RYEBREAD CREATIVE

A blog dedicated to the creative output of R.P. Brown ryebreadcreative@gmail.com

Scorched Thumbs

In a busy kitchen, in a fine fish restaurant, on the tip of the Causeway coast, a young chef in training was perfecting a creamy lemon and tarragon sauce. Fionn MacCumhaill, careful to blow on the hot liquid first, held the spoon up to his mouth for taste. There was too much white wine.

The sous chef yelled at Fionn, causing him to drop his wooden spoon.

“Wee lad, where the fuck is that sauce?”

“Just finished up now sir”

“The boss man wants you to cook a salmon”

“Just the one?”

“Don’t get smart with me, it’s a request from a difficult customer, brought it in himself from the river Boyne.”

“Why did he bring it all the way up here?”

“Tripadvisor. How the fuck should I know? Can you cook the bloody fish or not?”

“No problem.”

“Good and I’m under strict instructions to tell you, not to taste it, not a morsel” The sous chef took a drop of Fionn’s sauce. “Too much white wine.”

Fionn could feel the fuel that all good restaurants run on rising in his stomach. He took a deep breath, relishing the knowledge that this was a career making moment. How little he knew.

The click and then the purr of the hob bursting into life. The sizzle of the fish as it hits the oil in the pan. Careful, careful now. The salt shaking, the pepper cracking, the fish slice primed and flip goes the salmon. A flick of fate as a fragment of that fish flies up high and lands on the hand of Fionn.

Specifically it landed on his thumb. A more experienced chef perhaps, would have been used to the odd scald and scrape. Such things are occupational hazards. Fionn however instinctively brought his thumb to his mouth. It isn’t often seconds make a man but these few formed Fionn.

A wealth of information exploded in his mind and then, as suddenly, dissipated.

Fionn felt hollow but catching himself on, the young lad plated his fish on a bed of veg and potatoes. A splash of sauce and that was service.

“Nicely done, wee lad” barked the sous chef.

There was no time to revel in the glory of a job well executed. There was sweat still to come and the kitchen is a fast paced beast that swallows the idle. Fionn did however carry out his duties with a certain spring in his step, that was until the sous chef returned with a sour, tight lipped, grimace on his face. The staff knew it was an expression best avoided.

“C’mere” he growled, roughly grabbing the scruff on Fionn’s uniform.

He dragged him out of the kitchen, to the busy front of house that Fionn scarcely saw. The clientele were busy dining, some with romantic whisperings and others with boisterous guffaws. Fionn was steered past empty bottles and bread baskets; past discarded cutlery and fresh faced desserts; teas and coffees were sipped and rosy cheeked customers slurred their words.

They came to an abrupt halt in front of an older gentleman whose pearly blue eyes glistened with wisdom. It was a dark alcove of the restaurant and the candlelight kissed his face. The manager of the establishment was speaking with him in quite, apologetic tones.

“Ah here’s the lad who stole a taste of my salmon”

A sting in the gut, like a knife in a fish.

“Go on spit it out, boy. What happened?” cried the manager.

“But I… I didn’t”

The sous chef gave him a discreet and powerful flick of the ear. The manager shot him a set of sharp steel knives.

“Could I have a minute alone with your colleague?” asked the other man politely.

He spoke with such an authority that neither the manager nor the sous chef gave the strange request a second thought. Left alone, with the customer, Fionn felt a fear of the unknown. Such a slight old man did little to intimidate in stature, however, his intellect was clear and towering. Fionn, like everyone, had his own gifts. His were in his tongue, his gut, his heart but never in his brain.

“Haven’t you ever heard the expression ‘the customer is always right?” He gestured for Fionn to sit and poured a glass of water. “You’re dehydrated, drink this.”

Fionn did as told. He sipped and stared.

“What is your name?”

“Fionn MacCumhaill”

“Well Fionn, my name is Mr Eces. I run a fishing company south of the border and I’m also quite well known as a poet. For many years I’ve been searching for a very special fish, one that I thought didn’t exist but I’ve always found enjoyment from the fanciful. Yesterday, one of my employees found a fish with the most amazing scales and I thought I’d finally found it. You see this fish was said to grant all the knowledge of the world but I have just finished eating it and no change. You understand if I was a bit miffed”

“But I didn’t sir”

“No, you don’t seem like a young man who has just acquired a vast amount of knowledge.”

“Maybe you already knew everything” suggested Fionn.

Eces had a good laugh at that. “And maybe you’re cleverer than you look” he said.

“I thought you’d be upset sir.”

