Saturday, 7th of June 2014
The bar of the Rainsford House Hotel Rainsford, Co. Meath, Ireland
Is it me or are the barstools in this place getting lower? Perhaps it’s the shrinking. Eighty-four years can do that to a man, that and hairy ears.
What time is it over in the States now, son? One, two? I suppose you’re stuck to that laptop, tapping away in your air-conditioned office. ’Course, you might be home on the porch, in the recliner with the wonky arm, reading your latest article in that paper you work for, what’s it . . . ? Jesus, can’t think of it now. But I can see you with those worry lines, concentrating, while Adam and Caitríona run riot trying to get your attention.
It’s quiet here. Not a sinner. Just me on my lonesome, talking to myself, drumming the life out of the bar in anticipation of the first sip. If I could get my hands on it, that is. Did I ever tell you, Kevin, that my father was a great finger tapper? Would tap away at the table, my shoulder, anything he could lay his index finger on, to force home his point and get the attention he deserved. My own knobbly one seems less talented. Can get the attention of no one. Not that there’s anyone to get the attention of, except your one out at reception. She knows I’m here alright, doing a great job ignoring me. A man could die of thirst round these parts.
They’re up to ninety getting ready for the County Sports Awards, of course. It was some coup for the likes of Rainsford wrestling that hoolie out of Duncashel with its two hotels. That was Emily, the manager, or owner, I should say, a woman well capable of sweet-talking anyone into the delights of this place. Not that I’ve experienced much of those myself over the years.
But here I sit nonetheless. I have my reasons, son, I have my reasons.
You should get a load of the enormous mirror in front of me. Massive yoke. Runs the length of the bar, up above the row of spirits. Not sure if it’s from the original house. Ten men, it must’ve taken to get that up. Shows off the couches and chairs behind me all eager for the bottoms that are at this minute squeezing into their fancy outfits. And there’s me now in the corner, like the feckin’ eejit who wouldn’t get his head out of shot. And what a head it is. It’s not often I look in the mirror these days. When your mother was alive I suppose I made a bit of an effort but sure what difference does it make now? I find it hard to look at myself. Can’t bear to see it – that edge, you know the one I mean – haven’t you been on the receiving end of it enough over the years.
Still. Clean white shirt, crisp collar, navy tie, not a gravy stain in sight. Jumper, the green one your mother bought me the Christmas before she died, suit and my shoes polished to a shine. Do people polish their shoes any more or is it just me who practises the art? Sadie’d be proud alright. A well-turned-out specimen of a man. Eighty-four and I can still boast a head of hair and a chin of stubble. Rough it feels, though – rough. I don’t know why I bother shaving every morning when by lunchtime it’s like a wire brush.
I know I wasn’t what you might call good-looking in my day, but anything I had going for me seems to have long since scarpered. My skin looks like it’s in some kind of race southward. But do you know what? I’ve still got the voice.
‘Maurice,’ your grandmother used to say, ‘you could melt icebergs with that voice of yours.’
To this day it’s like a cello – deep and smooth. Makes people pay attention. One holler to herself pretending to be busy out there at reception and she’d be in filling my glass quick smart. But I’d better not cause any more trouble than I need to. There’s a job to do later and a long night ahead.
There’s that smell again. I wish you were here, to get it: Mr Sheen. Remember that? Every Saturday, our whole house smelt of it. Your mother’s day for the dusting. The sickliness of it used to hit my nose as soon as I came through the back door. I’d be sneezing from here to kingdom come for the rest of the night. Fridays now, Fridays were floor-polishing days. The waft of wax, homemade chips and smoked cod, warming my heart and making me smile. Industry and sustenance – a winning combination. You don’t hear of people polishing floors much any more either. What’s that all about, I wonder.
At last, a body appears from the door behind the bar to put me out of my thirst-ridden misery.
‘There you are, now,’ I say to Emily, a picture of beauty and efficiency. ‘Here to save me the embarrassment of getting the drink myself? I was even contemplating going to ask Miss Helpful out there.’
‘I got here just in time, so, Mr Hannigan,’ she says, with a hint of a smile, laying down a pile of papers on the counter, checking her phone perched on top, ‘we don’t want you upsetting the staff with that charm of yours.’ Her head lifts to look at me and her eyes sparkle for a second before settling on her screen again.
‘That’s just lovely. A man comes in for a quiet drink and this is what he gets.’
‘Svetlana will be in now. We were just having a quick meeting about tonight.’
‘Well, aren’t you very Michael O’Leary.’
‘I see you’re in fine spirits,’ she says, coming to stand in front of me, giving me her full attention now. ‘I didn’t know you were coming in. To what do we owe the pleasure?’
‘I don’t always ring ahead.’
‘No, but it might be a good idea. I could put the staff on red alert.’
There it is – that smile, curling up, as delicious as a big dollop of cream on a slice of warm apple tart. And those eyes, twinkling with the curiosity.
‘A Bushmills?’ she asks, reaching for a tumbler.
‘Make it a bottle of stout, to start me off. Not from the fridge mind.’
‘To start you off?’
I ignore the worry that’s crept into her voice.
‘Would you join me for one later?’ I ask, instead.
She stops and gives me a good long stare.
‘Is everything alright?’
‘A drink, Emily, that’s all.’
‘You do know I’ve landed the County Awards?’ she says, hand on hip, ‘not to mention a mysterious VIP who’s decided to book in. Everything has to be perfect. I’ve worked too hard for this to—’
‘Emily, Emily. There’ll be no surprises tonight. I’d just like to sit and have a drink with you. No confessions this time, I promise.’
I slide a hand across the counter, my offering of reassurance. Can’t blame the distrust, given the history. I watch it steal away her smile. I’ve never fully explained all that business with the Dollards to you and your mother, have I? I suppose in part that’s what tonight is all about.
‘I doubt there’ll be a lull,’ she says, standing in front of me now, still giving me the suspicious eye, ‘I’ll try to get back up to you, though.’
She bends slightly and takes a bottle of the good stuff with her expert hand from the fully stocked shelf below – one can’t but admire the neat order of the bottles, their harped labels all turned proudly outwards. Emily’s handiwork. She runs a well-ordered show.
A slip of a young thing arrives through the door to join her.
