Read an extract from Belinda McKeon's beautiful novel, Solace, out 19 August 2011.
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It had been years since Tom’s son had spent so long at home. He stayed almost the whole summer, working the farm every day and sleeping in his old bedroom, with the child’s crib at the foot of the bed. The child, Tom thought, seemed content in her new surroundings. He saw in her no signs of lonesomeness, no signs that she was pining for what she could no longer have. That she could not yet speak, that she could not name names and call for them, that she could not tell them what she had seen; for all of this, Tom was grateful, and he carried the child about with him often, her wordlessness resting between them like a veil.
In August the weather turned. The mornings came blue and sun-dazed, a haze wrinkling the sky over the fields. When the forecast promised it would stay that way for days to come, red bands of high pressure stoking the country from the south, Tom and Mark readied to save the hay. Mark knocked three meadows the first warm evening, and Tom followed after him with the turner, whipping up the long blades of grass, setting them down neat as potato drills. As Mark began to bale two next mornings later, Tom took the child to the edge of the meadow and showed to her the way it was done: the lines of grass, the huge yellow bales lurching out of the red machine, and the shape of her father in the tractor cab, a hand on the steering-wheel, his head turned to watch the progress of the baler hitched behind.
‘Wave at your daddy,’ Tom said.
The child sighed in his arms and crushed her hands into her eyes. She was only half awake, and the sun’s brightness was beating down on her. The sheepdog, the only thing certain to interest her and to set her pointing and smiling, was out of sight somewhere in the meadow. She had woken crying early that morning, early as she woke every morning, and, like all the other mornings, her father and her grandfather had been awake before her, watching the day as it came in over the bog.
As with all the other mornings, Tom had heard Mark moving around in the bedroom well before dawn; had heard the scuffling, the coughing, the opening and closing of the door across the landing, the slow tread down the stairs, the water drumming hard into the kettle, the feeble ravings of the radio. That morning when Tom joined him in the kitchen there had been more to talk about than usual, more things to plan, and although the timetable of a haymaking day was known to each of them so innately that there had been little need for them to speak at all, still Tom went with the chance while he had it. He mapped out all the parts of the day, the jobs to be done, the potential pitfalls and the safeguards to be laid in place. Mark answered him, and agreed with him, and talked along with him, and when at last the child awoke, crying from the bedroom above their heads as indignantly as though she had been tricked or struck, Tom thought he had seen flicker across Mark’s face an instant of the same regret he felt himself at the breaking of their peace. But too much flickered across Mark’s face these days for Tom to understand him. Too much went on with him, whether in silence or in the hiding-places behind talk, for Tom to keep pace with or pretend to know.
Now the tractor had stopped and Mark was standing,leaning out of the cab. He would need more twine, he shouted. Tom would have to go to Keogh’s to buy it. This was not something they had talked about that morning; this was not something that, together, they had foreseen. Tom cursed as he turned and crossed the yard to where his mud- streaked jeep was parked. The child squirmed. She wanted to be down on the concrete, where she saw her tricycle with the red plastic wheels, where she had left scattered, the previous evening, a bucketful of her wooden bricks. But Tom kept her firmly on his hip. In the jeep, he buckled her fast into the baby seat he had fixed into the passenger side.
‘That’s a beautiful child.’
The girl in Keogh’s looked at the child the way every woman looked at her now. The same sad eyes, the head to one side, the same carefully held half-smile. The hand out to touch the light blonde curls, to stroke the soft face, to clasp the chubby fingers as though they been offered for a shake. Tom knew it well by now, the rush to sympathize in that overdone way of women; the tears quick to spring and quicker still to dry, to be replaced with a high laugh and a story about nothing.
‘What’s this her name is again?’
‘Aoife.’ The usual sad wince. ‘Hello, Aoife. Are you having a good time with your granddaddy?’
Tom sat the child on the shop counter. She grabbed at a stand of chocolate bars, and he let her grab. He nodded to the girl. ‘Would you be able to keep an eye on her for a few minutes while I go out the yard to your father?’
