A coming-of-age story set in 1980s Dublin from one of Ireland's most respected novelists.
Series: James A. Michener Fiction Series, James Magnuson, editorSales restrictions: For sale in the United States, its dependencies, and Canada only
Young Francis Hanrahan dreams desperately of a life different from that of his country-born, suburban-living parents. On his first day at his first job Francis makes his first real friend. Shay, a would-be older brother, introduces "Hano" to Dublin's appealingly seedy after-hours bars and drug-fueled parties. They are joined by Cait, a troubled teenager who spends her days in a stupor. But the noir thrills of underground Dublin cannot conceal the unemployment, corruption, and violence strangling the city. The Plunkett brothers, masters of "the subtle everyday corruption on which a dynasty was built" will use the friends—with tragic results.
Torn between his friends, his family, and his own ideals, Hano ultimately falls victim to these powerful forces and commits a heinous crime. He flees through the countryside with Cait, wondering, as he narrates the events that set him on this path, if there is a home at the end of it.
Controversial for its gritty portrait of Dublin in the 1980s, The Journey Home is Dermot Bolger's unflinching look at the personal cost of social progress, and those, innocent or not, lost during the journey.
Finalist, Fiction Category
ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards
- Chapter 1. Sunday
- Chapter 2. Monday
- Chapter 3. Tuesday
- Chapter 4. Tuesday Evening
- Chapter 5. Wednesday
The branches were strewn above them like distorted mosaics of crucifixions, the hawthorn bushes blocking out the few isolated stars to ensnare them within a crooked universe of twigs and briars. Nettles raised their leaves in the wind like the ears of startled dogs to sway a few inches from where his hand lay. Hano could feel their sting on his wrist and longed to rub it in the soothing grass. But he lay motionless, his other arm around her shoulder in the position they had landed when they slid into the overgrown ditch, and listened to the heavy boot-steps ring out on the tarmacadam above his head.
The feet halted with a squeak of polished leather inches from his skull. Hano, gazing at the figure who stretched skyward, could see the man's thick moustache when he shone the torch up before his features were lost as the arc of light picked its way along the hedge and fields by the road. Hano moved his hand down to cover Katie's lips though he felt himself more likely to cry out than her. She lay crushed against him, her body relaxed despite their awkward position. It seemed as if danger was a more powerful drug than any peddled on the street and she was adrift, eyes closed, lips slightly open, within its depths. The slow, regular inhaling of her breath came so faintly that she might have been a small night creature in its natural habitat. His own breathing sounded explosive to him. The man was bound to hear, to shine the light down and call out to the others, to finish it before it had begun. This was her world, not his, and he was lost within it. His numb fury had evaporated and all he felt now was fear.
He swallowed hard, trying to block the recurring images from his mind. But flames lit the space behind his closed eyelids, smoke still seeming to fill his nostrils. The boots moved, spraying gravel down on to his face, beating so harshly on the tar that they might have been pounding his skull and as they retreated he had to restrain himself from moving. He realized how desperately he wanted to be caught, that whatever terrors lay in the cell under the station could be no worse than the unknown journey ahead through the dark. The fallen gravel covered his hand. To shift even a finger would send it trickling noisily down. All his life he had obeyed; the instinct ingrained within him. An image came back from childhood, his father climbing the stairs as he hid after a quarrel, wanting to be found, knowing that his father would gruffly forgive him. A radio crackled from inside the car. There was the click of an automatic weapon being uncocked. The boots paused on the roadway like a parent on the stairs. How warm it had been under that bed, his father's voice coaxing, the scent of cooking from downstairs. The boots drew closer again.
His arm ached to move yet still he held back. If he were alone he would be in the squad car now, the first blows raining against his skull. But she would be there as well, a witness again to his cowardice. Without warning, Katie's teeth bit softly into his fingers, reassuring him with her own fear. The need to protect her gave him strength, a role in which he could imagine himself strong. With a click the boots stopped and a car door opened. Only when the noise of the engine faded did her teeth ease their grip. Gradually the unfamiliar night sounds reasserted themselves: the beat of wings in the blackness above; tiny paws scuttling through the coarse grass; the sight of a dreaming beast in a field nearby, where high branches creaked like dried bones. They waited for the noise of the motor to return. Overhead a pylon hummed as it stretched back towards the city they had come from. To move was to make a decision, to break the isolated spell of the ditch. He lay against her till he heard the words, 'They're gone', spoken so softly he was uncertain whether they came from her lips or his mind, and felt the dampness of the grass penetrating his side as she untangled her body from his. She scrambled cautiously up on to the roadway and gazed back the way they had come. There was still a glow in the distance and though it was a mile away he could not shake off the tang of smoke. His clothes seemed to reek of it, his hair, the very pores of his skin. Any part of him that wasn't frozen tasted of fire.
