He had to lean his shoulder against the door to move it. The first shove forced it open a little; the second just a little more; the third enough to allow him to squeeze his body between the door and the wall and struggle into the hall. He was home. He kicked the pile of junk mail with his foot and didn’t even bother looking at it. He would pick it up later and throw the whole lot in the bin.
None of it was for him. He knew that without doubt; he might be home but it wasn’t his house; it hadn’t been his house since his father’s funeral over ten years ago. It had been leased to students since then and the accumulated envelopes and plastic-covered magazines were certainly theirs. Typical students, he thought, no forward planning, no forwarding address.
The last batch of students—from Fermanagh, the agent had told him— had left in a hurry. A drunken dispute in the street had
escalated to such a degree that they no longer felt safe and had taken their bags one night when threatened that ‘the boys’ were on their way to give them a hiding. No such thing had happened of course. The thug making the threat was just mouthing off but the Fermanagh scholars were not to know that and had decided to flee rather than face the paramilitary music of West Belfast.
Conveniently, they had also owed two months’ rent but refused to pay up on the grounds that they had been intimidated out of the house. The fact that the newspapers were full of the tenth anniversary of the IRA ceasefire seemed to have passed them by but he admired their pluck in playing the card nonetheless and could just imagine the horror stories of the Falls Road that they had carried back to Irvinestown and Roslea.
The letting agency
was for pursuing them with the claim but he decided
against it. The
living room door lay open and he laid his suitcase on
the sofa. The furniture had seen better days. A dark stain
was visible on one of the sofa’s cushions and the solitary
armchair had very noticeable cigarette burns on one
side. The mantlepiece was littered with debris—an ashtray
full of stale
butts and a row of empty cans. ‘They should have cleared that up,’ he thought but then they weren’t interested. The house was nothing more to
them than temporary accommodation, a term-time retreat. He moved to the kitchen and warily went in. It was not as bad as he had feared. A line of dirty mugs lay on the draining board but the rest of the crockery lay tucked up safely in the cupboards. He opened the fridge, expecting to be confronted by half-eaten takeaways and sour milk.
Mercifully, it was empty apart from
one unopened tin of lager. They didn’t eat too much,
he thought, too busy drinking their brains out to bother
with food. He decided to check outside before doing
the rounds of the rooms upstairs. He stepped out and
stood on the edge of the garden. The long stripe of grass
was badly overgrown and the flowerbed so covered in
that it had been virtually reclaimed by the garden. His parents would not have been pleased at the sight
and, for the first time since coming home, he felt himself
becoming emotional: he saw the ghosts of his parents
working in partnership; his father hunched over his
old push lawnmower, grimly shoving it from top to bottom
from corner to corner, refusing small talk in
case the very act of wasting breath on conversation would halt his efforts to conquer the grass and his mother, his mother, on her knees weeding and poking the flowerbeds with her trowel with a ferocity that matched her husband’s. He had bought his father a petrol
the first in the street. His father and mother had
surveyed it with studied awe. ‘It looks complicated, Joseph,’
his father Gus had finally offered. ‘Jesus,
da, you’d think that an auld train driver like you would
know how to control a wee thing like that.’ His
mother clipped him across the back of the head with
practised ease: ‘Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, Joseph.
There’s enough profanity in this city these days without
you adding to it.’‘Aye,
Joseph, working in that university must be corrupting
you. We’ll have to talk to the Monsignor about you,’
his father said in mock seriousness. Joseph
took his chance and went down on his hunkers by
the machine: ‘Look, the petrol goes in here; the oil here.
You pull this cord here and pull this handle
that starts it moving.’He
gripped the cord and pulled hard, the engine spluttered
a little and then caught. The noise of the engine
grew shriller and more regular. Joseph let it run down
the garden. The grass disappeared beneath the rotors
in swathes. At the bottom of the garden,
he turned and let the machine guide him back to the top before letting go off the throttle and letting the engine die. He looked back on the two stripes of mown grass in triumph. The silence was complete.
‘Jesus, that’s some yoke,’ said his father. ‘Augustus McDowell, you’re as bad as your son,’ said his mother.
‘But, Jesus, Maisie, it is some yoke. Look at the way it went. Hand it over, son, hand it over.’ He pushed Joseph to one side. ‘You pull this?’ he said and without waiting for a reply started the engine; the lawnmower drew him towards the bottom of the garden.
