A round of applause awoke Darragh from uneasy sleep. Bright light and chatter washed over him, and as the “fasten your seatbelts” sign dimmed, the dreaded child in the seat behind him bleated:
“Mama, we’re home!”
He stood up, squinting, as cabin bins crashed and people jostled to get off the plane. Waiting stubbornly until it was almost empty, he ambled down the aisle. An air hostesses gave him a jaded beauty queen smile as he left.
Four years, almost to the day. Four years on a holiday visa. Of hard labour, cash under-the-table, no health insurance, of worrying about the authorities. Four great years. He’d had some laughs and made money despite his status. And when he’d come through this same airport three weeks from now, he’d be able to describe himself with that elusive, coveted adjective: legal. God Bless Bruce Morrison.
The hangover hit him half way down the clanking corridor that ran from the plane to the arrival gate. Fuck. He floated in a cloud of bright, queasy disorientation, fallout from those sneaky tequila shots Deirdre Keeley kept dispensing from her duty-free under the seat.
“How’s the head?” she said, as they stood in line with their passports open.
“Yeah, me too. Wait till you get into the arrivals hall. That’s the real homecoming experience … ”
Nightmarish, right enough. It was all hours of the morning East Coast time. The lights were like an operating theatre, the heat stifling, and he was dying to go to the jacks, but he couldn’t go now because he’d miss his luggage, and the Fender would disappear like a flash …
He recognized at least a dozen people off the New York plane. Thank jayzus most of them were too zonked to start any conversations. But the ones outside at the barriers, that was another story. Las Familias, baby. Jammed up against the rails that formed a passageway for the returnees through a huge crowd. Dutifully cheering as their zombie offspring poured out of the double doors, pushing their wobbly baggage carts, bleary eyes peeled for the folks, who were sporting their Sunday best and their most heart breaking welcome home smiles. It was always happy families at the barriers. A nice thought. Starting off on the right foot, like. That was important.
The first shock for Darragh, as he steered his trolley across the arrivals hall, was the sight of his father, standing there, sternly, all by himself. Shite. He raised his eyebrows and smiled hopefully as he caught his father’s eye. The man raised his hand in a half salute and nodded back.
The next shock was one that took a couple of seconds to hit, and that was to do with the fact that after four years away, Da had changed. The hair, receded now in the front, was a solid silvery grey, the stance was different, something naggingly obvious that he couldn’t quite pinpoint. It disturbed him, somehow, and almost made him want to make a special effort, until Da spoke.
“Are you out of your bloody mind, bringing that guitar three thousand miles across the planet with you, I hope you don’t think you’re going to play it at home!”
“Yeah, well don’t worry. I’ll spend as little time as possible at home so, if that’s all you can say straight off.”
His father’s jaw locked and he turned on his heel, heading out into the car park, under the leaden sky. Darragh followed behind, sullen. Here we go, he thought, ground zero and three more weeks ahead of them.
He hadn’t wanted to be picked up at the airport, but Ma had insisted when she called with the news. “It’s that Greencard interview thing, love. Now you’ll be able to come home!” It was ironic that for his mother, the Greencard interview notification meant a homecoming, rather than an opportunity to consolidate his life in America, but he was saying nothing.
Father and son both committed to a wall of silence as they put the bags into the trunk, including the offending guitar. Amazing how many rows the guitar had caused in the house. The mere sight of it set Da into a frenzy. Even when the old band had been getting places, doing support on major tours, his father never once had a good word to say. In fact the more success they had, the more resentful his father became.
“Your mother’s over collecting your sister off the London Boat Train in Dun Laoghaire.”
“Aye. She decided to grace us with her wee presence when she heard you’d be over.”
Cíara, cool. A partner in crime, at least. His stomach capsized unexpectedly as the car made a sharp right, and he had a sudden desperate fear that he might throw up. But as they straightened out again on the new motorway in from the airport, his insides calmed down a little and he was able to persuade himself he was alright. A soft patter of raindrops crept across the glass and soon the sky opened its torrent of polluted tears onto the charming expanses of Dublin’s Northside. His father concentrated exaggeratedly on his driving, in silence.
Jaysus, you’re looking well, son – how’s it going with you anyway? It’s great to see you! I hear you’re doing fine over there!
Yeah, it’s been brilliant, Da. The band is getting a load more gigs now and there’s an indie label showing interest. That’s a start. Let’s head in for a swift jar there at Redmonds – hair of the dog, yeah?
