Chapter a hAon: An Odd Sort
'So, you’re just to be bringing a stranger into our midst, is it?'
That’s how it all began: with those words. Those snappy, biting, bitter words that Micheál remembers all too well, even months after they were first spoken. He can’t forget them – not now, not then – no more than he can the man to whom they refer. The man who came barrelling into his life all those months ago, stirring up feelings he’d never before felt. Never wanted to feel. Never thought he could, especially not there.
But Micheál knew none of that at the time. Back then, the man was nothing but an empty, would-be spot at the end of the kitchen table. A faceless outsider about whom he knew nothing, not even his name.
He sometimes thinks it would’ve been better if things had stayed like that: them never knowing each other in the ways they soon would. Such thoughts are few and far between, but despite his not wanting to believe the words, he can’t deny there’s some semblance of sense about them – something he was sorely lacking during their time together. Something he still lacks, even now as he wracks his head, wading through the memories of things that passed between them and drowning in those that didn’t.
But despite all that – despite knowing fine well how it all panned out in the end – he still, for the very life of him, can’t help but think the same thing as always: there’s little he’d change – not when it takes but the mere memory of those jarring words to take him back to when it all unknowingly started: on a Sunday morning sometime in the middle of May, when his elderly neighbour barged in and boomed those very words into the quietness of the kitchen.
'You don’t know the first thing about him and yet you’re taking him in and all; I’ve never heard the likes!' Máire continued, her screeching tone drowning out the thud of the backdoor against the wall and making Dad clench his jaw.
But marks on a wall – which was already in desperate need of a run-over – was the last thing on Micheál’s mind. Though he never usually paid any heed to the pair’s routine breakfast outbursts, that morning’s topic managed to stir his interest. It was the first he was hearing of any new arrival, never mind having been given any say in the matter – not that he’d have got a word in edgewise.
'Now, now, Máire, there’ll be none of that when we’re eating bricfeasta,' Mam – ever the promoter of the Irish language – said before Micheál could open his mouth. She cut Dad a look that told him not to engage their neighbour on the topic or he’d be getting cold tea in his flask all week. 'Sit yourself síos and eat, there’s plenty for gach duine. Is that tea wet there, Micheál? Bring the pot over here and pour our Máire a cup there.'
He did so wordlessly, hesitant to broach the matter now that Máire seemed distracted.
'You bought the set, I see,' she said, admiring the new crockery with approval. 'And amn’t I only just after saying you wouldn’t be finding a finer piece elsewhere?'
'Weren’t you just, Mary; right as rain and wouldn’t you know it,' Dad said, once again avoiding a clatter across the ear despite Anglicising her name. 'Not that we’d been getting much of the old rain ‘til just there now.'
And with that, the conversation was directed towards the fine weather they’d had the week before, causing Micheál to hold back a sigh: he knew all too well he had no hope at being heard when there was, ‘good drying weather’, to be commended.
Long-since resigned to that fact of life, Micheál sat back down at the table, picking apart a piece of crust on his plate. The idle chatter carried on around him, but he paid little attention to it, instead finding his gaze drifting towards Dad, who was holding his own in the weather talk despite not having the least bit of interest in it, or so the eyes-to-the-heavens look he surreptitiously shot Micheál implied.
Micheál watched him for a moment longer, wondering how he did it: to put aside his earlier evident annoyance in order to direct the conversation away from what would’ve become an inevitable tirade.
Thinking back on it, it must have been something to do with the cheeky-yet-charming smile Dad would always toss Máire’s way. It was an expression he’d perfected as a child, allowing him to get away with things for which his brothers had received the belt – or so Micheál had gathered from his tales. Even well into his adult years, it was still working its magic, flustering men and women irrespective of age, if the flush tingeing Máire’s cheeks that morning was any indication.
It was a knack Micheál most certainly hadn’t inherited; he would’ve admired it if it hadn’t always aggravated him so – a feeling with which he was becoming well acquaint as of late.
Rolling his eyes at Máire’s tittering, Micheál left the table. He was far from in the mindset for another reprimand when his thoughts were already occupied by another matter. A matter he still found himself thinking about as he ran his plate under the tap, his mind drifting to thoughts of the newcomer and who he was – and what on earth he was thinking in subjecting himself to the tight-knit, back-arse of nowhere village that’d never taken too kindly to strangers overstaying their welcome. He’d have to have his head about him – though, Micheál couldn’t help but think that, if he had any sense in the first place, he’d be staying well away to begin with.
Or perhaps Micheál was just projecting, as he oftentimes did: it went hand-in-hand with the territory of being 'an odd sort', as he’d heard said of himself over the years by relatives and neighbours alike. The ever-running commentary never really bothered him, but as he loaded the dishwasher and searched for the tablets under the sink, he found himself contemplating what the stranger would make of him.
And what he would make of the stranger.
He wondered what he was like. Would he take to the way of things like Dad had, winning over the locals with his love of Gaelic football and only ever not welcome in the pub when Dublin won the All-Irelands?
Or would he be more like Mam? A beloved local of the village – or sráidbhaile, as she insisted on calling it – she involved herself in every committee going and took to herding her young pupils around the county during the summer months. Her extra efforts had hailed her the nickname 'Máire Poppins' from grateful parents who couldn’t understand how she spent so much time with children without contemplating infanticide.
