Blesok no. 58, January-February, 2008
From “Fourfront – Contemporary stories translated from the Irish”
Micheál Ó Conghaile
How was I supposed to know what to do – once I'd told him? I'd never seen my da crying before. Even when mum died nine months ago in the accident, he never cried as far as I know. I'm sure of it because it was I brought him the bad news. And I was around the whole time up to and after the funeral. It was my job to stay with him. His brother; and my mother's brothers – my uncles – made all the arrangements, shouldered the coffin. And it was the neighbours, instructed by my sisters, who kept the house in some order. There was a sort of an understanding – unspoken, mind you – that it was best I stay with dad since I was the youngest, the only one still at home all year round.
That's how I'm nearly sure he didn't shed a tear. Not in the daylight hours anyway. He didn't need his hanky even. Sure, he was all over the place, you could hardly get a word out of him. Long silences would go by and he just stared into the fire or out the kitchen window. But no tears. Maybe it was the shock. The terrible shock to his system. But then again, you wouldn't really associate tears or crying with my father.
That's why I was so taken aback. Mortified. Not just the crying. But the way he cried. In fact, you couldn't really call it crying – it was more like something between a groan and a sob stuck in his throat. Yes, a muffled, pained sigh of revulsion a few seconds long. You'd've thought he choked on it like one of those horrible pills the doctor gives you. And he didn't even look at me, except for a stray watery glance that skirred by when I told him; afterwards, it was like he was trying to hide his face from me, half of it anyway. It should've been easier for him in a way but not for me, there was no way I could look him in the face, for all my curiosity. So, while he dithered about, I sat there like a statue – only for my body-heat. The breath was knocked out of him; and me. Then I realized that even his smothered cry – if it could be let out – was better than this silence. Maybe you could do something about the cry, if it happened. A deadly silence was unworkable, impossible, as long drawn-out and painful as a judgment. I felt all the time that he wasn't looking anywhere near me, even when he got his breath back and some speech.
“And you…” he said, as if the word stuck or swelled up in his throat until he didn't know if it was safe to release it or rather he hoped, perhaps, that I would say it – the word that had popped in his ears just now, a word he was never likely to form in his rural throat unless it was spat out in some smutty joke for the lads down the pub. A word there wasn't even a word for in Irish, not easy to find anyway … I forgot I hadn't answered him, carried away trying to read his mind when suddenly he repeated:
“Are you telling me you're …”
“Yes,” I said, half-consciously interrupting him with the same reticence, unsure whether he was going to finish his sentence this time, or not.
“I am,” I said again quickly, uncontrollably, trying for a moment to make up for the empty silence.
“God save us,” he said. “God save us,” he said again as if he had to drag the words individually all the way from Mexico. It seemed to me he wanted to say more, anything, an answer or just some ready-made platitude, a string of words to pluck from the silence.
“Do you see that now?” he complained, taking a deep sniff of the kitchen air and blowing it out again with force. “Do you see that now?”
He grabbed the coal-bucket and opened the range to top up the fire. Then he lifted a couple of bits of turf out of the 10-10-20 plastic bag beside the range and – breaking the last two bits in half over his knee to build up his corner of the crammed space of the open range – shoved it on top. The coal was too hot – and too dear, he'd say – plus it was hard to burn the turf sometimes, or get much heat out of it, especially if it was still a bit soggy after a bad summer … He took the handbrush off the hook and swept any powdery bits of turf on the range into the fire. He slid the curly iron frame back into place with a clatter and took another deep breath, focusing on the range.
“And have you told your sisters about this?”
“Yes. When they were home this summer; the night before they went back to England.”
He stopped a moment, still half-stooped over the range. He opened his mouth, then closed it again, making no sound, like a goldfish in a bowl. He tried again and, still choked with emotion, managed a broken sentence:
“And your mother – did she know?”
“Dunno,” I said. “Mothers know a lot more than they get told.”
“They do, they do. God rest them.” He blessed himself, awkwardly. “But fathers know nothing. Nothing until it's spelt out for them.”
He was standing at the table filling an already full kettle with well-water from the bucket. He placed it on the range again as if he was making tea the way he did after milking-time. He always made tea with well-water, boiling it in the old kettle instead of using tap-water and the electric kettle unless it was early in the morning when he'd no time. It would save on the electric, he said. Even mum couldn't get him to change. She wanted rid of the range altogether since the electric cooker was more consistent, more dependable for everything – dinners, cooking, boiling, baking, heating milk for the calves… There's always the chance of a power-cut, he'd say whenever there was a storm or thunder. If the electric runs out, it'll come in handy. And any time it happened, he'd turn to us, delighted, and say: “Aren't you glad now of the old range?”
