The people of that plainly built farming town led simple lives and were proud of the hardship and forfeiture that 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 abided for generations before. In the summer months, 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 shifted the load onto rented wagons for bringing home. They burned the dried sod for fuel during the winter and prayed to the mother, the father, and the Holy Spirit in heaven that it would be a short cold this year and that spring would not be long in coming.
As soon as they were able, the women mothered children. Continuing to do so until their exhausted bodies could no longer endure the ruining drudgery of incubation. These women took every care as was afforded to them for their young, and when it was needed, they went out and helped the men on the land. Most of the men 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 if 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 solid 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. They all dressed like this. Childish jealousy was never to be found in this parish. In school they studied their sums and some read the writers of the ancient world. When their parents thought them old enough, and they were not looking to go on further, they finished with school and learned all about bailing and the livestock. Sometimes little more. 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 unbegrudgingly, 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,of all places, there. But it was 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 modest flat above a musical instrument repair store on a narrow terrace a short jump from the town centre. 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 while I was there and brevity was an article in short reserve; 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 breaking down 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 whites in my flat’s cheap aluminium kitchen sink. I could have used the launderette on main street, but the lady who ran the place had the bad habit of only opening in the late afternoon and closing early evening.
I was living two doors down from a cantankerous, semi-retired coal merchant who doubled his living room as his business headquarters. 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 porch step, he would spend hours watching as the business of everyday life unfolded on the street in front of him; this superintendent of the quotidian. He knew everyone and was himself known to have an opinion on just about everything happening in town at any ony time and with a keenness of interest only enjoyed by old county sorts. If there was nobody on the road to humor him, he would talk to the dogs, the birds, sky, the moon, anything. I still cannot be sure if it was that he was crazy, a coy but rambling drunkard, or the most straightforward person I have had the experience of meeting. 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 and we never struggled to find conversation.
“What do you think about that then?” He started, offering no indication as to what we were to discuss.
“Not much, now, not much.” Was what country people understand as the fittest response.
He told me about his years in Italy and the restaurants that he had once owned. The biggest place was in this very town. The biggest place these people had ever seen. So he tells me. He had seen all there was to see and knew all that was needed to be known. He was, as I am sure you can imagine, not an easy man to impress. He paid little service to what I had to say on any matter relating to life and, 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, but not the time to share his findings with anyone else. Nevertheless, I liked him and always felt as if I had achieved something just 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 for the clear and simple reason that there was little else to do of a weekend. It would be a real task to walk to market square at any time in the evening and find even a single man who 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 encounter. I only ever talked with him once, but I could hear him arguing and crashing around in there until all hours. He was a plasterer by trade but hadn’t enjoyed the pleasure of a decent contract in years. He never worked. One time,I heard him hit his woman in there. They weren’t alone. Enormous was the chaos that followed. The police took him away in handcuffs. He was back the next evening. Soon after, so was she.
I remember a couple of elderly brothers who lived together in the house across the street. They had both spent a fair number of years working across in England but were called home to attend their convalescent mother’s bedside in the time it was determined she should die. Neither man ever married. By now, they had between them cultivated a great host of physical and advanced psychological impairments all of their own. The older lad, I know, was on the building sites of London for years. Tall and thin, he was a strong young bull, but an accident on a site had smacked his corned beef beyond all repair. Some concrete fell on him or he fell on some concrete, I cannot be sure. But it had left the poor lad deaf, half blind and a quarter witted. I don’t know the whole story with the younger one, just that he was even more damaged upstairs than his brother. I may have been told dementia. I can’t be sure. He never left the house, but often it was that I would see the older lad shuffling down the street of an evening. He never wandered too far from home and I remember he had this curious habit of bunching up the lap of his trousers with his fists and kinda pulling them upward as he walked. Even with his rattled nerves, it was up to the older lad to take care of the two of them. They were not completely alone in this world, of course. The health service sent a care-worker to check in on them every few days. She brought food and made sure they were living as comfortably as possible. They were trusting men and well known around the town. You could ask anybody and they would tell you that those brothers were no harm to anybody. The older and more compassionate people I talked with believed that they had been touched by the hand of God. They rarely locked their front door.
Except for the brothers and the drunk next door, all the residents on my street were there alone. They had lived beside one another for a lifetime and, as they saw it, there was no longer any occassion requiring the adoption of artifice or any description of graces. Every miscarriage and infidelity, every divorce and baptism, every death, ailment and indiscretion was out in the open and too well known. No matter the nature of the request, they did what they could to help. It was a place of trust and faith. 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 what I could; cooking, lifting, cleaning – whatever they needed and whenever I was able. Over tea they told me about their children who had taken the first opportunity to get out of that town and gone to work in Canada and The United States. Sons and daughters who had fallen in love with the locals and would never be coming back. Who started families and settled in foreign suburbias with immigrant workers permits, 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 ever so lyrical way their voices 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. The cradle of small town existence had been outgrowned and they had no interest in ever going back.
I spent a year of my life in that town. When I made enough money, I was soon on the way to London. 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. He says this town is only for the old and the unambitious now anyway.
I was in London a month when I read about the brothers. The memory of it stops me even now. 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 in a downstairs bedroom and the other in the backyard. It was a brutal scene. Nothing was stolen, but the house was empty. The victims never knew the man who killed them and no motive for the attack was ever found. When the responsible man was caught, they said he had a history of psychiatric difficulty and placed him on an immediate 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 it only took the judge to read out the charges for his mother to collapse in weeping hysterics. Half the town 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’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 man chased down the high street by a gang of a dozen thugs. When they caught him, they beat him to the ground and kicked him senseless. He crawled into a local shop for safety, but in they followed and stabbed him in the stomach. All this while staff and customers looked on in horror. It was a Saturday afternoon. The security guard was too terrified to do anything other than just watch the whole thing happen. 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 they mind to lock their front doors at night. There are fewer jobs and a lot of the bars have closed. That is not to say that there are less places to find a drink if you are after one. I always drink too much when I go back and we always find ourselves talking about those brothers and these violent crimes. And it’s hard to get people to admit that something has gone wrong here. Or even that anything is any different to how it was before. It’s like looking at an oil painting of a beautiful landscape; green rolling hills; a transparent stream of crashing water; a flock of coastal birds outlined against the limits of a clear blue sky. But when you take a closer look, you find that something has been scratching away at the outer edges of the picture. And every time you return to the painting, another small section has been scraped or damaged – but barely enough to notice there has been much change. Soon you get used to these new scratches. But over time it gets even more damaged and eventually it’s impossible to remember what the picture looked like in the first place. However, the decline has been so gradual that you can never be really sure of what has 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 know I must be wrong.