. A bit off the sides. A bit off the back. He wants to know what it’s like out in Connemara.
“It’s bleak,” I tell him and he doesn’t say a lot after that. “Say hello to the Queen for me,” I say as he is leaving. He pauses at the door and looks very puzzled. Tom enjoys that comment. “You’re a scorcher Jack,” he says to me through his conspiring grin. “See you next week.’

End-of-day riffles through the alley as I stand by the window. Stalls are coming down. Separating metal poles clang against each other and the ground thuds when they land. Canvas hoods briefly billow as they collapse in harmless heaps. Two packed-up craftsmen compare takings, simultaneously pat each other on the shoulder and enter the bar. Others follow and muffled conversation gradually drifts into the stilled market alley and beyond.
Through the black iron railings, cemetery headstones are fully visible now. Grey chunks of stone that sprout at peculiar angles. And I can see some of the newer white marble and black granites on the far side where the scutch grass and bindweed has been cleared away for more plot space.

I look in before six when they close the gates for the night. “Hey,” I say to the headstone, “the bother of the house is back. But it’s as easy to drop in as not. I thought I’d get in earlier. It was really busy today and Tom was in retirement mood again. I thought I’d never get done. Tom finally showed and you know what they’re like around him. It was funny watching them. In the dark last night when I woke up I was talking away about looking forward to today; how I love Saturdays; how full of life it always seems. It was hardly worth my while going to bed at all. I was like a little kid the night before Christmas. I have a few things from today you haven’t heard before – you’ll enjoy it when I get around to telling you. Where did the time go? Next Saturday is already another week away. Weekdays just aren’t the same. I can hear the grounds man and his rusty keys. He’s already allowed me a few extra minutes. Better not keep him waiting.’
I touch the headstone and leave. By the railings, a young boy and girl straddling the slabstone bench lean into each other and touch heads, and an emaciated mongrel licks a square of paving as though its life depends on it. Within the bar, a melodic squeeze-box mingles with the easy thrum of beer talk and parts of its tune and wafts of beer ripple into the alley where no signs of the market remain, and it occurs to me: a glass of the embalming fluid would go down very nicely.