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Graham Donlon

The sun beat down on Seán’s broad back, his shirt damp with sweat. He pushed his brush into the thick wood preservative hanging from his ladder by a thin metal wire. He slathered it onto the telegraph pole, leaving black streaks as the bristles ran over rough wood. Sweat stung his eyes. He took a moment to smear the sweat with his forearm, then looked back towards the town they had just been in that morning. A long straight road; the heat haze making the ground shimmer. The men installing the fixtures were a few poles behind him and the men connecting the wires a few more poles behind again. Ahead, the men erecting the next pole for him to coat had just finished another one, and, nearly out of sight, stood the hole-diggers. Still, they were making good progress. They’d be in Ballinlough before the evening and the foreman called the work done for the day. A chance for a pint. He looked towards the next town, hidden by a bend in the road and the rise of a hill. He rested his rough hand on the wooden ladder; this pole was done. On his way down he checked for any big gaps. At the bottom, Seán stretched his back, groaned, and walked around the pole, examining his work. Satisfied, he moved on to the next.

Three more poles done and the foreman called lunch. They had looked for shade but found none. This stretch was just flat fields with sitting cows, tails swatting lazily at the bothering flies. Heading back to a turn-off not long passed, they called on a big house with a lone tree in the garden. The foreman knocked, hat in hand, with the men looking on, standing like schoolboys at the low front wall. A well-dressed woman opened the door, cautiously welcoming. He asked if she wouldn’t mind the men eating in the shade of yon tree.

She acquiesced and offered tea. He said tea would be lovely and headed for the shade – then stopped, and, perhaps pushing his luck, asked if they could use the outside tap. She agreed to that too and even offered a small bar of soap. Under instruction, the men walked from the shade to the tap. There were no objections. They queued and washed one at a time. The men waiting for their time at the tap didn’t talk. They were fixated, almost salivating, anticipating the relief. There are few luxuries like cool water on a hot neck.

Under the horse chestnut tree, on a neat lawn, the men ate their sandwiches. Some talked about work, some about sport, some about women. Seán took a hefty bite and breathed heavily as he chewed. He stared off into the sunshine, knowing he’d have to go back shortly. A dot of movement at a white net curtain caught his attention and he looked towards the house. A young girl ducked away from the window. Seán looked back towards the road. Some men took the chance to shut their eyes, hoping the worst of the sun would pass by the time they’d be going back to work.

The foreman’s cough brought everyone’s attention to the woman of the house, who was fast approaching. She carried a tray and was followed close by the girl at the window, also carrying a tray. The foreman stood and took off his hat to receive their gifts. The men stood slowly behind him. Bending gracefully, the woman placed her tray down on the grass; a teapot, cups, a milk jug, and a sugar bowl. The girl’s tray bore a plate of biscuits. The woman stood, exchanged a few pleasantries, and, when the silence became awkward, excused herself politely and left. But the girl didn’t. She stood, rooted, staring at Seán. The woman and the men looked at him. He blinked, looked at them, then at the girl, then at the woman, then looked down. His hat was fisted behind his back. The woman called her daughter but she didn’t budge. She stayed staring. A few hurried steps and the woman grabbed the girl’s thin arm. A muttered apology, a forced smile, and they were back in the house. The men sat and drank tea from bone china cups.

The foreman announced the end of lunch and everyone packed up, leaving the place tidy save for the flattened grass. On the walk back to the trucks, there were a few probing looks but no questions asked; Seán didn’t say a word. He didn’t mention his own little girl and the reason he was so far away from Dublin. He didn’t mention the doctor working on her poor little veins, the injections they said would make her better, the tears of her mother, the sunny funeral day, the drink his wife turned to. He didn’t mention anything. He sat on the back of the flatbed, legs dangling as the engine spat black smoke.

Seán lifted the ladder from the back of the truck; he carried it to the next pole and set it down, making sure it was stable at the base. Hunching over, he topped up his bucket and began painting the bottom. Once that was done, he stepped onto the ladder and made his way up, slowly spreading the sticky chemical. A lone snow-white cloud broke through the blue and exhaled a moment’s respite as Seán reached the top. They were at the bend now. The straight road could no longer be fully seen, and ahead, the next town’s church spire was peeking over the hill. He smeared the sweat on his forehead with his forearm and made his way down the pole, checking for gaps as he went. When he reached the bottom, Seán hefted the ladder up, rested it on his shoulder and carried it to the next pole.

Graham Donlon's first short story was published in issue 2 of 'Profiles'. His short screenplay 'Tether' was a finalist in the 2022 Waterford International Film Festival and his micro-fiction 'Piano Sings' was a finalist in the 2022 Michael Mullen Charity Fund Competition. He is currently working on his first novel. Find him on Instagram @sbt_quiz

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