Accidents

The sand in the depression between the dunes near the old wooden jetty, where the kids shouted and jumped, was warm from the late afternoon sun. I was looking forward to watching the imminent sunset. I took my shirt off while Maria carefully positioned her towel on the rug before sitting down. I lay down on the sand, wriggling slightly to fit myself in better.

‘God, what happened to you? That looks such a mess!’ She leaned over and touched my stomach lightly.

I shrugged, ‘It’s nothing really, never mind’ and propped my head on the cooler bag so that I could see the water and the horizon towards which western sun was descending.

‘No, I mean, it looks like you were butchered, really. Go on, tell me what happened, baby.’ 

Pushing up her sun glasses, Maria lowered her self down on her hip so that she could run her hand over my chest and stomach.

‘Well, it was a long time ago,’ I said, ‘and it all started because my sister was afraid of dogs.’

‘Really, Why?’ She propped herself up on one elbow and gazed at me before reaching over and brushing a fly off my shoulder.

‘Dunno. Maybe she was bitten once or something, who knows? Anyway, my parents, in their infinite wisdom, and maybe even after they chatted to a trick cyclist – my father managed a large maternity hospital and knew all the quacks there – decided to buy my sister a dog. What I found one afternoon when I came home from school was a tiny squirming ball of fur which rapidly grew into an amazingly high spirited little terrier – a Jack Russell, in fact.’

‘Excuse me for asking,’ Maria sat up and adjusted her glasses. ‘But what does your sister’s phobia with regard to canines have to do with your butchered stomach?’

She reached over and touched the crude scars the original stitching had left below my ribs and across the width of my waist.

‘Hold your horses there for a minute. I’m getting to it but I have to logically present the situation to you – remember, I told you this was all long ago.’ I closed my eyes and shook my head slightly, feeling the cold hardness in the cooler bag.

‘OK, take your time, baby.’

‘While my sister tolerated Scamp, that was the name chosen by – I actually don’t remember who in particular came up with that – but he was little ball of energy and eventually, I suppose, he became my dog by virtue of us doing everything together.’

‘What about your sister?’

I sat up and pulled the cooler bag over and took out a bottle of chilled Kahlua and two shot glasses.

‘She didn’t seem to mind, as I say, she tolerated Scamp sniffing at her, jumping up on her bed, licking her face, that sort of thing but it was always met with ‘Uggh’. Anyway, the road from the bottom of Eaton Square, where we lived, led straight down Belgrave Road for about 600m before meeting Seapoint Avenue and leading on to the beach there, guarded by a squat, round Martello towers, dating back to the Napoleonic Wars when the French once landed an expeditionary force back in 1768!’ 

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‘Was it still military?’ Maria asked, her eyebrows raised in exasperation. ‘Will you please just get to the point.’

‘No, not now of course. Now it is sells ice-cream during the summer’. I passed her a shot glass of the coffee liquor. ‘But yes, it was – one just of many such beacon fortifications along the east coast.’

‘So that’s where you grew up then?’ She sipped the liquor and nodded at me to continue.

‘Yes, and where I learned to swim too.’

‘I thought you told me you nearly drowned three times at Seaport?’

‘Yes, but … I didn’t and … anyway, that’s not the main point.’

‘Ok, Ok, your stomach. Get on with it.’

I lay back and balanced the shot glass on my stomach, staring up at the first fingers of pink beginning to taint the blue of the summer evening.

‘Anyway, a bit further on from Seapoint – The DART Transit System stopped there – but the Irish name is Rinn na Mara  and you might miss it – the next stop was just before the two piers – the east and west which encompassed Dun Laoghaire Bay.’

‘And…?’

I sat up again and topped up my glass and waved the bottle at her before refilling her glass.

‘Anyway, I used to walk beside the railway line with Scamp until I got to the bulwark of the east pier bolstered up with slimy, sea-weedy rocks and in the low tide, there were crabs and ratty looking rats scurrying around below the main wall of the pier. To get down there, there were several doorways cut into the huge granite blocks making up the outside wall of the pier itself along with the sloping embankment leading down into the waters of Dublin Bay.’

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‘It sounds scummy. Why on earth would you ever go there?’ She shuddered and clutched herself.

‘Ahh, Scamp loved it – chasing after the crabs, which rapidly disappeared into pools of water among the rocks and seaweed, while the rats or whatever they were, were far too fast and fleet-footed for my poor Jack Russell.’

‘Go on, so, for God’s sake. Are we nearly at the end?’ She leaned forward and reached for her bag.

‘Of the bottle? God, no!’ I shook my head. ‘Right. Ok. Anyway, as I was going through one of these entrances from the pier down to the sea side embankment three kids, maybe a bit older than me at the time …’

‘How old were you?’

