Paddy Caravan

Whenever I talk about Paddy Caravan, I feel like I’m talking about myself, and in a way I am. I always start by talking about my heart. It's where I finish too, because when I get down to it, that's all there is.

My heart almost stopped the first time I saw him. I was at the farm with Jenny late one evening, just before it got dark. While Jenny saw to the horse, I explored the yard. When I rounded the corner at the bottom of the barn, I was faced with this hulking, bearded tramp of a man. He was huge. Startled, I said my hellos. He stared through my greeting. Not with malice, but with something less cold, an expression I couldn’t place. I could hear his breathing and there was a moment when its rhythm seemed to mark the bars to the agitated beats within my chest. Then he turned and was gone as quickly as he had appeared, leaving me to catch my breath. The few who saw him said that’s how it always was with Paddy Caravan.

Strangely excited, I rushed back up to the stable block where Jenny was mucking out, and told her what I'd seen. ‘That's Paddy,’ she said. ‘He lives here, and he's not a “what”, he's a “who”.’ Jenny always made fun of me like that. It was just her way. Anything to generate a response, she used to say. She explained that Paddy didn't live in the farmhouse, but he did live on the farm. Judging from his appearance, I suggested that he must sleep under a hedge or in the back of the stables or something.

‘Ha!’ was her response. Then, with her finger crooked and her eyebrows raised, she led me down the yard towards the bottom field. ‘Down there,’ she said.

‘What, in the woods?’ I asked.

‘No, not in the frigging woods you dickhead, he's not a bloody deer.’ I looked at her and considered the connection between her contempt and my lust. I said nothing. ‘Down there, on the left, behind those big hawthorn bushes.’ She said.

I looked harder and could just make out behind the thicket, nestling in what seemed to be some kind of sheepfold, the smallest caravan you could imagine, and I couldn't stop myself from laughing. ‘You mean to tell me,’ I managed to get out, ‘that the bloke I've just seen, the biggest bloke I've ever seen, lives there in that, that, that scale model.’

It was difficult to believe. I mean the caravan can't have been much more than the size of a small car. It was hard to imagine anyone passing one night in it without waking up in bone-aching agony, never mind living there. ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I can just see the big old idiot sleeping there with his head sticking out of one side and his feet sticking out of the other, like some magician was going to cut him in half while he slept.’

I was very pleased with that one. Jenny just stared through my smugness. ‘If that's what you think,’ she said, ‘then you're the only idiot in this village.’

This is all some twenty years ago but the memory is, if anything, getting clearer. The knowledge that I was an idiot in those days is certainly very clear. I’m still an idiot today; there can be no doubt about that.

I hadn't been going to the farm that long before that first encounter, I'd only been dating Jenny for a few weeks. It would be months before I would see Paddy Caravan again; the autumn would have come and gone, and both the ground and the air would be a lot harder than it was that first day. It turned out I was fortunate to see him at all. In fact, until I did see him again, I was beginning to think that I’d imagined the whole thing.

Things had been going really well between Jenny and me and I was practically living at her place. Because she was working a lot, I would often be up at the farm sorting out the horse: feeding, grooming, mucking out and what have you. I didn't enjoy it that much, I mean they're a bit big for my liking, but it did make her very responsive - Jenny, not the horse - and it did give me the opportunity to find out more about Paddy.
The second time I saw him was just after dawn one day in December. I was in the yard and, peering through the mist, I caught a glimpse of him. He was sitting on the fallen tree at the end of the woods just staring down the hill towards the ponds at the far end of the valley. I followed his eyes down the slope to where I could see the horses moving with each other, in and out of the mist. As I watched them, they seemed to slow down almost to a standstill and then slowly, silently they disappeared from view. When I looked back to the log, Paddy was gone. How could something so big move unseen? But he did. He seemed to spirit from place to place using the cover of mist and the half-light. People who’d seen him said it was like they'd seen a ghost.

Moving over the fence and across the field, I gained the bluff at the edge of the woods as quickly as I could. The cold was pinching into my cheeks. I turned around, looked back towards the farm, and followed the ribbon of my own footprints breaking the frosty grass and seeming to climb up into the mist. The farm was slipping in and out of my vision, as was the tiny caravan away to my right. The cold, falling over the tree line and pushing at my back, made me spin around to see Paddy cloak out of sight. I kept looking, but he was gone.