‘Great,’ Emily says to her. ‘The place is all yours. Here, give this to Mr Hannigan there before he passes out. And you,’ she continues, pointing one of her lovely long nails at me, ‘be nice. Svetlana’s new.’ With that warning she picks up her load and disappears.
Svetlana takes the bottle, locates the opener under the bar with a little assistance from my pointing finger, lays the drink and a glass before me then scurries to the far corner. I pour a bit until the creamy head hits the top of the tilted edge and then I let it settle. I look around and consider this day of mine, this year, these two years in fact, without your mother and I feel tired and, if I’m honest, afraid. My hand passes over the stubble on my chin again as I watch the cream float up. Then I cough and grunt my worries out of me, there’s no going back now, son. No going back.
To my left, through the long windows that reach the floor, I watch the cars go by. I recognise one or two: Audi A8, that would be Brennan from Duncashel, owns the cement factory; Skoda Octavia with the missing left hub will be Mick Moran. There’s Lavin’s jalopy parked right outside his newsagents. An ancient red Ford Fiesta. Gives me the greatest pleasure to park in that spot whenever I find it vacant.
‘You can’t be parking there, Hannigan,’ he’d shout, hanging out his driver’s window once he’d arrived back from wherever he’d been. ‘I can’t be expected to be lugging the deliveries up and down the town now, can I?’ His head’d be bobbing madly with that mop of wild hair, his car double parked, holding up the town. ‘Do you not see the sign? No parking, day or night.’
’Course, I’d be leaning against his wall, reading the paper.
‘Hold on to your tights there, Lavin,’ I’d say, giving the paper a good rustling, ‘it was an emergency.’
‘Is getting the morning paper considered an emergency now?’
‘I can always bring my business elsewhere.’
‘Oh, that you would, Hannigan. Oh, that you would.’
‘The newsagents in Duncashel has a coffee machine now, I hear.’
‘You can move your feckin’ Jeep on your way over so.’
‘Not one for the coffee me,’ I say, clicking open my door before getting in and sticking her into reverse.
It’s the simple things, son, the simple things.
It’s the end of the shopper’s shift it seems. Hands wave, horns beep. Driver windows are down with elbows sticking out, having the final chat before heading home with full boots to a night in front of the telly. Some of them might be back out later, of course, transformed into shiny things. Eager to show off the new outfits and hairdos.
I raise the glass and pour again until it’s full, ready for its final rest. My fingers, with their dark, crust-filled crevices, tap the side, to encourage it on. I take one last look in the mirror, raise my drink to himself there and swallow down the blessed first sip.
You can’t beat the creamy depth of a glass of stout. Giving sustenance to the body and massaging the vocal cords on its way down. That’s another thing about my voice, it makes me come across as younger. Oh, yes, if I’m on the blower it doesn’t let on that I host a hundred haggard wrinkles, or dentures that have a mind of their own. It pretends I’m a fine thing, distinguished and handsome. A man to be reckoned with. On that, it’s not wrong. Don’t know where I got it from – the only one in the family blessed with the gift. It was how I drew them in, those out-of-town estate agents; not that they needed much convincing, what with our farm being on the royal side of the Meath–Dublin border, the envy of all around.
But those boys with their swanky ties and shiny shoes couldn’t get enough of the place when I told them how far and wide she ran; nodding their heads, like those dogs in the back of people’s cars. Rest assured, I put them through their paces. Let no man try to take my money without earning every brass farthing. Walked the length and breadth of my land until they couldn’t see the colour of their shoes. All of them as eager as the next to get the business. No flies on them cowsheds, as my father would have said. I chose one in the end to sell my little empire to the highest bidder, Anthony Farrell. Had to be him – not because he impressed me with his patter, one was no different from the other in that respect. Nor was it the canny curve of his lip; it was simply that he shared your Uncle Tony’s name. Seventy years dead and I still idolise the man. Young Anthony proved me right in my choice, not stopping ’til he’d the house and business sold for a hefty sum. I closed her up last night, the house.
I’ve been packing up each room over the last year. A bit every day. I named each box so you’ll know what’s what: Maurice, Sadie, Kevin, Noreen, Molly – hers was the smallest. All that loading and lugging nearly killed me, though. Only for the young lads Anthony sent over, I’d never have managed. Their names won’t come to me now, Derek or Des, or . . . sure what does it matter? Mostly, I pretended to help; more the director of operations. They were well capable; you don’t expect that of youngsters too often these days.
I kept the essentials out ’til this morning when Anthony took the last box in his car. It felt strange, Kevin, letting it all go. The smallness of that final box sitting in his passenger seat caught me. Not that there was anything precious in it, just the kettle, the radio, my few bits of clothes, shaving gear, you get the picture. I threw out what was left in the skip I hired. The Meath Chronicles were the last to get chucked. Never without the Meath Chronicle for the local mart news and the GAA results, even though I’d have watched the games on the Sunday. It was the local and county matches that interested me most. I must’ve had six months’ worth of the thing piled up beside me on the sofa, in one big cascading mess by the end. Of course, when Sadie was around I’d have never gotten away with that. But, if I positioned them right, you see, they kept my tea at the perfect height. No sudden movements mind, not that there was any fear of that, I’m not as nimble getting off the couch these days.
Anthony is to store the boxes some place off near his office. Our lives in Dublin now – hard to believe. The important leftovers I have with me. In my inner breast pocket there’s my wallet, a pen and some paper for the few notes, given my increasing forgetfulness. In the outer ones I have the hotel room key, weighty and solid; my father’s brown and black pipe, never smoked by me but worn shiny and smooth from my thumb’s persistent rubbing; a couple of pictures; a handful of receipts; my glasses; your mother’s purse for her hairpins; my phone; and a couple of rubber bands, paper clips and safety pins – well, you never know when you might need them. And of course there’s your whiskey, out of sight, wrapped up in the Dunnes Stores bag at my feet.
You’ll be wondering about Gearstick, the dog. Bess, the cleaner, took him. Adam and Caitríona might be a bit upset by that. I know they loved playing with him on the trips home. Them with their leashes and him never been near one before in his life. Still he took it gracefully and walked under their guidance for the week or so you’d be around. A gentler soul, you wouldn’t find anywhere.
Do you remember your mother when I got him first? But sure you were long gone by then. She was all: ‘You can’t be calling the poor wee thing Gearstick,’ and him after chewing the gearstick in the car all the way home.
And I said:
‘Sure what does he care?’
