An indisputable fact: our towns are sexed. Look around you. It’s enough to tell one from the other. Foley’s town, for example, is most certainly a woman—just take in the salt of her estuarine air—but she’s not a notably well-mannered or delicate woman. She is in fact a belligerent old bitch. You wouldn’t know what kind of mood you’d find her in. And so he storms out, every afternoon, and slams the door after himself.
He walks the trace of a creek that takes him into countryside. Today the creek is particularly foul, there is either something very rotten in there or something very alive. Foley walks by and sniffs at it but he has no great interest. This is an enormous, distracted, heavy-footed creature we’re dealing with. He’s jawing on his thoughts. He’s remembering the knockdown fights with his father in the street.
These are the dog days of summer. The country feels heavy. There’s a lethal amount of growth and he’s pollen-sick from it, Foley, the last of August pulses in his throat. He can see across the estuary to the malevolent hills of Clare. Do hills brood, as they say? Oh they sure do. Foley’s massive hands are dug into the pockets of his outsized jeans and the hedgerows tremble with birds. Foley’s eyes are watery, emotional, a scratched blue, and they follow the caked dry mud of the pathway. Along the verges there are wild flowers—pipewort, harebell, birdsfoot trefoil, grass of Parnassus, all so melodious-sounding it would turn your stomach—and they bloom and shimmer for Foley but he won’t give them the satisfaction.
His father sang ‘Sean South of Garryowen’. His father sang ‘Dropkick Me Jesus’. His father sang ‘The Broad Black Brimmer of the IRA’. A roof-lifting tenor the old fucker had and unquestionably a way with the ladies.
Dogs somewhere, and the bored drone of motorway traffic, distant, like the sound of a dull dream, also chainsaws.
And he walks the trace of the water, Foley, this afternoon in August, and comes within shadow of the cement factory. The grasses and reeds are dusted grey from the factory’s discharge. This is the type of country that would redden your eye and Foley knows it too well. He spent seventeen years at the Texaco out here, in an ideal confluence of beast and task.
At the start, it was just two pumps beside a dirty little kiosk for the till. Midwestern rain hammered down on the plastic roof. Electric fire, a kettle, a crossword and Foley might have been in the womb he was so cosy. He near filled the kiosk. He was prince of the forecourt. He knew the customers by name: the boys from the cement plant, the Raheen businessmen, the odd few locals. Foley was pure gab in those days. He’d talk shock absorbers, chest infections, four-four-two. He’d talk controversial incidents in the small parallelogram the Sunday gone. But then the word came through and there was great change. Statoil bought out Texaco and the kiosk was bulldozed. An air-conditioned, glass-fronted store went up, with automatic doors and cooler units. Foley found himself with colleagues. The next thing they were squeezing him into a uniform and sticking a bright red hat up top. Then they started fucking about with croissants. Then they put in a flower stall and started selling disposable underwater cameras—the better, presumably, to document the coral reefs of the Shannon. Foley went to the supervisor.
‘Come here I want you,’ he said.
‘I want to get one thing clear,’ he said.
‘Just for my own information.’
‘Are we a petrol station? Or are we an amusement arcade?’
‘I must say your tone is slightly …’
‘Don’t mind tone. Are we a supermarket?’
‘Now listen …’
‘What the fuck are we?’ cried Foley. ‘Are we Crazy Prices?’
‘There’s no need for your tone, I find it …’
‘I’ll give you tone!’ He lunged for him and that was that. Don’t come around here no more, they told Foley, and it was the end of the seventeen years.
Foley was six foot five on the morning of his fourteenth birthday and half as wide again. This is the original brick shithouse we’re talking about. He was a clown of a child. His father informed him daily he was fit for Fossett’s. There wasn’t a school jumper could be got in the town to fit him. The best his father could do was a chandlers on the Dock Road that stocked a heavy-duty v-neck designed for vast trawlermen sent to face the wrath of the Irish Box. Foley at fourteen wore it to face the Brothers. In cold weather, the rad in the classroom would seize up and to free its workings it needed to be hit a wallop and this became Foley’s job. The teacher would roar down in a hoarse, booze-scratched voice:
‘Foley! Hit that rad an auld slap, boy. You’re good for something anyway, you big eejit.’
And he’d slug across the floor, Foley, and the other boys would do the ‘Jaws’ music—dah-duh, daaaah-duh, daaaaaaah-duh—and he’d wind up the shoulder, take a swing at the thing with an opened palm and it’d gurgle back to life from pure shock of force.
Quiet awe would swell in the classroom.
The shovelers call from the reedbeds but they could stand up on tippy-toes and sing Merle Haggard and Foley wouldn’t pay the blindest bit of attention. He’s thinking about the time he had the fucker down and a knee on his throat and he could have closed that windpipe lively but no, what possessed him but he let the bastard go.
