by Bernie Furlong
When I heard the low keening of the leather factorys siren I knew that my father would be home in exactly half an hour. He finished work in the meat factory in Arklow at half past five and it always took him that long to drive back. He had been doing this for six months now,having been sacked from the leather factory , and I had learned that if he had not arrived home before the Angelus sounded on our television ten our mother would become anxious.
I was playing hopscotch on the footpath in front of our house and already some of the other children were being called in , their mothers leaning out from doorsteps, aproned, flushed and damp-handed, their shrill voices echoing the siren.
- Hughie, yer wanted!
- Ella Doyle, yer tea is sittin' on the table. Will ye get yerself in here before yer Da gets home!
Most of the fathers worked in the leather factory and I could see them hurrying down the street, still in their overalls, smelling of blood, carcasses and the pungent whang of chemicals that pervaded the town.
I broke away from the small gang that had formed around our gate, frantically trying to salvage one last game from the evening. My younger sister Susie was arguing with Joan from across the street.
- Don't want to play giant steps, she wailed.
- Then yous can play yer own rotten English games, Joan spat back, her sharp freckled features curdled with rage. Since we had moved to the town , almost a year since, she had insisted on calling is 'The Brits' and sometimes 'The Protestants' because my sister and I were the only two children in the family, living on a street for which having at least six children seemed a prerequisite.
- Look, how many times do I have to tell you, we're Irish, we were just born over there.
Our mother said that Joan was common because her family kept pigs in their backyard and she had been shocked by my attempts to copy her accent.
- There is no such word as 'yous', she would declaim.
Joan saw me glance distractedly up the street, hoping to see our black Renault turning up the corner.
- Is yer da late?, she asked slyly, her voice soft and curious.
- No,.. course not.. not yet.
I was not sure what time it was but felt sure it couldn't be six yet. I could hear the television through our sitting room window with someone babbling away in Irish and knew that to mean that the children's shows were still on.
- No need to get all snotty with me, miss know-it-all, I only asked.
This she said in a tone that suggested that it had only been a preface to some further question; the inquisition was not over.
- Only, my ma said that he'll probably lose his license when that drunk-driving charge comes up in court. Youse won't be lookin' down yer noses at us then.
I continued to fix my gaze away from her and up the street, mentally counting to fifty as I held my breath, hoping, as ever, that this feat would be rewarded with my father's return. I had never managed to get beyond thirty- five and as I spluttered and leaned against the pebble-dashed wall I managed somehow to respond.
- That's a big lie, you made that up... you don't know anything!
- Yeah...well Jim was with him in the car and he told my Da, so there. Nearly crashed into some woman he said.
- Get off our gate! It's private property!, I bellowed, lunging at her now and digging my nails into a sleeve of her crimpelene dress.
- 'Snot your gate anyway, it's the council's, said Joan as she wrenched her arm free.
- I'm going in to wash my hands Julie.
I glanced at the small reddened palms she displayed, cracked and weeping from months of hourly scrubbing.
- Please Sue, remember what Mummy said, only wash them when they're dirty. You washed them half an hour ago.
- It's not fair, Julie. It's 'cause of the germs...germs make you sick.
She ran away from us and around the side of the house. I heard the back door slam.
- My Ma is right. The child does need her head examined.
- She's only five, Joan. Mum says she'll grow out of it..
The ominous bells began to toll from inside our house, soon complimented by the faint peals from the church on the hill recording the arrival of six o'clock.
- I'm goin' in for my tea. See ye at school tomorrow, she said as she raced across the road.
No-one spoke as we ate our fish fingers, beans and mash. Mum did not sit down with us. We watched the six o'clock without the need for the usual pleas for quiet. After our tea we were allowed to watch Mission Impossible. On other nights it was switched off as my father had once become so enraged with our mother for letting us watch far flung rubbish that he threw his plate at the television screen. I could still see the mark where a chip had been smashed from the Formica surround. I had been saying a special prayer to St. Martin that the rental people wouldn't find out about this damaging and take the set away from us.
We went to bed without making any fuss, earlier than we would normally go. Susie gave her hands a final scrubbing and rested them outside the bedclothes displayed like chops in the butcher's window.
