The Longford Leader's New Writing column provides the writers of Longford with an opportunity to share their work with a larger audience. This week's column features Lorne Patterson's 'The Homecoming'.
I tried two pubs before I found her. Sitting at a table by herself, like I expected. The pub was small and badly lit but I could see the table hadn’t been cleaned in a while, old rings staining the surface, cigarette burns around the edges.
I thought I could smell nicotine in the dank air, a whiff of the toilets too. Something nastier from the floor beneath my feet. Tourists didn’t come here; kids were kept out. A drinker’s pub - hard drinkers at that I knew, I’d spent enough time in it and ones like it.
I went up to the bar, held a note up for the barman, watched him put down his paper and come over.
‘…the f**k?’ Not much by way of a greeting. Probably the best I’d get though until I took the bus out of Longford.
‘Haven’t seen you in a long time.’ His eyes said you must be as crazy as they say to show your face round here again.
‘Glass of Heineken, vodka tonic and a Club lemon,’ I ordered. My business, not yours. Better not make it yours.
He kept quiet so I guess he picked up on the warning. I paid for the drinks, lifted them and took them over to her table. She said nothing as I put the drinks on it, pulled a chair over and sat down. She looked old and used up, her eyes hollowed-out, her skin tired and sallow. Maybe it was just the weak light, yellow as jaundice, but I didn’t think so. I sipped my Club lemon, yearning for something stronger, needing something stronger.
'You shouldn’t have come back,’ she said eventually. Refusing to look at me, staring into her drink as she spoke. I’d a pretty good idea what she was seeing there, thought I saw much the same thing myself most nights despite the pills.
‘You know I had to, ma’ I told her softly.
She reached out, knocked back the last of her drink, put it down, reached over and lifted the vodka and tonic I’d bought her. Took a long swallow, following it quickly with the beer.
‘You’ll just stir everything up again,’ she complained, voice as sour as her turned-down mouth. ‘People will start talking again. You’ve no idea what I’ve -’. Stopped herself, but I knew what she wanted to say.
‘Talk is all they ever do.’ Unable to keep the bitterness out of my voice, my eyes locked on hers. ‘Sh** at listening though, aren’t they?’ I accused. ‘Worse at doing.’ Couldn’t stop myself. ‘Not too hot on those yourself, either...’
She lifted her eyes to me. ‘You were always difficult,’ she complained. Face sullen, voice somewhere between hostile and hopeless.
‘Not always,’ I reminded her.
She drank some more while I sat there and stared.
When I’d thought about coming back, I’d pictured her crying. Angry, sure, but remorseful too, changed by guilt. A welcoming-home of some sort, though I knew the odds were bad. But not this. This was dying. I got up and left before I gave up and died along with her.
Out of the door of the pub without looking back. Dreading to hear her voice call me back, needing to hear it.
Nothing. I fought an urge to sit down on the pavement and be sick.
The town I knew had changed. Not completely, just enough to disorientate me, as if I’d taken a tab or two too many.
Landmarks I’d kept alive in my head were gone or transformed into something else. A greengrocers into an Internet café. A jewellery shop into a Polish mini-mart. There were empty shops too, Closing down sale now on or To Let signs pasted to the inside of their smeared windows. At least Market Square seemed familiar despite a fashionable make-over, drinkers still huddling in one corner of the pave-stoned space, Travellers still killing time in another, both groups watching me with suspicion as I passed by. I nodded at one of the alkies, thought I might have shared a bottle with him a lifetime ago, he might even have been wearing the same stained coat. But he just stared back at me blankly, his watery eyes indifferent.
Guess it was a lifetime for both of us.
I started walking towards Farnagh, braced against the cold.
‘You!’ I jerked before I could stop myself. ‘The nerve! To show your face here again!’
The woman’s face was as sharp as her voice, ugly with outrage. Blood ugly. I didn’t recognise her, didn’t have to, it looked like one of the many that had stared at us from behind the edge of lifted curtains or pointed us out in Longford’s crowded streets, thrilling on the scandal.
