I remember the first time I saw Geraldine. I parked my cart outside the salon she worked in, taking my time to empty the over flowing bin. She was pottering about inside, singing to herself. Her long hair hung loose around her face and I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. Not that I’ve known many beautiful women, only the ones on the cinema screens really, but Geraldine beat them all with plenty in the tank. I read in a book once that we are all made of stars or something, well if that’s true then whoever dishes out the star dust was generous when it came to Geraldine.
After a moment of watching her I turned back to the cart, rearranging my shovels before pushing on. As I left I heard the tiny tingle of a bell and she popped her head out the door.
“Excuse me,” she said
“Hah, oh, sorry.” I was embarrassed.
“I have a bit of a problem,” she said, eyes as wide as saucers as she looked at me. She held the handle of a broom in one hand and its head in the other, “I’ve had an accident.”
I coughed, wiping my hands on the front of my jacket. “Oh, you certainly have. Let’s have a quick look.” I took both parts and inspected them carefully. “It’s a bad break alright.”
“Will she live Doctor?”
“Well, it’s going to be touch and go for a while but she looks like a fighter.” She began to laugh and I smiled, a little impressed with myself to be honest. I pulled out the most battered pocketknife in the country and proceeded to re-screw the head.
“There you are. That’s only a temporary job; you’ll probably need a new broom fairly sharpish I’d say. Then again, that brush could still be sweeping floors when I’m gone for the high jump.” We stood looking at each other for a moment, each expecting the other to say something, her lips curling into a soft smile. I brushed the streak of grey hair off of my forehead and looked away, bashful.
“I have to get back in. Thanks for this,” she said holding the brush out in front of her, breaking the momentary silence.
“That’s grand Miss,” I said, moving back to the cart.
“Geraldine, my name is Geraldine.”
“Dennis,” I said, shuffling a little on my heels as she looked at me. “Well Geraldine, mind yourself.”
“You too Dennis.”
And then she was gone. She slipped back into the shop, pushing the brush ahead of her, sweeping around the chairs by the far wall and rearranging the magazines as she went. She didn’t look back but I could have stood there all day if I had have been let.
I was no sooner back in the depot, sitting down for a cup of tea, when in comes Georgie Grannell, like the cock of the walk, swaggering over to me.
“Georgie,” I said, in place of a hello, a little unsettled at his wide grin.
“Are you getting your highlights done Dennis, or a purple rinse maybe?”
“Hah?” I looked at him like he was talking Swahili.
“Are you getting your hair done,” he said, pulling out a chair and parking himself beside me. “Sure, didn’t Victor see ya chatting to Geraldine, that red head in the salon, said ye were getting right cosy altogether. I’d say you’ve a bit of a crush…”
“I don’t,” I said, interrupting his giddy flow.
“Ah ya. Well you wouldn’t be the first,” he said, looking around the small kitchen, picking up one of my biscuits and devouring it in one mouthful. “She’s a right bit of stuff. A bit young for you though I’d have said.” Georgie took another biscuit and munched on half of it, throwing crumbs everywhere as I glared at him. “Not that you’re a granddad or anything, I’m just saying.”
“Are you not due out Georgie, no?”
“Ah ya, but no one’s counting are they. Here, I was only joking about the Granddad jibe but you’d want to mind yourself,” he said. “She’s doing a line with Tommy Kennedy, you know Tommy the hurler, he’s a plumber from out Monamolin way, big fucker. Victor, the all-seeing fucking eye, can’t hold his piss and he’s friendly with all them lads that Tommy Kennedy knocks around with.”
“Can a fella not do a good deed? She needed her brush fixin’”
“I’m sure she did,” he said with a loud guffaw, “and you’re just the man to fix it for her,” he continued with a conspiratorial wink before pushing off from the table. I could hear him laughing as he went, repeating ‘she needed her brush fixin’’ to himself as he moved out into the corridor.
As the weeks wore on she grew more familiar with me, just a wave and a smile as I passed. After a while I found her standing outside the shop polishing the windows or watering the flower buckets. We often got chatting, a few words as we were passing each other and I’d go on me way then, happy as a clam. One morning I saw her struggling with that sweeping brush again. My temporary fix had lasted a good two months but had finally given up the ghost. The brush was proper broke now and no amount of fixing would mend her. She showed it to me, saying she was going to lodge a formal complaint with the Medical Council of Ireland and wanted my licence number.
This is where things changed. That morning I swept my way down the main street and back to the depot in near record time. I’m sure I missed half the rubbish in the gutters – I didn’t even look down Plunkett St. or Collins St. I washed me face and hands, pulled a comb through me hair and ran up to that little household shop on Francis St. Though the selection wasn’t great, I bought the fanciest looking sweeping brush I could find, the kind with brackets that hold the head to the handle.
“She’s a beaut,” I said to the young lad behind the counter, holding up the brush like it was the Sam Maguire. He looked at me like I had two heads.