“Well there is another maxim I’m quite fond of. There’s no point crying over spilt milk.”

Apart from making use of common quotes, words and phrases, another trait of a brilliant mind is a keen eye. In order to fill a silence, Fionn had instinctively taken a sip of his water. It was then that Eces observed a key clue in the mystery of the salmon, a small red mark with a slight blister.

“What happened to your thumb?”

“I burnt it” he replied bluntly.

“Fionn place your thumb in your mouth”

Again Fionn did as he was told, bowing to superior wisdom. He touched his thumb to his mouth.

As though rising from his knees for the first time, Fionn’s eyes became a deep well of understanding. He suddenly realised he was a giant in mind and stature. He became a man with the knowledge of 4.5 billion years and more.

“You are going to be very special my friend”

***

Though Fionn always retained a deep love of cooking, as a vocation it did not satisfy his new found power for long. Under the guidance of Eces, Fionn learnt how to best cope with what at times could be an overwhelming burden. Later, on his deathbed Eces remarked how knowledge was best put in the hands of those young enough to use it.

Ten years after Fionn ate the piece of salmon, he was enjoying a prosperous career as a Causeway and Glens Borough councillor. It was during one of his weekly surgeries that he was approached by a constituent with a rather unique problem.

Mr Lir’s second wife Aoife had apparently lost the plot one day and turned his four children into swans. She’d blown in a flock of swans to further confuse the situation. Poor Lir could not tell his children from Adam.

And so Fionn found himself wading through a small lake, chasing swans

“The ould witch lost her rag with the weeins and their mess. Then that was that they were swans.”

The idea was that if they chased the swans, then perhaps the real ones would fly away and the more human ones wouldn’t be afraid. At the very least, Fionn had thought whilst chewing his thumb, their more human traits would reveal themselves. After they had the right swans, they would tie them together with a silver chain to avoid the problem in the future. The pair already had Conn who had characteristically went straight for his father’s neb.

“That’ll be Fionnuala over there bossing those other birds about. Maybe it’s her other two brothers.”

Though it was indeed Fionnuala, it would be another two hours before they would manage to find the other two cygnet siblings. Even with the entire world’s knowledge at his disposal, Fionn was not omniscient. He was merely equipped with a vast knowledge and an unrelenting logic. The impossible to know was still impossible to him.

Later when all the children were safely secure, Lir offered Fionn a cheese sandwich (the father had been a vegetarian ever since the transformation of his children), a cup of tea from his flask and a gruff thanks. The two sat together and looked out towards the Glens of Antrim.

“You can’t beat a classic, it’s the pickle that makes it” remarked Lir.

“Aye it is” Fionn said and then added “that view’s hard to beat and all.”

After a pause, “You’re wise for a young fella’, you’ll have my vote and all”

“Here’s hoping you’ll not be the only one” sighed Fionn.

“I’ll drink to that”

The two companions clasped their plastic mugs together, acknowledging a moment’s peace down in the valley.

***

It had been a rare moment of quiet for Fionn as he was run off his feet with his campaign. He was standing for election as an Independent Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for North Antrim. Tonight was his first ever television debate.

Apart from the odd radio interview and the fact his face was plastered round the constituency, Fionn had up until now had very little media coverage. He knew at the moment he was fairly unknown and this opportunity would make or break him.  He was nervous but not because he was worried about saying something stupid, no, this was a man blessed with unnatural intellect. Fionn was concerned about looking like an eejit. In order to say the right thing, he would have to constantly have his thumb in his mouth, like a baby.

It was something his colleagues in the council had noticed and had not failed to remark upon. The more educated among them would pass him in the corridor, thumbs in their mouths, yelling “I bite my thumb at you sir.”

The rest would merely ask if “the big baby was going to cry”. There was even a rumour he kept a dummy in his office desk.

He reported to the television station promptly and was shown into the green room by a lad a few years his senior. He prepared by chewing his thumb and trying to remember as much of its information as possible. Despite the fact logic told him not to, he drank too much water and had to use the bathroom, twice. His competitors were clearly old hats at this as they joked and riled each other. They were men confident in the not unfounded belief their jobs were secure.

Whilst in make-up, he let out an unsure chuckle when the artist made a joke about his lack of wrinkles.

“You’ll never get elected unless your hair greys a little more either. There’s a strict profile.”

Beside him a nationalist candidate struck up a conversation and shared a few tips of the trade. Fionn was grateful for the friendly words of advice.

“Not at all son. Just go easy on me okay? Name like yours, the prods are going to gang up on us. Got to look out for your own.”

If there was one thing that made Fionn happy about his thumb, it was that it forced him to take a second to consider what he said.