She’d always laugh at that in her usual light-hearted and breezy way. 'Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí.' Praise the youth and she will prosper. One of her favourite sayings, the seanfhocal took pride of place on a magnet on the front of the fridge. Micheál found himself staring at it that morning as he hurriedly drank the dregs of juice from the carton before he was caught.
Whatever the case, he thought as he threw the empty cardboard into the full bin bag, here’s hoping he’s not like me. For both our sakes.
He laughed a little at the thought, slipping into Dad’s work shoes to bring the bag out into the garden.
It was a soft morning outside; the light spit of rain had dampened his clothes by the time he’d put the green bin out for collection. It was unusual enough weather for the time of year, but he’d spent his entire life in the area and so was well used to it having a mind of its own. Though, when he found himself favouring sitting out in the rain over returning to the free-flowing chatter inside, he couldn’t help but feel like the weather was about all he’d acclimatised to.
Get over yourself, he thought, rolling his eyes at his woeful woes. He’d been in a snarky mood even before Máire’s appearance, Mam’s earlier admonishment having riled him up like it never ceased to.
'Fada ó shin, bhí gach duine ag caint as Gaeilge thart anseo – níl aon chúis nach feidir leasta, fresin,' she’d snapped at him prior to breakfast when he’d responded to her greeting in English. Back in my day, everyone was speaking Irish around here – there’s no reason you can’t, too.
The lecture, as always, had been accompanied by the sing-songy quip that even his father had taken to saying, despite not having spoken a word of the language since he’d dropped out of school at sixteen: 'is fearr Gaeilge briste ná Béarla clíste.' Better broken Irish than clever English.
Another one of Mam’s beloved seanfhocal. Micheál had grown up sprouting off old Irish adages before he could speak a full sentence in English, such was her commitment to the dying cause. A cause that – as a child – he’d often wished would just give up and die already, taking alongside it the taunts of his peers that had plagued his primary school days.
But as he sat on the swing seat with a cool breeze rustling his hair, he knew those days were long behind him. They were of a past as distant as the receding tide and held no place in his present or future, the latter of which still didn’t feel like it was soon to be a reality.
A reality that was far away from the backwards sráidbhaile he’d known from the moment he was born, and which hadn’t changed much since: a pub, a church and the Ó Seachnasaigh’s front room guised as a shop were all it constituted, the post office having closed down a while back. Colm Ó hÉalaí had taken on the role of posting letters on his drives into town on the minibus service he ran, which was the only form of public transport about. It was used by most students, as well as the few commuters who had yet to run for the never-ending rolling hills of farmland that prevented many of his peers from even thinking about furthering their education – having a Leaving Certificate was more than enough; anything else was just taking the piss.
Micheál couldn’t wait to get out – and in four months, he’d be doing just that.
But sometimes, he felt a little less eager. It was a feeling that presented infrequently and which never lasted long, but he couldn’t help but notice it on mornings like that: when a light mist was blanketing the garden, its wispy tendrils trailing over the blades of grass that seemed to glint in spite of the shrouded sun. It was a sight he knew he would sorely miss, for there was nothing else quite like it; nowhere else where endless stretches of skyline played canvas to rolling fields and rocky hills like the ones that surrounded his house, which was but a short walk away from the stony-turned-sandy inlet that could only be reached by the hidden paths known to none but the locals.
Thinking back now to all those times when the sun set the sky alight as he jogged on the empty beach, or even when he was just sitting there in the garden on the creaky old swing seat, he can’t help but feel a little miffed with himself for not realising how easy he had it. If he knew then what he knows now, maybe he’d have appreciated the serenity of the solitude all the more, knowing it was soon to never feel the same.
Little would – and how could it when things were to be stirred within him? Such feelings he’d never begin to make sense of, no matter how many hours he’d soon be spending lying awake at night, thinking about the man who’d thrown him for such a loop that he hadn’t been able to think straight since the moment they met.
A moment that would take place – though unknown to Micheál that Sunday morning on the swing – barely eight days later, when he would come barrelling into his life to make him realise just how much more there was to have.
Iomad den aithne a mheadaíonn an tarcaisne, they say: familiarity breeds contempt.
If that’s the case, then they were soon to become the closest of strangers.
Nóta: hi, thanks so much for reading! :) Any comments would be most appreciated, especially regarding the use of the Irish/colloquialisms. Please let me know if any of the words were hard to understand.
Also, I'm well aware of my tendency to ramble, but do call me out on it (and my many run-on sentences) - it's my first draft, so I'm not entirely sure what's going to be necessary for the storyline, but being reminded to tone it down a bit/lot will be handy for the editing stages.
This is an unedited draft, so feel free to point out any typos/grammar issues/etc. Punctuation is not my forté, so if anyone wants to attempt to fix the mess I've made of things, please do; I'll be most appreciative.
There's a comment below each chapter with translations/clarifications/a bit of extra info, if anyone is interested. Feel free to ask for more if I missed anything.
Sláinte, daoine - go raibh míle maith agaibh as léamh (cheers, lads - thanks for reading)!