Austin MacCarthy scratched his head and resumed his search just as the clock on the sitting room mantelpiece chimed three bells. He still could not find the treasured book. Its whereabouts were a mystery to him. A first-edition copy of The Happy Prince and Other Tales by Oscar Wilde, the collection of short stories had been in his family since the early 1900s. His grandfather on his father’s side, George MacCarthy, had picked it up in a small bookshop somewhere in Limerick City. On several occasions he’d read it aloud to his own children, including Austin’s Dad, but never permitted them to handle it. It was a cherished possession of his in light of its author’s considerable fame. Not something for young whippersnappers to lay hands upon he maintained. Even though its tales were intended for their age.
‘Your grandfather liked his bits of history and this was certainly one of them,’ his father said as he passed the embossed hardback on to Austin. ‘Look after it son. Introduce it to your own brood at some time. There’s great reading in it; especially that one about the swallow and the statue.’
Austin stood there in that precise attitude. Like a statue. Like one of the many figurines he’d collected on his travels abroad. There was a regal disorder of books around him which he’d fashioned all by himself. No one else to blame for this clutter of literature. He felt his mind slightly black, most definitely agitated. Had Laura picked out the volume for some reason best known to herself? And if she had, why hadn’t she told him? This was his domain after all. She was well aware of that. He disliked his personal belongings being removed in this sort of fashion. Even by his wife of twenty-eight years.
The small alcove of bookshelves set into the deep wall had offered no answers and so Austin began to rummage in the vicinity of the bay window. He did not want to ask his wife about it just yet. That would be the very last resort he decided. Laura would likely think him mad for fussing over something like this. Worse still it might put her in a state all over again. This he most certainly wished to avoid. Their grown-up daughter Kate would undoubtedly be involved in such a scenario. He could hear the tenor of the phone call in his head; how it would sound: ‘He’s trying to find a book now of all things; he has me beside myself with the endless questions. How can he be thinking of such small things at this moment? Will he never begin to -?’
There were discarded pages from the week’s newspapers in the window space – The Irish Times, The Cork Examiner, The Kerryman – but beneath them no green-covered hardback. Austin exhaled noisily towards the heavens. He felt relieved to some extent. Thank God in a sense it’s not here he thought. The light might possibly damage it. What little there is at this time of year.
Outside the grey October day was dying in a pall of rain. The sky above was hard and leaden. There was a sluggish feel to the air. Even inside. Most especially inside. Austin wondered if it was just himself feeling this way. Was it this room? Was it the environment he’d created in it over the years? He remembered how Kate used to refer to it when she was a youngster. ‘Daddy’s Den,’ she’d labelled it with a light-hearted inflection to her voice. But it hadn’t always been the scene of such happy-go-lucky times. This was the same room in which he’d had a few serious chats with her. And with the boy as well. The boy for the most part he thought as he considered it more. About his future. About the future generally and him not seeming to grasp at it. And then he took hold of it much too eagerly, much too liberally. In a way no one could have predicted. Not Laura or Kate. Not even Austin himself. This final decision had been his alone. He’d made that abundantly clear to them. Their reservations were waved away. Their manifold questions were left unanswered. With the exception of one. Yes, he was absolutely certain this was the right thing to do. At his time of life, his stage of development. Because that was what he needed more than anything else: development, growth, maturity. Words Austin had employed on countless occasions before. As both teacher and parent. He remembered how the boy had stood right there at the mantelpiece that day, looking to him for approval. His cobalt-blue eyes were brighter than ever. But there was a plea lurking behind them. Go along with me on this the way we agreed he was saying. I told you how I need it, how I need to do something important. Back me up here. I’m going no matter what. I just don’t want to leave with a disagreement hanging in the air.
The lights of a car flickered away down the avenue. The movement and illumination caught Austin’s eye, distracted him from what he’d been remembering. He twitched his face as if an insect was bothering him. Then swore in a faint undertone. Yet another visitor he supposed. Another caller with the best of intentions. But who was left to come now that it was four weeks later he wondered. No name came to mind. Must be one of the reliable repeats he murmured to himself. One of those overly-zealous characters who kept dropping in on them; telling them God had a reason for this no matter how unfathomable it might seem. The pious types were the worst of all. They attempted to put a philosophical structure on the entire thing, a kind of a join-the-dots exercise to rationalise matters. Austin was fed up with the platitudes and euphemisms he heard, the press of soft fleshy hands, the mournful cadence of words. The whole business had turned into such a chore. He wanted an end to it right now. Without further eloquence as the man would say. He wondered if there might possibly be a way he could ask for this. Would a notice in the newspaper do it? Or a short message appended to the thank-you cards Laura would be sending out in time? The idea intrigued him. How to tell people you want no more of their condolences. How to lessen the possibility of them believing you to be in denial. Or simply out of your mind. Because that’s how more than a few would consider such a request. Bizarre from top to bottom they’d say; downright eccentric without question.
Austin felt defeated. Absolutely no way he could get shot of it by such means he knew. The community around him would have none of that. There was due process to be observed after all. And they were certainly unwavering in their determination to observe it. He allowed himself a sickly smile as the car drew closer. This is a tap I can’t turn off he concluded. I have to see it through until it starts to recede. But God knows when that will be.
