it has been two months since my last post on here; apologies for that. this week sees the publication issue #11 of “PUSH,” which includes one of my stories. in advance of that, here’s my story from issue #10 of “PUSH,” one that i’m very pleased with…
Surrounded by the persistent presence of cardboard boxes overstuffed with both practicalities and mementos, and the odd suitcase half full of clothes, Johnny looked out across Clew Bay through the double glazing of his centrally heated front room. He was almost getting used to calling this place home again. Everything seemed new to him in the old country. Retirement was like being the only guest in a hotel.
Every Sunday he took the Polish registered car he’d bought from the Brazilian fella who ran the garage in Ballina out and drove unsteadily to see the brother for the bit dinner that his sister cooked them. The last remaining parts of the family. Eating in silence.
Johnny had taken to the garden with enthusiasm, but the rain and salty sea winds did nothing for the flower beds; so as winter stole in, if he wasn’t drinking tea or maybe whiskey in front of the telly, he was drinking pints in the Bayview Lounge. There was another bar in Murrisk, but that was in the Croagh Patrick Hotel and full of tourists: English for the fishing, Germans hiking, Americans talking through their holes. Johnny never crossed their doors now. He felt uncomfortable anywhere they set more store by the food than the drink.
When he’d first moved back, Johnny sat in the Bayview and people he half recognised, who almost remembered him, came up and reintroduced themselves. He’d kept on nodding terms with them all but, scared of causing a scene; he kept his mouth shut about the years over the water and never mentioned Nuala again. The biggest mistake he’d made was not just leaving it at the fact he was widowed when he’d been asked about any family he had either with him or back in London. Conscious to the indifferent quiet of almost strangers, he’d poured out his heart and poured in the drink, as fallen tears moistened his shirt. The door had swung shut behind him without many calls of friendship or farewell. Now he took a seat at the bar and took his pint as silently as the Sky Sports announcers who unwittingly taught him to lip read.
It was raining this Sunday morning; it rained constantly in Mayo. And it was always quiet. Back home, or London even, on July nights as the temperature hit ninety, the damp air was choked with sirens and screams or glass breaking. Sometimes laughter. Those nights Johnny would stand on the balcony in his vest, a glass in one hand and a smoke in the other, scanning the horizon, trying to pick out the locations of the brawls, accidents and parties that crisscrossed the city. Now, in a small close of a dozen houses in Murrisk, built at the very foot of great Croagh Patrick, Johnny finished the dregs of his tea and watched silent waves, through the extra layer of insulating uPVC glazing the vendors had gone on about so much, fall short of the ruined abbey and crash on Bertra Strand.
As so often, the car was back in the garage, getting the clutch sorted again, so he put on his coat, picked up a small holdall and set out on foot to Louisburgh and the weekly family gathering. The thick pile carpet in the hallway and integral draft excluder prevented the wind from catching the door and slamming it. So unlike closing the door of the flat in London that last time, when a booming crash echoed with finality up and down the hallway. There’d been no-one for him to say goodbye to then either.
What had struck him most those last times in the flat was just how quiet the place was with only him in it. There always used to be his television and her radio jabbering away, competing with each other and both mostly ignored. When Nuala died, he’d taken to putting the radio on quite low, tuned to an easy listening station, just to keep her there. Fuck, he missed her. Maybe if they’d had kids things would have been easier then and now. Moving from room to room that last day, his feet clacking on dusty chipboard, he killed time until the taxi came, surprised to find himself smoking indoors. She’d always given off to him about that, so he’d taken to going out on the balcony and, from 16 floors up, blowing smoke across West London. Yet she’d been the one who got cancer. Even after she’d gone, he’d still gone out there for his fags. He’d had a sly one in the armchair once, watching the racing, but couldn’t bear to finish it; it was as if all the ornaments she’d bought and photos he’d framed for her, things that still sat in unopened boxes on the front room floor, had muttered their disapproval. He’d went out and got drunk in The White Horse on Uxbridge Road instead.
