Patrick Holloway’s poetry and short stories have been published by a host of literary journals including Poetry Ireland Review, Overland Literary Journal, and The Lonely Crowd. His poem ‘A Ritual’ was chosen for the anthology We Will Be Shelter. His poem ‘A Little Like Life’ won the 2015 Caring for Carers Poetry Competition. His story ‘Counting Stairs’ was highly commended for the Manchester Fiction Prize. His poetry collection has been long-listed twice for the Cork Literary Review Manuscript Competition. He is currently completing his PhD in Creative Writing in Brazil where he is writing a bilingual book of poetry.
Butler Bob, as he was known to all except his mother, was a queer fish – from the way he shuffled up and down Cotter’s Rd., to the way he mumbled indistinguishable words under his bad breath. But he was a nice enough guy. Wouldn’t harm a fly, people would say, or, not a bad bone in his body, that Butler Bob. And if his name was ever mentioned, an image of his hands in his pockets, or the white of Guinness on an unshaved upper lip, or him smoking a rolled-up cigarette, would be conjured up. Funny how nobody remembered him as a child. Butler Bob, it seemed, came into existence at around forty.
He had a clan of brothers and sisters, as was the fashion way back when. Younger and older, dead and alive, and he was always somewhere in the middle – in the background. A corner of his head here or his long, bony fingers on a sibling’s shoulder. His face, even in family albums, was a phantom. Pauletta, the youngest of the sisters, had only one memory of him as a child and that was this:
The older brothers and Butler Bob were all going boxing with their father. This had become a new hobby forced upon them all because their father seemed to think Butler Bob could be a little soft in the head, a little weak in the knees. He feared he’d been sprinkled with fairy dust, so he said to his wife, “Miriam, I’m taking the boys boxing. Nothing a good box can’t beat out of a boy.” And who was Miriam to argue. Who was Miriam at all? So, this one day, young Pauletta was asked to go along, and so off she went. And she remembers being stuck in between the boys in the back of their father’s van with the smell of sawdust and sweat, and she remembers looking at Butler Bob’s knobby knees. And, coming up to the boxing hall, she remembers the sounds of bags being punched and the squeaking of trainers on rubber, and the clattering of metal lockers. Inside, she sat on a hard wooden bench and the walls were made of concrete and the paint was all fading. And it was dark, dim, dank, and from the corner of the hall there was a light coming from a room and she looked over and saw Butler Bob stepping out as if onto a stage. His knobby knees shook and big boxing gloves stemmed from his twig-like arms and the space between him and the boxing ring seemed infinite. And as he walked out and crossed the hall, Pauletta saw the silhouette of a naked man cross the room. And that is the only memory she has of Butler Bob as a boy.
The truth was Butler Bob had a lot to offer the world when he was locked up in the privacy of his loneliness. If truth be told, he thought himself somewhat special. Who else could drink ten pints of Guinness and still walk a straight line, he’d think to himself, or who else can name all the counties in Ireland in alphabetical order? Antrim, Armagh, Carlow, Cavan, he’d whisper to himself. Backwards too, he could do it. Wicklow, Wexford, Westmeath, Waterford. And what about being able to bend his right thumb backwards as if confusing the space around his thumb, or his whistling rendition of Today by John Denver? He did think of himself as somewhat special but then he’d walk out into the big bluey green world and get asked for the time and have trouble deciphering the big hand from the small hand. As he stumbled over words with spittle at his lips, the person – Mary Maguire in one case a few weeks back – who had asked the question, would politely nod and go about her day, maybe later to tell a friend, while sipping Malbec from the Mendoza region, of a strange man she had met on the street.
They often say you can tell a lot about somebody from their possessions. Mary Maguire had many possessions. She had a bed-side locker full of rings and necklaces bought from cities in countries she had visited and couldn’t remember the name of. She had expensive art hanging on her walls; art by fairly-famous artists, and she would not talk about the art but talk about the artist. She had three drawers full of shoes, some still unworn.
Yes, they say you can tell a lot about somebody from their possessions. Pauletta, for instance, picked her possessions like princesses choose princes. She would often spend minutes picking up a wooden-carved robin-red-breast she had bought years earlier and holding it in her hands and thinking back on the day, the time; she often remembered exactly the price she had bought it for, down to the very cent. Her house looked like something from a magazine – in the very best way. Pauletta, it could be said, from her possessions, was a classy lady.
Butler Bob wasn’t a man for possessions. Even if he had the money for them, he wouldn’t put much thought into them at all. For all they did was take up space and he couldn’t understand for the life of him why space needed to be taken up. Space, to him, was a rather wonderful thing. Space between his hand and the pint; space between the stool and the bar, and between him and the barman. The space that twisted and turned its way up Cotter’s Rd., and on again to the cliffs that looked out on Cork harbour and then all that space weighing the sea down. And what about the space beyond the horizon, he thought, what about all that space. Why one would want to fill that space up was beyond Butler Bob.
