New Irish fiction
In the latest of an occasional series of short stories, a troubling past intrudes on a middle-aged farmer’s contented present in The Visitor by DERMOT BOLGER
JOHN DID NOT recognise the car turning into the yard. This perturbed him, though it wouldn’t do to let whoever was driving the black vehicle with Donegal numberplates know he felt perturbed. It was no farmer’s car, because only a fool would keep a car so clean when any fall of rain on the narrow roads nearby would render it filthy.
Nor was it a salesman or inspector from the Department of Agriculture or officer from the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association. A farmer like John, approaching 60, could afford to be ageist, but this visitor was from no statutory organisation – being long past retirement age. He was hardly a tourist, because what man of 75 or more voluntarily traipsed around, looking at ruins and churches that could no longer display collection boxes without them being stolen.
The visitor was dressed in black. John momentarily hoped he might be a mourner looking for a funeral, but had anyone died locally – even a Protestant – John would know. John secretly preferred Protestant funerals: there was still a wonder about entering Protestant churches with plaques to their war dead. Catholics had been forbidden to enter them in his childhood. Not that people paid attention to such rules now: neighbours piled into either church and simply into private houses if someone decided to be cremated with no priest or rector whispering sweet nothings.
John’s neighbours were good. In the 30 years since marrying into this farm, he had tried to be good in return, driving his tractor to cottages cut off by floods or quietly calling into elderly bachelors if he had evening business in town, knowing they would relish having a few pints in their old haunts and being driven home without fear of losing their licences or meeting boy racers taking on the challenges of the hairpin bends nearby. John was no local, but Julia’s family went back four generations. For all the talk of people being clannish, nobody ever made him feel like an outsider.
He was not awash with acres but nor was he awash with debt, like some farmers lured to invest in property in countries whose names they could barely pronounce. Julia and he never put their names forward to serve on committees, but he knew he was respected and if anyone had died within 30 miles he would have been phoned.
Therefore this intruder was no mourner seeking directions. Something about how he remained in his seat after switching off the engine convinced John that, for whatever reason, the man was seeking him. It felt like he was awaiting permission to step on to John’s property.
John discreetly wiped his palms on his coat as he approached the car, being friendly but wary because friendliness might cost him. The man was collecting for something – John became certain of this – money for charity or signatures on a petition. He looked like someone who once held a responsible job: such fellows always needed a crusade to compensate for the void of retirement. The man looked vaguely familiar now, but John suspected he would have to go back 20 or 30 years to place that face.
The only place John wanted to go was to the kitchen, where Julia would be listening to Pat Kenny on radio, the kettle already boiled for the coffee. John always stopped work at 11, so they could share 10 minutes of idle chat or companionable silence. He wanted to go nowhere near the past. Introspection, retrospection – he didn’t know the right term: just the taste of raw whiskey caused by such thoughts. The present should be enough for any man, especially one blessed with a wife who still loved him and two children with enough foresight to grasp the education John never had; education he had gladly funded, knowing it would lead them far away into successful lives, one in Dublin and one abroad.
Neither his son nor daughter would work this farm. They were right – although it had given John a better living than he could have expected, growing up as a labourer’s son in Roscommon, hearing his father still referred to as “the boy” in his 60th year.
The face in the windscreen looked apologetic, knowing its intrusion was unwelcome, despite John’s friendly manner as he opened the driver’s door to ask if he could help the stranger.
“You don’t remember me,” the stranger said.
“You’re ageing well,” John said, “unlike my brain. Your name’s on the tip of my tongue and yet it’s gone from my head. I’m a holy terror for names.”
“You beat me to it by seconds. It’s been a while, Desmond.”
Behind his apologetic laugh, John tried to recall every Desmond, Des and Dessie he’d ever met. He was careful not to get over-
friendly until he placed this stranger, because, if forced to invite him inside, it could be hours before the man got around to revealing what he actually wanted.
If it was merely a donation, John could fob him off in the yard. Twenty euro might be a small price for not having to bring him indoors.
“Forty-six years, John. You called me Father Desmond then or probably Father Coyne.”
It was cold in the yard; maybe it had been cold all this time. The black car and black clothes: no wonder John mistook him for a mourner. But no dog collar: the man’s shirt was open at the neck.
“What can I do you for, Father?” The friendliness feigned in his voice was tinged with caution.
“You took a long time to find. You’ve done well.”
“I’ve worked hard.”
“You were always a good lad.”