This is a slightly augmented version of a story that was published in “Billy Liar” #3 in 1999.
Mam and Dad moved back first. They bought a smart new bungalow almost on the spot where I’d grown up , while I inherited the lease on the flat in London. For a while, I was the lucky one. Twice a day I walked past the spot where my brother Sean died. Then I got the call to come over and join n them. I’d nothing else to do with my time, so I went. Being honest, I’ve never known what to do with my life. There was fuck all to keep me in London, but fuck all to make me want to go back to Ireland for good. I left the return date on the plane ticket open. That gave me a month. Regular cooked meals were one hell of a bonus. Within a couple of days I stopped throwing up in the mornings.
Every night we sat down to eat that first week, Dad would be half pissed, shouting on about what a great time he was having and how much of a laugh he’d had that afternoon. Later on, while he slept in an armchair and Mam kept up to date with the soap operas, I’d slip out in their car. Chain-smoking my way up and down the gears, trying not to think about guzzling whiskey, I’d tear up and down the N5 to Edgeworthstown and back, speculating why they wanted me here. It had to be Mam’s idea.
Secure in her home town once more, Mam was always down at the church, seeing if she could help out with the cleaning or the flowers and stuff. She’d found God again when Sean died. It helped at the time. Still did. She wasn’t what you’d call happy, but she’d settled. England hadn’t been for her, ever. Sean’s death confirmed that, so she moved on. Leaving The Smoke allowed her to let him die, but Dad seemed different. I wasn’t sure if I was here to babysit him, or to play a minor part in the family five act tragedy. Mam and Dad had never bothered asking how I was since Sean died, so there was no point telling them his death still hurt; no matter how much I drank. They weren’t interested in me. After all, they’d lost their baby.
By the time it got round to Thursday I decided to go for a pint with Dad. I told myself I needed some company more than the beer. I’ve never enjoyed boozing on midweek afternoons, but since I’d moved in, I noticed Dad had been hitting the bottle hard, so Mam kept asking me to tag along with him and make sure he didn’t go over the top. I’d always said no at first but to tell the truth I was getting pretty fucking bored sitting around the house so one day I decided to keep him company and her happy at the same time.
I drove there. It was good having a car so dose at hand. Even locking the door and hearing the alarm set itself as I walked across the car park made me feel important. In the bar, Dad climbed on a counter stool, ordered us both pints of stout and I saw how the past few months had panned out; him trying to start conversations with blokes he’d not seen in twenty years , about things they’ve no experience of or interest in. I got myself a Budweiser as well. Just the one.
I remember the last time I’d been in O’Dwyer’s Bar. Grandad drove us down the Abbeycarton Road, him in the tractor and me and Sean in the trailer, at seven o’clock on a dry Sunday morning in November, two days after we’d left school. I was only ten years old when we said goodbye to everyone at that last assembly; me in the top class and Sean, just out of nappies, in the baby group. He’d cried at the glare of attention, whilst I just felt foolish accepting the fountain pen and firm handshake from the teacher. Later that same evening, as I’d walked home with Mickey Cullen, kicking a ball back and forth as night fell, with Sean trailing behind us, trying to read his picture book by moonlight England had seemed impossibly distant. We went there anyway .The journey over had seemed to last forever .A couple of years later, Grandad died, but we didn’t all go to the funeral. Mam took Sean and I down to Heathrow, keeping us off school as a treat, so we could watch dad fly off. He came back three days later, smelling of whiskey and cursing. We never did go home again as a family. And now we’re here, we no longer seem to be a family.
That time, all those years ago, we’d gone to collect dad from O’Dwyers after his leaving do. Mam had stayed at home, packing the last of our things in the transit. Grandad pulled up outside the back door and tooted the horn. Lights still burned in the bar. Tony O’Dwyer and Gerry McCabe carried Dad out, his scalp cut, a dried patch of blood linking his crown and left ear. He kept mumbling how grateful he was and how he’d see everyone soon. After they’d dropped him in the trailer, he snapped open an eyelid, smiled at us, and then flaked out. He didn’t get like that regular, but it was known to happen. Now it was happening all the time.