I did try to catch up with him but I knew he wouldn't be there. I reached the log in time to see his footprints, racing away into the mist, into nothing. Short of breath, I slumped onto the tree and traced his prints back to my own feet, placed now where his were less than three minutes before. As my breathing eased, my eyes were drawn to my side. Carved into the natural bench was a small circular hollow. In it, and revealing the reason it was carved, were several cigarette ends and, strangely, a neat pile of waxy looking flakes.

That was all I ever grasped of Paddy: his residue. When I did try to find him, I only found his remains. I’d often see the empty cat food tins, bagged up and waiting for collection by the trough. Occasionally I’d see his frosty footprints. There were those strange little piles of cigarette butts and waxy flakes everywhere, and then there was the shattered ice of the trough, which Jenny told me Paddy hit through every morning. So that he could get water for his morning tea, I presumed. Apart from the residue, the only other time I actually saw him, I mean really saw him, up close, no mist, no darkness, was next to that old stone trough.

Jenny and I had been fighting. I don't know what about, probably her working too much and me not working enough. Anyway, she kicked me out in the middle of the night and I went up to the stable to sleep. It wasn’t the first time. It turned out that, even with the straw, it was way too cold to sleep. I was sitting wrapped in one of the horse's spare rugs in the tack room waiting for the sky to lighten when, through the side window, I noticed Paddy at the top of the yard staring into the huge trough. He was hunched over the trough and it almost looked as though he was praying. As though the stone trough were some kind of altar. I watched him for several minutes. He never moved; he just kept staring.

I moved very slowly from the side window to the half door to get a better look. I wanted to see what he was looking at. I knew the only way I could do, would be to stand next to him at the trough, our heads bowed together fixed on some point within. I imagined what we would see in the icy trough: our still, dark reflection, framed by the cold, sky passing behind us; the speeding clouds giving the impression of effortless movement. I willed my eyes to move, with that same ease, the fifteen metres or so to Paddy’s side. And I must have succeeded and Paddy must have felt their presence because he suddenly lifted his head and looked straight at me. His eyes fixed mine. There was that look again, not menace, or fear or anything like that. There was the subtlest of movements within his countenance, and then I recognized his expression, it was pity. I don't know if I understood his message, or if he was even sending one, but I acknowledged it with the slightest of nods. I never broke my gaze. Neither did he, even as he made a fist with his left hand and brought it down, hammer-like, onto the icy surface. I could hear the ice crack on the first blow and shatter on the second. But he didn't take any water. He just turned and walked away.

Considering the passion that we shared, you'd think that my memory of her would overshadow my memory of Paddy Caravan, but Jenny is in the mist now, not Paddy. I think sometimes that my relationship was with him, and not with her. Paddy touched me in ways that Jenny never could, and my obsession was with him and not with her.

I knew nothing about him, though. If I made a list, it was a short one. His appearance didn't give much away. He just looked like any scruffy old bloke. He could have been a dosser, a workman, or anyone in old clothes up for a bit of Sunday DIY. He was a big bloke, but what does that tell anyone? Jenny filled in some details for me, and I bugged Bobby, the farm owner, until I got the rest of Paddy's story. Whoever I asked had a story, but it was always a different story. There did seem to be some facts, though. Well, perhaps commonalities would be a better word.

One stormy November weekend some twenty years before, Paddy walked up from the woods, soaked and streaked with dirt. Geordie Jordan, Bobby's old dad, long gone now, found him heading for the hay barn and tried to see him off. No matter how hard he tried though, he couldn't seem to get his message across, and in the filthy night, took pity on him and told him he could shelter in the empty van down the field. He never left. He was an Irish traveller, who had one day just decided to stop travelling.

Early on, he would sometimes turn up at the post office with some letters to post, always written in a terrible hand and for the same address in Ireland. They all came back unopened though and there was talk of broken-hearted love. After a while, he stopped sending the letters and then he was never seen in the village at all. He got food every other day. Bobby left stuff for him by the huge stone water trough, leftovers from the farm shop. Several years ago, Bobby’s mum, old Mrs Jordan, gave him a kitten from one of the farm cats’ litters for company. She left him food for it, the odd pouch of rolling tobacco, matches and some candles for the dark nights, all by the trough.

