Sunday, 17 August 2014

Baa Baa Birdie


Baa Baa Birdie

Father Tom liked nothing better than going down to the pub, having a quiet pint, and reading the Irish Times. Whenever he went to O'Connor’s he always sat at a table tucked away around a corner, it was his regular spot and always had been, since his first disastrous night in the bar.

Father Tom would forever remember that first visit with a deep sense of shame, unfounded shame, but shame none the less. All those years ago, when he was a new priest, fresh off the boat as they say, Tom went about meeting his flock. Where better to meet those most in need of guidance, than the local watering hole? The fact that Father Tom loved a creamy pint of Guinness, had nothing to do with it. The whole exercise was one of public relations. Father Tom trundled down the road, filled with good humour and levity. The first hour in O'Connor’s was an unbridled success. Father Tom occupied a spot at the counter and was getting on famously. That was until six elderly bridge club ladies arrived for a sherry. Their mouths dropped open, with the shock of seeing a priest drinking openly at the bar counter. Father Tom blushed, but brazened it out. If anything, that only made the situation worse. The barely veiled looks of wrath, whispered conversations, and very loud tutting that came from the group of withered old women, would have put Hitler himself on the run.  Poor Tom couldn't have felt worse, had he been caught snorting lines of cocaine from a stripper’s cleavage. In the end, he downed the remainder of his pint, and hurried home on some mumbled pretext, to the amusement of the men gathered round. Was it any wonder, he now chose the most secluded spot in the bar, as his own?

On this particular night, Father Tom had been all but forgotten by everyone in the bar, when the door opened and Birdie Kerrigan tumbled in from the early evening gloom. Birdie was a mountain farmer, the height and frame of a thirteen year old boy, despite turning sixty five last year. It was a back-breaking life, working the stony mountain soil, which stripped many a man of joy. Birdie was far more resilient than his slight frame, he whistled a happy tune almost constantly, which was the reason he got the nickname, Birdie.  On this night, Birdie's lips were pinched with worry, and unusually silent.

"Dead man walking," roared Podge Carroll, from his stool at the counter, bringing gales of laughter from the rest of the men drinking at the bar. Podge, a bachelor, believed God had given him the right to comment on any bloody thing he liked. Most of the time his fun was good natured, but if his jibes drew a little emotional blood from time to time, he didn't care much.  Birdie gave the group a worried look, with just a hint of annoyance, as he plonked himself on a stool at the far corner of the bar.

"A Jameson, Pa. Make it a double," Birdie said.

"A last drink for the condemned man," taunted Ian Barry. Now, Ian was a horse of a different colour. He was a blowhard, with an over inflated opinion of his own importance. Most of the time, he was the butt of the joke, a fact he was nearly completely blind to. But when the ridicule turned on another, he was very quick to join in, with spite and venom.

"Shut up, you lot, what would you know, anyway," said Birdie.

"I know that the Department of Agriculture takes these things very seriously Birdie, I think they call it fraud?" said Ian. Birdie gazed into his drink and shrank even deeper into his overcoat.

"Yea, and wasn't it EU money that you were getting? I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn't have Interpol on the job," goaded Ian, causing another round of laughter. Father Tom peeked over his paper, not liking the tone of Ian's comments. He saw Birdie throw back his drink, in one huge gulp. Perhaps it was the burn of the whisky that caused the tear in the little farmer’s eye. He slammed the glass on the counter and stormed out the door.

"We'll send you a cake with a file in it," shouted Ian Barry, never knowing when enough was enough.

Father Tom flipped his paper closed, and said in his booming voice, "What was all that about lads?"

"Ah, nothing, Father. The Department of Agriculture sent Birdie a letter to say they were coming to inspect his flock, next week," said Pa, from behind the counter.

"So why all the teasing?" asked Father Tom.

"Birdie has been letting on he had more sheep on the mountain, that he actually has," said Pa, while filling a pint of Guinness.

"What was the point in doing that?"

"So he would get a bigger Headage," said Podge, with a smirk.
"Headage?" asked Father Tom.

"It's a grant the European Union gives farmers, for grazing mountain sheep," explained Pa O'Connor, admiring the pint in his hand.

"I don't think it was very generous, teasing Birdie like that. You could see he was worried," said Father Tom, getting to his feet and tucking the paper under his arm. Podge and Pa had the good grace to look abashed, but Ian Barry's stupidity swam to the surface once more.

"It was only a bit of fun, Father," he said, with a sneer in his voice. Father Tom stopped close to Ian's shoulder, and rose to his full six foot two inches.

