James Rogers, originally from Leitrim, now lives in New York and teaches maths at the United Nations International School. His short story, “The Ball,” published in The Leitrim Guardian, won the M J MacManus award in 2016 and recently “Maguire’s Hardware & Grocery” was published by The First Line. His website: https://jameswrogers.com/

The Pass

by James Rogers

The local GAA club has launched a book, for to celebrate the centenary. They’ve done a nice job on it. Loads of great pictures, old and new.

There’s a great one of Mulligan in the hat. He’s in his usual spot, behind the goals, in the grey coat with his hands in the pockets. Shoulders hunched against the cold and the drizzle. It’s dark and dreary and you’d swear it was a black and white photo, if it wasn’t for the Santy Claus hat. Bright red, it stands out, like some child went at the photo with a marker. The tassel hangs over his left ear.

We never knew where he got hold of it. Just started wearing it one winter and did so for years, whenever there was a snap to the weather. You remember Mulligan, don’t you? He lived out beside us, the house tucked so far under the hill you could nearly look down the chimney. Just him and the dog and a few bullocks. You remember the feud he had with my father? Swore he’d never set foot in our house. And he kept to his word, right up until my mother died. After that, he came to us every week, fair play to him. Always of a Thursday.

A few minutes to nine and he’d shuffle through the back door and up to the fireplace. You could set your clock by him. My father would be on the other side of the hearth and he’d nod a welcome. I’d have the kettle on. I’d make the tea while they watched the News. Set out two plates of biscuits, ginger nuts for my father, Kimberly and Mikdado for Mulligan; they were easier on his gums.

There wouldn’t be much talk. Nothing of substance anyway. A comment or two on the forecast and how the evenings were growing short or growing long, depending on where we were in the year. I remember Mulligan one time looking over at the microwave and saying, “Oh you got a new radio.” My father wasn’t happy with me for laughing.

The telly would be left on after the News, though they’d only be half watching it. My father might say something about the football: the under-14s are a good bunch or maybe he’d complain that the pitch was a swamp. Whatever it was, Mulligan would agree. There’d be more tea and biscuits at half eleven or so. By midnight Mulligan would be off home. On a moonlit night you might watch him and the red hat go along the pass to the house. The house you wouldn’t know was there if it wasn’t for the smoke.

The famous pass. It went from his place over the hill and down to the road. There was a slight curve to it, I remember that. Like Mulligan’s forebears knew the shortest distance isn’t always a straight line. It was regular you’d spot Mulligan on the pass, coming or going. You could see the grass beaten down by years of boots and wellies. As clear as day, even going by in the car. I just thought it was a shortcut. I didn’t know the pass was sacred.

That is until we built the house on it and Mulligan stopped taking the lift from us.

Though I heard he never kicked a ball himself, he was mad into the football and he hitched lifts to games all over Leitrim and Connacht. He’d sit in the back, damp and smelly and not a word. And most times he’d have the Santy hat. You’d get so used to it you’d nearly forget he was wearing it. It’s only when you’d arrive at the game and everyone was looking at him that you’d realise how strange it was.

I remember when I first noticed he wasn’t too pleased with us. We were heading to a game in Ballinamore, my father driving. We came around a corner and there was Mulligan with the thumb out and the knee bent, ready to launch himself aboard. Then he recognised the green Ford Escort and he spun around to inspect the ditch, like he wasn’t the slightest bit interested in a lift.

My father chuckled.

“What’s up with him?” I asked.

“The pass,” my father replied. “He’s annoyed we built the house on the pass.”

It went on for ages. He’d get in the back of a hearse, but he wouldn’t get in with us. One time my father stopped the car for him anyway and I opened the door. Mulligan didn’t budge. He kept on staring into the ditch until we drove off.

Everyone thought it was great fun. Until my mother died and then they were saying my father shouldn’t have built the house where he did, on a faerie road. He should have known something bad would happen. It’s funny that no one had ever mentioned it being a faerie road before.

She died of a sudden, of a Thursday evening. Mulligan was the first to arrive. He put his coat on the ground outside the back door, like he knew it smelled. He lay the red hat on top and came in and sat by the fire and didn’t say a word. I made him a cup of tea. What else would I do?

I don’t remember much of that day, or the days after. Some bits stick. My father and the other men from the sawmill carrying the coffin. The straps about the coffin to lower it into the ground, and the sound they made as they were whipped back up again. That’s about it, other than Mulligan, sitting there with the tea and the slice of apple tart. It was apple tart that day. My mother’s.

For a while there was just him and me, with the fire between. I was surprised he came. Even a bit confused. But I was glad. He was putting his anger to one side, for us. His kindness touched me. And his silence was comforting, like he knew words were useless anyway. I was glad he kept coming, every Thursday, along the pass between the two houses.

When it came his turn, we buried the hat with him.