His mind was the silent rotor that swept the swirling flakes into eddies that whirled in the grey. Not proper snowfall yet; just a precursor to it. Sarah shaking out the bolsters, or orange pith blown from the hand by a lick of breeze; little flecks, a smattering of hesitance; a laden promise. Pat knew it would set in properly after dark — everything always seemed to worsen when light left the land. He winced as a sudden spasm rippled through him, although it would pass, it was still enough to daub a sheen on his high forehead, a condensation dully glistening like the corrugations of a Docken grub. He would have been out in it, but today was one of those days. Besides, he had the Yank to deal with again, and Jesus Christ knew that that was far from easy. He felt bad thinking of his sibling in this manner. Sometimes it felt like he was the stranger. He didn’t think he was doing too badly, considering that they were both unknowns; some things were a lot harder to ponder than snow that hadn’t made up its mind.
“Pat, sit down man. You got ants in your pants? What’d you call those two guys anyways?”
Jimmy Brown was a head shorter than his brother, but twice as wide, and twenty years his junior. He held the scuffed glass in a stubby hand that was adorned with the crudely fashioned face of a cigar store Indian.
“They’re brothers Jimmy. Sons of the man who drove you here. They call them Hughes.”
The room swam under a shifting sea of cigarette smoke that blurred the edges of everything: the table under the little window; the fire burning in the hearth; the picture of the Sacred Heart Of Jesus, and the St. Brigid’s cross stuffed behind it like an amputated swastika.
“Jesus Pat this is good stuff, I never tasted nothin’ like this in the states. Christ, we had a guy from Paw-Paw Kentucky in my outfit and his folks sent him a bottle once, but I swear to God it wasn’t nothin’ like this stuff — you sure you won’t join me?”
Jimmy gestured into the corner where several crates of bottles were carefully stacked on top of each other.
Pat had been taught how to distil by his Uncle Joe. Together they had made a few hundred gallons a year for sale. Amongst these natives they were true artisans. But this was the last year that Pat would run the still. It had nearly killed him. Joe’s gear was hidden near the top of the Horse: an island of ancient oaks that surfaced in the midst of the bog like thick heads of broccoli. He’d chosen it when the police were at their worst so that the smoke could be dissipated by the sprawling umbrellas of the trees. The place provided a natural vantage point from which everything below could be observed. Inaccessibility was its great advantage, but it was this very boon that had come to work against him now in failing health and advancing age. That was why he had had to pay the brothers to carry it all back for him. He hated the fact that he had been forced into trusting others; the Hughes boys were good bad lads, but he knew that old Joe would never have approved. The Browns were not people who entertained taking anyone into their confidences, except in extremis. They had always been private. They had their reasons.
“No, I’m a pioneer Jimmy… you know I’ve never touched a drop in all my life.”
Jimmy bowed his head as if he had just learned of a death.
“It must run in the family, Dad always said that Joe and Sarah were the same.”
“Aye, that’s true; I suppose we never felt the need for it, well… apart from makin’ a few bob from it, that is.”
At the mention of their Father, Jimmy noticed that old Pat had stiffened a little. It had been subtle, but it had been there.
“You know, I came here because I wanted to see you Pat. Dad wanted me to come too. He wanted me to give you somethin’, and tell ya somethin’ too. He never stopped talkin’ about all of you, you know. He would break his freakin’ heart about you all the time. I know those Goddam letters were never enough, I know it, but, you know, it was hard on Dad too, you know, never gettin’ to see you again, and always wonderin’ what the hell you were up to, and what you and Aunt Sarah and Joe were doin’, an’ how were ya managin’, and all kinds of stuff like that, you know what I mean? I mean you guys never even had a telephone.”
Jimmy was drunk now, not that it mattered much.
Pat paused and looked up at the window again.
“Jimmy I don’t want you to feel bad, and I am glad to meet you face to face after all this time. But I have no memories of our Father – none. As far as I was concerned Joe and Sarah were all there was. They treated me like a son, I never wanted for anything, and I still don’t. So don’t feel bad. You’ve been good to us. I always appreciated the money you sent, and so did Sarah. She has a picture of you in your uniform down the room there, and she was forever saying what a handsome boy you were and all that, and how much you looked like your father, our father; sure, I wrote to you about it many’s the time.”