A 1991 Mercedes Benz pulled up in front of the house. The driver was the only occupant of the car, but he hesitated for what seemed like an eternity before getting out. Austin was a little surprised when he saw who it was. Norman Stapleton was an old family friend, approximately his own age, but the self-made businessman looked much older in appearance. He had a bald freckled scalp where a fine mess of hair used to be and heavy-lidded eyes like the actor Robert Mitchum. His skin had a bronzed leathery quality to it. The criss-cross of lines on his face were long-established, not a phenomenon of this year nor the one before. On the whole he looked like a man whom prosperity had damaged in some way. He’d always had a predilection for restaurants as opposed to home-cooked meals; justified this on account of the number of clients he had to wine and dine. Austin had also seen first-hand how much he enjoyed his brandy. There seemed to be no cognac he didn’t know, no type of snifter he hadn’t had intimate contact with. The price of the indulgent lifestyle he thought as he observed Stapleton’s bearlike shuffle towards the front door. By comparison he felt quite hale and hearty. He was tall, rosy-cheeked, and had a take-charge demeanour being the school principal that he was. 55 years old and still playing handball twice a week. A few days before he’d beaten Jimmy Costello who was seven years younger than himself. Now that wasn’t half bad he reflected, careful not to overestimate the win. At least I’m keeping myself a bit better than this poor divil. He noticed how rigid Stapleton’s shoulders appeared to be. He had the gait of one facing a task he did not relish. Crossing the soggy lawn obliquely, he lowered his head to the inclement weather. It was of no avail. The rain beat against his flushed face. The wind that accompanied it thrust coldness against his patterned features.
Austin heard the doorbell but decided to remain where he was. Laura’s footsteps were noisy as she crossed the tiled hallway. Their voices in the adjoining space were low and whispery. Try as he did Austin struggled to catch any of the words. A variation on a theme most likely he conjectured. He wondered if Norman Stapleton was making a decent fist of it. Or was he resorting to hackneyed expressions like so many others? Was he sticking to a planned-out speech he’d been rehearsing in his flashy car?
A gentle knock was ventured upon the door a minute or two later.
‘Come in,’ he said in his stentorian, part-principal voice.
‘We have a visitor,’ Laura said as she’d done so often over the past few weeks. ‘Norman has just come back from a few weeks down under. Is it Australia you said Helen is living now?’ she asked turning to their guest.
‘That’s right,’ Stapleton replied in a hoarse whisper. He cleared his throat and fared better with the more particular details.
‘She’s in a place called Coober Pedy in South Australia, gets so hot there during the summers that they have a lot of houses and stores underground. Can you imagine that? Well certainly not with weather like this, eh? A different world I tell you Austin. They value a day’s rain the way we long for a dry spell.’
He stood to one side in the room, deferential, apologetic. He was well-dressed in a dark suit, his neck bulged out over the collar of his expensive shirt. His soft milky hands moved to the rhythm of his words. He looked left and right like a dog surrendering eye contact. There was a loitering desire on his part to get the formalities over and done with. But first of all the small talk; the preliminaries Austin had become so drearily accustomed to.
‘I suppose you were away then for the All-Ireland?’ he said, resolving in his own mind to make it easier for the other man.
Stapleton’s face, taut until now, relaxed into a guarded smile.
‘I was indeed,’ he said, ‘but sure it doesn’t have the same appeal for us when we’re not in it ourselves, does it? Still though isn’t it great to see a county like Derry coming through for their first one? As a neutral you’d have to be happy for them. We already have our fair share of Sam Maguires I suppose. Good to see it spread around a bit.’
He decided to tack on an optimistic coda to this.
‘But the Kingdom will be back before long I feel,’ he said. ‘All-Irelands are in our bones. And I have great faith in Ogie Moran you know. If we can get out of Munster next year, then anything’s possible.’
Laura made her best effort at a perfunctory chuckle. It was a poor piece of acting, sounded mechanical and swallowed.
‘You were always the optimistic type,’ she said, ‘it’s little wonder you’ve done so well for yourself.’
Stapleton received the compliment gladly but kept his response moderate.
‘Aye, I suppose so,’ he said, ‘I often find people hear what they want to hear. When your stock is on the rise it’s as easy as selling ice cream to children. But when you’re in the doldrums the language you use has to change. Words have to be picked out more carefully; your whole vocabulary becomes narrower.’
He sensed this a good time to broach the real purpose of his visit.
Stepping forward, he offered Austin a firm, sober handshake.
‘I’m truly sorry for your loss Austin,’ he said with a staid formality. ‘For Robert. For yourselves in particular.’
‘Of course,’ said Austin. He was glad it wasn’t a windy mouthful. He wanted to thank Stapleton for that much. A good many others went on and on, repeated themselves ad infinitum until their words no longer had any substance or conviction. At least Norman has the good sense to keep it brief he thought. Mercifully brief at that.
Stapleton looked around anxiously.
‘Is Kate still with you?’ he enquired.
‘No,’ answered Laura, ‘she spent the first two weeks with us, but then she had to go back to Bandon. She has a very young family there. A three-year old boy. A baby girl who is only eight months.’
‘Begorra,’ replied Stapleton as he sought to lighten the tone somewhat, ‘she must have her hands full so. Just like my Helen in Australia.’
‘Babies are a handful in any country,’ Laura said, ‘I remember when we used to take our own two abroad. One time in a camping site in France there was no running water for a solid 24 hours. That was a nightmare I can tell you. Poor Robert never travelled as well as Kate. Isn’t that right Austin?’
She stared at her husband willing him to make a response of some sort, to become involved in the normalcy of conversation. After a moment Austin relented.
‘He was always the more finicky of the two,’ he said. ‘About food and his surroundings, even the very bed he slept in.’
‘That’s true,’ Laura agreed, ‘but he was younger than Kate so I suppose his age played a part in his little dramatics as well.’
‘Age had very little to do with it,’ Austin gruffly observed. ‘He was finicky as a boy and no mistake. He took long enough to grow out of it. It wasn’t his most appealing characteristic.’
‘Supposing you tell us what was then,’ Laura said to him in an undersea, faintly challenging tone, ‘considering how you’re an expert on such matters all of a sudden. What were our son’s most appealing characteristics Austin? Travelling abroad as a boy wasn’t one of them, we’ve established that much. And it most certainly was to his detriment as an adult as well.’
