The people of that plainly built farming town led simple lives and were proud of the hardship and forfeiture rural existence assumed of them. They knew their place in that world and – as is customary in such isolated surroundings – they conducted themselves with the same sheltered constancy as so many of their forebears had done for generations before. In summer, they worked on the bog, cutting and footing the turf as the midges ate at their faces and the sun reddened their necks. In autumn, they collected the dried turf in sacks and stacked the load on rented wagons for bringing home. They burned the dried sod for fuel during the winter and prayed to the mother, the father, the Holy Spirit and all saints in heaven that it would be a short cold this year and that spring would not be long in arriving. As soon as they were able, the women mothered children until their exhausted bodies could no longer endure the drudgery of incubation. They cared for their young and when it was needed they helped the men on the land. Most of the husbands earned their living as laborers on the farms, some were employed as tradesmen and others did spot work around the town when it was on offer and they were able for it. A few of them brewed poitín in makeshift pot stills built behind locked shed doors and sold the cheap spirit to their trusted neighbours who understood that such a transaction was to be of no concern to the law. They were big men and not given to preoccupying themselves with things they had no need to understand. Their children wore clothes that were ten years too old and five sizes too big for them. In school they did their sums and read about the heroes of the ancient world. When their parents thought them old enough, they finished with school and learned about hay bailing and how to handle the livestock.
On Sundays, they packed the churches and twice passed around the collection plate for the unfortunate. They understood austerity as an instinct and for what they lacked they did without. With no knowledge of an alternative, they trudged quietly through obscure lives uninterrupted and without question. Nobody, least of all the people of that town, could possibly have foreseen the changes that have taken place in this country over the last half century. With expectation replacing contentment, the young no longer anchor their interests to the sturdy honesty of rural life. Low on the patient regard for life that their parents had embraced so ungrudgingly, they move away as soon as they’re able, leaving the old and the unambitious to take care of themselves.
I cannot properly recall what possessed me to settle there, but it was a cheap to rent and I needed to save money before I was to run away to London. I was working as a cook and living alone in a modestly furnished flat above a musical instrument store on a narrow terrace just a short walk from the town square. It was a conservative neighbourhood, housed mostly by the retired and the widowed, but not without its own sedentary charm. Nothing was a matter of urgency in that town and brevity was an article in short supply; the rain fell at a pace of its own accord and the sun shone when it felt up to the task. I remember my washing machine breakingdown and having to wait over a month before my landlord found someone to come around and look at the thing. For weeks I had to scrub the guts and gravy stains from my work whites in the kitchen sink. I could have used the launderette on main street, but the lady who ran the place had the habit of opening late afternoon and closing early evening – and besides I was at work during these times.
I was living two doors down from a cantankerous and semi-retired coal merchant who doubled his living room as his office. As straight backed as his stoutly posture afforded, he faced the world with the reticence and certainty of an old praetorian sentry. Cigarette in hand and stood on his front porch step, he would spend hours watching the business of everyday life unfolding on the street like a superintendent of the quotidian. He knew everyone and would about the goings on in town with the kind of interest only enjoyed by county sorts. If there was nobody around to humor him, he would talk to the dogs, the birds, sky, the moon, anything , and I can’t be sure if he was crazy, drunk or the most straightforward person I have ever met. In the hotter months, I would catch him under the cool shade of his front doorway. Being from the old stock, he was not one short of words so we never struggled to find conversation.
“What do you think about that then?” He started, offering no indication as to what we were to be discussing.
“Not much, now, not much.” Was the fit response.
He was not an easy man to impress and generally paid little service to what I had to say. He had seen all there was to see and knew all that was needed to be known. Like so many with such a belief, it was incredibly difficult to excite any interest within him. To a man who believes he has seen everything the world has to offer, no one can persuade him differently. He has his own silent idea of what matters in life, but not the time to share his findings with anyone else. Nevertheless, I liked him and always felt I had achieved something by talking with him.
“You’re young and fit.” He would laugh as he sauntered from his post in search of a cup of tea and a sit down “You don’t want to be stuck here. Here is for the old and the unambitious”
When I wasn’t working, I was drinking. Everyone in that town was a drinker because there was not much else to do of a weekend. It would be a real task to find a young man in that town that didn’t empty most of what he earned into the bar. The guy in the flat directly beside my place drank himself stupid every night, and a more shambolic and sour a drunk you would never find yourself in want to meet. I only ever talked with him once, but I could hear him arguing and crashing around in there until all hours. He never worked. He was a plasterer by trade but hadn’t had a contract in years, One time, things went a little too far in there and in a rage he hit his woman. The police took him away in handcuffs, but he was back the next evening and so was she.
