The food disappeared in loving mouthfulls. They hadn’t seen so much meat for months. Cakes slithered around lips with glee. Sonnyjo even had a little wine, the women a sweet liqueur. Everyone agreed that a party in that house would never be the same with the old man gone, but v was just as happy to maintain it as quiet as possible.
“Come on girls!” Sinead urged, “You’re grown up now. Take it.”
They did and giggled through the sticky glass. Then they had another glass and went outside to giggle among friends: a new generation.
Fleetingly, as she watched them, Sinead remembered the coal sacks, the burning fumbling of her own youth. A right pretty lass. Have all the men after her soon. She glanced around at Sonnyjo wondering if he realized how quickly his precious was growing out of his arms, soon to be searching for others. He’d put on weight she noticed, despite the times, arround the cheeks, the stomach. “Getting soft,” she warned him silently as she watched him listened, as always, from within the half embarrassed silence of social duty, to his aunt’s ranting. Somethings never change.
Sinead was beginning to clear the table when the door yawned open and Junior stepped though. Her hands fumbled with a greasy plate.
Sonnyjo’s eyes rolled around slowly, aunt finally easing herself into low gear confronted with this lack of attention.
Sinead renewed her efforts at piling plates to maintain concentration. She felt like a child caught misbehaving. Stupid after all those years. “Dovric’s birthday,” she clattered in semiexplanation, hoping it didn’t sound like an apology.
“God, is it?” He stood there. “And you didn’t invite me?” Sinead was stung by the quietness of the taunt, the careful wrapping to make it sound like a tease. She was sorry now. “Sure you’re never around,” she defended, eyes scalding the messy dishes.
“You’re right. You’re right. I wasn’t.”
“Come in. Come in! There’s still some cake and a drink.
“Right. Right. Have to kiss the birthday girl.”
But he was still standing in the doorway. Unlike Junior. He was usually making himself at home before they’d noticed he’d entered.
“Am.” A shuffle, clogs of dirth wearing off a boot. “t’s just that.”
Sinead held back from the kitchen, the tone of his voice stirring an instant flash of worry. “Are you all right?”
“Yes. Yes. No problem at all.”
Sonnyjo swung between the two of them wondering what was going on. Those two he thought, neverr say anything straight. He felt his eyes glaze in the effort. Too much wine. Not used to it. “Sit down Junior.” He fumbled with an unwilling chair.
Brother and sister ignored him.
Aunt Johanna, with several glasses of wine more than Sonnyjo, decided the entrance was all over, caught her nephew and relaunched into the tales of her sorrows, a thousand buckets of complaint.
“It’s just,” Junior was uncharecteristically stumbling. “I’ve brought a friend.” He was rushing now. “And like you don’t mind if he comes in, do you? Maybe get a bit to eat. For a few minute’s rest. We’ve had a long day.” In the country you never had to ask to invite a friend in.
“Oh Junior!” Choking on a mix of frustration, tenderness, memories and anger, she didn’t reply but strode to the kitchen purposefully mauling the plates in her hands. Junior she whispered to herself. Fuck you. You’re my brother but there are limits. You should know that. Don’t bring us in any deeper than we have to. I’ve told you that so often.
“This is Pete,” Junior introduced to no one in particular.
“Funny name,” squinted Aunty Johanna. “Once knew a Jermiia, but he wasn’t from around here. Different country alltogether. Awful man he was. Smelly. Stayed with neighbors when I was just a kid. Brought the first tractor to the town or something like that. Showed us how to use it. Sure he hadn’t a clue. City born and bred.”
Catching his new friend’s eyes, Junior shook his head, glad when she finally ignored them and returned to the litany of her own sons. “Sit down,” Junior motioned, “I’ll get us something to eat.”
Through the scattered logic of his aunt’s ramblings Sonnyjo stared as unobtrusively as possible across the table, at the darting eyes of the stranger. Strange blue eyes. They were moving all over the place, but under calm control, rrythmically examining rather than shuffling in panic. Delicate hands noted Sonnyjo. Not from a farm. Some shop maybe. More like those fellows in a bank. he was quite short but strong enough, Sonnyjo continued to check. And lovely eyes, Aunt T noted from the corner of her own lonely retina. Handsome young lat. Fine mouth. Like young A but a bit younger. A good bit younger. Only a kid really.
Sinead scrambled together something for the visitors to eat.
The outsider smiled and said, “Thank you.”
The table fell into silence. They’d never heard it pronounced like that before.
“Pete is from abroad but he speaks the language well enough,” Junior hastened to add. “Funnnty accent though,” he mutterd in afterthought.
Recently they were getting used to the idea of outsiders in the area but they had never met a genuine Outsider before. Tongues stuck to their mouths as they watched him eat. Only their eyes and the sorting images in their heads roared with any fluency.