‘Never mind but anyway as these three blokes came through the narrow doorway, although of course, there was no door, Scamp ran forward and one of the guys just booted him. Actually lifted him up in the air on the toe of his boot and then kicked him into the water.’

‘Oh my God, what did you do?’ She sat up and touched my arm.

‘I don’t really remember but I think I straight armed the guy in the chest and shouted something like ‘what the …’ before I heard the sound of breaking glass. In those days, milk was delivered to peoples’ houses every morning in glass pint bottles, capped with foil. Red for full cream milk, gold for extra cream, and while the bottles had no deposit value, everyone used then, left them out for the milkman to collect the next morning when he delivered fresh bottles. Nevertheless, there were loads of loose bottles lying around all over the place at the time and I was the unlucky recipient of a broken one in the stomach …’

‘Oh my God. Are you serious?’

I pointed at my stomach and continued. ‘As soon as the other guys saw the blood, they dropped the bottle and legged it. I remember Scamp crawling out of the water and licking my face while I tried to hold my stomach together. That’s my new Mickey Mouse t-shirt humped, I remember thinking. There! I suppose you could call that a serious accident.’

‘Are you saying a savage delinquent stabbed you in the stomach with a broken bottle and you call that an ‘accident’.’

‘Well, my scarred stomach speaks for itself and it is obvious it was no accident I didn’t die then!’

‘You know what?’ Maria poked me in the shoulder with a slender forefinger before slowly bringing her other long nails into action. ‘I don’t believe a word. I I think you just made that up. ‘

She leaned forward again and brushed her nails across my shoulder towards my chest.

‘No, really, it’s all true – well the story is, I used to tell it to kids who asked me about the scars but the scar comes from something else.’

‘Oh, go on then, I can feel another whopper coming on now. You better give me another shot of that stuff.’

‘Cheeky! No, this is gospel, cross your heart. It was quite a while ago now, as I look back, when I was working out in the Arabian Gulf.’ 

I reached over and filled her glass.

‘I didn’t know you had been in that part of the world.’

I thought of the sun sinking there majestically into the warm waters of the Gulf in an imagined monstrous burst of steam and hiss while I lay in the sand, sipping Kaklua in the company of a beautiful woman, but the sun seemed to make up its own mind and slipped behind an almost invisible cloud bank or haze on the horizon, yet the rays it beamed across the darkening sky were pastel and ephemeral.

‘Yeah, I went to Kuwait in the late seventies, I suppose it must have been and, wouldn’t you know it, the whole place went dry the day I arrived. Prior to my arrival, apparently, you could buy and drink booze in all the major hotels – Sheratons and Hiltons, that kind of thing. I think Kuwait and Saudi were both considered ideal dry-out zones for the hardened boozer trying to recoup a lifetime spent on booze in this so-called lucrative dry area of the world. However, as I quickly discovered, the kingdom was awash in booze, so it was a pity to see so many old fellas absolutely swamped in pirate piss home-brew and trickier distilled drinks.’

‘Yeah? And?’

‘Anyway a few of us went out on a chartered launch one weekend and of course we had all brought along our own supply of booze – Flash was the raw spirit which we could cut with tonic or soda or coke or something and then there were the large flagons of homemade beer, most of it excellent and …’

‘God, you sound like a bit of a hardened gargler yourself.’ 

She looked at the empty glass in her hand and put it down quickly on the rug. ‘Go on anyway, how is this leading up to your stomach?’

‘I’m getting there,’ I said. ‘Don’t rush me. Anyway, look at that sun.’ 

The sun had finally slipped into the ocean and a pale salmon pink showed where it had once been. 

‘We were meant to be fishing but the day was stinking hot, the sea an oily calm so we sat around under the awning, drinking beer and playing cards. Every so often, someone would get up and throw a bucket of bait or stuff overboard in an attempt to attract something for our rods already secured in posts along the deck but we still weren’t catching anything. I knew I was getting a bit pissed, not only that, I was getting sun-burnt and losing at cards so I staggered off to piss over the side of the boat. The water looked rather attractive and on an impulse, I moved to the other side of the boat where I had pissed, jumped up on the rail and dived into the translucent blue waters of the Gulf. It was gorgeous, if a bit too blood-warm for my liking but I swam leisurely around the launch. Looking down through the clear water I suddenly saw something long and dark, shaped like a torpedo heading directly towards me and I let out such a bellow of fear and panic that I choked on a mouthful of water before I started to churn the water around me leaving an actual furrow in the water as I ploughed my way towards the boat.’

‘My God, what was it? Was it a …?’ Maria pushed up her sunglasses so she could stare at me more directly.