He lifted the poker. Opened the top door of the range. Plunged it in to stir up the fire, trying to draw some flames from the depths. When the embers didn't respond very well, he turned the knob at the top of the range somewhat clumsily, making the chimney suck up the flame. He poked the fire another couple of times, a bit deeper, trying to let the air through. Soon there were flames dancing, blue and red, licking the dark sods and fizzing and flitting over the hard coal, shyly at first but growing in courage and strength. He closed the door with a deep thud, turning the knob firmly with his left hand, and put the poker back in the corner.
“And what about Síle Jimí Beag?” he asked suddenly, as if surprised he hadn't asked about her earlier. “Weren't you going out with her a few years ago?” he said, a hint of hope rising in his voice.
“Yes … in a way,” I stammered. I knew that was no answer but it was the best I could do just then.
“In a way,” he repeated. “What do you mean? You were or you weren't. Wasn't she coming here for a year and God knows how long before that? Didn't she leave Tomáisín Tom Mhary for you?” He stared at the bars over the range.
”But I was only … only eighteen back then,” I said, changing my mind. “Nobody knows what they want at that age, or where they're going,” I added.
“But they do at twenty-two, it seems! They think they know it all at twenty-two.”
“It's not that simple, really,” I said, surprising myself at going so far.
“Oh, sure, it's not simple. It's anything but!”
He pushed the kettle aside and opened the top of the range again as if he was checking to see the fire was still lit. It was.
“I went out with her, because I didn't know – I didn't know what to do, because all the other lads had a girl…”
“Oh, you were …”
“I asked her in the first place because I had to take somebody to the school formal. Everyone was taking some girl or other. I couldn't go alone. And it would've been odd to take Máirín or Eilín. They wouldn't have gone anyway. I couldn't stay at home because I'd've been the only one in my class not there. What else could I do?” I said, amazed I'd managed to get that much out.
“How do I know what you should've done? Couldn't you just be like everyone else … that, that or stay home?” There was something about the way he said “home”.
“I couldn't,” I said, “not forever … It's not that I didn't try …” I thought it best to go no further, afraid he wouldn't understand.
“So that's what brings you up to Dublin so much,” he said, glad to have worked that much out for himself.
“Yes. Yes, I suppose.” What else could I say, I thought.
“And we were all convinced you had a woman up there. People asking me if we'd met her yet… or when we'd get to see her. Aunty Nora asking just the other day when we'd have the next wedding … thinking a year after your mother's death would be OK.”
“Aunty Nóra doesn't have to worry about me. It's as well she didn't get married herself anyway,” I said, scunnered as soon as I'd said it at the suggestion I was making.
“Up to Dublin! Huh.” He spoke to himself. “Dublin's quare and dangerous,” he added, in a way that didn't require an answer.
He turned around, his back to the range. Clambered over to the kitchen table. Tilted the milk-cooler with his two hands to pour a drop of it into the jug till it was near overflowing. I was glad he never spilt any on the table, ready to clean it up if I had to. I felt awkward and ashamed sitting there watching him do this – my job usually. He poured the extra milk that wouldn't fit in the jug into the saucepan the calves used and set it on the side of the range to heat it up until the cows were milked; after that he'd see to the calves. He lifted the enamel milk-bucket that was always set on the table-rails once it was cleaned every morning after the milking. Then he gave it a good scalding with hot water from the kettle – water boiled stupid that had the kettle singing earlier. He set down the kettle, with its mouth turned in, back on the side of the range so that it wouldn't boil over with the heat. He swirled the scalding water around the bottom of the bucket and then emptied it in one go into the calves' saucepan. He stretched over a bit to grab the dishcloth off the rack above the range. Dried the bucket. Hung it up again rather carelessly, watching to see it didn't roll down on top of the range. It didn't.
All at once, he straightened up as if a thought had suddenly struck him. He turned round to me. Looked for a second as our eyes met and went over each other. The look he gave was different from the first -that soft sudden glance he gave me when I first told him. I noticed the wrinkles across his forehead, some curled, some squared off, the short grey hair pulled down in a fringe, the eyebrows: the eyes. What eyes! It was those eyes drove out of me whatever dream was going through my head just then. Those eyes caught me out all right. Those eyes that could say so much without him even having to open his mouth. I understood then that the only way to look at a man was right in the eyes, even if it was a casual side-glance, on the sly… I looked away, couldn't take any more, grateful that he took it upon himself to speak. He had the bucket tucked up under his armpit the way he did when he was going out milking.
“And what about your health?” he managed to say, nervously. “Is your health OK?”
“Oh, I'm fine, just fine,” I replied quick as I could, more than glad to be able to give such a clear answer. I started tapping my fingers. Then it struck me just what he was asking.
“God preserve us from the like of that,” he said over his shoulder to me, on his way to the door. You could tell he was relieved.
“You don't have to worry,” I said, trying to build his trust, having got that far. “I'm careful. Very careful. Always.”