The ‘tock’ of the clock on the mantle was percussion to the spit and scatter of the hot coals as the shadows deepened around them, and the syncopation that split the gloom was a metronome for the afflicted.
“Yeah, I know ya did. It would have made the old man proud if he’d even got to read one of your letters. But the freakin’ Krauts put paid to that. He called me in when he had hardly a breath left in him, those blues lookin’ straight through me. Mom had all that Catholic stuff goin’ on, you know, the candles and the crosses and Christ knows what. Jesus, Greta wouldn’t even get out of the Goddam car. That was her for ya man. She was so high an’ mighty back then, just cos old man Miller had left her the shoe store on forty-sixth street when she was a baby. Old man Miller was worth a fortune. He was a pole too, like Mom. But I was never good enough, you know. I don’t know what the old guy would have made of me, but the rest of them, they despised me… more so cos they couldn’t do much about it cos Greta was pregnant with Beryl by then. Anyway, you know Dad was only fifty-seven when he died? It was a week before I got sent out to that Goddam hill, anyway, he said to me that he loved me and Mom, and that he didn’t give a shit about where we buried him because his heart was back home. He meant here in this Goddam place; here with the baby boy he never saw grow; here with Joe and Sarah — and you.”
Pat watched as the tears cascaded down his Brother’s cheeks, and felt like an intruder.
“Listen Jimmy, I know you’ve had it hard too. I often thought that there was a strong link between Joe and him, because Joe only outlasted him by three weeks. I was the age you are now. I remember when your Mother sent the telegram to the post office. Urgent from Lena Bednarz-Brown it said. Joe broke his heart. He often said to me that all he had wanted was for our Father to have a new life, a good one, with all the luck in the world. That’s what Joe wanted for his younger brother, just like I want the same things for you. He wanted his brother to have a chance of a life, especially after my Mother died so young, and him only a lad of seventeen at the time, same as she was. Joe knew that I’d have the best life here with them. They needed me as much as I needed them. Everything that was done was done for the good. It was all for the good, Jimmy. C’mon man you’re forty years of age, you’re a young man compared to me. I’ve lived most of my life; you’re only half-way through. I know it must have been sore on you when your marriage broke up, but you’ve two fine girls; two fine young women I should say. You go back and you tell them about me, tell them everything you’ve seen here, and how it’s nothing; and then you tell them to forget about the whole thing. It’s their future that’s important; not our past. C’mon now, dry your eyes and I’ll make us a cup of tea.”
Jimmy shook his heavy head in an attempt to compose himself.
“It’s just sad man, sad that you never knew either of them, you know? I remember getting those photographs that Sarah sent over. I was only about fifteen, but Dad kept me there for ages, asking me over and over again what every detail of the pictures was, you know? I mean, they weren’t that good, so I reckon I ended up just telling him what he wanted to hear. Then he’d curse the Krauts up and down and slap his head and grind his teeth, you should have seen it Pat, he’d go crazy cos he couldn’t see for shit. He told me once about your Mother. He was crying like a baby, said they found her dead in some freakin’ field, said she went nuts an’ that’s why he had to go, to get out when you were just a baby. Poor bastard joined up when he got stateside, and five years later he ends up in the Belleau Wood man. That’s why I joined the corps too Pat. I was so freakin’ angry at them Goddam Krauts that I just wanted to take it out on anything I could. Do you get it? Can you see what I mean? Every chink I wasted, I wasted for the old man and me, and you Pat, you too.”
Pat lit a cigarette and regarded his nicotine fingers with disgust. He wished that Jimmy would just go on back home instead of tearing himself to pieces here on the linoleum.
“Did it do you any good Jimmy? All that?”