'Listen to me, Katie,' he said climbing up beside her, his voice low as if the trees could be informers. 'It's time you started back, do you hear? Otherwise they nail us both when they catch me. They've nothing to connect you with it. Just go home. Follow the road back to the city.'
Although he barely discerned the outline of her head against the black mass of trees, he knew she was staring at him with the same cold, unblinking look. How he had grown to hate that cold face behind which she observed him, the eyes where he read only contempt, and the jealousy of his intimacy with Shay which she had never broken. Her voice from that afternoon returned, fists clawing at him as she screamed, 'You just stood up here and let them! You were his friend and you let them. You let them! Let them!'
'Are you deaf or what, Katie?' he said again. 'Can you not hear me? Take the road back and just watch out for the cops. Listen, I've done all I can for Shay. Now will you bleeding go, I've to find somewhere to hide.'
He knew the eyes were still staring, the mouth expressionless. He waited and, when she didn't reply, turned and began to walk deeper into the countryside. After a few yards he heard footsteps echoing his own and when he stopped heard them cease as well. He walked on and they commenced, beating behind him. He stopped. They stopped. He began again, then stopped in despair as she followed. He shouted behind him.
'Leave me alone for fuck's sake! What more do you want? Go home Katie, please, go home. Listen, I've nowhere to take you. I don't know where I'm going, I don't know what happens next.'
The moon broke from behind a deep whorl of cloud and Hano caught sight of her face beneath the cropped black hair. She looked tough beyond her sixteen years, the jacket pulled up around her neck, the blue pullover, the dirty jeans, the mudstained sneakers. Her body was poised, unsmilingly observing him. Two days it had taken to lose everything. Now there was no Shay to turn to, no one left to differentiate right and wrong. He grabbed a stone from the road, raised his fist in frustration and shouted at her. Her expression never changed. He let the stone fall and stared at the ground.
'He's dead Katie, and I can't bring him back for you. You know I'm a poor substitute. Now for Christ's sake leave me in peace. What more do you want of me? What more?'
The clouds reined back the moonlight and he turned to walk forward, listening as the other footsteps gradually caught up with his. They plodded on, neither looking at the other until he heard her voice, again almost inaudible.
'Don't want fucking nothing,' she said. 'Just be your fucking self.'
Suddenly her warm hand hesitantly touched his and found its way in between his numb fingers. He closed them over her knuckles and, when he dared to glance down, saw her face was screwed up, scanning the darkness in front. He didn't want the squad car to return. Though nothing could lie ahead but capture, it didn't seem important now that she was ready, for a time at least, to share whatever would come.
Katie or Cait—whoever you are. Can it be just three nights since we lay in that ditch, since you followed me mutely out the black roads? I've grown so used to darkness, have learnt to see things better here. That hole in the corner where the ceiling has collapsed and creepers, like the limbs of a giant spider, descend to wrap themselves around the smashed wooden rafters, or the daddy-long-legs which stumbles drunkenly towards the beam of the torch shaded by my hand. The fire has crumbled into a nest of ash. What light escapes my fingers filters across the downy weeds left after we cleared the stone floor and catches a few loose strands of your hair.
I never knew you could be at peace until I saw you asleep. Not the Katie I knew back on those streets. I'm half jealous Cait of whatever world you dream of where you belong so well. Last night a sound woke me in alarm. You had laughed in your sleep. You did it again. I looked down and in the half-light could see the faintest of smiles. I've never asked you where you dream of—the city, the country—which world at night becomes your home. I feared ghosts here when I was younger, before I learnt to fear the living. Now I love this darkness, the kiss of winged insects blundering against my skin; the faint drip of water from a broken gutter; the sighing of branches.
There's so much I want to tell you, the parts you know and those you don't. If you were awake I'd never have the chance, even if I could be this honest. You'd interrupt me, dispute facts, want your version to be told. So now even if you can't hear I'll tell you anyway Cait, tell those few strands of hair lit by a torch. Just this last time I'll bring Shay back to life before we move on.
I know it was him you loved, who you came to see each evening when we stared each other out at the doorway, but I don't think you ever knew him, not the Shay I met first, the figure who vanished into that continent. You loved the man you met when he came home, but I mourned the part of him that was left behind among those autobahns and bahnhofs. Because I loved him too Katie, loved as a brother, loved him selfishly for daring to be what I was afraid to be myself.
