My father's dying.
I haven't seen him in five years.
I hate him (maybe that should be number 1)
My mother made me to promise to go home for his birthday.
His birthday is in less than a month.
I look like my mother but it's my father who is a ghost on my back. He's everywhere, in the sideways glance from a stranger, the laugh on the bus, the shout from a few streets over, the sirens in the middle of the night. Sometimes I expect to see him walking behind me on the street. I haven't seen him in years, and I think if he was walking behind me, he'd watch me with a snide smirk on his face. He might nod if I looked at him, but he'd keep moving. We'd have nothing to say to each other. You wouldn't think we were related. I have my mother's sandy hair and blue eyes. He is a dark haired untidy man with hair on his knuckles.
I've spent years being reminded of my father and now he's dying. Mam thinks I don't believe that's true and she might be right. When I think of my father I don't think of a frail man. He's six foot and has wide shoulders and arms. He doesn't like being argued with and he hates religion, which is probably why I go to mass every now and again. When he dies, I'll go all the time just to piss him off. I'll pray at him, just to annoy him. It'll be easier to talk to him when he's dead anyway.
I live on Abbeygate Street in Galway above a charity shop that sells old clothes. The street is always busy with pedestrians. I love the constant noise and bustle. It is a lot different to where I grew up. Mam drives the three hours to me once a month. Today she sat in my tiny kitchen and said, "It's your father's birthday next month and he wants to see you."
I had to sit down. The living room windows were open, and we could hear the traffic and chatter from people walking the street. Usually it's a distraction, but today I could only think of what she said. She looked a little frightened herself. Mam is thin and has aged badly in the last years with everything that has happened. Her face is drawn and there are deep lines around her mouth and eyes. She doesn't know why I left home so quickly. I was twenty so there should have been no surprise, but I had to quit my apprenticeship in plumbing. I'd done a year and I could be qualified now. But I had no choice. Until today I believed Dad never uttered my name. Mam asked if I was okay. I said, "Sure yeah." I wasn't though. I felt lightheaded with relief and couldn't believe that after everything that had happened, I'd been waiting for some kind of acknowledgement from Dad. Still, I didn't know if I would go and I wouldn't have agreed so quickly if Mam hadn't said that it will probably be Dad's last birthday and then proceeded to cry.
For a while when Dad was first diagnosed, she drove to this flat specially to cry. I'd open the door and she'd break down instantaneously. I'd hug her, but after a while I wouldn't know what to do, and still her sobbing would go on. By the time she left, I'd feel exhausted. Today she started and I said, "Okay Mam, please don't. I'll go." She beamed then, poor Mam. I told her it could only be a short visit since I had to work at least one night during the weekend. She didn't say anything, but I saw her disappointment. She hates that I work in a bar.
From my living room window, I watched her walk away, a thin tall woman with short sandy hair and a tendency to look at her feet, and I wrote that list. Though, it should be,
I wish I could hate Dad.
The day Dad caught me and Marcus together, Mam was working in the local shop. She came home that evening to a very still house. I bet she stopped the moment she entered. She would have wondered what was wrong. We were not a family anymore. All those moments we'd shared had been blown apart by the incident in the basement. The next day, when I told her I was leaving, she asked what had happened. I told her to ask Dad and she gave me a look that let me know she already had but he'd told her nothing.
I said we had a fight. She asked, "About what?" And I said, "Stop, alright." I was shaken up as it was. Minutes before, I'd phoned Marcus' house and his mother answered. She told me if I ever phoned again she would press charges. She said, "Marcus has a fractured rib because of you. He doesn't want anyone to know, but I swear to God, you ever phone here again, I'll have the guards on ya." I packed my bags after this, not before.
Mam tried to convince me to stay. She went on about the apprenticeship and the lack of jobs and that I knew no-one in Galway. "Mam," I said eventually, "Do I have to walk to the bus?"
I phoned her a few days later. I asked if Dad had said anything and there was a long pause before she said no. I bet he came in all dust from the quarry. He showered and sat at the table for dinner and didn't even glance at my empty seat. My mother might have said that she drove me to the bus and he'd have said, "Pass the potatoes."
