Pat Mullan

The Way of the French

Pat Mullan

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Dennis

        “Where are you going Da? You said that we’d turn back at the next bend in the road. We’re at the bend now. I’m tired and I’m hungry. Mam said the dinner would be ready at six.”

        “Just down to the end of the road. Five minutes, that’s all we’ll be.” 

        Kevin had been dragging his feet the last half mile or so.

        “Okay, you rest up here; I’ll be back in ten minutes max. I’m going just beyond that big tree down there,” I pointed.

        I rambled on, taking in the Sliabh Gamph mountains stretching into the distance on my left. If I could only get Kevin to do a bit of proper walking. Walking the hills, I thought, that was the business.  Character building for him too. Be good for us all. But Kevin was only nine and probably had to take two steps for every one of mine. If Catherine would only come too. What we needed was something to work towards  - a target, an objective. I needed to get Catherine on board for what I had in mind - the Frenchmen’s walk in 1798. I’d had no success to date. With her on board, then we could work on the kids. It would be another thing we could do as a family. Hopefully that will happen, I still have a few months to work on her. Kate is a lost cause for walking, or doing anything sensible. A waste of time me even suggesting it to her, I’ll leave that to her mother.  

        I really would have preferred to come out on my own this evening but Kevin insisted on coming. Didn’t want to get stuck with the women, he’d said. I don’t blame him. When I looked behind me he was busy picking blackberries from the briars at the roadside.

        What was going on with Catherine recently?  Last week as we sat watching TV she had said,

        “You know you’d really want to sort yourself out, Dennis. We can’t take much more of this.”

        She refused to explain what “this” was, saying I should know. Typical. Lately she never missed an opportunity to have a go at me. Even down here. And this was supposed to be a week we would put all that behind us, enjoy a holiday like a normal family.

         It is good to get them all down here though. Out of the city and away from Sonic the Hedgehog and the Sega Megadrive and the television and the shops.  And the rugby club disco. Get a bit of exercise, see a bit of the countryside too.  Safer here as well and the landscape – fantastic. Queen Maebh’s grave over there on Knocknarea, Benbulben regally dominating the whole county, and Enniscrone’s beach all within easy reach. And Kevin will love the surfing at Easkey, if he’s ever allowed.  Catherine thinks it’s not safe, that he’s too young. The younger you expose them to these kinda things the better.

        And Maria was down for the weekend. That could mean trouble. When Catherine and her sister got together it usually spelt trouble for me.

        I’d never been on this road before. I decided to turn left when I got to the top of the road and walk down to the bend about three hundred yards away, just to see if it goes down as far as the coast. Visibility wasn’t great with the bright sun low in the evening sky. There was a strong refreshing smell from the woodbine that battled and tangled with the briars along the hedgerows. When I got to the bend I could see a dark green car tilted at an awkward angle in on the hedge. I was about to head back and pick up Kevin when I began to wonder, could there be someone still in the car? Unlikely I thought, but decided I’d better check, just in case.

        It was one of those old green Chrysler jeeps. A good few of the farmers around here had them.  I heard the whimpering before I got to the car. A puppy, I thought. As I got closer I could see a grey-haired man, lips purple, slumped over the steering wheel. His glasses hanging from one ear, eyes staring and him leaning up against the door. No sign of movement from his breathing. I opened the door and put my ear against his chest. Nothing.  And no sign of a pulse either. He was warm to the touch so whatever happened hadn’t happened too long ago, I thought. The car was half in the roadside drain, the front windscreen cracked and John Denver playing on the cassette. I took the rosary beads that were hanging from the mirror and whispered an Act of Contrition into his ear. I placed the glasses on the dashboard and closed his eyes. The poor man. Jesus, why did I have to come across this?

