‘Where are we? The Armagh turn-off’s miles back,’ Fintan said, eyeing the fields and farmhouses he hadn’t noticed for the past ten minutes. ‘This isn’t the way to the planetarium.’
‘We’re not going there,’ Sylvia said. Her voice was as hard as her square jaw, which she worked from side to side like she was settling a plug of tobacco.
‘We talked about it all week. Why aren’t we going to the planetarium?’
‘Because you’ve got something else to do,’ she replied.
‘What do you mean?’ Fintan asked, but Sylvia didn’t answer.
Fintan was a month shy of his fiftieth birthday. Others had begun to use the pile-up of years against him, advising him to act his age, get a real job, save for retirement. But Fintan couldn’t imagine needing a pension. In fact, he was surprised to be reaching fifty. Not because of a romantic notion of dying young, it was just that he hadn’t counted on time working the way it did. Somehow he’d thought that the years would progress slowly until he decided exactly what to do with them. Instead they had built up stealthily, relentlessly, like dust.
His time problem was compounded by the fact that the markers had become indistinct since his schooling ended nearly three decades before. There were occasional exhibitions of his sculptures, which had no clear trajectory of either improvement or deterioration; and a shifting cast of girlfriends, which did display a downward spiral of late. His partners were always the same age—their late 20s—but in recent years they were factory seconds of young womanhood, not the pristine article. Sylvia, with her headmistress’s demeanour and flabby stomach, was a case in point. She was an art student. They were always art students.
As they approached the next turn, the penny dropped.
‘Drive on, damn it,’ Fintan said as the car slowed to enter a lane that wound through an apple orchard. ‘There’s no way I’m going there.’
‘You have to,’ Sylvia said. ‘The house is sold, your poor mother’s moving to her sister’s next week, and you still haven’t cleared your things out of the attic. Your brothers did that months ago.’
‘Why are you involved? You’re not part of the family.’
‘Your mother rang a few days ago and asked me to urge you to come over here and cart off your stuff. Her phrase was ‘Use whatever influence you have.’ Do you think she was insinuating something sexual?’
‘My mother never insinuates anything sexual,’ Fintan said, turning away from Sylvia to look out the window. ‘So you tricked me,’ he added quietly.
She parked the car in front of a large brick house with four gables and two pillars, a vision of Protestant prosperity though it had been built by his father, a Catholic who was as good a chameleon as he was a businessman.
‘I’m sorry, Fintan,’ Sylvia said with a sigh and an apologetic smile he found unconvincing. ‘Just get it done, and I’ll pick you up in two hours.’
Fintan shot her a glare, a skill he excelled at since his left eye had developed a squint.
Sylvia ignored him, feigning interest in her chipped silver nail polish. He finally gave up and left the car with a snort.
The front yard was overgrown, but otherwise the scene was familiar. The lawn and house were surrounded by apple trees, pruned into umbrella shapes for easy picking. It was May, and the trees’ pink-and-white blossoms reminded Fintan of the dewy flesh of Rubens’ cherubs. Scores of bumblebees thrummed through the air, some so heavy with pollen they had trouble gaining altitude.
In a week or so, the flowers would start falling off the trees. ‘When the petal drops, sex stops,’ Fintan recalled his father observing in previous springtimes. He had always smiled wistfully while saying it, though Fintan found the notion chilling. Maybe for you, old man, but not for me, he’d thought.
The air outside held the same ancient sweetness as every May, but the smell was different inside the house. Since his father’s death, the leaden odour of meat had dissipated. He’d insisted on a fry every morning, followed by a dinner of beef, lamb or, in a pinch, pork. Fintan’s mother had faithfully served her husband the flesh that would eventually kill him, though she herself was ‘almost a vegetarian’—which she admitted with a mischievous titter, as if confessing to something racy.
Fintan went towards the kitchen, envisioning his mother in her mid-morning occupations of ironing and listening to a radio call-in programme. Her gentle tut-tuts over the antics of Sinead O’Connor or Ian Paisley would be mimicked by Joey the cockatiel, whose shrill cries made him seem the more incensed of the two. But when Fintan opened the kitchen door, his mother was nowhere in sight and Joey’s cage was shrouded in a green plaid cloth. Fearing the worst, Fintan lifted the cover, but Joey was merely asleep on his perch. His yellow crest, which usually bristled straight up from his head, was tilted to the side, making him look slovenly, or drunk.
There was nothing for Fintan to do but go up to the attic. He pulled open the trap door, unfolded the rickety ladder, and carefully mounted the rungs. When he reached the top, he smelled the slow rot of expensive cloth and saw thousands of dust motes dancing in the sunlight, making the air seem alive but unhealthy.
As Sylvia had said, the attic had been largely cleaned out, but there were still a few trunks and about a half-dozen boxes. He began rummaging through the ones marked ‘Finn.’ Most of the items he found were eminently discardable: a desiccated turkey foot, school notebooks crammed with vicious caricatures of teachers now retired or dead, a clutch of handball medals and a first-prize essay certificate—two of the areas he’d excelled in as a child that did him no good as an adult.
