They both had one can of Karpackie gone by the time the train went through Athenry. They were brothers, and they were going to Dublin to watch the All-Ireland football final. Their names were Johnny and PJ Mannion, meaning we shared the same surname, a not uncommon coincidence when you’re from our part of the world.
It was one of those drizzly mornings when it’s as if the rain doesn’t fall but seems to just appear and hover interminably. Johnny sat down beside me before the train pulled out of Eyre Square. He’d me wedged against the window side of the booth. The table in front of us supported the majority of his stomach. He wore braces that pressed into his white shirt like twine into a bale of hay. When he coughed, I shook. PJ, who sat across from me, wore a flat cap. He was gaunt-faced and habitually sucked in his lips. The seat beside him stayed unoccupied for the entire journey to Heuston Station.
Their speech was shaped by mountains. They were generous with their Hs. I couldn’t place them to a specific townland, but I would’ve bet the little money I had in my wallet that they’d west Galway blood. They faintly smelled of turf smoke.
I was on my way to Dublin to kip on my brother’s couch in Rathgar for a while. Two months before, after a trial based around a melee in a Melbourne bar, I’d been deported from Australia. The night of the incident, I’d been on the tail-end of a break-up bender. Charlene, my ex-girlfriend, left me because she said I’d trouble emotionally attuning myself to things. I was keyed to my eyeballs and was for taking on the world. The brawl brought three screeching police vans to the front door of the bar. After my conviction I lost my mindless but pensionable job with a car rental company, and my permanent residency had been revoked. Now I was borrowing money from my double jobbing mother—Penneys and the cinema—and relying on my only sibling for accommodation until I found a job around Dublin. Jack, who was five years younger, was reluctant to have me at first, but I think our mother scolded him until he agreed to take me in.
I was about to turn twenty-eight, and I wasn’t where I thought I’d be at this stage of my life.
Ballinasloe station now and the train was stalled. PJ pointed out the window.
Wouldn’t he make a fine full-back, Johnny, beyond? he said.
I looked towards where he pointed and saw a six-foot-something Eastern European-looking man standing on a platform with a red Puma holdall at his feet.
Johnny leaned across me for a better look, and the effort of moving seemed to make his breathing rattle.
The problem with that buck, now, PJ, is that his muscles would get in the way, he said, settling back into his seat. He’d only be a mullicker.
Not like you when you manned the square, Johnny.
Now you have it, PJ.
You’d the balance of a ballroom dancer.
You said it.
There were many things I would have compared Johnny to, but a ballroom dancer was not one of them.
PJ eyed me then and said, Are you going up for the match yourself?
No, I said. I’m heading up to stay with my brother for a while.
And do you play the ga? You’re a wiry half-back by the looks of it?
I played a bit with St Michael’s when I was younger.
I knew you’d the cut of a townie. But you don’t play now?
Do you hurl even?
Any type of ball?
I play soccer.
You do fuck all, then.
He threw his arms out as he laughed, knocking over his can of beer. A sudsy track ran into the book I’d left resting on the table. I lifted it and wiped the cover with my sleeve. PJ hunched his shoulders and looked over at me like a dog unsure of its owner’s mood.
The book was Usain Bolt’s autobiography. I’d grabbed it from the scant row of books in my mother’s sitting room, guessing it was probably a present she’d got for Jack that he didn’t bother to bring back to Dublin. I shook my head at PJ as though not to worry. He looked at the book cover and grinned.
Now, lads, there’s a buck who’d slot in nicely at half-forward, he said.
The problem with him, now, PJ, is that he’d be too fast, said Johnny. He’d trip over himself trying to solo.
We pulled away towards Athlone. I sent a WhatsApp to my brother to remind him to pick me up at the station. He’d told me the previous evening that he would collect me, but he was to have a house party that night at his apartment.
Jack had studied economics in UCD, winning a scholarship based on his Leaving Cert results and our mother’s income. Afterwards, he started working in finance near St Stephen’s Green. Now all his friends were rugby fans. One of them had a hyphen in his surname. They spent their Saturday nights in some fancy club on Leeson Street.
One day, not long after Jack had started working, I sat in a Melbourne café speaking with our mother over FaceTime. She told me that Jack barely went home for weekends anymore. He’s working awful hard, she said. But I could see the disappointment on her face when, another day, she told me that Jack hadn’t gone to watch Galway United play against Shelbourne in Tolka Park, even though she’d posted him a ticket for his birthday. Our father used to bring the two of us to Terryland to see United play when we were children, and, after he ran off to England with a young one from our estate, our mother made a point of still bringing us. As we grew older, me and Jack started going to away games by ourselves, sitting beside each other on the fan buses, Jack on the Lucozade and me on the naggins of Jameson, the two of us chanting until our throats were like dried tree bark. When I rang Jack to tell him to apologise to Mam, he said he’d had a function with work and there was nothing he could’ve done to skip it. I was worried I was losing him to a bunch of cunts in Ralph Lauren.
