Colm Tóibín short story: The Journey to Galway
A holiday read - 12 Days of Stories, Day 8: Bad news from the front
She remembered an unusual silence that morning – a stillness in the trees and in the farmyard, and a deadness in the house itself, no sounds from the kitchen, and no one moving up and down the stairs. But she wondered later if the silence had been real or, instead, if it had been something she had merely imagined afterwards. She was unsure if the news had not actually changed her memory of the hours that came before. At times she thought that it hardly mattered, but at other times, especially when she woke to dawn light and dawn birdsong, the details of how word of Robert’s death came, and precisely what the period before was like, belonged to her life as much as her breath did, or her heartbeat.
It came to her as a story that had been told and re-told rather than a brutal single fact, as though placing it in time and remembering how the news had spread would come to soften what had happened, ease it, edge it away. The details of her journey to Galway to tell Margaret, for example, and what went through her mind on that slow train. Or where she was sitting when the word came, and what went through her mind in the seconds before she saw the telegram.
She lay in bed some mornings living it all from moment to moment, knowing that she would go on doing this until she died and that nothing she could do would make it change. For her, there was a line between the time before she heard of her son’s death and the time after. In the time before, she had wondered, if news were to come, where she would be, what room she would be in, at what time of the day it would come. She had even pictured herself receiving the news, her own face in shock, her voice gasping. And every evening, as she walked upstairs to bed, she had marked the day just ended as another one that had come and gone without news and thus a day to be savoured, to be thankful for. These thoughts seemed as different from the thoughts of later as land was from ocean, as air from water, as a death in a play in a theatre from a real dead body lying in a pool of blood in the real street outside.
When Robert had written letters, they had been devoured. She knew that there was much he could not say, which meant that a stray phrase carried weight, perhaps even hidden meanings. But how much was often unclear because his letters seemed to be written in haste; perhaps he had intended phrases to mean nothing more than what they said. When he wrote: “I sometimes awake feeling as if some part of me was crying in another place”, it hardly mattered whether he had meant to alarm her or not, whether he had meant or not to let her know how afraid he was despite his efforts to be brave, and, as an airman in a war, how much daily fear he lived with and how much he masked. The other place where he was crying, she thought, was here, where she was now, the house which he owned, which his father and grandfather had owned. If the crying was hidden, then it was hidden here and in the woods and fields around here, and the thought almost satisfied her as she read the letter again and again.
It occurred to her afterwards that what he did in those few years when he was a fighter pilot was merely an exaggerated version of what we all do as we live: we swagger, we are full of pretence that there is no real danger coming towards us, we talk as though the enemy is in flight, or under control. As time moves, however, it drags us with it until the time for pretending ends and the body lies spent. When she saw him in London, and later when he came home to Coole, she noticed the swagger. She made sure that she gave no sign that she was watching all the time for a break in it, gave no sign that much of it seemed to her who knew him closer to bravado than bravery. She hoped he believed his own pose some of the time, at least, but she wondered when night fell for him and he was alone, how much he knew, how much he could foresee, and how little peace he got when the prospect of being alone and helpless in a burning plane thousands of feet above the earth insinuated itself into his waking time as much as into his dreams.
When she wrote letters to him, she thought too about chance. This letter, she imagined as she wrote to him, might be the last word he will read from me, or it might be the letter from me he will never read; it will arrive too late and it will be returned. It will be the special letter, written in hope, maybe even confidence, written to be read by someone who was alive, who would recognise the writing, and know that when she referred to Margaret and the children, she meant his wife and Richard and Catherine and Anne. These things would not need to be spelled out for him, since they were written in the quickened spirit of being alive, but they might never be read like that, they might become, unknowingly, last words, or they might be words that came too late, or they might be ordinary words glossed over, taken for granted.
The days before she heard the news seemed to have passed in slow time and lodged in her memory with sharpness and perseverance. She had gone to Dublin, stopping off on the way at her sister’s house where Margaret and the children were. She spoke at a meeting in the Mansion House calling for the paintings which had belonged to her nephew Hugh Lane to be returned to Ireland, as he had wanted, or at least wanted at the end of his life, a life also cut short by the war. The meeting was crowded and there was enthusiasm about the pictures and their importance for Dublin. The pictures were things that might matter.
