In the night, Brady dreams the woman back into his life again. She’s out the yard with the big hunter, laughing, praising her dark horse. She reaches up, loosens the girth, and takes the saddle off. The hunter shakes himself, and snorts. At the trough she pumps fresh water. The handle shrieks when pressed but the hunter doesn’t shy: he simply drops his head and drinks his fill. Further off, the cry of hounds moves across the fields. In his dream these hounds are Brady’s own and he knows it will take a long time to gather them in and get them home.
Waking, he finds he’s clothed from the waist down: black trousers and his working boots. He gropes for the clock, holds the glass close, reads the hands. It isn’t late. Overhead, the light is still burning. He rises, pulls the string, and finds the rest of his clothes. Outside, the October rain goes shuddering through the bamboo. That was planted years ago to stake her shrubs and beans but when she left he took no mind, and the garden turned wild. On McQuaid’s hill, through cloud, he makes out the figure of a man walking through fields greener than his own. McQuaid himself, herding, counting all the bullocks once again.
In the kitchen he boils water, scalds the pot. The tea makes him human again. He stands over the toaster and warms his hands. His Aunt Maggie brought up marmalade last week but there’s hardly a lick in the jar. With a knife he scrapes what’s left off the glass and goes out, in his jacket, to the fields. The two heifers need to be brought in and dosed. He must clear the drains, fell the ash in the lower field—and there’s a good day’s welding in the sheds before winter comes on strong. He throws what’s left of the sliced pan on the street and starts the van. A part of him is glad the day is wet.
In Belturbet, he buys drenching fluid, welding rods, oil for the saw. There’s hardly any money left. He rings Leyden from the phone box, knowing he’ll be home.
‘Come up to the house,’ Leyden says. ‘I’m in need of a hand.’
It is a fine house on a hill which his wife, a schoolteacher, keeps immaculate. Two storeys painted white look out over the river. In the yard a pair of chestnut trees, the lorry, heads over every stable door. When Brady lands, Leyden waves from the hayshed. He’s a tight man, bony, with great big hands.
‘Ah, Brady! The man himself!’
‘There’s a bad day.’
‘Tis raw,’ Leyden agrees. ‘Throw the halter on the mare there, would you? I’ve a feeling she’ll give trouble.’
Brady holds the mare’s head while Leyden shoes. The big hands are skilled: the hoof is measured, pared, the toe culled for the clip. On the anvil the shoe is held, hammered to size. Steel nails are driven home, and clenched. Then the rasp comes round and shavings fall like sawdust at their feet. All the while it’s coming down, gasps of sudden rain whipping the galvanised roof. Brady feels strange pleasure standing there, sheltered, with the mare.
When Leyden rasps the last hoof, he throws the tools down and looks out at the rain.
‘It’s a day for the high stool,’ he says.
‘It’s early,’ Brady says uneasily.
‘If we don’t soon go, it’s late it will be,’ Leyden laughs.
‘I’ve to get me finger out; there’s jobs at home.’ Brady puts the mare back in the stable, bolts the door.
‘You’ll come, any road,’ Leyden says. ‘I’ll get Sean to change a cheque and we’ll settle up.’
‘It’ll do another day.’
‘Not a hate about it. I might not have it another day.’
‘All right so.’
As Brady follows Leyden back to town, a burning in his stomach surges. Leyden turns down the slip road past the chemist and parks behind The Arms. It looks closed but Leyden pushes the back door open. The bulb is dark over the pool table. On Northern Sound, a woman is reading out the news. Long Kearns is there with his Powers, staring into the fishing net behind the bar. Norris and McPhillips are picking horses for the next race. Big Sean stands behind the counter, buttering bread.
‘Is that bread fresh or is it yesterday’s?’ Leyden asks.
‘Mother’s Pride,’ Sean smiles, looking up. ‘Today’s bread today.’
‘But if we ate it tomorrow wouldn’t it still be today’s?’ says Norris who has drunk two farms. Except for the slight shake in his hand, no one would ever know.
‘Put up two of your finest there, Sean,’ says Leyden, ‘and pay no mind to that blackguard.’
‘He’s been minding me for years,’ says Norris. ‘He’ll hardly stop now.’
Sean puts the lip of a pint glass to the tap. Leyden hands him the cheque and tells him to give Brady the change. The stout is left to settle, the dark falling slowly away from the cream.
‘We got the mare shod, any road.’
‘Did she stand?’
‘It was terror,’ Leyden says. ‘I’d still be at it only for this man here.’
‘It’s a job for a younger man,’ McPhillips says. ‘I did it meself when I was a garsún.’
‘After three pints there’s nothing you’ve not done,’ says Norris.
‘And after two there’s nothing you won’t do!’ says Leyden, raising the bar. ‘Isn’t that right, Sean?’
‘Leave Sean out of it,’ the barman says affectionately.
Norris looks at Brady. ‘Is it my imagination or have you lost weight?’
Brady shakes his head but his hand reaches for his belt. ‘It’s put it on I have.’
Big Sean cuts sandwiches in half and leaves them on the counter. Brady reaches out but his hand closes on the glass. It seems to do so of its own accord. It isn’t right to be drinking at this hour, and the stout is bitter.