He has been told he should try accentuate the positives. And certainly it hasn’t been Crapsville all the way. He has had small blessings. He has never, for example, had to journey through the regions of romance. That would have been on the rich side. Of course there are sugary men who will croon that love, at length, shines on each and all of us—woo-oooh! woo-oooh!—but no, thanks be to God, love never came next nor near Foley. Not that ’til he was twenty six or twenty seven and six foot ten in the full of his growth, the big ape, not that he didn’t maintain a glimmer of hope: maybe, oh just maybe… This was a young man listening to enough country and western music to believe just about anything. But he never tried to foretell the detail of it. He never tried to picture it actually come true. Was she really going to float down from the starry sky and put in an appearance on O’Connell Street some Saturday? Walk up to the big tank called Foley and tap him on the shoulder? Settle down and raise enormous children? It wasn’t going to happen and it never did, and it was sweet relief to give up on even the notion.
He walks on. There has been an unpromising start to the new season—two draws and a loss—and black squalls cross his brow when he thinks of the remarks that have been made. Do not say the wrong thing about Manchester United in the vicinity of Foley. Then the storm clouds will gather. Then you’d want to leave a wide berth. He wears the number seven jersey that says ‘Cantona’ on the back. It’s the biggest size the mail-order people can do but still a tight fit. See him of an evening, sat on the corner stool, there in the shadows, with the dry-roasted nuts, and the pint glass like a thimble in his hand. It would go through you, if you were unfortunate enough to be in any way soft-natured.
He follows the creek, goes past the factory, and the creek begins to quicken once it rounds the bend that leaves Mungret behind. Ahead of him on the pathway there’s a distraction. On the last high bank of the creek there are some boys gathered and as he approaches them he grows wary because he can see the shimmer of their gold in the afternoon sun. They wear streaks in their hair and dress shirts in bright colours. They have alert beaks and startled eyes. There are six of them, no, seven, there’s eight of them, count, nine? Travellers.
‘What’s the story, big man?’
‘Some size of a creature we’ve on our hands here, boys. Look it!’
They stand in a half-circle to block the pathway but they keep switching position, they keep dancing around the place, it’s as though they’re on coals, and their voices have hoarse urgency.
‘Where you headed, sir?’
‘Are you headed for the hills, I’d say?’
‘Come here I wancha? Where do they keep you, do they keep you in a home?’
‘What brings you out this way, sir? And what size are you at all, hah? If you don’t mind me asking, like. You must be seven foot tall?’
‘Tell me this much and tell me no more. What size is the man below? The women must think it’s Leopardstown.’
‘Now listen,’ says Foley. ‘That is the kind of talk I won’t abide.’
‘It has a tongue!’
‘Ah come here now and go easy. Where do you live, fella? Are you inside in the city? Are the Health Board looking after you?’
They move in closer, and the talk changes to a confiding tone.
‘Listen. You’d do us a turn, hey? You see what it is, we’re short a few yo-yo for a game of pitch ‘n’ putt below in Mungret.’
‘Pitch ‘n’ putt my eye,’ says Foley. ‘You fellas are no more playing pitch ‘n’ putt.’
‘You’re calling us liars?’
A leader emerges. He spreads his arms like he’s nailed to a cross and he looks to the sky in great noble suffering and he bellows from deep:
‘Hold on, boys!’
It should have been obvious who the leader was. His shirt is of the richest purple and his hair is the most vivaciously streaked. His gold shimmers in the sun and he slaps a stick off the ground.
‘Hold on, boys. What we’re dealing with here is no old fool. You’re right, sir. We are having nothing at all to do with the pitch ‘n’ putt. Truth be known, there is a tragedy we’re dealing with. Martin here—the runt—Martin’s mother is laid out below in Pallasgreen. Misfortunate Kathleen! God rest her and preserve her and all belongin’ to her. And the situation we’re after been landed in, through no fault of our own, we’re short the few euro to wake her right. So help us out there, boss, will yuh? Martin is in a bad way.’
‘I’m bad, sir,’ says Martin. ‘I am bad now. And I guarantee you there’ll be prayers said.’
‘Shush now,’ says the leader, and again he slaps the stick off the ground, but Foley just smiles.
‘Out of my way, gentlemen,’ he says. ‘I’m going to walk on through.’
The leader slaps the stick again and exhales powerfully through his nose. He regards, in the distance, the hills of Clare.
‘We’re not getting through to you, hey? Put your hand in the pocket there and help us out, like.’
They dance around him again, they swap and jostle with each other, they have terrible static in them, but Foley doesn’t move, and Foley doesn’t speak. The leader comes a step closer.
‘Who the fuck do you think you are?’
‘Look,’ he says. ‘We’re off on a bad footing. Can we not be civilised? Can we not calm ourselves here? Can we not be pals? Look. I’ll tell you what. Will you shake my hand?’
The leader smiles. Negotiations have been smoothed. He opens his face to Foley. He is a reasonable person.
‘Of course,’ he says. ‘Of course I’ll shake.’
Foley closes his hand softly around the boy’s hand then and a cold quiver passes between them. It’s the feeling in the hazel switch when it divines water, and it’s the feeling that comes at night when a tendon in the calf muscle has a twitched memory of a falling step, and it’s there too, somehow, in the great confluence of starlings, when they spiral and twist like smoke in the evening sky. Foley holds the boy’s hand and the feeling sustains for a single necessary moment.
