Ferdinand and Aine
A paper seller directs her to a side street, tells her he saw a sign there just that morning advertising a room available “But hurry” He had told her “Rooms are hard to get now, its festival time” Aine had forgotten the festival, the yearly extravaganza when the city celebrated its beginnings. For the first time she was happy about it, it meant more people, bigger crowds, easier too hide. Other years it just meant more men, more pain. The rooming house is in a dark alley, the smell of filth rank, the darkness oppressive but the sign is still up and the house itself is brighter than its neighbours, some effort has been made to keep it bright and respectable.
The caretaker wants a deposit. He is middle aged, starting to get a paunch and balding, the hair he has he keeps trimmed tight. He is wearing a clean vest and blue football shorts, on his feet black leather shoes and ankle socks. As he comes out from behind the desk he walks with a pronounced limp. Aine almost laughs, not at the limp but at the shoes and the sock which are incongruous with the rest of his attire but she cannot afford to humiliate him, she needs the room.
She can afford the rent but the deposit he demands is beyond her means so she offers him herself instead. She is disgusted, hates that she has put herself in this position but she needs the room. He is not harsh or cruel or brutal, he is just one more man and Aine is sick of it all, sick of the panting in darkness, the giving of herself. Her soul is bleached now with all of it, washed out, she has nothing left. She is nothing. He is finished, he thanks her and again she almost laughs. He is clearly not a man who uses prostitutes.
His name is Ferdinand, he came to the city many years ago as a sailor on a merchant ship. A man of only twenty five but already well travelled. He had seen every port imaginable, had been to China, India, Australia, Canada, Brazil. He had seen the world, or at least he had seen the oceans and ports of the world. He jumped ship when he docked in the city, he had two years saving burning a hole in his pocket and he was sick of the ocean. He wanted a break.
On his first night in he got very drunk in a bar called ‘The Scruffy Joe’, he bragged to anyone that would listen about how he was going to paint the town red. He bought drink for anyone willing to sit and listen to him for a while. Ferdinand is not wise in the ways of the world. He grew up in a small fishing port on a very small Island. Until he was twenty two years old he worked with his father on their lobster boat and had never been off the Island. His uncle Jimmy, his Mothers brother had organised the job for him.
When Ferdinand left the island to go to Quebec it was his first trip alone. At twenty three he was still green and still scared. He was on board a massive cargo ship within a week. He enjoyed the life, enjoyed the cosmopolitan nature of the crews he worked with. He enjoyed hearing other men’s stories. He had about him a simplicity and good natured way, the sailors he met came quickly to like him. He was that type of guy, people would sit down and tell him their troubles. Not because he could offer advice, because he couldn’t, but simply because he would listen. When Ferdinand landed in the city and went on his spree he was twenty five and his sum total experience of life was twenty two years on an isolated island, the population of which were almost exclusively related to him, plus twenty two months on a ship with a bunch of merchant sea men, and then the week he had spent in Quebec. He was the least experienced individual in the bar and there were those there ready to take advantage of that.
One smiling face in that bar caught his attention but she didn’t come to talk to him, she was busy taking drinks to tables and clearing empty glasses. She was tall, her long red hair was tied up in a ponytail. Her eyes were the greenest Ferdinand had ever seen. It is accurate to say that Ferdinand fell in love that night. Fell in love with a waitress named Sally. Sally had a confidence about her, but also a vulnerability that drew men to her but she wasn’t interested in the barflies that came to this place. She kept her eyes down, got her job done and drew her pay. Sally needed the job, she had one more year of her degree and then she could work in the real world but for now ‘Scruff’s’ was her only hope to make decent money. The hours were long but the wages and tips together paid her tuition, her rent and fed her and the cat she had adopted.