All through the intervening years Dad kept referring to that party, about how he’d left the old country in style and wanted to have a do like that when he went home for good. Every time my parents got happy drunk in London, they started singing The Fields of Athenry and kept promising each other they’d move to Ireland as soon as they could, without ever really meaning it I suppose. The compensation they got from Sean’s death forced their hand. That and constantly being reminded of the day when Sean was killed. Imagine looking out of your front window and seeing the very place your youngest son died every fucking day for the rest of your life. Mam and Dad bought a smart new bungalow up the Abbeycarton Road to retire to. Conlon Close the street’s called. At least the builders remembered there was a family farm on that spot once. Our farm.
Now Dad spends all day in the bar and Mam’s always down at the church, seeing if she can help out in any way with cleaning and stuff like that, as she’s found God again. She’s not exactly happy, but has settled the best. England wasn’t for her, and now we don’t have Sean’s bedroom shrine, she’s trying to move on. I don’t know what I’m doing here though. There’s fuck all to go back to London for. Trouble is, there’s fuck all to hang around for either.
Leaving London was like letting Sean’s memory die forever. Over the water we’d had reminders of him every day. Not just where he got run over. Good memories, like the arcade where he hung out with his mates, the pubs he went to and those big Ian Wright posters in his bedroom that Mam had kept the same. A photo of me and him pissed up, waving bottles of Holsten at the camera on his eighteenth birthday, the last one he celebrated, that used to stand on the telly. The frame got smashed and the picture torn moving. Now we’ve only got a wooden box of ashes on the mantelpiece. It doesn’t seem enough. Nor does the excuse that we’ve brought his ashes home to their final resting place. The kid hadn’t been old enough to use the bog or dress himself when we left. He never even bothered about being Irish; it was just some place he lived as a kid. Somewhere he couldn’t even remember. Maybe my parents just felt guilty for ever leaving in the first place. I’ve still never been able to talk to them about his death. My guess is they felt he wouldn’t have died if we’d stayed on Grandad’s old farm, half-starved each winter and struggling to pay the bills. The inescapable truth is, people don’t get knocked down by despatch riders on a dirt track in County Longford.
Sat again at counter stool in O’Dwyer’s , swallowing a gallon of stout he’s lost the taste for, Dad’s been getting drunk this whole first month. Pissed every day, trying to start conversations with blokes he’s not seen in two decades, about things they’ve no experience of or interest in.
“You see Tony,” he told the bloke who’d helped dump him in the back of a trailer all those years ago,” The difference is, over here people bring their youngsters up property and know that once they go to school, there’ll always be a couple of nuns or a Christian Brother to keep them on the straight and narrow with a quiet word or a swift backhander. In England you can do your fucking level best, but some queer with a ponytail will start giving out to seven year olds about Ramadan in assembly.”
The bar was deathly quiet and almost deserted. Undaunted, Dad drew breath, then cleaned away another two inches of stout with one gulp. I could have finished my drink, said my goodbyes and gone home three quarters sober, but I didn’t. Tony set two glasses of Powers on the counter for him and the old man and a bottle of Budweiser for me. He took a brash gulp from his own drink, ruminated for a second, as the harsh spirit burned the back of his throat, then began to give out.
“Well, sure that’s your own fault. If you don’t send the nippers to a proper Church School, then they end up mingling with the Hindustanis and Bangladeshis and whatever the fuck else they’ve got living over there. You let your two boys risk their souls, getting a so called education at some fucking Protestant establishment.
Dad shot Tony a glance that was more helpless and upset than angry, but said nothing. “Oh Jesus fuck, Pat I didn’t mean any harm. I wasn’t thinking about your Sean then. Fuck I’m sorry.Here, have another.”
Tony took a fresh glass from the shelf and drew a double measure from the optics and, smiling pitifully, set it on the counter. Dad blew a smoke ring from his Carroll’s, stifled a cough as the past came roaring back.
The day Sean died had started off so normal. A Saturday and he was up early. Hangovers didn’t bother him, not that he drank much. It was a home game, Villa I think, and he was looking forward to it, taking the piss out of me for not going anymore and the Old Man because he preferred that GAA Paddy shit. He’d left around twelve, in plenty of time to meet up with his mates from college and get a couple of beers before the game. Dodging through the traffic, ignoring the zebra crossing, trying to catch a bus that would have saved him walking to the tube, some crazy biker came weaving through on the inside and hit him. We heard the bang and somehow, instinctively, we all knew it was Sean. From our front room window you could see the crowd gathering. By the time we raced down, he was gone. Just a big dent in the back of his head and a wry smile traced on his lips in viscous blood that was beginning to cake .The biker in hysterics, cops taking notes and ambulance men covering Sean’s body with a coarse blanket. Dad and me just gazed at it all stunned as Mam hit the pavement in a total faint. She aged twenty years that day, got smaller as well. Coming out of the crematorium a week later, Mam all in black, looking frail, I had to take a second glance at her to convince me it wasn’t the ghost of my Nan stood there.