Norman Stapleton saw it fit to intervene and divert.
‘Do you have the month’s mind arranged yet?’ he asked. ‘I was expecting to hear about it but there was no word. I missed the funeral on account of being away.’
‘We hadn’t got around to thinking about it yet,’ Laura replied, her eyes blurring with tears. ‘There’s been so much to take in. Excuse me please.’
She left the room on the pretext of making them some tea. Both men knew it was also for another reason. Austin regarded her closely as she left. Her beauty had ebbed away a while ago. Gone was the stature and poise he could recall so vividly. When he first met her Laura was tall and blonde and just a fraction on the superior side. She teased him about such things as his own appearance which, although handsome, had an unrefined quality to it. It was the younger Laura who told him to change the particular shampoo he’d be using. It was also her who suggested, insisted in fact, that he take lessons in comportment and general manner. Now her body tilted far too much forward as she walked; her well-formed shoulders were sunken, distinctly lacking in feature; her pretty face was drawn and white and had lost much of its lustre; her darkly intelligent eyes had become narrow lines; her hair, which she used to wear in a thick braid, was loose and somewhat untidy. He noticed how her voice was flat and expressionless as she excused herself. It was like the music had been taken from it. Like an orchestra which is left with only the roll of the drum. The honeyed quality of Laura’s laugh came to mind and he heard it clearly in his head. She seemed to laugh most of all when Norman and his wife Betty had spent time with them. That was more than a few years before. Laura and Betty had been close friends, thick as thieves. Sometimes, especially after a few drinks, they’d lie on their backs talking and giggling; the shaggy rug in the dining room their cosy platform. On occasion they prevailed upon Norman to join them, but could never coax Austin. It was silliness he believed. He much preferred to sit. Sitting was level-headed. The consumption of alcohol should not justify the abandoning of one’s proper decorum. Laura joshed him for this. She called him names such as Mr. Respectability and the Captain of Self-Control. Austin pretended to laugh. But inside he felt a cloud of resentment.
‘It must be equally hard on you both,’ Norman remarked bringing him back to the present moment. They were alone together now. Laura was gone. The room was still cast in a cool greyness. The other man seemed quite content with this. At no point did he comment on the growing shadow or propose the need for the table lamp. Instead he sat down and loosened his tie.
‘Of course I use the word equally in a general sense,’ he said, ‘because it’s never the same way for two people. I came to understand that after I lost my Betty. I bought books on the subject Austin. On grieving that is. I was hoping there’d be something written down that would tell you how to do it properly. A sort of an idiot’s guide if you will. But I came to learn there’s no such thing. No document can tell you what’s right or wrong to do. You move through the process of your own accord. Every so often you stumble.’
He took a deep breath and puffed out his ruddy cheeks.
‘And I stumbled more than a few times as you know,’ he said. ‘Betty being taken from me was like the end of the world. I believed it to be the worst possible thing. But I was wrong about that…the nature of your loss…the way Robert’s been taken from you. That’s something beyond comprehension. It’s something I wouldn’t wish on my bitterest of enemies.’
He was visibly glad to see his host taking a seat opposite him.
Austin felt the sofa sag with the familiarity of his weight. The piece of furniture had a memory of its own. It knew him; knew how to receive him. He wondered if his own recollections would hold out so well for the remainder of his life. Would his eventual death be the sole interference? Or would something else come along to make his mind hazy and finally oblivious to all which had gone before? Laura. Kate. Robert. Even Norman Stapleton. Would they all become a great blank to him? Would his memories pre-decease him?
‘Father Stack is getting more and more doddery with every passing day,’ he said as he considered a case in point. ‘Sometimes he says the same part of mass over and over. Last week we had two Our Fathers. The week before that we had to offer the sign of peace three times. Next Sunday who knows what will be repeated. I’m betting there’ll be a collection twice at some stage. But that would suggest he’s in a much better frame of mind than the rest of us.’
Stapleton sat forward in his seat. His considerable bulk rolled behind his laughter. He was not a regular church-goer but was acquainted with the situation.
‘That’s very true,’ he said, ‘but I wonder how much longer they’ll leave him here. A point will surely come when they’ll have to do something. The poor man is unsteady in his mind and on his feet. He can’t be left in the parish forever.’
‘No, certainly not,’ Austin agreed, ‘but you know something when he’s clear-headed, when he’s not so mixed-up, he’s as intelligent a man as he ever was. The day of the funeral he gave a sermon that was from the top-drawer. He spoke about how Robert had got his first communion and confirmation in the church. And he wasn’t just generalising. He talked about precise details. The communion money Robert was so excited about collecting. The magazines and action figures he told the priest he was going to buy. The confirmation was something similar. He had it down to the minutiae. I found it extraordinary.’
‘That’s good,’ Stapleton said, ‘good that you were able to take some comfort from his words.’
Austin did not appear to hear this. His nostrils fidgeted. He touched his chin which was nicked from shaving. The previous sense of calm and order left him. He felt every muscle tighten as he tried to fix a picture in his head.
‘Do you remember that time Robert and Danny were playing together?’ Stapleton reminded him. ‘There was only a few weeks between them in age, but Danny was the bigger of the two. We’d come over to celebrate Laura’s birthday. It was July and the summer was glorious in a way it never seems to be now. The two of them were outside, giving it socks as usual. But Robert was the wilier. He bettered my young fella that day with a trick worthy of an experienced boxer. Danny cried the entire journey home. I told him to stop, to learn a lesson from it. ‘In future you have to be a bit sneaky too,’ I said. ‘Fighting fair will only get you so far. A dollop of deviousness the next occasion and you’ll have a chance.’ But I think they got on better from that time forward. Maybe that was Danny’s way of sorting it. Maybe that was his brand of guile.’
