The Potravini Bench

Shortly after my father, Joseph Anthony Gerard Morrissey, passed away in 2009, I discovered some hand-written ‘diary entries’, written by one of his many Slovakian friends, on loose A4 sheets of paper. Many other ‘diary entries’ had already been typed up, by my father, and published on a Slovakian website, which is unfortunately no longer on-line. I do not know who wrote the following, or how to go about contacting anyone that may know the author, so I am placing them here, to finish what was started.

If anyone reading the following ‘diary entries’ does have any information, or thinks they may know someone or something, please feel free to get in touch, by either leaving me a message or by e-mailing me.

Enjoy.

 

There is a small village General Store, at the bottom of the three-kilometre lane from our village, to the parent village of Hronska Dubrava. In front of its steps is a dilapidated bench, lurching under a bedraggled conifer. In front of the bench are two used car tyres which, once upon a time, must have contained flowers. However, currently they contain nothing but assorted weeds and a million-or-so cigarette butts. These giant vehicular ashtrays are surrounded by dust in the summer and a quagmire of mud in the winter. In clement weather, the bench is occupied by a small congregation of out of work drunks, who gather there with their dogs, fags and the cheapest bottled beer in the village. In our village you can buy a bottle of beer, drink it outside and return the bottle for the deposit, which is put down on the next bottle. Of course, the beer is supplemented by surreptitious bottles of home-distilled Slivo.

Our village drunk and executive is Jay, a regular. The most regular regular. The bench has the inestimable advantage of being adjacent both to the nearest beer for Jay and, just a few metres away, the village graveyard, where his late partner lies buried. So Jay can kill two birds with one stone, or should I say, two kidneys with one beer. He can deposit an armful of half-dead flowers higgledy-piggledy on the grave and guzzle a bellyful of beer at the same time.

By some miracle, Jay gets a 4000 Koruna pension. This after a lifetimes non contribution to any known, or unknown, pension scheme. Jay had, on the death of his partner, discovered religion, but not the attributes that go with it, like sobriety, if not sobriety, and attributes to all and sundry that his undeserved pension is a blessing from God to his deserving ‘returning to the fold’ sheep. He has got the Bible thumping, self-justifying jargon of the borne again, to a tee. He ought to run for the American presidency: His ignorance, stupidity and incompetence, together with his cunning, should have him in with a good chance. His main handicap, is that he can speak in complete syntactically correct sentences, when not drunk. It is clear to the rest of us that his pension is the result of some monumental, post-communist, bureaucratic cock-up. Not divine intervention.

He receives his pension at the end of the month, so he is, for a few days at beginning of each month, a permanent fixture on the bench. And I mean permanent, whilst funds last. Even if it’s raining, sleeting or snowing, Jay can be seen sitting on the bench. Happy as a King in his castle, his face aflame with booze, waving and shouting greetings to passersby. Inadequately dressed, with boots taped together, he wipes the beer foam together with rain, sleet or snow from his face with a dripping sleeve as he happily swigs from his latest umpteenth bottle. Even the other hardened drinkers have temporarily abandoned the bench and migrated to the more expensive, up-market, delights of the railway buffet bar. The only boozing alternative in the village, apart from domestic premises. Jay, needless to say, is not welcome in either. But, if the weather is reasonable, Jay is the life and soul of the bench congregation.

When, after two or three days, the money runs out, Jay walks twice a week to Budina, a village some ten kilometres away to cadge off the family of his late partner, who have a small holding. This small holding is devoted to the cultivation of cabbages and potatoes and to the raising of pigs and chickens. Unlike Jay, they work very hard for a modest living and fob him off with a few kilos of potatoes and cabbages, which he carries the ten kilometres back to our village. This vegetable marathon is made even more remarkable because, burdened by heavy plastic bags, he drunkenly zig-zags the ten kilometres back to our village. The centrifugal force of the swaying bags extravagantly exaggerating each zig-zag. In idle moments, I wonder how many extra kilometres these zig-zags cost him. I always know when he returns because, after cadging fire-wood from his long suffering good neighbours, he turns to me for a candle, paper, matches, salt and cooking oil. It is wise to give only one tea-light candle, two or three matches in a box, a pinch of salt and a plastic tumbler of oil. A long candle, a full box of matches, half a kilo of salt and a litre of oil would be promptly run down the three kilometre lane and exchanged, with a Gypsy, for beer. And, within the hour, he would be back on the cadge again, completely wasted and not even out of breath.