Once a month, Mam would come to see me. She never told Dad where she was going. She said he knew though, as if his knowing meant he had brilliant powers of deduction, when she disappeared once a month for half the day, and probably had my number by the phone in the hall. I stayed in a hostel in Woodquay for a while, then a house in Salthill with some students, and finally my own place in Abbeygate Street.
I was still in Salthill, Mam and me were walking the promenade when she said, "Did you know Marcus Blunt is getting married?"
Have you ever seen someone nearly drown? They're out cold and pretty much dead. Then they are being thumped in the chest and given the breath of life. They spit up water and their coughing and spluttering. I felt like that, a jolt like I'd been thumped and forced back to life. I managed to say no and ask who he was marrying. Mam glanced at me with her worried blue eyes. "Bernadette Lavin," she said. And I had an image of the red-haired girl. She was so quiet in school, sweet like Mam but a more nervous kind. Mam said, "You and Marcus used to be friends."
I said, "Don't, alright."
The first time I snuck home was when Mam told me about Marcus's house. He did alright, a job with Bernadette's dad's construction firm and some land to build on.
I wanted to see his place and I thought that maybe if I saw him, I might stop the car. I'd been getting five night's work in the Blue Note, so I could afford a banjaxed old van. Marcus' house was built on the Galway road, before the bridge that led right towards the village's main street. My house was a mile further on that side, so I didn't have to worry about being seen.
His home was a green bungalow with a sloping lane and a large iron gate. There were no cars outside the first time I went by. Opposite was a field and then the river, and down a little way was the Cottage bar. I drove into the car park and waited for a while. I was sweating and my heart was like a ticking bomb. I thought of what I wanted to say to Marcus. I wanted to apologize and tell him that I didn't understand what had happened in the basement. And I wanted to ask what he was doing marrying Bernadette.
He'd been married over a year and I still found it hard to believe. I might have tried to see him when I'd first heard of the wedding, but Marcus lived with his parents and sister in the housing estate. It's a small estate of around forty houses and everyone knows each other. There would be no way of driving through there without his mother knowing.
In that car park I sat for a long time thinking of Marcus pretending to be someone else. I wondered if maybe he didn't have to lie. I wanted to ask him if everything he'd felt was gone. I wanted to know if that was possible. It grew dark and my legs were stiff. I started back towards Marcus' house. The light was on in the front room. A black Volkswagen Golf was parked outside the house. I kept driving.
Two times, I did that journey and didn't have the courage to go near his house. The third time, I saw him. I was driving past his house and he was walking out of the gate. He'd gotten broad and his face was set in a serious way that was unfamiliar.
He'd been a bit of a joker back in the day, restless and impatient, bounding down the stairs and jumping up and down with ideas. He'd wanted to open a nightclub then, but he never settled on anything for long. He could hardly sit still, fiddling with music, or perched on the couch, his hands joined, his foot tapping.
He was the one who said, "I've never seen you with a girl." Then he'd said, "Patrick, you hear me?"
The man I saw walking out of the house was nothing like the smiling dark eyed boy I remembered. Through the rearview mirror, I had a view of him walk towards the village. I drove into the cottage pub carpark and waited with my head down for him to pass. He looked taller than I remembered. His dark hair was shaved. When he was parallel to the car, I grew afraid that he would look at me. There was something unforgiving in the set of his face.
I never did that drive again. Soon after, Mam visited and told me that Dad had prostate cancer. "He refused to go to the doctor—you know your father—and now it's too late."
I don't know if I felt anything. I didn't consider going to see him. Although she asked a few times she wasn't persistent because he would have hated me to see him in hospital.
Then she said, "Your father wants you to come home."
And I thought of doing that journey without having to worry about hiding. I thought of being able to park my van on the main street and it was shocking how much I wanted it and how much it scared me.
"What do you buy a dying man for his birthday?" I asked Denise at work. She's small with dark hair and has a tendency to hit, so I'd kept my distance before asking. "Jesus, you're going to see him?" She was the only one I talked to about Dad, though I wasn't honest. She thought Dad told me to leave, that Mam knew why, and that I hadn't been near my hometown in years. "That's brilliant," she said. She gave me a nudge and said, "Isn't it?"
I said, "I don't know."
She said, "He'll always need socks."
The day I was expected, I phoned Mam from Sally Long's pub. It was summer, an evening with a breeze and a few clouds. The people I saw walking seemed to be in a hurry, it was that kind of day.