It was just after 9am when I tapped on the window of the salon. I was as nervous as a first date but when I caught her eye she smiled, lifting a finger mouthing ‘one minute.’ Out she popped after wrapping a towel around some woman’s shoulders, bright and breezy and I handed her the brush.
“It’s a brush,” I said, “your new brush,” and held it out to her. I caught the blush in her cheeks and suddenly felt my own light up like a Christmas tree. “It’s nothing fancy,” I said. “I saw it in a press in the depot, we have a million of the things so they won’t miss this one,” I said looking down at my feet, now embarrassed about the whole thing. “I just thought that you’d find a good home for it, you know?”
She said nothing for a moment, just looked at it. “You’re very good, Dennis.”
“I’m only middlin’, don’t be giving me a big head now,” I said. A colleague, a girl younger than Geraldine appeared in the window, gesturing that a woman in the back needed a bit of attention.
“Oh, I better not keep ya Geraldine,” I said, stepping back. “Use her well,” I said, pointing to the brush.
“I will Dennis, thanks for thinking of me,” she said as she drifted back into the shop. I wasn’t sure what the look on her face was, it seemed a little like sadness to me. I watched her for a moment, showing the brush to her colleague, setting it up against the wall. Her colleague laughed, rolling her eyes as if saying I had a screw loose, before she mimicked blowing Geraldine a kiss. Geraldine batted it away but I could see it in her face, the embarrassment.
As I turned back down the street I caught sight of myself in the glass. I looked for a moment at the greying man staring back at me and felt like an eejit for allowing myself to think that the gesture could have meant something. I shuffled down the street, cursing under my breath, head hanging just a little bit lower.
“It’ll be flowers and chocolates next, will it Dennis?” someone said as I crossed at the junction. I knew it was Victor.
“Just doing a good turn.” I said as he rounded the corner from Barrow St, a high-vis vest thrown over his shoulder.
“I hear you’re a regular Casanova,” he said, picking flecks of tobacco from his tongue, squeezing the butt of his rollie and nodding with a finger towards the hairdressers, “a right Don Juan. You know you’re making a holy show of yourself, don’t ya? Don Juan is right.” Victor took to laughing as he sat perched on the windowsill of Josie’s pub, his arms folded.
“Just doing a good turn.” I started on my way back down to the depot. I looked back to see Victor smiling with that leery grin of his.
It was strange the way things changed. It wasn’t a sudden change; she didn’t ignore me from the get go. It was as if every conversation we shared had one word less than the conversation before. It was gradual, every smile was a little weaker; every wave a little bit softer until there was no wave at all and her smile was nothing more than a twist of her lips, like the hesitation of a smile.
I’ve learned over the years that no matter how I comb my hair, or what kind of shirt I put on, or how shiny me shoes are I’m still just Dennis on the council, the man that sweeps the streets. Maybe I should do like that fella in the song says, save up all me penny’s and buy a dinghy and sail off to Timbuktu or Tierra Del Fuego or some other place I’ve only seen in the movies. Sail off to where it’s sunny all the time and fruit grows on trees in the streets, where people only care about who you are and not what you are. I could get a little shack by the beach and fish all day and drink sangria all night and people would call me Pablo ‘cause that’s what I’d call myself. And when I’d die I’d be buried in a little cemetery looking out on the ocean with a simple note, “Here lies Irish Pablo, he left with more than he came with – the riches of the soul.”
Hah, riches of the soul, is it? Poet now, am I?
It was a Saturday night in the Wexford Lounge when Tommy Kennedy graced us with his presence. Like many thought, he’d been selected to play for the county team and Tommy was hitting every pub in the town to celebrate. Geraldine was there. She was with a few girls I didn’t know. I gave her a wave as she went to the bar once, which she returned, kind of shy and she hurried on.
Tommy didn’t stay long; he moved around the bar like a cabaret singer, stopping for a minute with everyone. He was like a superstar, first lad from the parish that made the county team in donkey’s years, slapping backs and promising that he’d give them big Corkonians plenty of hardship. I paid him no heed, expecting him to move on past me, but he didn’t.
“So you’re the bin man,” he said, leaning in across the bar beside me, his big elbows hanging on the far edge of the counter like he was about to slide in over it.
“I work for the council, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“I hear you have a bit of a soft spot for my missus,” he said with a smirk, the crowd around us hushing slightly. I could see it in his watery eyes that he was close to drunk.
“Not at all Tommy,” I said, trying to laugh it off.
“That’s not what I’ve heard,” he said, leaning in using barely a whisper to speak to me, wiping lazily around his wet mouth with his fingers. As he moved, I saw Victor standing in the corner grinning. There was silence between us for what felt like an age, his big eyes staring right back into mine and, though he was drunk, I was afraid he’d spring on me in a second if the notion took him.