Between Clara and Tullamore, Johnny opened his third can. Bubbles fizzed up, and he held his mouth to the rim and gulped. He slid another can over to me and gave a nod and said, For what butterfingers beyond did to your book.
I stared at the can: the arcing red banner with capitalised pale writing, KARPACKIE, like some sort of Polish imperative; the top half, brilliantly white but infused with silver designs like frosted stencils; the artwork of the golden emblem at the heart of the can, like a coat of arms; the lower half, a deep, royal red. Alone in my apartment in Melbourne, when Charlene was on nights in the hospital, I used to study bottles, glasses, cans, their artistry and their design, and then drink an inordinate amount of them. But since I’d moved home I was trying a stint of abstinence until I found my feet again.
I said to Johnny, Thanks, but I’m all right.
He almost put a dent in the can the way he held it.
You’ll have a can with us, Ronaldo.
James, I said.
One will only wet the lips, James, said PJ.
He’s right, said Johnny.
I felt as if I was back at the Spanish Arch again, fourteen, a bottle of Buckfast being placed in my hands. But I didn’t know these men, and I wasn’t afraid of leaving a bad impression. In truth, I wanted the can.
I’ll just have the one, I said.
We swept through Portarlington. PJ gazed at the boggy plains as if they were priceless sketches. He nodded towards the window.
That marshy field would make for lovely spuds, Johnny, he said. We should put down a few next spring ourselves.
We both know how the spuds ended up the last time any were set, said Johnny.
At least I made an effort, said PJ. I didn’t see you out dibbling. And I dug all them ridges myself.
You did, and a hen picking at the soil would’ve gone deeper. We barely got a bowl of soup out of that yield.
The frost was malojian.
If the trench was low enough, the frost wouldn’t have mattered.
PJ made a face. He slurped a mouthful of beer. His arm trembled when he lifted the can, as if it was made of concrete. I wasn’t sure if he was angry or just feeble. Johnny nudged me and threw his eyes to the ceiling.
After a while, he said, Give us out a few of them sandwiches, PJ, good man.
PJ ignored him.
Johnny sighed and said, Please and thank you.
PJ lifted up a Regatta backpack from the floor. It was red but dirtied by soot stains. He rummaged through it, took out a block of creased tinfoil, left it on the table and stared out the window again.
Johnny clapped his massive hands and rubbed them together.
As they’d say across the water, we’ll have ourselves an elevenses, he said.
He ripped the tinfoil apart like a bear. But when he saw the sandwiches, he dropped them to the table.
Where are the rasher ones? he said.
PJ didn’t answer.
I won’t ask again, said Johnny. Where are the rasher sandwiches?
I didn’t have time to go frying rashers, said PJ, still gazing out at the drenched countryside.
You didn’t have time?
That’s what I said.
You had time to go boiling eggs, and go mashing them up, and go mixing some sort of leaf with them, but you didn’t have time to fry a fucken rasher?
He clunked the table with his fist. PJ flinched, then glanced around the carriage as if to remind his brother there were other people present. Johnny’s clenched fist reddened and swelled like something being heated up. He leaned forwards and said, You didn’t have the time? Go away with that shite.
He leveraged himself out of the booth with a few loud breaths. As he made his way down the aisle, other passengers leaned sideways to give him space. I could see then how Johnny may once have had an agile step on a football pitch. He was slow but surefooted. It was as if he walked with a purpose that limbered his legs. He went into the next carriage. PJ looked at me.
He’s a terror for the traditions, he said. We’d the rasher sandwiches every year till now, but I’d to stop making him fried stuff after what the doctor said. And we’d a brother die from a heart attack. I have to look after Johnny or he’ll eat himself to death. Let him have the egg ones or let him go hungry.
We were past Monasterevin when Johnny arrived back and took his seat with a thunk. His smile pushed his cheeks out and made his face look even rounder. He left two cartons of shop-bought sandwiches on the table, which meant he had walked the length of six carriages to the train shop and back. BLT, it said on the packaging. He unpeeled the plastic seal and made short work of the first half and even shorter of the second. The edges of his lips were coated with mayonnaise, and when he smiled at me he had a piece of lettuce wedged between two front teeth. He opened the second pack and held a half towards me.
A bit of fodder while you’re working on the can? he said.
I’m grand, I said. I’m done with the can, anyway.
Have another one for yourself, then.
Really, I’m fine.
A bird never flew on one wing, James, he said, winking. Just like I never went up to an All-Ireland without having a rasher sandwich on the way.