Joseph thought that the machine might get the better of his father but he wrestled with it from one side of the garden to the other. The stripes left in Augustus’ wake were not as neat as the two Joseph had managed. ‘Look at that,’ shouted his mother as Augustus ploughed another wavy furrow across the grass, ‘how did he ever get that train up and down to Dublin in one piece?’
The lawnmower stopped abruptly. ‘What’s wrong with it? Is it broken? It’s a dud, son,’ shouted his father. ‘No, no, da. It’s just full. We need to empty the grass out of the back.’
the time Joseph got to him, his father was already futtering
with the grass bag. ‘I’ve got it. I’ve got it. No bother.
Here throw it in the corner, son.’ Joseph
lifted the bag and drew in the smell of the newly-mown
grass. ‘Hurry up, son, hurry up.’ He tossed the
grass into the corner and hurried back. His father
lifted the bag and put it back in place. ‘Stand clear now, Joe, stand clear.’ And he was ready again. His mother raised her voice before the engine caught hold once more: ‘Dublin express! Dublin express!’
The bastards. The dog-eating Fermanagh bastards. They had broken the lock to the spare room. Joseph pushed the door open in anger. This room was not to be occupied; that had been made very clear as part of the lease. It was not to be occupied and he himself had locked it but as soon as he reached the door, he saw the shattered wood and swore.
A mattress, covered in crumpled
sheets, lay on the floor. The boxes that had been
placed for storage in the room were piled along one wall.
He started to count them—ten, that at least was right.
He dragged the mattress to one side and looked at the
first box; it had been opened but, other than that, nothing
seemed to have been removed. Joseph lifted out a
Blindness of Doctor Gray.Beneath it lay another
volume, Lisheen and
beneath that a third, The Graves
at Kilmorna. He found a copy of his Masters beneath
that again: JOSEPH JAMES MCDOWELL 1974,
years ago. He lifted it and read but hardly recognised
what was there. It was certainly his. He remembered
the work, remembered his parents’ pride as he
graduated a second time. His father in particular was pleased.
It had been his suggestion that Joseph write on Sheehan
and it had been his collection of Sheehan’s novels
that Joseph had used: ‘It’ll save you a couple of quid
on books.’ And it had but more than that it had allowed his father a certain input into Joseph’s university life which he hadn’t enjoyed while an undergraduate. ‘Could you not just go to Queen’s?’ he had asked, ‘it’s just across the town. Coleraine is so far away. Sure, there’s nothing in Coleraine.’
Joseph had no intention of going to Queen’s in Belfast.
The Bog Meadows had become a poor sanctuary for
him in his teenage years and he had grown tired of traipsing
down the Falls to the Carnegie library to escape the
house. No, Joseph had decided, 1968 was to be the year
he became independent. Coleraine, bleak as it was, offered
freedom that Queen’s or, worse, going
to Trench House
to become a teacher, never would. ‘I’ll never teach,’
he told them, ‘never.’ Sheehan
had been a peace offering to his father. He was
not a fashionable writer and his first inclination had
been to write something with an eye to an academic appointment. Sheehan, however, was slightly off-kilter and that had appealed to him. He had made the proposal to his disinterested supervisor. ‘Why not write about the old bugger? You could compare and contrast his vision of Ireland with what the Provos are up to.
It could make for an interesting dissertation.’ And so he told his father of his choice. His delight was evident: ‘I’ll get the books for you. I have them all.’ Joseph knew he had. That was the thing they had in common—what his father read, Joseph read. He started going through the boxes: Steinbeck; Peadar O’Donnell; Liam O’Flaherty; Joseph Tomelty’s Red is the Port Light ; McLaverty and Graham Greene and two slim volumes of essays by Robert Lynd. Lynd, now there was a name he had forgotten.
Lynd was a fine writer
but who read Lynd now or, for that matter, Sheehan? He
knew his literary tastes were out of sync with the English
Department’s when one of the lecturers asked sarcastically
of him: ‘How goes the literary archaeology?’
He should have read the warning signs better
but he was too naïve. The business of being at university
had overwhelmed him and he hadn’t understood
the snobbery that was at work.
The writers he regarded as important were not held in the same respect by the teaching staff; they were not, he was told, vital.