I’ve learned that the anthology my short story A HARD LESSON was part of has been unpublished. Therefore I’m making it available here in order to keep it in the public domain. It’s about a lovestruck man called Seán who finds that being granted three wishes by a leprechaun does not make things easier.
I hope you enjoy.
A Hard Lesson
By Ian Blackwell
I worked up enough confidence to approach Mary a few years after we left school. It was on a Saturday night in The Black Horse.
Michael and I were standing in the corner. Mary was waiting at the bar to get served; her dark hair shone back through the noisy crowd. I could see another lad a few yards away from her, eyeing her. I had to act fast.
“Should I?” I asked Michael.
“You should. If you don’t, you’ll never know.”
“Okay I’m going to go for it.”
I gulped down a mouthful of beer for luck. I started ducking my way through the crowd.
“Good luck,” I think Michael shouted.
My heart was pounding hard enough to split my aorta. I spotted a space beside her. I arrowed right at it, pushing past the rival.
“Hiya Mary,” I said, startling her. “Having a good night?”
“Aye,” she said. She turned back to the bar.
“We used to go to the same school. I’m Seán.”
“Two vodka and cokes,” she shouted at the barman.
“So what are you up to these days?” I asked. I knew she worked in Linda’s, a local hairdresser’s.
“That’s nice . . . Do you like it?”
I sipped my pint, trying to think of something to say. I was a plane plummeting to the ground. She handed a note to the barman and slipped the change into her purse. She lifted her drinks and turned to leave.
“Wait,” I said.
She stopped and stared at me, the obstacle to a fun evening.
“Look, I think you’re a very nice girl, and I would love to take you out sometime?” My heart was pumping sweat out of every pore.
“I would never touch a weirdo like you.”
A knife to my heart. The plane crashed and exploded into pain.
She giggled, shook her head, and side-stepped her way through everyone back to her table. The rival smirked, taking a long drink from his pint. The girls at Mary’s table grinned at her, waiting to hear what happened. I trudged back through the crowd to Michael with the charred remains of my pride.
Michael did his best to console me but it did nothing to numb the pain every time Mary and her friends peered over and laughed. I tried to dissolve the pain in beer; the only thing I remember is keeping a distance from Mary’s group when we left at closing time.
The night before plagued my mind. The day was hot but my insides were a network of lonely, icy tunnels.
I eased the lawnmower’s throttle back to a halt and lifted the heavy bag off.
I killed the lawnmower’s engine and listened.
It came from the gateway to my drive. I had lifted the cattle grid off earlier to clear the leaves under it but hadn’t replaced it yet. The pit was about three feet deep and would make a nasty fall.
I dropped the bag and ran at the gateway.
I peered over the edge, picturing blood and bruises: there stood a man only a foot tall.
“Please don’t hurt me,” he said.
“I won’t,” I said.
“Please don’t hurt me,” he repeated, stroking his ginger beard. “If ye let me go, I’ll grant ye three wishes.”
“Grand, whatever,” I said.
I knelt down and offered my hand. He folded his arms.
“Ye won’t hurt me?”
“I won’t. Now grab my hand wee man.”
He leaned his head to one side, staring at me from under his tall, green hat. His blue eyes pondered. When they brightened he edged forward, taking my hand with a flesh-tearing grip.
I pulled him out; he weighed no more than a bag of carrots. I rubbed the blood back into the fingers which he had clasped so tight. He brushed his green suit down.
“You’re the smallest fella I’ve ever seen. Where are you from?” I asked.
“Not far,” he said.
“Thanks for helping me out there. Good man yourself. Ye were true to your word and I’ll be true to mine.”
He offered his hand. I hesitated; he had a tight grip for such a wee fella. I accepted it anyway. He was gentler this time.
“My name is Fergal,” he said.
“Hiya Fergal. I’m Seán.”
“Seán . . . That’s a good name.”
“Look Seán I can’t hang about. I shouldn’t be anywhere near ye humans. So let’s start sorting your wishes and I’ll be off. Now you’ve got three. What’s the first?”
I laughed. But he looked serious.
“I wish for a million wishes,” I said.
“Are you supposed to be a leprechaun?”
“I am and an impatient one at that. Just make a wish like a good man and I’ll be away.”
“Alright here you go: I wish for Mary to be my girlfriend.”
“Granted,” he said, shaking his head. “Right I’m away. But sure I’ll hear when ye make the other two wishes and I’ll grant them on the spot. Thanks again for getting me outta that predicament Seán. Best of luck now.”
He dived headfirst at the nearest hedge, fading to nothing. I stared for a short time; he was definitely gone.
My phone’s text alert went off. I pulled my phone out.
The world stopped turning.
The text was from a Mary. There was only one Mary I knew but I didn’t have her number.
I opened the text.
