The art of revenge, a short story by Martin Malone

Love, hatred, compassion and cruelty interplay in this story from ‘This Cruel Station’

He had thought to go home and ring for the guards, a doctor, but he knew whose baby it was, and he thought not to tell anyone was the better and safer option. Photograph: Getty Images

He had thought to go home and ring for the guards, a doctor, but he knew whose baby it was, and he thought not to tell anyone was the better and safer option. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Almost 5,000 acres of primarily horse and sheep country lie the width of a narrow road from his modest home: a house of joined-on rooms built over successive generations. Henry pays an annual nominal sum to the Department of Defence because his sitting room encroaches on the plains: back in the day, the builder went a foot over the house plan, and there are people and organisations, especially organisations of the State, that will not permit you to wrong them by a cent or centimetre.

In the midst of this lush and undulating grassland is a military base, first built on the Long Hill in the Victorian period as a series of temporary accommodation of pitched tents and wooden huts. Henry suspects this is an encroachment never paid for.

He is lightly built, carries a knoll of a flesh-mole at the side of his mouth, and his eyes are grey, large and rich with unspoken sorrows, quick in his lonely moments to glaze over.

Mel Gibson stayed hereabouts, in a redbrick cottage in the Sunnyhill region, while shooting Braveheart. Henry Sixsmith didn’t really rate the movie; he had worked in costumes on location and occasionally felt a tinge of guilt that he hadn’t expressed faith in Mr Gibson. It is in Henry not to treat legend as a factual entity, but he’d pretended to others that it had come as no surprise to him when the film performed well at the Oscars.

As a historian, Henry’s mind and tongue travel the ages in the space of minutes, back and forth like car wipers on high speed, much to the annoyance of those who loved a chronological sequence. He could be waltzing with Victorian royalty one moment, and the next singing with German WWII internees – not POWS as he had to correct an American tourist know-it-all, who had the bad-manner balls to correct him, and in company too.

Henry explained, ‘We were a neutral country – and the British and Germans who crash-landed here, and shipwrecked sailors also, were kept in wooden huts in different camps, naturally. And hear this, they were allowed to come and go as they pleased, once they promised to return in the evening.’

A mute American, Windy Glenn had said smiling, was a rare sight to behold.

‘Prisoners of War... come and go as they please,’ the American had said, the doubting mighty in him.

Windy is not a friend, far from it, but circumstances in life brought them together – through one means or another, the means being his love of history: the another... He is a member of a local historical society, never misses an outing to sites of historical interest and always listens keenly to whatever Henry has to say during a lecture, as though fearful of allowing a word to drop. On one of the rare occasions he spoke solely to Henry, he told him of the time his father uncovered a dolmen on his land and reburied it quickly. Not for love nor money nor fame would he divulge its location – refusing with a broad grin that Henry thought mocking and disturbing. And chillingly knowing.

Recent history comes with its remit – from time to time people in search of their long-lost relatives query him on who if any of them might be living in the area. ‘He is a mine of information,’ is said of him in his local pub, The Rising Sun, his wife present like a shadow. She is forever telling people that he knows nothing of any consequence. Wouldn’t spot a leper in a colony. She says stuff like this without thinking, for she has been thinking and saying it for so long it is has become her mantra. But if she doesn’t keep his feet on the ground, then someone else will, for there are tongues as sharp as the scythes that used to cut thistles during summer to make it easy for the sheep to nibble at the grass.

He loves the plains, every dip, every island of furze, what the islands hide, and he walks it most days, hail, rain or shine. He avoids certain areas, such as the rifle ranges when firing is in practice (for obvious reasons), and the all-weather gallops when nervous racehorses arrive from the nearby yards. He has a favourite spot he goes to, a mile away from his house, across the grasslands, along a lick of trail between furze whose thorns are like long fingernails stabbing, to the grave of the new-born baby he had found on a grey morning with the rain pouring as hard as he had remembered it ever doing. And she dead in a wine-coloured shopping bag, wrapped in a little red cotton blanket. Mop of black hair. He had almost stumbled over the bag, had been muttering to himself about litter louts. Ventured a look inside, driven to it by instinct more so than curiosity. The rain was beginning to seep through his jacket; he could feel it beginning to wet his bones. Angel face, closed eyes. A sickness took root in his stomach and he swears when he is unwell some days, that was the very moment when his health first took a dive.

Cradling her in his arms, he gave her his grandmother’s name. Rosie. Her dead heart against the beating of his, he looked around. No one. He had thought to go home and ring for the guards, a doctor, but he knew whose baby it was, and he thought not to tell anyone was the better and safer option. Natural causes, he assumed, or the cold had taken her. His daughter. But bringing the discovery to light was a pointless exercise. The baby was a day old, perhaps two. Continuing in the drenching rain, he’d stepped onto the trail between the gorse, about a hundred yards to a ring-fort he was aware was such from an ordnance survey map, a home for a family over 2,000 years ago. Legend – his great-grandfather had told him it was a home for the fairies. He left her there, returned home and emptied old tools and bit ends from a plastic box, washed it out, got the bottle of holy water he always kept on the kitchen sink, a new navy towel and a small spade he had kept from his army days, that he slipped under a dry coat.