Ferdinand left The Scruffy Joe when he saw the waitress leave but he didn’t get to follow her or talk to her. He had barely turned left out of the bar door when the blow came from behind. He never saw it coming, never knew who or what hit him. When he came too he was flat on his back. Blood gushing from a deep and burning wound on left thigh. His shoulder bag and his money were gone but he hardly registered that because kneeling beside him was Sally. Ferdinand came to think of that night as the luckiest of his life.
She came to the hospital most days, she couldn’t stay because she was either going to work or going to lectures and Ferdinand only stayed in the hospital a week. Once they realised he was broke they discharged him. Sally was hesitant at first but allowed him to sleep on the floor of her single room, she fed him and he promised to repay her everything and more as soon as he was mobile again. Sally was drawn to Ferdinand in the same way the sailors on the ships had been, she found herself telling him things she had told no one else, her dreams and her fears. The love between them grew from familiarity, first it was friendship, then more, and then love. Ferdinand believed that because it took time to grow it would be strong and would last forever.
They married a year and four months after Ferdinand was discharged from the hospital. Sally was an orphan and Ferdinand decided not to contact his father because the trip to the city would be beyond his meagre means. He knew his father would feel shamed for not attending his son’s wedding so he took that pain as his own and never told his father about the ceremony.
Sally had Rita, who also worked at Scruff’s, as a witness and Ferdinand asked the minister to be his witness. Ferdinand was not yet twenty seven years old and on that day he was the happiest man in the city. I see them leave the registry, see them walk hand in hand to the rooming house that Ferdinand has taken a job in. He has decorated the room that is to be his, has installed a kitchenette. Has purchased a television and a stereo and his biggest purchase a double bed where he took his new wife and made love to her slowly and sweetly.
Sally was already sick when they got married. She didn’t know, would never have burdened Ferdinand with a dying wife if she had. It was quick, just sixteen weeks and for the first five weeks they were unaware of it. Sally though she was just tired, she had started a day job but still worked nights at Scruffs and she helped Ferdinand with the rooming house. Ferdinand’s leg was healing but the limp would be permanent and finding work in the city with a damaged leg was impossible, the job in the boarding house paid a small wage and the room came free.
Sally forbade him to go back to sea and of course when they found out she was sick it was too late for him to consider it. Ferdinand would never return to the merchant navy.
It was a degenerative bone disorder. Sally was taken into the hospital on a Monday for tests, the doctor told them on the Thursday that she was dying and she walked out holding Ferdinand’s arm on the Friday morning. They said six months, she had in fact eight weeks. She threw out all the medication they gave her because they made her sick. She saved only the pain killers and she took double doses of those. She spent every minute of every day awake and busy and beside her husband. She tried in every way to give him a life time of memories in a few short weeks.
Ferdinand loved Sally, his world collapsed when she died. He buried her in a small cemetery outside of the city and he went their every weekend with flowers. He would sit by her grave and talk to her. Tell her about the people who came and went at the boarding house.
He was not yet twenty eight years old when he became a widower. He had loved once in his life. He had loved brilliantly, brightly and completely. He waited twenty two years to love again.
When Aine walked into the boarding house she looked lost, looked scared and alone. Her vulnerability reminded Ferdinand in some small way of Sally. And so that is why he accepted her proposal and that was why he came each night to her room with ice-cream and chocolates and sandwiches. Ferdinand had for the second time in his forty nine years fallen in love.
I am an Angovar. Michar the collector. I see humans as complete stories, see lives entire in all their beauty, harshness and frailty. I do not judge appearance. Length of life means little to me and material wealth is no measure of failure or success. I see beauty in the life lived. Measure a human by how they have treated the world they live in and the people they have lived with. I see too the changes wrought by interactions. I see children corrupted by parents who fail in the important things, who display cruelty, callousness, ignorance. I see men corrupted by others who offer an easier way. The malleable unanchored individuals who run with the pack, who take the path of least resistance, the easy road.
