He could see the house in the distance, at the foot of the mountain, a few Norway spruce behind it, the extravagant red and purple splash of fuchsia by the gate. There was no sign of a car.
He’d got a lift most of the way with a man from Ballinrobe bringing ponies to Clifden Mart. Nobody but a stranger would stop for him now. After exchanging a few words, the driver didn’t speak again and for the rest of the journey he could hear the uneasy breathing of the animals in the back. He’d got out at the crossroads, then walked the last few miles. The day was fresh, the wind whistling in the electricity wires that stretched across the bog to the house.
When he reached the gate, he saw the frame of a half-built boat by the gable, where Mack had always liked to work. As he got closer, he saw that grass was growing through the ribs of the boat; lengths of timber were strewn about the ground nearby. So, it was true, after all, what he’d heard.
A satellite dish gawped from one of the chimneys. What had Mack that for? he wondered. It wouldn’t be for watching Sky News, anyway, that was for sure.
He tried the front door; it was locked. He looked in the nearest window. This would have been the good room in the old days. Inside, he could see a bicycle propped against the far wall. The table with all the scorch marks on it was still there, a yellowing newspaper spread across it. That was all. Mack would have sold everything else over the years.
He went round the side of the house. The door to the old shed was ajar. He took a step inside. Nothing, except Mack’s tools—awls, hammers, mallets, saws—hanging neatly where they’d always hung.
Rows of empty whiskey and Buckfast bottles were lined up along the concrete on both sides of the back door. Scattered amongst them were old lemonade and Lucozade bottles, their labels gone. The sheet of plywood that Mack had used to replace the bottom glass panel of the door was still there. He remembered the night nearly thirty years ago when a full cylinder of Kosangas had been heaved through it.
The back door was unlocked and as he stepped into the kitchen the heat from the range dropped on him like a blanket. The place was in a right state. On the table, there was a clutter of cups, mugs, bottles and glasses—some still with liquid in them. Unwashed dishes were piled on the draining board. There were takeaway boxes and containers from the Chinese in the village scattered about, a sure sign Mack was on the tear. A large orange buoy lay underneath the table. A re-run of Kojak was showing on a small television in the corner.
‘Who’s this?’ Mack shouted from the hallway. Then he heard a sound that reminded him of the seanlead in his last days—the creak of a crutch being raised and then hitting the floor hard again and again.
The man who appeared in the doorway was barely recognisable as the Mack he remembered. He’d put on weight, his face was red and blotched under a greasy Make America Great Again baseball cap. He wore glasses now and his eyes, staring out from behind the lenses, had an innocent look to them that he found unsettling.
‘Who the fuck let you in?’ Mack said.
‘The door was open,’ he said, wondering if he’d changed so much that Mack didn’t recognise him.
But Mack knew who he was, all right. ‘Not to cunts like you,’ he said.
He took the old Clada lemonade bottle from his jacket. The poitín was warm from his pocket. He’d already had a few mouthfuls of it as he’d neared the house. ‘Who loves ya, baby?’ he said, nodding towards the TV. The words sounded feeble; he realised as soon as they’d left his mouth.
Mack eyed the bottle. ‘It’s a long fucking rope drags you back to this place,’ he said.
‘Maybe I wanted to come back.’ He found two glasses in the sink and rinsed them, then threw a dash of poitín into each.
‘Or maybe it was you had no place else left to go,’ Mack said.
He had to smile at this. He put one of the glasses on the corner of the table nearest Mack. Mack eased himself into an armchair by the range and waited a moment or two before reaching for the glass.
The first finger of Mack’s left hand was missing, he noticed, but he passed no remarks. The crutch stood guard by the arm of the chair.
‘I heard you nearly burnt yourself out of the caravan below,’ Mack said, after taking a gulp from his glass.
‘Maybe you shouldn’t believe everything you hear.’
Mack roused himself in the chair. ‘Don’t you fucking try to tell me what I should or should not fucking believe.’
They were quiet for a few moments. Through the back window, he could see the branches of the Norway spruce swaying a little in the wind. He’d spent too many evenings seated at this table watching as Mack filled himself with drink, listening to his stories about boat-builders and boat men from olden times. Under one of the trees was the shell of a car, probably the blue Cortina Mack used to drive like fuck in and out of Galway.
He looked over at Mack. His glass was empty already. ‘I see you’re back at the boats.’
Mack glared at him. ‘I’ve always been at the fucking boats.’
‘You have,’ he said.
The man had come from Oughterard, needing a boat. You’d know from the look of him that he was a lake man. It was a hot day in June, but he wore a tweed hat with a feather in it, his trousers tucked into green Wellingtons. Mack was in Galway, on the tear. The half-built boat was out the side of the house, in the very same spot where the abandoned boat sat now. A lad from up Cong way had ordered it.