‘My watery shout must have alerted the other guys on board and they were all clustered at the rail, shouting and beckoning me on, while one guy brandished a wicked looking fish gaff.’

‘What happened? Did the …?’

‘Wait. As I said, we had all been drinking and the guys had obviously continued while I was in the water. Anyway, I was almost …’

‘Almost, oh my God!’ She reached over and grasped my arm.

‘I actually had my hand on the rail and the guys were reaching down to haul me up when I felt the most agonising pain in my belly. It was like a burning razor blade slicing and jiggling into my belly and the water turned red as I was finally hauled over the rail, gaffed by the eejit who, not only had he cleaned me out at cards, he practically gutted me too.’

‘God, you are the biggest liar, I swear.’ She let go my arm and sat up straighter.

‘My stomach, if you will forgive the pun, backs me up here? What else could have left such scars, unless you think I did it to myself.’

‘Did you? No, don’t tell me another word.’

‘Well, there was the time up in the Kimberley in the far north of Western Australia when I tangled with a saltwater crocodile, The bugger tried to get me in a death roll and …’

‘Stop! Enough!’

Maria interrupted me and refilled her glass again.’

You really are the biggest liar I know. Just tell me what happened to your stomach, ok?’

‘OK, sure, sorry. Actually it happened when I was born, I might even have been a premie – I was just three days old  – anyway my spleen had ruptured unknown to the quacks but my mother always claimed she knew there was something wrong with me …’

‘I’d agree with her there, go on, what happened?’ Maria interrupted again, draining her glass.

I mock glared at her before continuing. ‘Anyway, my spleen had burst and shifted to my other side so, initially the surgery was explorative to find out why I was turning blue. Anyway, once the problem was located, the next problem was how to do me up – remember I was a newborn and there was not much fat or flesh to sew together and the adhesive tapes they use now were not available then so the best option was to staple my stomach closed – hence the rather clumsy look of the scar. Best they could do and I was kept in an incubator for my first six months of life.’

The moon was ripening in the sky when she leaned forward and quickly slapped me on the arm, before trying to bang her shot glass down on the rug . ‘God, you are so mean, I don’t know what to believe now.’

On File

Kuwait was the first time I had ever been fingerprinted. I knew then that one phase of my life had come to an end and that I was being forced into a new one – one I wasn’t quite sure that I wanted to embark upon at that time.

The thing that disturbed me most was the inevitability of the whole proceedings. I had just arrived in Kuwait to work as an Instructor at a oil refinery at Mena Abdullah and during my first morning, Sami, a brisk, bustling butterball of a little man led me to the Police headquarters for “formalities”.

Once inside the building I was led down an untidy corridor to a bare, cell like room where systematic fingerprint identification was made. Foolishly, I felt as if I should have been given a choice or my permission asked. Instead, a bored and disinterested police sergeant wearing a too tight tunic, buttons gaping to reveal dirty white underwear, grasped my arm by the wrist, inked my fingers thoroughly on a pad by pressing my hand down on it and then rolling my hand back and forth to gain maximum coverage, before pressing my finger tips down firmly on a pre-printed form.

To add offence to the whole issue was the perfunctionariness of the whole procedure and the absence of anything with which to wipe the offending black stain from my finger tips. Previous printees has both solved the problem, and shown their contempt, by wiping their hands on the bare, whitewashed, limestone walls of the room. I did the same, and finished off the job as best I could with some waste paper lifted gingerly from the rubbish bin.

Kuwait was definitely alien and shrouded in mystery for me. Everything was, from the ankle length robes and chequered headgear the men wore, to the voluminous black swaddling cloths the women were wrapped in, to the fierce dry heat, to the absence of greenery and to the ban on alcohol.

I was picked up from the airport at night by another Irish man called Tony and his close friend, a tall, well built Kuwaiti wearing an ankle length grey robe called a distacha. The ride from the airport through Kuwait city and then on beyond into the darkness on the Salmiah road to the village of Fahaheel was conducted in silence and coolness. Tony and Hamad dropped me off at an isolated, squat, three story block of flats and casually announced that mine was number 7 before they roared off into the night. Dusty roads snarled through unfinished building sites and heaps of rubble, lined with burnt out wrecks of cars marked a few rutted paths. From where I stood, on what looked like a disused building site, I could see across down a treeless street into town.

The next day I started work. Not knowing much about anything, I was lucky to have an understanding and sympathetic director and eager, mustached young engineers and mechanics, keen on improving their skills in order to gain a place at the Oklahoma Institute of Petroleum Studies in the States.