I see only goodness in the Caretaker. He is a man who views the world not as a challenge but as an endless source of wonder and possibility. He is a man who could so easily have become embittered. The world has treated him harshly and yet he greets it each morning with a simple enthusiasm and curiosity. He is grateful for the things he has. His room is small but it is big enough for him, the alley is dark and dirty but beyond the shadows is a bright shining city that offers everything he needs.
Aine is not immune to this simple kind spirit. He comes each evening to her room. He brings her food and ice-cream, he brings her sweets on Fridays. He asks for nothing in return, he sits at the table with the folded cardboard under one leg to keep it from rocking and spilling their tea. He tells her a little about himself. He speaks with a candour and a bright enthusiasm that Aine cannot help but be drawn to. He tells her a little about his young life on a cold remote outpost of the pacific coast. He speaks with such affection for a place he has not seen for over half of his life time. He describes the people with empathy, talking not only about their appearance but about their characters. He tells her about his wife. It is only after he has told her all the wonderful things that he talks about the short time they had together. He seeks no sympathy, he makes it clear that he was the luckiest man alive to have loved such a wonderful woman. But mostly Ferdinand sits and he listens and Aine talks.
She talks at first to fill the silence. He has told her of his life and now he sits and he waits. He demands nothing, maybe that’s why she finds it so easy to tell him everything. She tells him about her mother, about the men and the beatings and the rape. He sits impassive except for his eyes which mirror her pain as she speaks. He listens, really listens. He never interrupts, never asks questions he simply listens and his eyes, they are the eyes of the world.
She tells him about leaving home. About running away from the only security she had ever known. How she had swapped one hopeless existence for another, left a mother that didn’t really care and a life that held no prospect of improvement to begin a life that was perhaps worse.
He didn’t judge her when she spoke about life on the streets of the city, he showed neither approval nor revulsion he simply listened and his eyes spoke volumes, she could see there only understanding. Aine unburdens herself. Tells Ferdinand about the terror of her life, men who could so easily have killed her, men who cried on her shoulder like babies, men who wanted to marry her. But it was all illusion, all life outside of life. She told him how she created stories in her head, how she wove a life of comfort and love, a past of good parents, wonderful friends and a job in the real world. Aine had never talked so much about herself as she did to Ferdinand. She felt safe with him.
On some evenings Ferdinand would sit on the bed rather than sit at the table. He would sit up straight, his back against the wall and he would listen to everything she told him and he would offer each time a little more of himself and ask for nothing in return. Aine had told him that she loved Chinese food and he surprised her one Friday with cartons from a good takeaway complete with chop sticks and delicate rice crackers. He had only brought food for her claiming that Chinese food didn’t agree with him and that he had had a sandwich. Aine felt immediately guilty, she knew then what an extravagance this food had been and how he could ill afford it. She took it to the bed and sat beside him, she kissed his cheek and hugged him. She curled up beside him to eat, comfortable in his presence.
That night she fell asleep with her head on his chest, the cool feel and scent of his shirt, his body bathed, fresh and clean, his arm about her waist cradling her. Aine slept soundly and Ferdinand sat for the night his eyes wide, radiating happiness and contentment. Just to be with her and hold her tightly, to feel her breath on his face and her heart beating in time with his.
Life is full of possibility. People react to others and Aine reacted to Ferdinand. She saw how he treated life as an opportunity, how he took pleasure in the simplest things. With him she felt safe and she too started to live life day to day. Started to see the possibilities of a future where she could be happy. Aine moved into Ferdinand’s room. He slept on a couch and offered her his bed. On the third night Aine asked him to come and hold her while she fell asleep. She moved close to him, felt his nearness, his scent and his aura of joy wrapped about her. For the first time in her life Aine surrendered herself to a man willingly. She clung to him and moved with him and felt the joy of love. When they finished she cried and he held her close, rocking her gently and whispering in her ear. Her tears were tears of thankfulness. She had found, for that short time a way to live and a way to love.
© Dave Kavanagh @ daithiocaomanaigh.com