A phone rings as I back the car into a spot near the Listowel Arms. I don’t recognise the ringtone; it’s an old one and the sound is very tinny. I look out the open window and down at my phone. Nobody nearby and mine isn’t lit up. Then I see the small Nokia, easily over ten years old, vibrating on the seat beside me, the screen shining brightly, showing a number.
“Feck it,” I say, “he’s left his phone.”
What am I going to do now? How am I going to explain the story to the caller, whoever it is, on the phone? I park the car and answer the call.
“I left my phone in your car,” the voice says.
“You did,” I say, relieved that it’s his voice on the line, “where are you?”
“On the road, by the garage where you dropped me.”
“Stay there I’ll be right down.”
I leave the carpark and turn down the hill. Sure enough he’s standing slightly out on the road, almost exactly where I dropped him a minute ago and with his hand out like it was when I picked him up only a few minutes back again.
I stop in traffic and slide the window down, handing the phone over as he leans into the car.
“Thank you,” he says, “thank you for everything.”
“No problem,” I answer, conscious of the traffic gathering behind me, “thank you for the company.”
I drive off, leaving a car out in front of me first. Further down the road I turn around at a quiet spot and head back up the street. He’s gone, at least I can’t see him and he would be difficult to miss, just as I don’t miss seeing him not that long ago back out the road.
I’m in a hurry coming from Tralee. About halfway to Listowel I see a man ahead, and sure enough his thumb is out. He’s standing at a good place to stop, and as I have a thing about not passing hitchhikers, I pull in beside him. While I’m clearing the passenger seat he opens the door, and I get a better look at him. A well-fed man in his late 40s, blue jeans and a black t-shirt, solid working boots, thinning black hair and a rough goatee. He’s wind-blown, there is a fair wind out and the way he drops into the seat it’s as if a gust has swept him in. What catches my eye, and makes me smile, is that he’s carrying a birdcage and a bridle.
“Thank you for stopping,” he says.
“Glad to,” I reply, “were you there for long?”
“Over half an hour,” he answers while clipping in the seatbelt, “I wouldn’t mind, but the wind nearly had me over and it’s beginning to rain.”
We head off into traffic.
“You’d think someone would stop for you.”
“Nobody wants to stop for people thumbing anymore. Everyone is in a hurry somewhere, I suppose,” he’s looking ahead as he speaks, “I’m going to outside Listowel.”
“That’s fine,” I say, “I’m on my way to Listowel myself.”
My passenger settles himself, lets out a bit of a relieved sigh and fixes the birdcage on the floor.
“What have you got there?” I ask.
“It’s an old birdcage and a bridle. I picked them up at the car boot sale in Tralee. I go every week and I always find something.”
“I go a bit myself too,” I nod, smiling at his purchases, “what are you going to do with the birdcage?”
“I’ll do it up, clean it and paint it. It’s a fine one,” he says, holding it up a bit, and I see the quality in the design. Tall, wide and made of solid looking metal and with a handle to carry it about or hang it from a stand.
“Do you keep birds?” I ask.
“I do and I breed them for selling too. If I don’t use this cage, I can always sell it.”
I drive on while we talk, regretting now that we are so near to Listowel but the traffic is heavy, which slows us down a bit; we might get to spend a bit of time together yet.
“What sort of birds to you keep?”
“All sorts. Parrots, budgies, goldfinches, canaries. I cross canaries and goldfinches to sell.”
“Goldfinches and canaries?”
“Yes, they’re called mules.”
“Mules?” I’m wondering if I’m hearing him correctly
“That’s what they call them.”
“I suppose they must be a fine yellow and great singers?” I can picture the colours, and I know the song of the goldfinch.
“Oh, beautiful looking birds and the finest singers you’ll hear,” I can hear the love in his voice, almost as if he’s looking at one, “they love singing in the morning.”
“What do you do with the ones you breed?” I wonder.
“I sell them,” he says matter of factually, “I go around the houses and the old peoples’ homes. People come to me too for them.”
I don’t ask what he gets for the mules.
“Do you keep any other animals?” I ask instead.
“Oh loads of them, the birds, ponies, goats, hens, ducks, dogs, rabbits and ferrets.”
“Ferrets? You don’t hear of many people keeping them anymore.”
