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He decided that April was the right time to look back. Just as the year was awakening from winter he drove down by the grotto and the saw mill and onto the highroad that overlooked the village. There were clouds across the mountains hiding the sea, pressing against the sun. For now it was still, even warm.
[private]Seamus in the meantime stood where he always stood in the mornings, in the road above his little house looking down on the village. He was studying a colony of flying ants that stretched halfway across the road onto the far wall seemingly with little interest in going anywhere. He rubbed his eyes and stretched. He had reached an uneasy truce with a bad tooth in the early hours of the morning and saw the dawn creep slowly across the floor with heavy eyes. Amid twisted grey dreams that ended nowhere he had found a troubled sleep.
He watched with his unshaven face and the high-water mark around his neck as a blue middle-aged car came into view and finally drew up beside him. He recognised the driver immediately.
‘It must be ten years,’ he said as he shook the driver’s hand.
‘It must be at least,’ said the driver. Then looking at the ants: ‘You’re keeping strange company.’
‘Yeah, I’ve been watching them this late while and they go nowhere for cars or anything.’
The driver turned and rested his elbows on the wall, looking back on his journey. Below him on the turn of the road to the grotto stood a small house just away from the village but a little higher up. The far away clouds seemed to be pinned to the mountains, making a sort of canopy over the house. There was a woman in the garden taking in washing unaware of the two men above watching her with growing interest. A dog, black and old it seemed, wandered around the perimeter of the garden which apart from a few newly-sown vegetable patches was stony and bare.
The old school house on the far side of the village was closed for good now where the woman as a girl had promised her love to John McDonald all those years ago on a rainy spring morning. They were both twelve years of age and as she said it she kissed him gently on the cheek before walking down the corridor with its smell of wet gabardine.
She had never been really pretty even then but her hair which was almost blue black and her brown skin made her stand out and her friendly personality made her well–liked. Her colouring she had got from her father, an ungainly and abrupt man whose flirtation with money over the years had turned to true love so much so that when he died and left it all to his daughter and her policeman husband it was the memories of what he didn’t do with it in his lifetime that came to the fore.
It was the same smell of wet gabardine that John McDonald remembered a week after his twenty-first birthday when he faced her father and her policeman in the lane behind her house, when he felt the blood warm in his mouth and no pain, only a numbness. Her policeman’s wet gabardine brought the memory of the schoolhouse back as John lay against the wall in the lane. He remembered gabardine coats hanging in rows in the quietness. He always knew hers because it had the ‘Shamrock’ badge he had found somewhere and given to her. Now there was blood on his jacket and shirt and the cigarette he lit became red and the smoke cut into a growing pain in the roof of his mouth. He dragged himself slowly and painfully home and said nothing to his father or two brothers. ‘Leave him be,’ his father said.
The ant colony had moved and now seemed to be clinging like a shadow to the far wall.
‘I saw an ant funeral once,’ said the driver. ‘Two of them were carrying the dead one and the others walking behind it like they were in mourning. I often wondered what sort of remorse do animals and insects feel for their dead. Would they remember him for his personality or his prowess with the ladies or what! Once I saw a dead cat in Dublin with two others round it prodding it as if they were pleading with it to get up. They didn’t seem to be worried at all about the traffic or the people.’
Below them the woman was going in with the washing followed by the old dog.
‘How many years have you driven around that village without going into it?’
‘Twenty, I would say twenty now’ was the reply, ‘long years. Does she still look young?’
‘Her eyes are still a child’s but she stays so quiet. The father left her and the policeman everything as you know, a lot of it drank by the policeman. He made a lot of friends out of it too but she stayed very much to herself. There were no children. I see her sometimes at Mass or sitting below in the garden. But she is only polite now, not charming.’
They grew together, herself and John McDonald, rarely without each other’s company. They went for walks through the bottom fields outside the village, along the narrow walkways that criss-crossed beside the river. There were sandy places where they sat and said nothing maybe for hours. They didn’t need to speak.
John’s father had a special talent. He could blow on a simple ivy leaf and make it sound like a fiddle. He had followed a circus clown for forty miles as a fourteen-year-old and wouldn’t let him out of his sight until he got the technique. The leaf was bone dry and cupped in the hand and both children sat fascinated for hours on a Saturday as he picked out the songs they wanted.