He’d been drunk his last night as well. Days of packing and loading the furniture on to a van that raced him by road as he took to the air. The leaving do with all the regulars and some of the neighbours as well. He’d lost touch with the changes. So much whiskey; so many handshakes and kisses. He’d hardly noticed the biting springs of the old camp bed or shredded nylon of the sleeping bag. The flat had been their home for 31 years and the city had been his for a while longer than that. Now he was back home and going out. Checking the road, he crossed over to the cliff-top path that rang along by the sandy beaches to Old Head, Louisburgh and finally Roonah Quay. It wasn’t more than a five mile hike, but Johnny hadn’t walked this road in over 40 years. He needed to do it today though. Had no choice.
Johnny buttoned his coat and discarded a fag made wet by the gusting sea breeze. His shoes, fine for driving or sitting in the bar, had no proper grips on the soles and he skidded along the path, now made treacherous by a dusting of damp sand. From the path, dunes sloped gently down to a beach that extended almost to the horizon with the tide being out. He’d lived in London so long he’d almost forgotten what the sea and coastline could be like when angry. He stood, with his feet in puddles and his coat taking in water, surveying the Atlantic Ocean. It was a long way and very different from Shepherd’s Bush.
He’d lived between the Goldhawk and Uxbridge Roads as the 70s became the 80s, then 90s, noughties and eventually whatever the fuck they were called now. Hippies, punks, crusties, Goths, emos, skaters and all those had passed him by. He’d got up early, worked his balls off on the roofs from morning until late then, for the first couple of years, got drunk with the lads. It was like Mayo, but only with more money and no proper food. Going back one Christmas he’d met Nuala. Sat next to her on the coach from Victoria to Holyhead, but dared not speak. She was reading a book and eating apples and he’d felt foolish with a Sporting Life and 40 Major. One the boat, he headed for the bar and drank the journey through, stopping at various bars on the other side until he reached Heuston for the last train to Westport. Struggled to find a seat, but with a coincidence she’d called fate and he’d never explained, found himself sitting opposite Nuala. Half cut, covered in ash and trying to seem charming, he spent the journey by turns slurring affectionate comments that she’d blushed at, or taking surreptitious pulls from a half bottle of Powers in the jacks.
At Westport station, he’d proffered his arm and they’d stepped down; romance and support in equal measures. Her brother, stern and disapproving, had been waiting in the family car. They left Johnny at the station and he, already besotted, half hitched, half danced to Louisburgh, arriving home at 3.30 to find the door locked. He’d slept on straw stinking of pig piss. Better to have love and the odour of pig piss than piss wet through and desolate on a Sunday morning Johnny thought.
There were no proper hikers around; good job else they’d laugh at his plight. Middle aged fella, out of condition, stumbling along the cobbled parts and sliding over the grassed bits of the path, nervously looking down the cliff face in case he really lost the footing and took a head first dive. Flimsy shoes, coat like a sponge and the stupid holdall he switched from hand to hand as his palms grew greasy. But so what? He’d never given a fuck what people thought of him. Nuala had always been nervous and wary whenever they went someplace, in case he started. Even now she was dead, he was showing her up, but he knew she’d forgive him. She would understand.
Johnny hated flying. That last morning in Heathrow he’d sat shitting through the eye of a needle in the departure lounge bogs, thinking of the future. The bungalow he’d bought with her life assurance had been christened Tir na nOg already. According to the brochure this meant The Land of the Young: age and death have not found it; neither tears nor loud laughter have gone near it. Johnny had to admit it looked beautiful in the pictures he’d seen. Just the sort of place they’d dreamed of retiring to. All modern amenities; half way between his home town and hers. But he was still worried. His family were mostly dead, apart from the brother in the family cottage, land and pigs now gone and the sister up in Castlebar with her husband, prick that he was. They’d stayed home; the brother living his whole life in one house. Johnny wasn’t a globetrotter, but he’d spent over 30 years in a city of more than 5 million people, working with fellas from every corner of the world. Christ his old fella had been suspicious of people who came from the next village, never mind another county or even country.