As luck would have it, the man from Oughterard had known his father. They’d talked for a while about this and that and then they’d done the deal: half now and half when the boat was finished in a few weeks. The man from Oughterard had even spat on the palm of his hand before shaking on the deal, leibide that he was.
It had come to him all of a sudden then. Mack was already gone three days. Chances were he wouldn’t reappear for a few more. He packed his things.
The next evening, he’d got the overnight bus from Galway station and ended up in Victoria at seven the following morning. After paying for the travel, he had plenty left to get himself a hostel in Islington. The watery-eyed man from Roscommon who ran the hostel said he could find him work. One night, pissed in a pub in the Angel, he’d told this man his story. ‘In a case like this, it’s usually the woman takes the boat over,’ the man had said. ‘You seem to have done things arseways.’
If she hadn’t cried when she’d told him, it might have gone differently. But the tears had frightened and annoyed him. Just like his mother’s always had. His last sight of her, she was wiping the smudged eye-makeup off her cheeks.
He’d thought of that man from Oughterard from time to time over the years. Mack would have run him when he’d come back looking for the boat.
‘Open that drawer there,’ Mack said, pointing to the kitchen table.
‘Open the fucking drawer.’
He reached over and pulled open the drawer in the side of the table. It was full of plastic tablet containers, coins from the old money, screwdrivers, junk of every sort.
‘In at the back,’ Mack said, ‘there should be a small tin.’
He put in his hand, shifted a few things, found a faded green Oatfield sweet tin.
‘Take it out and open it.’
The tin was light; he shook it; there was no sound from inside.
‘Just open the fucking thing.’
Reluctantly, he eased off the lid. He swallowed hard when he saw the registered envelope with English stamps on it, addressed to his uncle. It was as if he’d only written it the other day. He was surprised at how neat the handwriting was. He wouldn’t be able to write like that now. He picked it up.
‘You know what’s in that, I suppose,’ Mack said.
He could feel the bulk inside. The notes had all been fresh and crisp, he remembered.
‘A thief’s money,’ Mack said.
‘You can’t say that.’
‘I’d bet anything on it. Stolen from someone. Some unfortunate woman, more than likely.’
He had an urge to take the money out of the envelope, to feel the crispness of the notes once again between his fingers. Mrs Solomon, in Earls Court; he’d done work for her in the garden. She had a gammy eye. You were never sure when she was looking at you. Every room full of brass and silver ornaments.
‘Not a fucking penny of it touched,’ Mack said.
Two of those ugly fucking cats with the strange names sprawled on the furniture. She would leave everything to the cats, she’d said.
‘Do you know what you can do with that, now?’
He looked over at Mack. ‘What?’ he heard himself say.
‘Throw it in the fucking range there.’
The tips of his fingers felt damp as they tightened on the envelope. Sterling was sterling; it would still be worth a few bob. ‘You’re cracked,’ he said.
‘Not one fucking bit.’ Mack struggled to his feet, picked up a small poker and used it to lift the cover off the range. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘In with it.’
When he made no move, Mack lurched towards him, the poker raised, and grabbed the envelope. He spat on it and dropped it into the range. ‘Bye-bye money,’ he said. A blue spurt of flame shot upwards before he slid the cover back on.
‘Now,’ Mack said, grinning at him. ‘It’s gone, whoever it belonged to.’
Mrs Solomon. Eva Perry. Cathy from the Hope & Anchor; ‘You’re a proper caution,’ she’d said to him. Jewellery was never worth as much as you might think. And the pawn shops would always try to do you. That little fucker in Golders Green, begging him in the end not to smash the place up.
‘Now, sit down there till we be talking,’ Mack said, signalling that he wanted more poitín.
He waited till Mack had a few more glasses in him before asking about the girl.
‘Oh, I hear she’s doing very well for herself. She has a hairdressing place inside in town. Five or six young ones working for her.’
Well, that wasn’t surprising; she was always into that kind of thing.
‘There’s a girl had a lucky escape,’ Mack said. ‘Wouldn’t you say?’
He ignored this. ‘Is the boy around at all?’
Mack laughed. ‘You have a cheek. Besides, he’s no boy now. He’s finished in college these good few years.’
‘Working, I suppose?’
Mack looked over at him, eyes narrowed. ‘You may be sure he wouldn’t want the likes of you next nor near him.’
‘You’re some cunt, you know that.’