“No, I guess it didn’t do no good; it drove me into the bottom of a glass, and it broke it all apart. I guess that we don’t have much luck in the old family stakes, you an’ me, eh? And you never found a girl yourself Pat. Jesus, it must have been lonely livin’ out here in the sticks with nuthin’ for company? I always thought that the Micks were a crazy freakin’ race. I started life in Hell’s Kitchen man, Mick city, but then, thank Christ, we moved uptown. Dad met Lena at the veterans’ hospital y’know. She hated that shithole we lived in off West forty-fifth street. I ever tell ya Mom was a nurse? That’s how they met you know. She was eighteen and he was twenty-five. She told me once that when she first saw him all covered in those big yellow burns she didn’t give him a month, then she found out that he’d already been on the mend for about three. She couldn’t believe that he’d ever make it man. I think she was right Pat, I think that the old man never really made it out of those woods, y’know what I mean? He burned to death all down the years, and I froze to death. I ever tell ya I lost three toes and my left earlobe out there. Minus thirty five, that’s what it was Pat, minus thirty-five. The freakin’ medics had to put the styrettes in their mouths so they’d warm enough just to give us the jab man. Most of the time it just didn’t work out. But I got a star for it Pat. They gave me a fuckin’ star.”
Pat watched as Jimmy’s head came slowly down to rest on the tabletop. He wondered how much his Father had really told Jimmy about Ireland. He didn’t think it could have been too much; he hoped that it wasn’t. He wondered what an eighteen year old girl could have seen in a blinded soldier that would have made her want to stay with him. Try as he might, he couldn’t picture it. He sighed heavily and rubbed absent-mindedly at his left side as he arose from the chair and returned again to the window. He had been right. The snow was really coming down now as the clock struck four. These December afternoons were getting him down. When he was younger he had loved the drama of Winter, but now it felt like a prison sentence, a foe to be wrestled with. No more pot-shotting for Woodcock in the gloaming’s half-light; he hadn’t taken the old shotgun out for years. It would be stiff and useless now, like him. There was no fun in it anymore, that’s what it was, no fun.
He shambled into the little scullery that always smelt of Meths and potato skins, and put the big black kettle on to boil. Today was Jimmy’s last day, and tomorrow he would have to get the coach back to Dublin, old Hughes would be taking him into Magherafelt at ten. It must be a strange feeling to spend all those hours in the air, to sit inside a metal cylinder and feel nothing for a while. He couldn’t imagine it. He’d never been anywhere, well… a sojourn in Scotland digging drainage ditches after Joe had died, to help keep hold of the ‘farm’. It was the wrong word to use about four acres of mixed land and the same of bog. Did six cows and thirty hens constitute a farm? It did once. Now there was nothing except the rent money for the only useful field, and the eggs that kept him going through the week. Twelve hens now, no cows, nothing. The money that would come from the ‘shine would see him through until Easter, but he knew that that would be enough. It was the only thing that he had left to say to Jimmy. Of course he wouldn’t tell him the whole thing, but he would tell him enough, and that would do all right. He opened the back door and leant out into the snow and it felt good on his scrawny neck. The air tasted clean. He smiled a little to himself, but the smile was chased away by another thought. Joe had known the right way of it, of course.
He had said to never pay any regard to it, no matter what the circumstances. No matter if your teenaged Mother had been found spread-eagled and naked in it, frozen stiff on a Summer morning.
Joe had always said that it wasn’t their field, that it belonged to no-one except itself, and that no-one wanted it, or paid it any mind. Joe had told him that after the little McKenna boy had disappeared. He had brought in the stones then, and they had built the high wall all around it. Pat hadn’t consciously looked at it for thirty years, not since that May morning when they were busy at the still and they had seen all the hands waving in it like stalks of barley in the wind. Joe had told him how he had found and burnt the little boy’s shoes, and they had stood together in silence as the sounds of the falling night had wrapped around them. It wasn’t worth thinking of, and yet, as he had gotten sicker, the thought of it had become more… tangible, somehow. He dismissed the thoughts as Jimmy’s loud snores caused the smile to blossom once more.
“C’mon now Jimmy and sit up. I’ve made ye fine gammon and fresh eggs and spuds. This glass of milk will drive the last of it out of your stomach lad.”
Jimmy groaned and sat up in the old armchair.
“How long have I been out?”
“Oh, a couple of hours or so. It’s half six; you’ve missed the Angelus!”