From Dublin she wrote to Robert, saying that if the pictures came back she should feel “Now lettest Thou they servant depart in peace.” She was not sure she meant it, but he might see the humour of it mixed in with the sense of this struggle as the last one she would have energy for. And she gave news to him about the trees she was planting, the formal rows of larch with inlets of elm and sycamore, and then some silver birch and broom. And she added what she thought might please him about the children without making him too sad, writing of Richard with a catapult looking quite the schoolboy, and then concluding with the thought of what a happy world it might be “with you back and the war at an end!” She concluded with: “God bless you, my child.” She did not know that he was already four days dead.
When she came back from Dublin she went to the wood where she had been planting and was vexed that some timber had been given away and annoyed too the men were cutting the young ash which had come into sight after they had cut the spruce. She had imagined Robert coming home and seeing the ash trees and the blue hills between them and seeing also the broom and the flowering trees.
She decided that she would spend the whole next day at the wood making up for her absence, making sure that everything was done according to her plan. In the morning she asked for a sandwich to be made for her and the donkey carriage made ready and, while waiting, she decided to go into the drawing-room and write a letter, some letter that was urgent, or that seemed urgent then that morning. Her day ahead was fully planned, and it was easy to imagine how it might have been. She would have been well wrapped from the cold; she would have been decisive, thinking ahead to what things in the wood might look like in a year, and then in 20 years, and then in 50 years when other people, those not yet born, would walk here. That day could so easily have happened, and, as she made her wishes known and watched the work happen, it would have left her satisfied.
She was at her writing table when Marian the servant came in very slowly. When she looked up she saw that Marian was crying. She had a telegram. But there had been telegrams before. Twice on her last visit to London she had received telegrams and they were from friends about the breaking of some engagement. Marian could so easily have presumed that a telegram meant bad news. But when she was handed it and looked down and saw that it was not addressed to her but to Mrs Gregory, to Margaret, Robert’s wife, she knew that it was telling of Robert’s death, it was as simple as that, it was to Margaret they would send it. The first words she saw were “killed in action” and then at the top “Deeply regret”.
She turned to Marian. “How will I tell Margaret? Who will tell her? Who can go to Galway and tell her?” She tried to stand up but she could not. It occurred to her that she must not cry now or think about herself. She must fix her mind on one thing – on that scene she had witnessed a few days earlier, Margaret and the three children lodged with her sister, the ease and the peace in the house despite the worry. It was to be broken now. Who would break it? She wondered if she could send Marian and if Marian could hand Margaret the telegram as she had handed it to her. She told Marian to order some vehicle that could meet the train in Gort.
She went upstairs and got some things for the journey, even changing her dress as though it might matter what she was wearing. But it slowed time down as she selected it. It slowed time down as she took the other dress off and put this one on and then checked herself in the mirror and made sure that she had forgotten nothing. The carriage would be waiting. She wondered if there was one more thing she needed to do in the bedroom, but there was not. She had the telegram in her hand now, and that was really all she needed. She would have to show it to Margaret. Maybe that is what she would do, say nothing, just hand her the piece of paper.
As she walked towards the train she saw that Frank, her brother, was at the window of a carriage and was motioning her to come and join him. She looked at him and looked away and walked further down, away from him. She did not want his company. She could not speak. She went to some other carriage where there was a woman, a stranger. As she sat down, she tried to picture the scene in Galway, her arrival, she tried to imagine what words she would use if she were asked why she had come. She bowed her head.
At one of the station stops when Frank came to her window she tried to tell him, but found that she could not speak and instead held out the telegram which she had in her hand. For a second it struck her that if she could only have something else in her hand, then this might all be nothing, that it was the telegram itself which was bearing down on her. Frank spoke softly. “I know all about it,” he said. He had guessed from her face that some dreadful thing had happened; when he sent someone to ask the driver of the carriage, the worst was confirmed for him.
As the train went on, she cried, but not much, aware of the other woman, the stranger, opposite her. She forced herself to sit up straight and steel herself. So this was what Robert’s life had led to then, this death! It was like an arrow hitting its target. It would hardly matter now, or in the future, how cruel and thoughtless Robert had been in the year or two before he signed up. There was no need to judge him anymore. She would remember him instead when he was a boy, or a young man she was proud of. Someone brave and talented, filled with daring. His dying meant that she would no longer have to judge him. Death would simplify him and that at least was something. Margaret could mourn him, or some idea of him, and forget what he had done, forget how, in the time before he joined up, he had seemed to want her to know that he was in love with her best friend. In that time he appeared to enjoy the idea that Margaret knew that he and her friend had become lovers.