‘Have you a drop of blackcurrant there, Sean?’
‘What are you doing with that poison?’ Leyden asks. ‘Destroying a good pint.’
‘At least I didn’t destroy four good hooves,’ says Brady, finding his voice at last. Everybody laughs.
‘Is that so?’ Leyden smiles ‘And what would you know? There’s nothing but cart horses in Monaghan.’
‘Every cart horse needs shoes,’ says Brady.
‘They wear around the Cavan potholes,’ says McPhillips, a Newbliss man.
‘Now we have it!’ Norris cries.
When the banter subsides, McPhillips goes out to place the bets. The silence is like the silence between waves; each man is glad of it and glad, too, that it won’t last. Sean turns off the radio now that the news is over.
As they sit there in the silence, Leyden’s nostril flares.
‘Which one of ye dug up Elvis?’
‘Lord God!’ Long Kearns says, coming suddenly to life. ‘That would knock a blackbird off its pad.’
Leyden swallows half his pint. The shoeing has put a thirst on him so Brady, not liking to leave with the money, orders another round.
Out in the street, school children are eating chips from brown paper bags. There’s the smell of fried onions, hot oil and vinegar. It is darker now and the rain is still falling. When Brady walks into the diner the girl behind the counter looks up: ‘Fresh cod and chips?’ Brady nods.
‘Ay. And tea.’
He sits at the window and looks out at the day. Black clouds are sliding over the bungalows. He thinks again of that night in Cootehill. There was a Northern band in The White Horse. The woman could dance: all he had to do was lead her. They sat at the little table near the bandstand and talked about horses. Afterwards she asked him to come back to the house. If you bring the chips, I’ll light the fire and put the kettle on. They ate in the firelight. A yellow cloth was spread over the table, her cutlery flashed silver. Smell of deodorant lingering in her bedroom, a wee candle burning, headlights passing through the curtains. When he woke, at dawn, she was asleep, her hand on his chest. He was working then, full time, for Leyden. That morning, walking down the main street of Cootehill, buying milk and rashers, he felt like a man.
The girl comes with his order. He eats what’s placed before him, and pays. Out in the street, there are Christmas cards in the newsagents. Passing the hotel, he hears music. He goes in, sits at the counter, orders. A few songs are sung. The day is no longer his own. At some point he looks up and realises McQuaid is there, in a dark suit of clothes, with his wife. Sensing him, McQuaid looks over, nods. Soon after, a pint’s sent down. On Brady’s lips the stout is cold.
‘The bowld man himself! Have you no home to go to?’ It’s Leyden. He takes one look at Brady, and changes. ‘What’s ailing you at all, man?’
Brady shakes his head.
Leyden looks over at McQuaid. The waitress is bringing serviettes, knives for the steak.
‘Pay no mind,’ he says. ‘Not a hate about it. The land’ll be here long after we’re dead and gone. Haven’t we only the lend of it?’
Brady nods and orders drink for Leyden. ‘It’s the woman that’s your loss,’ Leyden says unhelpfully. ‘That was the finest woman ever came around these parts.’
‘Ay,’ Brady says.
‘There’s men’d give their right arms to have a woman like that.’ Leyden says, coming in tight and taking hold of his right arm.
‘They would, surely.’
‘What happened at all?’ Brady feels rooted to the stool. Back then some days were hard but not one of them was wasted. He looks away. The silence rises.
‘It was over the horse,’ he says finally.
Brady clears his throat. ‘I came home one night and she told me I’d have to buy food, pay bills.’
‘And what did you say?’
‘I told her to go fuck herself!’ Brady says. ‘I told her I’d put her horses out on the road.’
‘That’s terror,’ Leyden says. ‘Did you have drink on you?’
Brady hesitates. ‘A wee drop.’
‘Sure we all say things.’
‘I went out and opened the gate and let the horses out on the road,’ Brady says. ‘She gave me a second chance but it was never the same. Nothing was ever the same.’
‘Christ,’ says Leyden, pulling away. ‘I didn’t think you had it in you.’
It is well past closing time when Brady finds the van. He gets behind the wheel and takes the back roads home. It will be all right; the sergeant knows him, he knows the sergeant. He will not be stopped. There are big, wet trees at either side of these roads, telephone poles, wires dangling. He drives on through falling leaves, keeping to his own side. When he reaches the front door, the bread is still on the step. The dog hasn’t come home but the birds will have it gone by morning. He looks at the kitchen table, climbs the stairs.
He gets into the wisp and takes his jumper off. He wants to take his boots off but he is afraid. If he takes his boots off he knows he will never get them on in the morning. He crouches under the bedclothes and looks at the bare window. It is winter now. What is it doing out there? The wind is piping terrible notes in the garden and, somewhere, a beast is roaring. He hopes it is McQuaid’s. He lies in his bed thinking only of her. He can feel his own heart, beating. He closes his eyes. Soon, she will come back and forgive him. The bridle will be back on the coat stand, the cloth on the table. In his mind there is the flash of silver. As sleep is claiming him, she is already there, her pale hand on his chest and her dark horse is back grazing his fields.