Nah. Not a chance. Only the steady beat of the windscreen wipers provided a comforting alternative to the silence, and in his head Darragh used them as timing for a silent version of “Who Do You Love” – reggae style. Suddenly Da spoke.
“Still messing around on the motorbikes?”
“Yeah. Actually, went down to New Orleans there last month, with Lisa, it’s great off-season.”
“That Jewish girl?”
Darragh took a deep breath before he spoke.
“Listen, I know you still don’t like the idea of the motorbikes, Da. But if you ever had one you’d know the story.” Da snorted.
“I know all about motorbikes.”
“I had about six motorbikes.”
This time the renewed silence was due to Darragh’s astonishment. Unbelievable: Eamonn O’Donnell – civil servant from the stony grey soil, a man whose mediocrity never aspired to anything more than a deluxe Ford Escort …
“Aye, really. And real bikes too – Nortons. Triumphs. BMGs. Vincents – not all this Japanese shite they’re riding these days … Of course, that was when I lived in London.”
“London?” Jesus wept, a double bombshell.
“When did you live in London?”
“Nineteen fifty-eight. And fifty-nine – the warmest summer for thirty years.”
Poor Ma had gone to town for the welcome home. Painted the front door, scrubbed the house, re-papered his bedroom and hung a yellow necklace saying “welcome” around the dog’s neck. When they got in, Cíara was there all excited as well, so the silence evaporated easily enough.
He leaned against the sink as Ma cooked the obligatory full Irish.
“Hey, Cíar, did you hear Uncle Tom is trying to get the missus to sign papers on a new Condo in Vegas?”
Cíara grinned, throwing an imaginary pair of dice across the cooker.
“Claims he wants to live there for the good golf !!”
“God forgive him, his mother sputtered. “He has that poor woman tormented …”
“You’d want to see Susan Kelly these days, Darragh,” said Cíara. “She’s waltzing around the estate with some lad from Togo. A chief in his own country, fluent in four languages and a lawyer as well.”
“All six foot seven of him,” Ma added. “Wearing a big dress!”
“And I suppose you’ll be back with Danny as usual while you’re home. ”
“Nah. He’s married now. Baby on the way …” she looked wistful. Poor Cíara. So the old flame had finally found a home grate to burn in.
“Do you remember Aisling Dunne and Deirdre Regan? They’re down the bog in Newtownmountkennedy. That’s mad. I wouldn’t like to live so far away.”
“I suppose Earl’s Court is nearer,” muttered Da, half under his breath, as they sat down to breakfast.
So … starting already, then. Hard to believe a jolly breakfast could be so volatile, but then The O’Donnells had always opted for the nitro-glycerine variety of domesticity. High-risk occasions: birthdays, weddings, funerals, graduations and now, apparently, homecomings. Ten minutes into the meal, Da started again.
“Still on the rabbit feed, Cíara?”
Ma, nervous: “You know we’re lucky to have Cíara at all, Eamonn. There was a storm warning last night that nearly cancelled the crossing.”
Cíara put down her silver and glared at her father. In fact, she’d been making a huge effort to withstand the smell of fried flesh that pervaded the house. It took practically all she could muster just to sit at the table among the dead animal bits. But that wasn’t good enough for Da. Why wasn’t she eating the lovely breakfast her mother had just made for her?
“I’m not going to say anymore now, when you’re just home … ”
“So don’t say anymore then, Eamonn,” Ma said, half way between cheer and panic.
“It’s a wonder you’re visible at all, Cíara.” He tried a little joke. You’re a proper little Kate Moss, really! Your mother had always had a fine figure, when she was your age.”
“I’m not like my Mother … ”
“Indeed, and I wouldn’t boast about it!”
“Jesus, Eamonn, can we not have one meal in peace?”
Ma’s trembling voice was like the drop of a flag; and they were off. Round the traditional bends of sarcasm and spite, building up speed for the long stretch of rousing accusations and arguments. Ma’s face went from the Oh, God no, please don’t start” look through to an injured, ‘I knew this would happen.’ Finally, she ran out of the kitchen in tears.
“Now look what you did, Dad,” spat Cíara. “Could you not just leave it out for her sake? Do you have to ruin it every time?”
Darragh, quiet at first, eventually stood up and began smashing both his hands down on the table. It was the only noise that would transcend their cacophony.