After saying my prayers I lay stretched on my back, arms tight by my sides holding my breath and counting. I could hear the sound of my heart keeping time with the progression of the numbers. I imagined my father lost on some dark and horrible road stranded and alone. Susie whimpered in the dark.
- I want Daddy to come home.
I could not answer her.
When he got back the shouting would start. He would play the piano loudly and out of tune. We would be dragged downstairs to sing songs. I drifted into sleep watching the lights of each car that was not ours raking slowly past my window. I fancied I could see the shadowy outline of a giant's enormous hands poised to scoop up the house and carry it away into outer space.
When I crept into the kitchen the next morning my mother was leaning against the sink. Her blue quilted dressing gown was half undone and her damp hair was sticking in clumps to her forehead and neck.
Her body was turned away from me and she was gazing through the steamed-up glass of the kitchen window, stiff in her posture, not turning around to issue her usual list of things-to-be-done before we could head off to school. Something else was different too. In the kitchen's cold metallic air the familiar everyday furls of steam were rising from the sage green washing-up bowl in front of her. Mingled with it were dense blue coils of smoke that hung over her head like the halos around saints in holy pictures.
I had never seen my mother smoke. In fact I had some kind of notion that women could not smoke just as they did not know how to drive, only fathers were able to do that.
I forced myself to take a few more steps into the kitchen. The chill, glassy surface of the linoleum shot through my bare feet.
- Mum, I whispered.
I had not forgotten last night's dream when she had turned into a witch and ascended from our garden into the sky, my sister and I vainly tugging at her legs trying to anchor her to the ground. In the end only her feet were visible, their pointy boots poking through the clouds. I needed to break the spell and make the air of strangeness evaporate.
- Oh, hiya love.
her voice was flat and barely audible. She had forced a meagre smile to the edges of her mouth but her eyes were dull and redcircled.
- Where's Daddy?
I offered the question as casually as I could, suppressing the tremor in my voice.
- Gone to work of course.
Her eyes did not meet mine. They reminded me of the eyes of the mackerel my father would sometimes bring home, often forgetting to take them out of the car for days. And their eyes now become a greenish blue, oddly luminous but dead.
- But look, he left his toolbox and overalls, I said pointing to the chair by the scullery door.
- Look, pet... your Daddy had to go and do some other business today. I don't know when he's going to be back. Just you go and get your sister up for school.
- But he promised to bring us to Brittas Bay. He said this time he wouldn't forget.
- For God's sake how can I tell you when he'll be back when I don't even know where he is!
There was a hiccup in her voice that might have been a sob.
- I didn't hear him come in last night
- That's because he only came back this morning, changed his clothes and left again. This is where he was if you want to know.
She flung a bright, glossy pamphlet on to the kitchen table beside the souvenir ashtray I had brought back from Knock as a Christmas present for my father. I inspected the brochure carefully. It described the wonderful facilities that 'The Hydro Hotel' had to offer, cabaret nights, function rooms and special rates and weddings. I searched for a clue throughout its garish contents as to why my father had wanted to spend so long there. It reminded me of a place we had been to when my cousins had visited. We had eaten chicken-in-a-basket and drank fizzy orange through soggy straws. My father and my uncle had had stood at the bar with their faces reddening, their speech sounding like a record played at the wrong speed. My mother had ended the night crying on the shoulder of my Aunt Josie after Dad had swung a punch at the barman when he'd been refused another drink.
- Well, now you know as much as I do, my mother sighed as she ground her cigarette butt into the Virgin Mary's stomach.
She smoked another as we ate our toast. As the factory siren announced the morning shift she reached down to kiss us goodbye. The smell of tobacco made my stomach heave.
- Aren't you going to cross over the road?, asked Susie tentatively.
- Julie is big enough now to bring you both across, I'll watch from the window.
I glanced back over my shoulder as I towed my sister like a small barge across the street. All I could see were the windows of the house staring back like empty eyes.
We took the short-cut home from school that afternoon, along the bottom of the railway embankment. Susie dragged behind sullenly, clawing the heads off the dog daisies that bordered the path.
