”And you think you can stay around here?” he exclaimed in what sounded to me like horror. His words hit home so quick I didn’t know whether they were meant as a statement or a question. Did they require an answer: from me or himself, I wondered. Sure, I was intending to stay, or I should say, happy to stay. He was my father. I was the youngest, the only son. My two sisters had emigrated. It was down to me. Although my sisters had convinced me the night before they went away that there was always a place for me in London if I needed it.
Surely, he should’ve known I would want to stay. Who else would look out for him? Help with the few animals we had, look after the house, keep an eye on our wee bit of a farm, see he was all right, take him to Mass on Sunday, keep him company …“And you think you can stay around here,” I wondered, none the wiser, still trying to work out whether I was to take it as a question or a statement; if he expected an answer or not.
He’d dragged his Wellingtons over between the chair and the head of the table and was bent down struggling to undo the laces of his hobnailed boots. He looked different that way. If I had to go, I said to myself … If he threw me out and told me he didn’t want to see me or have anything more to do with me …
Right away, I recalled some of my mates and acquaintances in Dublin. The ones that were kicked out by their families when they found out: Mark whose father called him a dirty bastard and told him not to come near the house again as long as he lived; Keith whose da gave him a bad beating when he discovered he’d a lover, and who kept him locked up at home for a month even though he was near twenty; Philip who was under so much stress he’d a nervous breakdown, who’d no option but to leave his teaching job after one of his worst pupils saw him leaving a particular Sunday-night venue and the news spread by lunch-time the following Monday. The boys called him disgusting names right to his face, never mind the unconcealed whispers behind his back. Who could blame him for leaving, even if it meant the dole and finding a new flat across town? The dole didn’t even come into it for Robin … Twenty-four hours his parents gave him to clear out of the house and take all he had with him, telling him he wasn’t their son, that he’d brought all this on himself, that they never wanted to see him again as long as he lived. Which they didn’t. Coming home that night to find his body laid out on the bed in their room, empty pillboxes on his chest, half a glass of water under the mirror on the dressing-table, a short crumpled note telling them that his only wish was to die where he was born, that he loved them, and was sorry he hurt them but saw no other way.
The slow-rolling chimes of the clock interrupted my litany. He was still opposite me, working away trying to pull on his boots with great difficulty, his trousers rucked down his thick woollen socks. If I had to go, I thought, I’d never see my father like this again. Never. The next time I’d see him, he’d be stone-cold dead in his coffin, the three of us back together on the first plane from London after getting an urgent phone call from home telling us he was found slumped in the garden, or that they weren’t sure if he fell in the fire or was dead before the fire burnt the house to the ground overnight, or maybe they’d find him half-dressed in the bedroom after some of the neighbours forced in the door, trying to work out when was the last time they saw him, no one able to work out exactly the time of death…
He’d got into his Wellingtons and stood there wrapped up in his great coat, holding his cap, about to put it on, the enamel milk-bucket under his arm.
He moved slowly, tottered, almost, over to the front door. My eyes followed his face, his side, his back, his awkward steps away from me as his last words of a moment ago went round and round in my head like an eel scooped out of a well on a hot summer day and set on a warm stone.
He paused at the door the way he always did on his way out and dunked his finger in the holy-water font hung up on the door-jamb. It was an old wooden font with the Sacred Heart on it my mother brought back from a pilgrimage to Knock the time the Pope was over. I could see him trying to bless himself, not even sure if it was the finger or thumb he’d dipped in the holy water he was using.
He placed his hand on the latch. Opened it and pulled it towards him.
He turned round and looked at me, head first, his body following slowly. He was staring right at me which stopped my mind racing and swept my thoughts back to their dark corners.
“Will you stand by the braddy* cow for me?,” he asked, “while I’m milking … she’s always had a sore teat…”
* Irish bradach: thieving, trespassing
Translated by: Frank Sewell
From Four Front by Micheál Ó Conghaile, Pádraic Breathnach, Dara Ó Conaola and Alan Titley
Published by Cló Iar-Chonnachta