She’s never been the same, but at least she’s at peace with Sean’s memory. I wish I could say the same about Dad. The drinking, the avoiding Mam, maybe even living back here, it all shows he’s trying not to accept it. Tony O’Dwyer, thick cunt that he is, just happens to be the poor bastard on the receiving end of one of the Old Man’s lectures.
“Listen you cunt, this was a proper bleeding Catholic school: Our Fucking Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Secondary School on the fucking Harrow Weald Road. I don’t suppose you’d know it never having fucking lived across the bleeding water. There were no fucking Pakistanis with turbans at this place. I’m telling you ifs the fault of the frigging teachers the kids got taught fuck all of use. Jesus, once upon a time all the decent, convent educated girls from Longford and Roscommon took the first boat out of Kingstown once they reached eighteen and either took to nursing at the Hammersmith or teacher training at Strawberry Hill. Now they’re all producing fucking talk shows on RTE 2 and the teachers are from Melbourne or Wellington.” Tony laughed, sensing the talk had moved on far enough for him to be on an equal footing with Dad again.
“Ah, your bollocks they are. Sure RTE‘s full of dirty English bastards, spreading STIs and Presbyterianism throughout the south side of Dublin.”
“I’m fucking telling you Tony, you know fuck all about England. In the schools these days, we’ve got all the cast off from Her Majesty’s Empire talking through their holes five days a week and getting paid for it. The pupils are no fucking better though. When we first went over , Mary’d head up to get Sean, God rest his soul, from the Junior School and meet with all the other women at the school gates, half three every day. Every one of them was a Paddy back then. It was like going to the fair. Now you’ve got a load of darkies, on account of some fucking recruitment drive Father Carroll went crazy about a few years back.”
Dad had gone almost purple with the exertion of this speech, so he lolled back in his seat and took a long contemplative draw on his smoke, whilst Tony nodded his head in slow agreement, then spoke again. “I heard on the wireless a while back that these black boys know more about selling drugs than saying the Rosary and ifs affecting the white kids as well. Attendances at Mass are falling every year. Ifs happening in Catholic schools all over England, so I hear. ”
“Too fucking right Tony .There’s no culture over there anymore amongst the young ones. Even when ifs Paddy’s Night, all the kids would rather listen to some God awful disco shite than Big Tom or The Dubliners. The fucking local Dancing School’s gone and the hurling team at The Railway is just a joke.”
“Well, fuck me Pat, the whole of the GAA’s dying now. All this soccer on SKY has got the young one’s minds full of the game. There are more fucking Man United shirts in County Roscommon than in the Old Trafford megastore.”
“I take the point Tony, but there’s more at stake here than sport you know. Just as Sean was about to leave that school, they got rid of the weekly trips to the local pool. Know why? Not to save money but on account of the fact that, genetically, the blacks won’t ever be able to swim. Something to do with the weight of their bones, or that’s what some woman from the council said when I phoned up.”
“Never mind the loss of the lessons Pat, it probably means some of them Sambos are missing out on their weekly wash.”
“Too true Tony, too true. No, I tell you, we’re glad to be back. Eighteen fucking years in a tower block in Wealdstone’s enough for me. Now set the fucking drinks up again.”
The Old Man was pissed. He hadn’t relaxed since we got back. I suppose he was just dealing with his grief in his own way, the way Mam was getting all holy in her old age. Yet I’m sure he can’t help wondering if he’s made the right move coming back. They were still learning to cope. They bought the house because it was time to and this was where they came from. Just another newly retired couple, back home from England, trying to pick up their lives from years before. On the lookout for ways to spend their time. Mam found her niche down at the church, but Dad needed a hobby. Maybe in a few months, when the weather picks up, he’ll knock boozing on the head and start doing the garden. Grow roses or something. At that moment, Dad’s hobby was delivering impromptu lectures on the state of British society. Tony O’Dwyer just happened to be the poor bastard on the receiving end that afternoon.
Tony’s not the right bloke to come to if you want reassurance about anything though. Returning from the optics, he put the glasses down and picked up the bank note. Folding it carefully, he planned his next monologue.