Hi. You still meeting me after I finish work?
I hammered in a reply: Yeah. Where we meeting again?
I paced about the garden waiting for a response. It came: Cooks Café. Be there at 5.
I looked at my watch: it was 2 p.m.
Grand. See you there, I replied.
I finished my lawn in record time, albeit bendy tracks and missed spots everywhere. But my only concern was what I was going to wear.
I was a rally driver racing past every car I encountered. I even overtook on a corner to ensure I arrived in good time. At 4.50 p.m. I was in Cooks Café sipping a coffee at a table by the window. By 5pm I was a puppy staring out the window waiting for my owner.
Then I saw Mary coming.
My breathing shallowed. My mind raced. What will I say? What if she walks on past?
The bell above the door jingled. She stepped inside. She looked all around her. Finally her eyes met mine. She came over.
“Hi,” she said. “I want a bacon and cheese toastie and a coke.”
“Er . . . Hi. I’ll sort that now.”
I hurried to the counter and ordered her meal. I ordered something for myself as well; all I remember is it was the first thing I saw on the menu high up on the wall. Mary was doing something on her phone and didn’t look up when I set her coke down.
“Food won’t be long. Did you have a nice day?” I asked.
“It was alright but Claire is such a bitch. All she does is complain about the lack of light around her chair and bitches on about how she can’t see what she’s doing. It can’t be that bad. I think she’s overreacting and it stresses me out.”
“Aw, I’m sorry to hear,” I said. A moment’s silence passed. “I had a grand day. I spent the afternoon cutting the grass. When my parents were alive they really valued keeping the house tidy so I make sure I keep it that way.”
“Hmm,” she said, still playing with her phone.
“You doing much this evening?”
“No. But I was thinking: tomorrow you could take me to that new restaurant on Scotch Street called Vevinos.” She looked at me.
“Of course,” I said. “How about six?”
“Seven would be better so pick me up then. Book the table for half seven.”
“Yeah grand so. I’ll get you at seven,” I said.
Soon our food was brought over. She spent most of the date talking about the people she didn’t like and how she hated living with her parents. Although I learned a lot about her she learned little about me. I didn’t care: I was lost in her amazing brown eyes even though they were lost to her phone most of the time. But she only had to glance at me to give me a moment I treasured.
I drove her home afterwards and we shared a brief kiss I’ll never forget.
I awoke the next morning smiling. I lay there marvelling at how Fergal’s wish actually came true. Then I thought about the remaining two wishes. I learned Mary has expensive taste: she buys all her clothes in Wilson Morrows who charge at least €100 for a pair of jeans. I needed more cash to meet her requirements.
“I wish for a billion euros,” I shouted from my bed, unsure of a response.
“Wishes are not limitless ye know. Try for a hundred-thousand and that’ll do ye well,” echoed around my room.
“Ah,” I said.
“It beats a kick in the balls,” he said.
“Alright then. I wish for one hundred-thousand euros, straight into my bank account.”
I checked my bank account on my phone: sure enough, the money was there.
Now I can keep Mary happy for a long time. The pay I take home from the building site would never be enough.
I accelerated to Mary’s that evening with my debit card heavy in my jean pocket. I texted her when I arrived at 6.50pm; she replied she’d be out in five minutes.
At 7.30pm I was still waiting.
I had long killed the car engine. I stared at the clock, playing an impatient piano tune on the steering wheel, debating calling the restaurant.
Then her front door opened.
I watched her step out. My fingers stopped playing. I forgot about the time. She looked beautiful in her red dress. I smiled when our eyes met; she didn’t smile back. I tried to steal a kiss when she climbed in, but failed.
“Can’t ruin my lipstick,” she said. “Anyway you best put your foot to the board because we’re late.”
“Indeed we are,” I said.
“I’m so annoyed.”
“My dad. He is so irritating. He treats me like a child, telling me not to stay out too late. I hate living with him.”
“Ah well maybe it’s just his way of showing he cares,” I said.
Silence. An acid stare sprayed the side of my face. I wondered if I had just called her fat.
“A bit of support please. You are my boyfriend, or at least you’re supposed to be.”
When I told the young waiter the name on the reservation his face hardened.
“Sorry we’re late,” I said.
“This way,” he said.
He led us past lots of tables full of well-dressed people to the corner, dropping menus down on our table. Without a word he hurried back to the desk to greet other arrivals.
“His manners are disgusting,” Mary said.
“We’re half an hour late and they’re under pressure,” I said, watching the staff rush around. “I used to work in a restaurant so I know what it’s like.”
“Well if you hadda drove faster we would’ve been here sooner.”
I focused on the menu: everything was expensive.
Five minutes of silence between us. The classical music in the background helped soften my shoulders.
“Any idea of what you’d like?” I asked.
“No . . . Obviously.”
