The boy was sitting on the small wall, a few feet opposite Stan who was on the steps of his backdoor tuning the strings on his guitar. The boy dragged his eyes away from Stan and looked down the rows of disordered back gardens through a composite haze of insects, then over the roofs of Bearnagh Drive, behind which was the Horsey Field where he caught bees in jam jars on sunny days.
Above the Horsey a circling bird high in the sky reminded the child of the westerns he had seen on his granny’s television. Vultures hovering, thought the boy, meant that they had spotted down below, in a canyon full of rattlesnakes, a lonely cowboy bleeding to death from bullet holes or dying of thirst because his canteen was empty or been sabotaged.
To the boy’s mind came motley impressions from the various films he had seen. The cowboy hadn’t eaten in days, had been looking forward to his first bath in three years, and had smashed his last bottle of liquor against a rock because he was trying to stop drinking and it was muddling his thinking. He was lying against a tree, seeing things in double and treble and talking to himself. And he was seeing Beth, his girlfriend from the saloon. He had just been double-crossed by a sleeked, so-called partner who had climbed on his horse and laughed before riding off with the cowboy’s only boots tied to his saddle and stolen his share of the gold. To crown things off the traitor said he was going to marry Beth and the cowboy banged his head against a tree shouting Oh no! and what he wasn’t going to do about if when he got out of this fix.
A Wells Fargo stagecoach, if this was the same film, didn’t know the cowboy was in just the next canyon and this was very sad and potentially the end of the story because the stagecoach only went through once a week. Every Thursday, to be precise, maam, said the driver to a woman in the back when she asked. In yet another canyon the cowboy’s horse was snorting like mad and looking for him but couldn’t smell him. The horse was limping because it had stood on a big cactus which the boy thought was poisonous and maybe slow-acting so time was running out.
Stan’s sudden strumming of his guitar awoke the boy from his reverie. Stan strummed and then sang in his beautiful voice an Elvis song he had been practising for months.
There’s no strings about this love of mine
It was always you from the start
Treat me nice, treat me good
Treat me like you know you should
’Cause I’m not made of wood
And I don’t have a wooden heart
Stan stopped and adjusted the strings again.
“Awwwww, nothing.” The boy was going to ask what he thought the seagull was doing above the Horsey Field but then he guessed that it might simply have something to do with the smell of Friday night’s chips cooking in all the kitchens. When he asked Stan a question Stan would always ask him to guess an explanation before giving the answer.
Stan sang the song again, with his eyes closed and the boy regretted that he looked a bit sad because Stan was usually full of sparkle. To hear his whistle, to see him come around the corner after work and down the street filled the boy with sheer ecstasy. When he was younger he would run to him for a swing.
Stan finished the song, slid his plectrum into the headstock and put the guitar down gently. He took a cigarette from behind his ear, stared at the boy but said nothing. Inside, at the kitchen table Stan’s father was puffing on his pipe and mulling over the parts of a broken iron, while his wife, Mrs Molloy, finished a pile of pans and dishes.
An ice-cream van could be heard in the distance, the sound of ‘Popeye the Sailor Man’ becoming louder from its Tannoy as it drove into their street. Upstairs, two or three of Stan’s sisters could be heard arguing over a dress. The boy liked them, but not as much as he loved Stan who along with his girlfriend used to baby-sit the boy and his sister to let their mother out every other Saturday night. Stan would allow them come downstairs and sit for a while until they were sleepy, then carry them to bed.
Stan rolled his eyes at the noise of his sisters and then winked at the boy who smiled. He went through his pockets.
“Here. Catch! Go and get yourself a poke.”
“Thanks, Stan!” The boy ran up the side of the house, gripping the thrupenny coin, and joined the queue. He was walking back slowly, biting the chocolate flake and licking the ice cream and the drips of raspberry vanilla when his sister saw him.
“Where’d you get the poke? I haven’t got a poke.”
“Barney’s da bought me it,” he lied. He didn’t want his sister going to the Molloy’s and asking them would they like to see her do her new Irish dancing steps, expecting a reward.
“Just one lick.”
When he returned, Stan was just stubbing out his cigarette. He offered Stan, then his mother and father, and his sisters – who were now bickering in the kitchen – a lick of the poke, which he had miniaturised, but they said, no thanks.
Mr Molloy licked his finger, touched the plate and it hissed. “That’s that working. No excuse now,” he said. He pulled a plug from the wall, and then came to the backdoor, inhaling the evening air between puffing on his pipe.
“What do you think of Stan then, joining the Navy,” he said to the boy. Stan scowled at his father but the old man didn’t notice.
“What’s that mean?” asked the boy. “Are you going on a holiday, Stan?”
“Sorta,” he replied.
“For three years,” said Mr Molloy. “To see the sea. Wished I’d a done it.”
“Are you leaving, Stan? Leaving us?” asked the boy again. Stan hesitated.
The boy felt sick.
“I’ve been accepted for the Navy and I want to go away and see other places. That’s all. But I’ll be back.”
“Aye, you will,” said his father, laughing. A huge emptiness opened up inside the boy. It was worse than the death of his father whom he hadn’t really known. Next to his mother, Stan filled his world. Even his mother was very fond of Stan. When he’d broken up with his girlfriend that night of the shouting downstairs which involved his mother the boy had hoped that they would marry and live happily ever after and that his mother wouldn’t cry anymore in her bedroom.
The boy felt he was dying.
“Please, don’t go, Stan. Don’t leave me. I… I…I don’t know what I’ll do without you.”
“You’ll have loads of friends. I have to go. I’m sorry. But sure, you’ll see me every summer.”
“Every summer! Just every summer!” The boy was full of conflicting emotions. The thing he loved was hurting and betraying him. How could Stan do this?
“Come here,” said Stan but the boy refused to move, swallowed the stings at the back of his throat, then jumped up and ran away.
A small crowd cheered Stan the day he left – just two days after the boy had sat with him in the back garden, dreaming about the wounded cowboy all alone in the canyon, the vultures waiting to pounce.
Stan’s father told the truth: he never did come back. The daughters got married and left. Mrs Molloy died first, then Mr Molloy. The house changed hands several times, and the new occupants’ lives and the abominable changes they made to the house and garden left old memories with no place to perch.
When the boy had ran home that night and told his mother the news, she began to cry and said she already knew. He was angry with her as well. Mrs Molloy brought over Stan’s guitar, which he had left for the boy. The boy said he didn’t want it, but kept it, or, rather, his mother did. He took it out from time to time and there came a time, many, many years later when he played it and with his eyes closed he sang that song in its old colours:
And if you say goodbye
Then I know that I would cry
Maybe I would die
’Cause I don’t have a wooden heart