From “Fourfront – Contemporary stories translated from the Irish”
How was I supposed to know what to do – once I’d told him? I’d never seen my da crying before. Even when mum died nine months ago in the accident, he never cried as far as I know. I’m sure of it because it was I brought him the bad news. And I was around the whole time up to and after the funeral. It was my job to stay with him. His brother; and my mother’s brothers – my uncles – made all the arrangements, shouldered the coffin. And it was the neighbours, instructed by my sisters, who kept the house in some order. There was a sort of an understanding – unspoken, mind you – that it was best I stay with dad since I was the youngest, the only one still at home all year round.
That’s how I’m nearly sure he didn’t shed a tear. Not in the daylight hours anyway. He didn’t need his hanky even. Sure, he was all over the place, you could hardly get a word out of him. Long silences would go by and he just stared into the fire or out the kitchen window. But no tears. Maybe it was the shock. The terrible shock to his system. But then again, you wouldn’t really associate tears or crying with my father.
That’s why I was so taken aback. Mortified. Not just the crying. But the way he cried. In fact, you couldn’t really call it crying – it was more like something between a groan and a sob stuck in his throat. Yes, a muffled, pained sigh of revulsion a few seconds long. You’d’ve thought he choked on it like one of those horrible pills the doctor gives you. And he didn’t even look at me, except for a stray watery glance that skirred by when I told him; afterwards, it was like he was trying to hide his face from me, half of it anyway. It should’ve been easier for him in a way but not for me, there was no way I could look him in the face, for all my curiosity. So, while he dithered about, I sat there like a statue – only for my body-heat. The breath was knocked out of him; and me. Then I realized that even his smothered cry – if it could be let out – was better than this silence. Maybe you could do something about the cry, if it happened. A deadly silence was unworkable, impossible, as long drawn-out and painful as a judgment. I felt all the time that he wasn’t looking anywhere near me, even when he got his breath back and some speech.
“And you…” he said, as if the word stuck or swelled up in his throat until he didn’t know if it was safe to release it or rather he hoped, perhaps, that I would say it – the word that had popped in his ears just now, a word he was never likely to form in his rural throat unless it was spat out in some smutty joke for the lads down the pub. A word there wasn’t even a word for in Irish, not easy to find anyway … I forgot I hadn’t answered him, carried away trying to read his mind when suddenly he repeated:
“Are you telling me you’re …”
“Yes,” I said, half-consciously interrupting him with the same reticence, unsure whether he was going to finish his sentence this time, or not.
“I am,” I said again quickly, uncontrollably, trying for a moment to make up for the empty silence.
“God save us,” he said. “God save us,” he said again as if he had to drag the words individually all the way from Mexico. It seemed to me he wanted to say more, anything, an answer or just some ready-made platitude, a string of words to pluck from the silence.
“Do you see that now?” he complained, taking a deep sniff of the kitchen air and blowing it out again with force. “Do you see that now?”
He grabbed the coal-bucket and opened the range to top up the fire. Then he lifted a couple of bits of turf out of the 10-10-20 plastic bag beside the range and – breaking the last two bits in half over his knee to build up his corner of the crammed space of the open range – shoved it on top. The coal was too hot – and too dear, he’d say – plus it was hard to burn the turf sometimes, or get much heat out of it, especially if it was still a bit soggy after a bad summer … He took the handbrush off the hook and swept any powdery bits of turf on the range into the fire. He slid the curly iron frame back into place with a clatter and took another deep breath, focusing on the range.
“And have you told your sisters about this?”
“Yes. When they were home this summer; the night before they went back to England.”
He stopped a moment, still half-stooped over the range. He opened his mouth, then closed it again, making no sound, like a goldfish in a bowl. He tried again and, still choked with emotion, managed a broken sentence:
“And your mother – did she know?”
“Dunno,” I said. “Mothers know a lot more than they get told.”
“They do, they do. God rest them.” He blessed himself, awkwardly. “But fathers know nothing. Nothing until it’s spelt out for them.”
He was standing at the table filling an already full kettle with well-water from the bucket. He placed it on the range again as if he was making tea the way he did after milking-time. He always made tea with well-water, boiling it in the old kettle instead of using tap-water and the electric kettle unless it was early in the morning when he’d no time. It would save on the electric, he said. Even mum couldn’t get him to change. She wanted rid of the range altogether since the electric cooker was more consistent, more dependable for everything – dinners, cooking, boiling, baking, heating milk for the calves… There’s always the chance of a power-cut, he’d say whenever there was a storm or thunder. If the electric runs out, it’ll come in handy. And any time it happened, he’d turn to us, delighted, and say: “Aren’t you glad now of the old range?”
He lifted the poker. Opened the top door of the range. Plunged it in to stir up the fire, trying to draw some flames from the depths. When the embers didn’t respond very well, he turned the knob at the top of the range somewhat clumsily, making the chimney suck up the flame. He poked the fire another couple of times, a bit deeper, trying to let the air through. Soon there were flames dancing, blue and red, licking the dark sods and fizzing and flitting over the hard coal, shyly at first but growing in courage and strength. He closed the door with a deep thud, turning the knob firmly with his left hand, and put the poker back in the corner.
“And what about Síle Jimí Beag?” he asked suddenly, as if surprised he hadn’t asked about her earlier. “Weren’t you going out with her a few years ago?” he said, a hint of hope rising in his voice.
“Yes … in a way,” I stammered. I knew that was no answer but it was the best I could do just then.
“In a way,” he repeated. “What do you mean? You were or you weren’t. Wasn’t she coming here for a year and God knows how long before that? Didn’t she leave Tomáisín Tom Mhary for you?” He stared at the bars over the range.