A snake with a headache.
The atmosphere at our table remained stable until our food arrived. First she cut into her steak. Then she sighed and threw her knife and fork down. She called and shook her hand at the nearest waiter.
“How can I help?” he asked.
“Aye. What’s up?” I asked.
“This steak. I asked for it to be well-done. It hasn’t been well-cooked at all. It’s disgusting.”
The dark cloud above us grew, darkening the atmosphere at other tables. Diners quietened and peeked over. I looked at the cut in her steak: its grey centre looked well-done to me. I lowered my head.
“I’m so sorry,” the waiter said, scooping up her plate. “Leave it to me. I’ll sort it out for you.”
“Don’t be long. I’m starving,” she called after him. She treated me to her beautiful smile. “You’d think a place like this would get something as simple as that right.”
The waiter was soon back with her steak and a bottle of red wine. His stony expression said he and everyone else in that kitchen knew there was little wrong with her steak.
“We offer our sincere apologies. Here is a complementary bottle of wine.”
“I should think so,” she said.
My debit card destroyed the huge bill. The staff made little eye contact with us when we were leaving even though I gave a generous tip. At least Mary came out satisfied, although on wobbly feet. The only time she stopped talking was when we shared a long kiss in my car outside her home. My ecstatic high shattered into a withdrawal syndrome when she pulled away. She struggled out of my car and slammed the door too hard.
All my brain power at work the next day was exhausted on figuring out how I could close the empty void in my heart; I was scolded by the foreman for not getting much done. But by the end of the working day I’d realised what was wrong. It would take my final wish to make it right.
“I wish for Mary to love me,” I said, driving home.
“Limits. Mind there are limits.”
I thought Fergal’s words came from the back seat but I could see nothing in my mirror.
I had decided what was wrong with my relationship with Mary by the time I arrived home.
She only talks about herself and isn’t interested in me. What is needed is the opportunity for her to see what a nice guy I am. I can’t wish for her to love me. But that will develop. We could have a happy life together – we will have a happy life together.
She hates living with her parents. She would be more able to concentrate on our relationship.
Living together will put so many things right.
I chucked my lunchbox on to the kitchen table. I squared up to the wall, picturing Fergal’s face.
“I wish for Mary to be living here with me as my wife.”
A tightness trapped my finger: it was a thick gold ring.
I heard movement upstairs.
“Mary?” I called.
I sped down the hall and up the stairs. There she was rolling the duvet down the bed in my bedroom – our bedroom. She was wearing pyjamas. Puddles of her shoes and clothes littered the floor. Bottles and creams crowded the dresser.
“I’m shattered. I’m going to take a nap,” she said.
“Do you not want any dinner?” I asked.
“No but leave me something nice in the oven.”
She jumped into the bed.
“Uh . . . Okay,” I said. “Have a good sleep.”
I closed the door behind me.
“Will you iron my clothes?” She fluttered her eyelashes at me.
“I was hoping to watch a football match. Can you not do it?” I asked.
“But there’s something I want to watch. And I don’t know how to iron. Mummy used to do it all for me.”
“What? Your mum did that for you as well?”
“Right. You can’t cook. You can’t iron. What can you do?”
“Don’t you dare speak to me like that.”
“I’ve no problem helping out around the house. But you’re going to have to learn to do your fair share.”
“YOU’RE GIVING ME A HEADACHE! HOW AWFUL!!!”
She marched out of the kitchen, taking with her another piece of the joy that once filled my heart every time I saw her.
Later I was outside throwing rubbish into the bin.
“Well Seán. How’s it going?”
There stood Fergal.
“Not very well,” I said. “I’ve found things aren’t working out the way they’re supposed to.”
“We argue a lot. I have to do everything because she’s useless. And all she does is complain. It’s only been three weeks and already I’m sick of being around her. Sometimes I pop off to the shop just to get a break. Never have I enjoyed going to work so much.”
“Sure that was always going to happen,” he said, slapping his hat. “I had to come to ye and do me pieces. You had three wishes. Ye could’ve wished for almost anything yet ye wasted them all on that selfish girl. Ye stupid fool. Now look where you’re at.”
“I know,” I said. “Any chance of three more wishes?”
“Ah now Seán. Not a chance.”
“But I saved you.”
“Aye but sure were ye not repaid?”
“To hell with you.”
I launched at him; he tore off across the garden. A green hare.
He stopped and turned.
“Ach there’s no need to put us on bad terms,” he said.
“Come here,” I said, charging.
He vanished into the fence.
I waited at that spot wondering how he managed to disappear when the fence gaps were barely wide enough to fit my finger through.
Mary’s voice from the kitchen was a bullet to my soul.
“Be there in a minute,” I called.
My eyes remained on the fence, waiting; nothing happened. I trudged back inside, closing the door behind me.