Image by Austin Lysaght

Hey. Miracle Shammy. You wanna buy one? Bet I can sell you one. You wanna fold your arms and stare me out? I don’t care, I’ll sell one to someone else. Jog on fella, jog on.

But hear me out. Want to know what I know? Let me tell you something about what I know.

You go into the services on the M7 down near Moneygall. It’s a plaza, if you please. You want a coffee, you hit “Large” hold out the regular-sized cup, it’ll fill it up properly. You pay for the regular but you get a large. Think about it though: it’s still only the regular. You’re getting what you pay for. Not an easy thing to do. Think we all agree on that.

I know all kinds of shit like that. I live on the road half the time. I don’t need to read up about it. That trick doesn’t just work in Moneygall by the way. But that’s where I learnt it.

Keep listening. I live in Tallaght, that’s right, near the Red Cow roundabout. Centre of my world, the Red Cow. Slingshot off that baby and I go all over this country, go all over Wales too – England, Scotland even. Near the kids, they live in Tallaght.

I heard an ad on the radio. Debt consolidation: you have debts here, you have debts there, they sort it all out into one monthly payment. I don’t have financial worries but I got emotional debts. I phoned them once. I’d drunk a lot of Scotch and I was lonely.

I don’t drink too much anymore, makes me lonely; I don’t mind admitting it. So I phoned them, I did. I borrowed a lot of love from some people in my life. How do you want me to pay it back? Every second Wednesday, every third weekend? But there was only machines, and they wanted you to press buttons. Anyway I was just goofing around.

I don’t want to be in debt. But I got the Miracle Shammy. So I make two payments. One to the ex: the child support, €40 a week. Easy. I could pay more but I don’t. I cooked the books for the judge, I make minimum payments. I’m not bitter but I won’t give that woman my money. She looks after the kids just fine. I told her I’d pay her more if I could see them more. Pay per view. She wasn’t interested. Let’s forget that. Boring.

My second payment, my favourite one: the credit union on Main Street, end of every month, one account for each of them, split it 50-50. They’re going to hit 18 and they’re going to know that their old man had their backs all this time. They’ll look back on the shitty apartment, and the shitty movies with the fucking endless p

ick’n’mix at The Square and they’ll forgive me.

You don’t know how hard I work. You’d be impressed.

My people mined nickel. So much nickel they made a lot of northern Ontario look like the surface of the moon. That takes work, making one planet look like another. Doesn’t happen overnight. Sudbury, that’s where I hail from. Across the ocean.

Where the lads are getting stinko, and the ladies’s playing bingo.

The Miracle Shammy holds up to ten times its weight in liquid. Watch me spill the water, swipe it up. Doesn’t drip, see, not a drop. I wring it out in my bowl. Here’s a roll of kitchen towel, let me tear one off. Watch it dissolve into a mess. Look at this sponge, gotta keep my hand cupped under it. Now my hand’s all wet. I want to clean up, but all I’m doing is making more mess. Picking up bits of paper towel, making a job out of it. Save a tree: buy a Shammy.

I have the paper towel all balled up now, I dump it in the bin coz that’s where that’s goin. Cash in the trash. I’ll use my Shammy to clean up my counter now, swip, swap, swipe. No drips, no mess. Notice I haven’t even wrung it out since the last time. That’s the thing about my friend Shammy, he works better when he’s wet. No trips back and forth to the sink.

Your washing machine does a nasty all over the utility-room floor? Just throw down the Shammy. Look at it in the bowl, I’m not even touching it and it’s sucking up the liquid. Look at that, come closer so you can see. What’s happening? Crazy right? You wouldn’t believe it if you couldn’t see it.

Your pet ever make a mess? Puppy not house trained? Got a golden reliever about the place? You want to get the mop out, put down newspaper? Spread it all over the floor? No, you want our friend the Miracle Shammy. He does all the work for you.

Brings me on to my favourite type of animal. That’s right, the party animal. We all know him, right? Drinks all your 12-year-old scotch, can’t handle it, then dumps it all over the floor?

Some gent in Hereford called me garrulous. I don’t know what that means, maybe you do. But it suits me fine. He smiled when he said it, two rolls of Shammies under his tweedy arm.