”Yeah, but it’s no better over here now. We mightn’t have two million Jamaicans living on National Assistance, but there isn’t a county on the west coast of Ireland from Donegal to Cork that doesn’t sound like you’re in Tallinn or Plovdiv these days. Even the fucking guesthouse me and the lads got up in Galway for the Race Week was owned by a couple from Groningen, who doubled their money by doing a bit of set dancing and fiddling at this bar down in Spiddal, three nights a week.”
“I know what you’re saying. The bloke who’s got the next door cottage to us, can’t remember his name, well he went up to Sligo, supporting Longford Town for the Quarter Final last season and told me Shoot the Crows was black with Germans talking about Vilyam Butlah Yhates.”
“Right enough. These days you’re more likely to hear The Horst Wessel Song than Take Me Home to Mayo in a Westport bar. I mean that’s why we’re getting divorce and abortion and all that shite now. Because we’re part of Europe and we’ve got all these fucking Europeans living here and that’s the cunting legacy of Mary Frigging Robinson and Mary Fucking MacAleese. You know all that bollocks. They’ve started coming over all liberal down Leinster House.”
“Christ Tony, in the old days, if a bloke got sick of the missus; he just fucked off to New York, no questions asked.”
“Yeah and if some young slapper got knocked up out in the woods after a dance, then she’d simply head over to Liverpool and get rid of the fucker. Jesus, De Valera must be fucking spinning in his grave.” Dad’s stumbled off for a piss, muttering to himself as he went. Tony had nothing better to do than start talking to me.
“So, you’re only here on a holiday then? Well sure it’s not the grandest of places for a young bloke looking for work, so some things never change. This so called Tiger Economy you heard so much about in the papers, well it never got west of The Pale. You’ll remember Mickey Cullen I take it? You and him were great friends back in the old days. Well he’ll be in soon. He always calls for a pint after knocking off work He’s needing some help up at his garage as the young lad who was working there took off to Manchester last month.”
“Yeah, I’d love to see him again, but we lost contact pretty soon after I moved away. I’ve not seen anything of him in almost twenty years. I don’t think I could wander up to him and ask for a job. What’s he been doing all this time?”
“Don’t talk shite. You don’t get anything if you don’t ask. You’d be better asking him for the full details, but far as I know he’s been back from The States about three years now and living by himself up at the old family place and running his dad’s motor repair business. You remember it? Get yourself up there after tea if you don’t want to meet him in a pub, he’ll be glad to see you again.”
Mickey Cullen. Christ we’d been friends from day one at school. Conlon and Cullen, fate had thrown us alphabetically together. Every night in summer and every weekend in winter, we’d play soccer up against the door of the garage his dad owned. Cullen’s Coachworks. Just the two of us, with Sean, too young or too small to join in, but watching our every kick. Among the mini oil slicks, the broken spark plugs and discarded spanners, we’d smack that ball backwards and forwards; volleys half volleys and headers. Breathless and flushed after two hours of that, we’d stagger up and out the town to Mickey’s house, with Sean trailing behind us. Mickey’d bang at the kitchen door and his mother would bring us out a bottle of milk and some biscuits.
When we didn’t have a ball to play with, or when it got too hot to breathe on still July afternoons, we’d shin up the big clay drainpipe, one of us with Sean on our back, and on to the asphalt roof of the garage. We’d play with the air bubbles and loose edges, as the sheets of tar lifted and melted, carving our initials, feeling the vibrations from the welding and hammering below. At night, we’d dangle our legs over the front edge and softly drum our heels against the metal door, pretending there was a thunderstorm in the distance, until we lost patience and began to kick hard, trying to leave minute dents in the orange steel panel. I had to see him again. Standing on the periphery of Dad’s booze fuelled lecture on the state of English society was starting to bore me.
Dad was back, settling onto his stool, lighting his next smoke and ordering up a double round, so I drained my bottle and got my wallet out. Bleary eyed and pouting, he shrugged and took another blast of the whiskey, placing a creased twenty on the counter next to the overflowing ash tray. He could pay for the next ones. Behind us, the pub door swung open and I left my seat, bursting for a piss. I could still hear Dad’s cough as I entered the jacks. Whiskey and Budweiser spilled through my dick and I realized I was fucking up again. Mid-stream, I rested my forehead on the cold tiles and yawned. I was three quarters fucked. The whiskey was doing my head in. If I didn’t knock it off for a couple of hours, I’d be under the table soon. A meal and a lie down, that’s what I needed. I zipped up, splashed a load of cold water on my face and went back in the bar to a vision of the Old Man just sat there, drinking, blowing smoke rings and watching the soundless television.