Fuming in the kitchen door, Sinead couldn’t resist staring either until finally dragging her eyes to a more respectable distance.
Sonnyjo decided that Sinead was right. It was a party after all. A day to relax and forget everything else. He poured himself another drink, then remembered to offer the bottle around. Aunty Johanna glass was already full: she was regaining that comforting feeling that this was her own house after all.
“A journalist,” enlightened Junior, pushing back his plate. Then he shocked them further by muttering a couple of words in a foreign language into the Outsider’s ear. “Speak a bit of his language,” Junior explained sheepishly proud.
“And where did you learn that?” asked Sinead quietly.
“Only a few words,” muttered Junior. “There are a good few of them about and not all speak our language. That’s what we need. Coverage,” he added to allay suspicions. “Have to let the world know whats happening here.”
“And what is happening here?” demanded his sister, the eveneness of her voice threateningly doubleedged.
Junior ignored her, avoiding her eyes.
“Do they really care?” she persisted.
“Of course!” the stranger interrupted, worn smile quickly fading to serious conviction.
Sinead ignored him, biting into Junior instead, forcing him to look up and stare her in the eye.
The Outsider, however, had been stirred into public. In halting if fluent words, he began to outline his credentials. He’d studied at the University in the Capital four years ago and because of his language was back now as a reporter. “There’s a lot of interest,” he insisted, ’about what is happening here, if not in official circles among the ordinary people and we have to feed that so that the Governments will finally be forced to act.”
No one really understood what he was saying, apart from Junior who nodded peacefully in agreement. No one else had really been listening. The strange accent was off putting to those unaccustomed, neatly clipped grammar insufficient recompense.
“What’s he saying?” asked Aunt Johanna loudly of Sonnyjo.
“Ssssh. Here have another one.” Clink. Slurp. Squint.
Undaunted, the Outsider spoke on, outlining his objectives, what he’d seen, how important it was to be impartial and rise above the official propaganda to show both sides.
Sonnyjo watched with fascination, Sinead suspicion. She continually searched Junior’s face, puzzling the consequences of this unasked for visit. Spoke too well she decided. Too handsome. He’d be the first out of here, safe and sound, back to tell them what was happening but far away, safe and sound, leaving who knows what mess behind. So long as he played no part in creating any mischief. Junior should know better. Despite his brash confidence she always felt he let himself be used, if not by others by his own tangled imagination. Why couldn’t he meet some on his travels and settle down once and for all, out of the village perhaps which was smothering him. Some widow, anybody. Must be plenty. She stopped, the rumors said there were hundreds in some towns, left alone, and most of them ...
Dovric interrupted their meandering communications.
She flew through the door then halted in a jerk. Another pair of eyes to stare.
“Happy birthday,” greeted the Outsider intuitively, groping to stand in the expected formality of introduction.
“Happy birthday Dovric,” repeated Junior effusely, slightly annoyed with himself for forgetting.
“The others had to go home before curfew,” explained Dovric, moving into the room to stand behind her mother, arms resting over her shoulders, eyes hanging suspended over the table.
“This is Pete,” her mother forced. “A friend of Juniors. A brief visit, isn’t it?” The stress was obvious.
“Yes. Yes.” agreed Pete to Dovric’s further surprise. She’d never heard anything like that, not even on the T.V. Words spoken so carefully correct they were freed of all accent, any identy, humanity.
“Yes, a quick visit.” Junior latched onto his sisters warning. Mustn’t go too far. “Staying with me for a few days, that’s all. Travel around a bit maybe. We’ll see. Lots to be done here too. Come on.′ he decided to urge their parting. “Thanks for the food Sinead. Thanks.”
Everyono rose in a fumble for the door.
Now that they were leaving manners tumbled into place.
“Sorry we had nothing else,” Sinead was apologising to the Outsider: “If I had known, but Junior likes his surprises, don’t you?”
“No. No. Thank you very much. Thank you. Beautiful.” assured the Outsider, nodding at them all, twinkling at Dovric who was managing to remain distant but well within focus from just outside the door jamb. From her vantage point she followed them part way across the yard to the car.
“Here,” the stranger proffered turning from struggling with the door. “Happy birthday.”
His hand brushed across her palm. She snapped her fingers closed as the car door slammed.
In bed that night her hand still tingled, tasting the gentle brushing of soft hands, the prickly massage of blond hair. She opened her fingers to reexamine the penknife. Etched on the side were letters from a language she’d never seen. She mouthed imaginary sounds, experimented with the words until she creaated a mix of syllables which sounded romantially correct. The other side encased a white cross on red. Religion she thought. Religious at least but far handsomer than their Pastor or any other holy man she’d ever seen.
