A Man Came to My Door, by Ferdia Lennon
Hennessy New Irish Writing: December’s winning story
Author Ferdia Lennon
A few years ago a man came to my door and said he was my father. He had white hair, wore a thin coat with holes at the shoulders and his breath smelt of mint. At his heels sat a dog no bigger than a cat. I let them in. My house is large and the carpets are soft and thick. I noticed his muddy boots sink into the soft carpet and how he looked from his feet to me with a pained expression. When I walked into the kitchen and he and his dog followed.
“Would you like tea?”
“Aye, please. I’d love a cup.”
I put on the kettle and took two cups from the shelf. I made a lot of noise as I did it, knocking over other cups and other saucers. I felt the blood throb in my temples, in my throat, and when I looked at him I saw that he was shaking, though the stove in the corner gave off an orange glow, and the room was hot. I handed him the tea.
“Thanks. It’s a miserable day.”
He put four heaped teaspoons of sugar in his cup and gestured to the window. Outside slender branches twisted in the wind, and brown water poured from the fence that surrounded the flower bed. In an hour or more the whole garden would be flooded.
“I’m used to it myself, but poor Captain here is sick.”
He patted the dog who, in turn, licked his palms and whined. For a while nothing was said. We just looked at one another. I think each of us searching for signs of ourselves. His eyes were almost colourless, like a drop of ink in a glass of water, and my eyes are the same. His nose was flat and his lips thin and my nose and lips are the same. But his cheeks were sunken, and red, and, as he held the cup, the bones in his hands stuck out.
“Would you like something to eat?”
He shook his head.
“No, no, thanks, I only came . . . what I came . . .”
“Please, I’ll get you something.”
I stood up and walked to the press. There was a loaf of bread, ginger nut biscuits and half a chocolate cake. I cut a fat slice from the cake and brought it to him on a plate with a spoon. He picked up the spoon but then laid it back down on the table.
“Eat, otherwise it will go to waste.”
He ate. Slowly at first, but with each bite something happened to his face, a tightness around the eyes, or in the eyes, loosened, and by the fifth bite he had a smile of such simple enjoyment, such boyish pleasure, that I wanted to take him in my arms, as if he were my son and I the father, and tell him he was very dear to me, that he was important and not just an old drunk made happy by chocolate. When he finished he took a long gulp of tea and puckered his lips with satisfaction. A little brown stain remained on the corner of his mouth.
“Thanks. That was lovely. Thanks.”
He scratched his ear and I went to do the same, but stopped myself. The dog pawed at his knees.
He rubbed the dog under his neck and his chest and the dog continued to paw him.
“I know what you must think and I . . . stop it Captain, I’m sorry, he’s . . . I know what you must think of me. I’m . . . Captain!’
He told me he had wanted to come for years, but was afraid I would turn him away. That he’d always asked about me and known about me. That he’d followed my career with great pride. He used those words. “Great pride”. I had a sense when he talked that he was trying to use a vocabulary or a way of speaking that was not natural to him, but which he felt I would approve of. He said he had been at my mother’s funeral, that he’d stood at the back behind the trees and when everybody had gone he’d said a few words at her grave. For some reason, I laughed and hearing me, he winced. He said he knew it wasn’t much, and then he took a sip from his cup though it was empty.
We sat like that for a long time. The fire from the stove cast dancing shadows on the wall, and the dog and I watched them. The man was speaking again, telling me that he was no good, and I’d been better off without him. He said he tried to be good, but it came to nothing. He had a sickness in him, a weak man was what he was and it made him glad that I’d taken after Anna. Anna was strong, and I was strong. I reached out and touched his head. It wasn’t planned, and I was as surprised as he when I saw my hand on his white head. He smiled and took my hand in his bony hands, and squeezed.
I made us both another cup of tea. We spoke of my mother and how they met. She would never talk about him and his story was new to me. He said they met at a dance in Killorglin. He said he won her by singing songs and that though he wasn’t much to look at, his voice had once been something. The night of the Killorglin dance he’d followed her down the main street singing until she became so angry, or embarrassed, she agreed to meet him. I made some comment about how in that case his voice was probably bad, and he laughed and patted me on the back, as though I had said something very witty.
“You’ve my sense of humour, but you know that’s the true story. She never told you that? Really? Oh, and when we met up I brought her to Dingle, took her out on a boat, my cousin’s boat, a little rickety thing and I sang her a song. A made up song, about the things we were seeing, the other boats, a seal popping its head up, the gulls, about how they were all jealous of me because I was in a boat with the prettiest girl in Dingle, and she slaps me, but it’s a mess slap, a cod slap and says “only Dingle?”. I’ll never forget that. Only Dingle, she says and I say no, not just Dingle, all of Ireland and she asks if that’s true or if I’m only codding, and I look at her, dead serious, and say no, all of Ireland, and then I sing it, all of Ireland and she kisses me and . . .”
I stood up and walked to the window. He sat in the corner, still talking, satisfied that we were now friends. His voice blended with the sound of the rain on the glass and the scratching of branches on the glass. None made any sense to me. They were just there. His dog sat at my feet, a pink tongue licking my shoes, and I noticed there were paw prints of muck all along my trousers. I looked from the stains on my trousers to the brown stain on the moving lips of the old man. Beyond the words, which I didn’t understand, I knew that he was happy. There was a sharp pain in my temples and a feeling of too much blood in my brain, a feeling that my skull must be ready to burst with so much of it and I looked at the old man, and I put my foot on the head of the dog at my feet, so that it couldn’t move, and I pressed my weight down on it. There followed a yelp and the sound of something cracking.
In a moment the old man was kneeling on the kitchen floor, kissing the dog on its eyes and its nose and its neck. He took it in his arms and the dog whined, and its eyes rolled. As he rocked it, dark blood trickled from its ear onto the tiled floor.
The old man was crying now and whispering the same words over and over again: Captain . . . Captain . . . please.
“I’m sorry. I”
He looked up at me. All his features seemed to shiver. It was as if his skin were water and a soft wind played upon it.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
He continued whispering to his dog. Kissing it and rubbing away the blood with the sleeve of his coat. Watching I felt strangely jealous, and I believe that if in that moment I was offered the opportunity to change places with the dog, I would have. For the second time in my life I touched the man’s head, but he moved away and only cried the more.
How long he knelt there I’m not sure. It felt like a long time. It was enough for the cup in my hands to go cold. When he got up he wrapped the dog inside his coat so that its little head poked up from his coat collar and its wet eyes blinked rapidly. He tried not to look at me, and I tried not to look at him. As he left I stayed in the kitchen and pretended to sip tea. When I heard the front door shut I knew he was gone, and I walked to the sitting room window. The curtains were drawn and I pulled them back to see the stooped figure of the old man move slowly along the driveway and out the gate. He took the path that led towards the bus stop and I wondered what bus he would take and where he lived. From the rain his white hair had turned grey, and I watched this grey thing grow fainter in the distance, till it was only a grey speck at the top of a grey road and when it was gone, I watched the road.
Not long after I went to the kitchen and cleaned the cups, the plate and spoons. I took special care with the plate and washed it twice. In a few minutes there was no trace that the old man or his dog had ever been there. Just a dark streak of red on the tiles which I scrubbed with boiling hot water.
Originally from Dublin, for the past few years Ferdia Lennon has been largely based in Paris where he teaches at Université Paris Est. He holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, and was highly commended in the Sean O’ Faolain Short Story Prize. His fiction has appeared in publications such as the Stinging Fly, Wordlegs, 30 under 30 and Southword.