Where does our story begin? The first morning I crossed the park to work? No, even before then our paths would have crossed. How often did our parents pass on the main street of the village while the labourers' cottages were being bulldozed and the estates, like a besieging army, began to ring the green post office, the pub with the skittle alley, the old graveyard with its shambling vaults? But my parents and Shay's would not have mixed, being from different worlds, with different sets of experiences. I think of my parents, younger than I can really imagine them, taking the single-decker bus out beyond the cemetery, returning, as they thought, to the familiar hawthorn bushes and streams, to the sanctuary of the countryside. Shay used to laugh about how his father cursed the Corporation for casting them out into exile, complaining about bus fares to work in the brewery he had always walked to, bewildered by the dark lanes behind his house without the shouts of neighbours or the reassuring bustle of traffic.
Years later my father told me that the Church of Ireland built my estate, some half-arsed scheme for a Protestant colony among the fields. They couldn't fill it from their own flock so the likes of my parents were allowed to pay their deposit and transport their country habits from bedsits along the canal back to the laneways again. A place of streams I'm told it was, each in turn piped underground as more people came. Once a row of gardens collapsed to reveal the water running underneath.
They planted trees in the image of their lost homeland, put down potato beds, built timber hen-houses. I woke to the sound of chicks escaping through the wire mesh to scamper among rows of vegetables. A dozen streets away Shay must have woken to the noise of pigeon lofts, that city man's sport, backyards ringing with displaced Dublin accents. Briefly we played in the same school yard before he was expelled, though neither of us remembered the other. We spoke of it in awe as from another century; the monstrous thug of a vice-principal wasting with cancer among his array of canes; the tricolour flown from the mast beside the concrete steps; the screeching of seagulls which hovered, waiting for boys to be drilled into lines and marched to class, before swooping to fight over the littered bread. I wish I could remember Shay there, those all-important two years older than me, among the swarm of lads stomping after a plastic ball. But I can recall little beyond a hubbub of noise; the stink of fish from a ten-year-old who helped his mother in the processing plant each evening; the twins who shared one pair of plastic sandals for a week, each one barefoot on alternate days. And the ease with which, among such crowds, I could remain invisible. I can still repeat the roll-call of nine-year-old future factory hands and civil servants, but it's myself that I cannot properly recall. I was like some indistinct embryonic creature, a negative through which nobody had ever shone light. Was I happy or sad? I have no memories of being anything more than a sleepwalker feigning the motions of life, living through the black-and-white rays of the television screen.
Each evening my father came in from Plunkett Motors, took his spade from the shed, and joined the chorus of rural accents across the ruck of hedgerows. I'd hide among the alder bushes bordering the hen run to watch the men dig and weed with the expertise of country hands, while my mother washed clothes by hand in the sink, light from the open kitchen door filtering through the lilac. I felt that square of earth was home, a green expanse formed by the row of long gardens. I'd pull the branches close to me while across the suburb Shay played among the red-brick terraces built by the Corporation. The gardens there were tiny with hardly space for a shed. Shay's gang would scatter with their football if a squad car showed, then resume their games on the next concrete street, voices still calling when only the vaguest shapes could be seen dodging between the street lamps.
We grew up divided by only a few streets so you'd think we would share a background. Yet somehow we didn't. At least not then, not till later when we found we were equally dispossessed. The children of limbo was how Shay called us once. We came from nowhere and found we belonged nowhere else. Those gardens I called home were a retreat from the unknown world. When the radio announcer gave the results of the provincial Gaelic matches the backs would straighten, neighbours reverting to county allegiances as they slagged each other. And remember, if you feel like singing, do sing an Irish song, the presenter of the Walton's programme urged and, as the strains of 'Kelly, the Boy from Kilane' and 'The Star of the County Down' crackled from the radio, all the stooping figures who knew the words by heart hummed them in their minds, reassured of who they were no matter what incomprehensible things were occurring outside.
As long as I remained among the hens and barking dogs I too could belong, but each walk home from school by the new shopping arcades, each programme on the television religiously switched on at half five in every terraced house, was thrusting me out into my own time. I began bringing home phrases that couldn't fit in that house when we still knelt for the family rosary. I hid photographs of rock stars beneath my mattress like pornographic pictures, wrote English soccer players' names on my copy book feeling I was committing an act of betrayal.
When I was twelve my father brought me back to the farm bordering the Kerry coast where he had been born. I stood awkwardly in my city clothes, kicking a football back and forth to my cousins across the yard. None of us spoke as we eyed each other suspiciously and waited for our parents to finish reminiscing. Next morning before dawn he took me out to the milking shed lit by a bare bulb. I never saw him so relaxed as when he bent with ease to squeeze the teats, glancing back proudly, urging me to grasp the teats of a huge lurching cow I was frightened of. For the first time I felt the division between us.