The laugh, high as a fountain, there it was. ‘Oh, now. He’s not my father. I’m a good bit older than any of the Keogh girls.’ She shrugged, and Tom knew by the way she looked at him that he had pleased her. Down his elbows, shooting through his hands, he felt the burn of impatience. What did he care how old or how young she was? She was a girl: the arms out, the eyes wide – the blouse more buttoned up, he saw now, than either of the Keogh girls would likely have worn theirs – but it wasn’t his concern to know such differences.
‘We’ll have a great time, Aoife and me,’ she was saying, nearly singing, as he went out the door.
Tar was soft underfoot in Keogh’s yard. One dog slept between the bars of an upturned cattle feeder. Another sat alert on a stack of fertilizer bags. Keogh, his everyday white shirt untucked as a concession to the weather, was standing in the shade of the supplies shed, a huge, barn-like structure full of the things he sold to the farmers of the area: the feedstuffs for cattle and sheep, the seeds and grain, the bales of twine and the drums of oil. Timber of different lengths and shades stood against the back wall. Tyres and hubcaps and old engine parts, culled from worn-out tractors and jeeps, were piled and hung and pegged in corners.
He watched as Tom approached, not moving or speaking until a few feet separated them. Keogh was a rich man. The half-rusted carburettors and planks of timber had made him more money, over the years, than had the bags of grain and the gallons of petrol and the shop and the bar all put together, but of this he showed no sign. The white shirt was the same shirt the whole week long: grubby by Tuesday, filthy by Thursday. The van he drove was years old, a Transit like a tinker’s, deeply dented along one side. The house over the shop had changed little in the twenty years since he had bought it: no extension, rarely a new paint job, the old net curtains in the window, and the wife inside cooking his breakfasts and his teas. Tom’s wife Maura had said that Breda Keogh was driven half simple by her husband’s meanness, that she had stopped asking for anything a long time ago, but that the daughters knew how to turn the pockets out on him, how to get their new clothes and their money for drinking and their two jelly-coloured cars. There were twin sons, too, as tight-fisted as Keogh himself, living in the house with him still and counting coins behind the bar, waiting for the day when they could split the place between them and watch it splintering to the ground. Keogh never mentioned them, never seemed to speak to them on the nights he ran the bar with them, never seemed to want for them in the yard or under the bonnet of a machine.
He was stepping away from the shed now, exhaling long and loudly as he frowned up at the sky. He stretched his hand out to Tom. ‘Fierce fuckin’ heat, Tom,’ he said, as they shook. There was sweat sitting slick on his palm. He had what looked like axle oil smeared under one eye. He must have been up to a meadow with a part or a wheel already that morning. ‘How’s all up in Dorvaragh?’
‘Have you twine left?’ Tom asked.
Keogh laughed at the question. ‘Have I twine, Tom? Plenty of twine. Too fuckin’ much of the stuff. That’s what I have.’
Tom moved past him into the shed. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom he saw another dog move between tractor tyres.
Keogh came up close behind him. ‘Got in too much twine, Tom, and hardly a one about the place lookin’ for it the summer. Sure they’re all hirin’ them contractors from up at Granard this weather. Sure them lads brings their own twine. Fuckers.’
‘Give us a couple, so.’
‘You’re in a hurry, Tom?’
Keogh was looking for news. He was hungry for a complaint. Tom glanced at the rafters of the shed and shrugged out the beginning of a laugh. ‘I’m under orders, Paddy.’
Keogh nodded. ‘Ah, you have Mark at it above.’
‘Aye,’ said Tom. He did not turn.
‘Very good, very good.’ Keogh pulled a bale of twine from a pile. It thudded to the ground. Before the dust had settled, Keogh knocked a second bale.
‘You’re keepin’ on at things anyway,’ he said. ‘Here, take a hoult of this one, you, and I’ll bring the other.’
The gate out of the yard was still broken, its top hinge sagging low. As they passed through it, Tom glanced at Keogh over his shoulder. ‘You never thought of getting that gate fixed.’
‘I thought about it all right, Tom.’