His face puckered into a slight expression of discomfiture. He squirmed and became uneasy in his seat.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘The first story I pluck from the sky and it’s one of the boys fighting as they used to do. It’s hardly the most appropriate of memories but then what is I suppose. Especially when it comes to young lads and the sort of divilment they get up to.’
‘That’s for certain,’ Austin said, a vague timbre lodging in his voice. He recalled the incident Norman had mentioned. Robert had given young Danny Stapleton a bloody nose that same day. Laura was furious with him over it. He was as well. They sent him to bed early that evening. Without his usual glass of milk. He cried noisily for a good hour afterwards, yet never left his room. The sound reminded Austin of an earlier occurrence. One which still had a distinctive echo for him. He wondered why so many bad memories kept crowding upon his recollection. Whose fault was that he wondered. His own for holding on to them? Or for playing his part in their creation?
‘I understand the Department of Foreign Affairs was very good to you both at the time,’ Norman said as he cut in again.
‘How’s that?’ Austin enquired, his mind half-lingering in that other place.
‘The Department,’ Stapleton repeated. ‘Paddy Breen told me you had only good things to say about them. About how they performed their duties. Concerning the release of the body,’ he added, stumbling over these last few words.
‘Oh yes,’ Austin said returning to the conversation, ‘there was a liaison officer called Neil who was of great help. There wasn’t enough he could do for us. It’s the kind of thing that restores your faith some bit.’
Stapleton nodded his head gravely.
‘I can imagine,’ he said, ‘and I can understand how you might be feeling in terms of trust and reliance. God almighty Austin! A strong young man like that in the prime of his life! And so much ahead of him once he got back home. How can it be made sense of? He could have gone anywhere I’m sure, done anything with his life.’
‘Yes…anywhere…anything,’ Austin said and he was immediately aware of how colourless his voice sounded. In the aftermath of the tragedy he’d tried to cry, to grief properly as one of Norman’s self-help books might recommend. But every effort at this had felt false and unsatisfactory. The tears had never come. In their place was a flood of images and pictures; without order, haphazard. He wished to God there was a sequence he could put on them. A montage with linearity. But it eluded him. Try as he did, he couldn’t discipline his mind in that way. And there was another form of control which had proven beyond his powers as well – sway over his own son, a degree of influence he felt every father should have. Robert had been what someone called a problem child. A boy who railed against authority, kicked out at those he viewed as oppressors. Austin was usually the first in line for this. As a parent. As a school principal. It was small wonder they had no real chance he thought. Only towards the end had they agreed on something. And to think of what that bit of understanding had brought about. To think of how it had settled things. Forevermore.
The last time he’d encountered Norman Stapleton was a number of months previous. It was shortly after Christmas. The lights in Castleisland had just been taken down. The town was dull and listless in a typically January fashion. The other man had seen him from a good distance and made a considerable effort to get away. He had a Styrofoam cup of coffee in his hand, half-open, and spilt some of it in his hurry. Austin knew the reason for this, the reason why he wanted to avoid him. He felt a little sorry for Stapleton and considered calling out. Later on he wondered if he should have done. A few words might have been enough. He could have told him the boy was nowhere near; not even in the country. Kismayo was a name Norman wouldn’t recognise but he was bound to have heard of the country it was in: Somalia. A long way from Castleisland and Currow he could hear himself shout on the street. A long way from the Brown Flesk River. So he won’t be harassing you now Norman. He won’t be accusing you. Or demanding to know why you’re calling on his mother.
The scene had been like one from a cheap Hollywood movie as far as he was concerned. The boy and himself were on the Farranfore to Currow Road; on their way home from Tralee. The boy was between jobs and they’d gone there to enquire about a position for him. He was driving and, mercifully, going slower than he normally did. Austin was forever warning him about his speeding. True to form he rarely took notice.
They saw the 1991 Mercedes coming from the direction of the house. It was Norman Stapleton’s. The same car he was driving in the present day. Robert shouted angrily as he recognised it.
‘I’ve had enough of this bollox calling to the house with his bogus heartache!’ he said. ‘It’s more than consolation he’s after! You know it is!’
Without a word’s warning he crossed the centre line in front of the Merc. Stapleton slammed hard on the brakes. There was no collision, but he was visibly shaken as he emerged from the car. He was hard put to control his breath, his face the colour of slate. In his fright he seemed to think it was Austin driving. Robert quickly set him right on this. The boy’s voice was edged with a sharp conviction. His hands moved about in aggressive waves.
‘I’m pulling you up because you’re calling here too much,’ he said. ‘You’re using the situation for a purpose. It’s to get close to Mammy. You’ve always had a thing for her. I’ve seen it all along. Even when I was a boy.’
Stapleton protested his innocence. He admitted there’d been many calls on his part since his wife had passed away, but it was only because Laura was a good friend.
‘A very dear friend,’ he said looking attenuated and strained, no longer the façade of settled pensiveness. ‘Your father and myself and your mother go way back. He’ll tell you the same thing. It’s all in your head Robert. A thousand dim suspicions do not add up to the truth of a situation. Isn’t that so Austin?’
He feverishly fastened his eyes on the father, imploring him to control his son.
