Times Before Lockdown #2

Walking half a century more

Dara walked without a moon, without a heart, and in search of a New England House. Stumbling across limestone massifs and along the terrible lanes, he and the ghosts of other landless boys were out and selling their hands at half a price. The flesh was already well shaved from his feet, but a return home to Mam’ would be no good way to go. Better to sleep on the streets with the cats. Better that. A distance was needed between Dara’s hungry mouth and home. All he could hope for was for someone to open out their arms and take him in on the promise of his youth; for someone to stop the night cold coming to freeze his eyelids shut. He’d been walking for a day and a half. He couldn’t stop. If he did, he’d never wake up to walk again. Last night had been cold. It was winter. The trees barely dripping, the rocks were naked, and 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 traipsed through had seen in him nothing worth saving. The next was up ahead. The rains started to fall as Dara, bent double from stomach loss, trespassed through the entrance.

Beyond the misty trees off to the left, beyond the roofless greenhouse off to the right, and up at the very end of the two-cart path, Dara saw the dark shape of an old house. A white parallelogram of light spilled out on the wet lawn, come from the downstairs window. Dara daren’t touch the path much, so he made his way up the grass, closer and closer to the guiding light that came from the four lit rectangles. Dara came to a stop at the bushes and strained his eyes to look inside. A man was sat in a cushioned armchair. He was reading. Besides him, a fireplace made the light that lit the window. The fireplace was beneath a mantlepiece that was beneath a crucifix up on the wall. Dara stared; the man continued reading. Dara stared. The man’s eyes lifted, and the man saw Dara.

After a long and glazed delay, Dara lurched forwards, directly into the light, clinging to his side, and following the pain careered to the side and towards the front door. There he waited, back in the dark once more, standing with shoulders hunched and not daring to take shelter under the small stone veranda next to him. A minute shivered by. Then the front door opened. On the threshold stood a man with a gun cradled under his arm. Dara couldn’t flinch. He would have, but he couldn’t. The man stepped forwards and looked Dara up and down from under the lip of the stone arch.

“Is it cold?” asked the man.

“Ayes,” stammered Dara.

“You’re wanting work?”

“Ayes, make no mistake.”

The man put his gun down. He stepped out from under the shelter into the rain. With two steps he made it to Dara’s neck and cupped his big hand under Dara’s chin. His face was disfigured by the rain. “Be careful, bhoy. Why should I give you work?

“Mam’, she needed surviving.”

“Did she?”

Dara nodded through his back teeth.

The man stepped back and said nothing; took his time.

“I don’t need to tell you how this works, do I? You will not leave me. You will not starve. You will sleep in the stables out back and get free spirits through the winter.”

Dara lived 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 cut down the vines. The house was less foreboding when you were working in the daylight, with its white stone walls seeming rather meek, as if they were trying to disguise themselves against the grey sky and blue hills of Ireland. As Dara’s days became weeks, he was sometimes ordered into the house. This was mostly to chase the rodents from the attic, something the cat could no longer do, but all Dara could ever do was scare them. One time he was made to climb a small ladder and re-screw the chandelier in the hallway. As Dara’s weeks became months his strength returned to him with every food parcel, and his duties became easier, some of them even enjoyable. Dara sured up the fences around the outskirts of the property. He liked this very much if the weather was nice, because he worked in the corners and under the sky where he could breathe without worrying about making a noise of himself. Dara started to notice that ruinous edges of the old house had begun to soften and colour with the seasonal rising. As Dara’s months became seasons, he was back inside the old house to run errands – stripping away the paper on the walls that was all curled dry from having suffered long in the damp; fixing up the pot-hooks to the fireplace grate so they didn’t slip and clatter; banging out the cloth on the mantelpiece and sending smoke signals up into the ceiling. With Dara more and more indoors, and man giving the orders took up a summertime pastime. It started when, seemingly aghast at Dara’s inability to tell the coats apart, the man decided to sit down with Dara and teach him the number system. It didn’t go well. The man screamed at Dara harder than he ever had before. The man gave up after that, and instead of beating Dara for it, started on rattling out phrases about elocution and growling at Dara to repeat after me. The man’s motivation was loudly declared: if nothing else, he would furnish Dara with ‘Gameskeeper’s English’ (not the Queen’s). No reading, no writing. The instructions came from the armchair, usually while the man was tending to his gun. His words followed Dara around the house, and sometimes even out into the grounds. Repeat! I can’t hear you! Once you’re done, come back and say it again! DARA! DARA! It goes like this: ‘meal’ not ‘male’, ‘tea’ not ‘tay’, and ‘priest’ not ‘praist’.

One whole year past since leaving Mam’. There was nothing to be known about her small holdings since Dara had arrived at the bright Old New England House. With unswept cobwebs under his eyes, Dara rolled over in his sack and clenched his toes to keep away the winter fear. Not once had Dara heard nor called her name. He hadn’t even thought to try. Dara breathed “Mam’” into the mattress. It felt sad to say. Dara rolled onto his back and breathed “Mam’” into the beams above. It felt sad again. As his smoke rose into the darkness, “Mam’” came out once more. Dara wrapped his teenage frame in his blanket. Screwing his eyes shut, he decided he wasn’t going to say her name any more. That night, Dara entered his first fever dream since the hunger days. Dara couldn’t remember what happened, but he woke sweaty the next morning like he used to. The morning wasn’t yet light. No, Dara realised, it wasn’t yet morning. Dara lay where he was. No, Dara realised, he wasn’t lain where he was, he was shuffling out of bed, he was putting on his shoes, he was climbing down the ladder and reaching for the stable door. And now, Dara was looking across the frosty courtyard and up the slope towards the house.

Behind him, Dara heard the sound of distant thunder, thundher, as he walked up the steps to the back door. Snowflakes broke around Dara. They covered the icy underneath but only where he walked; everywhere else the stones had turned dangerously into shtones. The backdoor was open. The man wasn’t anywhere to be seen this time, and neither were his warnings about such crazy things as the pluperfect. Dara was unmarked. Dara was alone. Dara was drifting, stealing his way through the house, and ended up in the middle of the hallway. There was the front door. That was where the man had stood with his gun and his questions. Across the way was the library. Dara had recently tidied the books and the papers and the pens. Dara breathed and arched his neck. Up on the ceiling, the chandelier was waiting quietly, winking quietly, and then suddenly the chandelier scatters, scatters into a thousand stars. Dara blinked. All around, the good walls of the old house crumble with a whisper and reveal sheep drifting on an illuminated plain. Of the Old New England House, only the library remains, roofless now and the size of a small holding, its door waiting to be pushed open and aired. Dara turns, enters, and finds that all of the books have had their pages torn out and their insides stuffed with thatch from cover to cover. With relaif, Dara carves out a note on the desk with a letterknife, 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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