By Donal Ryan
October / November 2016
THE ROAD OUTSIDE this house is the same one my mother and father walked together each morning of their married life to Mass. Hand in hand, then arm in arm as they got older. That now is nearly seen as being sinful. Daily Mass-going is a thing to be suspicious of. Have you nothing better to be doing? No, faith, I have not. It’s not as though I sink too deeply into it; I only do it in memory of my dear parents. I only stay on nodding terms with Christ, just in case. What harm can it do to send a prayer or two skyward?
Suspicious also is living where you were born, on the road your parents walked. Did you never want to have a look at the world? No, faith, I did not. This road is as good as any, or as bad. The crows that blacken the sky above my yard each night are descended from the ones my mother watched. The same squawks and caws in the same prickled sky. What business have those crows in the hills east of here? Something important takes them there with each dawn, anyway, to Pallasbeg and Pallasmore and Ton Tenna. They process home with the fading light, an hour or so of staggered returning, weighed down and weary. And I stand beneath them, wondering, the way my mother and father did.
Crows have great notions. They perch before bed for a nightly confab on the ridges of the roofs of all this town’s important buildings: the courthouse and the town hall and the bank. They never grace the grocery shops or townhouses or any of the lesser structures, only relieve themselves on them as they pass. Then they shout across at one another all the news of the day. There’s three gangs, as far as I can make out, with a HQ each, triangled around the square, shouting over Our Lord’s stony grey head. Three factions, one murder. Once they’ve all their arguing and organizing done they turn their arses to the town and peel away to the dark insides of the giant evergreens in the grounds of the two Saint Marys. They’re fixed as firm to their home as I am to mine.
The houses of this road are strung with sorrow, like rows of old houses anywhere. A map of loss plotted all down it. Children taken, a preponderance of boys, accidents and sickness and other things. All those people would presume the stab of their sorrow to be unknown to me, occluded from me, but they’re wrong. I well know the freezing grip of it, the way it can steal the breath from your lungs, the jagged thumping of a broken heart.
I saw a light like a moving star one night in early winter. Right the way from east to west it floated and it was back again a while later, and hurled itself across the vaulted sky in two or three short minutes. My neighbour told me it was the International Space Station, orbiting the Earth, and there were men and women inside in it. He was out watching it too. He’d heard on the radio it was going to be clearly visible that night. Spacemen and spacewomen, flying in a space station. What separated them from me? The line of the sight of my eye, nothing, everything. I’ve seen that speeding light since, a good few times, and others like it. Satellites, my neighbour said, and he even knew the names of some of them. I started reading up on science after seeing that spacecraft, in books and magazines, at the library mostly, and I learnt a lot about things. The names of the parts of the heavens known to man and visible to man’s naked eye. I read about the Very Big and the Very Small and how there’s nothing to bind the two but the ideas of mankind, his fistful of imaginary strings. What things are made of, the particles of us.
My sister’s child was named after my father, as I was. William. I always called him Billy, as I never was. He was as good as reared in this house because my sister was leaving her husband for most of the years of his childhood. A slow departure, a long and gently sloped vale of tears. My mother and father hardly once took their eyes off him. Then they departed this world nearly as one when little Billy was only barely four and I wasn’t long turned thirty and it was hard for me to tell him where they’d gone. So I pointed at the sky at night and told him they were winking down at him from there and he seemed happy enough with that. My sister was more settled in herself by then and her husband had gone abroad somewhere and she took to doing college courses and bettering herself and I was always here waiting at the gate for Billy, for nights and weekends and weeks at a time. And I’d make him scrambled eggs and sausages in the mornings and look at cartoons with him warm and sleepy on top of me on the couch and take him to the park and the pictures and the swimming pool. And I’d stand at his bedroom door at night and look at him and listen to his breaths. And I’d kiss him on the cheek and wet his hair with tears as he left and I held him to me once until he wriggled free of me and one morning shortly after a letter came in a light blue envelope and it was from my sister and it was to tell me Billy wouldn’t be visiting for a while because he had to study for his summer tests and he had hurling training twice or three times a week now and he’d have adventure camp all summer and they’d see me probably before Christmas.
That Christmas came and went without a sign of them or word from them and as spring neared and a fierce longing had grown inside me for just a look at Billy, for a day with him, for an afternoon even, or an hour of the sound and sight and nearness of him, I wrote a letter to Lourda and a reply came shortly after declaring that there was good news and more good news: she had met a lovely man and he wanted to set up home with her in England and Billy was so fond of him and he so fond of Billy and they wouldn’t be tormenting me any more because Lourda had her master’s degree got now and the promise of academic work in an English university and after I had all that good news read and read again I made a cup of tea and set it on the kitchen table before me and sat down to watch the sun disappear behind the Arra Mountains and I was still sitting looking out at the sky as it reddened with the same sun’s rising and my tea was cold, undrunk before me.
My Billy is well into his manhood now and I haven’t seen him since that last embrace.