Staring away at the anaemic blue of the sky, Austin was aware he’d said nothing so far. He knew he probably should, that an intervention on his part might be appropriate, but felt no great desire to rush it. Although he did not wish to be harsh with the man, as his son was doing, he also dreaded the need to be benevolent. He realised how long he’d been envious of Norman Stapleton, resented him even. Why not see the self-made man taken down a peg or two he thought. He’d always had a lofty attitude about himself, worn his achievements on his sleeve. Austin knew how he’d lucked into much of that success. The simple truth was he’d been fortunate, timely. A little business acumen as well for sure. And a God given talent for the auld smooth talk. He could sell oil to the Arabs, ice to the eskimos, with that sweet tongue of his. The Kerry lilt was regularly embellished to commercial effect. But it was not so much in evidence now. There was no flattery he could call upon in this moment, no soft-soaping which would placate the boy. Robert was knit to his opinion. His accusations were repeating on Stapleton like a bad case of indigestion. The lion’s share of it was most likely mistaken, a febrile excess of muddled reasoning. Austin was more than familiar with the boy’s penchant for this. It was nothing new. But a small part of him also agreed with what he was hearing. Stapleton was calling on Laura far too much. And she in turn was overly mollifying. They’d both seen that with the constant embracing and holding of hands. It was undue, disproportionate, laid on far too thick. A line had been crossed. All this woe and angst did not justify it. Austin had grown mildly irritated. The boy, as he could clearly see, was absolutely vexed. Why was Stapleton not dealing with his loss as a grown man should? Why was he not turning to members of his own family? Why Laura? Why her in particular? Perhaps the boy has a point he thought. It was a stretch but not entirely beyond the realms of possibility. He recalled again those former days when they all had had a few drinks too many. Of Laura and Betty Stapleton stretching out on their backs like two silly creatures. Of Norman sometimes joining them. Was there an understanding of some sort between them he asked himself. Something he was not privy to. Down through the years Laura had often spoken of the admiration she had for Norman. For his get-up-and-go attitude as she put it.
‘A man who started out with nothing and now has a great deal more than that,’ she remarked with a certain aspect to this utterance.
Austin felt a stinging barb when she talked this way. It was far from ennobling. And me a lowly school principal he reflected. Your respect for him seems to be in partnership with a regret for yourself. I wonder where one ends and the other begins. It was a question he’d pondered on more than a few occasions. He found himself asking it yet again.
Just then Robert went a step too far. His temper getting the better of him, he pushed Stapleton back with more than a little force. Norman fell against the hood of his car and landed clumsily on the asphalt of the road. He was not hurt, but quaked in a palsy of shock where he landed. A few tears filled his eyes.
‘Please Robert, believe me when I tell you there’s nothing between your mother and myself,’ he said spreading his hands in despair. ‘Austin make him understand this. I’m being absolutely honest with him…with you both.’
‘You’d better stop now Robert,’ Austin said with a twinge of compunction for allowing matters to go this far.
He offered Stapleton a hand.
With noticeable relief Norman accepted this.
‘Thank you Austin,’ he said as he got to his feet. He rubbed his collarbone in the place where Robert had pushed him, then smoothed down his jacket.
‘No major injuries,’ he declared attempting to make a brave show of it.
‘That’s good,’ said Austin.
Robert stared dead ahead, said nothing.
Stapleton looked here and there in uneasy disassociation.
‘I think you better go now,’ Austin advised him.
‘Of course,’ he replied without looking at the boy again. He got into his car and tried to start it. A number of botched attempts followed before he sped away.
The two of them remained standing on the road for a minute or two. Then Austin sat into the driver’s side of the car.
‘I’ll take us from here,’ he said to Robert. ‘You need to calm down. Behind the wheel of a car is no place to be having another frenzy.’
He wasn’t sure if the boy noticed but he took a deliberately circuitous route home. A short journey that should have been no more than five minutes became twenty. Robert finally spoke as they came within sight of the house. He’d been left a window for this by design. Austin felt almost as relieved as Norman Stapleton. He was tired of urging. Tired of prodding. Tired even of trying.
‘There’s something wrong with me Da,’ his son said to him. ‘I need to straighten my head out. I think I need to get away from here for a while. Maybe longer than that.’
He pushed past the last bit with a degree of effort.
‘The truth is I need to get away from you and Mam right now,’ he said. ‘The way you’re both living…inhabiting this old house together with so few words between you. I don’t think it’s doing me any good.’
They pulled up in front of the house. Austin turned the engine off. He told his son he agreed with him on all these things. Getting away for a spell of time would do him no harm. It might even be of benefit. And yes, his mother and himself were not getting on well he admitted. They had their problems. He’d done little to make things better. He’d never spoken about it before and felt uncomfortable. Cutting the conversation short, he suggested they go inside. Robert agreed despite the fact that he wanted to hear more. The timing isn’t right Austin felt. It wasn’t the moment to burden the boy with his difficulties. He had to fight through his own first, find his way in the world. Maybe then he’d tell him the truth; of how Laura and he had fallen out of love. It had happened a long time ago. Long before this day. Long before Norman Stapleton’s wife had died and he began to call with such frequency.
The gravel beneath their feet crunched like shards of broken glass as they reached the front door. In a hushed tone Robert asked him to remain silent.
‘Whatever I decide to do, wherever I decide to go, please don’t tell her what my reasons were,’ he said. ‘That part about needing to get away from the two of you especially. I don’t want her to know.’
Austin nodded his agreement.
‘It’s better that she doesn’t,’ he said. ‘It’s not the kind of thing she would want to hear. But I understand Robert. And I think it’s good you’re making some class of a decision.’
Laura returned to the room with tea and an assortment of sandwiches.
‘Just something to keep you going,’ she said in a decidedly better humour than before. She set the tray down and began to pour for them both.
‘Where did you travel from today Norman?’ she enquired as she handed him a cup. ‘Where’s home for you these days?’
Stapleton delayed his response by taking a quick mouthful.
‘I’m back living on Caragh Lake,’ he replied.
Laura raised her eyebrows.
‘Really? Caragh Lake?’ she said.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I didn’t think I’d ever spend another night there after Betty. But one evening a few months ago I found myself down there again and didn’t want to leave. Tis funny how it works, isn’t it? How we deal with things in the long run I mean. That’s when I knew I was starting to deal with it. Apart from Australia, I haven’t slept anywhere else since.’