Coming back to my stool, I caught sight of Tony pointing furiously to the far end of the counter. A big fella in overalls was setting up the pool balls, presumably for a bit of solo potting practice. Quietly, I went over and stood behind him.
“Hello Mickey. Remember me? Fuck this American pool shit, let’s go and kick a ball around a while. You can be Man United and I’ll be The Gunners, just like the old days” He turned round and gazed at me, at first uncomprehending, but slowly his features softened, his eyes widened and finally his voice exploded with recognition.
“Holy fuck: Davy Conlon is it really you? You grew one hell of a big fucking gut on you I see. Where’ve you been these past twenty years? I never thought I’d see you again. Especially as I’m still waiting for that first Christmas card you promised me two decades ago. Tony, two big fucking glasses of Powers please.”
He threw the cue down and it bounced over the side of the table. He motioned me to a seat, as if he were guiding me into his best sitting room. Under the seat, a bag spilled open; tools were everywhere, like dogs at our feet. His overall, filthy, ripped, his hair plastered down with sweat and grease and his stained hands gripping the pint and displaying split finger nails: Mickey looked content. Tony came over with the whiskey and smiled indulgently to himself as Mickey and I clinked glasses.
“Christ Mickey you’re no skinny cunt yourself now are you? So what’s the story of your life, apart from the career in the motor trade?
“Well, after school, I went to college up in Dublin and after that I got sick of just fucking about, so I headed over to The States. New York and then Boston, working at this and that. Putting my degree to good use you know, in the old family craft, working in a garage. Anyhow I split up with this woman, Irish of course, and came back. First I was in Dublin again, trying it on as an Estate Agent, but my dad got sick, cancer and so I came home. He died within a year, so I just sort of took over in the garage. Changed its name to Mickey’s Motors. The routine helped. My mother’s living with my sister down in Bray. I’ve been down there this last fortnight, helping them decorate the place. That’s why I’ve not run into you before. I got the house and the business as a kind of bequest, so I’m pretty much duty bound to stay. Not that I’d want to move away. This is home for me. What about yourself?”
Being put on the spot like that is nerve wracking, especially when you’ve got two decades to sum up. All the shit about university and the dead end jobs, then trying to make it in the music business seemed so false, so long ago, so petty compared to him losing his family, or me losing my brother. He’d heard rumours about Mam and Dad moving back, but didn’t know we’d arrived. Or rather I’d arrived. The death of Sean seemed to upset him. I flattered myself by speculating it was because he saw how upset I was.
The truth was, I’d been fooling myself ever since I’d got here. If Mam was retreating into a nether world of religious mania and Dad was blotting out the days with drink, it was up to me to show them that they still had one son left alive, and that I was able to let Sean go. Mickey knew the score.
“Sure, there’s fuck all to take you back over the water again. You need the routine a job gives you. Ever considered a career as a mechanic’s assistant? Hang around here for a while. I could use an extra pair of hands, no matter how fucking useless you are. Make the tea, hand me a spanner, take the phone calls. Test drive the motors when they’re fixed if you want. You can have a spare room up at the house, no point in living with the folks when you’re in your thirties. I’ll go get cleaned up then we’ll have a proper drink to celebrate. Not too much though eh? You’re starting work in the morning.”
He took the pint and whiskey in a gulp each and I finished my bottle. The crowd was thinning out now. Afternoon drinkers nipping off home for a bite to eat and a snooze in front of the fire. Racing fans counting their losses or collecting winnings. We wrestled the Old Man, half asleep though he was, past my car, as I was in no state to drive, and into the back of Mickey’s van, telling him he’d to go home for his tea. We dropped him off at the gate and headed back up to Mickey’s place. I could go back for my stuff in the morning.
Suddenly, everything was sorted. Sat watching the evening news, whilst Mickey showered, I nursed a Bulmers and reflected. He could have told me to fuck off, but instead he’d offered me a job. I was looking forward to it, not the work itself of course, but because it gave me a reason to stay here. Five minutes later Mickey came back in to the living room, drying his ears with a towel. I drained the can and set it on the fireplace