"Does he still want me to come?" I asked and I thought there was a pause of uncertainty before she said, "Yes, we're waiting." She'd warned me to expect a change, but when I drove the N17, passed green field and stone walls, I felt as if it was mere hours since Dad had bounded down the basement stairs and grabbed me by the hair. I don't know what kept me driving forward, but soon I was passing Marcus' house. The place was in darkness and it felt like an omen. The Cottage bar had only a few cars in front. For the first time in four years, I saw the Statue of Our Lady in the alcove opposite the bridge. She was dressed in a white robe and her gaze was held towards Heaven. Mam used to take me there when I was young. Once I asked why the statue's arms were raised upwards. Mam said, "Because of people like your Dad."
Over the bridge, a few cars were parked outside The Dun Maeve hotel. Spar supermarket was closed. My headlights were reflected in the dark window of Faith Wheeler's café as I made the turn towards home. The bay sparkled in the moonlight. A half a mile down the road was the turn for my parent's house.
Mam was at the window watching for me. I hadn't turned off the ignition but she was out the door. She looked thinner. I was engulfed with the smell of the sea the moment the car opened. "He's in the living room," Mam said. Her hand was on my arm. Her touch was light, but I felt that she was steering me in and without her hold I'd be left standing by the car. The house was stifling hot. Gay Byrne's voice was coming from the living room.
Mam said, "Come on," and I let her lead me into the living room. I saw the side of the television, the fire, and then Dad. His dark hair was streaked with gray. He was pale and so thin his pants looked as if they were standing on their own. He was leaning on a crutch. Regardless of the cancer, he was not a man to sit when his son entered the room. Mam rushed to him and asked. "What are you doing for God Sake?"
"I'm fine Annette," Dad said. She was at his side. Her arm went around his tiny waist. No illness could take away from the calm authority in his gaze.
"Hello Dad," I said, and tried to keep eye contact but it was hard not to look away. There was no warmth in his pale eyes. There might have been surprise but I didn't know if it was because I was there, or because I'd changed. My hair was cut short and I'd put on some weight. He nodded and said, "Patrick."
"You don't have to stand on my account," I said.
Dad said he'd never stood on anyone's account in his life and he wasn't about to start now. He said a man ought to see his son home after four years eye to eye. Then he told Mam to leave him alone. "I'm able to drop into a feckin seat."
He pushed her away with an arm that looked like a child's. "She's driving me nuts," he said. "Do you know she quit her job at the shop? I used to have four hours a day of peace."
"I'd heard she quit alright," I said. "After you were rushed to hospital, wasn't it?"
Dad's eyes narrowed and he asked, "What are you getting at?"
"Nothing," I told him.
"Right," Dad said. His cheeks bones were prominent and his skin was a pasty color, but he was still forceful. The gaze seemed to dare me to pity him. And all that time Mam was hovering around him. "The Late Late show is on," he said, and I told him I could see that yes.
His mouth tightened. "Don't be a smartshite," he said.
Ten minutes, I thought, ten minutes and four years and all I got was 'smartshite.' He was looking at the television now.
"Annie Murphy's being interviewed, did you hear about her?"
He didn't wait for an answer but said, "She was the one who had the bishop's child. He's has supported the boy for years. These are the people that the nation is trusting with their souls. Didn't I always tell you that it's a pile of corruption?"
"Yes," I said.
"Alright," Dad said. He refused Mam's help and gasped as he lowered himself down to the seat. Still, it was hard for me to believe Dad was susceptible to pain. His gaze was on Gaybo. He laughed at something that was said. Like that, I was dismissed.
In the kitchen, I said, "That went well."
Mam looked at me with a frown. She said, "How about some tea?" But I couldn't sit in the kitchen and talk as if Dad wasn't in the other room. It felt weird being in the house, like we were trying to be something we weren't. Mam didn't seem surprised when I said I was going to my room. My bedroom hadn't changed. It was a narrow room with a single bed and bedside cabinet. I was surprised there was still a phone on my bedside cabinet, and it worked. But I shouldn't have been; Dad wouldn't have set foot in the place and Mam would have kept everything as it was. With the door closed and televised voices rising through the floorboards, I got Marcus Blunt's number from directories. I hadn't planned on phoning him, I'd planned to stay a night, have dinner tomorrow and then go. But then I was in my old room and it was impossible not to think of Marcus. I dialed the number without wondering what I might say. Marcus' wife answered the phone. She had a sweet voice. I might have hung up only for the soft way she'd said hello. When I asked if Marcus was there, she was quiet for a second. I wondered if she knew who I was; maybe they'd seen me outside her house and knew I was at home. They might have been waiting for me to call. Finally she said, "No, he's not here." When she hung up, I felt like I'd missed something.