That was the first and only time he was ever in the house. Of recent months I’ve left the back door open, trying to coax him in. He’d reluctantly step over the threshold into the back hall, poking his head around the kitchen door but only to let me know he was there. Panting, he’d wait in expectation of some outing or other. No amount of cajoling with a bit of Carroll’s sliced ham or even the fat of a rasher could bring him any further. I’d have been happy for him to sit with me as I watched the telly or even to just lie under the table when I was having dinner. But there was no budging him. I suppose I’ve not been afraid to raise a stick to him over the years so he wasn’t going to risk it. In the end, he just lay down and slept on the muddied mat, drifting off listening to the muffled sounds of my life.
The day Bess came for him, she brought the whole family, husband and three children. All stood around smiling at each other, me doing my best impression of one, nodding and pretending we knew what the other was saying. They’re from the Philippines; at least I think so, somewhere out foreign anyhow. The children bounded up and down the yard with Gearstick for a bit. He obliged, jumping and skitting alongside.
‘What he eat?’ Bess asked.
‘Anything you have leftover.’
‘You feed him dinner?’
‘What’s left, you know. A bit of bread soaked in milk, even.’
She looked at me, her brow contorting like I’d just farted. I could feel the will seep out of me.
‘Anything, sure. Feed him anything.’ I’d had enough. I stroked Gearstick’s ear and watched his head tilt and his eyes close one last time.
‘Good man. Go on now,’ I said, pushing him towards her but he wouldn’t budge. I patted his silky head then held my hand under his chin as he looked up, panting and eager, his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth. Everyone flashed before me in that moment: you, Adam, Caitríona, Sadie. Tiny snippets of the memories you’d spent with him. And I saw me too – him at my heel as we walked my fields over these past years. And I nearly said no. Nearly told Bess to turn her car around and leave us be. My eyes pleaded with Gearstick not to make this any harder but every time I inched away, he followed. What did I expect of that loyal soul, that he would just abandon me, like I was doing to him? My treason was a lump caught in my throat, refusing to be swallowed or grunted away. In the end, I could do nothing more than walk into the house and close the door. I leaned with my back against it, knowing that Gearstick was on the other side, looking up, watching and waiting for the handle to turn. I made myself move on through to the kitchen, refusing the temptation to look out the window as I heard the commotion of them trying to get him into their hatchback. Instead I kept on moving, mumbling away, trying to block out the weight of another ending, another loss in this worn-out life of mine.
I never asked where they live. Up in the city is all I know. In a walled back garden possibly, or worse, an apartment. I’m not sure Bess knows quite what she’s letting herself in for with a working dog like that. It was her or the pound; maybe that would’ve been kinder. I know I could’ve given him to any of the boys around here. They’d have been glad of a dog as good as him, but then they’d have known, wouldn’t they, that something was up. When Bess eventually drove away, I sat in the sitting room and closed my eyes, listening to the engine recede into the distance, imagining Gearstick’s confusion. I ran a hand over my face, my mouth opening wide, warning away the burn in my eyes.
’Course, this is the first you’re hearing of it all – the sale of the house, the land, the lot. I just, well . . . I just couldn’t run the risk of you stopping me. I couldn’t let that happen, son.
Svetlana’s inspecting the bar. Looking at the bottles one by one, checking the fridges, her finger touching labels as her hand passes over each brand. Her head nods and her lips read silently, memorising. Every now and again her eyes land on mine as she looks out at the room. She gives me a tight-lipped smile and I raise my glass a notch in her direction. Out she goes from behind the bar with a cloth to each table and dusts it down again. Can she not smell the Mr Sheen? Through the mirror I can see her hands make circular movements shining the already shined. She moves stools centimetres one way then back again. A real worker-bee, this one.
After Anthony left this morning I headed for Robert Timoney’s office. I’ve always said he’s a solicitor a man can trust. Not one for sitting at the bar spreading rumours. Every inch his father. Robert Senior knew a man’s business was no one’s but his own. Not that I’ve let him in on everything. Anthony sorted a solicitor in Dublin so I wouldn’t have to use Robert this time, didn’t want him getting suspicious over the house sale and lifting the phone to you. Up to now, all I’ve asked him to do is to sort the hotel room.
‘Is he around?’ I asked his receptionist when I arrived into his offices earlier. She’s a Heaney. You know her; you used to pal with the brother, Donal.
‘He shouldn’t be too long. You can take a seat there.’
I looked at the row of four black-cushioned seats, sitting right in the window, overlooking main street.
‘And have the world know my business? I’ll be in his office.’ I was already mounting the stairs.
‘That’s a private area, Mr Hannigan!’ she said, following me, her step echoing mine. Narrow stairs, no room for overtaking, I kept a steady, calm pace.
‘It’s locked,’ she added, at the top, all smug like.
‘No bother.’ My hand reached up over the door frame, finding the key and showing her. ‘All sorted,’ I said. Her indignant face disappeared from view as I shut the door and gave her my biggest smile.
‘That’s breaking and entering, you know. I’m calling the guards,’ she shouted through the door.
‘Super,’ I replied, from Robert’s chair, ‘I’ve a bit of business with Higgins, we can kill two birds with one stone.’
When she added nothing further, I tilted my head back and fell into a welcome doze as I listened to her thudding down the stairs.
‘Glad to see you’re making yourself at home, Maurice,’ Robert said, coming through the door not five minutes later, smirking, reaching for my hand. ‘’Course it’ll take me all day to pacify Linda.’
I’m sure, young Linda’s at home right now telling the same story to her father over the dinner. Him loving the roasting she’ll be giving me.
‘Robert, good to see you.’
I rose and began to round the table to the not so comfy chair.
‘No, sit, sit,’ he replied, taking the cheaper model. ‘True to your word, what? Not a day late. I’ve the key, here.’
He laid his briefcase down on the table, opened it and handed over a good old-fashioned weighty key that I put in my pocket.
‘Do they know it’s me that wants the room?’
‘A VIP, I said – “he’ll take nothing less than the honeymoon suite”,’ he laughed. ‘Emily tried everything to get it out of me.’
‘Good, that’s good. Listen, Robert,’ I said, a little more hesitantly than is my usual style, ‘I, eh, I’m moving into a nursing home over Kilboy way. I’ve sold the place and the farm to cover the costs. Kevin’s helped me. Found a buyer over in the States.’