Leaving Fahaheel, a fifteen minute stroll past the new shopping centre, filled with narrow shops selling brand name watches, Japanese stereos and women’s designer clothes, totally at odds with the billowing black veils all Kuwaiti women wore, brought me to the new two storey fish market proudly perched in one corner of the curving bay.

Fish were haggled for noisily on the ground floor as Pakistani labourers dragged crates directly off the dhows straight into the tiled whiteness of the market. Men with large moustaches sat clustered together at small rickety tables on the balcony of the cafe overlooking the water, playing noisy games of dominoes. A mixed assortment of vegetables was scattered haphazardly on bits of cardboard and sacking, watched over by amorphous black clad shapes. Slovenly youths, wearing dirty ankle length distachas, slouched around, clearing soft drink cans, empty cigarette packets, the remains of meals and coffee residue from the tables by throwing them over the parapet directly into the waters of the Gulf below. Paul, my boss, had arranged to meet me there that evening and was smoking a tall brass water pipe and sipping a tiny cup of strong dark coffee flavoured with cardamom when I arrived.

Almost immediately, the reason for my invitation became apparent when he suggested going back to his mate, Sam’s apartment, to talk business.

“Steve, can you give a hand to carry these downstairs to the ute”

“These” were 5 gallon plastic bins with their lid taped on to some. Paul lifted one lid to examine the scum on the surface and a sour, rotten stench filled the small kitchen.

“This is sour mash,” Paul explained, “we’re taking it to someone else’s house for them to distil it into Flash.”

Over a homemade beer carefully poured first into a plastic jug, Paul explained that Flash was the raw alcohol from which anything else could be produced. “You want whisky?” Sam clarified, “Then you chuck in a handful of oak chips and the alcohol will absorb the colour and the flavour of the oak. If you want Cointreau, chuck an orange in and leave it for 6 months”

“You’ve got to be careful, though, with Flash, see.” Paul went on. “It has to be distilled properly. If it isn’t … Boom, you’re dead, in more ways than one. Never buy it from any of the Pakis down in the big camps. The way they do it, see, is to just stuff the sour mash in the freezer, pour off the liquid that doesn’t freeze and then repeat the process several times. They end up drinking raw wood alcohol and it’s no wonder they’re all as mad as they are. I remember last year, back in Saudi, some of the Paki’s died after drinking Snake eyes there.”

“Anyway” Sam interrupted, “we’re taking this over to this Yank in Ahmadi town. He works in the Lab at the refinery and after this stuff is run through the still, he’ll test it in the lab for purity. So, are you on to give us a hand?  Donkey like, I dragged and lugged heavy plastic bins down three flights of barren, roughly finished concrete steps to Sam’s ute. I wasn’t able to lift the bins up onto the back of the ute but Sam and Paul did this effortlessly, as if with long practice.

“You jump up there, Steve and keep an eye on the lids,” Paul said and obediently I hopped onto the back of the JMC ute. Paul got into the passenger seat inside while Sam drove.  The sudden jolt of starting off and the bouncing journey across a wilderness of rubble and junk before we hit a tarred road running in a straight line into the starry blackness of the night sloshed a considerable amount of sour mash over my clothes. The only way I could keep lids on so many bins was to lie on top of them and spread-eagle myself but that didn’t stop the contents from sloshing up and soaking my thin clothes.

“Ok up there,” Pail called through the open window and at that moment the night was split with the sound of police sirens. Sam immediately swerved off the tarred road and lurched through a wilderness of broken rocks and scrubby bushes cutting the engine and switching off the headlights. Seconds later a convoy of police cars screamed into view and just as rapidly disappeared into the other direction.

Sam waited a few moments longer before starting up and leisurely following the direction the convoy had taken.  I guessed we must have been coming into big money because the environment changed so suddenly. Instead of Fahaheel’s look and aspect of an abandoned building site of epic proportions, Ahmadi was American style, low slung ranch / bungalows on manicured squares of green grass. Sprinklers hissed in the background and low slung sports cars were parked everywhere. Sam turned left off the main strip and pulled into the attached garage of one of the ranches.

Before I knew what to do, Paul had pulled down roller shutters, closing off the garage and we were manhandling the bins into a sleek chrome and tile kitchen. I expected to see a Frankenstein style laboratory with a copper spiral and flashing lights but after a proffered cup of coffee which we all declined it was back in the ute and home to Fahaheel.

Over another homemade beer, Sam sold me all the equipment I could possible need to start home brewing myself and a few weeks later, just as I was enjoying my first 5 gallons of brew I was presented with a large laboratory gallon flask of clear liquid.
“Here, you go, but be careful now. This has already been cut once with water so it’s about 50% proof. You might want to cut it again and then cut it with tonic or coke or whatever you want to drink with it. Welcome to the world of Flash”