Is your brother as ignorant as this? said PJ.
I looked at my phone. I still hadn’t had a message from Jack.
Sometimes, I said.
Johnny took another can from a plastic bag and left it in front of me. I cracked it open without thanking him and glugged until my throat was sore.
You’re a rare suckling, he said, laughing.
After devouring the sandwiches, Johnny went to sleep, nodding off with his joined hands resting on the mound of his belly. I helped myself to another can, and then another. PJ nibbled at a couple of egg sandwiches like a bird.
He looked at me and jutted his narrow chin towards the window.
Horsey country, he said. The farmers up here don’t have to rely on subsidies to get by. Have you ever been to the horses?
Only in Australia. I went to The Melbourne Cup a few times.
Is that so? Did you live beyond?
You missed home too much, though?
I suppose, I said, and then I drank a mouthful of beer.
We’d a brother beyond in Australia, he said. Cairns. Went out fishing one day about twenty years ago and never got home. Must’ve fallen in, they told us.
Sorry to hear that.
Arrah, it’ll come to us all, just in different ways. Did you win much at the races?
Sometimes. Up and down.
Like life. I was never one for the horses, myself. Big auld fuckers. Dangerous. A horse killed another brother of mine. Me and Johnny seen it happen. I was seven at the time. Johnny would’ve been ten. Tommy would’ve been fourteen. Horse tried to lep over a gate and kicked Tommy clean in the head. A horse doesn’t know its own strength. The sheep are easier to handle. No money in them, but at least they won’t leave you six feet under.
He sucked in his lips and looked out the window. I watched the passing landscape as well. The fields were mainly flat, dimpled by gentle hollows. Thin fences ran like stitches. A grey horse flicked its tail as though it was waving at us. I checked my phone again. Nothing.
The train arrived into Heuston Station and stopped with a gassy sigh. Johnny woke and stretched his arms high into the air. People started to leave.
You’re not in a mad rush anywhere? said Johnny.
Not really, I said.
Then we’ll let the other people get off first. All that running and racing, and sure they’ve to queue going out at the stalls anyway.
We always let everyone else off first, said PJ. Let them pave a path for us.
Make way, folks, the Mannion brothers are coming through! said Johnny.
He yawned and shook his head like a wet dog and said, A sleep like that does crown a man. I’m raring to go now.
He gathered the empty cans, crushed them into a clump and put them into the plastic bag. PJ stood up, put on the backpack and collected the leftover egg sandwiches.
We’ll save these for later, he said. Wasting food is a sin. We’d a brother went off to America. Lost contact. Then we heard he died starving on the streets of Baltimore. Forty years ago now, that was.
How many brothers did ye actually have? I said.
There were eight of us, all in all, said Johnny. We’re the only two left standing. Isn’t that right, PJ?
It’d take a lot to get rid of us, said PJ.
Any sisters? I said.
Not even one, I’m afraid, said Johnny. Our mother gave up trying after she had PJ here.
All the other passengers had left. Johnny took my bag down from the overhead shelf and put it on the table.
Thanks, I said. Cheers for the drinks, too. Enjoy the rest of the session.
There’ll be no session, said PJ. That’s it for us. We only ever drink on the way up.
I thought ye were on it for the day.
Not at all, said Johnny. You can achieve nothing with the drink, and we’ve a loch of hoggets need dosing in the morning. We’ll get the last train down this evening.
Well, enjoy the match, then.
We will, said Johnny, rubbing his hands. Come on, PJ, we’ll get the Luas as far as Parnell Street. How long of a walk is it from there to Croke Park?
Half an hour, said PJ.
Then he looked at me and nodded towards Johnny’s midriff and with a smile said, Maybe an hour.
Now, PJ, I can still make a burst when I need to. Throw a bit of Lycra on me and I’d go fast as that man, said Johnny, pointing at my book.
As I walked to the door and stepped onto the platform, their howls of laughter made echoes behind me.
I rang Jack again and got no response. When I went outside the station, all that met me was sheets of drizzle and the hissing of tyres on the waterlogged road. I was about to cross the road and walk to the nearest pub, but, as I stood in the thin, late summer rain, waiting for a gap in traffic, I looked back towards the station. Johnny and PJ, side by side, were making their way to the Luas shelter. Johnny was walking in his heavy but lithe way. PJ was moving in jittery skips.
I turned and walked towards a taxi rank, and I told myself that the next time I’d get the train would be the following Friday. My brother would be beside me. We’d be bound for a weekend in Galway. Going home.
This is the fourth 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 three stories are:
David Tierney – ‘Black And White-head’
Aoibheann McCann – ‘Fumes’
Ciarán Folan – ‘In The Blood’