You’ll forgive me, son, for including you in my deception.
‘What?’ he asked, his voice hitting a pitch that I’m sure only dogs could hear. ‘And when did all this happen?’
‘Kevin talked to me about it when he was over last. I thought nothing of it, thought he might forget the whole thing, if I’m being honest, but then out of the blue, about six months ago he calls me saying he’s found a buyer. Some Yank who wants a taste of home. And here I am now, the bank account bulging and my bags packed. I’m surprised he’s not called you. He said he would; mind you, he’s been up to his eyes with the newspaper, something to do with Obamacare. He will though.’
‘Well, now,’ Robert answered, looking at me a little put out that we never used him. ‘None of my business, I suppose, once all’s legal and above board and no one’s going to scam you.’
‘No. It’s all signed, sealed and delivered.’
‘I’d never have taken you for a nursing home man, Maurice,’ he said, not letting me off the hook that quickly. ‘I’m not. Just couldn’t take Kevin’s nagging any more. An easy life, that’s all I want now. It’s hard enough with Sadie gone.’ Tug at the heartstrings, son, works every time. ‘Of course, of course. It can’t be easy, Maurice. How long is she eh . . . gone, now?’
‘Two years to the day.’
‘Is that right?’ he said, looking genuinely concerned. ‘It doesn’t seem that long.’
‘It feels like a lifetime to me.’
His eyes moved away from mine as he started up his laptop.
‘’Course, I’m all for nursing homes,’ he said. ‘Book me in, I told Yvonne. Frankly, I can’t wait to be pampered.’
A man can say that at forty years of age, having the comfort of a wife and two kids at home.
‘So the honeymoon suite is your final farewell to Rainsford. Is that what the hotel and the room is all about?’
‘You could say that,’ I replied, taking a good look at the hotel, sitting across the road in all its sunbathed glory.
You know, I first came to work here in 1940 before there was any talk of it being a hotel. It was still the Dollard family home then. It was odd looking, they say, for what was a Big House in the country. The front door opening right on to the main street of the village, like you might see in a square in Dublin. The original owners must have liked the idea of having a village there to serve them, literally, right on their doorstep. No big gate, no long driveway – that was all to the back. Rows of trees, like stage curtains, ran out to the sides of the front of the house, marking the border of their land that stretched long and wide far out to the rear. Most of those trees are gone now, and the main street has extended to run round the hotel on the right, with a row of shops on the left. Any of the land not bought by the council for the town’s expansion is still there, but it’s not theirs any more, as we well know.
I was just a boy of ten, when I started to work as a farm labourer on the estate. Our land, my father’s land, I should say, what little of it there was then, backed on to theirs. My time under their employment wasn’t the happiest. So bad, that six years later when I left, I vowed never to darken their door again and wouldn’t have, had you and Rosaleen not been set on having your wedding here. Never understood your obsession, or Sadie’s for that matter. She was worse, going on and on about how magnificent it was and how luxurious the rooms were. Had me driven demented, with her gushing over the honeymoon suite. I thought the woman was going to have an attack of some description the day of the wedding fair. Of course, it could all have been an act, compensation for my lack of enthusiasm. I’m not one for pretending.
‘The original owner’s master bedroom, Amelia and Hugh Dollard, before the conversion,’ the function manager said, beaming away like this was somehow astounding.
That’s when I left you to it, heading straight for the bar. Sat at this exact spot and downed a whiskey, a toast to its demise. Don’t know who served me back then, not this young one, that’s for sure – in she wobbles now with a pile of glasses, God knows where she’ll put them, they’re stacked high already under the counters. I was never so engrossed in a drink in all my life that day. My head thought my neck was broken as I refused to look up, to acknowledge the place, or any of them for that matter, should they have been about. There were photos on every wall, in the corridors and rooms, taunting this hulk of a man with their history.
When you all eventually joined me, I bought the round, or should I say rounds, and listened to you rave about the chandelier in the banquet room and the view from the honeymoon suite.
‘You mean the view of my land?’ I said.
By then I pretty much owned every field surrounding the hotel.
‘And isn’t that why this place is just perfect? Looking out over the splendour of our farm. Your gorgeous rolling green hills, Maurice,’ Sadie said, placing a hand on mine. I’d swear she was a bit tipsy.
The review went on for what felt like hours. And all the time, I swirled my drink and tried to drown you out. Rosaleen’s family arrived then and off you all went on the tour again. That was enough for me. I left. Drunk as a fool, I drove home to sit in the dark.
To my utter surprise, though, I enjoyed your wedding, when it finally arrived. I suppose it was seeing you so happy, and Sadie too. I felt proud watching you take to the floor with Rosaleen for the first dance. And when we all joined you, me with Rosaleen’s mother and Sadie with the father, I caught your mother’s smile and laugh as she floated past. Later in the night, she even convinced me to have another look at that honeymoon suite.
‘Isn’t it just magnificent, Maurice? What I wouldn’t have given for this when we were married. Couldn’t you just see us now, Lord and Lady Muck?’
I danced her around the bedroom, nearly crashing into the dressing table, falling on to the bed. The drink had gotten the better of us. But my kiss was one of honest sobriety. Full of the love she had unleashed in me and gone on unleashing for all our years together. Not that we were the perfect couple. But we were good, you know. Solid and steady. At least that’s how it felt for me. I never asked her, mind.
‘I’ll book us in. Someday, I promise, we’ll have the honeymoon suite just for us,’ I said, lying on the bed, looking at her. I fully believed my words. I wonder did she? And here I am now, two years too fecking late.
She died in her sleep. She always said that when it was her turn to go, she’d like it to be that way. Just like her sister before her, there had been no sign of any illness, no complaint. She’d pecked me on the cheek the previous night, before turning over with her halo of curlers tied up in my old handkerchief. The woman had dead straight hair that she wound to within an inch of its life every night. All that bother, I used to think, as I watched her from the bed and her at the dressing table – what was so wrong with those silky lengths that I only ever glimpsed for a second? But, do you know something? I’d give my last breath right now to see her at that mirror one more time. I’d watch each twist and turn of her hand with complete admiration, appreciating every stroke.
That morning, I was in the kitchen with the radio on and my shaving already done before I realised I hadn’t heard the shuffle of her slippers or her usual humming. By the time I’d put the kettle on and still hadn’t seen her, I knew something was up. And so I let the newsreader’s voice trail after me as I made my way back down the corridor. Mick Wallace and his tax evasion. The image of that man’s white, wispy hair and pink shirt froze in my brain when I stood at our door and realised she was still in the bed where I’d left her.