Keogh pushed out a short laugh, as if by way of apology. It was a laugh almost like the girl’s, a laugh high and fearful of how best to land. Hearing it, Tom felt something in his stomach turn. Not you, too, he wanted to say. Not you, too, still at this shit like the rest of them. It had been three months. He was not an invalid. Not a child. Keogh had always been the dirtiest of them all, always the first to notice, the quickest to remark, and now here he was like the rest of them, swerving his words off onto harmless ground. Keogh would have known full well why Tom had remarked on the gate; to gibe at Keogh’s laziness, his tightness. Before, Keogh would have fought back with a dig about the farm or the cattle or, most likely, about Mark; with a question, all innocence, about how long Mark would be around this time, with a sigh about how short a stay that was, with a shake of the head about how badly Mark must be needed up in Dublin, for him to have to leave again so soon. There was no sincerity in such comments, but if he could hear them now he would draw succour from them, would lean into them and come up stronger, surer, stocked with grit enough to steer him through the day. Faced with this silence that was Keogh’s kindness, he felt only light and bloodless, emptied of himself and of everything that fixed him to his standing. He needed something to shoulder against, something at which to pitch himself, muscled with the old fury, with the old contempt. But there was nothing. There was only this air struck with summer, and even that was a thing that seemed to set everyone around the place smiling like a fool.
‘That’s you ready to go now,’ said Keogh, slamming shut the back door of the jeep after he had stowed the twine.
Tom stood with his back to the other man, his eyes fixed on the faded green wood of the shopfront, the stickers and notices pasted inside the window pane, the woman’s bicycle against the sill. The briquette stand was empty. Through the window, he could see the girl holding the child, talking to an older woman who held another child, a boy. He knew the older woman, not to talk to, but to see. She and the boy held ice-cream cones. As Tom watched, both women glanced his way at the same time, from him they both looked down to the counter, and from there to each other, and from there to the child on the shopgirl’s hip. It was as familiar to him by now as the sight of his own eyes in the bathroom mirror, the look that he had caught on their faces: fear and thrill and greed and pure excitement; a glimpse right into the wreckage on the side of the road.
‘Who’s is the babby she has?’ Keogh said. He was watching the same scene over Tom’s shoulder. He snorted and prodded Tom in the arm. ‘Jasus, if it’s hers I surely missed that happening.’
‘That’s Mark’s,’ Tom said. ‘I asked that lassie to hold on to her for me for a minute.’ Inside, the girl was coming around the counter. Tom put his hand up to signal to her not to bring the child out to him yet. She nodded, smiling, and took the child over to the other woman and child in a quick, light dance.
‘I saw the child’s seat ’ithin in the jeep, all right,’ Keogh said quietly. ‘Ah, she’s a nice little one, isn’t she.’
Tom said nothing.
‘Lovely little one,’ Keogh said.
In the shop, the two women were pushing the children up close to each other; they seemed to be encouraging them to kiss. The boy stared, sullen, at Aoife as his tongue kept a steady stroke on his cone. As the shopgirl moved closer to him, he slowly and carefully moved the ice-cream out of Aoife’s reach, almost above his head, his gaze still dull on her face. Aoife, throwing her head back and twisting herself, caught sight of Tom. Her cry came as a long moan of protest; she flung one arm towards him and, screaming now, arched her back higher still. The boy stared. The women’s faces crinkled with sorry-eyed smiles.
Here.’ Tom rummaged in his pocket and drew out the notes he knew to be there. He handed them to Keogh. ‘Fifteen a bale, isn’t it?’
‘Spot on.’ If it had been too little he would have been told. Nothing made it all right to give Keogh too little.
‘Yous are great to be doing so well with her,’ the girl said, as she came outside with the child. ‘She’s a real little pet.’
Aoife, sobbing now and sticky-faced with snot and tears, her yellow dress driven high over the fat plastic of her nappy, looked ready to thrash her way out of the shopgirl’s arms. She pushed sharply into Tom as he took her.
‘She’s her granddaddy’s girl,’ Keogh said, and as he reached out a hand to Aoife she howled and buried her face in Tom’s chest. Keogh laughed. ‘She knows well where she wants to be.’