         The whimpering started again and I looked in the back to see a young boy, maybe two or three years old, lying on his side on the floor of the rear seat. He stared at me momentarily then his eyes darted from side to side as if looking for an exit, eyelids fluttering. There was a strong smell of ammonia. He rubbed the back of his hand over his runny nose and wiped the tears from his reddened eyes. The poor chap. It was him that kept me there, made me forget about Kevin. There was nothing I could do for the driver.

        The child kicked and tried to push me away as I bent to pick him up. With reassuring tones I gently lifted him from the car and held him close. He slowly began to relax and the violent sobs became more sporadic. I could see a farm house about three hundred yards further along the road, smoke coming from the chimney and two men working in the yard. The frantic sobs started again as I began walking towards the farm house with cries of “Randa, Randa, I want Randa.”

        “Don’t worry about Granda son, I’m taking you home.” The sobbing continued but gradually subsided as we got to the lane leading to the farm house. A modern bungalow stood alongside an old neglected two story house with ivy completely covering one gable wall. A woman in her fifties was carrying a bucket towards one of the whitewashed outhouses. She turned as she saw us, brushing the hair from her eyes.

        “Hello.” A look of recognition brought a broad smile to her face. “And who have we got here? Are you not talking to old Molly this evening, Paudie?”

        “Oh thank God you know him.”

        “Sure everybody knows Paudie Kane. Don’t they, Paudie?” as she tickled him under the chin.

        “Look there’s been an accident, down the road. I just happened to come across it. I’m afraid it’s not good.”

        “Ah no, not Barbra?”

        “No, no it’s an elderly man, wears glasses.”

        “That’s Paudie senior. John, where are you? John..”

        John came running from the milking parlour, saying, “What’s up?”

        “Its old Paudie in an accident just down the road. Its serious.” As she nodded towards young Paudie.

        Molly took Paudie from me saying “Come on in the house, Paudie and we’ll have some orange juice.” To John she said “I’d better go and talk to Barbara.”

         “Hold off on that until I get back,” John said. “I’ll go with this man – sorry what’s your name?”

         “Dennis. Dennis Riordan,” as we shook hands.

         “Ah you’re the man that bought old Midge’s place below on the famine road. I’ll just check that it’s definitely Paudie. And ring the guards, Molly.”

         “Come on show me where he is,” as he ran towards his own green jeep. When we got to the spot, John said,

         “I’ll take it from here, Dennis. You go and find that young lad of yours.” I gave him our phone number to give to the Guards and headed off to collect Kevin.  There was no sign of him as I turned into the road where I’d left him. I looked at my watch, it was ten past seven. I had been gone over an hour. I searched up and down the road and climbed over the hedges and into the fields on both side of the road, but there was no sign of him.

         Where could the litter skitter have gone?  When I got back to the crashed car the Guards were already there talking to John. They questioned me about coming across the accident, took my name, address and phone number.  I told them about Kevin and explained that I really needed to go and find him.

He must have walked home on his own, I thought. I called to two farmhouses on a nearby parallel road but no one had seen Kevin.  He’s a sensible chap and would have no problem in finding his way back on his own, would he?   She’ll be giving out again about the dinner being spoiled and about me neglecting Kevin and leaving him to make his own way home. More ammunition. But with Maria there she might not be too direct.

When I got to the cottage there was yet another jeep parked outside. It was turning out to be the day of the jeeps.


Catherine

        It was good to get a bit of peace and quiet. With Dennis and little Kevin gone out for a walk and Kate above in the attic on the Sega Megadrive, I had time for a good natter with Maria as we got the stuff ready for the dinner before the boys would get back. Maria’s really good with Kate. At fifteen, Kate doesn’t pay any attention to anything me or Dennis say. So Maria was good for steering her subtly in the right direction and for getting a bit of inside info out of her. She’s hard going recently, looking for endless money for clothes and make-up and demands that she gets to the rugby club disco every second Friday night. It drives Dennis mad, especially the way she dresses and all that make-up.