I didn't understand it then, but I grew up in perpetual exile: from my parents when on the streets, from my own world when at home. Once Shay told me about visiting his uncles and great aunts left behind in the Liberties. They welcomed him like a returned émigré to the courtyards of squalid Victorian flats and led him around the ramshackled streets choked with traffic, pitying him the open spaces of the distant roads he played on.
How can you learn self-respect if you're taught that where you live is not your real home? At fourteen I tried to bridge the gap by journeying out into my father's uncharted countryside. I'd rise before dawn to cook myself breakfast and when I ate at the kitchen table he would come down to place money on the oilcloth beside me and watch from the doorway as I set off to find Ireland. I arrived home with reports he couldn't comprehend: long-haired Germans in battered vans picking up hikers; skinheads battling outside chip shops in Athlone. Then came the final betrayal of something even he couldn't define when, at fifteen, I chose the first friend of my own. 'That old Protestant woman' my father always called her, though she had not been inside any church for half a century.
Looking back, my life was like a candle, briefly sparked into flame in that old woman's caravan among the fields, and extinguished again until I met Shay. The years between speed up—the new intimacy of class-mates in the months before exams; nights studying in each other's houses; weekends stumbling home drunk on two pints from town. I had been a loner before, so used to solitude I didn't understand what loneliness was. But that last year in school I felt enclosed in the company of friends, finally seeming to belong somewhere.
On the night of the final exam we walked out to Mother Plunkett's Cabin at Kilshane Cross, were barred before closing time and staggered home through country lanes off the North Road in hysterical laughter. After that I rarely saw them again, the release from school shattering our intimacy, leaving us half-embarrassed when we met, reliving the same stale memories. That autumn passed into winter. Sometimes I cadged the money for dances; mostly I just walked the streets putting off my return home. Some mornings polite rejections of my application forms for work lay like poisoned fish washed up on the hall floor, but normally I stared down at an empty, mocking square of lino, and began the same futile rounds of the industrial estates.
I thought my father would never let the garden run to seed even as he grew older, but that year after school I watched it happen without comprehending. The world of the gardens had changed. Where neighbours once kept the city out with hedgerows and chickens, now they used broken glass cemented into concrete walls. A decade had worked its influence. The alder bushes were gone, the last of the hens butchered. Patios had appeared with crazy paving, mock Grecian fonts made of plastic, and everywhere, like a frozen river, concrete reigned. Porches had sprung up bearing ludicrous names, Ashbrook, Riverglade, The Dell, each neighbour jockeying to be the first to discard their past. Only our garden had remained untouched, the potato beds becoming overgrown and the roof caving in on the felt-covered hut where my hands had once searched for eggs in straw.
Every evening that winter my father's face was like ash, gathered from a burnt-out half-century and spread in a fine crust over his bones. His eyes were more jaded than any I had ever known. He'd come home from work with stories of Pascal Plunkett's moods, collapse into an armchair by the television and stare at his idle eldest son. He said little and I learnt to match his words. We sat in a silence broken only by my mother's fussing, while outside the weeds and nettles choked his dreams. Sometimes he'd cough and, looking up, ask me to chop everything down. 'Tomorrow,' I'd say. 'I'm tired now.' I would mean to put on his rubber boots, take the tools hanging between nails in the shed and walk out as I used to watch him do, but those photocopied rejections seemed to have sapped my strength. I sulked instead, brooding on the few words that passed between us, although it wasn't what he said that hurt but the disbelief in his eyes when I'd mention all the places I had tried for work. In the end I just said nothing. The present made no sense in his world. He stared blankly at the evening news while they carried the victims of the bombings and hijackings away in black plastic sacks.
Christmas froze into January. Blue nights alone in the overgrown garden, making tea in the kitchen at three in the morning. That year had become a posthumous existence. At night I'd smoke joints in the bathroom, leaning on my toes to blow the smoke out the window, constantly alert for an opening door. I seemed to have lost the power to sleep, gradually losing track of the everyday world. February came and then March, fresh weeds squeezing through the dead grass.
At two o'clock one morning I walked down the garden, wading through weeds like a field of barley. Lines of new extensions stretched on both sides, a lone light burning in a garage twelve doors down. I thought of Jews hiding in cellars, snatching only a few seconds of air before dawn. Now I slept while others worked, rose in the afternoons, seemed to come to life only when darkness came. I had fallen from the cycle of life, with no longer the will-power to struggle. The queues each Tuesday afternoon, men pushing like a human battering ram against the door of the employment exchange. The letters posted out sending one hundred people for interview for a single job that I had to attend in case they checked up and cut my assistance. The fear of daring to hope in case it turned to bitterness when I was turned down; the hatred of leaving the bed and having to face the empty letter rack in the hall.