He took another gulp and looked quite pleased with himself.
The phone rang outside in the hallway. Laura left to answer it.
Norman availed of the opportunity to produce a hip flask which he said contained a marvellous scotch whisky. Austin gratefully accepted his offer of some. They murmured a quick toast to each other not quite knowing what it was for. Norman set the flask aside on the bevelled edge of the coffee table.
‘Just in case you feel like a little more,’ he said. He stared at the door of the room as faint fragments of Laura’s telephone conversation drifted through. There were a few indistinct references to her son. Her voice dropped into a whisper here and there.
Norman approached his next question as tactfully as he could manage.
‘What took Robert to such a place as Somalia Austin?’ he asked. ‘Why did he go to a spot like that where there’s so much trouble?’
‘I’m not exactly sure,’ Austin answered, ‘I think he wanted to prove something to himself. He kept saying he wanted to do something of worth.’
Stapleton shook his head forlornly.
‘I fully take my hat off to men like him who volunteer as aid workers,’ he said. ‘Where did it happen exactly?’
‘In the south of the country,’ Austin replied. ‘A port city called Kismayo. We fooled ourselves into believing it was one of the safer places, if there’s such a thing. The US have had a military presence there since March you know. Part of the UN intervention in the civil war. A good thing we thought. At least as far as Robert was concerned. But it made no difference for him in the end.’
He smiled ruefully at this.
‘Maybe they’re not doing such a great job of it,’ he said. ‘Then again maybe I’m completely wrong and they’re doing a wonderful job, saving hundreds of lives. Just the occasional one that gets unlucky. Finds himself somewhere he shouldn’t be.’
He saw the boy with his coal-black hair slicked back in a precise wave, his bee-stung lips, his wide jaw, the pent-up expression that, when loosened, had an attractive quality to it. He imagined him in the northeast African country, feeling young and vibrant, the radiant sun beating down on his face. Southwest of Mogadishu. Right up against the Indian Ocean. It must have felt every bit the exotic location. Except for what was going on all around him. Had Robert not taken account of that? Had his burst of idealism made him unmindful of it?
‘I have a theory of my own which I haven’t shared with his mother,’ he said deliberately lowering his voice. ‘In fact I haven’t told anyone else about it.’
‘What’s that?’ Stapleton asked sitting forward.
‘I don’t think Robert was unlucky,’ Austin said. ‘I think he took too many chances while he was there. He didn’t know rightly how to look after himself. It was a weakness of his. That fellow I mentioned before from the Department. I got a small bit of the truth from him. I had to push him for it but he gave me a clue. He said Robert was last seen in a place where he shouldn’t have been. His abductors, his killers, probably picked him up near there. They held him for two days before they shot him. There were no demands or conditions. Just shot him outright. A single bullet to the head.’
He surprised himself with these last few words. In the weeks since Robert’s murder he hadn’t spoken of the exact details of his death to anyone. The neighbours, or his family, or friends. They were too gruesome to mention to most people. Very few he knew who’d wish to listen in any case. He wondered why now, and why with Norman Stapleton in particular. Maybe because he’s a man of the world he concluded. Different to most living in these parts. Or maybe because I owe him something of the truth. And he the same with me. He wondered if they could be honest with each other in this moment. About the past. About that part of the past they shared. It was not so distant for either of them. They could recall it without much prompting. Inducing it would be like leafing through the pages of a book. Some passages could be skipped over as they saw fit. Not every item would require enunciation. Certain confidences would be kept hold of.
‘Apart from the bullet that killed him we were told Robert was not assaulted in any other way,’ he said. ‘Which seems strange behaviour when you consider the brutality of that war. He wasn’t beaten. There were no marks on his body.’
‘That’s a good thing,’ Stapleton offered by way of response. ‘At least he didn’t suffer too much. Apart from the fear I suppose. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.’
Austin waved this away.
‘No, it’s true,’ he acknowledged. ‘There was very little positive about it. But I was happy to learn he hadn’t been beaten. Or physically restrained for that matter. There was no evidence of it on his wrists or legs. He was likely held in a room where there was some space. Probably not much light. But at least some bit of space.’
Stapleton made a broad grimace at this.
‘The poor boy!’ he exclaimed. ‘But it’s probably better you don’t think about it too much Austin. Try to remember the good days. When he was here. When he was growing up. Herself – Betty I mean – was forever remarking on those beautiful blue eyes of his. And the way he had such a vocabulary by the age of three. He was a smart fella Austin, a chip off the old block. Don’t flood your head with imaginings of his final moments. Hang on to the pictures you’ve collected over the years.’
Austin shook his head insistently.
‘I can’t reach those until I’ve purged the other things first,’ he said. ‘Robert wasn’t an easy boy to bring up. You know that better than most. We had our problems with him. The rows that went on. The defiance I got first-hand when he was at school here in Currow. And then the number of places he went through in secondary. We tried him at two boarding schools. Neither of them worked out. I remember a conversation we had with the head man in the second one. He told us that in his estimation Robert was maladjusted for some reason; asked us if there was anything from his childhood we could pinpoint. A traumatic event of some kind as he put it. Both of us knew of one possibility. But we didn’t offer it up.’
‘Why didn’t you?’ Stapleton asked his brow furrowing. ‘What was it?’
Austin stood up and walked over to the mantelpiece. On it was a set of Chinese zodiac figurines he’d had for aeons. He picked up one of the pieces, that of the horse, examined it, and put it down again. There was no fire in the grate below just yet. He tipped the decorative guard with the front of his shoe. Then continued.