That’s it, from weeks of asking questions. Nothing else you might call a fact. Some said he was a hippy, living on the land, communing with the animals, that sort of thing. Others said he was more like a ghost, the spirit of something bad. They said he made them feel uncomfortable, but I think that said more about them than it did about him. Jenny felt sorry for him, she said she understood something about why people thought badly of him and it annoyed her. She added that if she could’ve lived simply like that surrounded by nature, she would’ve. Some people thought he was dumb. He certainly never spoke to any of them. I asked Bobby about this. He nodded, but told me that his old dad said it wasn’t so; he’d spoken to him a few times in the early days. Like Geordie told him, ‘he weren’t dumb, just didn’t have nothin’ to say.’

That winter was a bitter one. The roads, when they were open, were always icing over. We lost count of the number of cars that ended up on their backs in the hayfield at Raven's Corner. We also lost count of the number of days that the old village, Jenny's village, mine by this time, was cut off by the snow. It came often and outstayed its welcome. I started to sense that I was outstaying my welcome too. Our relationship had reached a plateau and I guess we both knew it wasn’t going anywhere. She said she felt neglected and she sought solace in her work, I said that I felt that I was being taken for granted and I looked elsewhere for meaning in my life. The truth was that we were both seeing someone else. She was gravitating back to her ex, and I was drifting with the snow in my search for Paddy. Mine and Jenny’s interaction had become a matter of routine and duty. There was no pleasure. The pleasure was elsewhere.

I was to see Paddy just one more time. For the first time, Jenny hadn't come home the previous evening. I didn't know where she was and, frankly, I didn't much care. I was more annoyed at having been lumbered. Sleep had been fitful, mostly because of the cold, and eventually, long before dawn, I gave up trying. I got up, dressed, went downstairs, and set the kettle on the stove to boil. While I waited for it, I watched the sky lighten and give an edge to the frosty landscape outside. Would this cold snap never end? I was pulled back from my thoughts by the sound of the whistle and, turning sharply I hit a hi-ball glass and sent it crashing onto the stone floor. I couldn't be bothered to pick it up. Later, I thought, a small part of me hoping that Jenny might step on it when she came back. I filled up the large flask and headed for the door.

With the flask in the rucksack and my gloved hands stuffed deep into the pockets of my down jacket, Jenny’s down jacket, I started the long walk up the dog-leg lane to the farm. The sun, nosing into the eastern sky, was spilling its rays across the fields and onto the icy road. No warmth, only glare; stopping me from feeling good or seeing straight.

Once at the farm, I played the game. The game I always played when on morning duty, of trying to catch the horse before he was awake. I’d sneak up the yard past the other loose boxes, edge along by the food store and peer through the half-door hoping to see him laid down, legs tucked under and to one side. I liked him better when he was laid down; less threatening somehow. As he snorted his greeting and got to his feet, I went to mix his bran mash, two big scoops of flakes, one of pony nuts and then half and half hot and cold water.

Cold water first so I walked to the end of the yard to the big stone trough. The ice was unbroken so I turned towards the tack room to look for something to break it through. Horseshoe, I was thinking. I couldn’t find anything in the tack room; there was nothing handy so I went back to the feed room. There was nothing there either. There was nothing handy because we never had to break the ice.

I found an old billhook down by the farmhouse in the shed next to the road. I grabbed its thick shaft and walked back up the yard. Some thought was beginning to occur to me as I was bringing the curved blade down onto the ice. I wasn’t sure what it was, but something wasn’t right. I thought I heard something off to my right. Spinning round, I at first saw nothing. Then I caught sight of old Mrs Jordan standing in the upstairs window of the farmhouse. Her eyes were wide and she had her hand cupped over her mouth. She was staring at me and I thought for a moment that maybe she wasn’t happy about my mistreatment of the bill. Then, as she moved from the window, reaching for something or other as she did, I suddenly realised that her gesture wasn’t for me.