Mick fucking Wallace.
I touched her face and felt the coldness of her passing. My knees buckled instantly. Collapsed at the edge of our bed, I looked at her face only inches away. Contented, it was. Not a care. Still a red glow to her cheeks, or am I imagining that? My fingertips felt the softness of the lines around her eyes, then found her hand under the blankets. I held it between my own, trying to warm it. Holding it to my cheek, rubbing it. It’s not that I thought I could bring her back to life or anything, it’s just . . . I don’t know, it’s just what I did. I didn’t want her to be cold, I suppose. She hated being cold. It’s one of the only things I remember about her passing and the funeral – that quiet time with me and her alone, no one else. Don’t ask me what happened after, who came or who said what, it’s all a blur. I just sat in my chair in the sitting room, still holding her hand in my mind – my Sadie.
I phoned you, of course. At least that’s what you told me when I admitted months after I couldn’t remember. I should’ve been alright for you when you and Rosaleen and the children arrived to say your goodbyes. I remember seeing your arms rise to hug me as I stood at the front door and them falling back by your side when you saw my face. You offered me your hand, instead. You clasped mine tightly, and my eyes concentrated on the two of them locked together until you let go. You touched my shoulder then, as you moved past into the hall. I can feel it there still, the only signifier that you were more than just another acquaintance who’d come to pay his respects. The shame of it. I wish now I’d wrapped my arms around you and cried on your shoulder and given you the chance to do the same. But no, I didn’t have the room for your grief as well as my own, it seemed.
What’s more, I shouldn’t have let you go home to New Jersey fretting about me. But I couldn’t rise to it, could barely rise at all for that matter. If I managed to get out of the bed, it was just to make it to my chair in the front room. There I sat with Sadie, walking through our lives together, until a cup of tea appeared in front of me, wrenching me back to my unwanted widowerhood. And I know you wouldn’t have returned to the States so soon after only for Robert convincing you that he’d look in on me and ring at the first sign of any problem.
You all came home again the following Christmas. We were to go to your in-laws, Rosaleen’s family, for the dinner. Good people, not that I made much of an effort with them over the years. I refused to go at the last minute.
‘Too much to keep an eye on,’ I said.
I knew they were only the half hour out the road but I couldn’t leave Sadie, not the first Christmas, it didn’t feel right. So you sent Rosaleen and the children on and stayed behind with me. Can’t even remember what we ate. Soup from the press, maybe. They came back a couple of hours later with two black plastic bags full of the kids’ presents and two tin-foil-covered plates of Christmas dinner.
Did I even manage to buy the children presents that year? That had always been your mother’s department.
That was the start of it, the first of the talk about the home. Well, when I say that, I mean the first time it was ever discussed in my presence. I’m sure it had been the topic of many a conversation before it reached my ears. Sure I knew it would come. What poor widow or widower living alone out there hasn’t dreaded its arrival?
‘Would you feck off,’ I told you out straight. ‘Wouldn’t I look the right eejit sitting in playing Telly Bingo with a load of old women in cardigans rather than out tending the cattle?’
In fairness, you laughed. That big, confident laugh – perhaps there’s something of my vocal genius in you after all.
‘Alright, Dad,’ you said, laying a hand on my knee, ‘we just thought you’d be safer there.’
‘Safer? What do you mean safer?’
‘Well, you just hear stories nowadays about people, you know, coming on to your property and—’
‘Sure isn’t that what this beauty’s for?’ I said, laying a hand on my faithful Winchester.
You looked bewildered. But I wasn’t giving up my life until I was good and ready.
As hard as it might be to hear, in a way I’m glad you live as far away as you do. I couldn’t stand the constant reminder that I must be a worry. I’d say your biggest fear is that I’d end up shooting some poor unsuspecting fool of a hill walker who might stumble on to the land.
Perhaps it’s a small consolation but I hope when you’re home you see that at least I’m clean. I manage perfectly on that score. I don’t smell, not like some I could mention. Old age is no excuse for stinking to high heaven. Sparkling, that’s what I am, having a good wash every morning with the face cloth and, of course, there’s the bath once a week. I had one of those rail things put in about five years ago and now I can lower myself in and out as easy as lifting that first pint. I’m not one for showers, could never take to them. Whenever I look at one I feel cold, that’s why I refused to have one installed despite your mother’s protests.
My greatest discovery of late has to be the launderette over in Duncashel that collects my offerings and drops them back three days later. Not like the local one, you wouldn’t find her doing anything as helpful as that. Every week Pristine Pete’s gets my business, sending me back my shirts, crisper and cleaner than Sadie could ever have managed, however blasphemous that might sound.
And what’s more there’s Bess, cleaning the house. Twice a week, never fail. Polishing and scrubbing it back to perfec- tion. I think your mother would’ve liked her.
‘I’ll take your best cleaner with no English,’ I told the agency in Dublin, ‘I don’t want anyone local. I want someone discreet who’s not a gossip. I’ll pay extra for her petrol if needs be.’
She cooks too. Leaves me a couple of stews for the week. Mind you, they taste nothing like Sadie’s; in fact, I couldn’t tell you what they are. It took me a while to get used to them. Garlic, lots of that, apparently. But I surprised myself when I started to look forward to them, especially the chicken one. All that time with Bess, keeping me going, Robert was killed telling me I could’ve gotten the Health Board to foot the bill for a cleaner and gotten Meals on Wheels into the bargain.
‘Are you mad?’ I said, ‘I’ve never had a handout in my life and I’m certainly not starting now.’
Svetlana has sauntered over. Finished with her inspec- tions and cleaning and glass stacking. She’s been pacing the bar for the last few minutes, waiting for the hordes to arrive.
‘You here for dinner later, yes?’
I like that name of hers. Svetlana. It’s straight up, sharp yet still has a bit of beauty about it. I wonder how I look to her? Nuts, no doubt. Sitting here, lost in my thoughts, the odd mumble escaping every now and again. She leans forward on the counter, eager for something to happen, even a lame conversation with the auld lad at the bar will do, it seems.
‘I’m not,’ I say, and it’s there I’d normally leave it. But tonight is no ordinary night. ‘Is tonight your first night here?’ I ask.