‘Good luck,’ said Tom, and he walked away from them. As he settled Aoife in her seat she quietened and began to reach towards the radio knobs. When he had the key turned in the ignition he clicked through the stations for her, watching her eyes following his moving hand, her wet fingers reaching out for his. He stopped at a music station and backed the car out between the petrol pumps, keeping one eye on Keogh and the girl in the rear-view mirror. They were talking and nodding and shaking their heads. They were putting the whole world to rights. Beside him, the child shouted with happiness at the music so close to her hands.
The tractor was stopped on the crest of the hill when Tom turned into the lane for home. As he drew nearer, he could see that the cab was empty.
‘What’s your daddy at?’ he said to the child.
She ignored him, her steady chatter all for herself, her attention now on the toy set of keys she gripped and shook with one fist. From her lips hung a heavy thread of drool. He reached over to wipe at it; she jerked her head away, her babble pooling into a squeal. But he got it, caught its glooping wetness on his cuff, wiped it into the thigh of his trousers as he turned in for the house. Aoife whined and banged the toy against the side of her seat. As Tom carried her in he gave her his keys to play with as well as her own.
Through the glass of the hall door he could see Mark sitting at the kitchen table, chewing, a thick-sliced sandwich in his hand. His eyes were on the child as Tom brought her into the room. The neighbour girl who had come that morning to mind her was on the couch, a magazine open on her lap.
‘Well,’ Mark said, through a mouthful of bread.
‘You got the twine all right?’
‘All yours,’ Tom said to the neighbour girl, as he placed Aoife on the couch beside her. The girl looked at him with wide eyes.
‘Well?’ Mark said, staring at him, holding a mug in midair. There was a cut across his knuckles, Tom noticed. He must have skinned himself somehow.
‘I got it, I got it, of course I got it,’ Tom nodded, walking up to the table and putting his palm to the belly of the teapot. It was still warm. He poured a mug, heaped in two sugars and slopped milk in from the carton. He leaned against the sink to drink it down. It was sharp, almost bitter, and only warm. Mark must have been at the table a good twenty minutes. Regardless, Tom drained the mug. He had no desire to make another pot, and the girl was busy with Aoife. He laughed a short laugh, just loud enough for Mark to look at him, and gestured out towards the jeep. ‘Keogh’s a fierce fuckin’ nuisance, all the same.’
Mark took another bite of his sandwich and chewed slowly. ‘Why’s that?’ he said eventually, vaguely, the question hardly in his words at all. He pulled with finger and thumb at his earlobe. He’d had that ear pierced, Tom remembered; he’d worn a small silver ring in it through the pus and the swelling that came on after he’d had the hole made, and for days his mother had left the room every time he walked in. The ear would heal around it, Tom had warned him, but he would not listen; he kept on wearing the ring through the redness and the crusts. After a while, it had disappeared. The hole was no longer visible. Though maybe he was looking at the wrong ear.
‘Ah,’ he said, laying a hand down heavily on the edge of the sink. ‘You know yourself. Full of questions. He’s a bloody plague.’
Gathering his plate and his mug, Mark came to the sink. He said nothing as Tom stood aside, but ran the cold tap and bent to splash his face, rubbing the water up over the back of his neck. The skin there was brown as a saddle. The cut on his knuckle was matted with dust from the field. He pulled away from the sink, still gripping it, and exhaled hard.
‘Don’t bring Aoife off again without telling Miriam,’ he said.
Tom stared. Mark was running cold water into a mug now, the same mug he had drunk his tea from, his eyes straight ahead on the window to the yard. His jaw was tight. He was letting the tap run on even though the mug was full, letting the water spill over on to his hand, his cut hand.
‘Don’t bring her off without telling me,’ he said, and he shut off the tap.
