Two miles out the railway in the Kilkenny direction there’s an abandoned farmhouse. Word was their father had been living there for a month now.
Neither daughter had been out to see him. When rumours first reached Sinéad that he’d been clocked rummaging through the charity shops and Reduced to Clear aisles, her instinct had been to keep the reports from Naoise. Neesh was flighty enough as it was, had more than enough on her plate to be getting on with. But in a town like Lisnashee it was never going to be possible to keep his re-emergence under wraps. Then Tuesday last as they were leaving the Pikeman, one of Sinéad’s session companions had squeezed her forearm and gestured toward a figure loitering by an ATM. Parka jacket, tangled hair, head and arms cramped about a tin whistle. An oul mongrel on the pavement beside an upturned hat. It had been years, but a queasy somersault in the gut put paid to any doubt. You guys go on, she said. Sure you’ll be alright? Yep.
She waited for the others to turn the corner before crossing. She then stood before the figure until the silver-streaked hair parted and his evasive regard met hers. Face a wet mask, weather-coarsened. A swelling pushed down over the left eye, giving it an oriental slant. A quartz-coloured scar cut through the bridge of the nose. The mongrel glanced up twice without raising its head from its paws, a red bandana tied about its neck. Go on away home. No-one wants to listen to your Roddy McCorley here.
The tune stopped. Home, is it? Voice viscous with phlegm.
I hear you’re camped out in the old McGowan place. His gaze shifted to the side, as though surveying the empty street. Go on away before anyone else comes out would you. You’re an embarrassment is all you are.
The grey eyes returned, one cramped, one wide open. Since when did you get so hard?
She shrugged. The answer was too easy. His mismatched eyes acknowledged this. What’s with the mutt? she asked. As though it knew it was being talked about, the mongrel licked its muzzle. I suppose he gets you the sympathy vote.
Sympathy. He hacked a hoarse protracted cough. In this…backwater?
Then there’s nothing to keep you here, is there? She walked away at once through the drizzle, hearing the click-clack of her heels above the cough’s long dredge.
It’d been years since she’d walked the tracks. Getting away from it all as an adolescent, she used love how the crossties lulled you into their rhythm; how the parallel lines converged beyond the horizon. Meeting at infinity.
The mechanical rhythm, the unfocussed memory, the low November sunlight combined to keep thought off the treadmill until she rounded a bend and came abruptly within sight of the derelict farmstead. Outhouses with rusted corrugated roofing; an empty, open barn that had once been painted green. The farmhouse itself had been built in the era of thick walls and miniature windows. The carcass of a tractor, there since her childhood forays; a doorless Datsun she and Neesh had played inside; a black tarpaulin weighted with tyres. The year before Naoise was born, the McGowans had sold up, left for good. What was new was that to every side, the boggy farmland had been given over to drab regiments of spruce and pine. Across the valley, a battery of wind turbines dwarfed the bungalows beneath.
Levering herself through the bars of a gate, Sinéad began to feel uneasy. The abandoned is charged with something more disturbing than melancholy. Hullo, she called out. You there? In reply there arose a yelp, a whine. The tug of something tethered. She entered the yard. Tied with blue plastic rope, the mongrel was skipping impatiently from forepaw to forepaw. Hey fella, she said, hunkering and proffering the back of a hand. Beyond its fervour she made out the blackened disc of a campfire hedged by whited fagots. Hullo! she called again, waking the scrutiny of the eyeless windows.
She untied the rope and led the dog inside the farmhouse. The interior was dank with the odour of mould. Dark as dusk. Anybody home? Living-room and kitchen a single space, the ruin of a bedroom beyond. The den she’d played house in with Neesh had been bigger, surely? Before the open fireplace someone had dragged a mattress, a sleeping bag, a cushion for a pillow. About the sink was a ragtag host of rifled tins and packets. Before she’d a chance to examine them, the dog came to life, prancing in the direction of the doorway, whimpering. She saw through the cobwebbed pane an unkempt figure in a Parka, a black refuse sack over one shoulder.
He watched her readjust to the daylight. You doing here? His tone gave no intimation he was surprised to see her emerge from the house. There were still rags of phlegm in his throat, but she recognised the old resonance. He was looking at her so directly it was insolent. Sizing her up. And though it was her own father it made her self-conscious. She was flat-chested. Ungainly. Awkward with people. Behind her back in the staffroom they called her Calamity Jane. Naoise was the looker of the family.
I could ask you the same question.
He set down the refuse sack beside a cairn of rubbish, the assorted junk you might find in an office skip. He peered into the distance, shrugged I came back. The dog was pawing at his thigh but he ignored it. You don’t get to come back.