Then one Monday night as she was about to go out and meet John her father called her back. ‘That McDonald fella is only a waster like his father,’ he said. ‘Sure they’re half tinkers and they do nothing. What sort of a life would that be for anybody? You’re not going anywhere.’ She cried a lot that night.
Gerard Kelly was away in the Police Training Academy in Templemore a lot of the time but he began to call to the house at weekends. She cared little for him and was relieved when he went back to Templemore on the Monday. Then out of the blue her father told her one Monday night that she was never to be seen with McDonald again. She screamed the house down but her father said no more.
They met in secret but there are few secrets in a small village. Somebody would speak because her father had the smell of money. He would then keep her in for a week at a time and she began to lose weight.
Seamus managed to get his rolled cigarette lit on the second match while the driver said nothing. ‘You know,’ said Seamus at last, ‘I drank in her father’s pub, we all did, and when she was behind the bar you didn’t mind spending. She laughed a lot. When you left she changed. She lost weight and she rarely smiled. Now she doesn’t go in at all. The policeman retired to run the place after they were married. He sits there and drinks with his friends. Either you’re with them or you don’t matter. He’s like her father that way except now he spends her father’s money. He doesn’t care much for me, not that any of them do. I like to be left alone anyway. I go in and have a few pints and let them talk.’
Her father knew where to find John McDonald, always outside the town fishing for trout.
‘I won’t mince words,’ he had said, ‘my daughter is going to marry Gerard Kelly, I don’t want you going near her again. If I catch you I’ll leave you with something else to think about. One waster McDonald in my life is enough boy, believe me’. John was a mixture of wanting to plead and wanting to hit out hard but he did neither. Instead he stood and watched her father walk along the bank and started to tremble. It began to drizzle rain.
‘It’s odd that most of my memories of that village have rain,’ said the driver. ‘I spent half of my life being caught in the rain and look, it won’t be long before it rains down there now.’
‘Did you ever master the Ivy Leaf?’ asked Seamus.
‘No, more’s the pity. I remember the little ivy shed down there where my father sat for hours to keep out the noise and idle chatter. An American tourist came down from almost this very spot I’d say, and gave him twenty dollars for playing ‘My Lagan Love’ and that was some money then, he drank wild for two weeks. No, more is the pity I never learned it.’
John McDonald awoke just a week before the wedding. His head throbbed and every bone in his body seemed to be bruised. His father was in the kitchen when he came in.
‘I’m going, you know that.’
‘Yes,’ his father said. ‘I knew it before they got you, I knew that all you wanted to do was say goodbye. Forgive me but I knew for many years that this would happen. Her father never forgave me when your mother married me instead of him. He stopped at nothing including what happened to you last night. But he never got her nor has he spoken a word to me since, except two years ago after your grandfather’s funeral. He told me that no McDonald would ever get his daughter and to mark his words.’ John said nothing, he just stood and looked at his father.
She waited for him outside the village beside the grotto with its blue Madonna looking down from the rocks. He held her for a long time without saying anything for they didn’t need to speak. When he cycled off by the sawmill, pushing away the tiny houses with their grey roofs, he did not look back, or so it seemed to her. She watched him take the hill with his head down against the journey until her eyes became cloudy.
Now the rain clung to those tiny houses like strings to a puppet until it seemed that the whole village was under its spell. The driver looked at the scene briefly then shook hands with Seamus without speaking. Seamus was about to leave when he noticed thousands of ants floating along the side of the road dislodged by the force of the rain. He crossed the wall and made his way down towards his house.
The driver watched him pick his way through the fields around the nettles, body bent against the rain. The cloud canopy above the little house was disintegrating before his eyes until the colour drained out of the valley. He stood for a moment after Seamus had gone before the rain forced him into the car. It took only a few moments to lose the valley and to start moving again down against the mountain.[/private]
Mick Fitzgerald was born, raised and still living in Dublin. He is a man of many talents. Besides working as a journalist for many years, he was a member of bands like Tipsy Sailor and The Wild Geese, still performs as a musician in Dublin, but mainly works as an actor these days; and as an author, of course. His short stories and his poetry have been published in magazines and various collections and his story "The Fiddle Lesson" was nominated for the prestigious Hennessey Award. He has also issued two solo CDs of his own songs. "Wet Gabardine" will appear as part of his collection, Session, which will be published in April 2011 by Songdog, Vienna, in English and German editions, at 12 euros.