"People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, Mr Barry. You never know who might start throwing them back." Father Tom eyes were flinty, as they regarded the man, several inches below him. Ian withered under the glare.

After a long few seconds, Father Tom smiled and said, "Good night, men."

When the door closed behind him, Father Tom heard Podge bray with laughter, saying, "You better check your underwear for brown when you get home, Ian."

Up ahead on the road, the little farmer was shuffling away into the night. Father Tom broke into a trot to catch up with him. When he got close enough, he called, "Mr Kerrigan, can I have a word, please."

The little farmer spun around, looking shocked. It was clear he was expecting trouble to come rushing down on top of him, at any moment.

"God, Father you startled me."

"Sorry, I just wanted a word. I overheard what they said, back there. Is everything alright?"

"They’re only messing, take no notice," Birdie said, but his face was a mask of guilt.

"How many extra sheep were you claiming, Birdie?" The little farmer shuffled from one foot to another, not answering the question.

"It's okay, you can tell me."

"Maybe a few extra." Birdie said. Getting a straight answer from a Kerry man is hard, getting one from a Kerry farmer is nearly impossible.

"What’s a few Birdie, ten, twenty?"

"A hundred and fifty, give or take a couple."

"Sweet Mary Divine! How many sheep do you actually graze?"

"About two hundred, give or take a couple."

"That is nearly half your herd again, how come the inspectors never spotted it before this?"

"’Twas old Mr Ryan that did the inspections. His hip was bad, no good for traipsing all over a mountain, counting sheep."

"So he just took your word for it?"

"Aye."

"Why are you so worried now?"

"Mr Ryan retired last year. Now it’s some young lad, fresh from the college, that's calling up. I don't know what to do, Father."

"The first thing I want you to do, is show up for confession tomorrow morning. After that, we will see what we can figure out, okay?"

"I think I need a bit more help than God’s forgiveness. Them boys in the pub might be stupid, but they are not wrong. I could go to jail, Father. That would just kill me, I'm sure of it." Father Tom looked down on the hardy little farmer, he’d spent every day of his life out on that mountain, as free as the bird he was named after. Father Tom had to agree, to cage this little man might just kill him.

"God works in mysterious ways, Birdie. I am sure he'd want me to help you," smiled Father Tom. Knowing he wasn’t facing the whole thing alone, seemed to take a great weight from the farmer's shoulders. Birdie seemed to grow right before Father Tom's eyes, filling out his overcoat a little more than a few seconds before.

"Fair enough Father. You don't think they'll send them Interpol fellas after me, do yea?"

"Let’s get my boss sorted out first, and worry about everything else after that," said Father Tom, laying a massive, and reassuring, hand on the little farmer’s shoulder.
Birdie smiled at the touch and nodded, "Right you are Father, see you first thing in the morning. Father Tom watched the little man walk away into the night with a lighter step. When the farmer was nearly out of sight, Father Tom heard the twittering whistle that had gotten Birdie his name.

***

Father Tom spent the next few hours on the internet, and had been shocked by what he found. Podge Carroll was right, Birdie Kerrigan could be facing up to five years in prison, for falsifying grant applications. What Birdie did was wrong, but nothing that deserved such a penalty. The next morning, Father Tom opened up the church, taking his position in the confessional. He was immediately joined by Mrs Walsh, the most devout of all his congregation. She came to confession every second morning, despite having nothing at all to confess. She was so terrified of dying in a state of un-grace, she took no chances. After giving Mrs Walsh her standard, two “Hail Marys”, Father Tom's mind began to wander. It was so relaxing in the dark warm confessional, he actually drifted off into a snooze. When the sliding window rattled back, he jerked awake.

"Bless me, Father, it has been six months since my last confession," Father Tom rubbed the sleep from his eyes and blessed Birdie Kerrigan. The farmer launched into an act of contrition.

"Tell me your sins, my son," said Father Tom, once the act was completed.

"Ah, Father, you know them already, sure, I told you last night."

"I know, Bir- my son, but you are telling our Lord this time, not me."

"Do I have too, it’s embarrassing."

"If you want my help, and God’s forgiveness, you'll have to."

"I lied to the Headage man," the little farmer responded, guiltily.

"Yes, my son, anything else," asked Father Tom, in his best confessional voice.

"Nope, that's it," said Birdie, through the mesh.

"What about the money, Birdie?"

"What money, Father?"

"The money you got for the extra sheep, which you don't actually have."

