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Short story: Home for the Christmas

`My father and me, with fine pints, sitting in silence, because nothing needs to be said. Moments they can never take away from us.’

Mon, Dec 30, 2013, 10:00


Niall Foley

I hand the chip and pin machine back to the girl and hope there won’t be a problem. After a few moments it makes a happy noise. The girl pops her chewing gum bubble and tears off my receipt and puts it in the bag and I walk out of the shop with two pairs of new blue jeans wondering did my father do the same. Not the same, exactly, because he has never worn jeans. But similar. A new shirt? A new suit? A new one of those donkey jackets he always seemed to be wearing in soft-focussed photos from the 70s? A new bic biro for the breast suit pocket from earlier, sepia scenes?

He travelled, too, a different road. From the streets of North London to Euston, the train to Holyhead, the Mail Boat to Dún Laoghaire. While my return begins with a dawn taxi to the airport from an Edinburgh suburb. And the taxi driver asking where I’m off to. And me telling him. And he, hearing my accent, talks to me like there’s been a death in the family. It’s bad, isn’t it, over there? Terrible, the way things have gone. I’m sorry for your loss.

But in his eyes, behind the sympathetic smile, something else. What? Glee?

They think we are all queuing for bread in the streets now. We’ve had our fun in the sun, even bought the apartment, but it could never last, and normal service has resumed.

I don’t tip.

I’ve not had a drink since I was last over. When I see punters necking pints with their breakfast the thirst is upon me.

But I keep walking.

On the flight I shut out the interruptions, the eastern European accents urging hurry, the smokeless cigarettes, the calendar, the scratch cards, the everything. Tiredness infects my mouth like a poison and I drift until I can feel our descent.

And then I’m at the window like a kid because there is one thing I want to see, just one. And out of the mist and drizzle they step, the candy-hooped chimneys of Poolbeg proclaiming their heartbeat in steady, slow, red-lit pulses.

And to my surprise, I’m smiling. For the first time today.

The queue at passport control is painful. And maybe it’s down to three years in the UK hearing about austerity and cutbacks. Or maybe it’s an emigrant’s chip on the shoulder. But I look at the gardaí in their boxes and think, what the fuck are you doing there? Shouldn’t you be out fighting crime? How much are you getting paid on your unofficial go slow, asking interminable questions to young Chinese girls who can’t speak English, because English is one thing from a book and another from a disgruntled culchie mumbling behind glass.

Arrivals is dense with crying babies, squabbling kids and snappy parents. Some young one with an RTÉ microphone looks expectantly at the newest batch of incomers, but her lips purse in disappointment. She’s looking for the ones that have interesting jobs in faraway places, the ones getting cheers and hugs and kisses from family and friends.

Not me or the likes of me.

My welcome comes outside, standing at the Airlink ticket machine. Looking at the prices and working it out, am I better off getting the single or return. And the pair of bus drivers staring at me.

“Jaysus, but you look stupefied,” says the fat man with the smoke.

“A Yank wouldn’t look as dumb,” says the thin one with the dripping nose.

There’s hope for Ireland. Humanity reigns yet. One time, in Edinburgh’s Waverley station, I touched an information assistant lightly on the arm while thanking her for pointing me in the right direction. She recoiled in her stab-proof vest as if struck.

The thing that surprises me every time I’m back is the dirt. Bin bags on the pavements, crisp wrappers in the breeze, broken booze bottles and squashed cans of beer in the gutter.

Every street suggests a memory. A party, a job, pints, a joke, a game of football. Particular sausage and chips from a particular chipper. Everywhere a thing.

And the thing I always liked most about Dublin, I now decline. Because even popping to the Spar for a pint of milk you’d meet someone or some ones. Hail fellow well met.

Not now. Now, the eyes down. Because I never wanted to be an office drone. In Edinburgh. And I don’t want to meet you today.

In Eason’s, for old times sake. Browsing the industry of books asking how it all went wrong. A bang against the window. Two dossers go at it, fall to the floor, wrestle. Shoppers and workers and commuters step around them. Kids laugh and point their phones. One dosser is on top now, roaring victory. The kids scream encouragement and he howls for the cameras.

A siren nears. The old man standing next to me shrugs.

“It’s getting worse,” he says. “They need to clear the whole place of the lot of them.”