‘Second. I work last night.’
I nod, swirl the last drop at the bottom of my glass, before downing it. Ready now to begin the first of five toasts: five toasts, five people, five memories. I push my empty bottle back across the bar to her. And as her hand takes it and turns away, happy to have something to do, I say under my breath.
‘I’m here to remember – all that I have been and all that I will never be again.’
First Toast: to Tony
Bottle of stout
There’s stirrings out in the foyer. Looks like the boys in all their finery are beginning to trickle in. I’ll not have this place to myself for much longer.
‘Another stout, there,’ I say to Svetlana who looks like she’s having an attack of first-night nerves. ‘Keep that seat for me there. Don’t be letting those lads take it. The best seat in the house.’
It’s time for the little boy’s room. One of the perks of being eighty-four, your legs get regular exercise from all the toilet trips.
‘By the neck, yes?’ she asks, as I’m heading off.
‘Listen to you and the lingo,’ I call back to her, not letting on my concern that I’ve left my trip a little too late, ‘by the neck or the arse, I don’t care, just make sure it’s still in the bottle and from the shelf,’ I say speeding up.
‘One of these?’ she says, halting my escape.
Can she not sense the danger?
‘Aye,’ I say, starting again.
‘No, sure stick an auld straw in it and I’ll be grand,’ I call back to her.
‘You joke right?’
I wave a hand as I disappear from view.
There were four children in my family. Four was relatively small, I suppose, for that time in Ireland. There were families of nine or ten or more all round us. We must have seemed odd. Two adults and four youngsters to a two-bedroom cottage. A luxury, almost. Tony was the oldest, then there was May and Jenny and me, the youngest. A year, maybe two, between the lot of us.
You never knew your Uncle Tony. He was long gone by the time you arrived. ‘Big Man’ – that’s what he called me. I know that’s what I became, six foot three and built like a house. But back when that nickname stuck, I was far from it. At four, I was the tiniest of things compared to the towering giant of him, or so he seemed to me. I imagine my little steps beside his on the road or round the farm. Always running to catch up, three of my little trots to his one stride. All the time him chatting to me, telling me about the hens we were feeding or the carrots we were planting in Mam’s little garden or the ditches we were clearing. The man loved the land as much as my father. And I’d be looking up at him, trying not to trip while taking everything in, trying my best to remember, to show him I could do it too, relishing his praise.
‘Now you have it,’ he’d say, ‘aren’t you the great man.’
Despite my best efforts to keep pace, I’d inevitably fall or do myself some kind of injury trying to carry buckets that were far too big for me, just to be like him. He’d come back then and hunker beside me.
‘You’ll be better before you’re twice married,’ I imagine him saying, brushing me down, hugging me maybe, lightening my load then and slowing his pace for a while. You’d swear he was decades older than me, the way he used to mind me. But he was only five years my senior.
I’d have worked well into the evening with him, had I been let. But somewhere along the way my mother would come to fetch me.
‘I’ll be there in a minute,’ he’d say to my protests, as she carried me back in. Me with my hands outstretched to him trying not to cry for fear he’d see what a baby I was. And would you look at me now, still at it, battling those tears.
I’d wait by the window in the kitchen for him then. Getting up and down on the bench, despite my mother’s scolding, until he and my father finally finished their day.
I remember once when Father Molloy visited the house. Like all adults he was curious about what I wanted to be when I grew up. It seemed an odd type of question to me, I mean, the answer was so bloody obvious:
‘Tony,’ I said.
I couldn’t fathom why he and my parents laughed so much at my reply. I walked out of the kitchen, leaving them there with the hilarity of it all and the good china.
The name ‘Big Man’ stuck from our school days. Tony had been walking the half-mile to the one-roomed school for a fair few years before I joined him. Rainsford National School – engraved in an arch over the front door – that’s what Tony told me it read, as I proudly passed under it on my first day. Tony had me wound up the whole way there with the thoughts of how exciting it would be, what with all the children from around gathered in one place. I don’t think I’d slept a wink the night before, either.
‘Tony,’ I whispered to him beside me in the bed, not wishing to wake Jenny and May, who slept behind the curtain that divided the room, ‘does Patrick Stanley go to the school?’
‘Of course he does.’
‘And Mary and Joe Brady?’
‘Sure, what other school would they go to?’
‘And Jenny and May?’
‘Would you stop your messing and go to sleep or we’ll be going nowhere tomorrow,’ he said, pucking me with his elbow.
I was up first the next day, asking the same stuff all over again. I walked in Tony’s shoes, literally, that day. His hand-me-downs. I’ve no idea whose shoes he got. I strode through the school door, staring around in awe of the place that would make me as clever as my big brother.
‘Well, now, and who do we have here?’ a voice boomed as I entered. ‘Another Hannigan is it? Get up here and let’s have a good look at you.’
Master Duggan hauled me up, on to a desk at the front of the room.
‘Would you look at the size of you, a big man, what? I hope we have a desk big enough to fit you and all those brains you’re storing in that head of yours.’
I was ‘Big Man’ from that moment on.
I was beaming, proud of the welcome. I watched Tony laughing, elbowing his mates. I looked at the desks and the blackboard and the few books behind me on the master’s table and felt a warmth for the place and the things that were a part of my world now. I was keen to get on with it, to prove the master correct. I shuffled my feet in anticipation and was down soon enough sitting at the very desk on which I’d stood.
Over the next couple of days the master drew all sorts on the board. We chanted our ABC’s but I hadn’t a clue that what we rhymed had anything to do with what he’d written up there with the white chalk. At first, I didn’t mind too much that it felt out of my reach while the others, even Joe Brady who was three months younger than me, seemed to eventually get the hang of it.
The only thing I truly loved and kept me running up that road every morning was the football. At break time the master rolled up his sleeves and bent expectantly between the jumper goalposts. Or when nothing was coming his way, ran between them shouting:
‘Would you kick the thing?’
‘Mark him, mark him.’
‘Pass it, man!’
The girls played with a skipping rope outside the back door, out of the way of the ball. Their laughter and scolding of those who weren’t playing properly, reached me as I hurtled around the yard in a muck sweat of pure delight. I hadn’t played much football before that. We had the hurls at home, but football was the master’s game. I gave it all I had. A good man for a tackle. Thought nothing of diving in. And if Tony had the ball, well, I was stuck to him, all hands and legs, pulling out of whatever bit of him I could get a hold of.