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Jesus would you listen to yourself, Sinéad. This schoolteacher thing must’ve gone to your head altogether. He pushed the dog roughly away. Since when do you get to say who lives in Lisnashee? She nodded, slowly. She hadn’t expected him to simply up and leave. You heard I’m a teacher then. She banished the image of Naoise from her mind as though fearing he might glimpse her fragility there. You’re not totally out of touch, so. I was in Birmingham, not bloody Siberia. You never came home for Mam’s funeral. Your mother...her people wouldn’t have wanted me there. She snorted. You can see their point.
He shook out a cascade from the refuse sack. He then began to poke through the contents with the toe of his boot. You’d be amazed what people throw out. For a while he appeared absorbed in the task. There’s a few quid in it if you know where to look. Then he asked carelessly, what has you out here? In place of replying she dug out of her coat pocket the roll of blue banknotes and made toward him, arm extended. What’s that? he squinted, suspicious. She saw that her hand was concealing the bundle as though she were ashamed of it. Three hundred euro.
Now she had his attention. The mismatched eyes moved from face to hand, his features trying out a range of emotions as he puzzled out what she was about. She read there need, wariness, indignation, desire, mistrust. Three hundred euro, he nodded, then made a show of returning to the scatter of rubbish. It’s yours, she said. His interest was deliberately on the items of junk. He picked through them individually, turned them, threw them to one side or the other. How d’you figure that?
I’ll cover the train-fare too. Dublin. Cork. Anywhere you want, Daddy. The unexpected word snagged, hurt her throat. Momentarily he paused. It’s Daddy, now? The unkempt hair curtained the face. Had she glimpsed derision? At length he straightened up, tossed a circuit-board to one side. What’s the big rush to have me move on? And when she failed to reply, what harm am I doing you?
You can’t just rock up after eleven years. Says you, Sinéad. She glanced at her hands, one still cradling the roll of money as though to conceal it. They had less of a tremor than the tremor in her breathing. Can a man not return to the town he was raised in?
Something bordering on humour lightened his features. Why not now, with both my daughters grown up?
You were seen so you were. Oh? Trying on cheap oul suits in the NCBI and Sue Ryder’s. He shrugged, facetiousness hovering around his lips. He’d been a handsome man. I didn’t know there was a law again trying on suits. She stared hard at him. She wasn’t about to smile. What has you home? You tell me, Sinéad. She considered how much to say. How much she might give away. She doesn’t want you there, Daddy. Who’s that, now? Naoise.
Naoise, he echoed.
She was always your pet. Daddy’s little girl. He met her square in the eye, and if she was? Flippancy had evaporated; in its place, the rigid set of defiance. Listen to me, Da, she called round to see me. Naoise? Yeah. Naoise. You asked what brought me out here? She called round last night. In bits she was. She’d heard all about you, mooching about town. You’re not making a whole lot of sense, Sinéad. She begged me to talk to you. She’s scared stiff you’ll show up and make a holy show of yourself. His eyes became granite. Is she, now? Maybe you’re making it up, and she never called round to you. Sinéad shook her head. I suppose she thinks I’d show up drunk? You may tell her I don’t drink. I never developed a taste for it.
She just doesn’t want you there, Da, can you not understand? Eleven fucking years, Daddy. That’s half her life.
It was as though he deflated. You don’t think I know that?
Then move on. Her hand extended toward him. Take the money.
Fuck sake, Sinéad. He turned his back, made toward the farmhouse door. That what you girls think of me? Some scrounger you can buy off? She clenched her fists, balling the notes. She needed to regulate the rapid shallow breaths. We don’t, she said. Think of you.
He stopped, head angled. Then he asked without turning, who’s the fella? Sorry? The fella Naoise has lined up.
Then he did know. He knew, and that was what had him back. After eleven years. His name’s Jamal. Jamal? Psychiatric nurse, up in Dymphna’s. And before you ask, yes he’s a foreigner. He remained back turned to her, unmoving. Don’t put words in my mouth, Sinéad. Yiz know nothing about me. She might have said whose fault is that? But he might have taken that as invitation to justify himself. To set out his side of the story. She felt something cold push into her palm, then the dog’s hot slobber. What’ll I tell her, Daddy? Silence. The lump in her throat ached. I was fourteen. I had some chance, like. Neesh hadn’t even finished with primary school.
He turned, slowly. Tell her… A flick of his head parted the curtains of greying hair. Stubble glistering like granite. Hard to believe he was still in his forties. Tell her, she’s so desperate for her old man to stay away, she might have the common decency to ask me herself. Not forever be hiding behind her big brute of a sister.
She nodded. Mammy’s sin was to be six years older. You always held that against her. And you held it against me, a baby, like. I was married way too young. No-one put a gun to your head, Daddy.
