Niall Crowley is an independent consultant and believer in equality and human rights, working in Ireland and places across Europe. He is part of a prose collective supported by Cork County Council, a space that stimulates a passion long forgotten but gaining strength.
He is author of ‘Empty Promises: Bringing the Equality Authority to Heel’, published by A&A Farmar in 2010.
His short stories have been published by The Galway Review and on Spillwords Press and he was shortlisted for the From The Well annual short story competition of Cork County Council Library and Arts Service 2021.
By Niall Crowley
‘Tis great to have you back, but this is no class of a homecoming after all that time.’ Mikey tips his pint towards Bill before taking a long, relieved pull out of it.
‘Changed times alright, but sure that’s what makes life interesting isn’t it?’ Bill approaches his stout more circumspectly, appreciating with care.
‘It’s not the way we do things round here, though. I’m a man of tradition, like your brother there.’ Mikey swings his glass precariously in the direction of Pat. ‘Isn’t that so, Pat?’
‘You are that, Mikey, always have been.’ Pat quaffs his pint with intent, as if to close off further examination.
The three are sat into a wooden bench and table combination, no more than a foot off the road, a yellow bollard and white line for protection. The last of the evening heat offers some comforts. Noel Phair’s pub, closed indoors for the pandemic, still attracts custom despite the loss of hearth and conviviality. Regulars are afforded prime seating out front. Those less favoured sit in the shadow at the back, alongside the carpark.
‘Sure nothing stays the same. Look around you, we won’t be seeing the like of these fields for much longer.’ Bill, as ever, lacks sensitivity when risen to enthusiastic polemic. ‘Time’s up on that scale of livestock.’
‘There’s no one’ll call time on that.’ Mikey plants his pint firmly onto the table, beads of tanned froth shooting out. ‘You’d do well not to be bringing that sort of thinking back with you. Best left in Dublin with those windbags in the Dail, or better still, sent packing to Brussels where it came from.’
‘There’s a way of life that we’ve to hold onto for the next generation, just like our fathers before. We know it well, but they need to understand it up there.’ Pat is calm, but comes across constricted, even formulaic.
‘I don’t see that next generation queuing up for the opportunity.’ Bill stares at Pat, taken aback at his demeanour, strangulated as if held captive. ‘More likely they’ll be leading the charge, with a future to win rather than a past to live up to. You’ll not stand in the way of that.’
‘All this palaver is nothing more than picking on the small players, Bill, letting the wide boys with the money off the hook.’ Mikey discharges a splatter of beer spittle in full tirade. ‘We’ll not be left picking up the tab on their bills.’
A silence grips them, morose rather than angry. They lose themselves in savouring the silky texture of the stout, the heavy bitterness in the flavour. The alcohol soothes as glasses empty. Morose grows pensive and old bonds assert. There is solidarity in that, and in the inevitability of future adversity to be faced together, acknowledged or not. Silence becomes companionable.
Mikey faces onto the garden shrine by the cross roads below them, a plaque marks the Battle of the Big Cross. A reminder of failure in the demand for change as much as celebration of a tradition of resistance. Bill looks out across the river at the towering remains of the flour mill, stretched tall above the trees, capped in red-ribbed metal sheeting. A place of significant industry, rendered suddenly redundant by changed economies. Pat watches over the purple dwelling across the road with habituated indifference. A place of disorder in its day, relieving tired workers of hard-earned money, become, with time alone, respected centrepiece of townland life.
‘What about the new money from Brussels then, there’s lots we could do different, you know.’ Bill looks from one to the other. “Is there no other life to be found for the place?’
‘Don’t be getting me aggravated, Bill, we’ve better things to be talking on.’ Mikey sets down his completed glass with a gentleness that was almost grateful. ‘Will we go again, lads?’
‘Not for me, Mikey, or Joan’ll be having me.’ Pat starts to extricate long legs from under the table. ‘Dinner’s calling.’
‘Can’t be complaining about that, nor would I be the one to rile Joan.’ Mikey signals for a refill, looking inquiringly at Bill.
‘Me neither, thanks, don’t need a head on me in the morning. I’ve an architect coming to look over the old cottage.’ Bill salutes him. ‘We’ll do it again, Mikey.’
The brothers trudge up the hill. Stone walls line the short hike to the farm, unkempt with sprouting grass and weeds. Bill glances back at Mikey, ample girth piled tight into the table, red face scanning the roads for company. Hard to imagine the popular stalwart of the football team in years gone by, even less the determined young farmer chafing to build his herd once his father stood aside. Hard to grasp what had closed down that potential and left him hanging so grimly onto a birthright without heir and increasingly obsolete.