"Oh, that money."

"It didn't belong to you, Birdie, so it was stealing."

"Only technically."

"Technically or not, Birdie, it was stealing, and you will have to confess to it, to receive forgiveness."

"You’re the boss, Father, I stole, and that's the lot for me."

"For your penitence, I want you to say a decade of the rosary, and do one hundred and fifty hours voluntary work for Saint Vincent de Paul."

"Jesus, Father, one hundred and fifty hours."

"We’re going to have to add taking the Lord’s name in vain, Birdie," said Father Tom, sternly.

"Sorry, God," said Birdie, crestfallen.

"That will have to do, I guess," said Tom, and absolved the little farmer of his sins, before he added any more to the list.

"Thanks, Father," said Birdie, rising from his knees and leaving the confessional. Father Tom took a few moments to gather his thoughts, before leaving the warm, dark box, himself. Outside on a pew, Birdie was kneeling, mumbling through a decade of the rosary. When he was finished, he blessed himself quickly, and trotted up to where Father Tom was waiting.

"I've been thinking about this whole thing, can't you give them the right number of sheep you have now, for this year’s count, and say nothing about last year?"

"I would love to, Father, but I sent in the paperwork in January. They are just checking on it, now. Next year will be spot on, I promise."

"Given that, how do you know this new man won’t just come and sign the forms, like Mr Ryan did?" asked Father Tom.

"The new fella, Quigley is his name, said in his letter, I was to have all the sheep down from the mountain and penned, ready for a count."

"That gives me an idea, when's he coming?"

"Monday, sometime."

"Make sure the sheep are as high on the mountain as possible, and scattered to the four winds. I will meet you at your house, first thing Monday morning," said Father Tom, with a delighted twinkle in his eye. Birdie had no idea what the priest had planned, but Father Tom was always full of good ideas.

***

Monday came, and it was eight in the morning when Father Tom's little Fiat Panda pulled into Birdie Kerrigan's yard, amid a cloud of oily smoke. The huge priest looked like a clown stuffed into the tiny car, but he love the little thing, and refused to get a bigger one. The little farmer stood in the door of his cottage, with a steaming mug in his hand. When Father Tom eventually levered himself out of the car, he was clutching a rubber hot water bottle, in one massive paw.

"Morning, Father Tom, what's with the hot bottle?" said Kerrigan, waving his chipped mug in the direction of Tom’s hand.

"That's for you, Birdie," said Father Tom, with a huge smile.

"I’d only use one of them yokes, if I was dying," laughed the little farmer.

"Exactly, Birdie, exactly."

When the man for the Department of Agriculture pulled into the yard, Birdie Kerrigan was buried under a mountain of blankets, with a hot water bottle resting on his chest, sweating like a turkey at Christmas. Father Tom walked into the yard, when Birdie’s sheep dogs began barking. A man in his late twenties, wearing a suit, stuck into a pair of wellington boots, was getting out of a shiny new Volvo.

"Is this the Kerrigan farm – err, Father," he asked, noticing Tom's collar.

"It is, and who might you be?

"I'm Tom Quigley, from the Department of Agriculture, to check Mr Kerrigan's herd."

Father Tom smiled. "I'm Tom too, Father Tom. It seems we're a tom-tom," said the huge priest, laughing hard at his own joke. He did the same thing every time he meet another Tom, he just couldn't help himself.

"Yea, very good, Father. Is Mr Kerrigan around?"

"He is, he’s in the house, come on in."

The dapper young man followed Father Tom into the dark little cottage. When Tom, Father Tom that is, opened the bedroom door, revealing a damp and steamy looking Birdie in the bed, Department Tom stopped in his tracks.

"What's wrong with him?" Department Tom whispered to Father Tom.

"Poor Mr Kerrigan, he’s in a bad way, burning up with fever," said Father Tom.

"Sorry you’re not well," shouted Department Tom, at Birdie. Why do people do that, he was sick, not deaf. People seem to do the same thing when they meet foreigners, like saying the words louder, will make them understand better.

"I'll just count the sheep, and leave the paperwork in the kitchen for you. Which paddock are they in?"

"On the mountain," croaked Birdie, like Tom had told him to do.

"Oh I see," said Department Tom, with a frown. "That is very inconvenient. I will just have to come back another day, then," he said completely wrapped up in his own needs.

"You could sign whatever you need signing, now. I am sure Mr Kerrigan wouldn't mind," ventured Father Tom.

