thrust the card into his hand. Beaming away at him, in a branded t-shirt with
matching hat. She said something practiced and forgettable about how so many
people were on their way back and then added urgently as he moved on (but
grinning, grinning) that he mustn’t forget to
check out the website too like.
His tight smile faded as he pocketed the little laminated card. He’d bin it soon enough. He was back, but he wouldn’t be staying. As he walked through the terminal he thought about her tone of voice. How it seemed to suggest they’d discussed all this before. She’d made him feel old too. But what was she, maybe ten years behind him? She was a pup, just out of school, it didn’t count.
He stopped by the new W.H. Smiths. He’d heard the chains were arriving. It looked incongruous in every possible way. Too big. Garish. And empty. All wrong. An Old Dear plodded towards the till with what he took to be an air of quiet stoicism at the rows and rows of tat she found herself surrounded by. He realised what was different then.
It was all so much quieter than what he was used to. There was no happy throng of the Christmas press. This place normally buzzed with expectation and chatter. With hugs going begging for skipping siblings and teary eyed Mothers who would jostle for position with good humour but no patience. He saw them clearly then, because they weren’t there. And he saw himself stepping around them, indulgently but purposely, and walking to the car park to meet his Dad. His auld Da.
But he had time. No one was coming to meet him, and so he dawdled over to the new tourist suite, drawn by its huge map, a promise in green and blue, where he assessed the dividend laid out in glossy magazines and brochures that showcased every corner of a place that looked very much like this place. But was so much sunnier.
He realised he hadn’t been home in the summer for ages. Home. He thought about the persistence of the word. How he used it still. Perhaps he always would. It was a habit. One fell into lazily. He knew he was walking the worn lanes of custom and routine too easily then. Only occasionally could he detect a murmur of dissent at this.
He scanned the map closely. Where was the village of Carnalbanagh? He smiled a wry one. It wasn’t there. He and his friends in London (who came from all over the world and from the Province) had bestowed upon this place a kind of mythic status. And the fact that he couldn’t find it with a massive wall-sized map would only add fuel to their fable. Carnal Carnalbanagh, he would report back, remained, the hidden place of dreams.
He transacted his business with the wee woman from the hire car people and sure wasn’t it great to see the weather right enough like. He said it was, right enough and then went down the big corridor with its old carpet but new ads sidestepping another of the promoters who smiled at him like they’d met a million times before.
Outside there were just a few cars picking people up. It was the beginning of the slow end of a long, hot day. This was more like it. He watched two security men chatting to one another out of the corner of his eye as he hoaked through his bag for the hire car details. Hoakin, that’s what he was doing. He smiled. Where did the words go in London? And the men weren’t chatting. They were yarning. Yarnin.
He found the ticket and looked around again. Everything was just so languid. The day seemed on the point of a big, deep, long yawn. He went wandering about the car park, looking for his hire car feeling more than a little forlorn and slightly ridiculous. When he found it, he stared at it like a chastened child surveying a toy whined and begged for. He had a strong suspicion that it was a foolish enough conceit. But he wanted to make an effort. To be different. To change something. To push back and resist the recursion to the mean.
As he drove the country roads, past the now unmanned police check points he wondered if someone might pop up, flag him down and take it off him. He cursed himself quietly.
The Province. The changes were superficial. New ads, same carpet. Something always remained. There was something indomitable here. Something endlessly repeated and returned to.
The road was familiar. All the others had faded to the periphery. This was the path to and from his parents’ place and he rarely set out on any other journey anymore. He’d never driven it on his own though.
Where were the strong hands on the steering wheel? Where was the blathering weather report, the backing track of trad jazz? He’d always been picked up. Lifted and laid. That’s what his mother used to say when they were growing up. Lifted and laid, morning till night. Way back it had been admonishing. Then later, almost proud. Later still it had become hard to tell what she meant. There had often seemed, over the last few years, the faintest hint of a calm, quiet resentment rippling through her words. She probably wasn’t sure herself. Welcome home, welcome home.
He drove past the nasty little housing estate and it was, as expected, dressed in its colours. Faded bunting and shabby graffiti announced its allegiance. He wondered if they would join the rest in straying from their habits. Would they find the daring to move away from the ingrained behaviours: the expectations and the fears that they sought out and found so easily in others.
These last pockets of resistance fascinated him. The immutable core that held on doggedly to their past. Were they made worse, more entrenched because the rest of the place was moving on? Did they feel special, abandoned and martyred shouldering the weight of the cause; the last few true disciples gripping, ardently and emptily, at the only thing marking them out as special?