‘Stop, would you?’ he’d laugh. He was like King Kong swatting away those planes. Put his hand on my forehead, the fecker. Holding me at arm’s-length so I couldn’t get near him. My arms flailing nevertheless. I fell, a hundred and one times. Blood and bruises. But it was of no consequence, it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm.
‘Good man, Hannigan. Up you get. That’s the spirit,’ the master called from the goal.
I couldn’t get enough of his encouragement out there on our makeshift pitch. A welcome change from his silence and frustration at my efforts in the classroom. No amount of him reminding me which letter was ‘b’ and which one was ‘d’ helped me remember, let alone grabbed my interest. My enthusiasm for the books slipped down, away from me, like my fallen knee socks. In those moments all I wanted was to lay my head on the refuge of the rippled wooden desk, to feel its shiny surface from years of varnish and fingertips, and close my eyes.
His piling on the praise in the playground worked a treat. On I’d charge again, not giving a damn about any prospective injuries. But I was forever disappointed when he called time and took the ball and walked towards the back door. My stomach sinking at the thought of the darkness in that room, let alone the depression in my head.
I improved very little with my letters over the years despite everyone’s efforts, especially Tony’s. I spent most days with my head fuzzy, not able to catch up or understand the things on the board or on the page. Numbers weren’t so bad. They made some sense. I could add and subtract and, in time, multiply. Tony saw my progress and pushed me on. All the way to school and all the way home, we’d practise. He’d make a game of it, making sure I knew my money and the time, so that Mam and Dad and Master Duggan might let me be. He tried with the words too:
‘Think of a “b”, like it’s a stick man holding a ball in front of him. And a “d” is a dumbo hiding the ball behind him.’ I’d try to hold that in my head, ‘ball, in front, dumbo behind’. And it worked, when the letters were on their own and not in the middle of words or at the end. That’s when everything started to swim around on the blackboard or on the page and I couldn’t order them or the sounds in the right place.
I punched Tony once on our way home when he wouldn’t let up pushing me to get it right.
‘Would you give over saying you’re stupid, Big Man, you’re as able as the next fella.’
‘Go ’way,’ I yelled, as he doubled over. ‘I am so stupid,’ I called back as I ran off into the bit of a forest that, back then, stood at the front of our house.
I’ll admit that behind my tears, I was impressed that I’d managed to floor him. But as I ran, weaving my way through the trees, trampling on the fallen leaves and branches, the shame of it crept up on me. My exhausted body finally came to a stop at a clearing that faced west out across the Dollards’ land. There, I screamed out my fury so loudly that I was sure its power reached over those fields, up the hills and down as far as Duncashel.
It was dark by the time I headed home that evening. My stomach told me it was about six o’clock when I walked through the door and heard the clatter of the tea things. My family’s chat quietened as I slipped on to the end of the bench at the table. But my mother continued to fill the teacups like there was nothing untoward at all. I didn’t dare lift my head, hoping they might all have the decency to ignore me. As I concentrated on my hands twisting in my lap, I heard my knife rattle against my plate. I looked up to find a slice of soda bread newly landed there. Tony. I didn’t need to look to know, but still I raised my eyes to find his smile and wink.
Master Duggan wasn’t the worst, I have to give him his due. When I hear the stories now of what kids endured back in those days, I’m lucky I wasn’t beaten black and blue or worse. As the years went on it was like we came to an understanding, him and me, that he’d leave me alone when it came to asking questions, if I never made trouble. He never pushed or embarrassed me. Never stuck me in the corner or once called me lazy. I believe he simply didn’t know what to do with me. We were together on that. Most of the time I asked if I could be excused to go to the toilet. Not that we had toilets, but it became our code, when he knew I needed a break. I roamed around the back of the school, over the wall in the fields, wandering up and down, looking out on the countryside below, seeing the neighbours at work. I’d go back after a good long stint out in the fresh Meath air, to listen and watch the others succeed and belong.
There was this one lunchtime, I must’ve been about seven, when I decided I’d had enough. Three years I’d been trying at that stage. By then, Tony had only a couple of months left in school. He was twelve and once June came he was leaving to work the land full-time with our father. The football had been particularly good that day. I had been brilliant. In my memory, I had scored every goal, made every deciding tackle, even getting the ball from Tony once or twice. I was a genius. And then the master called a halt to proceedings to get us back inside. I knew then, at that moment, that I couldn’t. It felt like a weight had been planted on my head, not allowing me to move. I sat on the low wall that marked the school boundary, breathing heavily, watching the fallen-down socks and bruised legs of the others scurry and kick their way through the door. I could see the master looking at me. But he didn’t move; instead he called Tony and whispered something in his ear. I watched them watching me, before the master headed on inside and Tony trotted over.
‘Alright, Big Man? Come on, we have to go in.’
‘I want to go home,’ I said.
‘You can’t be doing that. Come on, the master will be waiting,’ he said, heading on again.
I said nothing, not moving an inch.
‘Listen,’ he said, returning, his hand now between my shoulder blades, pushing me off the wall and ahead of him with some strength, ‘the day’s nearly over. We’ll be out of here before you know it.’
I near fell in the door of the classroom, with the force of his pushes. I walked slowly by each table, my finger trailing along every one, to get to my seat, where I stayed for the long afternoon with a big sulky head on me.
‘I hate it,’ I repeated, over and over on our way home.
‘It’ll get better.’
‘Yeah, right. Well how come I’m still as stupid as the day I started, then.’
I ran ahead of him, like it was his fault. Ran all the way back into the house. Flew in through the kitchen, ignoring my mother’s gaping mouth and was down with the dust balls under the bed before she had time to stop me. Refused to come out. Lay there, picking at the threadbare rug that half-covered the cold concrete floor, listening to the muffled talk seeping through the slats of the latched wooden door.
‘What happened, Tony?’ Mam asked, when he eventually landed in.
‘Nothing. Seriously. Nothing happened. I don’t know what’s got into him. I’ll sort him.’