You know nothing about it. His mismatched eyes shifted about the farmyard, recalibrating. I was pure nuts on Lainy. Really? Because that’s not… Shut up, yeah? Just listen a minute. That six years was neither here nor there. It’s that, once we got hitched and then you come along, all the shine went out of her. The bounce. She was like a wild goose lets the flight feathers get pulled and takes to waddling about the yard. All of a shot everything was why we couldn’t. Before, she’d been pure wild, like. That’s why my folks were dead set against the wedding. Said she was codding me into it. If I’m honest I think I married her to spite them.
Then I came along. Ach, I’m not saying it was your fault, Sinéad. I’m not telling it right.
She stared hard, not at him, but at the ground just before his feet. You never even said goodbye, she whispered. I didn’t know I was going! I swear to... There was an appeal of kinds in his rough features now. I don’t know how much you remember about that night. We hadn’t even rowed. But it was the same slow, dull, bad-tempered silence the house had filled with. I stepped outside for a fag. It was mizzling. But warm, not cold. I set out along the Barrow - that walk I used take you and Neesh on? I got as far as the old railway bridge. Then stead of turning back I kept going. To the next bridge. Then the next. Then the one after that. Always, one more bridge. Then it got too far to turn back. Or too late.
Her eyes had teared up so that it was like looking through bubble-wrap. But she felt nothing. Nothing beyond the tumour clogging her throat.
I mean, I’d literally nothing with me. Not one thing! Not even a hat, just an oul denim jacket. I didn’t know where I was going much less what I was going to do once I got there. I only knew I couldn’t skulk back to that...birdcage. Nineteen I was when I married. Now here I was, thirty-five years of age and never done one thing I’d wanted to. Like a cage-bird has never even stretched out its wings.
After the bank repossessed the house, she declared, measuredly, we spent the next six months living out of a single room up in the Lord Bagenal.
You think I wanted that? I planned to send back money. Only it didn’t work out. I’d nothing with me, no papers, no ID. A couple hundred in the bank is all, and that was soon gone. Six months, she resumed, thankful the tears hadn’t brimmed over, with nowhere to cook or wash clothes, the kids in the community school calling us dirty knackers and teasing Naoise how her Da walked out on her. I spent many a hard night lying on cardboard under the Bull Ring so we won’t compare hard luck stories. But it was your choice, Daddy. You brought that down on all of us. And what would you’ve had me do, Sinéad? Stick around till we were all at one another’s throats is it? Did you never think what effect her father walking out might have on an eleven-year-old? Not a single day went by without me thinking about her. It was that hurt told me I was alive. Even after I hit rock bottom. Especially then.
Mam was so far gone when she finally got around to seeing a doctor there was nothing they could do for her.
What do you want me to say, Sinéad? I’m sorry, is it?
I want you to say you’ll leave us alone.
There was growing unease inside the church. Shuffles had given way to coughs, coughs to whispers, whispers to mutters. An tAthair Maoileoin had run through his repertoire of facetious expressions and had withdrawn to the sacristy. To the groom’s side, the jibes and ragging had long since subsided. Three times, the best man soft-pedalled the long walk back up the aisle to see if there was any sign. Three times he’d returned, on each occasion with less reserve. The bridal car was still parked across the river - you could make out its ribbons from the front steps of the church.
She tried once more to take Naoise’s hand. We can tell them you’re not up to it. Tell them go on home. Or to go for a drink, like. The hand was pulled away. Neesh? Sinéad peered out from the back seat of the car to where her partner was standing beneath an umbrella at a discreet distance. Claudia looked severe in her cerise trouser-suit, in spite of the jaunty satellite-dish hat.
Sinéad put her palm on her sister’s back. Take a few deep breaths, love.
I’m not about to have another panic attack if that’s what you’re afraid of. And it was true. If anything, Naoise was preternaturally calm this morning. That in itself had her worried. Beyond Claudia, she could see across the river where the groom and best man had appeared under the arch of the church, miniature as figurines on top of a cake. We’ll have to tell them something, Neesh. You’re not being fair to Jamal. Jesus I’m not a child, Sinéad, you know? Then stop acting like one, she thought.
That’s when she saw him, dandering by the bridge, watching. Claudia too had seen him and was questioning her with an expression of mock horror. Champagne linen suit over a paisley waistcoat. Clean shaven. Hair oiled and pulled back into a ponytail. Christ, she sighed. Naoise pivoted about, her brow corrugated.
In slow motion their father detached himself from the bridge, rolled his dampened shoulders, sauntered toward them. When he reached the car, he leaned an arm heavily on the roof and bent so that his face, strangely shy, filled the window beside Naoise’s. Sinéad heard the mechanism click, but couldn’t have said which of the two had opened the door. There’s still time, if…, he said. But the car rocked as the bride-to-be stepped out into the fine drizzle. Ready to put your head into the noose? He held out his forearm, and she laid a gloved hand on it. Then, at a stately walk, he led his daughter across the bridge.