Because round here, history didn’t really rhyme with anything. Not on these streets. Not yet. Maybe not ever. It just sang the same old song, banged the same big drum, over and over.
He pulled up at behind a trickle of cars waiting to be processed by a new mini roundabout and realised that at times, from a certain angle, he just hated the place. He no longer kept a close eye on the news, London easily took his attention, but he knew he was right. It could be such an awful wee place.
He watched placidly as a tractor (with trailer) negotiated the roundabout. The Farmer staring fixedly ahead. The way they do. He looked at him in his cap and then at the kerbstones glowering back at him in their red and white and blue. Not even the right shade of blue.
A tiny apologetic beep from the car behind reminded him that the road ahead was free and with a small wave he was off. He cracked the window open a tiny bit - just a wee splink as they said - and let the evening air refresh. He’d drive through the town. A brief detour. He’d seen a girl for a while from round here. Down the main street.
It offered only a modest return. Hadn’t changed. Heading on towards the Police station and stopping there by the lights he saw the car’s undulating reflection in the windows of a shop. He felt his hands sweat on the wheel for a second or two. He really was going home in a frigging hire car.
Going Home. It was like fighting a tide from within and without. Every time the same. Any attempt to assert autonomy was repelled, melted down in an instant. The lights changed. He put his foot down. He craved motorway.
He was there in five minutes. It didn’t take long to change the scenery here. That was something. And it was quiet. That was something more. He put the radio on, closed the window and cruised down the middle lane of the empty road.
To his left, the sun hung low. It flittered through dense foliage but in the bigger gaps, between the September trees, he saw that it could be scrutinised. He could look at it for a moment. Sweeping on through the roundabout the water emerged running off for, he knew, miles to the west. (Biggest body of water in the UK. His mum always inordinately, ridiculously proud of that.) The sun danced off it in long, clean, sparkling lines. The sky seemed owned by the water, held by its golden aura. The setting sun’s splendour gifted the space, and the moment, with something he was sure it had never when he was young. He sighed and took something like strength from it. He was so very glad that it wasn’t grey and it wasn’t wet. For once.
Turning again onto the long straight road to his town, with the sun now skimming the hedges - flashing by his side - he realised he was driving through the pages of those stylised tourist brochures he had scoffed at. He smiled broadly, generously even, and drove steadily on. He knew he was heading home but some part of him imagined he was going nowhere and would never arrive.
As he peeled off for the grey town that lay flat and unimpressed as always his eye fell upon the church. The only tall building on the approach. It hadn’t looked big for years of course, but it was as high as it got round there.
In the yard, his Father. Brushing and sweeping. At nothing as far as he could see. The place was spotless as usual.
‘Nice motor boy.’
‘Yeah Da, she’s grand.’
A pause. Consideration.
‘How er ya?’
‘How er ya?’
Sometimes they liked to pretend they were country boys. It was nice. A shortcut to something. It was too soon to say anything.
The Father moved his arm. A micro movement towards his bag that John matched with his own along with a flicker across the face that said ah no, it’s fine.
‘I would have got you.’
‘Sure I know. I didn’t want to bother you.’
They went inside and stood redundantly in the kitchen; a room in which they were used to living in animatedly. A room that expected, demanded, noise and fervour. Instead they planted their feet firmly, measured two arms the one length and swayed their bodies as they yearned for escape. But it wouldn’t have been right to go streaking about the house.
‘Already there. You know, sandwiches and that.’
‘Aye, right enough.’
‘We don’t need to go yet.’
‘Fair enough. I’ll,’ he pointed upstairs. ‘dump my stuff.’
He was hoping it would be straight out the door. He wondered if he could go in his hire car and then marvelled at his capacity for callousness. And cowardice.
They stood in the yard now (no room had accommodated) but it remained an imposition, only with fresher air. And still there was the burden of time to be burned. It was only twenty minutes down the road. They had buckets of time.
‘Sorry about Uncle Sean.’
That movement he did. Upwards with the head a tiny amount. An upside down nod that said a great deal. He added words after a bit, for propriety he supposed.
‘Well son, he was a right age.’
He matched the gap he’d left before replying.
‘Aye, he was.’
He walked back into the house to get his phone, he’d forgotten he had said he’d be reachable. For urgent things only like. All that nonsense. When he went back out he was sweeping again. Christ he loved to sweep.
