Palo Alto Weekly 35th Annual Short Story Contest
Adult Honorable Mention

The Out House Crooner

by Cathy Broderick

Author Bio

Cathy was born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A country that is rich in literature, poetry, and the arts. She also lived in England and in the south of Ireland before moving to California. She has B.A. in History and Literature, and a Masters Degree in Irish Studies. She recently had a short story published in the Bay Area and won First Prize in a Poetry Competition in Ireland. She lives in Mountain View with her husband and daughter. She spends her time volunteering for the Homeless, the ACS, and of course writing. Enjoys yoga, reading, and meeting people.

Inspiration

Growing up in Northern Ireland surrounded by interesting characters, I intermingled the period of post-war Belfast, when people in my neighborhood sang outdoors, especially when cleaning their windows, Tuberlicous was rife and education rare for women. This combination I included in my story - it was a sign of the times.

The McBrides lived next door to us in Belfast. They were a quiet family except when saying goodbye to visitors late at night. The whole family would troop outside and stand on the steps waving and shouting. It took them at least fifteen minutes to say: ‘Good night now God Bless’…...in their broad Northern brogues. They could be heard all over the avenue and beyond.

Mrs. McBride, could neither read nor write. Herself and her cloth capped husband Jim regularly went to the local cinema together. The Broadway. Pity the poor cinema-goers who were seated around them, because Mr McBride would explain the whole plot sotto voice to her all the way through the main features.

"Ye see Aggie", he would explain out loud to her, "The fella with the gun has just shot yer man and he is on the run from the police".

Aggie never spoke, just nodded. It was, as if, because she could not read or write he thought she was completely dimwitted. The McBrides two children Jimmy and Susan were probably in their late twenties and I was about eight at the time. Susan, their daughter, had a fragility about her. Thick curly blonde hair, almond-shaped blue eyes and porcelain pale complexion, she looked like Disney’s snow-white, delicate and ethereal.

Jimmy on the other hand, had the same thick curly blonde hair that any woman would have given their eye teeth for, but unfortunately, the skin on his face was blotchy, covered in pimples with swollen red and yellow patches just to add colour. He was nearsighted and forced to wear glasses so thick they looked like bottle tops. His cornflower-blue eyes were like pinpoints behind the glasses. Always looking for an image to copy to make himself a magnet for the single ladies of Belfast. It didn’t matter how unsuitable the image might look on him he just wanted to be a cool guy. Staggering about on high heeled boots, the fringes on his jacket weaving with his unsteady walk he had quickly given up his Country and Western stage as he kept tripping over himself, plus he couldn't master the guitar that so that image was put to bed quickly.

Marlon Brando starring in the movie, The Wild Bunch, came to the local cinema and Jimmy was hooked on the whole tough guy package. Out came the black leather trousers with a leather jacket to match. He started to mumble like Brando and hoped this look would get himself a girlfriend. All he needed was the motorbike so he started to save up his money for the deposit.

In the meantime, he practiced what he did best, singing. Now, he was far too shy to sing in public but regularly he would lock himself in the outside loo and sing to his heart's content. Locked in the small room Jimmy could open his soul and sing his song to anyone who would listen. That would be most of us in the neighborhood, we had no choice, his voice carried all over the streets.

He became known in the neighborhood as ‘The Out House Crooner.’ So in his own peculiar way, he was making his mark and attracting attention. Even though Jimmy had a lovely melodic voice and it was very pleasant to listen to, the location was just a wee bit off-putting and I couldn’t see many trendy young women running up the street to bang on the door of his outside lavatory to make his acquaintance.

Jimmy bought himself a white tee shirt and a black and silver monster motorbike. He tucked his cigarettes in the sleeve of his shirt just like Brando, but they kept falling out due to his lack of muscle and he was forever seen groping around the ground for his fags in his nearsighted way. Nonetheless, he was determined to make an impression as a cool dude showing off on the new bike.

Riding the motorbike was a bit of a worry for everyone in the neighborhood as Jimmy could barely see his nose in front of him. One Friday night, dressed in his black leather misshapen gear he decided to make his debut.

He worked the night shift in a factory making scented soap in downtown Belfast. Tying his grey lunch box on the back of his shiny silver and black motorcycle, he decided to ride the bike to work. It was not yet dusk and there was not a speck of rain anywhere, the way was clear. He managed to struggle onto the bike just outside his front door and was determined to appear tough sitting astride his monster. Through the lace-covered windows, all eyes were glued on him. He smiled as he passed us kids sitting on the pavement and knew already he had a captive audience. We all drew in our breath in fearful anticipation as he wobbled all the way down the street as far as Mrs Armstrong’s dustbins. He plowed right into them and fell off his bike.

The bins rained the remains of Mrs. Armstrong's dinner leftovers right down on top of his lovely new clothes. The carcass of a chicken, green leeks, potato peelings and scraps of red tomatoes fell on his helmet and on his new leather jacket. He picked himself up and dolefully wheeled the bike back home trying to shake off the peelings as they were sticking to his helmet. As he went by us, we gave him a roll of pink toilet paper to help clean himself up.