There’s a man walks up and down this road most days with makeup smeared and daubed onto his face and a string of pearls across his bared and hairy chest. He has several of the signs of the zodiac fandangled from his blue-veined earlobes. He never talks to me nor would I want him to except the once he stopped outside my gate and asked had I the loan of a tenner because he was fierce stuck for a box of fags. I told him I hadn’t it and he asked had I a fiver so. And again I shook my head and he hawked and spat on the path outside my gate and stomped off towards the corner in a pair of dirty runners with his ruffled skirt swish- ing around his pale and knotted calves. And I envied him, I’m not really sure why. The freedom he’d granted himself, maybe, to be only missing a smoke.
I rang a number one time I read off the notice board in the vestibule of the church. I didn’t mean to memorize it, but my eye was drawn to it so often, and the picture underneath it in black and white of a woman with a hand across her forehead and a phone to her ear and her long hair drawn across her face, and an air about her of sadness and need, that it sat as clear as day before my mind’s eye. Then I felt a terrible rush of embarrassment when a girl answered, with a lovely soft voice, kind and warm. She asked me my name and I said William and regretted not having had a lie ready. I started to tell her how I missed my little nephew and then remembered he was only little now in my memory of him; wherever he was he’d be a man, tall and good-looking and athletic, with only a vague memory of an auld uncle he used to be minded by now and again in his childhood. No matter what, I’ll never see that little boy again. Does the man who was the boy think of me? Hardly if at all, I’d say. I’m only a ghost to him now, and he a ghost to me.
I hung up all of a shot for a finish, barely having mumbled my thanks to the girl who was trained to give sympathy, and sat on the seat at the telephone table in the hall in a stew of embarrassment, and a shame, at once strange and familiar, that rose from somewhere, I don’t know, I don’t know where.
That wasn’t the finish of my foolishness, though. I fell back into it not even a year later. I read a number that appeared on the television at the end of a programme that was about finding lost family. As I listened to the foreign ringtone I imagined Billy might answer. That kind of a thing happens: wedding rings lost on beaches turning up years later in the bellies of fishes caught by the loser; identical twins separated at birth and never knowing one another turning out to have the same jobs and children of the same names. But it wasn’t Billy, of course. I went off half cocked into my story to another soft-voiced girl, this one with a lovely English accent. Once I stopped talking, after telling her how the years without word from Lourda or Billy had stacked themselves one upon the other almost unknown to me into decades, she was silent a long moment until I said Hello, are you still there? I’m so sorry, William, she said, nearly in a whisper, but that’s not really the type of scenario we’re interested . . . and she caught herself and said instead, In a position to get involved in . . . it’s more of a . . . a . . .
A what? I could have said. A what? I could have been sour with her, indignant. But I ended her discomfort, her struggle to parse my story into a single word by pushing down the contacts with my finger and I left the receiver cradled between my shoulder and chin and sat listening for a good long while to the unbroken bleep as my tears pooled between plastic and flesh, thinking of heart monitors and hospice bedrooms, and souls unshackled from gravity.
I did a computer course in the library and I learnt how to look things up and about search terms and Googles and all of that. I searched there, and searched, and found nothing. The young lad who was the instructor helped me to send away online for a laptop computer of my own and he showed me how to get broadband for the house on a little square thing that only had to be plugged in and turned on and connected remotely.
When my laptop came I unpacked it and plugged it in and turned it on and connected it to the broadband step by step the way I’d learnt and I clicked on the Google symbol and the empty rectangular window came up with the cursor inside in it and I looked at it as it blinked and winked back at me and my heart palpitated in time with it and I got scared all of a sudden of what was in behind that window, and the lack of a watching instructor or librarian behind me, and the unfettered access to everything I now had, a world of knowledge and nonsense, and none of it any real use to me, and I unplugged the laptop and the broadband and put them in the back of the hall closet and they’re in there still. And the money goes out of my account every month still without fail for the broadband.
The sky is enough for me, I decided, and the wonder of all the things in it, besides concerning myself with the webs and ways of imaginary people. What knowledge is there, really? What can be known?
That silence can open between people that can become a gap, a distance, a gulf, and widen and deepen, and be for a finish fathomless and untraversable.
That the crows will leave one morning for their last day’s work and I’ll look one night at the sky above me for the last time and feel the cooling of the cores of distant galaxies.
That all things tend towards chaos, and chaos itself tends in its turn towards stillness and peace.
That all the parts of all the atoms and protons and quarks and leptons of the stars and of me and of the haughty crows and of my parents and of Lourda and of my Billy and all the things that are or ever were will arrange themselves for a finish equidistant from each other in all directions and stop still there in the darkness and the cold. ♦
From Donal Ryan’s short story collection, A Slanting of the Sun (Steerforth, 2015).
Watch out for those crows! “relieve themselves”? I can’t read any more. Part of this modern toilet school.
Great comment, Peter. Really. “relieve themselves” indeed.