Soon he was out in the lights, sitting in a chair less than comfortable and sharing small talk with the presenter. In a few minutes he’d be attempting to chew up the politicians and spit them out live on air.

A call for silence. Ten seconds. Then it began.

Friendly faces and banter were gone. Heads locked horns, familiar lines were drawn and the men perspirated. The two women attempted to glisten, the rules applied differently to them. Through this petty arguing, Fionn glided.

The most hard line and big headed were left without the air to form words. The EU, Employment, Segregation, Same-Sex Marriage, Agriculture, Welfare Reform, Corporation Tax, Abortion, his logic was undeniable. The veins of one fundamentalist were pumping to the point of bursting. His normally cool, collective preachings of brimstone and fire sizzled at his feet. A causeway built at Fionn’s feet, he divided seas and broke down walls.

“It’s not a belief in God but our physiology that makes us human. We are special because of a superior brain and the gift of opposable thumbs. We build larger tools. We build larger societies. We work together.”

He even managed to circumvent a difficult question centred around his failure as a councillor to prevent the theft of a prize bull by a well-known landowner Medb.

When the red light went out and the cameras ceased to broadcast, Fionn stood and left, merely a man.

***

The day before the bookies would have scoffed had you placed a bet but now Fionn’s election to the assembly seemed a cert. The newspapers were unanimous in their coverage. Only one victor emerged. Fionn MacCumhaill.

It was only one seat and it would probably because of a good few second preference votes. Despite this, the media were already talking about a new kind of politics. The independent in North Antrim was asked a barrage of questions. No, he was not looking to start his own party. No, he thought it was too soon to tell if this was the start of political change in the hearts and minds of Northern Ireland. No, he was not single.

In fact he was walking home from a very private date with his partner when he fell victim to trouble. Walking as high as he was at that moment, he didn’t see it coming. He was proud of himself, proud of what looked to be a bright new bridge to cross in his career. If he’d sucked his thumb, he might have been reminded of one of Eces’ fondest maxims. Pride always comes before a fall.

From a quiet street in Ballymoney, Fionn was caught and pulled into the back of a van. He was gagged, blindfolded and whacked in the back of the head. Not necessarily in that order.

He awoke in a large warehouse, surrounded by men in balaclavas. A few were carrying handguns. Fionn smelt something fishy was afoot.

Instinctively he brought his thumb up to his mouth, much like he had all those few years ago when he burnt it. However, Fionn quickly realised that things were much more precarious this time. He was roughly tied by the wrists to the wooden chair on which he sat. His ankles were tied as well. They ached.

A sinking feeling in his gut as he realised there would be no thinking his way out of this one. Then the flick of a knife.

He could see the blade in the corner of his vision as it traced the line from his ear to his eye.

“You should have taken the hand of friendship when it was extended to you.”

“You shouldn’t have rocked the boat at any rate, mate”

It didn’t take the advanced intellect located in his thumb for Fionn to understand what was happening. He recognised those voices.  A rhetoric from a past echoing coarsely in the present. His competitors had not taken kindly to him after the debate and they’d sent their loyal bulldogs. Same voice, different bloody hands.

“See we’re all family here now. We argue and squabble but we’ve got each other’s best interests at heart. Even the distant voices of the black sheep, they are still part of the gang. They serve their purpose.”

“Aye but not you see. You’re different. You’re not stepping in line. You’re singing from a different hymn sheet.”

“We enjoyed your thoughts on God. Opposable thumbs eh?”

They held Fionn’s hands down. He tried to struggle but another man grabbed him from behind.

The blade plunged into his right thumb and continued to saw straight through the bone. Fionn screamed like a wild animal, momentary mad with the pain.

Then the other hand.

The blood flowed free from the initial wound. He could feel the space, until the blade tore into his other thumb. Again there was resistance at the bone. He blacked in and out now with the pain. The knife was blunt. He could feel the twisted smile on the man’s face and the hatred emanated from him like a furnace. In this delusional state, Fionn wondered why the heat of it did not cauterize the stubs where his thumbs used to be. When it was over, he panted.

“Not so smart any longer are ya?”

He was given another brutal blow to the head, though he would probably have passed out regardless.

***

He awoke with the smell of guts in his nostrils mixing with the sea air. He lay defeated on a bed of fish heads, bones and tails. He’d been sleeping with the fishes.

Ignorance is bliss he thought. Wisdom was more trouble than it was worth.

Fionn had swam against the school of thought. He wouldn’t make that mistake again. The knowledge had left him, high and dry.

 

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