‘Where are you going?’ Brenda asked, ‘and you as wet as a duck’s behind.’

‘I lost my wallet.’

‘You fool.’

‘Amn’t I just?’

‘Had you much in it?’

‘Not a lot. A ten-pound note. A photograph of us. Not much.’

Silenced her. She was thinking about their photograph in his wallet and yet how he said it was not much. Worth something, yet nothing.

‘You’re as grey as was your mother’s face on her death bed – what has shaken you?’

‘Nothing... nothing.’

It would be a burial, not abandonment, he’d thought, and no one need ever know that he had buried a daughter.

Twenty years ago.

Today.

Annually, the day and month always an icy accusing finger.

From the box room window, where he had taken to sleeping since Maurice their son had gone to Australia for the year, he watches Windy Glenn the sheep farmer drive his Land Rover across the plains. A man with a back as broad as the Cliffs of Moher, his fair hair turning silvery, a tongue that turns sour and bitter when drunk, a mind that a sewer rat would avoid taking a dip in, and yet, when stone-cold sober, he would take the shirt off his broad back and give it away, and not a cross word would trip over his lips. And last night he had rung Brenda to ask for her advice regarding his Delia, who had written him to say she was coming home. What should he do? Brenda wanted to know why he had called her. His response, Henry gathered, listening in to one side of the conversation, must have gone something like this, ‘You were her best friend.’

She had been, but known to her and not to Windy, was the fact that her husband and his wife were frolickers, a name Brenda thought up to describe what she called their ‘fucking in the bushes’. Henry took it for granted that Windy Glenn did not know. The few people who were aware of what was going on would not tell him because he would have killed the pair. After all, they reasoned, he had served five years in prison for killing his mother for undercooking a chicken. Things stood to reason...

‘She must be completely mad to get back with him,’ Brenda had said, off the phone.

He had not spoken, unable to.

So, she is coming home.

Delia.

His daughter’s mother.

Baby killer? No. He does not like to think that of her. Rosie died from natural causes and Delia in her grief had left her on her lover’s usual walking route. Ran away then, from a fear that Windy would get to hear of the affair, either from others or off the tip of her own tongue, pushed there by a guilt that did not listen to sound sense.

He steps back from the window, rubs his lips, and checks the time on his mobile phone. Not yet eleven a.m. He is presenting a talk in the afternoon to a group in the military museum, and it is easy money to talk on a subject matter he loves – twenty years ago today, relentless rain and his dead daughter. There is sometimes an itch in his mind that Delia killed Rosie because she had become unhinged from living under Windy’s shadow. An itch he drinks to breeze away.

Now the sun is shining, some of summer’s gold is still on the furze and Windy Glenn is a mad thing on the plains, herding his sheep to the dipping trench, flat of his hand beating against the outside of the Land Rover’s door, whistling, telling his dog to go this way and that and no way at all, for the collie stands with her ears twitching, trying to make sense out of the call of a man once certified as being insane.

In the kitchen he pours coffee. Brenda is adding turves to the stove. She is a woman who feels the cold easily, and she likes to feed her own coldness into it too.

‘I suppose you’ll be making hard tracks to see the hoor,’ she says, cleaning her hands of turf dust above the wicker basket.

It is not what he had been expecting to hear. He had anticipated a gentler and more subtle attack, a reminder that she would put Windy in the picture if he went sniffing after an old flame.

‘We have unfinished business,’ he says quietly, suddenly going off the coffee he had minutes ago felt he so badly needed.

This numbs her. Her head goes a little to the right, her chin falls. She sits to the armchair, knees close together, a position he has seen them in far too often.

‘He will batter yous both to death,’ she says evenly.

‘And you would care, yes?’

She gives to nodding but she is not nodding assent.

‘What is the unfinished business that you have with her?’

‘Something.’

‘I know well it is something. I asked what?’ her voice a low shrill.

He averts his eyes from her glare and briefly squeezes his nose between thumb and forefinger. Staring at a blue mosaic cube of a floor tile, he says, ‘There was a baby.’

‘Ah, it pours at last. I know. Didn’t Windy himself know, doesn’t he just?’

‘What do you mean?’ he asks, astonished.

‘He –’

‘But you said if I were to...’

‘What, take up with her? Indeed you would both end up dead. Last time, he killed the baby in front of her and laid it on the plains for you to find.’

‘You...’

‘You what, Henry? I kept my mouth shut is what I did – like he’d warned me to.’

Silence.

‘She,’ he begins, ‘Delia will want to see the grave.’

‘More fool you if you tell her there is one,’ Brenda says. ‘Now, I’m expecting Mrs Clancy over in a few minutes to bring me to the cinema.’

He stands and goes into the hall. Takes his rain-jacket off the rack. Shaken by the revelations: Windy murdered his daughter; banished Delia; smiled at him down the years and listened as he spouted tales about the history around them, who would surely have betimes observed him go deep into the furze to visit the grave, bringing his flowers. He wore the secret, exacting pleasure from the knowledge of knowing a piece of history that Henry did not.

Opens the front door, ventures into the world, carrying a tale in his heart, one he will he never speak of, though it is his to tell.
This story is extracted from This Cruel Station by Martin Malone (Doire Press)

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