Because time is an unfathomable thing I can’t tell you how long I’ve been here, basting in shame, under the mother’s eaves for eight or maybe ten days? I am six or seven again and beholding to her. I know not to give cheek nor answer back.
Monday to Thursday it’s the dry end of a pork chop, a spoon of mushy peas and six or eight lukewarm oven chips on a faded plate in the left hand, a mug of milk in the other. The knife and fork, thin from the dent of wear, come in the cardigan pocket. She leaves the lot on the sideboard. It’s mince and carrots with watery gravy on Fridays.
A woman collects her pension, half-fills a string bag in Londis, that a jolly fucker, the mighty Mister Meehan, she calls him, a retired public servant, delivers every Monday. On the cushy pension, the charity ringleader leaves the silver Passat ticking over at the front and knock- knocks himself in the back door, through the scullery, singing come down the mountain Katie Daly. That’s her name.
She gets four chops, a few ounces of minced beef, six carrots, two tins of marrowfat peas, Lyon’s tea, half a pound of Kerrygold butter, half a Brennan’s loaf and four slices of Carroll’s crumbled ham. She can’t change the order. That would give the game away. A do-gooder widow brings the Tribune on Thursdays and a young lad from Statoil keeps the basket filled with briquettes. A nun-wannabe brings the newsletter and the host after mass. The Curate comes on first Fridays.
‘A refugee, on me solemn oath, that’s what you’re like,’ she said, just as I was thinking the same about her; housebound, Quasimodo, the pegs fucked, the breathing dodgy.
‘But unlike you a mockeen, I want for nothing. Haven’t I the pension, the heat, the groceries delivered, the Blessed Sacrament and the few pounds put aside for me funeral? What more would I want?’
‘Can you not straighten up?’
‘It’s the back and the bleddy arthritis, the ticker’s not great either they tell me, wear and tear sure, the pipes are clogged, I take the pills when I think of them but the pills are a bad job, sure as long as I can feed and dress meself and potter around from here to the dresser and down to the room there, and will ya look at that dresser, will ya?’
She half-straightens and jerks the walking stick out from the right knee. I know the head wrecking shit that’s coming, heard it a thousand times.
‘He made it while I was carrying you, the crathur bocht, cut the timbers, sawed, planed and sanded them abroad there in the shed, after a hard day’s labour below at the Mill. He was never out of work, your father, never, and never beholding or owing a penny to anyone, and look at them lovely brass handles, isn’t it nicer they’re getting with the age, after fifty years?’
‘Forty eight,’ I say.
‘No differ now.’
She aims the remote control. There’s a cat-mad Mayo woman on Nationwide. She turns down the volume for the commercials but stays watching. Not to have to look at me, I suppose.
‘And she’s gone, is she?’
‘I said it, didn’t I, didn’t I say it?’
‘You weren’t the only one.’
We’re talking now about the woman I shacked up with ten years ago, whatever misfortune was on me. She called her a second hand yoke, not to her face but under her breath, to me, that one time I brought her here. I came on my own after that, a few times a year and on Christmas Eve, which I know in all fairness wasn’t enough.
I didn’t say the bank took the house or that the second hand yoke had cleaned out the current account and drove the credit cards to the limit before shagging off to the Algarve with a chippie. I told her there might be lads looking for me.
‘What? Are you in the IRA or at the drugs or what?’
‘A bit a property is all and a few block layers I couldn’t pay before the Christmas.’
‘Property he says.’
‘I could do with a bed for a few nights,’ I said to the floor.
‘Property me arse, some use it is to you now, coming here to me with your scutterin’ tail between your legs. The parlour will have to do, your own room wasn’t aired in years and the back room is full of your father’s stuff.’
‘The few chisels, hammers and the level, whatever he had left on the bench before he took bad like, you weren’t around much then.’
The parlour smells of sealed up doors, dry rot and old soot. It’s meanly decorated. I look along the faded pleats that fall down to puckered hems on the pelmetted velvet drapes. Brown and beige chevron, ugly as fuck and brown-gold wallpaper borders that damp-peel away from condensated corners. Memorial cards and church newsletters stand up between forgotten yellowed glassware.
An altar insinuates itself on a shelf where pink and green plastic roses sprout out of the dust in a mock-crystal cruet. It’s flanked by a crucifix and a photo globe from Knock shrine. White beads are strewn around a china blue Virgin Mary. She looks imploringly at the flies in the fluorescent tube that runs east-west along the stippled, smoky ceiling.
There’s black fur on the bathroom window and brown rust spots on the mirror. Her teeth are in the cheap cabinet, four tubes of Steredent, a few combs, rusted nail scissors stuck to the shelf, a disinfectant, Ponds cold cream and bars of Imperial Leather soap. I’m trying to read the label on the Lipitor tablets when I hear her talking to the cat. Isn’t that mental? Talking to a cat? And you should see him, pitch black, a bad-minded looking yoke. Is there anything as dark as the inside of a black cat I wonder?
She softens biscuits in tea and slurps the lot up through thin bare gums. The black fur thing sits on the arm of her chair, the head rigid and ears twitchy, speckly grey marbles focus on me.
‘Isn’t that right Finn, aren’t you the best puddy-duddy kitty in the whole wide world?’
