Eve Elliot

The Glimmer Man

“Bimbo flew into the stew.” 

My father says this as he looks out the taxi window, taking everything in with bland interest, just like he does at home. 

“Sorry, Dad, what?” 

I make sure his seatbelt is buckled, and try not to let my irritation show. The afternoon is sticky-hot, not at all what I expected of Ireland. All my life I’d pictured raincoats and Aran sweaters, jaunty tweed caps and Finbar Furey around every corner, bursting into song. It isn’t like that at all.

“Auntie May’s budgie,” Dad says. “That’s how he died. Dove right into the pot on the stove. Poor Bimbo.”

“Poor Bimbo,” I say. I doubt there was ever such a creature as Bimbo; most of Dad’s memories these days never actually happened, but it costs me nothing to go along. “So are you looking forward to seeing the house?”

“Oh yes,” he nods. But he nods at everything lately, so who knows. 

I’m checking off a mental bucket list for him; Auntie May’s Bessborough Avenue row house (he pronounces it bez-bruh) where he was sent when his mom died: check. Some cousin’s house in Fairview: saw it yesterday. Today, after some prodding, he finally remembered the street where he was born: Mount Street Lower. After that, we’ll be pretty much done.

I don’t know how much he’s getting out this trip; his reaction to everything is mild, distant. He could be at the mall food court on our weekly trip out, or he could be back in Dublin again after sixty-odd years, it’s all the same to him. My brother warned me not to bother bringing him here. Just take Dad to an Irish pub in Toronto, hell never know the difference. 

 “29 Lower Mount Street please,” I say. 

“Lovely,” says the driver. He’s the spitting image of Archie Bunker, grimy white shirt and everything. He pulls into traffic, and lowers the volume on broad Irish accents arguing about someone named Sam coming home to Mayo. 

Archie tips his chin up at me in the rearview. “Over on holiday from America, then?” 

“Canada, actually.”

“Ah, Canada.” He smiles approvingly. “I’ve a sister in Toronto, she loves it there. You’d want to die from the cold, though,” he laughs. “She says it’s brutal.”

I laugh politely. “It can be.”

“C’mere, is it true you can get snowed in, like?” 

“Not in Toronto. Maybe down east—”

“They rationed the gas,” Dad says abruptly, startling me and Archie.

Archie’s blue gaze in the mirror flicks over to Dad’s face. Maybe cabbies develop a sixth sense after years of tooling drunks and crazies around. Maybe Archie has an oul fella too; whatever it is, his eyes sharpen, like he knows.

“In the tenements, you mean?” he asks, loudly, directing his voice at Dad. “Back in the forties, yeah?”

“You couldn’t have it on before seven,” Dad says, turning to me. For one brief moment something familiar shimmers in his eyes, like he’s back for a visit. Then it’s gone again. “But there was always a bit left in the pipes, enough to boil the kettle and warm up the place a bit.”

His Irish accent is bubbling to the surface again, even though his voice trembles and he speaks slowly, like it’s costing him. 

His eyes are a watery blue now, not the vivid hue I remember, and his pale scalp peeks through the wisps of white fluff where jet black waves used to be. His skin is mottled and crepey, but when I was a kid, he went dark as a pecan in summer. He said this was because he was Black Irish. A Spanish galleon had wrecked off Galway and the survivors had been such a hit with the local ginger girls that in no time there were black-haired pecan babies everywhere. You can tell because regular Irish people look like your man from Star Trek, Dad once said, that fella with the curly hair. 

I don’t think it’s remotely true, I never did. In any case, I didn’t inherit Dad’s swarthy good looks. I look more like the Star Trek guy. 

“That must have been annoying,” I say. 

Dad nods, and runs his hands along his thighs. “It was my job to look out for the man.”

“Is that so?” It isn’t a question, and he doesn’t reply.

Dad was only sixteen when he left here for good. His mother had died five years before, his father had emigrated, and he and his brothers had been dispersed to whichever aunts could take them. 

I’ve only seen one faded photo from his childhood: a rail of a woman in a shapeless house frock, planted in the doorway of a squat row house, arms crossed, a deep scowl on her narrow face. A couple of kids in short-pants caught in mid-frolic, their little bodies a blur. Dad may have been one of those kids, he can’t say for sure. There were kids everywhere then, eight or nine to a house; you lost track after a while. 

He laughed when he told me about playing by the Grand Canal locks, or the brutality of the Christian Brothers school, how you never told your parents if the Brothers walloped you because Da would belt you too, for whatever you did to deserve the first walloping. 

He laughed at every indignity, like having his left hand whacked with a ruler until he learned to chicken scratch with his right. 

Everything was a laugh — but only when he was being Irish. 

Back then he was only Irish on special occasions. At parties he’d break out the Irish LPs and sing along in a throaty baritone. A wheelya wheelya wall-ee-ya. If he was really drunk, it was the one about coming home on a Friday night, as drunk as drunk could beor sometimes that pretty dirge about Willie McBride. The Rare Aul Times made him wipe his eyes with the back of a flannel sleeve and say ‘Ah give over, I’m only after getting somethin’ in me eye.’