I walked up to her, right up to where you have to fight back - or lie down and take your f***ing. She pulled back. One step. Two. I followed her. She went pale, eyes fluttered, turned and hurried away. When she looked back and saw me still watching she walked even faster, low heels clip-clopping hard on the concrete.
A light rain began to fall, just heavy enough to be miserable, so I pulled my hood up and trudged on. By the greyhound track a squad car began trailing me, following me like the bad name I had earned myself. It kept pace as I walked past a housing estate I remembered as the arse-end of town, then a new one I didn’t remember at all, up past the GAA club, over the crest and out of Longford. They pulled in behind me when I entered the gate to the graveyard, but whoever was in the vehicle stayed put.
It took me a while wandering through the tombstones to find the grave - small town but crowded cemetery. A hillside full of In loving memory headstones, Celtic crosses, and the elaborate memorials of the Travellers. I kept searching, walking up and down the neat aisles, sweat cold under my arms and slipping down my back chilling me more, while I focussed hard on the names of the dead. Finally found the grave I needed.
I stood there, looked down at it. Felt heat rising in me despite the wet and cold. The noise loud in my head as I stared at the words carved into the black marble, reading and re-reading them. Beloved son and brother. Treasured memories. Greatly missed. While I unzipped myself I wondered if it cost more to have lies cut into a headstone that it did the truth.
I stood on his grave and p***ed onto the polished surface of the stone. Over the words, and then over the rest of the grave. Like I promised. But the lies would still be there tomorrow and it would be me that would be gone.
I don’t know if it was shrieks I heard in my head – my screams, and the cries of the others – or his sly laughter.
My skin tingled and for a moment I couldn’t breathe. I stilled my face, zipped myself back up then turned round slowly, the noise in my head fading to a whisper.
I remembered her as small and thin. She still was. Wore a long coat, looked lost in it as if it was a size too big - or she was a still a size too small. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail, making her gaunt face look even thinner, all cheekbones and jawlines you could cut yourself on. The years had been hard on her, shadows under her scoured eyes – shadows in her eyes, no hiding those. She saw me looking, knew what I was seeing.
‘I’m on the script now. In a programme too, a good one. Haven’t used in almost a year,’ she said proudly. I thought it was true. She didn’t look good but she didn’t look smack-itchy either.
‘You still get the headaches?’ she asked when I didn’t respond, looking at me in the same careful way I’d looked at her. People like us, we don’t send Christmas cards.
I shook my head, keeping my hands jammed deep in my jacket pockets so she wouldn’t see how badly they were trembling.
‘Not so much. Not since… you know.’ Even that was an admission of weakness, one I’d never make to anyone else.
She nodded. She knew. Seemed everyone around here knew. But I wasn’t going to ask any of them to forgive – or try to understand. There was no point asking them to forget.
We stood there in silence, looking each other. The rain started to smear her make-up. It looked like she was crying black tears. I wondered what was going on in her head.
‘When I heard you’d come back, I knew I’d find you here,’ she said, flicking her hand at the grave, the stone now damp with rain.
‘You think I shouldn’t have come? That I should have let it go?’ I asked, harsher than I intended. Felt bad when she flinched.
‘I think you still have petrol where your heart should be, Francie,’ she said eventually, voice sad, deep sad, deep all the way down into places I was scared to think about. But refusing to drop her eyes from mine all the same. I remembered when she laughed it sounded like she meant it, not the twisted noise I make.
There was another silence between us. A space, made of memories. Bad ones most of them. I wasn’t surprised when she was the one who filled it. She’d always had more bones than the rest of us. Had paid for it too. But survived, it looked like. Just about. More than me, anyway.
‘C’mon,’ she offered breaking the silence, holding out a thin hand.
I looked at it for a long moment, saw she still had freckles on the back of them, noticed how her fingernails were bitten down, chewed into ugly stubs. Not like my hands, pink and shiny where the flames had melted the skin. I stood looking, thinking maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t have to catch the bus out of town on my own.
I reached out and took her hand and let her pull me away.
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