I slept badly. The television roared well after the Late Late. At some stage I felt hungry but didn't fancy going into the kitchen. The thought of coming face to face with Dad alone was not a nice one.
The doorbell rang the next morning when I was thinking about leaving my room. I heard Mam saying hello. Then I heard the male voice and I stiffened. Mam had snuck me to Sunday mass now and again, and I recalled the way the priests' voices fluctuated in a sing-song manner. It's probably impossible that I knew from the voice that the visitor was a priest, but it's the only way to explain my sudden unease and run down the stairs. I found the priest in the midst of taking off his jacket. The house was stifling hot. I was going around in a t-shirt and bare feet. Mam was standing beside the priest with a smile. She said, "Patrick, this is Father Divine."
I said, "Hello father, I'd say this is a wasted visit."
Father Divine laughed, "It's not my first."
"Your father invited him," Mam said.
I said, "You're joking right?"
It didn't escape me that the priest wasn't much older than I was. Father Divine had a mop of black hair, a square jaw and lively navy eyes. He said, "Your father has gotten some comfort from our talks."
"Who's there?" Dad said from the living room. I was staring at Mam. She was frowning as if I'd lost my head. How could she believe Dad took this seriously? I was the only kid in town not to get my first holy or confirmation. My head was spinning. "Is that true Mam?" I said. "Does Dad get comfort from their talks?"
I saw the doubt in her eyes, but she recovered and said yes.
"Are you mad? This has got to be a joke, his last big laugh."
"Annette. Who's there?" Dad said.
To the priest, I said, "My father might listen. He'll nod every now and again, but he'll be laughing every step of the way. He has not an ounce of respect for you or your church."
The priest said that may be so, but he wouldn't turn away from one of his congregation. "He's not one of your congregation. He's not a bloody lost sheep. He's a feckin wolf."
"Patrick, what's gotten into you?' Mam said.
"It's okay; it must be hard to be losing a father," the priest said.
I told him that wasn't it at all.
"For God sake," Dad shouted, "Do I have to go out there myself?"
It occurred to me that the only way to stop the priest was to wrestle him to the floor and sit on him. I might have done it too if Mam hadn't shouted, "Patrick, what the hell are you doing?"
The priest was looking a little worried. I eased my stance, though it was hard not to try grab his arm as he slipped by. It was easy to imagine what would have Dad said, "The other boy was kneeling on the floor and my son was on the couch with his pants by his ankles. Can you imagine the shock I got father?"
"Are you ok?" Mam said.
I didn't answer. I was in the living room. Dad gave me a thin smile and asked what I wanted. Father Divine was sitting perched on the couch beside Dad's armchair. I wouldn't have been surprised if they were holding hands. I sat beside the priest. Mam appeared and was hovering inside the door. She'd become an expert hoverer. Dad said he didn't realize we were going to have a party.
I said, "Last night you didn't have much time for the church."
Dad reminded me that last night he was talking about Annie Murphy." To the priest, he said. "She was being interviewed on the Late Late show. The whole thing would make you wonder."
The priest said, "It would but you shouldn't let one man affect their opinion of the church. It's important to keep an open mind."
"Exactly father, that's what I've always said," I said. "An open mind is key. Who are we to judge, after all?" I was settling in now, relaxing on the couch. I could nearly believe in our ability to have a civilized conversation, me and Dad, and the priest, as long as I didn't look at Dad.
"But I know it's against the church's preaching, so I was wondering, and I hope you don't mind me asking, if I'm stepping over the mark just tell me. But what did you think when my father told you I was gay?"
"Oh Jesus Christ," Dad said. The priest paled slightly. Mam came forward and said, "That's enough Patrick."