‘When Robert was little more than a year old he got ringworm on his face,’ he said. ‘We had no idea where he picked it up. It was of the very scaly, very itchy kind, and, worst of all, it was spreading quickly. Much too quickly. It was moving towards his left eye. We tried a couple of different creams and medications, but none were of any use. And we couldn’t stop him scratching. He was far too young to understand how that was doing harm. I was at my wits’ end. I was convinced it would go into his eye, damage his sight. Perhaps irreparably. Laura was calmer than myself. She was worried too of course, but believed we’d find something to treat it. She didn’t think it’d affect his eye the way I did. And she didn’t agree with me on the course of action I wanted to take.’
‘What was that?’ Norman asked.
Austin pressed his forefinger to the very edge of his left eye.
‘It had got too close as far as I was concerned,’ he said. ‘During the daytime we could keep a watch on him, prevent him from irritating it too much. But the problem was night. We couldn’t very well stand over him then. I fretted thinking what the consequences of this might be. My son blind in one eye, restricted for the rest of his life. I didn’t want to take that chance. I didn’t want that blame in my head. So I had an idea. I suggested we should bind him. His hands that is. Laura didn’t like it at all, not one bit. But eventually she allowed me to do it. Probably to calm me down more than anything else. She could see how agitated I was, had never seen me in such a state before. I remember the first night. It was early August, during a hot spell. We could hear him in the next room. He’d been a placid baby up ‘til then, but this changed that forever. His screams were raw and piercing, terrible to listen to. Laura wanted to go to him. I persuaded her not to. I told her it was the lesser of two evils, some trite cliché like that. In the morning his body was wet from the distress. He’d cried himself to sleep but hadn’t forgotten the ordeal. I could see it in his face and in the marks on his tiny wrists.’
Stapleton reached for his hip flask on the table. He poured some more scotch for himself and gestured towards Austin’s cup. Austin refused politely. Stapleton put the small canteen away. After a mouthful of the spirit he found his voice again.
‘How long did you do this for?’ he tentatively enquired.
‘Three nights,’ Austin replied. ‘Laura found a remedy in the end. She was wonderful, plagued doctors and chemists all over southwest Kerry until finally she found this fellow with a practice near Milltown. I can’t remember the name of what he prescribed but it worked and I didn’t have to restrain Robert again. I can’t tell you how relieved I was. But there were consequences…aftereffects. Of that I’m certain.’
Stapleton nodded his head, not in sympathy but acknowledgement.
‘You think that it changed Robert in some way?’ he said. ‘Could he even remember it being so young?’
‘We never spoke about it, but yes, somehow I think it stayed with him,’ Austin said. ‘I think it was what you might call engrained, subconscious. I feel at fault for that part of my son’s life, that part of his make-up. But I did what I did because I was so frightened for him. He had to be protected. You try and keep your children safe. Safe from the world. Safe even from themselves.’
He looked towards the door and saw beyond it.
‘She blames me now because I didn’t try and stop him from going,’ he said. ‘Both herself and Kate were against the idea of him becoming an aid worker. Quite rightly they told him how dangerous it could be. Especially where he was heading.’
‘And you didn’t support them in this?’ Stapleton asked.
‘I supported him because he asked me to,’ Austin answered, ‘because he needed my backing. He needed to develop, to become a man. I didn’t like it, but I knew how intent he was. I knew that if he didn’t go there’d be consequences all over again. To me holding him back like that. I couldn’t be his keeper any longer. I think Laura feels I stopped being his father that day.’
Stapleton leaned forward again, drummed the table as he parsed these words.
‘It’s no easy thing being a parent Austin,’ he said reflectively, ‘and this horrible thing that’s happened must be a huge strain. On you both. I look at my own fella Danny and I thank God he’s turned out the way he is. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing either. There were moments when I questioned things, asked myself if I was doing the right thing by him. With Robert you had those moments and questions to a much greater extent I know.’
He allowed himself a small chuckle.
‘Just like that time he gave Danny a bloody nose as I said. And then…’
He stopped up with a measure of seeming discretion.
Austin divined this, was only too aware of what he was thinking.
‘That day on the road,’ he said, ‘when Robert was half-crazy accusing you of all sorts of things.’
‘Of being with Laura you mean? In that sense.’
‘Yes, in that sense.’
The time had come for Norman to speak to that a little. They both knew this. Folding his arms, he stared pensively towards the window. There was the urgency of truth in his voice as he began.
‘Robert had it partially right,’ he said, ‘although nothing ever happened – and I give you my word on that Austin. I admit there was a time when we both thought we wanted it. That was maybe fifteen years ago. Betty was still alive of course. You were working on some project abroad if I remember correctly; helping build a school in some deprived country. Maybe that’s where Robert got his desire to be an aid worker. Did you ever consider that?’
Austin shook his head. Quite honestly he hadn’t.
‘Laura called to our house at Caragh Lake one day that particular summer,’ Norman said resuming the thread of his narrative, ‘there was only myself there. Betty and the children were gone to Galway for a short break. I remember word had just come through of Pope Paul VI’s death. It was a Sunday I think. We had a few drinks and the temptation came up, I won’t deny that. There was even a kiss or two. But nothing more. That I swear to you. We didn’t take it any further. We both knew too many people could get hurt. Yourself and Betty. The children most of all. Laura did stay the night because she wasn’t fit to drive. Maybe that’s how Robert got the impression that something had happened.’
‘Where were Robert and Kate?’ Austin asked.
‘With Laura’s people in Listowel,’ Norman replied. ‘She’d come in the knowledge that Betty and the kids were away. There was a motivation behind her timing. She believed she wanted an affair, needed it even. And I did too. I’m glad we both saw sense. It was the right decision. That’s not the kind of history you want to make. Because it lives with you into the present and future; afflicts you in a no good way.’