I turned to go back inside and saw my father standing at the gate beneath the arc of bare lilac bushes. At first I thought it was an apparition from the past. He had pulled on a white shirt and a pair of trousers held up by ancient braces. I walked towards him in the blue moonlight, both of us embarrassed, neither knowing how to talk.
'What's going to happen to you, son?'
His voice was low, humble with bewilderment. I would have liked to touch his shoulder, to somehow reassure him. Looking at him I knew that I would leave home soon, that only poverty was keeping me there. Ever since our fight about the old woman in the fields we had both lost the simple ease which had once existed between us. I knew that he was thinking about days further back, times I'd waited beside the lilac bushes wanting to feel important, hoping he'd ask me to fetch some tool from the shed. I longed to say, Tomorrow dad, we'll take those tools down, fix up the garden the way it used to be. But I couldn't. I had to turn away.
'I don't know. You go back to bed now. I'm just getting some air.'
He shook his head and I watched him turn and walk up the path. There was a nettle swaying near my hand. I pressed my fingers over it. It stung badly, but at least the pain felt real.
Then one morning, grey and ordinary, a letter from the Voters' Register's office came. The offer was a temporary position starting on the first of the month. I felt there should be bands marching from the kitchen, majorettes turning somersaults on the lino. Instead my mother was scrubbing floors in Plunkett Undertakers, my brothers and sisters were at school. Happiness seemed to underline my isolation. I went out into the street hoping to meet somebody I could share the news with. Behind the supermarket I saw my father in the forecourt of Plunkett Motors. Younger men asked him questions as they stripped an engine. He pulled on his cigarette, coughed and spat on the tarmacadam. I couldn't find the courage to go across and tell him.
On the way home I remembered a television programme I'd seen about flowers buried in the desert which hibernate for years waiting to burst through their whole life cycle during a single day of rain. I felt strong again, like a young bird about to take flight. And I realized why I'd never touched the quarter-acre of garden where all my childhood memories were buried under bamboo stalks of nettles and clumps of weeds. I had been trying to hold up time, to live on in the past having no future to put in its place.
But now the anticipation of change raced in my bloodstream and I wanted to be rid of that shadow. I returned to the silent house where the stained oilcloth on the table, the flaking paint on the wood, the faded wallpaper in the bedroom which light never entered till evening all seemed to be mocking me, reducing me to the child I'd always been. I took the bailing hook from the shed, donned my father's old boots, and as I worked every blow was like an act of finality, a foretaste of the separations to come.
At five thirty my father walked down to the hedge. I still had the letter in my pocket. Your tea son, he said, and I shook my head. He watched me work on for a few moments then turned. I swung fiercely at the last bushes until I stopped, my blood calmed in the afterglow of labour. As darkness fell I lit a cigarette among the ghosts of hen-runs and alder bushes and watched the lit windows of the house occluded by the overgrown lilac I hadn't the heart to touch. I felt severed finally from the life of that terrace where I had been delivered, red and sickly, by a country midwife. The bonfire of branches and old timber that I had dosed with paraffin and lit was smouldering. I remember a flatness about the evening as if the whole street had been becalmed in time and then, with a swift flapping of wings, a formation of returning swallows swooped over the rooftops and wheeled upwards in a V across the gardens and out into the distance. And when I looked down, the rotten timbers of the hen house had caught and the carnage began. The shorn surface of the garden looked like a nightmare landscape, fragments lit up and snatched away by the flickering light. Straight black smoke rose to be dissipated into a swirling pall. I watched my childhood burn, the debris of those years borne off into the sky, my final links with what had been home disintegrating into bright quivers of ash.
I'd no idea what lay ahead, all I knew was that as soon as I got my first pay packet I would start the search for a new home, for my own life to begin. I took the letter from my pocket and walked in.
Katie, I smell of clay, I dream of earth, remembering until there is nothing more to forget. Where is this place? One square of fading light high up, one night sailor riding the sky. Old bits of glass and stones, leaves that have blown in. Somebody was here before me, I'm waiting for someone to come. Still can't make sense of it, this dreaming waking coma. Why here, seeing your life run like a film through my skull? Things I could not have known, images I couldn't have remembered.