I looked at her and it hit me like a fist. She must have seen it in the fall of my face. She glanced at Dad, which felt like a double betrayal. It was a glance of acknowledgement, the "What should we do now?" look. I was standing, though I didn't know how.
"When did he tell you?" I managed to ask. For a minute I thought she'd deny everything, but she said, "Only a few weeks ago. If I knew before I would have said something."
"What did he tell you?" I asked.
Dad said, "That's enough!"
I refused to look at him. Mam said, "He told me about Marcus." She paused and said, "The basement."
My stomach turned. I said, "Did he tell you about the beating?"
"No, I did not!" his father said.
"Why not?" I asked. "Weren't you proud?"
Dad managed to sit forward. He was raging. He was a bull in the chair. "I had nothing to do with that sordid scene. I warned your mother not to ask you back. I told her that you'd cause some kind of trouble. It couldn't be good, the likes of you in the house, but she wouldn't listen, and I've had enough of this shite."
"Mr. Lenhihan," The priest said, and was told to mind his own business.
The priest said, "Maybe I should come back another time."
No one answered. I didn't understand how Mam could be so naïve. If Dad didn't want me around there was no way he'd stay quiet about it. He must have asked the priest to visit the second he knew I was coming. It's against the churches preaching, isn't it? he would have said.
Mam touched my hand, but I pulled away. She said sorry. Tears streamed down her face. I managed a nod. That was all he could give her. I was trembling.
In the hallway, I heard the priest ask Mam if she was okay. She might have nodded. The priest said something else that I missed. I was putting on his shoes when I heard the door close behind him. It took some effort for me to tie my shoe laces. Mam knocked on my door and I asked her to please leave me alone. I put on his jacket and I waited until I heard Mam go downstairs and into the kitchen before I ran down the stairs. "Patrick," she shouted, but I didn't answer.
The day was gray. The clouds hung heavy with rain. I didn't want to think too much about what I was doing. I drove slowly. My mouth was dry. I wished I'd stopped to have a drink of water, but there was no stopping now. A few bodies were around the village. Faith Wheeler's pastry menu was out on the pavement. The people around seemed to be going in slow motion. I drove over the bridge, towards the statue of Our Lady.
"What would you say now?" I asked, and she didn't answer. Of course she didn't. She just kept her head to the sky and her hands reaching upward as if pleading for escape. "Ah, come on," she might have been saying. "Enough is enough."
I was on Marcus' road now. The nerves were starting to get to me. The river was dark and thick. It seemed to crawl by my side. Marcus' Iron Gate was open and I liked to think it was fate. His black Volkswagen Golf wasn't there, and a red Peugeot was in its place. I got out of the car before I had time to think and rang the doorbell and waited. The door opened finally and there stood Bernadette in all her red-haired glory. She started to smile and say hello and then she paused for a moment before saying, "Patrick."
I nodded. Her eyes were brighter than I remembered. And she didn't seem so shy. It might have been the vibrancy of her red hair falling over her shoulders or her open scrutiny, but she seemed different to what I remembered. My heart was a low drum in my chest and my mouth was parched dry. I didn't know where to start. I expected her to ask what I wanted or to call for Marcus, but she didn't. After what felt like forever she said, "Marcus doesn't live here anymore."
She waited for a moment, maybe for some reaction, but I wasn't capable of thinking or feeling much after what happened in the house. I was exhausted all of a sudden. It was only hitting me now and in front of Bernadette Lavin of all people. I should have walked away but I couldn't.
"You're the first person I've told," she said. "But then of course you know the truth already."
Her smile wasn't exactly sad, but mocking, like she was laughing at herself.
"Aren't you going to say something?"
I told her I was sorry and she shrugged as if she didn't believe me but didn't really care.
"He wouldn't talk about what happened with you two and I need to ask, did you hurt him because he tried it on?"
The question surprised and saddened me. I told her no, and I might not have said anything if not for the soft way she was watching me and the lingering shock of Dad's lie. I'd nothing to do with that sordid scene, he'd said, but he had. So I told her, "I hurt him because my father told me too."
I don't know what I saw on her face: disgust, sympathy or just surprise. She didn't ask why, then or later. She probably knew somethings can't be explained. There was my father's face in mine, there were his screams and slaps and then…well that is the moment when the trigger is pulled. Only I had no gun, just feet and hands.