It had got to the point where my mother was trying to kill herself so that she wouldn’t be put in a nursing home. Niamh had had to wrestle her to the ground and prise the bottle of tablets from her fingers. This is a woman of 78 we’re talking about, but big-boned and rangy. Niamh’ d turn around for half a second, put on a kettle, and the old bitch would be out the gap, bolting for the dual carriageway. The traffic was her best chance, she knew this, and she could move when she wanted to. Niamh rugby tackling her up top of the flyover, and the neighbours glued to the windows. Oh you would need no televisions when the Foleys were going at it. I could not believe this shit.
‘Niamh,’ I said, ‘seriously, like. This is gone beyond the fucking beyonds.’
‘Okay for you to talk,’ she said. ‘You’re in Seattle. I’m in Tipperary. I’m supposed to deal with all this and Bren, I’m telling you now, I can’t fucking deal!’
‘I know, love. It’s wicked messin’ altogether.’
‘And do you know what it does to you? It makes you morbid as fuck yourself. Do you know what I’m going around the place doing now, Brendan? I’m going around the place looking for suicide opportunities! I’m thinking could she use that, or could she use this? I can’t look at a knife or an oven. High places! Banisters and windows! All they’re saying to me now is suicide.’
‘Some crack in Tipp,’ I said. She started to cry, Niamh. Despite all her old front, she is weak, my sister.
‘Don’t mind the tears,’ I said. ‘The tears aren’t going to get us any place.’
‘Brendan,’ she said. ‘In all fairness. You need to come home for a while.’
‘I don’t know that that’s going to do any good,’ I said. ‘I find it very upsetting seeing her like this. I wouldn’t be able for it. I’m not great myself at the best of times. You know this, Niamh. You know what I’m like. And anyway where am I going to sleep exactly? There’s children left, right and centre, where’ll I sleep? Have you still Tex’s kennel out the back? Do you want to put me out there? Can you sort me out with a few blankets? Seriously, like.’
‘Brendan,’ she said, ‘you need to come home.’
‘What good will it do?’
‘Cause you know what’s coming next if this shit goes on.’
‘They won’t fucking take her, Bren. At the end of the day, they won’t have her. A woman that’s running out on roads? They just won’t take her. Not with the insurance.’
‘You’re not serious.’
‘I’m completely fucking serious.’
‘So what do we do?’
‘Well,’ said Niamh, and I could hear the sucked intake of a fresh Silk Cut.
‘Well,’ she said. ‘One option, isn’t there?’
‘Ah you’re not saying…’
‘You know full well what I’m saying.’
‘Hi De Hi.’
‘Well, Bren, this is what we’re looking at. And it’s not like she’d be the first Foley wound up in that place.’
‘You have to come home, Brendan.’
Of course I had to go home. Ultimately I know my responsibilities. And it wasn’t as if I had a problem with time. I was at this point running a bathtub methamphetamine operation outside in Ballard. My hours were my own and business was brisk, so I had the price of the ticket. I found myself in the gloom of Sea-Tac Airport. I felt a bit of a martyr. I needed Tipperary like a bullet in the brain.
I got a flight to Heathrow. I would get an onward to Cork from there. I found myself in a row of three, with an elderly couple beside me. We were flying over B.C. and the mountains looked… what would you say? Piebald? Or Dalmation? Or like a Viennetta?
‘I tell you that right there looks to me like fresh snow,’ said the old man, who had the window seat.
‘But it’s nearly May already,’ said his wife.
‘Nothing surprises me about weather any more,’ he said. I spied on these people to avoid thinking. They made a major production out of their tablets. There was an amount of foostering in the overhead. They had a small rucksack full of the things. He was going through them like evidence.
‘Put on your eye-glasses, Alvin,’ she said. We flew over snow fields. The snow was banked deeply, even now late in the spring, so-called. A fat sun glowed over the empty country. The elderly couple put away their tablets with chicken-neck swallows. They set their watches to European time.
‘You know what time it is we got now, Rose?’ he said. ‘It’s twenty after five!’
‘Twenty after five!’ she said.
‘At home,’ he said, ‘we’d be putting away after breakfast.’
‘Putting away after breakfast!’ she said.
I pictured the pills at work I pictured the pills thinning the blood and checking arrhythmia. I pictured the pills as janitors of colon and spleen, wearing jaunty little hats and polite grimaces. Across the Hudson Bay we sailed and over the Labrador Sea. On the seat-back there was one of those screens with a map, and arrows, and a tiny plane-you could check your progress as you went. I checked every five minutes or so, drumming my fingers on my lap. It takes 13 hours Sea-Tac to Heathrow and the tablets came out every hour, on the hour.
‘Put on your eye-glasses, Alvin,’ she said.