Tony sat down by the bed bringing me the glass of milk and buttered soda bread my mother always produced after the school day was over and before we headed off to find our father and the work he had lined up for us. Tony placed his plate beside mine. When there was no sign of me coming out he pushed mine in under a little further. I ignored the food for as long as my stomach let me, then I reached to take bits of the bread. Eventually I pushed them and myself back out and sat beside Tony. We said nothing. Just ate and looked at my sisters’ bed opposite. Made to perfection, not a pillow or blanket out of place, the crochet-knitted cover, made by Jenny and May over the previous winter, that gave weight and warmth at night, spread smoothly on top.
‘Do you think we should make one of them?’ Tony said. ‘One of those crochet covers?’ I looked at him like he’d gone mad. ‘Like I know women are good at all that kind of stuff but I don’t see why we couldn’t do it. It’d be fierce warm in the winter.’
‘I’m not taking up knitting so people can laugh at me even more.’
‘Hold on, Big Man, that’s not what I meant.’
‘Yes it is, you think all I’m good for is women’s work.’
‘Ah now, Maurice, that isn’t what I was saying at all. And no one is laughing at you, either.’
‘Oh yes they are. Joe Brady called me a dumbo yesterday when I got the spelling wrong.’
‘So that’s why you hit him,’ he laughed, impressed. ‘He’s no feckin’ genius anyway. He can’t even tie his laces for feck sake. And have you seen the state of his ears? I mean no man with ears that stick out like that has a right to call anyone a dumbo.’
Despite myself, I smiled.
‘Come on, Big Man. We’ll figure this out, OK? Me and you, right. Me and you against the world, yeah?’ He got me in the gentlest headlock and ruffled my hair. ‘You’ll be grand.’
But I wasn’t. And every morning after, they had to pull me kicking and screaming from my bed. My father was pushed to limits that were not naturally him.
‘Get out to blazes, ya pup.’
He pulled at me until there was nothing left in my grip of the leg of the bed and I gave way. I stood crying in my nightshirt. Screaming the odds, telling them I wouldn’t go back. My mother had to dress me with me holding my body as stiff as I could. I refused to take a crumb of food and went to school defiant and starving.
Day after day, Tony walked by my side still trying to encourage me. While my parents had long given up coaxing and pushing me out the door, Tony never stopped telling me I was full of greatness. People didn’t really do that back then, encourage and support. You were threatened into being who you were supposed to be. But it was because of Tony’s words that I made that journey to school every day and suffered through the darkness, when my brain felt exhausted from not knowing the answers. I didn’t want to let him down, you see. Couldn’t let him know that I knew I was totally and utterly thick.
Even after he’d left school, Tony walked by my side every day to the door, enduring my silence. It was the only way I’d go. It had been his idea that for as long as our father could spare him the twenty minutes, he’d walk the road every morning. In the classroom I never raised my hand or heard the sound of my own voice. I would sink so low in my seat that I was sure if you were standing at the back of the room you’d think no one sat there at all.
It took three more years before the master decided to walk the road to our farm. It was after school and I was already home, busy with the chickens. When I saw him in the yard I hid behind the coop. My mother came out, wiping her hands in her apron, looking worried. They spoke briefly before she pointed towards the lower field to where my father and Tony were working and off he went. Tony came up not long after.
‘What does he want?’ I asked, coming out from behind the coop and running alongside him as he made a steady pace towards the back door of the house.
‘I’ve no idea. I was told to go back up to the house for tea.’
‘For tea? It’s not that time. It’s about me, isn’t it?’
‘I told you, Maurice, nobody told me anything. I’m starving. Listen, I’ll be out in a minute. Go on you back to the coop.’
I did as I was told and returned to lean up against the wooden slats, to brood my way through all kinds of possibilities. The worst of which involved me being shipped off to some home for people who couldn’t read one line of a book without breaking into a sweat. I walked in circles around and around the coop, kicking at the chickens when- ever one ventured out and got in my way.
‘Don’t worry, Big Man, it’ll all be OK,’ Tony said, coming out after a bit, the remnants of my mother’s soda bread still lingering around his mouth. But his eyes couldn’t hide his concern, no matter how much he smiled.
‘Whatever he says, Maurice, it’ll be OK, you know that. We’ll figure this all out together, right?’
I kicked at the straw, not able to raise my eyes to him. ‘Big Man, come on now. What is it I always say to you?’ I kicked again, refusing to be shaken from my silence. ‘You and me against the world. Isn’t that it? Come on, say it, Big Man. Let me hear you.’
‘You and me . . .’ I mumbled, my head still down, the sole of my shoe scuffing the earth, not wanting to repeat his bloody refrain any more. Because the truth of it was, there was no ‘him and me’ in this war, it was just me and my stupidity.
‘. . . AGAINST THE WORLD,’ he chanted, ‘that’s it.’ He gave me an encouraging puck to the shoulder.
We stayed in the coop until my father and the master came into view, walking slowly up the hill, deep in serious conversation. They stopped at the haggard wall to finish whatever it was occupied them. Then my father nodded, tipped his cap and watched him leave the yard. He looked over at Tony then, and beckoned him with the tilt of his head. He didn’t look at me, but simply turned back down to the field with my fate in tow. Tony laid his hand on my shoulder and whispered:
‘Remember what I said, me and you,’ then fell in behind my father.
An hour later, the whole family sat around the long kitchen table for our tea, Tony showing no signs of distress at having to go through it all again.
‘Master Duggan thinks you might be best working the land, Maurice,’ my father announced, ‘says you’ve grown grand and strong and that you’d make a fine farmer, like your big brother here. Well, what do you think? You’re not one for the books anyway. Am I wrong?’
I let the seconds slip by, swallowing the bread in my mouth, imagining it slipping down my throat sinking into the pit of my stomach.
‘No,’ I mumbled in reply, not lifting my eyes from the plate. My head nearly stuck in it, I was hunched that low.
‘Well, good, that’s that then. Your mother will make enquiries at the Dollards’ farm and see if they’re in need of an extra pair of hands. No school tomorrow so. You’ll work with us ’til something sorts itself out.’
My embarrassment hovered in the air between us, circling the teapot, the milk jug and the bowl of hardboiled eggs. I found it hard to swallow any further. Closing my eyes, I gulped at my tea, wolfing down my shame.
‘Big Man,’ Tony whispered later in bed, as we lay in the dark, ‘this is a good thing. School’s not for everyone. The land now, that’s a whole different story. See those hands of yours, that’s what they’re made for.’
I lifted my hands to my eyes, trying to examine them in the pitch dark. I knew he was right this time, but still I’d wanted to be so much more, for him most of all.