        Maria would have made a great wife and mother. The youngest of six of us, Johnny Regan was the only man for her and she was heartbroken when he went to live and work in Toronto without her. That was ten years ago and she had neither seen nor heard from him since.  No hint of another man since either. A shame and her so good with kids.

        She got the fully fledged version of my pent up frustration with Dennis as we got the dinner ready.

        “I really don’t know what’s going on with him these few months. He gives out about everything and everybody.  Won’t talk to me. Sits staring at the television when he comes home from work. You can’t get a word out of him.”

        “Ah Catherine he can’t have changed that much, our Dennis,” said Maria, “Dennis is solid, steady and reliable.”

        “Our Dennis me backside. You have no idea Maria. He’s turning into a grouchy old man. Talks about early retirement and moving down here and this obsession with all things Sligo. You remember what Mammy said when I started going out with Dennis? About his age, that he’ll be an old man when I’m still young? What she said has been running through my head this last while. I was so annoyed with her at the time for even thinking that age could possibly make any difference. Twelve years didn’t seem to matter then. Maybe she was right.”

        “That’s no way to be talking, Catherine. Age is all in the mind, not the calendar. You know that.”

        I just don’t know where this is heading, Maria. Christ, can you imagine us living down here? I’d have no one to talk to, no friends. And Kate? She’d never survive, she’d crack up. She already talks about the “hick discos” at the GAA club in the village, the odd times that she does go. There’s no civilised rugby clubs for fifty miles, she says. And then there’s her friends, and changing school and all that. She’d be like a fish out of water. They’d be taking off her accent too. It would set her back just now at a time when she’s beginning to show an interest in History and English.”

        “I just can’t picture Dennis living in the country, Catherine. Whatever about me and you, we could hack anything growing up outside Ballinasloe. What is it at all?”

        “You know, he used to enjoy work but not now. A new management team and suddenly he says his face doesn’t fit any more.  And what he really cannot swallow is reporting to a whipper-snapper nearly half his age. These things happen. Corporate life is cruel, but he shouldn’t be taking it out on me and Kate.”

        “There must be something we can do. You know men, always keeping their problems to themselves, never opening up about things. Maybe there’s more to it than we know. And those tablets he’s taking. Sure they affect everyone differently, and all sorts of side effects are reported on them. He’s on them long term isn’t he?”

        “That’s true. Oh I don’t know, Maria. You always make excuses for him. It’s hard going when you have to live with him. This Sligo thing is getting serious. It used to be music that was his obsession and you know I didn’t mind that too much ‘cos he does have a good taste in music.”

        “Jesus Catherine, you remember those Horslips concerts he used to bring us to in the Stadium? Dancing in the aisles to Dearag Doom and King of the Fairies? And he’d drive a hundred miles and the rest, all over the country to see them. Remember that night he took us to Arboe way up in the County Tyrone? Some craic. And the dancing and rocking and boppin’ with the music. The good old days. Dennis hadn’t a care in the world, then.”

        “Those were the days Maria all right. A different time and a different man. What am I going to do with him? All this talk about hill walking and the Frenchman’s Grave, Lough Easkey and General Humbert’s march. He’s obsessed with Humbert and the French landing since he saw that film last year The Year of the French. He’s read the book at least four times. He’s planning for us to walk the whole stretch from Killala all the way to Ballinamuck next year when we’re down here. Says we should build up our walking stamina over the winter back at home. He says we can do twenty miles a day and have it done in the week. And that includes Kevin and Kate. Can you imagine Kate on the hills?”

        “Where’s Ballinamuck anyway?” said Maria as she peeled the carrots into the sink.

        “It’s in bloody Longford, Maria.”

        “Jesus. That’s a long walk. But I suppose he could be doing worse things, when you think about it, couldn’t he?”

        “It wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t involve the rest of us. We should never have bought this cottage in the first place. Seemed like a good idea at the time. If we sold it we wouldn’t even get the money we spent on renovating it, never speak of the price we paid for it. I mean he’s not even from Sligo. He’s a Dub through and through, born and reared in Donney-bloody-carney. He has absolutely no concept of what living in a remote country area is like.  Living here would be a lot different than coming down here in the summer for two weeks and the few long weekends.”