"I have to survey the flock first, and that’s hard to do, with them spread all across a mountain. You might count the same sheep twice. Another day so, Mr Kerrigan. I will write to yea." said the suited official, as he walked out of the house.

"Well, that didn't work at all," said Birdie, sitting up in the bed and throwing off the covers. Just then, Father Tom heard the cottage door open again.

"He's coming back," said Father Tom, shoving Birdie back down in the bed, and throwing the covers over him, in the nick of time.

"Take it easy, Mr Kerrigan," Father Tom said, for the benefit of the Department Man, pretending to feel for temperature on the farmer’s forehead.

"I've just had a thought. We could do an SS." said the Department Man.

"Jesus, the Interpol," squeaked Birdie, trying to shoot out of the bed. Father Tom's hand on the little farmer’s forehead, was the only thing that kept him in place.

"Easy now, Mr Kerrigan," said Father Tom, keeping up his nursing persona. "What exactly is an SS?"

"A Satellite Survey, we can take a photo of the mountain and then count the sheep grazing on it."

"You can do that?"

"Sure can, I'll arrange it for tomorrow, just leave the sheep where they are. God bless." with that, Department Tom was gone, and all hope left with him.

***

Birdie Kerrigan refused to leave the little cottage, telling Father Tom he would rather wait until took him away, than going on the run. Father Tom had no choice, but to go home. When he got there, he told Jane, his long suffering housekeeper, everything.

"Can they really do that with satellites these days?" she asked.

"Apparently so. I read that the CIA have satellites that can read the time on your watch, from outer space."

"That may be true, Father, but I sincerely doubt that the Irish Department of Agriculture would have anything like that. They hardly expect the mountain sheep of Ireland to launch an attack on the governments of the world."

Father Tom huffed into his coffee. "Perhaps not, but they must be able to make out the sheep on the mountain."

"If you took a photo from a plane, what would a sheep in the heather look like?" asked Jane.

"A white blob, I would imagine," Tom ventured.

"What we need to do, is to add another hundred and fifty white sheep size blobs, to the mountain."

Father Tom jumped to his feet, sending the coffee mug flying across the table. He grabbed Jane, and spun her around and around in his arms, before landing a kiss on her forehead.

"Jane, you’re a genius, come on, we got work to do," he said, dragging his blushing housekeeper towards the door.

"Where are you taking me, Father," she giggled.

"The pub, where else?"
***

That night, O'Conner's bar was all but deserted. Only Mrs O'Conner was there, watching a rerun of Friends. Pa O'Connor, the O'Connor kids, Podge Carroll, Smoky-Joe, Birdie Kerrigan, Father Tom, and Jane were all trudging around on the top of Kerrigan's Mountain. About ten in the evening, Ian Barry looked in the door, and was surprised how empty the bar was.

"Where's everybody?" he asked.

"Operation Baa Baa, whatever that is," said a bored Mrs O'Connor. Ian Barry just shook his head and left, feeling he was the butt of yet another joke he didn't understand.

The next morning, when the satellite turned its lens on Kerrigan's Mountain, it got a lovely shot of three hundred shiny white blobs. If you were to take a closer look, you would see that half of them were sheep, happily munching on lichen and mountain grass, the rest were plastic fertilizer bags turned inside out, and stuffed with heather. 

A week later, a letter arrived from Tom Quigley, on headed Department of Agriculture paper. Birdie ran all the way to O'Connor’s pub, to show everyone. Father Tom was at his regular table, when Birdie burst through the door.

"It worked, Father, It worked!" giggled Birdie, dancing on the spot and waving the brown envelope around.

"Give me a look," said Father Tom. Everyone in the bar gathered round, to read over the priest's shoulder, including most of the members of 'Operation Baa Baa'.
Inside was a bunch of signed Headage forms, along with a short letter. 

Dear Mr Kerrigan,

We are delighted to forward your herd survey. We find everything is in order, and we will carry out our next assessment in 2015. I have enclosed a copy of the satellite image, as your sheep seem to be exhibiting some unusual social behaviour. I have also forwarded a copy of this image to the animal research department. I have circled the specific group in question. 

I hope you feeling much better now.

Mr Tom Quigley
Department Of Agriculture Ireland.


Father Tom pulled out the photo. The mountain was covered in white blobs, just as Jean had said it would look like. In the right hand corner, circled in red pen, were twelve little blobs and when you looked at them from an angle they made a huge P. 

Father Tom took one look and roared, "Podge Carroll, you devil!"


The End.

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