“They’re great for hunting.”
“The man I’m going to meet used to keep them when we were at school, funnily enough,” I say, trying to show off my little knowledge.
“I got my first ferret when I was three years old, no two years old, and I’ve had them all my life since,” he sits up straight now, happy to be talking about ferrets.
“Two years old?” I smile as I reply.
“Yes, I was out in the bog playing, and I saw this little brown ball in a puddle of water. I picked it up and carried it into the home,” he cups his hands as he speaks, “my father said to put it by the fire in the kitchen, and I laid it on the old blanket beside the hearth.”
“What was it?” I ask.
“When he dried out he became this ball of fur and my father said that’s a baby ferret.”
My passenger is smiling at the thought of it now, probably over 40 years later, but, and as he goes on to tell me that was the beginning of a long friendship.
“I called him The Captain,” he says, “I made him a bed in a cage beside the fire and he lived there all his life. Every morning I’d come down and take the blanket off the cage and The Captain would be there waiting for me.”
He goes on to tell me how The Captain would be happy to see him for six days of the week, Monday to Saturday but Sunday mornings he’d be really excited, jumping around the cage even before the blanket came off. The Captain knew it was Sunday and Sunday was the day they went hunting.
“He knew it, he knew it every week,” my passenger says, the happiness coming into his voice as he gets into telling of The Captain.
“We’d be out the door from six in the morning till it got dark in the evening,” now he turns his head to me, “up the fields, over the hills, walking for miles, hunting rabbits, me and The Captain. We’d be everywhere. I’d come home in the evening with a few rabbits and my father never had to worry about me at all.”
His father would know if he was home or not, by looking at the cage. Friends would call around and the father would lift the blanket and say: ‘no, The Captains gone, they must be off hunting.’ If The Captain were there, the father would say: ‘Tom must be up the yard’ and he’d send the callers off to the sheds. Eventually I know my friend’s name, but there isn’t any mention of a mother in any part of our conversation. As we pass through the Six Crosses, Tom begins a tale of true love and devotion…
One summers day when he was about 11 or 12, Tom was out in a small field with The Captain. They’d been out since early morning and it was not long after they’d stopped for lunch. Without warning a bull attacked Tom from behind, throwing him to the ground and stamping on his chest and legs when he tries to flee. Luckily something distracted the attacking bull and Tom managed to crawl into a fenced area full of calves. As he got his breath back Tom realised The Captain was gone, still in the field somewhere. There was nothing for it but to crawl back out to find The Captain; though Tom was badly injured and couldn’t walk, there was no way he was leaving without his friend. The bull was off in a far corner, so Tom crawled along the edge of the ditch until he saw The Captain moving in the grass. Over he went on his belly, grabbed The Captain and put him in under his shirt, down by his armpit, before reversing and slipping out through the ditch, onto a boreen. Tom was in pain and a long way from anywhere. He couldn’t put his legs under him and he took nearly an hour to crawl to the nearest house. The man there had a phone but not a car. He called a neighbour who drove over and took Tom home, where his father laid him out on the kitchen table. Tom was wearing an old pair of black jeans, and they were so tight his father had to cut them off him. The tight jeans were doing a vital medical job though, once his father cut them off ‘gallons of blood’ gushed out. Tom’s legs were badly torn by the bull’s hooves and his father set about patching them up.
“Three weeks I was in bed getting better,” he told me, but there wasn’t any mention of a doctor, “sure that was way back then, you stayed in bed until you could get up. Once I was better I was out again hunting with The Captain.”
As we drive along, I can see a happy look on his face as he speaks of his days with The Captain. Endless days out on the hills and fields around Listowel hunting rabbits and spending time with his friend. Days now long gone but never forgotten, memories as strong as if it were only yesterday.
Going over the bridge into Listowel he asks me to drop him by the garage at the bottom of the hill, the one on the right.
“Did you have The Captain for long?” I ask as he gathers the bridle and the birdcage, and I make the signal to pull over.
“I had The Captain until I was just gone 16,” he says, looking at where I’m pulling in, “I came down one morning, and when I pulled off the blanket he was stone cold dead inside in the cage. I still keep ferrets, but I never had one like The Captain again.”
With that he gets himself and his buys out the door, leaving his phone on the seat without either of us noticing.