        “He’s a romantic, Catherine. Nothing wrong with romantics.”

        “Easy for you to say, you don’t have to live with him week in week out.”

        “But you’re right. It would be hard going down here especially in the winter months.”

        “The nearest book club is in Ballisadare, and you’d have to go to Sligo town for any kind of decent bridge group. It’s all whist and twenty-five around here,” I said.

        Maria looked at me quizzically. I knew that expression. She thinks I’m holding back on her, that there’s more to it than I’m telling her. Dennis hates to hear of me discussing anything about him or about us with Maria.  What I’ve told her already would get me in trouble with him, if he knew. But Maria is good to bounce things off, and she’s not one for tittle-tattle.  And she is fond of Dennis.

        “Come on Catherine out with it. What is it?”

        “What? Out with what? Oh Jesus, you think there’s another woman. Christ. It might be easier if there was. No, nothing like that, thank God.  I think it’s all about these problems he’s having at work, and that leads on to him thinking about early retirement and getting away from the city and work and a fresh start down here. What in the name of God is keeping them? The dinner will be ruined.”


Dennis

        Later after dinner and a few glasses of red the whole day eventually merged back into perspective for all of us, even, I think for Catherine. Earlier she had pulled me into the kitchen and closed the door as I was heading to the bathroom.

        “Jesus Christ, Dennis what in the name of God were you doing leaving Kevin on his own like that on the road in the middle of nowhere? He couldn’t find his way back, got lost. He could have got knocked down or fallen in the river up there where he went picking blackberries. I don’t know what’s got into you these last few months. You couldn’t rely on you to do anything anymore.”

        “Look a man died this evening, for God’s sake. What did you want me to do? Just walk away and leave that young boy in the jeep with a dead man?” as I turned to go on to the bathroom. No point in trying to explain anything when she’s like this.

        “Wait, wait. Keep your voice down. Look, Kevin is still only a child. He’s vulnerable and it’s just not safe to leave him like that on his own. You wouldn’t have done that a year ago.”  Her mascara was beginning to run as tears built up and broke over her eyelids, rolling down her face. This is how our conversations were tending to end up this recently, why I tended to keep schtum when I came home from work.

         Later, after a glass or two of red, when Catherine went to check on the kids in the attic, Maria said,

        “I hear you’re planning a big walk next year, Dennis.”

        “Yea, thinking about it anyway. The way the French marched back in 1798, from Killala Bay all the way through Castlebar, up over the Sliabh Gamps, Cooloney and right on to Ballinamuck. I think it’s just over 100 miles. So with a bit of effort you could do it in five or six days.”

        “That sounds great. I wouldn’t mind doing that myself. When were you thinking of going?”

        “Probably Easter week when the lads are off school. No exams this year so spending time there wouldn’t be interfering with study. Be good for them. It would be a different story the following year. I can’t believe you’d be interested in something like that Maria. Sure you couldn’t walk as far as the barn outside without stopping for breath.” 

        “But I need a target like that, something to get me going. Get into training before the winter sets in. Shed some of this flab. I can have a word with Kate, maybe get her to train with me an odd night in the Phoenix Park.”

        “You’ll have your work cut out there, Maria, I can tell you.”

        “Sure kids never listen to their parents. I’m sure you were no different growing up. I know I wasn’t. And how’s the job going, Dennis?”

        “She’s been giving out about me again, hasn’t she?”

        “She’s just worried about you Dennis, that’s all. And I’m concerned about you. Another drop of red?”  as she refilled our two glasses.

        “You heard her about me leaving Kevin? All my fault, neglecting him like that. Doesn’t matter that there was a fatal accident just down the road. He’s nearly ten years of age for God’s sake. Sure I had a paper round when I was ten, out and about everywhere in the city morning and evening, no problem. Catherine wants to wrap him up in cotton wool.”