Mack laughed. ‘I know you,’ he said. ‘What’s in the blood. . . ’ He pulled a twenty-pack of Benson & Hedges from under the cushion of the armchair, took out a cigarette and put it between his lips. Then he picked up a bright yellow plastic-handled barbeque lighter from the range and flicked it on. His hand shook as he held the flame to the tip of the cigarette. He took a deep drag, then slumped back in the chair. ‘This place must seem very rough compared to the kind of luxury you’ve been used to these past few years.’
He had to laugh at this.
‘The lap of luxury—that’s what the papers say.’
‘Is that what they fucking say?’
‘Hot showers, satellite TV, your meals handed to you, not a fucking thing in the world to worry about from morning to night.’ Mack laughed. ‘And the best thing about it, the Queen of fucking England footing the bill.’
‘Oh, it was wonderful, right enough,’ he said.
‘And you’re back now looking for another holiday at someone else’s expense, I suppose.’
‘Like fuck,’ he said.
Amid the mess on the table, he noticed a plastic container full of tablets. He wondered what kind they could be. He’d learnt a lot about pills and that sort of thing over the past few years. You couldn’t but. It was the heart finished the seanlead in the end. It probably ran in the family. He rested a hand on the table.
‘Give us a look at your hands there,’ Mack said, getting to his feet.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Put your hands on the fucking table.’
Mack stood over him now. Behind the lenses of the glasses, he was shocked to see that the tips of his eyelashes still curled upwards like a girl’s, the way they had years ago. He put both hands on the table, palms down.
‘Now, turn them over.’
If Mack noticed the knife scars on both palms, he didn’t let on. ‘Look at them,’ he said. ‘Them’s boatbuilder’s hands. Pity it’s not that they were used for.’
Mack went back over to the armchair. ‘An awful fucking waste is what I’d call it. You had it in you, as good as anyone I ever saw. And you were a fast learner.’
He’d always liked the smell of the tar and of the fresh timber. He’d stood by and watched as Mack worked, measuring everything by eye. He’d never seen him use a ruler or a tape. His hand steady as his eye, even after a night on the drink. Over the days, the boat would appear, as if by some kind of magic.
Ever since the seanlead died, he’d been with Mack. He was in the Tech at first, but when he’d quit there, at fourteen, Mack had taken it for granted that he’d follow in his footsteps. But he was too young; he was more interested in football and dances.
‘And your ould lad had it in him, too’ Mack said.
‘He was no saint.’
‘Don’t I know it. He was better at the boats than me. But he wouldn’t fucking stick at it.’
‘Maybe it’s not too late yet.’
Mack looked at him. ‘What are you saying?’
‘Maybe I could have a go at it still.’
‘Are you fucking cracked?’
‘The two of us, I mean.’
‘I thought you might have changed,’ Mack said, ‘but you’re still the same fucking eejit.’ He raised his glass and grinned. ‘This is my fucking work now.’
‘Do you ever see things?’ Mack said. He’d moved the bottle to the floor, within easy reach of the chair.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Animals and that.’ He refilled his glass.
‘You’re drinking too much of that stuff.’
Mack drew a hand in front of his eyes, as if trying to wave something away. ‘The other day,’ he said, lowering his voice, ‘I was sitting here and this fox was standing over there where you are. Its fucking head was on fire.’
He stared at Mack. He could no longer make out his eyes behind the glasses.
‘I’m afraid to go to fucking bed at night,’ Mack said. There was a quiver in his voice. ‘I spend the night here in the chair.’
‘That’s fucking shite talk.’ He stood up. ‘You should go to the fucking doctor.’
Mack struggled to the edge of the chair. ‘Maybe you could stay a bit,’ he said. ‘If that ould caravan down there isn’t in the best of shape.’
‘Nothing wrong with the caravan.’
‘It must be damp and everything.’
‘It’s fine, I’m telling you.’
‘Don’t mind what I said earlier. We could still get back at the boats. There’s more demand for them now than ever, they say.’
He had to get away from Mack now, the way he was looking at him. ‘We’ll see,’ he said, making for the door.
He knew Mack was at the kitchen window, watching him go. He was tempted to look towards the shed, where the tools hung in a neat row. They’d be worth fuck all now, anyway, but still. . . He stopped to run a hand along the gunwale of the abandoned boat, then held his hand to his nose, but there was no smell of timber to be got. He headed towards the road. The likes of us, the Roscommon man used to say, never should go home again.
This is the third of five stories we are publishing online this week to coincide with the publication of our Galway 2020 edition. The five stories have been selected by the issue’s guest editor, Lisa McInerney. Publication of the stories and the issue is in association with Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture. The first two stories are:
David Tierney – ‘Black And White-head’
Aoibheann McCann – ‘Fumes’