“Will you shut the fuck up, Da!” He punctuated every second word with a blow, sending the knives and forks clattering to the floor. “Let Cíara be a vegetarian. Let her be anything she wants, what does it matter? Or else we’ll get the fuck out right now, is that what you want? Why do you think nobody ever comes back anyway? Why the hell do you think Gary went as far as Australia, for jayzus sake. ”
“Keep out of this you. He fancies himself as an artiste, this fella. A bloody musician. Steady work isn’t good enough for him. The only music he really knows is the ring of a shovel off the dirt, as far as I can see – the wee navvy, as if we didn’t give you an education, your mother and I. After all we did for you ungrateful brats all our lives.”
“Yeah, well you didn’t do very much for Cíara, did you, the one time she needed you?”
“Shut up, Darragh,” Cíara whispered.
“If Cíara chose to run off to London after that Kelly brat, like a wee hoor at sixteen, it was no fault of ours.”
Darragh dragged Da up against the back door of the kitchen in a gesture that astonished even him. His father’s fury catapulted out from the wrinkled blue eyes in a look of pure venom.
“Don’t you ever call my sister a whore.”
His father raised his fist to Darragh’s face and nicotine-scented spit from his mouth landed on Darragh’s skin, making him want to throw up again.
“Watch it! Just watch it, now.”
Darragh called his bluff, clenching his own fist and staring him down. The eyes were five inches from his own and if he had been worried two hours ago about never looking his father straight in the face, he was making up for it now, big time.
“Go on. Hit me. Hit me now, Da. I’m six foot two and I’ve been working the construction for the past four years. Just hit me. I swear, I’ll break your jaw.”
“The construction is all you’re good for, you wee shit.” His father pulled away and headed out the front door, paying no heed to his wife, who was hunched up at the bottom of the stairs, the sound of tiny sobs clashing somewhat with the jolly lights of the Christmas tree by the door.
Darragh was really sick now, and tore past her to the toilet upstairs, energetically regurgitating a colourful blend of duty-free alcohol, Aer Lingus Chicken Masala, and the recent fry. When he emerged, Cíara was sitting with an arm around her mother, who turned worriedly.
“Are you alright Darragh?”
“It’s only the jet lag. No problem.” Darragh staggered towards the bedroom, but swung back over the banisters momentarily.
The acid taste on his tongue was foul and drew springs of fresh saliva from the sides of his mouth. Can we not have one meal in peace. He was too exhausted to brush his teeth, and too afraid of being sick again to do anything else but crawl like a child under the blankets of his bed, fully clothed. He breathed huge heaves of icy air in an effort to ease the pain in his head, which only eased as he slipped into a deep sleep.
Walking down a row of dilapidated Victorian houses, a haze of heat shimmered on the gravel ahead of him. A pale butterfly flickered through a cluster of fuchsia and laburnum bushes jerkily, as if filmed in slow motion. Then he turned down a lane that rambled down between the walls of the redbricks. Over the walls of the lane, the heavy limbs of old oaks tumbled. There was a startling brilliance about the colours of the day; the leaves above him were almost luminous in the afternoon light; the post-box on the corner was a cheeky scarlet; each gravel speck was a different shade of grey and the silence was punctuated only by the low-chattering of a BBC broadcast from a radio in someone’s kitchen, and a lawnmower humming in the distance.
He pulled deep on his cigarette with the satisfaction only the first few smokes at the end of the day’s work can give. Friday evening; high summer. The scorching day had simmered down to a pleasant warmth. On the other side of the wall now, he could hear the tinkering of metal rise in the air; someone was working away on the motorbike already, in the shade of the trees.
Darragh still had his site clothes on, and the scratchy blobs of cement were caked to his trousers, the boots powdery with plaster dust. He could have his bath later when the sun went in, and then off to The Athenry to cash his cheque and get in a good night’s drinking. He turned down a smaller dirt track that ran all the way along the back gardens of the houses, and swung open the back gate of number 49. He didn’t know how he knew that it was forty-nine, but it was. Like he knew somehow he was twenty-two, same as the other lad, and it was London’s hottest summer in thirty years. There was certain 1953 Matchless/AJS racer that had to be in top shape by Sunday.
He kid grinned at Darragh as he pushed through the overgrown grass, brandishing a six pack.
“Where were you, you bollix? Sit down. I was dying of thirst.”
“There you go. What’s the story?”
“It’s coming along. If you want to grab a bit of wadding there, you can give that exhaust a polish. How was work?”