        “Ah Dennis, she’s just concerned about the both of you. Anyway how is work going?”

        “Don’t talk to me. It’s worse it’s getting,” as he rubbed his fingers through his greying hair. “That new chief executive is creating havoc for everyone and for the business. It’s all processes and targets and reports for their secret monthly meetings. I don’t get to attend any more so I don’t hear what’s going on and no real work getting done either. We’re losing customers hand over fist and all they’re interested in is their bloody reports and their graphs and PowerPoints. I’m getting too old for all this change.”

        “Have they cut your pay?”

        “Ah.. No...”

        “Have you more work to do now than a year ago?”

        “No. But...”

        “Have you more or less responsibilities than a year ago?”

        “Less. But it’s about much more than that, Maria.”

        “What else is there, at this stage of your career? Your ego? Bury it. It’s a great deal you’ve got Dennis. The same money for less work, sit back and enjoy it. I wish I could get that. No chance when you’re nursing.”

        “What about the company and the rest of the staff and the way they are treating everybody now? Can’t let them away with that.”

        “What can you do? Go on strike? For what? They haven’t cut your pay; they aren’t loading work on you. Get over it. Enjoy life. Put work in perspective. It’s family that’s important. Catherine and two lovely kids, Kevin and Kate. You’re privileged to have a family like that. That’s what life is about. Not some gobshites at work dreaming up new systems and procedures, just to annoy Dennis Riordan.”

        “It’s not like that, Maria.” But I had to admit, she did have a point.

        When I’d got back to the house they had all had their dinner. I was surprised to see Kevin and Kate playing with young Paudie Kane on the kitchen floor. Paudie was squealing with laughter as Katie lifted him above her head. Molly, from the farmhouse that I had taken Paudie to, was there along with another red-eyed woman holding a tissue to her nose.

        “Dennis, this is Barbara, Paudie’s mother and Paudie senior’s daughter, God rest him. We came across Kevin looking a bit lost on the back road and brought him on here,” said Molly

        Barbara shook hands saying, “Dennis I’m really glad to meet you to thank you for taking care of young Paudie, after the accident. You know Daddy shouldn’t have been driving at all. He’s been having these ischemic attacks recently and the GP said he shouldn’t drive. But there was no talking to him.” Before they left Barbara said she’d be in touch.


Dennis

        We sat in the corner of the Ninety-Eight Bar in Ballinamuck, me on my third pint. Totally banjaxed but elated. We had done it. All 140 miles, 225 kilometres and all seven of us had finished it, some in better fettle than others. We had set out from Kilcummin Strand, where General Humbert had started from. It had been hard going but the sense of achievement was something special, for all of us, even for, or maybe especially for, Kate. She’s a different person this last couple of months. I knew the walking would do her good. She brought a friend, a cousin at Maria’s suggestion. Catherine’s been a different person this last six months too, ever since we started walking together and training for this. And Kevin, well Kevin is still Kevin and Kevin was always going to make it.

        “Well Dennis we did it,” said Marie as she sipped her glass of Sauvignon Blanc. “You wouldn’t have bet on any of us finishing it when we set out last Monday, would you?   Or even more so on Thursday. Twenty-eight bloody miles you made us walk that day, in the middle of nowhere in bloody Leitrim. I still have the blisters to prove it and I’m gonna need a new pair of boots.”

        “Are you not glad you did it?”

        “Ah definitely. Sure I was down a stone and a half with all the training since January. I know every reindeer in the Phoenix Park by name now. I must be down another stone and a half in the last week. All that walking and all them hills. Gonna need a complete new wardrobe again after this trek.”

        Every bone in my body ached. Catherine and Barbara, young  Paudie’s mother, came out of the Ladies.