Gobshite! Eejit! Wanker! The insults flew between his friends on peals of laughter, who’d laughed harder when I asked what they meant.

I loved Irish Dad. He’d throw his arm around my shoulder and say youre a good lad, a good lad and squeeze hard. Irish Dad taught me how to play two spoons on my knee and when to clap to No, Nay, Never No More. This is what I thought real Irish people were like all the time: a jovial bunch of musical drunks  making instruments out of spoons. 

Most of the time, though, he was someone else. Sobriety made him irritable and suspicious, just waiting for the world to let him down. Hockey Night in Canada on the console TV every Saturday night, yelling at the Leafs to score so he could win the hockey pool at work. A Molson Canadian in his hand, a bowl of potato chips in his lap that would go flying when the Leafs invariably lost and he’d surge out of his La-Z-Boy with rage. 

Barbecuing hot dogs in the stifling July heat, cursing out my mother for buying cheap charcoal when it wouldn’t light; teaching us to roller skate in the driveway with a cigarette dangling from his bottom lip, giving up in a huff when we fell too much. 

A cuff to the head if we messed up with the chores. Two quick slaps to the face if we weren’t paying enough attention. Muttered oaths and head shaking, so we knew what disappointments we were. 

I couldn’t drink with him then, but I could try to be Irish. I read about the Easter Rising and played Dubliners records on the little hi-fi in my room, hoping he’d hear the faint strains and come in for a bit. I even sent off for a passport at fifteen because I could, and swanned around showing it off. Look, I’m Irish, this little book says so — born in Canada, never set foot in Ireland, a citizen by virtue of someone else’s birth. 

See, I’m Irish, just like my Dad.

Archie pulls over to a blast of horns behind us, and I hurry Dad out of the car. I don’t even check the meter, I just hand over a twenty and tell Archie to keep the change. 

“Yer a maggot,” he says, I think. 

“Excuse me?”

“Means thank you in Irish,” he says. ‘Look it, safe home back to Canada, all right?”

“Yer a maggot,” I answer, and he chortles as he drives off. 

Dad is blinking at a commercial building with low broad stairs and a couple of bright green post boxes out front. People linger outside clutching paperwork, smoking.

“Ah,” Dad says, on a soft, reverential breath. He turns to look down the street, and I can only guess what he’s seeing. “I remember it well.” 

“Are you sure you have the right address?” I should have checked the app before we came all this way, I would have seen what progress has made of the tenements. “See, it’s an office building now.”

“Across from O’Connors,” he says. “Mam used to send me over to fetch me Da for his tea.” 

I follow his gaze across the street, to a couple of smart Georgian houses that have somehow survived. O’Connor’s pub anchors one of them, the kind of traditional Irish pub I’ve always imagined. I’ve never had a proper pint of Guinness, so I’ve been assured, and the day is so hot and long. 

“Let’s grab a drink, Dad, what do you say?”

“It was so cold that winter,” he says.“Bitter.” 

I sigh.“Was it?”

I glance to my right, as I’ve learned to do here, to check for oncoming cars. 

“Mam had to make Da’s tea when he got in, he didn’t want to wait ’til half seven to eat, so she risked the gas. But he caught her, all right.”

“Who did?” There’s a gap coming after a convoy of silver sedans, and I think we can make it.

“The Glimmer Man. He’d come round to check if you’d been using the last bit of gas in the pipes. If he caught you, he’d cut off your gas for good. I was meant to be watching out for him, but I was messin’ and didn’t see him.”

“We’ll have a pint, and you can tell me all about the Glimmer Man.”

I take his elbow and start to lead him across the street.

“We slept under potato bags to stay warm, and ate cold coddle and bread for our tea. But the babby died anyway.”

I stop. “What?”

“It was too cold. Poor little thing.”

“Dad, what baby?”

He looks at me, startled. “Patrick, of course. The new baby.”

“You had a baby brother? You never told me that.”

Dad shakes his head. “We weren’t meant to tell, not after me Da went round to the Glimmer Man’s to sort him out.”

“Dad, look at me. What are you talking about?”

“You know yourself,” he says, waving it away. “Someone called the guards and Da had to leave, or else he’d have been done up for murder, and Mam was crying buckets over the baby and over me Da, and then she died too, a day later. I found her in the bed, with little Patrick.”

I stare at him. 

Where does he get this stuff? He’s getting worse, more inventive by the day it seems. 

“Are you sure you didn’t see that in a movie?” I ask. “You know you get a bit mixed up sometimes.”

“Yeah,” he says wistfully.

“Because you said your mom had a stroke when you were eleven, and that’s why your father went to Canada. Remember? 

He frowns. 

“And you went to live with Auntie May. Remember?”

“Yeah,” he nods. 

 “And Bimbo. Remember Bimbo?”

“Ah, yes” he says, his eyes shining. He likes this story better, I think. “I loved Bimbo. He was such a lovely bird.”

Eve Elliot is an Irish-Canadian living in Dublin. An essayist, podcast host and published author of ten short stories in North American literary journals and magazines, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Malice Domestic, she was a finalist in the Wild Atlantic Way Literary Competition for flash fiction.