- I wanted to have my photo taken on my own, like Martina, she raged.
- You know Mum said it was cheaper to have it done together, remember the last time Daddy didn't give her enough to pay for two, I tried to explain. I was too hot and too tired to speak with much gentleness. She had posed like a mediaeval martyr with a suffering, tortured expression and her scabbed fingers interlaced across her chest like chainmail armour. As we reached the top of the back lane we could see Joan perched on the wall of her yard listlessly flinging bits of orange peel into the pig-pen below.
- Thought yer Ma wouldn't let youse on the embankment, she sneered.
- She's not the boss of me. In saying this I felt knives of guilt and betrayal pierce my guts.
- Yeah, Miss Goodie-goodie. Do yiz want to come catchin' tadpoles. Hughie sez the millrace is full of 'em. We could start a frog farm.
- Can't, Joan. We have to get ready for the beach. Dad is taking us to Brittas Bay, he's coming home early, I announced with pride.
- Well, he's in the Bridge Bar now. I was mitchin' off school and I just seen his car parked outside.
Joan was triumphant.
- Let's go Susie, I mumbled and clutching her scaly hand I thought of snakes.
I pushed the unlocked back door open and stumbled across the chipped red tiles of the scullery floor, my sister following. The ashtray was still on the table, now so full I could not see our Lady's face. My mother was sitting in the same spot. She lifted her head but did not move.
- Mum... Mum, let's makes sandwiches, Susie shouted.
I had just the sliced pan and jar of cheesewhiz on the table when we heard the crunch of gravel as the car pulled up.
I began to hold my breath when I heard the unsteady rattle of his key in the lock.
- He's early, said my mother squeezing a small piece of bread between her fingers.
- Don't annoy him, I heard her say quietly as the kitchen door burst open and the room filled with the smell of beer and cigarettes.
- Howz my bess girls..eh..eh?, he made a lunge forward and two Crunchie bars fell from his jacket pocket.
- All ready for the beach?
Paddy, you can't take them anywhere in that state, have a lie down and get some food inside you, it'll wait.
My mother's wheedling words made me wince. I knew what was coming,
- I tole em I was takin' 'em so I'm takin 'em.
There was panic in my mother's eyes.
- I'm a man o' me word... are ya tryin' to turn me kids against me? Get in the car the lot of ye.
As we headed north on the Dublin Road my sister and I crouched low in the back seat, our legs sticking to the clammy vinyl. Weak, sickly beams of evening sunlight cast thin shadows inside the car.
- Feel sick, said Susie in a voice so low only I could hear her.
The car seemed to veer into the middle of the road and then jerked back towards the ditch.
- For God's sake Paddy, please slow down. You'll kill us all, my mother pleaded.
My father's response was to increase speed until I could feel myself being pinned back to my seat.
I could see the sign for the turn for Brittas Bay, a stream of cars emerged from the laneway. Further down the lane our progress was slowed by the crowds dragging the paraphernalia of the seaside, lilos, windbreakers, buckets and spades.
My father continued to drive the car right onto the strand until we were near the shoreline. We stumbled out upon the deserted sand.
I started running towards a sand dune in the distance, my sister in pursuit. By the time I had reached the top my breath was stinging in my lungs, my eyes streaming.
My parents were two ants on the beach was stinging in my lungs, my eyes streaming.
My parents were two ants on the beach far below. Susie spoke first.
- Are they fighting?
We sat in silence and listened to the seagulls cry like lost children.
I heard the sound of he car's engine above the roar of the waves.
- Come on! He's going!
We raced down the dune, seagrass whipping our legs.
My mother was standing a little back from the car when he reached her, staring at the horizon and shivering.
I watched the tyres spinning in the sand, gouging out a deeper rut. The car did not budge.,. I could hear the gears grating; there was smell of rubber. My father's face was that of a howling gargoyle.
There was water around my feet. I felt the tides tug as it ebbed back slightly. Already it had surrounded the car filling the deep tyre marks like a moat.
She drew us to her, enfolding us with her arms. The sun had finally disappeared and I stared up at the stupid, uncomprehending stars.