‘Here, leave it.’
He took the brush off him, placed it against the bin and wandered into the garden. It was an unexpected act, and one that seemed to bemuse his Father as much as surprise him.
He stood on the grass and looked around. It struck him that he hadn’t been in the garden for years. Normally, at Christmas, he was busy. Visiting. Shopping. Glued to the usual routine. He wondered if his Father would follow him down. He did.
He ambled over and stood beside him. There was an expectant but patient air between them.
After a minute.
‘The trees are looking good.’ he said, looking down towards the evergreens at the end of the garden.
‘Aye, they are.’ His Father looking towards them too.
‘Do people still think it’s a hedge.’
‘Some do aye.’
‘They must be there twenty years and more.’
He closed his eyes and counted down from five in his head.
‘Twenty three years, next March.’ his Father said definitively.
That would have driven him round the twist a few years ago. He smiled. They each still stared straight ahead.
‘Do you remember when we got the wheelie bin?’ he turned and looked at him.
‘Ah. The wheelie bin? No, not really.’
‘Ah you do. The day we first got it.’
He watched him think, quest backwards, thoroughly. John had never saw anyone with a more evident thinking expression. It was a blank mien, but with furious activity churning in the eyes as his introspection whirled. Then, the next stage. A wide smile emerged, teeth peeping out at either side of his mouth. He was there.
A good few summers ago. A day that fell amongst others like it. Long and warm and relaxed. Full up with activity. The prime of the summer and their family days. They, the kids, pushing each other down the slope to the garden inside this new bin with wheels. Uncle Sean arriving. In sports car and silly hat. Jazz tootling out of the good room. The barbeque sparking up, the party coalescing around it as the long evening stretched elegantly into the night.
‘Aye. I remember. Good days.’ said his Father.
‘Yeah, they were like.’ said John.
They stood in silent remembrance for a minute or two. The wake already started it seemed. John knew then, for the first time, that funerals are not about the dead.
‘He was a great chipper.’ said John after a while.
‘He was, right enough.’ That little nod again. He knew it appeared curt to others, but it was the opposite.
John remembered the contest his Dad and his Uncle had that night. A fiercely fought one to see who could chip the most balls into the bin. The two of them had been so close then. So strange what happened.
‘It’s sad.’ said John.
His Father said nothing. They both looked down at the thick wall of trees at the bottom of the garden, planted 23 years ago next March.
After another full minute his Father broke the silence.
‘We’ll go. We’ll get in trouble otherwise.’
As they walked across the big yard John thought he saw his Father survey the hire car again. Maybe. Maybe not. It was hard to tell. He knew he could have said it better. He wondered if his chance had come and gone.
On the way, as they half listened to the radio on low - trouble in Russia and weather on the way - John thought about him. His Uncle, the dead man. The man he hadn’t spoken to or even seen in ten years. The man who had taught him the prefect golf grip when he was 11. He was sure he was thinking about him too and was pleased that he knew not to say a word.
As they approached the house.
‘I’m sorry about your brother Dad.’ He caught it all on the way out - a tide of grief and empathy - unbounded empathy for just a second.
He said it again and this time looked him in the eye.
‘And about, y’know, it all. Everything. What happened with you two.’He felt tears on the way - from the chest, filling his throat, but stopping there.
This time a proper nod, more like a bowing, an admission of a deeper well than this sad day had space and time for.
‘Thanks son. Thanks.’
He could see the appreciation flow from him, the old man, just for a moment or two. Of the sentiment and the effort made to cross their culture, their generations and the time spent and lost between them all. The choice of words too. He’d noticed. They had spoken in a way they rarely did: like adults.
They pulled up at the house, turned the radio off and walked in together.
On the motorway on the way back to the airport, two days later, he cried properly. Just long enough for it to count.
Because in the Province the gaps are narrow, the language is tight and the time now, far and sparse, and rushing away. But still and all, he’d made them a little space. He’d pushed back and repelled the usual, meek adherence to the mean, almost despite himself. And maybe that was something.
He leaned forward in his hire car to turn the radio on - just a whisper of it - and there was the business card, stowed in a neat little compartment. He slipped it into his back pocket and examined the sky. It was clear, crystalline and turning towards a deep blue that would soon run to an early gloaming. The evening was coming, stirring in the waters once again by his side.
He drove on, with the quiet nestling against the drone of the engine on the familiar, uncluttered road. On towards the airport. Back home.