They start with the click of footsteps that mark out your days. Shifting between one set and the next. Afternoons when weak sunlight catches the long windows of the upstairs classroom. The murmur of schoolgirl voices, a rustle of papers, heads perpetually bent down but you have gone so far Katie, so distant from that room. A nun, white and obsolete, in robes, leans across your desk to examine the smudged paper before you. She smiles, mutters inaudible words and when she lifts her hand she leaves behind five chalky fingerprints like the mark of a skeleton implanted in the wood. You stare in fascination at the dead hand as the footsteps dully click their way back to her desk. A bell rings and you move in a shower of coats and blouses down the waxed corridor by the plaster statue and out into the air. Voices call, bicycles manoeuvre through the crush of bodies, birds take off from the single tree inside the gate. You pass the pub, the bookies beneath my flat, cross the metal bridge indistinct in a babbling group and stand outside the shopping centre by the glass front of Plunkett Auctioneers to place the first cigarette to your lips. You have learnt how to return woodenly the glances of youths, a hard woman of fifteen idling in the click of boots that mount the concrete steps by the bank, watching the swollen queue encircling the bus with trolleys and prams, the taxis loitering by the monument. You put it off, you light up again, joke with the girls positioned around you. But soon you will have to stub that cigarette butt against the rough surface of the wall, lift your bag and walk back across that span of metal, down the twilit laneway by the ruined cottages. You will cross the darkening green where the horses are tethered, the piebald and the white, the young foal anxious beside its mother, and move, through the glare of headlights, across the main road into the embrace of the estate. The creak of a pram two children push, the gang of lads at the corner who shout. They will not find you out. You have hidden yourself well in parallel jeans and a tight sweater. Your accent cold as a robin stretched dead in winter, your stance blending into the roadways. The depleted trunks of two trees stand as forlorn sentinels of another time. You hunch your shoulders in the cold. You do not allow yourself to remember.
The scent of frying from the kitchen. A television shrieking through a wall. Hanging up your coat you hear them, the steps of your uncle overhead crossing the landing to the stairs. He marches down briskly like a man with some purpose, impeccably dressed in his working clothes. His polished shoes go before you towards the table which is set. And each crippled, helpless step is like a hammer beating away at your skull, reminding you of an uncle you once loved. He sits at the head of the table as you sit among his children and sense his eyes scanning the oilcloth, anxious that all of you are fed.
You long to scream your rage for him as he stalks the house like a caged animal. Instead you lower your eyes to avoid the pain concealed in his. His donkey coat hangs by the door. Soon he will rise and take it, walk out through the dark streets to join his ex-workmates. Cigarettes will be lit, the day's news examined. All that will not be mentioned is the sense of shame each carries on his shoulders since the plant closed down. Tradesmen who were proud of their skill, the blue overalls perpetually clean, the brown wage packet carried home with calm assurance. It was to be like that for ever: a thousand Sunday mornings when children crowded into a car; a tray of pints carried in an evening; a child's eyes wide with half crowns. New words have entered their vocabulary since then. They will not spend long with each other, each inventing some task to take them back to a sofa and a television, the library book unopened with its ageing stamp, the white dot that will summon them finally to bed.
But you will be gone before he returns, back to the street's anonymity. The window ledge of a chip shop, the smell of watered vinegar. A radio on a wall, a squad car slowing as it passes, a boy's hand on your shoulder which you shrug off. It's late now and you know he will be waiting to hear the door. You know that he will search for words in his bulky frame. And you will stand, wanting to run and kiss like once before. But the same stiffness will be inside both of you now. Your feet click out your final moments alone along the deserted streets.
What did I expect that morning as I walked down the park steps at Islandbridge to work? It had rained overnight and the stones were streaked with rusty rivulets of water and oil. I was exhausted at the unfamiliar hour. The letter said the office was located on the top storey of the court-house beside the hulk of the abandoned jail. I crossed the river and walked up past the barracks, going over the litany of names in my mind. It was where Emmet and Ann Devlin had been held and tortured; where Ernie O'Malley had escaped with the help of Welsh guards; where James Connolly had been strapped to a chair and carried in by the British to be shot; where the poet Joseph Mary Plunkett had become bridegroom and corpse within one hour of dawn. When Patrick Plunkett first stood for election in the sixties he used to fake a connection by quoting verses from his namesake in the election leaflets that Pascal made my father and other workers deliver door to door.
Now the jail was empty, an echoing presence beside the court-house where a small crowd had already gathered. My stomach was twisted with anxiety as I entered and paused for directions. The barren hallway made me want to run—the bare flagstones where two children played sailors in cardboard boxes, the single bench along the wall with paint flaking overhead from a once ornate ceiling. An elderly couple rose, the man beckoning with his stick as the women tried to hide behind him.
'Excuse me sir,' he whispered, 'my wife was mugged in Ballybough last year and she's due to give evidence. Her nerves are bad since and we're terrified to meet those young men again. Is there nowhere we can hide?'
It was the first time I had ever been addressed as sir. I mumbled guiltily and pushed on, leaving them looking more nervous and ashamed than the offenders casually standing around. I followed the staircase to a high, cold room partitioned by a warren of stacked shelving and three long benches besieged by chairs. No one looked up from their newspapers when I entered, each clerk sunk in those final moments before Carol arrived jangling the three keys from the different locks of her old bicycle like a bell, before Mooney's brooding presence mooched wordlessly into his inner office and the morning's work began.