Shoppers, commuters, drunks and junkies step around Jim Larkin too. Three years ago I loaned Strumpet City to a girl I was trying to impress. She’d gone to school in Mount Anville, was educated at Trinity, worked as a producer in RTÉ, and had never heard of the book. Now it is all over RTÉ and other places too. Strumpet City. James Larkin. The Lock Out. All over the place.

But it isn’t in the streets like a fungus behind the walls, like dirt under your nails, like petrol fumes ready to ignite at a lit match. Not like that at all. From one side of O’Connell Street to another junkies shout deals to each other with gardaí standing yards away. And on the south side I do not need to go to know which shops, restaurants and bars will be packed. Because the great lie about Ireland is, and always has been, that there’s no money in the place. There’s plenty. In some hands.

A glance across the river brings more memories. Of queuing to get the dole on Tara Street in the shadow of The Irish Times, its property section thinning with the blood of the nation.

Then a welcome Dublin coincidence arises after all. Meeting Peter, home from America, heading to Donegal on the same train as me. Hail fellow well met. We sit together and talk football in Croker’s fleeting shadow. We buy a supply of cans from the trolley lady and catch-up.

Peter, architect by trade, struggling in New York. Working in two bars and one Mexican restaurant. Two Irish bosses to break his balls and sweat blood out of him, one Mexican boss to treat him kindly. The Mexican likes him, astonished that the palest man in Queens should have the nerve to ask for work in a Mexican place. Three jobs so Peter can afford rent for a Washington Heights apartment he shares with two men and innumerable mice. But life, on the whole, not too bad. He’s riding like a rabbit and shagging every bird that moves. Plenty of doubts, of course, but thinks he’s in the right place. For now.

And what about me, he asks, in Edinburgh?

“Two more Heinekens, so,” I say to the trolley dolly. She’s looking after us now, making sure we’re well oiled. Each time she passes she smiles at us with those Eastern European cheekbones, high and sharp. Skin like a china doll and a tight arse in black trousers.

I enjoy the moment. I almost don’t want the train to arrive. I could let it last for ever.

But of course it doesn’t. Our cans run empty. Dromod Station nears and the trolley is nowhere to be seen. Peter and I have had our last drink together. We make vague arrangements for either me to call up to him in Donegal or him to call down to me in Leitrim sometime over the Christmas, though we both know it won’t happen.

My parents are there to meet me at the station. My father greyer, always, than I remember, my mother more stooped. My mother, smiling. My father, a quiet man with a firm handshake grins shyly, almost involuntarily.

On the drive home and at dinner they ask the usual questions and I say I’m grand. When my father goes upstairs to use the toilet I help my mother clear away the dishes and she asks quietly how my health is these days. Good, I say. And how is her health? Good. And Da? Good, she says.

Good. We’re all good.

Usually my father and I wouldn’t stroll down to Ryan’s until ten o’clock or after but I’ve a whore of a thirst on me and he’s been looking forward to this since the last time I was over. So we go easy and we go early.

And this is what the whole things is about. Just this. No fuss, in through the front door into the small lounge.

Well now, they say. How are the men?

My father and I nod and sit at the bar. Hugh slaps down the Guinness tap.

“Well, how are things beyond?” my father asks me. He’d asked earlier, but the question has more meaning now it’s just me and him.

“Grand,” I say. “And with yourself?”

“Ah, not bad,” he says.

Hugh puts the pints before us.

“Merry Christmas,” he says. “On the house.”

I said a moment ago that this is what everything is about. Let me explain. I can’t give you fireworks. No broiling father and son tension. Not even a pub fight can I offer. All it is, the whole thing, is my father and me, with fine pints, sitting in silence, because nothing needs to be said. Moments they can never take away from us.

And that’s it.

The pints, as pints do, flow. And the punters, as punters do, come in the door.

Mick Wynn is in his usual perch at the corner of the bar. He’s doting and deaf but knows I’m in Edinburgh and so lists all the places he worked in Scotland decades ago, when it was his turn. I feign interest even though I’ve heard it all before and stick it until I’m bursting for a piss and Mick has no-one to talk to then for a good while.