Nuala’s family were still thick on the ground thereabouts, but they’d always looked down on him and cut him off completely after she’d gone. Still, Tir na nOg was his and was going to be his home. He had a few bob and there were bound to be widows or spinsters, or even married birds, in need of a bit company. As soon as he’d thought this, he felt ashamed. He would always miss and love her, but he needed to move on. It’s why he was going back. He zipped up, flushed and hit the bar for a couple of settlers just as they called the flight to Aerfort Iarthar Éireann for boarding. No turning back now. He drained his glass and headed for Knock, hoping for some kind of a miracle. It didn’t come.
Stopping for a rest about a mile down the road, where the cliffs levelled out and access to the beach was down steep sand dunes, Johnny was aware of the rapid and almost desperate tone to his breathing, now he could hear it over the wind. He checked his watch. Almost eleven thirty. If he’d gone back to the road he could thumb the rest of the way; his sister was probably on her way down. A call to her last night or this morning and she’d have offered him a lift no bother. Within 20 minutes she’d be peeling vegetables while the brother read the paper. This gave Johnny under 2 hours to make the one and only sitting for dinner. Johnny laughed. What the fuck had he in common with these people other than blood? This is why over the years his and Nuala’s trips home had got less and less frequent. At first there’d been a week at her family place at Christmas and a fortnight in August, touring about. As time went on, the ties had slackened.
The best trip back had been the first one as a courting couple, when he’d met up with Nuala every second day. One of the two photos of her he still kept in his wallet was of them dancing, bathed in streamers, celebrating the New Year in Ryan’s Hotel. Travelling back three days later, he’d proposed as the boat left Dun Laoghaire. She accepted, laughing, and they were married on the Easter Saturday back in Westport. They’d ended up moving into the flat with stunning views of the BBC and Loftus Road straight after. It was their home; one hundred per cent Irish and the only block in the whole of West London that never got squatted. Johnny left it for good when the intercom sounded that day. His taxi had arrived. Johnny paused for a second on the thresh, then clashed the door, dropping the keys through the letterbox. The new tenants were a couple from Leitrim, though Johnny never met them.
Once the two of them had made the decision to spend Christmas in London, well over a decade ago, Johnny had rarely gone back. Nuala, until she got sick, used to take a long weekend with the family each autumn, while he stayed on the drink and hung around the bookies all day. It was different now; more solemn and important somehow. The first time he’d been over since she died was that day he’d left the flat. From the minute he’d collected his cases from the carousel, Johnny had expected to run into people from the past. He wasn’t expecting brass bands playing and the car park thronged with lost faces from his youth. Girls he’d leered at across dance hall floors, blokes he’d drunk, scrapped and filled in betting slips with, each of them waiting to throw their arms about his neck or shake him by the hand. All he got was the sister fussing about how thin he looked and checking if he’d had a good flight, while the dull prick she’d married put the cases in the boot, said nothing and drove them to her place for the night.
The brother had been waiting in her sitting room. Ten years older than Johnny, he looked about a hundred. Knees cracking, he laboriously rose to limply take Johnny’s hand in a gesture of friendship. The poor old bachelor farmer; turning his back on women, drink and a bright future in England to make the soil his bride and pitiful issue. Didn’t it just fucking show? Johnny was frightened to look at him; to see what he could have been. After a plain dinner, accompanied by pallid conversations of rural politics and parish ill health, Johnny vowed to check out the town; drink in bars he’d not known since his youth, but the hurt look in their eyes as he told of his plan made him reconsider. Instead, they sat in front of the fire; drinking whiskey in useless moderation, talking of their childhood and those who had gone. In bed after midnight, with the bottle empty and house still, Johnny kept awake by the apnoeic snoring of his brother from the next room, he cried himself to sleep. The urn of Nuala’s ashes stood on the bedside table.