Bill has to stretch to keep up with Pat’s determined stride. He had trod this road over the years, always stumbling behind Pat. Two leggy boys in matching shorts and shirts making their way to school, with levels of interest that did not match so well, Pat captivated in the new vistas that were opened up. Barely of an age, then, heading for the pub, Pat pushing ahead anxious to mark out his rebellion in drink and lose himself in ever louder discussions of ever more impossible schemes for the future.
‘You can’t be riling Mikey with your politics.’ Pat reaches for the latch on the gate.
‘It’s not about politics, it’s about imagination.’ Bill leans on the wall, searching for the slabs of stone in the field, set out in a circle of giant and damaged dentition. ‘You were never such a one for tradition.’
‘I’ve responsibilities, a son to watch out for.’ Pat pushes the gate open. ‘And you need to be fitting in here now if you’re moving back, not standing out awkward like that.’
‘The future is eco-farming, you know, there’s money for the change, and you could lead the way. Healthy food, vibrant ecosystems, and a resilient community all in one go. I could help you get it started.’ Bill finds himself distracted. The stone circle had been their shared place of magic, where they had created and acted out worlds of their own determining. They had been druids performing rituals conjured by the drama of the stones, concocting potions, on the reclining altar stone, from foraged roots and weeds.
‘You’d be better off putting that imagination of yours into sorting out the cottage and making a proper place for yourself.’ Pat looks up the driveway to the farmhouse, demanding of his presence. ‘Eamon can deal with the future, once he takes over here.’
‘Don’t be pushing him, Pat. You took enough of that in your day, and I never saw it brought you any happiness.’ Bill scrutinises his weather-beaten brother, finding no trace of that energy he had once infused their magic circle with.
‘I’m satisfied, never put much store on happiness.’ Pat closes the gate, making for the farmhouse. ‘I’m old fashioned that way.’
‘Maybe you are and maybe you’re not. I’m here for you, though, if you want to try something new.’ Bill faces back up the road towards the cottage.
A blast of warmth welcomes Pat into the kitchen. The gleaming-white Aga pumps out heat from the back wall, as it had over the years whatever the season. A kitchen island, of more modern vintage, dominates in blue timber slats and grey veined granite counter. It had never achieved the conviviality of its predecessor, the spread of wooden table moulded and stained by time. Knife upright in one hand, Joan stands behind the island, watching Pat as he hangs his coat and pulls up a stool opposite her.
‘So, what was Bill bending your ear about then?’ Joan’s lips twitch in undisguised disfavour.
‘Ah, the man’s full of ideas now he’s retired, looking for something to occupy himself with.’ Pat sits himself up.
‘He needn’t be coming back to stir things up.’ She chops at the carrots with a fine-tuned ferocity. ‘It’s not for him to be disturbing how we choose to live our lives.’
‘Sure, what’s to disturb, woman?’ He rummages at papers strewn before him, picking up a large brown envelope. ‘What’s this then?’
‘Eamon’s latest manuscript. Postman left it in this morning, seems like your son’s short-listed for a prize.’ She pushes chopped carrots brusquely to one side, reaching for the pile of potatoes.
‘Fair play to him.’ He stands the envelope up for careful consideration. ‘Our son’s taken a fair shine to the writing, hasn’t he?’
‘Time for Eamon to settle down, to my mind.’ She scrapes at the potatoes with intent precision. ‘There’s nothing for him in such foolishness, and there’s work for him here.’
‘There’s not much for anyone here these days, to be honest.’ He draws the contents from the envelope as if fragile. ‘We shouldn’t be pressuring him.’
Pat stares at the document entranced. ‘Tarnished, by Eamon McCrean’. He can only caress its edges, smooth its frontispiece. A past engulfs him, a past that was buried deep. There he was, sat on the toilet seat, down the corridor from the kitchen, with the door latched shut. A child, scribbling frantically in a notebook, stories pouring out of him. He could feel that intensity again, with shocking immediacy, of being captivated by tales that demanded to be told while still alert for a demanding rap on the door. A chill envelops him. Where did they go, what was left of those stories, what became of those that never got told?
‘Pat, where are you gone there, I’m talking to you?’ Joan had moved round to loom over him, a worried frown on her.
‘I’m grand, just thinking.’ He tries to shrug off the chill, but it won’t release him. ‘What did you want?’
‘What had you in such a daze?’ She stands back from him, sternly attentive. ‘I hate when you do that, thought you were having a stroke.’
‘Ah, just things long gone, nothing to be worrying about.’ Pat can’t look her in the eye.
The tension eases off him, but slowly. What happened to that young dreamer? It was his father that had him writing hidden with the door locked. A future had opened up, but he had to close it off for shame. As eldest, there was a path already set for him. Whatever, it was he himself had laid that dreamer to rest, with a resolve that allowed no looking back. That chill had felt more like a half-swallowed sob, a grief he is still unsure of controlling. Maybe he should have the chat with Bill, see if there was another future for imagining.