‘They’re right here on my goddamn face, Rose,’ he said. There was the usual west-to-east dislocation. The feeling, as a child, when you get belted by someone bigger with a pillow in the face, that’s what west-to-east feels like, except all over. Vaguely stunned and odd in the ears. I came in and out of a troublesome sleep.
‘DVT is what it is, Rose,’ he said. That’s Deep Vein Thrombosis. Clots in the brain and you’re dead before they get you to the ground. Don’t matter what age or creed you are. That’s DVT is what it is.’
‘Clots in the brain sounds like that’s about it, hon.’
‘Clots in the brain is the last thing we need, trust me. But it’s assholes that get DVT mostly. Assholes that drink on planes and don’t move around. That’s what you got not to do: drink and sit there like a sack of shit. So you go and stretch whenever you want, Rosie, and don’t think nothing of it. We’re paying cash money same as everybody else.’
I went for a stretch myself. I walked the aisles. I thought again how I hate the mix you get on these long flights. The English pub girls, the stern Germans, the irritated Swiss, the babymammas of Lithuanian mobsters, French priests. I hate the way everybody, when you put them in rows, becomes so obviously of their breed. I walked the aisles and cadged extra soft drinks from the staff. They seemed more brittle than usual. I was about to brave Alvin and Rose again when the announcement came. The problem, they said, was something mechanical. An instrument was out by millimetres, or by fractions of millimetres. The pilot-a Brit of the old school, grace under pressure-tried to explain all this over the address system. He was most admirably calm. He said a landing is required, actually, and this will be achieved shortly. He sounded like a fella in a black and white war movie. The seat-belt sign came on. The ice below us was apparently Greenland ice. The passengers remained mostly pretty cool-headed, I would have to say, though a heavyset man three seats ahead-thick eyebrows, neck of a bull-broke up and screamed about death, death, about how he had always known that it would come for him in this way, and at this age. He was quietened forcibly with an injection of some kind. The plane began to descend, more sharply than usual. It ate up the air very quickly.
When the pilot had said ‘landing’, I suppose we had pictured some snowy little airport for Greenlanders. But there was no airport. There was just an ice field.
The pilot brought the plane down smoothly. It was an absolutely perfect operation, flawless. We applauded but the applause faded quickly as we looked out the windows. Visibly the windows froze up and fogged out, like in what-do-you-call-it, like in timelapse photography. They gave us brandy miniatures for calm. It turned out we could not remain on the plane because of something to do with potential explosions. A rumour went down the aisles of an engine fire but everything was mysterious. The emergency slides went down and we slid from the plane. We scuttled away from the plane and slipped and tumbled across the ice. I helped with Alvin and Rose. We were shepherded together beside an outcrop of black rock-the rock kept some of the wind off. That wind was one evil motherfucker. We huddled under smother blankets and life jackets for as much heat as they’d give. Help will be along very very soon, they said, we have full radio contact. They were light-hearted. They went among us and they said:
Listen. You’ve seen those documentary shows on Discovery about penguins in the Arctic? Where the penguins form into huge circles? These are concentric circles. What they do, the penguins, they huddle together on the ice and they circle around and around, they shuffle their feet side to side? This is how they keep warm and alive. And basically, folks, this is what we have got to do now.
So we formed on the ice into concentric circles. We moved around, and rotated, and it is fair to say that we got the hang of the penguin stuff quite easily. The shit works. We flapped our little arms, and circled, and shuffled our feet side to side, and the way the circles worked meant you rotated in and out of very many conversations. The talk spun slowly around.
‘I mean that’s a whole heap of fucking tundra right there, you know what I’m saying? I mean what does real estate go for out here?’
‘Yeah we could make like rudimentary ploughs, you know, and we can like settle the place.’
‘Now you’re farmin’!’
‘And this is summer, right?’
‘The radio is still up?’
‘So they’re saying.’
‘I guess I’m anti-pastoral, you know? Clouds, skies, mountains, snow? When it comes right down to it? Piece of shit.’
‘I know. It’s like, hey, here’s another fucking thousand miles of beauty.’
‘She’s as if she’s on some kind of emotional Slimfast.’
‘My husband is like one of those second-hand books you buy that’s got all the wrong bits underlined.’
‘So I go indoors, right, I say to her, I say, you sayin’ you ain’t seen him since Tuesday, you say he ain’t been around, blah blah blah. 9he goes, naw, I ain’t seen him, I been down my sister’s. I been over my mum’s. Blah blah blah … ‘
‘Blah, blah, blah. X, y, zee.’
‘You think the cold could freeze the watches, Alvin?’
‘Yes on the boat now six months. No alcohol! That is how Pacific islands is yes? I am Portugal originally. The arrest was illegal.’
‘She said she wouldn’t decide anything until the cast came off. Which I thought was the best approach.’
‘First they said clear, now they’re saying secondary.’