The next day had been a Sunday; the brother in law took the men to their homes, ancient and modern. A trip to church had been mentioned as a kind of family outing, but Johnny was embarrassed by the thought of it. Apart from a few sly and pointless visits during the early stages of Nuala’s illness, he’d not seen the inside of a church since he’d got married. God, the afterlife, all that shite; he wasn’t interested. Nuala was dead; he’d never see her again, no matter what anyone told him. In England people accepted death as a fact; it was the natural ending. Okay so there was the odd header shouting outside Hammersmith tube station or in Shepherd’s Bush market about how He Is Risen and that, but none of your mates dreamed of hauling you out the scratcher of a Sunday to sit stumbling over responses you’d last said two thirds of your life ago and never believed then. Instead he opted for a lift down the N5 to Westport and on to Louisburgh, via his new place in Murrisk, transfixed at the sight of the unchanging, deep Mayo countryside flying past them.
Johnny had made it perhaps another mile when the strain hit hard. Exhaling hotly, he placed the black holdall on the ground and smeared his palms across the gritty front of his coat, already dampened by rain and coarsened by salt and sand. Black spots clouded his vision, pains shot up his arms, and his chest heaved from an adulthood of strong fags. The small of his back ached, at once sharp, at others dull. His shoes, more suited to shopping than hiking, rubbed his left heel. Johnny sweltered and gasped; he didn’t walk this far ever, certainly not on ragged coastal paths on windy days with freezing horizontal wind and rain in your face. Panic left him desperate for a sit down; the reassurance of indoors. He knew he’d have to take it easy the rest of the way, or he was in bother. Right now, he just had to stop. Leaning on a fencepost for support, gazing down past the dunes to the beach itself, where clouds of fine sand scuttled in front of him, uncoiled like charmed snakes, Johnny felt the ghosts of Bertra Strand. The thought of placing himself with them, dead because of a coughing fit during a badly planned pilgrimage, wasn’t only sacrilege, it was a joke.
It was here the famine dead were buried. His father had told them about this, as bedtime stories. Johnny would dream of crying children, the weak, exhausted mothers weeping bitterly, the dying fathers raging at the injustice, starving on berries. Dark images of the dead; their 5 stone corpses strapped to the backs of survivors, who crawled down the dunes and scraped a hole in the dry, uncontrollable sand. Throwing in the bones and trying to cover them up in the hope of giving the dead of The Great Hunger a posthumous dignity their passing had lacked. Within days, a change of wind direction exposing corpses all along the shore; the breezing making their rib cages cursed Aeolian harps to soundtrack the departures of coffin ships from Roonagh Quay. Today, like a bass guitar, the wires of fenceposts hummed and clicked.
Scanning the shore and on to the horizon, Johnny knew Mayo for him was the scene of those stories of the past; not identical retirement bungalows, or bars where local men were scorned if they’d dared to move away, judged by fools who played out their days with endless glasses of black porter, turned twisted and cynical by years toiling unforgiving land, or relatives who sat around waiting for death, secure in the knowledge that a lifetime on their knees had reserved a spot upstairs when their flight was called. Mayo was where he’d been born and Nuala had been born, but their life had been London, not here. They’d made silly plans to come back when they got old, but she’d never got old. She’d been stolen from him.
Testing the strength of the wire by forcing his hands downwards, Johnny’s thoughts turned from discomfort to duty. Ponderously placing his left foot up, he slowly, like a stop-frame cartoon of a has been hurdler, forced his right leg over the fence and carefully climbed down to the wet grass on the other side. He reached back between the wires and picked up the holdall again, before hazardously making his way down the dunes. Banks of dry sand collapsed under his feet; his eyes stung from tears and wind. The uncontrollable speed of his rapid descent unnerved him. At the foot of the dunes, in a secluded inlet fringed by unyielding clumps of needle-tipped marram grass, he unzipped the bag, taking out a small garden trowel and Nuala’s ashes. The sand was firm yet dry and he worked quickly, breathlessly, digging the hole, shifting position from crouching to kneeling as his breathing became constricted and his calves hinted at cramp. Sweat ran down his face and blurred his vision. Grains of sand coated his eyeballs like pearls.