His sitting room had two chairs – one with a cushion and one without, a small desk used as a dining table that also had a drawer, and in that drawer was a lighter, a box of matches, a black and white photo, and a gold chain left to him by his father. The kitchen was of a similar fashion. A couple of plates, knives, and forks taken from random bars in the village, pint glasses taken from one specific pub in the village, some corn flakes, milk, and so on.
His mattress lay on the wooden floorboards and he had a little lamp on the right side of the mattress. The mattress had a sheet, a thick, hand-knitted blanket, and two pillows – one with a pillow-case and one without. There was a book next to the mattress. The book was called Breakfast of Champions and written by a man that Butler Bob thought of as a kind of God.
If we’re on the same page about possessions and what they say about a person, then we could assume Butler Bob was an ascetic.
If Butler Bob had thought about his lack of possessions, he might have known that there were groups forming all around the world; groups of ascetics trying to make a statement about something or other. If Butler Bob had known about these groups he might well have joined one only to be disappointed to find that they were full of people who once had many, many possessions and went running round the house in fits and spurts of madness, asking themselves, do I really need this? Butler Bob would have found it all a little bit forced and he’d have gotten lost in the monologue-like conversations they’d conduct in order to make themselves feel different. He wouldn’t have understood the eight-syllable words they used incorrectly, or the way they nodded their heads with such ferocity. He’d have thought that they themselves were taker-uppers of space.
Photo by Moz Rauf
The reason the story of Butler Bob is on the tongues of all the local cats at the moment is because Butler Bob hasn’t been seen in around 26 days. His last appearance, according to Johnny the barman, was on a Friday night, twenty-eight days ago, when he ordered a pint of Guinness, only to sip at the warm beer for over an hour and leave without paying. Philip, the local manager of the grocery shop, claims to have sold Butler Bob a large head of cabbage on the Saturday, twenty-seven days ago. There are many more “witnesses”; some say they saw him catch the 222 bus into the city, others say they saw him hitchhiking by Glenwood’s cross. Mary Maguire claims to have asked Butler Bob the time on a Sunday twenty-six days ago, and told her friends that he seemed to be in an awful state altogether. I had never spoken to him myself, she had said, but he did seem like an awful queer fish. To that her friends nodded and sighed and swirled their wine around in their glasses. One lit a cigarette and told them that she’d once kissed him back in school. She had been a friend of Pauletta’s at the time and had been over in her house and while Pauletta was getting ready she was left with Butler Bob sitting on the sofa. He put his hand on my knee, she told her friends, all of them leaning forward. And then I turned to him and he kissed me hard on the mouth and then ran out of the room. I heard a door slam upstairs and it sounded like he was crying. The women bit their lips and sipped their wine and thought of what a strange specimen Butler Bob must have been.
Pauletta had seen him on a Wednesday thirty days ago, when she had bumped into him walking up the Lower Rd. She had just visited a friend and had had a glass (or two, or three) of wine and decided to walk home. It was something she never did. She was of that era where no one felt the need to abide by the new drink-driving laws. After all, it was only up the road. But on this Wednesday, thirty days ago, she decided to leave the car and walk home. Something must have been on her mind, something a bit of fresh air might help. She hadn’t walked a hundred yards when she had bumped into Butler Bob. His curly hair a mess, standing on edge and pointing out in all directions, his cheeks reddened by drink, by time, by space. There were days she’d be walking past a mirror in the morning, before make up had been applied, or hair had been combed, and she’d get a flash of Butler Bob looking back at her. Looking at him then, on Lower Rd., she thought of his face like a shadow of a great monument. She’d have moments when she’d think thoughts like that, and think to herself, if only I could write. But that’s what he looked like to her then, with the sun high in the sky. He looked like a shadow a monument would leave upon the ground.
Where are you off to, asks Pauletta, the only one with a memory of Butler Bob as a boy.
Out strolling, he answered, without looking at her. He could have been talking to anyone. In fact, he was. He was in such a flustered state that he didn’t realise it was his youngest sister, his eyes on his feet and the space between the left and the right.
He hurried past her without another word. Pauletta found it strange, but then again she thought a lot about Butler Bob was strange. And it was in that moment that she remembered Butler Bob at the boxing hall, and how the light came from the room and poor old Butler Bob seemed to be walking onto a stage, and the silhouette of a naked man fading from sight; fading into empty space.
This was the last time Butler Bob was seen. Johnny the barman had served him that pint of Guinness a week earlier, and Philip the manager was an awful gossip who’d say he sold a head of cabbage to the devil if he thought it would lengthen a conversation. And Mary Maguire had mixed up Sunday with Tuesday, for those are the two days a week she plays tennis.
Of course Butler Bob would be found. And of course the ending was not a happy one. For everything is found, anything that takes up space will be found; space itself, as Butler Bob found out, is indelible, indestructible, uncapturable, and the more you take of it the more you lose your way. The only way to not occupy space, Butler Bob deduced, was to not occupy space at all.