To Hell with Descartes
by Jonathan deBurca Butler
[First printed Books ‘N Pieces Magazine, December 2017]
“See that girl there?” asked Jedebiah Smallman.
His friend, arms-folded leaning back on a sulking clef-back bench, soaked up the early morning sun.
“Which one?” asked his friend, opening his left eye lizardly.
Jedebiah Smallman shuffled uncomfortably on the bench and coughed with his throat and his lips. His friend referred to it, behind his back of course, as his horsey cough; the one he spluttered before he got all…haughty.
“How d’you mean which one? The…the one on the swing,” he said, nodding in the girl’s direction. “Over there.”
The girl was alone in the playground, firing herself into the air like a solitary circus performer. She had jettisoned her school bag against the wooden post of the swing. It looked like an idiot; a goofy, bedraggled and burdensome looking bag carrying books that had to be carried. Later on, those books would be removed. They would be scribbled on, played with and turned in dog ears. They would get ripped and rolled and any food that fell on them would be flicked to the floor with the vigour and frowning concentration of a chess champion. Every now and then the girl would try, really try, her best to read something from one of them or some of them but she would fail. She would glean nothing from them and she would put them back into their dark sling, carry them home over one shoulder and leave them sitting by the hat stand. Until the morning came around again.
“Yeah. Oh yeah. What about her?” asked Jedebiah Smallman’s friend.
Jedebiah leaned forward on the bench. He rubbed his nose in the manner he always did before he was about to make a point; his friend had no name for that.
“She’s too old,” he said, gazing in her direction.
“How d’you mean?” asked his friend.
“For the swing,” said Jedebiah, getting annoyed at his friend’s stupidity.
“I mean look at her,” he continued. “How old do you think she is? I’d say she’s about fourteen, maybe more.”
“I don’t know,” said his friend. “I have no children of my own, so to be honest with you now, I don’t know. But you might be right. I can’t see her being much younger than that in anyway.”
The two men sat there and looked at the girl swishing up and back in giant pendulum-like motions. She stared at the ground, her head titled to the side. She wore long dark hair. It was clean and silky but it looked uneven. Her nose was hooked and pronounced and together with her pouty, pinched lips, she looked something like a little owl. A lonely little owl on a swing.
“Like,” continued Jedebiah, “she’s too old for that swing, you know? I mean there comes a certain time when you have to move on from things like that and sort of act your age I suppose. I think it looks a bit funny. There’s something a bit funny about her there. At this hour. All on her own. Doing that like that. All on her own.”
“Descartes once said….,” started his friend.
“Ah Jaysus,” roared Jedebiah Smallman, putting his hands to his face. “Descartes again. To hell with Descartes. I mean what in the name of Jaysus has bleedin’ Descartes got to say about a girl on a swing? Would you ever leave the poor prick alone? I mean did they even have swings in Spain?”
“France,” said Jedebiah Smallman’s friend.
“What?” said Jedebiah, wiping down his face with his rough right hand.
“Descartes was French.”
“Well whatever he was,” continued Jedebiah Smallman. “What has he got to say about a girl on a swing.”
“He said nothin’ about a girl on a swing,” said Jedebiah Smallman’s friend. “But he did say, ‘you’re only as old as you feel’.”
Jedebiah Smallman stopped wiping his face with his hand and held it over his mouth. His eyes flittered right and left as he took in what his friend had said.
“Descartes said that?” he shouted in a whispered tone. “Are you trying to tell me that Descartes said that?”
“Yeah,” said Jedebiah Smallman’s friend. “The very man.”
“Descartes did on his bollox say that,” replied Jedebiah Smallman. “That was someone like Dolly bleedin’ Parton.”
“I don’t think it was Dolly Parton, Jed.”
“I know it wasn’t,” said Jedebiah Smallman. “But I know it wasn’t bleedin’ Descartes either.”
His friend mooched at the sun and stayed silent. Jedebiah Smallman looked away and began examining his fingernails. Seeing that the nail on his right forefinger was a little out of shape, he searched around his inside pocket where he eventually found some clippers. He removed them and twisted the lever round its silvery pin.
“I’ve seen her mother here before,” said his friend.
“Who?” asked Jedebiah Smallman, starting in on his nail. “The girl’s?”
“Yeah,” said his friend. “She wouldn’t be in the best shape to be honest with you.”
“Shouts a lot. Likes a drink, and maybe even the funny stuff. Can’t be easy for her.”
“No,” said Jedebiah Smallman, breathing out a badly timed breath.
The machinations in the nearby church bell tower began to twist and turn. The girl on the swing suddenly shook herself, interrupting the swing’s momentum and it came to a stop like a thrown away rag doll. Just as the bell tower stretched its creaking bones she climbed off, straightened her school dress and stepped forward to pick up her bag. She slung it over her shoulder.
The two men, seeing that she was coming their way, held their spake.
But she knew. She had grown used to feeling it. There were looks you got as the child of a junky.
She walked past the men and continued along the path in front of them. She lumbered up the steep steps, stopping momentarily to scratch an itchy leg.
“What did you say her ma’s name was?” asked Jedebiah Smallman.
“I didn’t,” said his friend. “I’ve no idea.”
