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.”
“I’m a man now, Father.”
The car engine must have disturbed Julia or she had grown tired of waiting for him. She appeared in the doorway, hesitating before her innate sense of hospitality made her approach.
“I’m probably the last person you wish to see. But please just give me 10 minutes of your time.”
Julia was almost at the car. She would insist on tea and cake and the rituals of conversation. How had this man found him? John wasn’t scared of him anymore, John hadn’t thought about him for years. He didn’t think about the past. He had enough to be thinking about.
“This is Father Coyne,” he told Julia. “He was curate in Killycumber when I was a boy.”
“I was in the district,” the visitor said. “I hope I’m not intruding.”
“How could you be intruding?” Julia asked. “I’ll be insulted if you won’t take a cup of tea.”
The man looked at John. “Only if I’m not intruding.”
Julia registered his look, like she registered the uneasy way her husband stood. If John had been a boxer, his opponent could have knocked him out and he’d still pretend to stand upright, with only a good referee able to tell he was unconscious. John didn’t show emotion, unless you knew the signs. He was tender, even when he disappeared into himself; a good man who felt things deeply. She would be lost without him. Yet she hoped he died first: John would only appear to survive without her, with nobody able to recognise his pain.
“Sure we were about to have a cup of something,” John said calmly, moving back to allow the intruder step from his car.
It wouldn’t be coffee, John thought as they reached the farmhouse. Julia only made instant coffee. There could be no ritual in serving that. It would be the good teapot in the parlour. It would be John and the priest left alone, while Julia fussed about. God knows what this man had to say to John because John had nothing to say to him.
With Julia gone, John felt a panic at being trapped, even though this was his home. Sensing his unease, the visitor asked: “You’re wondering why I came.”
“It crossed my mind, Father.”
“You needn’t call me Father.”
“I know, Father.” The title was no mark of respect, just a method of maintaining a distance.
“I came to apologise.”
John’s stomach felt so bad he wanted to go to where Julia kept the Maalox. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I think you do.”
“I do my own thinking now.”
“Then think about the harm I did to you. I think about it day and night.”
John walked to the window. “No disrespect, but I barely remember you. Maybe you’re confusing me with someone else.”
“I know my presence is a shock. It’s not easy for me standing here, but it’s not good to bury the past.”
“I’ve buried nothing.” John lowered his voice lest it lured Julia back from the kitchen. “I remember that village, where even the teacher had barely an arse in his trousers – in his case from donating his salary to John Jameson. I remember half-starved children looking down on us, all lined up, powerless to prevent him beating us. I remember that awful feeling of powerlessness and the old canon stinking of brandy though the confessional grille. And you trying to change things: togging out with the Gaelic team like you could be one of the lads, scoring points because your marker was too cowed to give you an honest clatter. Half the parish thought you a saint and half thought you were Karl Marx.”
“Do you remember my car?”
John stared out the window. “I remember you had a car.”
“Powerlessness is terrible. But absolute power is terrible too. Immunity, immaturity and loneliness: add them with power and it’s a dangerous cocktail.”
“You mentioned your car, Father?”
“Do you remember anything happening in it?”
“You gave me a lift once, to a county final.”
“Do you remember what happened after the match, John? What occurred eight or nine times between us?”
“I remember Killycumber Gaels won the final.”
“Forget the match. Do you think I’ve lain awake for years, and tracked you down, to discuss some bloody match?”
“I didn’t know priests cursed,” John noted caustically.
“At 13 you didn’t know priests did lots of things. By 14 you did.
John struggled to sound unperturbed. “Father, it sounds like you’ve come on a wild goose chase. You’re mixing me up with someone else. Someone who has probably long forgotten whatever you’re talking about. No disrespect, but maybe it’s time you did likewise.”
The visitor grew exasperated. “For God’s sake, John, will you even turn and look at me?”
John turned around. “I don’t take orders any more, Father. This is my home you’re invading, uninvited.”
“I thought it better I call rather than two policemen.”
“Why would policemen call: I’ve done nothing wrong?”
“I did wrong to you. No apology is enough. I’m in remission from cancer. I may only have another few years left, but I’m prepared to serve whatever time I have in jail to atone for what I did. You must be recompensed. You deserve more than my small savings. If I’m convicted you can take a case for proper compensation against the diocese. I’ve no right to ask you for anything, but I’m asking for the right to be found guilty of the wrong I did you. No judge can condemn me more than I condemn myself. You owe me nothing, but maybe you owe the innocent boy I destroyed. I can’t simply hand myself in because there can’t be a victimless crime. You were the victim. If I make a confession, the police will come and ask for a complaint against me they can act on. That’s why I want us to go to the police together. Bring your wife too if you have told her. I hope you have. I hope you’ve talked what happened through with someone.”
