Is This Like Scotland?
Fintan can smell warm chips as he enters the pub. His stomach rumbles, but it can’t be heard above the low-volume anguish of ‘Tainted Love’ that emanates from a juke box in the corner.
‘I haven’t heard that in years,’ Fintan observes, as he leads his father-in-law, Sven, to a comfortable seat in the corner. ‘When was it in the charts? Late eighties, maybe?’
Sven doesn’t know. He could pass for a West Cork farmer, in his sensible anorak and Wellingtons, but, in fact, he’s a small-town Swedish dentist.
‘So, Sven,’ says Fintan. ‘What’ll you have?’
Sven knows. ‘Bimmish.’
Fintan goes to the bar and orders two pints of Beamish. One good thing about Sven is that he appreciates a nice pint of stout. One bad thing is that he never buys a round. Fintan’s plan was to bring his wife Annika to Ireland to see the land he came from, but Annika insisted on bringing her parents too. They’ve all been here three days now and Fintan’s paid for everything so far: the meals, the hotels, the petrol. Everything.
Fintan watches the first pint swirling into the glass, the deep, almost opaque black liquid swirling, the tan-coloured froth rising to the top, and his mood lightens slightly. He remembers visits to Creedons Hotel in Inchigeela with his Dad when he was a young boy. His father would drink ‘one for the road’ and Fintan would have red lemonade and a packet of Taytos. Then they’d head home in the grey Morris Minor, up the mountain to Gortnahoughtee. The memory is so real Fintan jumps when the barmaid speaks to him.
‘Would you like anything else?’ she smiles.
‘Could I have a packet of Taytos, please? Cheese and Onion, if you have them.’
Then Fintan turns his head towards Sven.
‘Would you like some Taytos?’ he asks. ‘Or peanuts?’
Fintan turns back to the barmaid and pays. A pint in each hand, he walks carefully over to Sven’s table, places the pints reverently on beer mats. He goes back for the crisps, then settles into a chair next to Sven.
‘There we go,’ he says. ‘Sláinte!’
Fintan and Sven clink their glasses together and then each takes a long slurp of beer.
Fintan begins to feel better, but he’s still embittered about the fact that his in-laws don’t offer to pay for anything. Not only that, he can’t understand why they don’t say ‘Thank you’. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, even a language thing, he muses. Maybe Swedish people don’t say thanks unless it’s a big deal. Come to think of it, ‘Tak’ is such a short, curt, thankless kind of word.
Or maybe they’re just rude.
Fintan’s been married for less than a year. He bought the house in North London three years ago, then his previous girlfriend said You’re a nice guy, Fintan, but I don’t love you any more. The spark has gone. A few months later his father, a widower, died. After the funeral Fintan lost interest in his London home, left it half-furnished, spent long hours at work and more time in the pub than was advisable.
Then the slim blonde Cindy-doll moved into a bed-sit in the house next to his and thrilled him back to his former self. Annika, for it was she, was forever knocking on his door for help: lost keys, a suspected rat, a leaky radiator, she’d run out of cigarettes… She thrilled him so much he overlooked the fact that she never said ‘Thank you’... or even ‘Tak’.
When her landlord threw her out. Annika moved in with him. The sex was amazing – after a week of co-habitation, he proposed to her. She said ‘Yes’, but didn’t fancy the ring. They went to Aspreys in New Bond Street where she chose one five times more expensive. ‘Darling, this is the one I want,’ she said. Mesmerised with happiness, he produced his credit card and willingly signed a piece of paper handed to him on a silver salver by the shop assistant, who wore an expensive suit.
She didn’t say ‘Thanks’ or even ‘Tak’. She was busy admiring the ring.
Fintan gulps his pint, shoves a handful of crisps in his mouth. He swallows too quickly and begins to choke, so he drinks some more, then wipes his mouth.
‘So, Sven. How’s the pint?’
‘I wonder how long they’ll be?’
‘Will I get a menu?’
Sven nods and looks at his glass.
‘I will, so.’ Fintan’s stomach rumbles in anticipation as he approaches the bar counter. He picks up four greasy laminated menus and walks back to where Sven sits, immobile.
‘Jesus, I’m hungry all the time,’ he says to Sven. ‘Maybe I’ve worms.’
Sven looks at him.
‘Forget it,’ says Fintan.
They drink in silence.
The door opens and Annika and her mother bustle in. Annika carries several plastic bags and so does her mother.
‘Got a few bargains,’ says Annika, as she takes a pair of designer rubber boots out of a bag. They’re pink with a flower print.
‘Only €69,’ she says, briskly.
Fintan suspects she’s used their joint credit card again but he’s afraid to ask. She gets cross when he tries to discuss money, though he’s explained he wouldn’t mind so much if she’d only warn him in advance of the financial shocks that seem to punctuate his existence these days.
Annika’s mother wants mint tea.
‘I think we have some out the back,’ says the barmaid. She disappears.
‘Lovely girl, that,’ says Fintan.
Annika looks at him and raises her eyebrows.
Annika’s mother looks round but it’s hard to tell what her mood is. Her hands are bony and much older than her face, which seems taut and drawn, as if she’s struggling against a high wind. Fintan’s not supposed to know about her face lift. Annika warned him not to mention it.
‘Is this place ok?’ asks Fintan.
‘Yah,’ says Annika’s mother.
‘So why the…’ says Fintan. He nearly said So why the long face? Since they set off from London, the number of times he’s almost mentioned cosmetic surgery is phenomenal.
‘Where’s that girl gone?’ says Annika, crossly. ‘She could have grown the tea by now.’