When the hole was deep enough, he placed the urn upright in the centre and scooped sand over Nuala’s remains, until the urn was covered, then smoothed the sand with the soles of his shoes. Crouching again, his head buried deep in the collar of his coat, he took the other snap of Nuala he always carried in his wallet and examined it. Low tide on Easter Sunday; the day after the wedding. She stood at the water’s edge on Betra Strand; wind blowing her hair all over the place, while her grin hid the fact she was frozen. That day she’d said she wanted to be buried here when the time came. Johnny had kept his side of the bargain.
The walk back up was twice as hard. The helter skelter descent had taken seconds as his feet plunged comically into collapsing sand jumps. Returning, his movement was reduced to a crawl. Johnny slithered and stumbled, like a palpable player in a giant game of snakes and ladders. His breathing raced and he was hot. His face stung as if slit open by wind and salt and sand. Pausing for shallow breaths was futile, as to stop meant sliding backwards. Instead he forced himself to the top and collapsed on the path., skinning his hands and knees on the rough pebbles and sharp grass. Leaning on a stile, he lit a smoke and drew deeply. Coughing brought more tears to his eyes. Then he vomited. Bile and phlegm. Felt his legs buckle slightly, recovered his balance, then worried who’d find him if he died here. He’d slip back down the rain glossed dunes to the top of Betra Strand, where the wind would inter him. Dying intestate, the brother and sister could agree to share, or go to court to fight over his possessions. The thought was almost funny. Sinking to his knees, he felt able to accept death as his work was complete; he closed his eyes and concentrated on the jagged tightness of his chest. By the time he’d counted to 50, his breath was normal again. Making it achingly to his feet, half blinded, sweating and soaked, he felt pain only in his muscles. It had to be done; Nuala had wanted it and he’d promised it to her as he stumbled along the Fulham Palace road after seeing her slip into her final coma.
On the coastal path, the weather was no better but slightly changed in emphasis, with the wind and rain at his rear. He smoked another one down to the filter and took the path back up to the road at Kilsallagh. The walk was no longer exhausting, even if his calves would not forgive him. He emerged on to the road and headed for the Kilgeever View holiday cottages and the bar beside them. Inside he was the only customer; the barman and his girlfriend were playing pool and drinking 7Up. The lad slung down his cue in irritation and served Johnny up a pint and large hot one. Alternating sips, in case one drink grew too warm and the other too cold, Johnny glumly leaped through the paper. On the silent television faceless youngsters shouted something in American. Fucking music today; it was just the same in The White Horse at home. Home. London. Johnny gasped at the realisation. Mayo was an extended holiday, not reality; he felt disturbed at the thought. Tried to laugh it off and wrecked the pool player’s concentration by calling for another round of drinks, then turned over for the game on Sky Sports.
Outside an hour later, the walk for late lunch was even less appealing than before. He’d never liked this road, even as a teenager hitching lifts to dances in Westport every Saturday. The closeness of the past and its ghosts was intimidating. Buttoning his wet coat and hunching up his shoulders for warmth, he headed back the way he’d come and Tir na nOg. Quarter a mile on, at the foot of a small incline, a bus appeared at his shoulder; the 450 on its twice daily journey. It was deserted bar a couple of happy wanderers in proper hiking gear. Johnny grabbed a seat at the back near the hot air blower and dried his socks as best he could. Two hours ago, he thought he was dying; if he’d been spared, he owed it Nuala to use the time properly.
Two weeks later, Johnny watched the Bulgarian woman behind the counter in the departure lounge bar of Aerfort Iarthar Éireann set a creamy pint of black porter in front of him. What the fuck had brought her to Knock? He paused with the glass an inch below his lips and thought of the For Sale sign flapping stiffly in the teeth of a raw Mayo breeze, then laughed. He winked at the woman and prepared to swallow a four inch slice off the top of his pint.
“Here’s the thing I’ll miss the most. English porter is bitter bollocks.” The barmaid smiled;
“Going on holiday are you?” Johnny took up the glass again, studied the beads of condensation trickling down the sides and took a second satisfying pull, before tilting his eyes to indicate he needed another. Setting a three-quarter’s empty glass back on the counter he laughed.
“No sweetheart; I’m going home.”