Tom wanted to laugh. ‘Sure you knew I had her,’ he said. ‘Sure you saw me taking her with me when I went to get the twine.’ As he spoke he was admiring the sense that ran through his words, the straightness of what he was saying; he was basking in it, barely even ready for the possibility of a reply, when Mark lifted the mug a hand’s height and landed it on the bottom of the sink with a bang. Water went everywhere. Out of the corner of his eye, Tom saw the girl rise from the couch with the child and move quickly into the next room.
‘Miriam didn’t see you taking her with you,’ Mark said, swinging an arm towards where the girl had been. ‘Miriam came running down the fields, crying that she’d put Aoife up in her cot this morning at eleven and that she’d gone up to check on her twenty minutes later and that she wasn't in the cot any more, and did I know where she was, or did you?’ He drew breath. ‘Because Miriam thought the two of us were out at the hay with the tractors, me and you, and that someone was after coming into the house while she was out with the washing, and that someone was after taking the fucking child.’
Now Tom’s laugh came, and it came like something hocked up. ‘For fuck’s sake. You’re not going to listen to that sort of giddy rubbish from her, are you? What does she think this is, the television?’
Mark faced him. ‘What did you take her out of the cot for?’ He turned the tap on again. ‘Miriam puts her to bed and you go up there without telling anybody and you take her down again. She was meant to be sleeping. She was meant to be on her nap. What did you do that for? Ha?’
His lips were pulled back from his teeth with anger. His fists were clenched on the counter. This was how it was getting with him: further and further from reason every day. He wanted to argue over everything, he wanted to agree over nothing, he wanted to pick and bicker and drag everything out past its natural end. Or else he was silent, going out to the fields in the mornings almost without saying a word, never stopping to ask Tom what needed to be done, never listening to Tom’s thoughts on how to do things – even that morning, Tom had to admit to himself now, he himself had done all of the talking, and all of the listening too. Mark would just sit there, waiting for the child to waken, and for the girl from over the road to arrive, and then as soon as the work outside was done he would be back in to the child, and then gone for the rest of the day, off in the car to Longford or Carrick or Cavan. What he did there he never said. At night was when they spoke, when the child was upstairs and they were in front of the television; at night Tom tried with him, tried the small things of the day on him, tried the weather, tried the neighbours, tried the jobs yet to be faced into that summer. Everything was simple. Everything was straightforward. But everything sent Mark further and further into himself. He never spoke about his mother. He never spoke about Joanne. Tom tried with him; he could, he supposed, have tried harder, but it was hard for him to know where to start talking about them himself. The best he could do was try to talk to him about the child, and even that much Mark seemed to resent.
‘The child was awake,’ Tom said. ‘She was roaring. I went upstairs and brought her down with me, and there was no sign of anyone to look after her. So I took her out with me. And then she was happy enough. What did you expect me to do? Leave her in there, screaming down the walls?’
‘But you knew Miriam was here with her. You knew Miriam had come down this morning to mind her.’
Tom shook his head. ‘I saw no sign of anyone. The dishes were in the sink and the child’s clothes were all over the floor and there was music on the radio there going full blast. Wasn’t much sign of anyone doing any minding as far as I could see.’
‘Jesus Christ.’ In three long strides, Mark was at the back door. ‘You’re great, aren’t you?’
‘Sure, for Jesus’ sake, the girl hardly thought someone had come in to take the child? For Christ’s sake, you can’t be blaming me because she let her mind run away with itself? Who in fuck’s name is going to come in here and take the bloody child? Ha?’
‘Watch your mouth.’
‘Sammy Stewart? Jimmy flynn, racing up the stairs and snatching her off to live with him?’ He snorted. ‘Get a hold of yourself, would you? You’re as big a havril as the little girl.’
‘You should have let Miriam know you were taking her. You should have let me know you’d taken her up without Miriam knowing.’
‘Well, I’m telling you now.’
Standing on the step into the back kitchen, Mark ground at the floor with his foot. ‘Just leave her,’ he said. ‘Leave her be. She needs her routine. She needs things to be like normal.’
He walked off into the yard. From the next room, Tom could hear the girl talking to Aoife in a low voice, the child’s woozy laughter, the sound of some complicated toy plucking high notes above neighbours’ engines on the day’s hot air.