Perhaps it was easy, or too tempting, to be cruel to Margaret; she would, she thought as the train moved towards Galway, find out herself soon since Margaret would inherit everything, the house, the land. There would be a struggle. Robert was already in a place where such struggles no longer mattered. She gasped for a moment when Robert’s face appeared before her and the thought came that his body had been burned and that he might have suffered badly as his plane went down.
Yes, she thought, going to war had solved so much, it had left things in abeyance, it had meant that all discussion had been postponed, it had made compromise impossible, but in solving what it did, it had solved too much. It had solved everything so there was nothing left. All their daily thoughts, all the differences between them, all their knowledge of one another, were nothing now and would always be nothing.
Despite what had happened, Margaret had wanted him back. But he would not be back; he would not grow old, or live to regret anything at all, or be forgiven. Action had given him simplicity, as it must have done for others, an avoidance of having to deal with his own complexity. Death, however, would give him nothing at all. From now on, it would be all absence. For her too, everything she did or said in the future would be a way of distracting herself from the stark simple fact that her son had died in the war, in the last year of the war. There was hardly anything else to be said; the texture of what happened was reduced to a telegram, the telegram she still held in her hand.
And he had died in a British uniform, a uniform that had seemed more and more the uniform of another country. In joining the British army, he had been his father’s son; he had followed his cousins. He had not followed her, nor had she asked him to. She wondered now if he and those like him, the others who had died for this dream of empire, this large and abstract conflict between nations, would belong to the past, if they would not be shadows fading into further and deeper shadows. Their class would not hold sway in an Ireland of the future, she was sure of that. She began to imagine what it would be like instead if she were going on a train to Dublin to be with him on the night before his execution, if he had taken part in the Rebellion in Dublin.
She thought of how proud she would be on the train, how there would be some people travelling with her who would feel exalted by her presence. But it would end in the same way. It would end in death, it would end in three fatherless children, it would end in a future in which Robert would only be a name and a memory. He would never come into a room again. It hardly mattered what cause he had fought for, or what his impulse to join had been. It was over; he had been killed.
She was relieved that Frank kept away from her as she changed for the Galway train, relieved that Frank was not also going on to Galway. She looked around for Daly, the porter whom she knew. Someone would have given him the news. But there was no sign of him. She was glad that none of the strangers near her guessed. This was an ordinary day for them; perhaps there was comfort in that, but it was not a comfort that lasted long. When the train came she sat alone and willed only that it would go slowly, or that it might stop somewhere for a while.
In Margaret’s mind, she thought, Robert was still alive. Maybe that meant something; it gave Robert some strange extra time. Although she knew that that idea was foolish, it helped her but it also increased her dread. She was moving westward like cruel death itself, she thought. She was the one who had the news. Until she appeared in the doorway of that house, there would not be death. But once she appeared, death would live in that house. There would be nothing else except death. She carried death with her, she thought, as she had once carried life.
Later, every single thought she had on that train stayed with her as though she had written the thoughts down one by one there and then. But she did not remember the next part clearly. She moved from the light of day into dream as she left the train that day. It was already dark. She took a car across the city, or at least she must have, and they went to the house. She remembered the instant when she gave the man his fare.
When a maid opened the door, she remembered thinking that if only she could be back somewhere else now, in the woods, even in the train, even in the car on the way here. But she had arrived now. As she went into the hallway, she simply asked for Margaret. The maid said that Margaret was in the study with the mistress and followed her as she walked into the room on the right, a room that was seldom used. She told the maid to ask Margaret to come to her, just Margaret. She stood there with the door open. When her daughter-in-law appeared, Margaret looked at her and asked “Is he dead?” She handed Margaret the telegram and then turned away towards the window while Margaret read it. She had brought the news. It was done. It was over. The journey to Galway was over.
This is an edited version of a story that appeared in All Over Ireland, a Faber & Faber anthology of Irish short stories edited by Deirdre Madden