“Brutal. That Gaffer Maloney is a right prick. Kept us on an extra hour until the roofing was finished. No extra money though, you can bet.” He snapped off the top of the beer with his penknife and handed it across the motorcycle.
They were silent for a while, as Eamonn made fine adjustments on the throttle cable. There was a comfortable quiet as they sat among the rags and tools and debris. Darragh looked at the blue heat stain sweating down the exhaust.
“Looks like you’ve put her through a lot in two years.”
“Aye, but she’s in perfect nick. It’s the Triumph I’ve clocked the miles up on. He ran his hand over the bike beside in front of him, a 350 cc single cylinder. One of the finest British bikes ever. “I only use it for the track.”
The dust-crammed furrows that lined Eamonn’s forehead all day on the site were washed away with new sweat from working the bike, and there was an ease to his words, a contentment that infected Darragh as well, calming the tension the site always knotted into his gut.
“Ah, they’re both brilliant. I’m getting one as soon as I get to the States. An Indian, maybe. That’ed be the business.”
They sat with their backs against the shed for a while, smoking a couple of home rolled and watching the newly-tuned scrambler gleam in the light. She stood vivid and sharp in the dusk, the chrome glinting russet as it got darker. Every nook and cranny was in perfect running order. The corrugated iron was still warm against their shoulders and the twilight sounds of a million suburban insects sang crisp in their ears as they opened the last couple of Watneys. If they won, there’d be a bit of money in the race on Sunday.
“So you’re off across the water … “
“Why not …”
“Why not indeed. I hate London. This place would break your heart. No respect for a man.”
“No respect for an Irishman, you mean.”
“Aye, that too. I was sort of thinking the same thing … “
“I have a cousin in Coney Island … that’s beside New York …”
“There’d be a place to stay, anyway.”
“I’ve a bit put by, now, with the two years or so I’ve been here.” Eamonn grinned, wide eyed, but hesitant. “Thing is though, there’s Peggy at home. She’s expecting that as the down payment on a house … ”
“Yeah, that’s a tough one.”
“One thing, anyway. Once I’m out of here, there’s one sound I’m making sure I never hear again in my life and that’s a fucking shovel ringing off the dirt … ”
The light began to fade faster then, the darkness brought a jagged chilled feeling around Darragh’s face and ears. Last thing he knew, the biker was sort of smiling at him, but Darragh didn’t even have time to say goodbye, as the cold engulfed him and the muted evening light of the box bedroom took over his consciousness. It was the bastard Dublin December making a meal of his head, the only part of him above the thick layer of blankets.
God. He was home.
Four years away, and nothing had changed. The wind whistled around the side of the house, late afternoon. The dog barked in the garden below and he heard the voices of kids teasing it. He tried to drift back into sleep, but his dream kept seeping back … overwhelming him. Sharing a drink and a conversation with Eamonn O’Donnell, finally … in a dream. Sad bastard.
It drained him down into the heap that he was, stranded back in this desolate, freezing suburban estate that he’d travelled so far to get away from. It stretched way back into his memory, too far, relentless. He really just wanted to go back to sleep, but no go. The cold was brutal. His head didn’t want to move, to let any tiny amount of freezing air down under the blankets. He ran into the bathroom, shivering, to put the heater on, and stood for a minute at the top of the stairs. Then he descended.
His mother was out, he could sense the lack of her presence, and he thought the kitchen would be empty. He welcomed the blast of warm air as he opened the door, but then there he was, his back turned, silently peering at something by the light from the window: Da.
The radio was on low, more scandal about an arms haul on the Monaghan border. Half entering the room, he hesitated before closing the door; either Da didn’t hear him, or pretended not to. He was sorting through some bills over a small table, the early evening light weakly shining through the net curtains. There was something about the way he was pottering that struck Darragh with a blast of unexpected emotion. In a second he knew what it was: the missing detail that he couldn’t figure out in the airport.
There was a figure at the window that he’d never seen before. Darragh stared at the back of the grey head, sensing an unmistakeable frailty, possibly even decay, and it strangely moved him. It must terrify Da. The baby-faced navvy messing with the bikes dreaming of America evaporated pathetically into the encroaching dusk. It seemed now that all the fury of the morning was dissipated. Hardly forgiveness. More a trick of his travel-weary brain.
Hey Da, want to go for that pint now, before the girls get back? But he couldn’t say it. Nothing came out.
Then his father spoke, without looking up or turning around to address his son.
“Would you shut that bloody door behind you, for Christ’s sake, Darragh. You weren’t born in a barn … ”