Henry was a Protestant who worked in the wine cellar of the local hotel. He’d lived in New York and worked in hotels with The Mericans for thirty odd years. He’d just come back to the town since the turn of the century. An equal opportunities racist, Henry hated them all. The Blacks, the Jews, the Queers, the Spics, the Mics, the Wops….there was no end to his prejudice. Henry even hated himself. He was the one who’d first mentioned Spud-Niggers, or crackers as he also liked to call them. But Henry had a different definition for a Spud-Nigger than me. He told me the Spud-Niggers were the Scottish-Protestants who’d emigrated to the States. Them and their decedent’s – Brad Pitt, Britney Spears, Johnny Cash and all that.
I however, felt Spud-Nigger to be a far more fitting term for the GAA-loving culchie bog-merchants, than any form of Yank-flavoured Protestant Henry’d care to mention.
Carroll was a drinker who ploughed around town talking about Mohammad Ali in various different establishments. A big thick mountain-man with a grey beard, he’d been a forester all his life. He was mid-sixties now though, had had a few strokes and some heart problems lately.
I remember’d him as a child, big strong grizzly fucker but never in bad humour. Local legend was he was the best in the business; he could drop a tree and make it land exactly wherever he wanted, down to the inch. He’d worked half his life as the chief woodsman for the Earl up in the Castle. Even back then he was hardcore on the liquor.
But the drink had aged him, and now sometimes you’d see him on a stick. He’d snarl at you jokingly and ask if you’d ever gotten a box, as if he was offering his services. But even on the stick I wouldn’t have fancied a slap from him, the grizzly old fucker.
Carroll never married; he sluiced down the liquor in the style of a man with demons. But Carroll had a heart like nobody alive. He’d give you his last fiver if he thought you were stuck. He’d invite you into his sparse little cottage down back lane to drink cans and smoke rollies – he was mad for the chat. Always telling stories about his antics as a younger man, and by the deep lines on his face you’d believe every one of them.
He’d little bottles of spirits placed at various locations on windowsills and on top of piles of turf all around the kitchen like the Stations of the Cross, as if ready for any emergency situation. He never had much cash, spent all his pension in the pub on porter and whiskey, and whatever was left went on a few loaves of bread. Whole loaves and never sliced pans.
But behind Carroll’s bravado was a quiet sense of loneliness, almost mournful the way he’d look into the distance when recalling a story. He often lamented the fact he never married, said he’d come close a couple of times but in the end was too wild a creature to ever attempt tame. But he wondered all the same how different life would have been for him, if he had been tamed.
He’d had a particular fondness for writing-off cars while steamed drunk back in the day, but then making it all disappear and escaping repercussion. It was more than a science; he’d it down to an art form. Then there were the stories about the brawls and the boozing, and the general mayhem that seemed to surround the man when he was out on the sauce.
The Other Lad and myself used to go into his cottage with a few cans and listen to his stories every now and then. Then sometimes we’d meet him out in the pub and drink pints with him. We never talked about it, but we both saw ourselves in Carroll, if things didn’t go to plan. A grim vision of the future we daren’t even mention.
So I see Carroll in the Square as I’m heading up to the house. About six in the evening and he out since the breakfast, standing in the porch outside the hotel bar, smoking a rollie with the big grizzly beard on him. So I walked over to him, and he asks me as usual if I’d ever gotten a box. He’d curl one side of his mouth up when he enquired, the big menacing head, all part of the act. Sometimes he’d hit you a playful thump in the chest, if he wasn’t on the stick. So I ask him if he wants to come across the road for a pint, and he only delighted. He asks have I seen The Other Lad recently, I said I had and I gave him a call.
Half an hour later and the three of us are on round two across the road. The main thing that made Carroll stand out from any other yarn-dealing drunk was you never heard the same story twice. There was always fresh information presented; another piece of the jigsaw, another fragment of this untamed life.
After a couple of hours Carroll said he was going home. He’d been out since the morning and said he wanted to sleep. As he’s getting up to leave he starts laughing and tells myself and The Other Lad we’re two dangerous fuckers.
When the century had been even younger the town was full of Polskis, working all hours in the factories and on sites. At one point the town had more Polskis than Protestants. But now the factories were all closed and the building-sites ghost-estates, so half the Polskis went back home and started their own housing boom with all their hard-earned Spud-Nigger Euros. The Protestants stayed put.
But the Polskis fitted in with the Spud-Niggers no problem. The big Catholic heads on them, mass attendance grew to the point where they even had a mass in Polski once a week. They too liked the liquor, but in a slightly different style.
The Polskis rounded vowels stuck out among the flat Irish Midlands drone. If you heard them without seeing them it was always hard to work out whether they were from Cork or Poland for the first few seconds of a conversation. The minute you got a visual though, you were left in no doubt.
They were just harder than the Spud-Niggers. Tougher people all round. And if you’ve ever done a winter in Poland you’ll understand why. But this toughness extended to the way they drank; it was all shots and hard liquor rather than slow pints and shite-talk – the preference of the Spud-Nigger.
They’d spend hours in the gym pushing around ridiculous weights and injecting steroids in the toilets. Twenty stone of muscle and pure thickness in every sense of the word.
So they worked like dogs, trained like horses, and then drank like fish. They were hardcore in everything they did. The Spud-Niggers were begrudgingly impressed by the sheer severity and absolute single-mindedness of the latest arrivals. They were here to work and weren’t afraid of the scald either.