Hardwood floors – they don’t have too many of them in Doncaster, but they get the same treatment as everywhere else. I get my square of carpet out, have to change it every so often, but it lasts a while. I have a bunch of them in a bag in the van. Beige, medium pile. The most important prop.

Out I pour the cola — well it’s not cola, it’s water with a bit of food colouring in it. You have to change the bottle occasionally. The label scuffs, gets faded. Like those guys who sell waffles with Nutella on them, only the Nutella jar’s a hundred years old. You won’t catch me at that game. I buy the economy brand cola— nobody wants to see Coca Cola wasted, that’s sacrilege, right?

Uncle Bill, he’s found the Scotch — and I’m glugging out the cola. I soak that square of carpet. I stop, that’s enough? No no, I keep pouring. That’s nearly a half a gallon on this little square of carpet. It’s long past saturated. There’s a pool around it.

What’s the first thing you do when you spill a drink? Someone say grab another one? That’s right, but seriously? Out come the paper towels again. I give it a dab with the paper towel, it crumples up in a second, look at it messed between my fingers. Pick it up, it takes a while. Throw it out, what did we say? That’s right: cash in the trash.

Now look under the carpet. Whatever you got with the paper towel, that’s not even the problem, look under the carpet. Up it comes, a big pool’s sitting there. That’s what’s sitting on your hardwood floor. That’s what’s turning your bodywork to rust.

I nearly have you now.

You’re worrying about your NCT, your MOT coming up, that reminder letter stuck to the fridge under the magnet of La Sagrada Família. Nothing you can do about rust. You wanna buy a new car next month? This quarter’s been good to ya? Didn’t think so.

You’re worrying about your hardwood floor, not that you have one, not that you’re even sure exactly what one is. And if you did have one, why would you have a shitty carpet covering it up? But you know it means something, a hardwood floor, and you don’t want that rotting away. You don’t want the smell soaking into it.

We know it’s not Uncle Bill who’s slopped your best Scotch on the carpet and it’s soaking through to the hardwood. Your hardwood’s concrete and Uncle Bill is your useless fuck teenage son, and that’s not whisky; that’s super-strength cider in vomit form.

But let’s pretend together. You don’t want a pool of it under your landlord’s carpet, smell up the place for months and then cost you the deposit.

Shammy’s my friend so I pat him on the back. Fold him gently and just pat-pat-patacake. I lift it up with two hands, hold it aloft, and screw some out into a glass. Very difficult to do this. The kid still makes a shit out of this bit. Here’s Uncle Bill’s Scotch, right back in his glass. I hold it up like I’m raising a toast, good as new. Add a few ice cubes, and the best part is – he won’t even notice.

I never get a laugh, but I get sympathetic smiles, for making an effort. Or people laugh at me. None of this matters. Wait for it, you’ll see why.

My cousin makes them, he owns the factory, makes them out in Germany, best industrial standards in the world; sells them on TV on the Shopping Channel. I like to beat him.

My cousin, last time I heard, was a line chef at Casey’s Bar and Grill, downtown Suds. I’d be flabbergasted if he had a plant in Hungary churning out metre squares of synthetic hydrophilic polyfibre cellulose, and a neat little show on TV. Stranger things have happened though.

But you like the idea of a family business. You like the idea of healthy competition, we like the idea of success. You buy into it.

Who wants one for free? Here it is: the Mexican standoff, but you gotta hold out. Make them commit. Come on hands up, who wants one for free? Seriously, I can’t even give them away?

If times are really slow I’ll use the kid. He’ll step up and buy one. I must have sold him ten thousand Shammies.

A fifty? You must be from out of town, I tell him. I watch them queue up behind him while I take my time bustling in the fanny pack. I whip him his change. The rich guy from out of town is buying.

Even if he’s wearing a tracksuit that hasn’t been washed for a month, he’s the rich guy from far the fuck away from here and he’s buying Shammies. He can’t believe his luck.

I don’t like to do it like this but I will. Sometimes they need a little nudge, but it means something was missing from my chat. It’s not cheating; it would probably be A-okay with FIFA.

