Bad Debts

Bad Debts


My father was a man of contrasts and contradictions. He could be moody and introspective one day and jolly and communicative the next. He avoided social gatherings whenever possible. Yet, when necessity prevailed, he became the life and soul of the party. He was a highly intelligent man, who had a penetrating understanding, as well as a deep and intuitive mistrust, of human beings. Yet, he allowed himself to be codded and cheated over and over again.

There were two forces at work here. On the one hand, he had a profound fear of being considered mean or tight-fisted, as he was by nature very careful with money. On the other - and this I feel was the dominant factor – he wanted to believe that people were, at the end of the day, decent. He would not have been able to function as a human being if he felt that everyone was out to take advantage of him, though in many cases they were.

To prove his undying faith in humanity he liked to tell the story of Willie Dunne. Now, Willie Dunne was a complete waster, but like so many wasters he could be extremely charming and knew how to win people over. He was able to cheer my father up when he was in a bad mood with his cocky buoyancy, by telling one of his ribald jokes or imparting a piece of juicy local gossip that would not normally have reached my father’s ears.

Willie had had many jobs before he came to work for us. He had worked as a barge builder, a glass blower, a truck driver and had even collected tickets on the Rosslare to Dublin train. The trouble with Willie was that he got bored very quickly and when he got bored he couldn’t be bothered to turn up to work on time or even go to work at all. The result was that a vital link would be missing in the barge building process, glass would not be blown, a loaded truck would not leave the factory with its order and a train would find itself with no one to punch holes in tickets. The upshot of it all was that Willie would get the sack and would spend the next few months on the dole before managing to find another gullible employer.

Apart from being a waster, Willie was also quite a lad with the ladies. In the way in which he could sweet-talk people, he could win the heart of a weak-willed lady with unconscionable ease. One of these ladies – she was more a girl than a lady – was Jimmy Comerton’s daughter. Now, most young men of the time knew the facts of life and took the necessary precautions. It was typical of Willie to ignore such niceties. He had a laisser-faire attitude to everything – act first, think later. As a result, Willie got Noleen Comerton in the family way.

When Jimmy found out, he was livid and, as local lore would have it, beat the living daylights out of Willie. As Jimmy was to be his future father-in-law, Willie could not lift a finger to defend himself, which was not his usual approach to things, as there was nothing he liked more than a good fight, the rougher the better. So, despite Jimmy’s diminutive stature and Willie’s massive bulk, Jimmy didn’t spare the rod, which is understandable, given that his daughter was not only going to have an untimely baby but she was also going to have to marry a waster, who hadn’t worked for six months. Jimmy couldn’t do much about the former. However, he was damn sure he was going to do whatever he could about the latter. So, after the threshing, Jimmy dragged Willie down the path through the fields by his ear, which happened to be exceptionally large, and presented the cowering figure of his prospective son-in-law to my father.

“Boss,” he said. “This gormless jackass is to be my son-in-law. He’s an out-and-out good-for-nothing layabout. So, I want ye to give him a job.”

My father took one look at the doleful figure of Willie, red-eared and drooping, and immediately felt sorry for him. Willie was not particularly prepossessing. He had a very long pointed jaw, a pock-marked face and hollow cheeks that made him look much older than his age. Yet, there was something about him that possibly reminded my father of himself when he was a young man.

“I don’t give a damn, Boss, what he does, shovellin’ shit, diggin’ ditches or cuttin’ trees. No son-in-law of mine is goin’ to shag around on his arse doin’ nothin’ as long as he’s married to my daughter. So, what do ye say, Boss?”

My father had difficulty saying no to anyone, particularly to Jimmy Comerton, the man who took care of his two hundred and fifty sheep. Apart from that, Jimmy was known for his ability to malign even the most saintly person in the townland. If my father refused to give Willie a job, there was a good chance that by the end of the week Jimmy would have told half the county that Frank Campbell was a mean ould bastard, whose only interest in life was ‘stacking up cash in the bank’. Fortunately, there happened to be a lot of work to be done on the farm at the time. So, my father agreed to take Willie on.

Now, Willie was a very hard worker, despite a tendency to arrive late and leave early on the excuse of having to go to the dentist, which on the surface could have been true as his teeth were visibly rotten through and through. However, they never seemed to improve, despite all the visits to the dentist. But my father was always very indulgent towards Willie and was constantly making excuses for him. “He’s had a hard life.” “Now, if he’d had a proper education.” “Imagine having to live with Noleen and Jimmy.” Noleen, it appears, was just like her father. Whether she actually took the stick to Willie, when Willie came home on a Saturday night with only a few shillings left of his weekly wage, was never substantiated. But the tittle-tattlers in the townland used to say, “Willie may not bear the scars on his back, but they sure enough show on his face.”

However, Willie was an inveterate spendthrift. Money just fell through his fingers like grains of barley through a hopper. He always wanted something he couldn’t afford; the latest TV set, a super duper record player, things that even we could not afford at the time. So, he was always asking my father for an advance. “Sure, take it out of me wages, Boss.” But of course when the time came my father hadn’t the heart to dock his wages, because he knew that it was only barely enough to pay for all the things that a young family needed.