Jimmy laughed and endeavoured to stand up.
“I’ll have to douse my head under the cold tap again brother.”
When he came back in from the scullery he pulled a chair out and sat down heavily at the little table beneath the window.
Pat watched as he shovelled the food into him like a man who hadn’t eaten in a month. The beige trousers, and the tan shirt with its gold designs, looked incongruous on him. He hadn’t noticed it before, but if you had swapped all the swanky clothes for cap and wellingtons, he would look almost at home here in this place, almost.
“What the hell is going to happen to this place Pat?”
There it was; thank God. That would save him having to introduce it himself.
“No, I mean what’s really going to happen here with all these limeys. I’ve never seen the like of that border crossing; and all those soldiers milling around here? They say it’s gonna get a lot worse. I mean, you guys are in the worst part of it here; it’s gonna be a war man.”
“Yeah, that. I hope you guys give these Mothers a good fight, get them the hell outa here, know what I mean. I never liked those limey sons of bitches anyway. I know all about ’em too. Met the freakin’ Drysdales out there. Some of them were tough Mothers but, well, you know, I was an Irish guy. Dad always told me the old stories, you know?”
Pat took the empty plate out to the sink and returned with a cup of tea for each of them.
Jimmy stretched out in the chair again and accepted the cup.
“Thanks Pat, sure was good grub. Everything tastes different here. It’s gotta, I don’t know, like a real taste somehow, ya know? Like you can really taste the food. I used to go to this little place up in Yonkers when I was first dating Greta; it was a hell of a shitty drive with the traffic an’ all, but they had this Eyetie there that made some kind of tomato thing, and I swear it was that same kind of taste. Like a real taste, you know?”
“Ah, it’s just because it’s fresh, that’s all.”
“Christ Pat, I swear to God I don’t know how you do it man. The silence out here would kill me. I mean, look at you; look at this place. It’s like goin’ back in time. You don’t got no electricity, TV, refrigerator, nothin’. I mean, what the hell do you do with yourself? You ain’t got no car, and this place is seriously in the middle of nowhere man, I mean, what gives?”
“Well, I suppose that you don’t miss what you never had, I suppose. I have the wireless and a few old books. The Library van comes around once a fortnight. I go into the village any time I want. I see the Bread man and the neighbours, and I have the old Massey Ferguson out there. I do alright.”
“Jesus Pat, last year we put a man on the freakin’ moon, that’s what. Times are changin’ brother, times are changin’ fast.”
Pat took a slurp of tea and lit another cigarette.
“You see this thing in my hand here Jimmy? This is my only vice. I mean, I like a bet, but this thing here is my only vice, and it has me destroyed. It has me done. Our Father got it in France from the mustard; and here I am in this wee house doing it to myself. It’s a bastard is what it is, a pure bastard. It’s changed me; but there’s nothing that’ll ever change this place. It doesn’t matter what comes, or who comes. Those old trees up there on the Horse will look out on all of it just the same as they’ve ever done. And they’ll keep on looking out for as long as they stand. It won’t matter what we do, and I don’t think it’s ever mattered. Other things hold the power. Nature, or whatever ye want to call it, an’ one day we’ll all just be part of the green brother, and there’s nothing we can do about it except take it. The only weapon you have here is your own mind Jimmy, an’ let me tell you, it’s a daily battle. Sometimes you’ve just got to let things be; just live as long as you’re let; just get on with it. There are no answers apart from the ones you give to yourself.”
Pat started to laugh. It was small, at first, but it grew until he subsided into a fit of coughing that bent him double in the chair.
“Jesus Pat, you OK?”
Jimmy’s voice was full of alarm, but Pat’s was calm as he blinked away the tears and swiped at his mouth with the back of his hand. Peering at the smear of mucus, he was glad to notice that it was clear as he quickly wiped it on his thigh.