He’s got nothing to do, the kid. He’s outta one of the estates I think, stone’s throw from my neck of the woods. I’m not too far off the Blessington Road. I liked the sound of Jobstown, of Blessington Road. A ton of blessings, a town of jobs – right? And the apartments were cheap. But I don’t really know where he lives.

Funny story: I caught him in the back of the van. Mercedes Sprinter, second hand, not good for a heavy load but how much does a ton of Shammies weigh? I was loading up out of the apartment, must have been 4–4:30 in the morning, hardly even light, summertime sometime.

I’m making trips up and down the stairs, got the door propped open with a box of Shammies. Come down with the last load, all ready to go and there he is in the back of the van. I started bellowing at him, I’m fucking fearless, this is my livelihood right? You drop the gloves on me outside the Jobstown House, I’ll step the fuck down straight out. I find you balls-deep in the Shammies at 4 a.m.? We’re going to dance.

He start

ed stammering, his hands go up, starts that whine they have. He was only interested. Curiosity got the better of him. He was only looking, his hands are empty. He’s begging me to look at his hands. You know what I did, right? I slammed the sliding door on him. The lights go out, I’m up in the cab with the engine started before he can find the handle. And then I’m gone.

Traffic lights at four in the morning? You stop for them? Didn’t think so — right? I’m in Baltinglass before he can say Jack Robinson. I was pissed. He was interested, fine. I’d show him what it was all about. He could fucking walk home, right?

I opened the door ready for a battle royale. He’s asleep on the floor. I wake him up: hey buddy, hey goof. And then all the piss goes out of me: he’s scared. Kid was tired; then he was scared. A slug of snot coming out each nostril. Looks like he hasn’t cried in ten years but he’s spent all that time doing nothing else but holding the tears in. Like he’s absorbed them. Ten times his weight in liquid.

I don’t know what to do. I tell him to help me unload, show him how to put up the marquee. Haul out the weights. Get the counter set up, screw gun out, tub of screws, put it together, hang the backdrop. Take the five-gallon drum of water out. Take the pallets out, start rolling up the Shammies, snap the elastic bands, stack em and pack em so they won’t roll. Get the crate out. Get all the props in order. Got the throat lozenges? The bottle of water? Put the side sheets up to keep everything out of sight. Go park up the van. Go use the can. Get back and square away the side sheets. Check the batteries on the headset. Clear my throat.

Hello ladies, hello gentlemen, hello little girls and little boys. Who’s going to give me a wave? Difficult not to wave back. Thank you to the little girl who blew me that kiss. My hands are clapped on my heart. I hold it in and shake it. The kid stands and watches me. His mouth hangs open, and I give him a wink.

He rides back with me in the cab. The lights go red at the turn up to the Golf Club, the Hazel Grove, and he climbs out. Runs off down the road.

I never thought I’d see him again. But guess what? Next time I’m loading up – I did shorter trips then, right, brought everything down to the lobby, then loaded the van – he’s right there. Not in the back, just standing on the sidewalk looking at his shoes.

What do you want me to do? He’s shivering. I get the engine running, get the heat on. Finish packing up. Reverse up to where he’s standing and put the passenger window down. Wanna come to Lisdoonvarna?

So sometimes I have to use the kid. Normally I don’t.

The Mexican standoff. I get them to invest. I ask them straight out. Who wants something for free? You get some stony-faced fuckers I’ll grant you that. But you have to ride this part out. It’s the key stage. You don’t get a reply, you needn’t bother going on. Send them away and gather up a new crowd.

It’s never happened though. Not once in over a decade. Isn’t that amazing? You should believe me. This truth I have, I have it from experience, I’m not making this shit up. Everyone wants something for free. Guess what? Full marks. No one gets something for free. Not on my watch anyhoo.

Once you’ve got a hand up, bang, you’re good to start selling. You’ve got the confirmation. They want a Shammy. They’ve just admitted it. They want one for free, well and good. For them the “free” is the important thing. But the real thing we’ve identified here, the important thing that this spokesperson for the crowd – and they are the spokesperson, because everyone else is still there, show’s over, the people who aren’t interested have jogged on – the important thing is that the crowd leader, the chief of the clan, has just very publicly announced that the Shammy is wanted. And everyone else wants to see what happens next.