The bike stood outside his lavatory in the back yard for about six months until he sold it to a workmate. His mother breathed a sigh of relief. Herself and the husband went over to the Broadway Cinema to watch ‘On the Waterfront’ when it came back again for a rerun. They left Jimmy singing the blues in the loo as Brando was abandoned.

While Jimmy was attempting to find himself, his beautiful sister Susan was suddenly rushed to the hospital late one Saturday night and was immediately diagnosed with Tuberculosis. This was terrifying for the family as during the l950’s it was almost a death sentence. T.B, as it was known then, was the highest incidence of mortality for young women and men in the prime of their lives. We could almost feel the anxiety seep through the thick Victorian walls that separated our house from theirs. Susan was eventually taken to a sanatorium and was prayed for at Mass regularly.

During this time, you could see Mr. McBride through the window, sitting with his head in his hands for hours on end, he was desolate. Aggie showed her mettle to both men, organizing the visits to the hospital, keeping up morale and pushing her own fears aside to keep hope alive and the two men sane.

Susan spent seven months in the sanatorium and was released just in time to celebrate Christmas. The neighborhood breathed a sigh of relief and the McBrides were content. Jimmy was singing a more cheerful tune now.

In gratitude for Susan’s return to health, Jimmy joined the church choir up in St. Paul's. The rehearsals were every Tuesday night and Roisin Duncan was the choir mistress. She had been away to be a nun in her teens but decided it was not for her as she wanted to get married but so far wasn’t having much success with finding a boyfriend never mind a husband.. As soon as Roisin heard Jimmy sing, she was determined to be in love. She had been an unclaimed treasure for longer than she cared to remember but now she saw an opportunity to hook Jimmy as she sensed a kindred lonely soul. Soon, Jimmy and Roisin were seen linking arms leaving choir practice together and the street fell silent, waiting for the inevitable.

Roisin’s father owned a wallpaper and paint shop on Springfield Road and he gave Jimmy a day job of managing the place. The Monard Swimming Club was just around the corner from the shop and Jimmy started swimming there every Monday night after work. Soon the muscles in his arms and shoulders developed and his skin started to rid itself of the spots and blemishes. Contact lenses were becoming available and Jimmy got rid of his bottle-top glasses now his baby blue eyes were on show for everyone to see.

The visits to his singing quarters in the outside loo were steadily declining as with Roisin in the Choir encouraging him, he was getting more and more confident about singing in public. Several of the girls in the street started passing his house frequently hoping to get a chance of a chat with Jimmy. Roisin quickly changed the rehearsal times to three times a week.

Ed Mc Beatty's pub decided to run a movie star look-alike competition during Easter week and all the local lads were scratching their heads as to what to wear and what celebrity to imitate. Elvis was definitely going to be a big hit.

Jimmy turned up as Brando complete with cigarettes neatly tucked in the sleeve of his white tee-shirt, his muscles bulging and a little Elvis like snarl on his lips. Standing in line with the other lads Jimmy looked confident. Later, I heard my father tell my mother that he could not believe the change in Jimmy.

"Jesus Nan, he certainly looked the part - the swimming and no specs certainly changed him, and he swaggered off with a bottle of whiskey, I tell ya, he’s beginning to smell himself."

Going to the cinema became quieter for everyone as Mr. McBride no longer explained the contents of the silver screen to Aggie. She had earned her stripes when Susan was ill. Aggie sat munching her popcorn with a smile on her face with Mr. McBride sitting quietly beside her holding her glasses case in his lap.

One Saturday evening not long after Susan came out of hospital Jimmy slithered out the back door of the house, past the lavatory and snuck down the back entry, carrying his battered brown suitcase he headed straight onto the boat to take him across to England. We heard later he was going to try his luck singing across the water.

Everyone thought that Roisin would go to pieces after Jimmy left but the new junior curate was paying great attention to the choir and soon the gossips started wagging heads and pointing fingers. Then the word was out, he was leaving the priesthood and Roisin and himself took off for a hasty wedding with the Christening following a few months later. Back they came with the new baby and settled down in a new housing estate just outside Belfast.

The McBrides moved away shortly after Susan married and had her first baby as the new grandparents wanted to be near their only grandchild. Nobody in the street had heard anything about how Jimmy was doing.

One murky December evening, a couple of years after Jimmy left, I was standing in the kitchen peeling potatoes for dinner. Suddenly, a familiar singing voice floated across the room, and I thought the Outhouse House Crooner had returned to the outside loo. But no, it was the television and there was Jimmy, poured into a red sequined dress slashed up to his thigh, dancing on silver high heeled shoes. Blonde curly hair slicked around his shoulders as he sashayed his way across the stage. Surrounded by four virile men all dressed up in black tails Jimmy was imitating Marilyn Monroe singing ‘Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend". I stood transfixed to the end.

It was a talent competition and there he was shining like a new penny. Jimmy was now Jenny and finally making his way in showbiz.

Jimmy had found his image at last, and, do you know what, it suited him.