“Can you be a hundred per cent careful?” he added curiously, his voice more normal. “I mean if half what's in the Sunday papers and the week's TV is true.”
I let him talk away, realizing he probably knew much more than I thought. Wasn't the TV always turned towards him, with all sorts of talk going on in some of the programmes while he sat there in the big chair with his eyes closed, dozing by the fire it seemed but probably taking it all in.
He took his coat down off the back of the door, set it over the chair.
“And did you have to tell me all this at my age?”
“Yes and no.” I'd said it before I realized, but I continued: “Well, I'm not saying I had to, but I was afraid you'd hear it from someone else, afraid someone'd say something about me with you there.” I thought I was getting through. “I thought you should know anyway; I thought you were ready.”
“Ready! I'm ready now all right… And are you telling me people round here know?” he said, disgusted.
“Yes, as it happens. You can't hide anything… especially in a remote place like this.”
”And you think you can stay around here?” he exclaimed in what sounded to me like horror. His words hit home so quick I didn't know whether they were meant as a statement or a question. Did they require an answer: from me or himself, I wondered. Sure, I was intending to stay, or I should say, happy to stay. He was my father. I was the youngest, the only son. My two sisters had emigrated. It was down to me. Although my sisters had convinced me the night before they went away that there was always a place for me in London if I needed it.
Surely, he should've known I would want to stay. Who else would look out for him? Help with the few animals we had, look after the house, keep an eye on our wee bit of a farm, see he was all right, take him to Mass on Sunday, keep him company …“And you think you can stay around here,” I wondered, none the wiser, still trying to work out whether I was to take it as a question or a statement; if he expected an answer or not.
He'd dragged his Wellingtons over between the chair and the head of the table and was bent down struggling to undo the laces of his hobnailed boots. He looked different that way. If I had to go, I said to myself … If he threw me out and told me he didn't want to see me or have anything more to do with me …
Right away, I recalled some of my mates and acquaintances in Dublin. The ones that were kicked out by their families when they found out: Mark whose father called him a dirty bastard and told him not to come near the house again as long as he lived; Keith whose da gave him a bad beating when he discovered he'd a lover, and who kept him locked up at home for a month even though he was near twenty; Philip who was under so much stress he'd a nervous breakdown, who'd no option but to leave his teaching job after one of his worst pupils saw him leaving a particular Sunday-night venue and the news spread by lunch-time the following Monday. The boys called him disgusting names right to his face, never mind the unconcealed whispers behind his back. Who could blame him for leaving, even if it meant the dole and finding a new flat across town? The dole didn't even come into it for Robin … Twenty-four hours his parents gave him to clear out of the house and take all he had with him, telling him he wasn't their son, that he'd brought all this on himself, that they never wanted to see him again as long as he lived. Which they didn't. Coming home that night to find his body laid out on the bed in their room, empty pillboxes on his chest, half a glass of water under the mirror on the dressing-table, a short crumpled note telling them that his only wish was to die where he was born, that he loved them, and was sorry he hurt them but saw no other way.
The slow-rolling chimes of the clock interrupted my litany. He was still opposite me, working away trying to pull on his boots with great difficulty, his trousers rucked down his thick woollen socks. If I had to go, I thought, I'd never see my father like this again. Never. The next time I'd see him, he'd be stone-cold dead in his coffin, the three of us back together on the first plane from London after getting an urgent phone call from home telling us he was found slumped in the garden, or that they weren't sure if he fell in the fire or was dead before the fire burnt the house to the ground overnight, or maybe they'd find him half-dressed in the bedroom after some of the neighbours forced in the door, trying to work out when was the last time they saw him, no one able to work out exactly the time of death…
He'd got into his Wellingtons and stood there wrapped up in his great coat, holding his cap, about to put it on, the enamel milk-bucket under his arm.
He moved slowly, tottered, almost, over to the front door. My eyes followed his face, his side, his back, his awkward steps away from me as his last words of a moment ago went round and round in my head like an eel scooped out of a well on a hot summer day and set on a warm stone.
He paused at the door the way he always did on his way out and dunked his finger in the holy-water font hung up on the door-jamb. It was an old wooden font with the Sacred Heart on it my mother brought back from a pilgrimage to Knock the time the Pope was over. I could see him trying to bless himself, not even sure if it was the finger or thumb he'd dipped in the holy water he was using.
He placed his hand on the latch. Opened it and pulled it towards him.
He turned round and looked at me, head first, his body following slowly. He was staring right at me which stopped my mind racing and swept my thoughts back to their dark corners.
“Will you stand by the braddy* cow for me?,” he asked, “while I'm milking … she's always had a sore teat…”
* Irish bradach: thieving, trespassing
Translated by: Frank Sewell
From Four Front by Micheál Ó Conghaile, Pádraic Breathnach, Dara Ó Conaola and Alan Titley
Published by Cló Iar-Chonnachta