He cannot be bothered to collect free wood in the summer, which he could so easily do, as he makes three daily trips to his late partners grave. Dawn, midday and evening, including attending any church services. A total daily journey of eighteen kilometres, which must be some sort of grave visiting record. He is physically as strong as an ox, so picking up fallen timber on the three return journeys, which run through an extensive forest, could quickly accumulate into a decent winter stockpile. But, such forethought is beyond Jay and if by any mischance he did exercise forethought, he has the insufferable problem of finding someone daft enough to lend him an axe and saw.

The other day I was daft enough to do just that. Against my better judgement, I lent Jay my second best axe. A huge metre long, cumbersome, unbalanced, brute of an axe. It is a Communist era axe and is of a size suitable for King Henry VIII’s public executioner, to behead his various wives. But, it is a useful size and weight for some wood chopping and I did inherit it along with the cottage. Jay had a large bough, still encrusted with snow and ice from the snow drift, from which he had plucked it. Poor quality wet firewood, but that’s Jay. I did not permit him to take the axe away, I knew better than that. I showed him our woodshed, containing its own magnificent, rooted tree stump chopping block. Some previous owner had felled the huge beech tree and then built a substantial woodshed round the remaining stump. I concreted the floor at a later date. I laid the bough across the chopping block and, thinking that not even Jay could, in the circumstances, do anything untoward, returned to the cottage. I severely underestimated the man. I was barely inside, the cottage, when I heard not the thump of an axe on wood, but a series of ringing crashes followed by shouted curses. Rushing back out to the woodshed, I was dumbfounded to find the branch on the concrete floor, the sturdy axe splintered in two, the head ruined and three heavy gashes smashed into the concrete floor. The branch was unmarked and still encrusted with ice and snow.

Apparently, seeking more swinging space, Jay had laid the branch on the concrete floor and, swinging the axe wildly over his head, smashed it straight down into the concrete, entirely missing the branch. Not only that, in his wild swinging he had dislodged a number of tiles overhead, through which the piled up roof snow was now tumbling. All this expert wrecking had taken less than sixty seconds.

Staring at the shattered axe, ruined roof and damaged concrete, I, for the first time in our six-year relationship, completely lost my temper, cussing and shouting at him. But I discovered, as have all the villagers, that such invective was but water off a ducks back. Completely unabashed he asked for a saw. I shouted that I had not got a saw, because he had totally ruined my last one, just as he has now wrecked my axe. Whereupon he asked for my other axe – my best one. On my point-blank refusal he got aggressive. Shouting and slaking his ham-like fists at me. As he is as strong as an elephant and as destructive as a rogue one, I grabbed a spade and ran him off the property.

He later returned, sulkily, to retrieve his branch. He also offered, grudgingly, to repair the roof. The thought of Jay wrecking the rest of the roof or ‘repairing’ it with my tools, whilst simultaneously ruining them as well, made me laugh, which Jay joined in as if sharing a mutual joke. Ever quick on the uptake when cadging is at stake, he repeated his request to borrow my best axe. A second point-blank refusal brought back the sulks, and he stomped off with his branch over his shoulder.

I should have known better as Jay has personally ‘lost’ a wheelbarrow of mine. All I know is that it went down the lane and never returned. Last summer, Jay got through four wheelbarrows, only one of which was his own and ruined a saw, mine. Now, an axe, a shed roof and he had damaged a concrete floor, mine again.

His long suffering immediate good neighbour later reported that he had seen Jay, swinging his crude whacking ball, made of a heavy stone laced to a length of rope – his sole remaining, all-purpose, literally stone-age tool – down onto the branch pounding and pulverizing it into splinters. Its total lack of value means that Jay cannot even exchange it for beer. Jay lives in a stone-age world. All the metal in his late partner’s cottage: electrical wiring, plumbing, water heater,bath, door and window fastenings have all been torn out and recycled into alcohol, followed by the pots, pans, cutlery and garden tools. Even his faithful wheelbarrow went.

But stone-age man, especially in the later stages, shaped flint into a bewildering array of beautifully crafted tools of amazing sharpness and complicity. He also indulged in stupendous stone engineering projects, such as Stone Henge, a gigantic astronomical calendar, both in purpose and size, that is still accurate to the millisecond many millennia later, to mark the passage of the equinox and hence calculate the seasons. Essential if you are implementing the greatest revolution in human history, by inventing agriculture.

Which brings us back to Jay, swinging his crude unshaped, primitive stone-age tool, down onto a branch. Jay already has to carry heavy loads, and has shunned agriculture as his piece of land, by the bench, he will not cultivate. And I am left pondering man’s incorrigible tendency to regress, and as I do, Jay shrugs his shoulders and resumes his titanic task.

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