The church bell’s final toll ebbed away from the vibrating bowels of their ears and stood aside for the day’s unexceptional din. The two men watched as the girl reached the top step and disappeared over the brow of their day.
Above their heads, an airplane streaked across the blue.
“I’d better go myself,” said Jedebiah Smallman’s friend, standing up from the bench.
Jedebiah Smallman, who was by now, biting on his thumbnail, acknowledged his friend with a wink.
“G’luck,” he said. “Mind yourself on that….”
“I know, I know,” said his friend raising his hand. He turned his back and moved slowly, carrying his heavy shoulders on his back.
Jedebiah poked the tip of his tongue through the o of his lips and spat the shredded thumbnail from his mouth. Leaning forward, he rested his arms on his legs and let his interlocking hands dangle like a prayer from his knees.
He looked down on the ground and thought about the dead. He thought about them everyday and smelled their worldly smells. Margaret’s hair spray and the boy’s sweet sticky hands. His father’s navy, tobacco and stout drenched jacket, his mother’s starched aprons and whiskey breath.
It was they who had given him his name: ‘Jedebiah’ they had told the registrar. He had suggested they meant ‘Jedediah’ but when they insisted and he had looked into their dewy eyes, he thought it best to let them have their name.
Drink had killed them both and there was Jedebiah, left with no parents and a ‘b’ in his name.
“Would you never get it changed,” he had been asked on several occasions.
“It’s not mine to take away,” he would always say. “And it’s as much a part of me as anything else.”
Jedebiah turned to the seat where his friend had sat.
“His paper,” he muttered.
He picked it up and began to read. In the distance, sirens clamoured in a maniacal assembly as the day went on around them.
Pal read one of the horse’s names.
“Pal,” said Jedebiah Smallman to himself. “Where do they get the names?”
He folded up the paper, got up off his seat and walked home.
“Do you mind if I sit here?” asked the man.
Jedebiah Smallman looked up from the bench, to find the voice that had addressed him. His eyes squinted as he studied the man’s face.
Moustache, glasses, balding, tall, collars and a round neck jumper.
“Well,” said Jedebiah, “ehm, a friend of mine usually sits there but to be honest I haven’t seen him for a few days so fire away.”
“Thank you,” said the man, sitting down on the bench.
“Not a bad day now, is it?”
“No,” replied Jedebiah, a little taken aback by the man’s confidence. Did this man not know who he was? Did this man not know that this bench, the bench he had just invited himself to, was his?
“It’s not bad at all really,” he continued. “It was threatening earlier but so far…”
The man opened his paper and began to read.
“I see they’ve named that man,” he said.
Jedebiah said nothing.
“I see they’ve named that man from the accident the other day,” said the man, trying again.
“Oh sorry,” said Jedebiah. “I didn’t realise. Sorry, which man?”
“That accident there the other day near The Capstan?” said the man, nodding towards the pub near the park.
“I heard nothing about it,” said Jedebiah. “I live this other side of the park so I don’t really go that way.”
“Oh yes a terrible business altogether,” said the man putting his paper down across his lap. “There was a man, I think he was an elderly gentleman, and he was crossing the road there over by the pub. You know, just where the pedestrian crossing is; it’s feckin’ dangerous there. I didn’t see it now but someone told me later that the man was, as I said, crossing the road. He didn’t have the green man but there was no traffic and sure you know the way we do it here in Dublin, no one gives a shite about the green man. Anyway, people who saw it said he looked like he suddenly remembered something as he was crossing and he turned around to go back and get it and was hit by a motorcycle. Feckin’ thing was flyin’ along, you know the way those bastards go, and knocked him into the air and onto an oncoming car. He shattered the window screen of the car and came off on to the ground.”
The man picked up his paper.
“A terrible feckin’ business altogether,” he continued. “And of course the fella on the bike was grand. Few scratches.”
Jedebiah said nothing for a moment.
“When did it happen?” he finally asked the man.
“A few days ago,” said the man. “I think it was a Monday.”
“Around midday?” asked Jedebiah.
“I think you might be right there,” said the man. “I think it was just after twelve. There couldn’t have been much traffic around but then that crossroads is terrible.”
Jedebiah Smallman leaned forward and thought about the dead.
He coughed through his lips and mouth. He wiped his face with his hands.
“I always told him to mind himself on that road,” muttered Jedebiah.
“What’s that?” asked the man.
“Tell me,” said Jedebiah, turning to the man, “sorry, what’s your own name?”
“Fenelon,” said the man. “Lorenzo Fenelon.”
“Italian?” offered Jedebiah.
“Half,” said the man.
“Tell me Mr. Fenelon,” said Jedebiah. “Do you know much about Descartes?”
Jonathan deBurca Butler is a 41-year-old from Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland. He writes short stories and poems, as well as newspaper articles, for several well-known publications in Ireland. He is also a regular radio contributor. Having completed his degree in History and Italian at University College Dublin, he spent most of his twenties in Rome, Italy and then two years in London before returning home, in his early thirties, “to reconnect with the sea”. His short stories focus on the unnoticed, fleeting dramas of everyday life and the heroism of simple survival in the face of casual cruelty and thoughtlessness. To Hell with Descartes was inspired by two men the author regularly passed on a morning walk through a park near St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.
Photo credit: ljupco
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