The free is the fantasy, the want is the reality. The Shammy is desired, and if there’s one thing we like to do, that’s service our desires. We’ve all agreed we want a Shammy, next step is even simpler than logic. We’re gonna get a Shammy.

Guess what? The kid likes to give it a go. I told him to, early on, when there was no crowd, just schoolchildren wandering around. I threw him in at the deep end. Kids are the pits. You get one over on a kid, you’re a magician, and they never have any money. What’s the point right? So I told the kid to put on the headset. He’d been watching me for months, heard the patter a thousand times.

And? He was a natural, right? Better than I ever could be. I couldn’t get him off the crate behind the counter. He had if off perfect, even added a twist or two of his own. By the end of the day he’d sold every Shammy I’d brought with me. Had an empty van going home. Right?

Of course not. You drank the Kool-Aid. You swallowed the pill, didn’t ya? You’d love to believe that shit. No he was terrible. Horrible. No confidence. Couldn’t even fake it. Bunch of shitty little snobs at the RHS in Cardiff laughing in his face. Shammy’s dripping water, he’s mumbling. Didn’t make it halfway through the set. Didn’t see him for the rest of the day. Went to study the begonias.

But I put a rule in. We don’t talk, but I told him a rule, when we’d finished packing up. He does one a day, he gives it a lash, otherwise he doesn’t come with me anymore. I sang it for him, Give it a lash, Jack, give it a lash, Jack, never, never, never say no. Must have been too young for Italia ’90. How fricking old does that make me? And now he’s learning. He’s not enjoying it. It’s not as easy as you think it is. But he’s selling Shammies.

You know something? Thinking about it now, his first sale makes me well up. No word of a lie. Some gaga old lady going through the motions. Had no idea what she was buying, she just managed to cotton on to the fact that he was selling. Shuffled up and handed him two tenners. And the kid – John Joseph, that’s his name, so good they named him twice, right? – didn’t smile. He just looked up to where he knew I was standing, he just checked that I’d seen.

I’m full out weeping thinking about it, I don’t know why. There’s something wrong with me. I’ll cry for no reason at all some days. I was watching, of course I was, I never take my eye off him. I gave him the two enthusiastic thumbs up, hustled over for a high five. The two tens are on the counter. One for me, one for you I told him.

He didn’t want to go again straight away. He knew the old lady was batshit crazy, didn’t want to jinx it. But the next time we were out he improved. The penny had finally dropped right. He ate a big thing of cotton candy and bought himself a burger and fries. Didn’t have to share the sandwiches from out of my grub box that day.

He sleeps up in the cab when we don’t make it back to Tallaght, or we’re going from one show straight to another. I brought him my old sleeping bag and he stretches out on the seats. I sleep in the back. I keep my notes in a fanny pack round my waist, tucked under the belly a little bit.

I don’t think he wants to steal from me but I don’t want opportunity to knock. My grandfather was a mechanic in the Soo. Trust everyone, but always cut the deck. Dying words. Have to mean something. John Joseph’s not stupid enough to pass up a bag of cash. And that would be the last I’d see of either of them. I’d miss the cash more than him, let’s not make a mistake there either.

I keep waiting for him to tell me his story, I’ve told him mine. Staring out at the road makes you talkative after a while. But he just watches the tarmac unwind. I know he listens because he’s still when I talk, like he’s frozen. He fidgets around a bit in the silence. I guess I’ll be waiting another while yet. I’m in no hurry. He likes spitting off the deck of the ferry when we go to Holyhead. Doesn’t sit down for more than ten minutes. Explores every inch of the ferry. Then goes and hocks a few off the side. It’s a big grey sea.

Takes me round about ten minutes, arsehole to beak, done and dusted in ten. The patter doesn’t take more than three, but the crowd have got to gather. That takes a few minutes and at the end I have to push the Shammies. Doesn’t take too long, but some people want to chat, you have to hand out change, keep the up buzz going, so you can roll right around and go again.

It is the song that never ends: yes it goes on and on my friend, some people started singing it not knowing what it was, and they’ll go on a-singing it if only just because. . . it is the song that never ends: you know the rest.