The result was that Willie’s debts kept mounting up. The last straw was when Willie set his sights on a car. “Boss, ‘tis goin’ dead cheap. Sure ‘tis a sin not to buy it.” My father considered the age of the car and its condition and agreed that it was indeed going very cheap. It was a mere three years old and was selling for only one hundred pounds. “The trouble is, Boss, I don’t have all the money. Now, I knows I owes ye plenty, but sure don’t ye know I’m good for it.” My father thought again. “How much do you need?” “Well, Boss, ye know what it’s like. The childer do be atin’ me out of house and home and the missus is awful demandin’. And sure, the childer do go through shoes as if they were gob-stoppers - the fuckin’ shoes they makes these days don’t last more than a week.” My father was also of the opinion that workmanship was not what it used to be. Rubber boots wore out quicker than ever before. Oilskins fell apart as if they were made of cardboard. “So, Willie, how much do you want to borrow exactly?” “Well, now, Boss, I was thinkin’ in the region of a hundred and ten quid.” “A hundred and ten pounds! But the car only costs one hundred.” “Ah, sure you’re right there, Boss. ‘Twould seem strange to a man with a mathematical brain like yours. But ye see, Sir, I need to change the tyres. They’re as bald as Telly Savalas.”

Well, of course, my father somehow found the money and Willie bought the grand little motor so that ‘he could take Noleen and the young’uns up to Curracloe for a dip of a Sunday during the summer’. Willie was very proud of his light blue Anglia, which he would make a point of driving into the yard and doing a few turns before parking it, just to arouse the envy of the other men, who didn’t have the guts to ask the Boss for a loan to buy their own car.

But it soon came home to Willie that a car is a drain on your resources. It needs to be insured, taxed and serviced, not to mention the petrol that it knocks back, no better than ‘a feckin’ alcoholic, sure’. This meant he had to ask for more loans. “Ah, sure you know what it’s like, Boss. Don’t they deserve a bit of an ould jaunt once in a while. And to cap it all, sure hasn’t the price of petrol gone through the feckin’ roof?”

After about a year or two of working for the Campbells, Willie had accumulated such a debt it would take him a whole year to pay it off. Not only that, but one of Willie’s weaknesses was beginning to rear its ugly head. He was getting itchy feet. One day he was ill. The next, one of his children was. The following, his wife and so on until it looked as if an epidemic was rapidly sweeping through Willie’s extended family. To everyone, except my father, it was clear that Willie was about to clear out, leaving his debts behind him. “No,” my father said. “Willie may be a bit of a ruffian but he’s honest. He wouldn’t leave without paying back his debts.”

As usual, my father was wrong. A whole week went by without Willie putting in an appearance. Finally, he had no option but to ask Jimmy what was wrong with Willie. Jimmy looked very po-faced because he felt responsible for his son-in-law. “The fucker has gone and bolted, Boss. Now, I knows he owes ye and I’m going to pay it back to ye in overtime. Jes’, if I ever get me hands on that gobshite, I’ll have his guts for garters, so I will.” Of course, my father couldn’t make Jimmy pay for his son-in-law’s profligacy and Jimmy was very willing to accept my father’s line of reasoning on the matter.

My father was surprisingly resigned to the fact that Willie had done a runner with his money, even though my mother didn’t mince her words. “You’re so absurdly gullible. It was quite obvious he had no intention of paying you back.” My father, however, calmly replied, “He’ll pay it back one day.” “In heaven, perhaps,” said my mother tetchily. Behind his back, we all laughed at my father’s naivety. Willie had never paid anything back in his life, let alone a debt that had reached the mammoth sum of seven hundred pounds. The strange thing was that Willie didn’t take the light blue Anglia but conveniently left it in the haggard with the keys in the ignition. “That,” said my father, “is an indication of his good intentions.” We all laughed again, possibly to his face this time. “Mark my words. Willie will pay back the money one day.”

Well, years went by and there was no sign of Willie or his intention to pay back the money. In the end, we all forgot about it, except my father, who secretly harboured the hope that he had not misjudged his protégé.

About seven years later, I was home on holiday, when something reminded me of Willie. It was a beautiful summer evening and I was helping my father cut the hedge. The harvest was almost in and he’d had an amicable meeting with his bank manager. So, he was in good form. I said, “What happened to Willie? I suppose he never paid you that money he owed.”

My father stopped cutting and slowly laid the shears against a bush. “Well, as a matter of fact he came by just a week ago. He turned up in a lovely new car, an Escort, I think it was. He was dressed in a suit and tie. Said he was on business for the factory and thought he’d drop by. You see, when he left here, he got a job as a floor manager at the jam factory.”

“I imagine he made no mention of the money he owes.”

“On the contrary, he handed it to me in an envelope, including the interest.”

“Interest? I don’t believe it.”

“Well, it’s true. Of course, I gave him back the interest. I said, ‘Thank you, Willie, but I’m not a bank.’ He tried to push it back but I wouldn’t have it.”

“I’d have taken it, Dad. Imagine if you’d had that money in the bank all these years.”

“Well, to be quite frank with you, Bob, I was so delighted that he had returned the money, I didn’t really care. I have this theory that if you trust people they will eventually bear out your faith in them.”

“You wouldn’t want to take that theory too much to heart,” I said. “You might end up losing an awful lot of money.”

“Ah, yes, Bob, but you wouldn’t end up losing your faith in humanity.”

I said nothing. We had diagonally opposing views on the matter.


Ian Douglas Robertson

Ian Douglas Robertson is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin. He lives and works in Athens, Greece, as a teacher, actor and translator. He has had a number of poems and short stories published in online and print magazines as well as three books of non-fiction in collaboration with his wife Katerina. He has also recently published several novels, available on Amazon, including Break, Break, Break, Under the Olive Tree, The Frankenstein Legacy, On the Side of the Angels, The Reluctant Messiah and The Adventures of Jackie and Jovie. My latest novel The Return of the Dissolute Son will be published in 2024. 

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