Times Before Lockdown #2

Walking half a century more

Dara walked without a moon, without a heart, and in search of a bright Old New England House. Stumbling across limestone massifs and down the winding lanes, he and the ghosts of other landless boys were about and selling their hands for half a price. A return home to Mam’ would be no good way to go – better to sleep forevermore in the streets with the cats. He knew a distance was needed between his hungry mouth and home, and he knew that meant hoping someone would take him up on the promise of his youth. He’d been walking a day and a half. It was winter. The earth refused even the sharpest spade. Soon, he'd be so weak from eating the bushes that he'd collapse. The last property he’d trespassed through had seen in him nothing worth saving. The next one was up ahead. The first cold rain started to fall. Dara, bent double from stomach loss, traipsed through the entrance.

At the end of the path, beyond the indistinct trees off to the left, beyond the roofless greenhouse off to the right, was the dark shape of the house. A white parallelogram spilled out on the lawn, emitted from four lit rectangles. Dara made his way across the wet grass, closer and closer to this guiding light, and looked through that downstairs window. Inside, a man was reading in a cushioned armchair. Beside him a fireplace beneath a mantlepiece beneath a crucifix. Dara stared; the man continued reading. Then, the man’s eyes lifted and locked onto Dara’s. After a glazed delay, Dara lurched forwards, clinging onto his side, careering towards the front door. He stood waiting in the rain, not daring to take shelter under the small stone veranda. A minute shivered by. The door opened. On the threshold stood a man with a gun under his arm. Dara flinched. The man took two steps forward and stopped under the lip of the stone arch.

“Is it cold?” asked the man.

“Ayes,” stammered Dara.

“You’re wanting work?”

“Ayes, make no mistake.”

“Be careful, bhoy. Why should I give you work?”

“Mam’, she needed surviving.”

“Did she?” 

Dara nodded. 

The man said nothing; taking his time. 

“I don’t need to tell you how this works. You will not leave me, but you will not starve either. You’ll sleep in the stable out back, and have free spirits through the winter.”

How did Dara live at the pleasure of the Old New England House? All through winter, he clipped the courtyard greenery back, swept up after the weasel’s mess, and, around the outskirts of the property, sured up the fences or cut down the vines. He found the house much less foreboding in the daylight; with its white stone walls appearing rather meek, as if they were trying to disguise themselves against the grey-sky landscape. As Dara’s days became weeks, he was sometimes ordered into the house, mostly to chase the rodents from the attic, and once to re-screw the chandelier in the hallway. As Dara’s weeks became months his strength grew with every food parcel, and the ruinous edges of the old house softened and coloured with the seasonal rising. As Dara’s months became seasons, he often ended up in the old house running errands – stripping away the paper on the walls that was curled dry from having suffered long in the damp; fixing up the pot-hooks to the fireplace grate so they didn’t slip down with a clatter; banging out dust-clouds from the chitz cloth on the mantelpiece. With Dara more and more indoors, the man who gave the orders took up a summertime pastime. It started when, seemingly exasperated by Dara’s inability to tell the coats apart, the man decided to teach Dara the number system. Thereafter, he rattled on about elocution and growled at Dara to repeat after me. The man’s motivation was loudly declared: to furnish Dara with ‘Gameskeeper’s English’ (not the Queen’s). The vanity project was lazily delivered – the instructions came from the armchair, followed Dara around the house, and never extended to reading or writing. Repeat! I can’t hear you! Once you’re done, come back and say it again! It went like this: ‘male’ to ‘meal’, ‘tay’ to ‘tea’, and ‘praist’ to ‘priest’.

One whole year had past since leaving his small holdings and arriving at the bright Old New England House. One whole year without having seen nor heard nor called her name. With unswept cobwebs under his eyes, Dara rolled over in his sack and clenched his toes to keep away the winter fear. Dara breathed “Mam’” into the mattress. Dara breathed “Mam’” into the rafters. And, as his smoke-breath rose into the darkness, “Mam’” came once again. Dara wrapped his near-teenaged frame in blankets. Screwing his eyes shut, he entered into his first fevered dream since his hunger. He shuffled out of bed and put on his shoes. He climbed down the ladder to the stable door, and looked out across the frost-coated courtyard, and up the slope towards the house. He heard the rumble behind him of distant thunder, thundher, and began walking up the steps to the house. Snowflakes came down to cover the icy underneath, turning the stones into shtones. The backdoor opened with a push and a creak. The man wasn’t anywhere and neither were his warnings against such crazy things as the pluperfect. Unvetted, he drifts through the house, steals his way through room after room, ends up in the middle of the hallway. Down the way is the front door, where the man had once stood with his gun and his questions. Across the way is the library, where he had recently tidied the books and the papers and the pens. He arches his neck and looks up at the ceiling. The chandelier is directly above him, and the chandelier winks at him and then scatters, scatters into a thousand stars. All around, the walls of the old house crumble with a whisper and reveal sheep drifting on an illuminated plain. Of the old house, only the library door remains. Dara turns, approaches, enters, and finds inside his Mam's one-roomed thatched house. With relaif, he carves out a note on the inside of his head, as thundher, tundher, speaks for the stars in the sky… To Mam’, I miss you very very much. How are you? I am fine. Love, Dara.

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