How often in the following months did I enter that room to find a new person standing as I had stood, left to wait awkwardly till someone condescended to look up? I hated them that morning, hated the bowed heads, the odd murmur of voices; hated the same phrases I'd hear over and over: Are you doing the interview? Did you hear there's a transfer list soon? Yet later, when Shay left, I often did the same, sinking down beneath Mooney's presence which lit the office like a black bulb draining each breath of life from the room until no one bothered doing one action more than necessary, knowing how he would snap at them for the least step out of line.
Mooney appeared behind me, paused to insert his name on the attendance book and was gone into his office across the room. Though no one moved, I could sense the stiffness entering their shoulders and the relief, like a silent exhaling of breath, when he had passed. His tall, country frame was like a prison warder's, his lined face lacking sufficient bones to hang the red folds of flesh upon. I watched him slam his door, a black-suited Buddha turned bad, the pioneer pin stuck on his lapel, and from deep within I felt an involuntary shudder.
And then Carol was at my elbow like a diminutive burst of light, gripping it and joking as she led me into the centre of the room and jangled the keys of her bicycle locks for attention. She called my name out to everybody before she had bothered to check it, and suddenly had the clerks scurrying, one showing me where to put my coat, another finding space at a table for me and a third poised to teach me the elemental filing with which I was to pass my days. She was tiny and plump with fading red hair, in her late fifties, as active as Mooney was static, nervous energy bubbling as she shouted commands in her precise south Dublin accent over the dying rustle of newspapers, covering up for her superior with her own workload. She drew the red line in the attendance book as carefully as a heart surgeon with a scalpel, and had clapped her hands for attention when the door behind her opened. She stopped and pursed her lips as a young man strolled in with a leather jacket over his shoulder, then drew a long breath up through her nose, arched her nostrils like a nervous foal, as he approached.
'Hello, mum!' He grinned and bent to peck her on the lips before slipping past to take the vacant seat beside me. Shoulders stiffened at the tables like trees bending in a forest. Carol stood frozen in the position she had been kissed. Then she turned and ran towards the inner office. Almost before the door had slammed the white intercom on the wall was buzzing hysterically and continued to do so while it was being answered. The young man grinned again, held his hand out and asked me my name.
'Francis,' I said. 'Francis Hanrahan.'
'What do they call you at home, Francis or Frank?'
'Good Jesus! Where did you leave the spade?'
He looked at me closely.
'You're no more from the bog than I am. Would you settle for Hano?'
The buzzing had stopped. The girl replaced the receiver and called over.
'Shay. Mooney wants to see you!'
He grinned and rose to stroll towards the door. When he went in people began whispering about the incident in little huddles. What they said I wasn't sure, I wasn't listening. I think I felt a mixture of admiration and resentment. His words had made me feel relaxed for the first time since entering the room. I was elated and yet suddenly scared, for if the others seemed content to ignore me, now I felt threatened by his very openness. Suddenly I resented him because he seemed all the things I was afraid to be, because I was certain he'd see through me and ridicule the defences I'd built between myself and the world. I wished he was sitting elsewhere, that I was among some anonymous clutter of silent clerks. Charles, a clerk with a face like a slapped arse, a perpetual white shirt and tie and a nose to judge precisely which arse to lick, leaned over disdainfully and whispered, 'Dangerous to know.' I nodded and began filing the cards in front of me, copying the hand motions of the girl on my left side. The door opened and Shay returned to sit beside me. I sneaked a glance at him. He was only twenty-one but looked older. His jet black hair fell slightly down his shoulder, his skin was dark, as if he were descended from an Armada survivor, his hands were fingering a neat moustache. From somewhere I found courage.
'Well,' I said tentatively. 'Was she a panter or a screamer?'
He threw his head back to laugh in that room of whispering clerks and replied, 'I just said take your false teeth out, Carol, and wrap your gums around that!'
I grinned back at him. We bent companionably down and started to work.
They had walked in silence for two hours through the narrow roads that skirted the back of the airport. Like a discarded prop from a B-movie, a radar dish revolved its head slowly at a crossroads by the perimeter fence. A car rocked in the layby, one bare leg swaying against the rear window when they crept past. Beyond the fence, snakes of landing lights slithered through the grass, seeming to merge in the distance where the dark hulks of planes were parked. A security van sped across the concrete between floodlit hangars. Then Hano lost all sense of direction. Katie led as they threaded their way through tiny lanes, bypassing the huge expanse of light where he remembered the village of Swords. Three times a vehicle's lights sent them tumbling into a ditch. First it was a tinker's speeding Hiace returning to the camp site they later passed, an island of three caravans in a field of wrecked chassis and upturned wheels stacked like the upturned ghosts of the city's dreams. The second was a squad car cruising past, and the third time the light stopped and started like a will-o'-the-wisp behind them. He sweated as they climbed in and out of ditches, certain it was the police mocking, herding them like sheep towards a check-point. They watched the headlights beginning to draw level with them as they knelt among the weeds and refuse sacks, his hand squeezing Katie's, waiting for the doors to open. It was an old farmer so drunk that he fell asleep every few seconds and woke with a start. The car appeared to be driving him home. Shot with whiskey, his glazed eyes looked through them as the car creaked past.