Want to see the most absorbent material on the planet? Doesn’t look like much, this peach rectangle. Come and hold it if you want to. Don’t be shy, no one ever went no place being shy. Just to be clear, this gentleman here didn’t hear me a second ago. The single most absorbent material on the planet. I’ll give you one fact about it, before I tell you some more. It’s machine washable. Imagine that. The most absorbent material on earth, NASA use it, industry professionals won’t touch anything else, you see the Olympic Games? The German swimmers, what are they using for towels? This stuff. And when you’re done just throw it in the machine, let it dry on the line.

John Joseph really struggles at this bit. Once you have your crowd, your gaggle, you can start on the script proper. Yeah, I know, it’s a script, I learnt it same as everyone else. I have it honed, streamlined. I’ve made a few changes over the years. I like to think I’ve improved on it. Uncle Bill used to be Uncle Arthur, but I thought Bill was better. You might have a bit of respect for Uncle Arthur. You might not want to see him too drunk to stand up straight. But Uncle Bill, he’s a complete dickhead, we’ve got zero compassion for Bill.

Just to be clear, this gentleman here didn’t hear me a second ago. The single most absorbent material on the planet.

But generally I stick to the script. The proven formula. I used to try and make it a bit more local. Call Uncle Bill Uncle Shamus, for instance, try and make a better connection. But I learnt. Experience taught me. Stick to the script, people want a fairyland where they have an idiot Uncle Bill. They don’t like Uncle Shamus, they don’t like thinking about the fact that he exists. Bill is safe. Uncle Bill sups the whisky and Aunt Mary stirs the fudge.

But the start: you have your information, your astronauts, your Olympic swimmers but you have to improvise. And you have to be stoked; if you aren’t enthusiastic it won’t work. I know, I don’t have to tell you that. Try telling John Joseph though. It’s like talking to a brick wall.

How about those sweaters that can’t go in the tumble dryer? You know the ones taking up space in the hot press for days, turning it into a steam room, coming out covered in mushrooms? Or hogging the banisters on the landing for a week, always damp under the armpits? Take that jumper, roll it up in the Shammy. Fifteen minutes later it’s ready to wear.

Spills and thrills. Life on the road. It’s calm, the fast lane, sizing up the man in front, watching, slowly gaining, overtaking. Soon as you’ve done one, there’s another one ahead. You get grubby after a while though. I like to be clean, I don’t like hacking at my face in the back of the van, peering at the little mirror I fixed up on the ply. I like a long shower, shave my pubes off, baby powder my balls, get right into it. Wet shave my bald fuck head so it gleams.

The Cheese Mill dude: he won’t handle it for long. It’s not the fact that he smokes, I used to smoke, packed them up years ago. Not much good to the kids dead. I don’t have a problem with that. It’s the way he sucks on those darts, like they’re the only thing that mean anything. He stands out in the middle of the crowd, lets the people swirl about him and he smokes his fag. Doesn’t look at anything or anyone, just stares at his dart, closes his eyes when he sucks on it.

He does five rounds with the Cheese Mill, then he allows himself a smoke. And all the time he’s just waiting for that smoke. He’s pushing his Cheese Mill, showing what it can do to onions, peanut M&Ms, even a boiled egg, but he’s flat, he’s tired; he hates it. He’s a professional, he still manages to push those Mills, but he won’t last. You gotta love it.

I do ten minutes. The song that never ends. I do ten minutes then I roll over and I do ten more. Busy show, people start coming around at nine, I’ll be full flow from ten and go on until six – later if they let me. When do I piss, when do I eat? If it’s a busy day I don’t. No word of a lie. Eight hours, six goes an hour. Do the math.

And I believe it every time. Average ten people in the queue. Do the math. One hour is six. Eight sixes, forty-eight. Ten twenties, two hundred. Forty-eight two hundreds. Nineteen thousand two hundred. That pretty seldom happens, I’ll tell you. Kind of crowds you get at the Ploughing Festival. A rarity. I’ll tell you something else though: some days I’ve done better.