“Here, Tommy,” someone shouted from behind me, “Tommy. Will you be starting against Cork, d’ya think?”
He didn’t answer the question right away, instead staring me down before peeling around to view his questioner. “I’ll start and I’ll finish and I’ll cut any Corkonian hoor who comes up again me in two.”
This raised a roar of approval from the gathering crowd as he looked back to me once more. “Watch yourself, bin man.” He pushed away from me rapping his knuckles on the counter top as he went.
Tommy moved on soon after, another pub to hit and more congratulations to take. I wonder did anyone ask him what he was playing at, filling himself with porter with an inter-county match in a few weeks time. Geraldine left with him and, though I told myself not to I had been watching her, sitting in the corner. I don’t think he said a civil word to her all night.
On the way home I stopped by the Barrack’s Hill, the stars as clear as anything. I have a thing about the stars, have done since I was a kid listening on me Granny’s wireless to when the American’s landed on the moon. When I was a younger man I used to lie out on the shed roof on the real warm summer nights and just watch them. I could spend hours, drawing imaginary lines between them, maybe looking for that one that’s just waiting to be discovered. Never did find that star.
It was on Barrack Hill that I met Geraldine and she was crying. She hadn’t meant to be seen; I could tell she had hoped to march home alone.
“Hi,” she said to me, slowing and trying to dry her eyes.
“Geraldine, are you all right?”
“I’m grand,” she said between sobs, her eyes flicking to mine almost apologetically.
“Don’t look grand to me.” There was a long silence; Geraldine rubbing her eyes red raw and sniffling. I didn’t even have a tissue. “Did ye have words?”
“Ya,” she said with a dismissive laugh. “He shouldn’t have spoke to you like that back in the pub.”
“Ah, he wasn’t really saying anything that I haven’t had said to me before,” I said. I crumpled my lips together in something resembling a smile, but I wasn’t smiling. “You deserve better,” and I said it slowly, hoping she’d catch it. She sniffed a little; I think it was a laugh.
“You’re very sweet Dennis,” she said, turning to me. I can’t deny that my heart gave a little flutter and even through the smudged make up I thought she was still the prettiest woman I had ever seen.
“Am I?” I said. “Sure, don’t sweet things cause you pain in the end.” I pointed to my teeth as I said this, her face turning to mine.
She laughed, her finger held to her nose as she did so. “I guess,” she said. She sniffed again and looked off down the main street. “I don’t see you as much anymore.”
“I went back to me old route, it’s a bit quicker I think,” watching one star twinkling like mad above me. She nodded at this, her cheeks finally dry but the sleeves of her jacket ruined. “I never meant to embarrass ya Geraldine,” I said, breaking the silence.
“You didn’t,” she said, looking away, her words sounding a little too forced to be true.
“You’re a good girl Geraldine, just…” I don’t know what I was going to say; I don’t think I had anything to say really. We just looked at each other for a moment in silence, Geraldine breaking away first, looking down to her feet again.
“Are you heading home?” she asked.
“Will you walk with me?”
We took our time walking and we took our time talking as well. I can’t say that we spoke of anything monumental. We never mentioned Tommy Kennedy again or sweeping brushes and by the time I had her back at her front door she was laughing. I bid her goodnight but there were no hugs or kisses or anything that eejits in love dream about. You know, I don’t think I ever loved her; I loved the idea of her maybe, of having someone to walk home, of having someone to make laugh and in turn make me laugh. Then again, maybe that is love?
As the door closed, I stood watching my own reflection in the glass and I knew that I would probably never see her again, or at least never speak to her again. We had made our peace and I found a sort of contentment in that. I folded the collar of my coat up around my neck and stepped back away before turning across the Green for home. Above me the night sky shimmered like a handful of chipped glass. It takes years sometimes for starlight to reach earth; I had read that in a book, so maybe one of those beautiful little chips of light no longer existed, the star itself was dead and only its light remained.
It takes years for beautiful things to die too, to wear themselves out. I watched and I wondered and then went on my way as soon as I saw Tommy turn into the estate, hearing his big boots scraping across the road in the distance. I didn’t look back as he walked up to her house and rapped hard on her door. I was long gone before she answered, if she answered at all. I had visions of him standing on her porch step all-night, crying and apologising in through the letterbox. I’m sure that didn’t happen.
I never did buy that dinghy or sail to Argentina or drink sangria on a beach. And I never did see Geraldine again. She moved out to the country, out to Tommy’s people. I heard the salon offered her nearly double her wages to come back. I also heard that Tommy made sure she never went back; she’s expecting a baby in the spring.
Sometimes when I’m walking home of a night I think about Geraldine and wonder about those stars above. I took the notion once to count them. Maybe some night I’ll spot a star that I’ve never seen before and name it, or maybe I’ll spy a blank space in the darkness where a star once burned.
Maybe I could name that too.