He finished and looked up at the other man who was still standing in a listening attitude. Austin noticed the curtains in the window flap gently with a breeze. The movement soothed him. A faint light outside mitigated the shadows within. A colder, cleaner sensation had come into the air. He felt a degree of respite, content that he’d dispensed with some of the burnished silence. The raw glare of his grief would remain he knew. But at least this is a beginning he thought. A proper setting in motion of my remembrance.
‘I used Robert against you that day on the road,’ he confessed. ‘When he started into you I was pleased in a certain way. I should have stopped him but I didn’t. I was jealous of you for a good many years, jealous of your success in business; jealous also of how she regarded you. I allowed my son to be my blunt instrument. That was wrong. For that I have to apologise to you. And to him as well.’
Stapleton swatted at the air.
‘There’s no need to apologise to me,’ he said, ‘I can understand what you might have been feeling. I was calling on Laura far too much. It was slightly undignified. I was depending on her too much; and relying too on your own good graces. Robert just put your frustration into words. I don’t hold that against him. I don’t hold it against you.’
‘Thank you Norman,’ Austin said.
He extended his hand. Stapleton rose to his feet and accepted it eagerly.
‘One of those books I read had something to say about the past,’ he offered. ‘It said there’s no getting it back no matter how hard you try, and no bargaining with it. They’re just words on a page though. You can accept them or dismiss them as you see fit.’
Austin nodded his head in sober agreement. He could think of no response to make to such a truism, banal though it was. He mustered a faint smile. It was weighed down a little. He realised the pathos of his situation. He hoped he could continue to maintain his composure. It would be important for her that he did. It would be important for himself.
‘Can I just ask one thing?’ Stapleton ventured. ‘About when Robert decided to leave. Was it soon after that day on the road?’
The question was overloaded for Austin. It was a step too far. Stapleton seemed to realise this himself; perceived the look he couldn’t identify and coloured just a little.
‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘I was just curious. It doesn’t matter.’
It did matter. Very much to Austin. He felt a rush of horror and anger. The recollection of the previous few minutes caused him to shrink. His own words startled him now, shocked him into apprehension. He felt the muscles on his neck distend. His stomach coiled at the thought of having given up so many particulars. His conscience pricked him. Have I said too much he wondered. Have I handed too much of you over? His wariness claiming him again, he decided it was time to end the sporadic talk, to curtail this discussion. Cutting a glance over Stapleton’s shoulder, he remarked on how the day was closing in outside.
‘The light will soon be falling out of it,’ he said. ‘A small mercy really when the weather’s as bad as it is.’
They walked to Stapleton’s car in the waning light. Austin noticed how the other man glanced furtively back at the house. Laura hadn’t said goodbye before he left. She was upstairs doing something. Norman said there was no point in disturbing her.
‘Just pass on my regards,’ he whispered. ‘But I’ll call soon again. If that’s ok?’
‘Of course,’ said Austin, ‘we’d be glad of the company.’
He deliberated as to how Laura might need this more than he would. Her pain was her own sensation. She’d made it clear he was to have no part of it. He imagined her in the darkness of her room, wound in a blanket, her eyes rolling over the faint outlines of furniture and corners of walls. What does she think about before she goes to sleep he asked himself. What did she think about before Robert’s death? Did she see the balance of her life rolling out evenly in front of her? Or something else? A fear or desire he could never be made aware of? A dream, a nightmare, she would not dare reveal?
‘You’ll come out to Caragh Lake some weekend,’ Norman encouraged. ‘Before Christmas maybe? The girl who looks after the house for me now is a terrific cook. She does a casserole that will have you floating on air Austin. We could have a few drinks and…well…a nice peaceful time of it.’
‘You’re very kind,’ said Austin. ‘I’ll mention it to Laura. I’m sure she’d like it.’
He’d already decided they’d accept this invitation. Perhaps sometime in November. Laura would gladly welcome it by then. She’d be anxious for a getaway no matter how brief. When they were first going out his flair for whisking her away at a moment’s notice was one of his strong suits. He had a car from early on. They must have visited every county in Ireland by his reckoning. Donegal had been Laura’s personal favourite. Caragh Lake was much closer to home, but it would do for now. She wouldn’t pass it up. She might even manage a pretty smile in anticipation. As for himself, Austin considered the last-minute excuse he would concoct. A sudden onset of migraine would be plausible; so acute he couldn’t possibly travel himself.
‘But you go on ahead,’ he’d tell her, ‘Norman has everything ready. It’d be rude for both of us not to turn up.’
There’d be no arguments from her he knew. She’d leave on a Friday as arranged, return the following Sunday. He’d stay behind by himself. Content to do so. He might even take the opportunity to sort out some of Robert’s things. It would be time by then. There was a new charity shop opened in Castleisland. Anything that was no longer needed could be taken there. All those items which had no value now that he was gone. Clothes. Shoes. Books. He remembered The Happy Prince. How he’d been looking for it before this visitor of theirs had arrived. How he’d thought of asking her if she knew where it was.
Stapleton’s car puffed miniature clouds of exhaust fume as it disappeared down the drive. Austin turned back to the house. He noticed thin strands of turf smoke starting to emerge from the chimney. Laura was downstairs again. She’d lit the fire for him in the grate. A kind thing to do he recognised. He hoped to reciprocate this and any other such acts as best he could. By allowing her to grieve as she wished. By not encumbering her with his own.
A sense of aloneness crept over him. Allowing himself a gentle sob as he got to the door, he promised himself this would be the last time. In the open. On the outside. From here on he’d be as he’d always been. Responsible. On top of things. Level-headed. For her sake. For Robert’s sake as well. No more bad memories to pass on. No more parts of the past to dredge up. A figure like the happy prince. They would surely, at the very least, be grateful for that.