When he pulled a dinky truck from the second-to-last box, he gave a low whistle. Its fake chrome accents were nearly chipped off, but the red metal body retained a fierce gleam. Fingering the toy’s rust-soldered wheels, Fintan was transported back to his sixth birthday.
It had been his favourite gift, a thing of unblemished newness that shone out from the steaming heap of his older brothers’ cast-offs. Shane, the eldest, was a bully of the old school, though by that time he’d turned thirteen and rarely expended his energy on short-pantsers like Fintan. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with the next in line. Peter was big enough to overpower and humiliate Fintan, but not mature enough to disdain wasting his strength on a scrawny fledgling.
Untainted by his brothers’ foul juices, the truck seemed to hint at the possibility of manliness and eventual escape from the humiliations heaped on him by Shane and Peter. Fintan ignored his other presents that day—an Aran jumper and an illustrated children’s Bible—to play with the truck down in the orchard. His father had three lorries for his apple business, so Fintan was acquainted with the perils of haulage. He constructed scenarios involving lost loads, dodgy weigh bridges and dishonest freight inspectors. His father, who had skipped the birthday party to cut down some storm-damaged trees, overheard his theatrics.
‘You’ll join the business one day, so you will,’ he said, ruffling Fintan’s dirty hair until it stood up like reeds.
A month later, the truck remained the first thing Fintan thought of when he woke up.
But it wasn’t parked in its usual spot on his bedside table that June morning. Indeed, it was nowhere in his room, or the kitchen, or the parlour, or the bath. After he’d searched the entire house twice, a hideous certainty descended on him: one of his brothers had taken the toy out of spite. Over the years, they had bloodied his nose, pulled down his pants, and squeezed the sides of his lips while forcing him to repeat, ‘I’m a pretty baby’ again and again. But the pilfering of his truck was too much to bear.
Fintan went into the kitchen and threw the only tantrum of his life. While his mother and brothers looked on, he shrieked, stamped, broke a dish and went stiff as a corpse, then repeated the routine with minor embellishments. He took an apple from the wooden bowl on the table, took a big bite, and spat it at his brothers, hitting Shane on the neck. He held his breath until he crumpled to the floor.
His mother ran to get her husband from the orchard. He slammed open the door, rushed over to his red-faced son—who was writhing on the floor like a seizure victim at that stage—and picked him up by the ankles. Fintan was almost relieved by this intervention, since he hadn’t a clue how to end his performance. Looking at his frightened mother and suspicion-tainted brothers from his upside-down vantage point, he felt defeated yet righteous. He quieted down, his father scolded him gently before going back to work, and no one mentioned the toy truck again.
At the end of the summer, Fintan’s mother asked him to carry some lunch up to the men stacking bales in the top cornfield. It was a sweltering day, so she draped a white handkerchief over his head to protect him from the sun. On his way back from delivering the flasks of tea and melting blackberry jam sandwiches, Fintan noticed something lying in the stubble: his lorry. It was dirty and its tyres had lost their smell of rubbery goodness, but it was undoubtedly his red truck.
Confronted with the evidence, his memory suddenly yielded an image. A few months back, he’d been playing with the truck by the edge of the field when he was startled by the sound of Peter roaring his name. The summons might have meant anything from ‘Mam wants you for dinner’ to ‘prepare for a beating,’ so Fintan decided to dive into the field and hide among the green stalks. The truck must have fallen out of his pocket.
Joy gave way to despair when he realised he couldn’t possibly admit that his accusation against his brothers had been unfounded. He took the handkerchief from his head, wrapped the truck in it, and sat under a tree with the bundle in his lap to consider his options. He could throw the toy in the river so it could never implicate him—and, more important, absolve his brothers. But that was too final. He could give it away to one of his schoolmates, but that was too altruistic. He finally decided to defer his decision and hide the lorry in the false bottom of his wardrobe.
There it lay over the years, the first bit of contraband in a cache that would eventually include the word ‘nude’ written in wavering cursive on the back of an envelope, a few catalogues that he’d pilfered from his mother (the pages always fell open to the lingerie sections), a Playboy his cousin had mailed him from America after much begging and bribing, and a small chunk of hash. The last time Fintan had seen the truck was when he’d moved out for good after college. He had cleared out his hiding space, taking the gear and the Playboy, but leaving the catalogues and the lorry behind in a box marked ‘Finn’s Miscellany.’
Fintan uttered a feeble ‘vroom’ and sent the truck skittering across the attic’s warped floor, deciding he owed it to the sour little boy who had denied himself the pleasure all those years.
Now that he was middle aged, was he courageous enough to opt for the final solution: throwing the truck into the river? Maybe Sylvia could film it as a performance art piece. Then he had a better idea.
He rushed downstairs and found his mother back from the shops, sitting in the kitchen with Joey, who’d been released from his cage and was perched on a statue of the Child of Prague. All three looked surprised to see Fintan appear out of nowhere brandishing a toy truck.
‘Peter left a box behind in the attic.’ Fintan’s voice crackled with indignation that sounded like the real thing. ‘And you’ll never guess what I found in it!’