Hugh takes a breather and rests his elbows on the bar while countless pints are settling. He shakes my hand and asks me how are things beyond. And then I realise I must be getting pissed because it flashes through my mind to say, well, now, Hugh, it’s out of my mind I’m going, I’ve a job and a girl in Edinburgh which is one more of each than I had in Dublin, although between you and me the job pays barely more than what I got on the dole in Dublin. But worse than that, not one minute ticks by when not being in Ireland feels right and if it all makes sense then why does it feel so wrong? And what should I do, Hugh? What should I do?

But it only flashes, mind, it only flashes.

I’m grand, I say. And wouldn’t you know, he’s grand too. We’re all grand.

And through the door bowls Joe Devine, my old pal. He pulls up a stool next to me and has an arm around my shoulder and speaks low and signals to Hugh for pints.

Turns out he’s grand and I’m still grand. He asks me how’s the job and I ask him how’s the job. Then he asks if I’ve bought a place yet or am I still renting. Still renting says I and he hums and haws, as if to say, well, whatever you think best. And what I’m thinking is, Jaysus, are yez still mad for the property, after everything?

I ask Joe when he’s coming to visit for a weekend like he says every time and Joe asks me when am I going to join Facebook.

“Ah, now, Joe. Ah, now.”

There is whisky and Joe and my father get into talking about the price of cattle and I’m on my feet here and there slapping the backs of people I sort of knew once but never really knew and know even less now more than ever.

“Ah, you’re home for the Christmas,” they smile, as if that explains everything. The last time it was, “Ah, you’re home for the Show.”

And at some point, in the early, early hours, my father, almost losing patience, says curtly, “When are you coming home?”

And playing the fool, I say, sure amn’t I home now?

“Get out of that,” says he, “when are you really coming home?”

“When there’s work,” I say, flatly.

“Aye,” he says, “I know.”

Out of the front door we tumble and away up the hill, arms linked and my father stumbling. He’s older than Israel and for all his staggering I hope that I’ll be able to hold my drink as half as well if I reach his age.

My father eats ham from the fridge and I pour a glass of water and sit in the darkness of the living room watching ashes dance in the embers of the fire until the dance turns me dizzy and the sick come up like a punch to the guts and I double-over and spray Guinness-puke into the hearth and choke on the ashes spitting into my face.

I wake with a sore head the next and every day, not long home when I’m thinking about heading again. The appetite for drink gone, I drink anyway. In the pubs they look at me with mild curiosity, an eyebrow raised that I’m still around.

“You’ll be back home for the Easter,” they say.

Town the same as always, but different. Unfinished housing estates no longer shiny but damp grey. Blue European flag no longer flying above the hotel.

Inside homes the Queen’s visit loops in seemingly endless repeats. In my parent’s kitchen the television glow flares across a laminated A4 poster. Blue-tacked to the wall, grease-spotted under a film of steam, the words taunt a reminder, a dare, a dream.

“IRISHMEN AND IRISHWOMEN: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom…”

The perpetual hangover like a cloud above me the whole time, above me when my parents wait with me at the station, tracing the train tracks from Leitrim to Dublin, above me outside Bus Aras where a man with clear blue eyes invades my personal space and asks me for money for a hostel. I’m about to say no when I notice on the lamppost behind him another A4 laminated poster, faded and spattered with dirt.

Trevor Deely is still missing. Trevor Deely, who went missing one night in Dublin when the heavens opened and the taxi drivers were on strike.

And for some reason I give the man a fiver and on the Airlink I’m thinking about Trevor. Trevor, who missed the Luas, missed soccer in Croke Park, missed Obama altogether, would never have heard of him. Missed the boom and missed the bust. Trevor Deely. Still missing.

In the airport I’m sweating and straining to take a shit in a filthy toilet, straining to shit and straining to not touch anything. And thinking Trevor is still missing, and I’m going too now, I’m missing.

And my last step on Ireland is with my left foot and Ireland is hard and heavy beneath my sole and then both feet are on the metal staircase that feels light and tinny and trembles in the wind.

And in my seat I can’t keep missing, I can’t, so I start hoping. I start hoping for Trevor Deely, and I start hoping too for a proclamation that is on the wall of my parent’s kitchen.

And I’m hoping and hoping, and my two fingers reach for the window and touch the Poolbeg chimneys and cover their pulse under my fingertips. My fingers trail the twin towers across the window as the plane banks away, and still hoping I say goodbye.

Niall Foley currently lives in Edinburgh, and alongside holding down a day job, writes short stories, bitter poetry and failed novels.