After lunch, they stroll down the street. The sun is shining and a salty breeze floats in from the bay. The rented Land Rover is parked near the edge of the water, and looks as if it’s in a television advert.
‘Fabulous machine, isn’t it?’ says Fintan. He pats the dashboard fondly. ‘I’d love one of these.’
‘I thought you didn’t approve of wrecking the environment,’ says Annika as she settles herself in the front passenger seat.
‘Well, if we lived here it would be practical,’ says Fintan. ‘Especially where we’re going next.’ As he pulls away from the kerb, he turns on the radio.
There’s not enough love to go around, there’s… not enough, croons a male voice.
‘Too loud!’ shouts Annika’s mother from the back seat.
‘Yah, too loud,’ Sven agrees.
‘Ok, ok,’ says Fintan.
Annika turns the radio down.
Sunlight streams into the car. Fintan fumbles around the dashboard, finds his sunglasses, puts them on.
‘Do you like it here?’ he asks his wife, as he drives. ‘Isn’t it better than North London?’
‘It sure is. Remember the gun battles in Green Lanes a few years back? In 2003? Sure, North London was like the Wild West.’
‘Really?’ Annika says, querulously.
‘Do you not remember? My old pal Attila, who owns the greengrocers at the corner – he nearly got shot in the cross-fire.’
‘Really,’ says Annika.
‘He kept that pumpkin for ages, the one with the bullet inside it. Exhibit ‘A’, he called it. I walked past his shop a few minutes before the shoot-out. It could have been my head.’
‘Well, I like London. You have a good job there. My pay is not so high as yours, but I get staff discount on my clothes…’
‘So… you wouldn’t consider moving here then?’ He takes his eyes off the road to look at her.
‘London is ok,’ she says.
Fintan hasn’t said anything to Annika about the field. It’s a surprise. When his mother died, he was only six years old; his memories of her have faded now, mixed up with images from old photographs. Fintan remembers everything about Dad though. It was just the two of them together for years, working the farm, and taking care of ‘the field above’. His father had been sentimental about ‘the field above’. He’d managed to hold onto it, even through bad times. ‘When I’ve money, Fintan,’ he’d say, ‘I’ll do up that house. For it’s in that house, as you know, that I was born.’
Fintan has sold the farm but kept the field. The little house that sits inside it has been derelict for years. It’s a house-type common round here; two-up, two-down, overgrown with ivy and creepers. An architect friend was enthusiastic: ‘It’s a fantastic site, Fintan. I’d love to do a design for you. Modern extension to the back, lots of glass, double-height space… We’ll keep the old house at the front – make sure we respect the vernacular. Lovely.’
‘Where are we going?’ says Annika. ‘Is it to the Google Barry place you talked of?’
‘No,’ he says. ‘We’re going up the mountain. You’ll love it. We can go to Gougane Barra tomorrow if you like.’ His stomach rumbles.
As Fintan drives up the mountain, the road gets narrower and bumpier until it’s no more than a boreen. Finally, he parks in front of an overgrown hedge, behind which the derelict cottage hides.
He opens the dilapidated farm gate at the side of the house and walks into the field. Sunlight hits broken glass on the path behind the house. It’s so quiet that he can hear a rabbit before it scurries across the field a few feet in front of him just as Annika and her parents trail behind him.
‘Is it muddy?’ says Annika. ‘I don’t want to ruin my shoes.’
Fintan stares at the clouds that hang over the valley below. They seem so near the edge of the mountain; they look as if you could touch them. He remembers a time when he believed he could step on one of these clouds and float away. It’s warm, even though there’s a slight breeze. The Coillte forests that line the hills are felled in uneven patches and remind him of a bad haircut. Only one farmhouse can be seen, miles away. There are shades of greens and blues and greys and browns everywhere, and as the clouds change so do the shadows on the nearby hills.
Fintan knows that in winter time the wind blows wild up here and makes the old gate whistle a tune that no one else can sing. He knows that if he shouts, he’ll hear his own voice echo back from the other hills and across the forest. He’s always loved that echo, and the illusion it creates that he is not alone.
But now, Sven ruins his view. He’s walking along the perimeter of the field and he seems to be counting his steps.
Fintan decides to ignore him and glances in the other direction where his mother-in-law stands next to Annika. Maybe it’s the facelift – no, it’s not just that. Annika’s profile is remarkably similar to that of her mother. Fintan can see the nose (a little too big), the determined chin, the slight – but ever-present – downturn of dissatisfaction on the edge of the mouth…
Annika’s mother seems to like the view.
‘So, what do you think?’ asks Fintan. ‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’
There’s a pause.
‘Is this like Scotland?’ says Annika’s mother.
Fintan takes a deep breath.
‘Why did you bring us here?’ says Annika. ‘It’s just a field.’
Fintan thinks for a moment.
‘No reason,’ he says. ‘No reason at all.’
The above story is my first ever published piece of fiction. It appeared in the Sunday Tribune (5th April 2009) and later won two Hennessy Awards. Many thanks to the judges Ciaran Carty, Carlo Gébler and Paula Meehan. Sadly, the Sunday Tribune closed down in February 2011 and the piece is no longer on-line. The story was accompanied by an illustration that made me laugh out loud. I tried to find out who the illustrator was in order to get a print of it, but have had no luck so far. If anyone knows who the artist was and how to contact him/her I'd be really grateful for the info!
(The Hennessy Awards, by the way, are now run in conjunction with the Irish Independent.)
(The Hennessy Awards, by the way, are now run in conjunction with the Irish Independent.)