Let’s not get too excited, you have your expenses. I can start adding them all up for you: cost of the Shammies, gas, public liability, pitch. But I’m not going to put a downer on things. Most of the other traders will go to a B&B, tea- and coffee-making facilities and a bed being essential. Full Irish in the morning. I couldn’t sleep the other night. Did my calculations, I’ve put over five grand extra in the credit union this year just sleeping in the back of the van. I make money when I sleep. You do that? One night in the sleeping bag and in twenty years time my little girl can go get a haircut if she needs to cheer herself up. Another night and my boy can stand his round at the bar.

Who wants a free one? You, madam? Give the lady a cheer, she’s brave enough to put her hand up. I’ll show you what I’m going to do. Here’s what I’m going to give you for free. Here’s a Shammy, keep this in your vehicle, line the floor with it. Here’s another, cut it into quarters, never use a kitchen towel again. And today I’m feeling really generous, so here’s a third one. Keep it for those jumpers, or those big disaster spills. He’s your big gun. Fold him up and save him for when things really get going. Next free thing – I haven’t finished giving things away – the instructions sheet: how to look after Shammy, in case you’ve forgotten anything I’ve told you here today. Now watch, I roll them all up together. Last free thing: the rubber band. It’s important. Keep ahold of that. You’ll need that to go around the big wad of cash you’re going to save from never having to buy another paper towel as long as you live.

Here it is. I slap my roll down on the counter. Free. I got a stack of them within reach. I slap the second one down beside the first. Another roll of three, €20. Hold them up, one then the other. You buy this one, you get this one completely free with it.

Of course Madam I’ll-Have-Something-for-Free is already at the counter. Sometimes she’s plain got her hand held out. Often they’ll run for it, sometimes they’ll even want to argue their case. How are they going to win an argument they’ve only had once and I’ve had gazillion times? They want one for free. They can have one but they have to buy one first, I can’t just give them away. On what planet do people go around throwing out free things? Even aliens have children to feed.

But more than likely, they’re buying. They’re reasonable, they wanted one. They’re getting three for free, it’s only fair that they contribute. There’s a logic to it that most people won’t refuse. Fair is fair. They’re embarrassed about trying to cheat the system. And once one has sold, watch the line form up, and the more people buying, the more people want to buy. It’s logical. It’s sensible. These people are all getting Shammies, do I want to be the only muggins going home without one? Tell you something special. Often people will join the queue who weren’t even in the crowd. Isn’t that neat? They’ll be buying two rolls of Shammies, not even sure what they are. No one wants to miss out.

What do I do in my down time, what about when there’s no shows to go to? That’s what everyone’s interested in – Shammy guy can’t work all the time. I sleep. I don’t sleep much, I’m on the road. I sleep in the van, and you don’t really go for more than five hours in the back of the van. I’ve got to be up early. The first to arrive, last to leave. I’m the early bird and the night owl. Everyone else will be packed up, trying to get the vans in, trying to get the vans out. I’ll be selling Shammies to the stragglers.

I’ll do fifteen last runs for the evening. Fifteen last chances to hear me out. Fifteen times you might never see me again. Fifteen opportunities. Even if I can’t get a crowd together, the batteries on the headset are gone and John Joseph’s not around to run for the spares, and I’m just hollering into the dusk, hoarse as a bullfrog. Even if I have just one more sale. That’s another €20 in the pot, £20 if I’m in England. Limey tax. Some folks call me greedy, Cheese Mill dude can’t get his head around it. But everyone knows I work harder than them. They’ll make their smart remarks, but I’m there before them and I’ll be gone long after them. Anyway, what am I hurrying home for right? I got my debts, and that’s 10 each in the credit union.

Jack Reacher’s my companion at the moment, he’s a lot rougher than the westerns I used to read. But he kicks ass. I don’t read for too long, kills the battery in the van. Couple of chapters and I’m out like a light. Or in the dawn, when I’m up and ready to go, chewing on a farl in the parking lot of the Sportman’s Inn, looking at the sad stretch of the R132, but the world’s not ready for me yet. I’ll escape, go gallivanting with one badass or another, sort some shit out. I escape, that’s the only thing to do when you can’t sleep and there’s no work to be done. What do you want me to do otherwise? Listen to John Joseph snoring on the other side of the partition? Listen to the hum from a pylon in a field by a lay-by. You want me to let the tears roll down my cheeks?

Sean Farrell lives in Burgundy, France with his partner and their three sons.

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