With the bill in my right hand, I cleared the fence using the trough, and headed down the field towards the hawthorn thicket shielding Paddy’s home. I seemed to make the thicket in no time at all. Close up, and in their state of winter nudity, their boughs hid little of the caravan. There was no sign of movement. I rounded the thicket and approached the van through the gap in the wall that surrounded it. The frost prevented me from seeing through its windows, reminding me of childhood Sunday mornings at my grandmother’s house. I remembered how my sister and I would place our palms against the pane with our fingers fanned out to make a star shape, and the heat from our little hands would print the shape in the ice. I loved the sharp feeling when you first put your hand against the frost, and I loved the fact that my little sister always pulled her hand away, but I could hold mine there until the ice melted. I stepped closer to the window and, spreading out my hand, pressed it against the cold glass.

Just like the first time I met Paddy, I could hear my heart beating fast and strong enough to pump the blood hard to my fingertips. This time I couldn’t hear Paddy’s breathing. Even when the ice started to melt and the water began to run out from beneath the heel of my hand, I didn’t want to pull it away. I knew what I’d find when I did and I peered through the starry window.

I knew there was no point, but I tapped on the window as if to rouse him. Lightly at first and then heavier, and then I called his name. I knew he couldn’t hear me, but it didn’t seem right to shout without first knocking. In the same way, it didn’t seem right to smash in the caravan’s door with the billhook without first calling. Once inside, I touched his hand. It wasn’t so cold, but he was clearly dead, slumped next to the caravan’s tiny table. In front of him, there was a lantern, the candle within fading towards the end of its life. Next to the lantern were more candles and some small modelling tools. The candles seemed to have been carved into the shape of a figure, a female figure. Everything, the candles, the little pots of waxy carvings and the tools themselves were neatly laid out and reminded me of an addict’s paraphernalia. The connection made me imagine that Paddy had overdosed. I dismissed the thought immediately but, while Mrs Jordan, Bobby and I waited for the doctor to arrive, I considered that perhaps his end had come from a kind of overdose. Just like he stopped moving when love ran out, and he stopped talking when the words ran out, maybe he just stopped living when the life ran out.

After the death certificate had been signed, the body was taken down to the undertakers in the village. Mrs Jordan started to make the necessary preparations for cremation, while her son went through the stuff in the caravan. I helped Bobby, and we both struggled to make sense of what we found there. Mostly it was just rubbish, including several carrier bags full of hundreds of candle nubs, and other bags with full and empty tins of cat food in them. We didn’t find the cat though, who knows how long it had been gone? On closer inspection, the candle nubs were all the shape of a woman’s feet, like the ones on the table. There was also an old shoebox, containing some fragments of the man’s life. More residue.

The letters I’d heard about were there, marked return to sender. There were some small crystal glass horses, and various papers. Among the papers were half a dozen photographs; family snaps probably, an unremarkable record of the man’s memories. They were creased and faded and showed people and places, both probably long gone by now.

One of the photographs caught my eye. It was more recent than the others. Fifties, I would say, judging by the clothes. It showed a couple in a field. The man, tall, handsome and, despite differences from his more recent appearances, is quite clearly Paddy. He is arm in arm with a beautiful woman, acting about doing some kind of impression, and she is howling with laughter, and even though the print is monochrome, her face quite clearly reveals the flush of excited love.

Among the papers, we also found a birth certificate. It wasn’t what we expected. It showed that Paddy’s name, the man’s name, was Robert Thomas Walker and he was born in Lincolnshire between the wars. On finding this small document, plans for cremation were immediately put on hold and fresh enquiries were made with the help of the local authorities.

Very quickly, a sister was traced. She was living in the Louth area, still in the same house where both of them had been born. She came the following day in a hearse, calling briefly at the farm before going down to the undertakers. She just wanted to see where her brother had spent the last twenty-odd years of his life. She stayed a very short time and when she left, she took nothing, not even the photos. Before she left, I asked her if she knew the woman in the photograph. She just said that it didn't matter now, and I could keep it if I wished.

I still have it and I look at it from time to time, especially in the wintertime, to me always a time for reflection. I look into ice as well when I can, and try to see if I can find what Paddy was looking for. Something frozen and preserved, I’m not sure what. Our memories maybe, trapped under the glassy surface, taunting us with their inaccessibility. The past frozen. To reach it we must smash it and then it's gone until the next night when we can look for it again.

I left the farm the day they took Paddy away and I haven't been back since, except in my mind. Sometimes when it’s really cold and I'm wrapped up warm and sleepy from the whisky, I dream I'm there again, in the yard. I walk across the yard and up to the trough. There I stare down into the ice. I see the same thing every time.


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