She tickles him with twisted fingers. He pulls a neck out.
‘How do they know you’re here?’ she asks, leaving the cup on the range, a dribble sizzles on the cast iron. She takes him into the hollow of her skirt and turns him over.
‘Ah, it’s a long story.’
‘We’ve plenty time, we’re going nowhere, isn’t that right little Finn my best kitty?’
I see the tongs in the basket. I want to creel him, split his head open, separate the marbles by a distance, lamp the fucker, but she’s saying, ‘well, well, well,’ waiting for an answer, rubbing the length of him.
‘I sorta ran outa diesel.’
‘It’s a long story, I…’
‘Ran out of spondooliks did you? How did you get here then?’
‘I got the bus.’
‘You got the bus?’
She does a pretend hysteric laugh, kneading him, me squirming, my throat restricting at the toothless grimace, the ‘ha ha-ing’ from lips stretched to the limit, the white haired bun on top of the small minded head, the feet tapping.
I said I was being followed. She said the Lord between us and all harm, thanks be to the good Jesus your father isn’t around to see this, blessed herself, head jerked me out of the room and turned the volume up.
I knew they’d see the jeep. You couldn’t miss it. They’d ask the quarehawk behind the counter where I went. That encounter with him was the limit, but in an odd sorta way, the face to face humiliation was a relief, upfront shame like, compared to the registered letters I couldn’t open or the threatening phone calls I dodged. I left at least three mobiles in the jeep, flung there on the dash. They can ring away now.
The fuel light was flashing since Aughrim and that thirsty bitch had no reserve, ten miles maybe, and me not knowing which direction to go. I nearly went into the church, nearly, but then I saw the auld lad bringing in the dog food, the bags of turf and kindling, getting ready to close. I filled her up.
‘Them auld plastic yokes would let you down like a ton a bricks. Would you have another one we could try for the crack?’ He threw the denied cards across the counter, one at a time, like a card dealer.
‘I’ll call back tomorrow,’ I said, shuffling in pockets, took out a few coins and the keys.
‘You will in your hole call back tomorrow. I have the measure of you me bucko, now or never, as the song goes.’ He cupped my keys in his palm, slid them crotch-wards, then to the left and into the drawer of the cash register.
‘What the fuck?’
‘Manners if you please?’
He gun-shaped the index finger and thumb.
‘I know your type, got caught before with wan of ye, but only the wance, do you get me?’
‘I swear I’ll be back with the money.’
‘Swear me arse. That’s only shitehawkin talk.’
‘Listen, nothing, I see the tax and insurance are out, but we’ll say nothing about that.’
He took out a mobile.
‘See that number, that’s the brother-in-law, Quinlan, the Sergeant beyond in Gort, did you ever hear tell of him?’
‘I have to go into Loughrea. . .’
‘Bus Éireann, your only man and there’ll be one passing there in ten minutes.’
She came into the parlour, quiet as a sick child and sweaty, the hair loose, shone the torch on me, said something about a reel in her head. I said to drink water. I woke up to the screeching siren of the bastard of a cat, shrieking into the molasses darkness of the hallway outside the closed parlour door.
A broken statue of a fucked up ballerina – that was the first thing that came into my head when I saw her, flung there on the floor; an upturned chair, a plastic bottle of holy water and the prayer book beside her. The right leg, half-bent, like it wanted to kneel, the left one stretched out.
Her forehead was left fair and square on a brown tile. The right arm behind her back, like she was bowing to an audience, me at the kitchen table, looking down for ages, didn’t touch her, no need. Fucking marble-eyes wouldn’t shut up, circling her, whingeing, licking the empty saucer and looking around me.
I smell talcum powder in her room, lily of the valley, moth balls, the whiff of old skin from the peeled back pink eiderdown, the light track of her on the striped flannel sheet, a bible on the locker, the wardrobe door locked. Two taps of the father’s obliging chisel and out she pops. On the top shelf, his cap and pipe, a pouch of Condor tobacco, a black patent handbag with the deeds of the house and a wad of funeral money, just shy of four thousand euro, fair fucking play to her.
I could get the bus to Dublin, the boat to Holyhead, make a fresh start, it’s now or never as the song goes. Sure how could I go to her funeral? Wouldn’t they hear the death notice on the radio? They could nab me at the rails or after the burial. I couldn’t chance it.
But what about the bastard of a cat, would he eat her?
He’s on top of the dresser, balled up near a rust coloured plastic pot, dodging me between leaves the father carved, after a hard day below at the Mill. I fill the sink to baptise him. I get the sweeping brush, no good; throw the tongs and a briquette after it, a dry geranium ball hits the floor, musty clay makes an ant line that stops at her head. A burst flower cluster spills red confetti into dead white hair.
‘Come down here you black bastard, come down now and face the music.’
The scullery door opens. Oh can’t you hear me calling Katie Daly.
I could walk out the front door and hop into the Volkswagen.
‘The Mighty Mister Meehan, the very man, the most charitable man in the parish of Clonfert and by a long shot. Now, Mister Meehan, could I interest you in a cat at all, a black lad, the nicest cateen in the whole of Ireland? Isn’t that right Finn? Come down here now til the nice man gets a look at ya…’