        “Jesus I’m afraid to sit down in case I might never get up again. Don’t know how the kids do it, them out in the back room on the pool table as fresh as paint,” said Catherine as she sat down beside me and gently put her arm around my shoulder. She was looking better than ever, I thought.

        “I’m not far behind you, Catherine,” said Barbara. “ Great to get it finished and no permanent damage done. Humbert must have had no map, walking all over the country to get to Ballinamuck. If we took the direct route we’d have been here on Thursday. And Humbert might have made it to Dublin.

        “You know, I’ve enjoyed this so much despite the blisters and the aches and pains. It was so good of ye to suggest I come along. It’s exactly what I needed after Daddy died. It was such a stroke of luck Dennis that you were the one to come across him. Meant to be I think. I wouldn’t have met Maria otherwise. And Maria all those weekends you came down, the presents for Paudie. Not to mention being able to come up to Dublin and stay at your place in Castlenock.”

        “It wouldn’t have been the same without you Barbara,” said Catherine. “I mean who else would have brought along a portable gas stove on a walk like this, pots pans and all. It made all the difference – rashers, sausages and black pudding at the Frenchman’s grave on the top of the Slaibh Gamphs in the rain. Where would you get it? I know Dennis here wouldn’t have made it without the fry ups.”

        How things had changed for us all in the space of a few short months. Maria’s words kept coming back to me after that weekend in Sligo last September. I eventually began to realise how right she was. I was doing less work with less responsibility for the same money I had been on. I took my foot off the throttle, and that was difficult for me; I’d always given it everything. I began going into work at nine a.m. not seven thirty like I always did. Going home at five rather than my normal half six. Stopped going in on a Saturdays too, no matter what the circumstances. I began to take all my holiday entitlements and I passed on most problems to Billy, my new boss. I began to enjoy this. Shorter hours and watching Billy make the wrong call time and time again, then seeing him come to me for advice.  When the voluntary severance package came up I was one of the first to put my hand up. Billy blocked it, would you believe?  I didn’t know whether to be outraged or pleased. The little bollix was beginning to realise he needed me, that I had something to offer.

        Catherine was delighted with me getting home early and no weekend work. I started helping out with the kid’s homework, I wasn’t nodding off after the dinner anymore and me and Catherine started going out to the pictures every Thursday night and to McDermott’s every Friday night for a drink. Catherine started going back to her bridge nights and Kate even spoke to me now and then. Then the job offer came out of the blue. Part time, twenty hours a week with a rival company. They were offering the same hourly rate as I was on. I eventually did get the voluntary severance money from my old job. A nice little nest egg for the rainy day. My new job role was an advisory one and I effectively was a consultant as Catherine now liked to tell people. And I knew the owner well, from my thirty-something years in the business. A thorough gentleman and his wife was a decent skin too, as we’d found out as we began to socialise with them the odd weekend.

        “Well,” said Maria, “where’s the next trek going to be Dennis now that we all survived that one intact?”

        “You know I was just thinking about that this afternoon as we trudged in to Ballinamuck in the rain, would you believe? Spain’s the place. Camino de Santiago here we come. They say September’s the best month. Nice dappled sunshine en route and no rain.”

        “Count me in,” said Maria.

        “Me too,” said Barbara, “but you’re not planning the route this time Dennis. Making us walk all of a hundred and forty miles when we could have got here in a hundred.”

        “Ah. Don’t start that again, we were on an historic trail. The Camino will be the same,” I replied.

        It was shaping up to be a long night as I nodded same again to the barman.


Pat Mullan


Originally from rural North Derry, Pat J Mullan now lives in Eadestown near Naas in Co Kildare.  His short stories have been published in Spontaneity, The Galway Review, Paper Swans, The Incubator, Deep Water Literary Review, Shift Magazine and Word Bohemia. He was shortlisted for the Francis McManus Short Story Competition in 2015 and his entry was broadcast on RTE Radio 1. He also writes the occasional poem. Pat can be contacted by e-mail at pat1mullan@gmail.com Twitter @pat_mullan