I remember a couple of elderly brothers who lived together in an house across the street. They had both spent a fair amount of time in England but were called home to look after their mother in her final years. Neither man had married. Both of them had physical disabilities as well as a whole stack of mental problems. The older lad, I know, was working on the building sites in London for years. Tall and thin, he was a strong young horse, but an accident on a site had smacked his corned beef to bits. Some concrete fell on him or he fell on some concrete and it had left the poor lad deaf, half blind and a quarter witted. I don’t know the whole story about the younger one, just that he was even more damaged upstairs than his brother. I may have been told me it was dementia, but I can’t be sure. The younger brother never left the house, but I would often see the older lad shuffling down the street most evenings. He never wandered too far away from the house and I remember he had this odd habit of bunching up the lap his trousers with his fists and kinda pulling them up as he walked. Even with his rattled nerves, it was up to the older one to take care of the both of them. But they weren’t completely alone. The health service sent a care-worker to check in on them every few days. She brought them food and made sure they were doing alright in there. You could ask anybody in the town and they would tell you that they were no harm to anybody. Some people believed that they had been touched by the hand of God. They were trusting men and well known around the town. They rarely locked their door.
Except for the brothers and the drunk next door, all the residents on my street lived alone. They had lived beside one another for a lifetime and there was no need for airs and graces between them. Every miscarriage and infidelity, every divorce and baptism, every death, ailment and indiscretion was out in the open and well known. They did what they could to help one another no matter the nature of the request. They trusted one another. I was never treated as an outsider and I think they were happy to have me in the neighbourhood. The old women would bring me the leftovers from Sunday dinner and the widowers would spot me for a pint whenever they saw me in the pub. In return I helped them with painting, sweeping, cleaning and whatever else they needed whenever I was able. Over tea they told me about their children who had taken the first opportunity they could to get out of that town and gone to work in places like Canada and The United States. Sons and daughters who had fallen in love with the locals over there and would never be coming back. Who started families in foreign suburbias with green cards, happy hour, cable television, and backyard swimming pools. Who endeared themselves to their adoptive communities and joked that they were from the very far end of the middle of nowhere when asked about the strange and interesting and cute way their accents sounded to their neighbours. They worked comfortable jobs and could afford to dress their children well. Every few years, they visited home and were welcomed with open arms and thankful weeping, but they had outgrown the cradle of the small town existence and had no interest in ever going back to such a place.
I lived in that town for little over a year. I made my money and was soon on the way to London. When I left, the old women lit candles in church and told me to travel safe. I shook hands with the merchant and he told that I was right to be going and anyway this town was only for the old and the unambitious now.
I was in London a month when I read about the brothers. Some drunk maniac had let himself into their house in the middle of the night and battered the two of them to death with a slab of timber. The bodies were found by the care-worker the next morning. One was in a downstairs bedroom and the other in the backyard. It was a brutal scene. Nothing was stolen. The victims never knew the man who killed them and no motive for the attack was ever found. When he was caught, they said he had a history of psychiatric difficulty and placed him on self-harm and suicide watch. The two of us are the same age. In the courtroom the accused said he was sorry for what he had done and his mother wept as the judge read out the charges. Half the county attended the funeral; the priest said that the town had been overshadowed by a darkness and the head of the state called it an act of savagery. They were buried next to their mother.
It looks like it’s getting worse there every day. Last year someone was shot and killed while filling his car at a petrol station on the outskirts of town. A few months later, there was a guy chased down the high street by a gang of a dozen lads. When they caught him, they beat him to the ground and kicked him senseless. He crawled into a local shop for safety, but they followed him in and stabbed him in the stomach while staff and customers looked on in shock. It was the middle of the afternoon. The security guard was too terrified to do anything but watch. They had to close the shop for the day because there was such an amount of blood on the floor.
When I’m home, I sometimes pass through that town to see what’s changed. The people are much the same, but now mind to lock their doors at night. There are fewer jobs and a lot of the bars have closed, but there are still places to find a drink if you’re after one. I always drink too much when I go back there and we always find ourselves talking about those brothers and those violent crimes. And it’s hard to get people to acknowledge that something has gone wrong here. Or even that anything is different to how it used to be. It’s like looking at an oil painting of a perfect rural landscape; green rolling hills; a weaving stream of transparent water; a flock of birds outlined against a clear blue sky; all of that. But when you take a closer look, you find that something has been scratching away at the outer edges of the image. And every time you return to the painting, another small section has been scraped or damaged – but barely enough to notice much change. And soon you get used to the new scratches. Over time it gets even more damaged until eventually it’s impossible to remember what the picture looked like in the first place. But the decline has been so gradual that you’re not even sure what’s changed. I’m not able to name the feeling I have for it now. It’s like a sadness at something come undone. And when it’s late and I’m tired and drunk and too sentimental, I imagine that everything was better years ago, but I’m sure I must be wrong.