‘You were born the fourth son in a lay-by outside Tarbert,’ he says, ‘and you’ll die a wet afternoon in the coming May. The way I’m seeing it, a white van will go off the road at a T-junction. A Hitachi, if I’m seeing it right. And I can tell you this much, Bud—it ain’t gonna be pretty.’
‘What you sayin’ to me? What you sayin’ to me, you fat fuckin’ freak?’
The leader shucks his hand free and takes a step back, and the others step back too. Foley, arrogant now, draws a swipe through the air, as though he’s swatting flies, and he walks on through. For a while the Traveller boys follow and they taunt him from a distance but he knows they will not make the decision.
The creek dwindles to its outflow, and the estuary oozes an egginess, a pungency. The lethargy of swamp gives way to the slow momentum of the Shannon. From across the water, the hills of Clare look on unimpressed. You would be a long time impressing the hills of Clare. A pathway branches off from the creek and from here you can follow the riverbank back into town and it’s a weary Foley that turns onto the branching. Sweat pours from his armpits and stains the number seven shirt that says ‘Cantona’ on the back. Oystercatchers work the rocks, most efficiently, and the lapwings are up and gregarious, but Foley doesn’t want to know. He limits his thoughts to each step as it falls. His heavy head lifts up now and then to find the town come closer, and still closer.
It is more difficult to look back. At the way Foley Snr. would come home in the evening, take off his workboots, slap his fleshy paws together and do the hucklebuck in the middle of the floor. Twist the hips and pout the lips: ladies and gentlemen, a big hand now for the west of Ireland’s answer to Mr Jerry Lee Lewis. He’d manhandle the missus. He’d make slurping noises at his supper. He’d bounce the big child on a giant’s round knee.
‘Is the water on? Have you the water on at all? How am I supposed to get washed?’
‘Where you going, Dan?’
‘Out! I’m headin’ for the plains, Betsy. I’m gonna make me a home where the buffalo roam.’
Later she’d throw plates into the sink with such venom they’d smash. She’d smoke a fag, have a long chew on the bottom lip, then get on the phone and give out yards to a sister. Later she’d roar at the child and her brow would crease up as she plotted an escape. Later she’d weep like a crone because she was lonely. Dan’d be down the Dock Road, doing a string of bars, getting knee tremblers off fast girls in behind chip shop walls. Dan’d be going to dances out Drumkeen and swinging them around the floor, making husky promises beneath the candy-coloured lights. He’d sing ‘Are The Stars Out Tonight?’ as he walked them home. He’d play Russian hands and Roman fingers.
The very first time he raised a welt on her—a Halloween night, Foley was dunking for apples—she went straight to the guards. And then she went to the courthouse. It was specified that 250 yards was the nearest he could get. She made it clear he could look after the other fucker too and she moved back to Tipp town, or was it Nenagh, and she fell in love with a bookmaker there and died an extremely happy woman. The lights went down on the Foley boys. They didn’t get on. Violent confrontation was the daily norm and the very worst of it, like in country and western, was when Foley started to win.
He hits the suburbs of the town and takes the Dock Road into the heart of the place. He steps away from the water and enters the grid of her streets, and his mood improves. He has before him the consolations of routine. He will go to the shade and dampness of the basement flat, where mushrooms have been known to grow from the walls. It is not much of a place to lay your head, no, but it is near the bar he goes to where they are used to him sitting in the shadows. (Lou Ferringo, they call him there, but not to his face.) It’s near the place where he buys the fish. It’s where he braces himself for the afternoon walks by the creek, and we all have our creeks. He will put eight mackerel in two frying pans and fourteen potatoes in the big pot. He will turn on the television and go to page two-two-zero of the text to check on the football news. He will sigh then and stretch and take the keys of the car from the saucer by the door. At eight o’clock, precisely, he will turn the key in the ignition, put his size seventeen to the floor and he’ll switch on the radio and pick up the mic:
‘Fourteen here, base. I’m just heading out.’
And Alice at the base will say:
‘Okay, Tom, can you pick up in Thomondgate for me? The Gateway Bar. Sullivan.’
‘Uh-oh. What kind of a way is he?’
‘He doesn’t sound great, Tommy.’
‘I’ll see what I can do.’
And for eight hours he’ll pinball all over town—Thomondgate and Kileely, Prospect, Monaleen—and there is a sort of calmness in this and calmness accrues, it builds up like equity. Maybe Foley will pick you up some night. You’ve had a few at The Gateway, or you’ve taken a hammering at the dogs, or you’re stood in the rain with bags at your feet outside the Roxboro Tesco.
‘Ah, we’re kept going, you know? It’s busy enough for a Monday.’
And you’ll take him for an easeful man, a serene giant at the wheel of a gliding Nissan. Sometimes even the briefest touch is enough: you hand him the fare and he hands back the change and you feel the strange quiver, its coldness. He can tell precisely, in each case but his own. The town will lie flat and desolate and open to all weathers.