“Are you crazy?” John looked baffled. “Even if I knew whatever you’re talking about, do you think I’d burden my wife with that darkness? Half the parish thought you were a daft priest. Now you’re doting.”
“I was a weak priest, lonely and almost as innocent as you were. The seminary didn’t prepare you for real life. I did wrong. Before I die I want to put it right. You won’t have to testify in court; I’ll plead guilty with a written confession. You just have to confirm my statement that I did inappropriate things and cajoled you into doing them to me. I know I never physically forced you to do them: in so much as you understood what was happening, you were grateful for the bit of affection, the chocolate and lemonade and being made feel special. I never used force; I used kindness and the knowledge you were vulnerable. I never raped you, but even in that backward time I know the things I did were inappropriate.”
John’s gesture was so instinctive it felt primeval. He had never used violence against any living man, yet found himself pinning the elderly priest’s head against the wall with such force there was a thud. John didn’t care if Julia heard the man gasping for breath as John’s hands tightened around his neck.
“Don’t dare say you didn’t rape me, you bastard, and don’t think you can do so again. How could a court case involving your name happen without somebody in Roscommon putting two and two together? They’d gleefully light a fuse to burn all the way here. They would just love it: a labourer’s son masquerading as a big farmer? Find your own way to live with what you did and take it to the grave with you. Don’t think you can rape me and my wife and children and grandchildren by contaminating our name with your actions. I’ll not be used by you again. I’ll not have my life torn asunder. Do you understand?”
“John, you need help for this anger you’re carrying.”
John carried hurt about many things. About the third child they never knew because Julia had miscarried. But neither Julia nor he was stupid enough to believe their pain would be eased if they paid a total stranger to listen to their cares. They lived with it in their way, never needing to discuss that grief to recognise they shared it. Nothing could change how John’s father had died a drunk or how Julia’s father had quietly worked alongside John for 10 years, with John aware of how the man kept trying to leave this farm to his cousin, who refused to take it, rather than see the land pass to a labourer’s son. John had remained civil with his father-in-law like he was civil to everyone. But he would not be civil if this priest crossed his threshold again.
“That boy whose hands shook so much he couldn’t open your car door doesn’t live here,” he hissed. “Even if you could find him, he’d never forgive you for being a weak fucker preying on weakness. You may wish to carry your cross in public and be scourged and crucified, but I’ve news for you, Father: this is Kilkenny, not Calvary. I’ll not have my good name sniggered about in lounge bars. Now get out of my house. Fuck off to some cancer ward and die with your sins alone.”
There was the rattle of a tray. Maybe Julia stumbled coming from the kitchen or this was her way to let him know she was listening in the passageway. John removed his hand from the visitor’s throat and stepped back. Julia entered and broke the silence.
“I’m afraid, Father, my cake tin doesn’t keep things so fresh any more. Remind me to buy a new one, John.”
“I will. Father Coyne can’t stay. He got a call on his mobile.”
The shaken priest nodded.
“A sick parishioner: she may not last the night. I’ve a long drive back.”
“Then surely you need something in your stomach.”
“I’d sooner break the drive halfway. My back gets stiff. I’m sorry to put you to this trouble.”
“It was no trouble.” She allowed herself one glance between them. “If you’re sure?”
“You’ll be four hours driving, Father,” John said quietly. “All cross country, no motorways.”
“But no tolls either. It was lovely to meet you, Julia.”
“Will you see the Father out, Julia,” John said. “I need to ring the vet.” He looked at the priest. “Sorry you had a wild goose chase.”
“I’ll pray for you, John.”
“Pray for fine weather, Father. A few weeks of sunshine before the combines move in, eh?”
Julia made no comment on the fact that John didn’t shake his hand. She was a good woman he truly loved. She would ask the priest nothing, walking him to his car. Finally he heard her return. Julia saw he was shaking, with his back to her, but knew not to approach.
“I never like tea at this time anyway,” she said. “I’ll make us our usual coffee.”
When John finally spoke he didn’t know if Julia was still in the room; if he was addressing her or himself. “I told him straight,” he said. “You’ll not do it to me twice.”