Sinead’s excitement was far less tangible, lined with unease. An Outsider in their house. Who would have believed it. She tried now to remember what he had been saying but she hadn’t been listening. Couldn’t bring any good she decided, not if he comes with Junior.
That was a terrible epitat for her brother she reflected, yet refused to retract. Junior, brother or not, was mixed up in trouble. He should know better. He wasn’t going to sort out the country alone. She didn’t think they’d do it together. Even the women were talking politics these days, each with their own horror stories, forgotten relatives arriving for scarce shelter after been driven from their own homes. Sinead felt the madness grow with the bristling strength of scutch weed among new beet. Maybe Junior was right. Maybe you have to stand up before they trampled all over. She wondered what Sonnyjo thought. Would he leave her and disappear to the mountains like some of the others? No. But for the first time she wondered if he should, if you had to fight, as Junior kept saying, for your children and their future. Junior has no children she reminded herself.
Sonnyjo had his own thoughts and would have liked to speak but he didn’t know where to begin. Too much drink. He wasn’t used to his heaad spinning. The Outsider’s voice was echoing in the cavern of his mind, rocking him slowly to sleep. He attempted to picture that man’s family, the house. Did he have a daughter? No, much too young. A mother? A mother. So long ago. Instinctively, his hand reached across to the soothing rhythm of Sinead’s stomach.
Unconsciously, the Outsider wove himself into the fabric of their lives. Parly because he was seldom separated from Junior, partly though the flutter of shielded excitement, hints of exotic relief, his presence wrought, the accentless tongue gradually attained a soothing resonance. They no longer had difficulties understanding the curious lilt, indeed in their private ways, the whole family secretly enjoyed its spell, looking forward to his next visit, another tune.
“He’s so far from home,” Sinead muttered to Sonnyjo one night from the borders of sleep. “So far. So many people far from home these days. Less and less homes.”
Sonnyjo twisted uneasily. Was she trying to tell him something? Force him to make a move, go off with Junior or the cousins?
“It’s sad. Sad.” She hadn’t thought of her mother for ages but she reappeared then, floating above the bed, bent forward as if calling, beckoning. For the first time her presence stroked a chill. It was Sinead’s turn to reach for Sonnyjo and hold him tight. “I wish they’d stop. Stop it all.”
Through her whispering Sonnyjo patter her hair.
“They were full of stories in the market again today. Worse than the ones Junior tells. You Mrs. Mariwell’s son died, killed in by a sniper. That’s only fifty kilometres away. They cut ... horrible.” She was weeping softly, drowning her words. “They won’t come here will they?”
“No. Scch. No.” he attempted to sooth. “No. No. It’ll all be over soon.”
“And what will happen then?” persisted Sinead. “They say anywhere the troops go they simply kill and worse, and not just the chickens anymore. Junior’s right, if we don’t protect ourselves they’ll wipe us all out.” Her sobbing choked into silent fear.
“We’ve done nothing.” Sonnyjo assured, straining for a comforting thought. “No need to be afraid.”
“I know. But, do you think it matters anymore what we do?”
That was the torn which dug Sonnyjo’s side continually. He wanted to be left alone, in innocence, but even a child grows into the awareness that privacy is a luxury of the womb.
Sinead invited the Outsider to dinner on several occasions, mainly because she saw him as lonely, in need of a little comfort; and what remained of their parent’s house couldn’t offer much. She hadn’t been down there for years, it had finally become Junior’s house and little more she noted. Dovric’s shy giddiness, the dancing eyes twinkling too brightly across the table opposite became unavvoidable. Sonnyjo noticed nothing, but then he wouldn’t. Sinead did. She’d have to talk to Dovric, soon, when things had quietened down. Can’t go fluttering eyelashes at the first pair of blue eyes you meet. Have to grow up a bit. Still a child and he better not take advantage of it. Her sympathy for the Outsider rapidly cooled off. She refused outright when Junior pressed her to put him up for a few nights as he himself would be away.
“Take him with you,”
“I can’t. You know that.”
“I know nothing anymore Junior. Nothing. You rant and rave and say nothing. Where’s it going to end? Tell me that.”
Junior let her calm down before gripping her arm. “Listen. I’m doing this for all of you, of us. If we don’t act now it’ll be generations before we have another chance.”
She shrugged away, out of his grasp.
“I’m serious. The army is slaughtering our people.”
“And ‘our people’ what are they doing in turn?”
“Defending ourselves. Fatur will get us our own state. The only solution to all those years of fucking shite. The only way and if we have to fight for it we must. And your Sonnyjo should be out there as well. He’ll be the first to benefit. Hiding away here all innocent. There’s no room for neutrals. Look at the Outsider. Even outsiders know that.”
“I thought he was just a journalist.”
“Well he is. A kind of.”