“No, I was just laughin’ there, for I think that it’s the longest thing I’ve said to anybody for a long time. You get out of the way of talkin’ when you’re on your own. I said it all wrong anyway. I was never much one for the gab, so here’s what it is Jimmy. I got a will drawn up when I knew you were comin’. I was goin’ to give it to you, well, a copy, you know, tomorrow. There’s nothing in it apart from everything here is yours to do as you see fit with. If I were you I’d sell the lot. You might get a couple of pound for it, but I’d say that it’d be hardly worth the price of the aeroplane fare.”
Jimmy sat watching his brother carefully, but he couldn’t help it as the tears began to flow once more.
“It’s not worth them Jimmy, it’s not worth them.”
Pat rose shakily and went outside to get another bucket of coal. The snow had stopped, but a good three inches had coated everything in a shroud of white. The full moon shone low and bright and beautiful, and even though the cold hung on him like a hob-nailed shawl, he smiled.
When he returned Jimmy took a glittering little object out of his pocket.
“Dad wanted you to have this.”
“Wait ’til I get my glasses; They’re behind you there on the mantle.”
“Dad said that you were the one who deserved this.”
Pat peered at the medal and its gaudy ribbon.
“What is it?”
“That’s a Citation Star Pat. It’s for gallantry. Dad won it in the wood that time. But he said to me that time I was tellin’ you about, when he was dying, he said, ‘Hand this to Patrick, he’s the gallant one, and tell him that I’ve always loved him, when you see him.’ ”
Pat twirled it in his yellow fingers.
“I had that thing around my neck the whole time I was over there, Pat. It’s been all the way up 1419 and back.”
Pat smiled again.
“Well I’ll tell you what Jimmy, sayin’ as it’s mine to do what I like with. I’d like you to keep a hold of it. Truth be known, I’d only lose it, and I was never much of a one for jewellery and the like, but I want you to pull on your coat now and come out into the yard with me for a couple of minutes. There’s been a few old tales told between us here these last few days, and this is the last one that you need to know about. C’mon now ’til I show you”.
The brothers walked together out into the yard, and beyond into the road, and across to the opposite side where they stood together at the little ditch and gazed down at the sunken ground stretching out for miles around them. It was a moment that Jimmy would never forget. The Horse Island was a wedding cake that shone in the moonlight like a crown of ice.
“It’s like a masterpiece Pat; It is a masterpiece.”
“Look close down there Jimmy and tell me what you see with a scout’s eye, take your time now, and look properly.”
Everything in the valley of the bog was a pristine uniformity of white. The snow had made a bridal train of all save the little walled-in patch below them. It leached into his vision like a wet tea-bag on a starched tablecloth.
“Why has that wall got no gate, Pat? How come there’s no snow in there?”
“That’s all I wanted you to see Jimmy. I tried to tell you back in the house that there’s no real answers sometimes. Your Uncle Joe built the wall around that ground there a long time ago. I don’t know what it is, but I know that it’s no good. It’s bad ground Jimmy; it’s just bad ground. Nothing is in it. It is nothing; but it is something too. It’s why I want you to sell this place after I’m gone. I’d hate the idea of Beryl or Catriona’s kids ever playing around down there. I mean, I don’t in a million years think that those two fine girls will ever come here, even for a holiday, especially now when things are so bad with all the killings, but I just can’t stand the idea of it. I can’t stand the idea of any more of… well, anyway, promise me here and now Jimmy that you’ll not forget this now, the way we’re standing here tonight, and what I’ve said to you.”
Jimmy was taken aback at the earnestness, the intensity, of his brother’s words. He nodded.
“Is that where…”
“Yes, it is. Now come on back into the warm my brother and we’ll light the lamps, and I’ll let you have one more drink. One, and one only, mind. And I’ll have a smoke, and we’ll shake hands like men, and I’ll give you a couple of little bits of crochet work that Sarah made, and you can keep one and give the rest to the girls, now, what do you say?”
“I don’t know what to say Pat.”
“Well, good, sometimes that’s the best way. Sometimes all you can say is nothing. You know, that’s the first time in my life that talking about that thing down there has felt good; it’s a weight off my mind. I’m glad you made it back home eventually Jimmy. I’m glad we got to meet here in the old place.”
Jimmy smiled, and in the tiger stripes that the moonlight flashed across his face, Pat had no idea just how much he looked like his Father. No idea at all.