There was no sign of help coming, and I felt it then out there on the ice. I felt the spooky strings strike up and I felt it loom. Death, it turns out, is a complete fucking B-movie ham. Death is cold fingers, lightly placed, on the back of the scalp. Death is cheesy as a ghost train.
The light went at last and we continued to circle. The talk became drowsy and more desperate. The miniatures kept coming and most of us were half-cut. I started to talk about my mother to anybody who’d listen, to all of those who circled with and around me.
‘She hasn’t been right since he went. And it was a brutal shock to the woman, I grant you. It was sudden. But time heals? Bollocks it does. We’re talking twenty years at this stage. And Niamh as well. Niamh of course can’t deal. Niamh is my sister.’
‘Very . . . cocktaily? Yes, very cha-cha-cha. With those outdoor heaters you know what I’m saying? So you can like sit on the sidewalk in winter even. If that is what you want to do.’
‘How many more years do you think you’re going to entertain me by imitating comedians off the television, Michael? Fucksake.’
‘And brother he get blown up in Lebanon! If they bring other body back! It the end of father!’
‘I don’t know what age he was exactly, he would have been 50-odd I suppose. He always liked a drink. He wasn’t a man designed for the old routines, you know? Himself and Seanie Keogh would hit out on a tear and you wouldn’t know when you’d see them. You could be talking a week. You could be talking Christmas. My father was a man would go as far as Roscrea for a late house. Still and all I never saw him rough. But then I was young. Niamh would maybe have seen it.’
‘I’m not even supposed to be on an airplane! With my lungs?’
‘I think we should have an affair. Really, I’m serious here. I am, I am serious here! I barely know you but I know we are a fit I think.’
‘I mean you want to try and make a movie out of this? How’ d you pitch it? Nobody would buy this shit! They’d be like get the fuck out of here fucker!’
‘What she had-has! Has-what she has, my mother, is a way where she wants to do things well. She was always the kind of woman, if you wanted something done, you’ d go to her. You knew that it’ d be done well. Anything. Go to the Credit Union with you, or wire a plug. But now she isn’ t capable-upstairs, you know-and it’ s fucking horrible to see it. Hah? She’ s 78.’
‘So what you’re saying, Alice, is that you’re one of these high-functioning alcoholics, basically?’
‘I think you’re a very attractive woman for your age. And I don’ t mean that in an insulting way. Age is only time. And what’ s time? I’m reading a lot of cosmology at the moment. Your idea of time might be completely different to mine, which is going to be completely different again to what the sheep farmer in the Hebrides is thinking. I mean what’ s a day? What’s a year? Who’ s to say everybody doesn’ t have a different idea of a minute? But then I think should we even think about this stuff?’
‘Six foot two and eyes of blue.’
‘Oh yeah! She was absolutely crazy about the bastard. There is no knowing to it, is there? I mean I remember always as a child, going into them in the morning, and he’ s on the right hand side of the bed-if he’ s around! If he’s not gone off with Keogh-and she’s on the left. And after it then, what does she do? Yeah. She sleeps on the right side.’
‘The nearest town I guess is probably, what, Upernavik?’
‘This is nothing. One time I was flying from the Ukraine. You know, like, Kiev? In this piece of crap Aeroflot plane. And they’re saying we gotta make a stop in, like, Belarus. I’ m, like, Belarus?’
‘Arra the usual auld thing. He wrapped the car around a lamp pole outside Shinrone. The guard said it wasn’t quick, it was slow. They were still cutting him out and he went. The guard assured us with his hat in his hand that my father died roarin’. But he had never got on with that same guard, so you wouldn’ t know. You really wouldn’t know.’
‘When your time is up your time is up.’
‘Everything is predestined.’
‘Jesus’s love never failed me yet.’
‘God has a plan.’
‘My own feeling is that we’ve seen the last of the miniatures.’
The radio was still up, they said. Help was coming, they said. We continued to circle. We ate the crackers and the pretzels that were the last of the food. Alvin died. I comforted Rose, or I tried to at least. She said, don’ t be sorry, it was very gentle. The sky was enormous with many stars. An army of snowmobiles arrived from Upernavik, buzzing over the snow like some manner of giant sleek ice beetles. They were in pastel colours and the atmosphere they made was very festive. Suddenly it was an adventure snow weekend. The flight crew was congratulated because two dead (an old Italian popped as well) was an unbelievable result. Alvin and the Italian lay bunched together in bodybags on the ice. Rose was making sound use of the bag of tablets. Rose was on a slow ride uptown. Rose was seeing the lights.
We were brought to safety. Some hours later we flew out again. Nobody was scared. We cut down past the Scottish isles, we wheeled over the green country and the grey cities. Then it was rainy Heathrow finally. There was a sense of hush and terrific pride. Teetering down the steps I was hungover and newborn. I was a most powerful man. I was ready to organise a quick connection. I was ready for the worst that Tipperary could and would throw at me.