A kind of. She should have suspected when Junior told them to keep his visit quiet, when he scarcely showed himself around the town. Some journalist.
Sensing a partial banning from the house Pete took to following Sonnyjo, animallike, though the fields. Sinead watched them depart from the yard, laughing at his childish footsteps, the frown of concentration on her husband’s face: little did he know the intrusion he was forcing on Sonnyjo. Only Dovric could get away with following Sonnyjo across his land.
Sonnyjo was none too pleased but his monosyllabic grunts appeared to have little effect. Pete had never taken him for a talker. “It’s beautiful,” he’d comment, marvelling at the hillsides, the sudden shade from a cclump of trees, the raw waft of freshly turned soil, the scattering of sheep before a stranger’s gait. “From the city, nothing like this. I always loved the country though. Watched it for hours on the TV. Always wanted to have a small farm and live quietly. never thought I’d find mountains like this, so isolated. Peaceful.”
Sonnyjo listened, unheeding, only partially understanding, as he went about his work uneasily, the oily rhythm of his movements creaking under this foreign gaze. And yet, curiosity, disbelief, occasionally broke the surface of his silence like a daisy before the dazzling spring light. “So you’re from a city, are you?” he finally managed. Had to say something to be polite he reasoned: he was a Outsider, had to show some courtesy.
“A big city. Can’t see green for miles.”
Sonnyjo couldn’t believe that. He been to the provincial capital once. That was a city and Sonnyjo knew you could still see the distant mountains. Even from the centre. “Is that what brings you here then?”
Pete didn’t understand. He looked faintly puzzled for a minute then decided “Yes” was as an appropriate an answere as any. “Yes, more or less.”
Gradually, Sonnyjo came to resent the Outsiders frequent intrusions less. The lyrical calmness of his comments, those strange tales of foreign places slowly slotted into the sounds of surrounding nature until, in a strange way, they became equally fascinating. Sonnyjo’s mind opened a crack, to be further dazzled by the light seeping through. “And this city,” he’d ask, “how many did you say lived there?” Then he’d whistle lowly in response. “And what do they all do?”
Dosing sheep, chuckling about on the tractor or simply wandering, he’d listen in awe to the replies. Later in bed he’d begin to repeat some of the wonders to Sinead, then restrained himself. She wouldn’t be interested. Enough to do. What he did out the fields was his own business, his own private world. That’s why he loved Sinead, why she put up with him they respected their mutual provinces.
“Your father was a great man,” Pete pounced one day.
“Aye, he was that,” replied Sonnyjo agreeing as he’d become accustomed to do, unthinkingly, only partially paying attention as if the Outsider was another swallow flying overhead. Then he straightened from his axe as the words sunk in. “How would you knoow that?” he demanded, eyes for the first time in their life holding anothers challengingly. Embarassed, he turned back to his work quickly, but found he was still waiting for a response.
“Sure don’t they all talk about him.”
“That’d be right.” They still did. Even the Outsider knew of his father. Sonnyjo felt a rush of pride.
“They tell great stories of you father. Fine storyteller himself they say. You know Junior tells some of them. Gave me a book of old tales by someone called Toby and said your father and his generation told them all mush better. But they still have the same meaning, don’t they? The same importance, forever. You have to learn from the past to produce a future, don’t you?”
Sonnyjo didn’t understand what he meant. He doubted if his father would have. “I don’t know. Don’t know about those things.”
“A brave man too they tell me. Fought hard in the last war.”
Sonnyjo continued cutting blocks for the fire muscles bulging under droplets of salty moisture. A glimpse of white as his shirt twisted further up his arm than usual, where the black tan of his arms and face melted suddenly into the pale childwhite of unexposed flesh beneath the clothesline.
“Sorry.” For once Pete appeared to be trapped by his words. “You never think of doing the same youself. I mean.
Sonnyjo had stopped chopping. He was examining the blade as if it weren’t sharp. Sweaty, back to his shadowy companion, he felt his face redden. He resumed work to calm himself.
“It’s just that we all have to do our part, don’t we? And I know you do yours.” Pete began to regain the slick flow of his thoughts. “Those fascists have got to be stopped.”
Sonnyjo finally deemed enough wood chiseled. “Come on. Give me a hand with these.” they began loading the firewood onto the trailer. Sonnyjo marvelled at the flickering flashes of Pete’s smooth fingers. A bankboys hands he confirmed. Had to be.
“Do you know something?” he remembered as they climed aboard the tractor for the journey home. “When my father was fighting, they were called communists.”
Pete’s face twisted with confusion, his dept of history didn’t reach far enough to sooth the conflict. “Yes.” He struggled to surmount the tangle and find a place to put his left foot out of way of the power take off.
Sonnyjo started the tractor. The ancient roar snorted out further reassurances.