The Scrap-iron Man
The silver-black lamppost is safety. As long as you touch its peeling paint the tinkers who come up the road on their donkey and cart can’t take you away. The Old Man says they’re great men for the old trades—silverwork, smelting iron to fix buckets, blacksmithing. Mam complains that they’re only interested in stealing healthy children and making them their slaves. They come on Thursdays, in the afternoon. The driver of the cart is always the same man with the ginger hair and bowler hat with a big green feather sticking out the top. He has a tattoo on his neck of a skull, and sometimes he has a fat woman sitting beside him with a cap like the Old Man’s, who sing-songs, “Mend your pots! Scrap iron! Scrap iron!” Mam says the pair of them must be crawling with fleas, and tells me not to get near the cart.
There’s a steel mattress with broken springs on the back of the cart, like the one up the lane we use for a trampoline. I wonder what they do with all the junk they collect. The man catches me looking at him and rubs the fur-like hair on his neck. “C’mere, son. D’you want a gobstopper?” He holds out a paper bag to me. I want one, but I shake my head and grip the pole tighter. He turns back to the cart and swats the poor donkey on the backside with a broken tennis racket. “Suit yourself,” he says, and phlegms orangey gobstopper juice into the street. I so want to ask him for one, but I can’t do it.
Emer and her friend, Catriona, are walking up the avenue, swinging their schoolbags and laughing loudly. “We’re having pizza pockets for dinner, Anto!” she shouts across at me. I say nothing, and swing myself around and around the lamppost, my fingers interlocked, the sky turning circles above me. Sometimes she’s real bratty, especially when she wants to show off to her friends. That’s when I ignore her and concentrate on the way a seagull glides in the breeze, or count the coins in my pocket, or roll my belly-button lint into a small ball. The tinker woman smiles at Emer and says, “You’re an angel! Would you ask your mammy if she has any pots need mending?” The poor ass pulling the cart drops lumps of shite on the road and steam rises off it and the smell is poxy. The girls pay no attention to the tinkers and go into the house, shutting the door with a bang behind them.
I want to shout, “Litterbugs!” at the tinkers, but I’m scared they’ll make a grab for me. Mam says if they’re forced to they can be vicious curs and have no problem abducting bad boys and girls. This is why she wants me to be an altar boy, to be closer to Jesus, and the Holy Ghost. But I’m not great at religion class, not like Eoin Summers, who is bound for heaven according to the priest. The Old Man says the parish priest is a real creeping Jesus and would say Mass for sixpence. He also says the tinkers are descendants of the Puritans who left England and Scotland hundreds of years ago. I said they went to America on the Mayflower and he clipped me on the ear for insolence.
When the tinkers’ cart turns at the end of the avenue and disappears, I let go of the pole and go inside. Mam is sitting in the kitchen with her sewing kit, surgically hemming a pair of the Old Man’s breeches. The smell of flapjacks fills the air and for a moment I wonder if the tinker man will swap me a gobstopper for a week-old flapjack when they come back next Thursday. When Mam puts the sewing stuff back in the Singer box under the stairs, I’ll sneak a hot flapjack into my pocket and hide it under the loose floorboard in my bedroom.
The silver wheels of my misshapen kidney no longer work. The doctor says there’s a problem with my spine, too. Mother’s eyes are puffy and she dabs at her shrinking tears. They help position me in the bed, my body lighter now than before; the boy I was, ripped from the present and replaced with some shrimp-like version of a weaker self.
He would be here, too, if it weren’t for the drinking. She says if she had a gun, she’d shoot him, but I know she’s not serious. Serious is the blood in my urine. Serious is the rubber sheets I sleep on. Serious is the possibility I’ll enter the gates of heaven before either of my parents. In any case, she kisses me and tells me everything’s going to be all right.
While the doctor ties a rubber tube around my arm to take blood, his knuckle grazes my cheek and the skin is rough. And when the thin steel needle penetrates my vein, I grab hold of the bed-sheet and grit my teeth. A plant sits in a terracotta pot on the window-ledge and the sun strikes the plastic leaves as the glass tube fills with dark blood. My tonsils are missing and if I open my mouth to scream he’ll be able to see my stomach in terrible knots of fear.
His hands trace the outline of my kidney and when he pushes in suddenly, it rattles. Not a good sign, he says. Extended stay, the doctor tells us. A month. Maybe longer. I want to go home, to sleep in my own room, with my soccer posters and stuffed bears. The doctor insists. He calls it acute nephritis. He says I’ll have to be restrained at night. I don’t know what he means, but when the nurse ties the straps around the bed-frame I begin to shake, and she gives me the magpie-eye.
Mother returns with my pajamas, toiletries, and a bundle of comics. The nurse brings me a slice of gammon ham with a pineapple ring and mashed potatoes for my tea. Mother kisses me and says she’s got to go home to get Dad’s tea ready, but I’m not to worry, because he’ll be in to see me after work. As she walks toward the glass double-doors of the ward, I open a comic and try to forget my broken parts.
Dad arrives later with the other fathers visiting their sick children. Raincoats and the evening newspapers are everywhere and the smell of damp and cigarettes makes me want to get sick. He ruffles my hair and says I’m to be a good soldier for the doctors and nurses. His thick fingers feel like lead weights on my head and he gently kisses my cheek. After he goes home for his tea I cry into the pillow for a while.
In the darkness of the ward, the faint click of shoes on tile mingles with the breathing of the patients. I dream of capturing insects in jam-jars by the banks of the river, my skin set with sweat from the rubber sheets. I’m woken twice during the night by the metal knocking coming from my kidney. The noise reminds me of the way the corrugated iron roof of the garden shed flaps on a windy day. I mimic the sound.
As the clicking of nurse’s shoes draws nearer I hush up and press the pillow to my side so she won’t hear my kidney’s metallic groans. Maybe it’s the pressure of the pillow, but I piss my pants and my pee spreads daffodil yellow on the bed and smells awful. I can feel the shape of my kidney through the skin, and the way it vibrates from the broken pieces.