Neither had spoken since she'd taken his hand. He clung to its outpost of warmth, his fingers the only part of him that felt alive. Like a scratched record, the screams from that room echoed in his mind. Could it have really been him? He remembered her fingers dressing him like a child, her hands pushing him from the burning house, his numbness as if cast from stone. Once again part of him longed to be rid of her, to be allowed to sink without trace or responsibility. It wasn't the shame of what he had done afterwards but the shame of what she had witnessed at the start which haunted him, making him afraid to look at her as they plodded through the countryside. It was better not to think at all, to sink into this numb cocoon where he just had to concentrate on keeping his footsteps steady.
Hano had no idea where they were heading. Each time they reached a crossing he followed her blindly. Two miles beyond Swords they crossed the main Belfast road, quiet at that time, rows of cat's-eyes dead for want of light, awaiting the noise of trucks in the distance.
She brought him down a side road where a solitary street light lit a row of old labourers' cottages. A dog padded out from a garden, wagging its tail as it jumped up against him. It was lonely and desperate for attention, following them to the edge of the light and whining mournfully as they were swallowed back by the dark. Without warning, Katie began to whisper like a drowsy person drifting towards sleep.
'You know,' she said, 'this is what I remember best. Did I ever tell you . . . about being lost out in it, hidden from the world. You know, in Dublin . . . sometimes I'd lock the bedroom door at night and curl against the wall, but no, it wasn't the same, you know what I mean, not like I remember it. Too artificial, like, who the fuck were you fooling. There'd be voices on the road, street lights. You knew you weren't cut off.'
Katie paused. She might have been addressing herself more than him. Hano listened, uncertain what she was talking about. Her voice was harsher, more like her own, when she continued.
'I killed this feeling, made myself forget. Murdered each fucking memory one by one. Wasn't going to be like my uncle, like his friends. Jesus, the same accents, same phrases they used forty years ago when they worked the land. They sound so stupid, so fucking pathetic. When you leave something Hano you leave it, you go on, you know what I mean. God, I hated those bastards for always reminding me.'
Hano remembered the evening her uncle came looking for her, the same huge hands his own father had, the same outdoors stance, his awkwardness in the tiny hallway. He said nothing, afraid to break the spell and cast them back into the bickering they had always known. Katie's voice mellowed again.
'Funny thing is, you can't kill it fully. Keeps coming back to haunt me . . . nights like this. Waiting for dada to put out the gas lamp in his room before I'd get out on to the shed roof. You know, twice he caught me and leathered me black and blue, but I still did it, even when he threatened to tie me to the bed. I was eight but I was in love with danger. Not what you'd think now, spacers or being raped by cider heads, but, you know, werewolves and ghosts waiting for you, trees with malicious spirits you have to pass—all that sort of shite Tomas filled my head with.
'Two miles it was from the road to our house, the tarmacadam gave out quarter way there. Except from Tomas's gaff, there wasn't a light for miles. And every few yards you'd shiver, daring yourself on, because you knew the further you went the longer the journey home would be. And that was the real thrill, Hano, that was fucking it. You know, you'd creep forward, shivering at every bush and shift of moonlight, till finally something—I don't know, the creak of a branch, a plastic bag in a ditch—set you off racing back through the dark, knowing that whatever the heck was behind you was gaining at every step, was about to touch your shoulder. You'd long to scream but your throat would be too dry, your legs covered in scratches, your clothes caught by briars, but you wouldn't care. Your lungs were bursting, legs pounding, but Hano, Jesus, Hano, the thrill of it, you know what I mean, the thrill of the journey home. Like being shot through with electricity. All the pills, all the booze, they were nothing to that.'
He remembered her uncle speaking, with his hands awkwardly gripping the leather belt of his trousers. 'If Katie's here tell her to come home tonight. The aunt gets worried. She can't help herself, keeps wandering off.' Katie stopped and shouted across the dark fields.
'Not bleeding scared of you now goblins or vampires. Come out if you dare!'
“The Journey Home is certainly the best Irish novel never released in America, but it is also one of the best Irish novels of the past half century.”