Small Town Removal

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There is heat here. A dead heat. It sulks in the valley, as blue storms build, up beyond the grey ridge. It is the kind that clings to you and smothers your breath.

Down here by the canal there is no wind. Along the lane, the thick water slides past cows stretched out on tufts of sun-shorn rushes and wet meadow. The banks are crumbling, spilling earth into the cut. The water is sluggish out among the fields, but closer to the town it has the pace of tides.

Closer in, where the pleasure cruisers and holiday barges moor, Michael is standing on the metal bridge. The bridge crosses over the bug-flecked water from the shore to the lock gates. He can see down through the grating, he can see it is quicker here, near the weir and the lock. The canal rushes over the weir-wall, leaving trails of warp-reeds behind, all stretched, waiting for a weft of green, to mat the sun’s reflection.

Here, hoverflies hang in the still air, humming over the hemlock-heads and vetch-trails weave themselves into the banks. There is a Kingfisher’s burst of turquoise that catches his mind, a precious streak above the midge-skimming swallows.

This is where he used to fish when he was a boy, before the canal was dredged. Back then there were no pleasure cruisers. Back then there were no tourists. Back then was a long time ago and different place.
The weir’s roar shudders over the sounds of the town. The weir-fall sends lumps of cappuccino-frothed foam down to the canal basin, clogging the banks and the slipway. It melts slowly in this heat and backs up, leaving coffee slicks and milk scum under the arches of the main bridge; three arches to take the traffic and pipes underneath for the waste.

As Michael walks along the towpath, back to the main street, the water’s rush is left behind, replaced by the slow hum of traffic. The town is busier than it used to be and the bypass that his father promised never was.

At the bridge he stops and looks off down road. Down there, a half a mile or so out of the town is the big house they moved to when he was twelve. Down there is where Michael grew into a man. There is where he left and never went back again.

It is a small town. On the main street the houses and shops sit opposite each other, net-curtain yards distant. White buses, tourist’s cars and rusted tractors crawl from Carrick to Enniskillen and back. Behind finger-smudged glass, sweat-slick faces stare out at the pubs and sweet shops, the grocers and undertakers. The travellers are just passing on to somewhere; this place is nothing more than a name to most.

The noise in the town is steady, filled by murmured conversations on sun-sticky pavements and shouts of recognition from shadowed pub-doors. Behind the buildings, dogs shout as the traffic creeps between the parked cars on either side of the street.

One side of the street is in shade and the other bright lit with bleach-gold. The buildings shimmer in the heat, each a different colour; maroon, blue, yellow, grey and green. The windows and doors are propped open. Banners droop from telegraph poles and streetlights. Hanging baskets wilt in the glare, the pink petunias startle against the blue sky. Dust curls from the gutters when the trucks roll past, pasting whirls of diesel-fume and dirt on Michael’s skin.

Outside Jackie’s bar sit two polished aluminium tables, four chairs and two black-paint benches, set into the window recesses. The tabletops have swirled oyster patterns beneath the scratches; shifting, disturbed reflections.

In through the door of the bar, darkness wraps Michael’s eyes for long seconds. A plasma screen on a wall blinks silent football games. Three women sit below it, laughing vodkas in Lycra leggings and tight vest-tops. Their bras bulge and wobble below the stretch-cotton, the straps dark against freckle-white skin. One of them, the older packet-blonde, is holding a Yorkshire terrier with a tartan coat. The other two drape, limpid, over ragged red-velvet stains.

Jackie comes from the back bar.

‘How’re you? Some day,’ she says.

‘Aye, some heat out there, some day. Will you give me a bottle of Bulmer’s and pint glass with ice and a packet of Tayto,’ says Michael.

‘Did you know him?’ she asks.

A frosted glass, filled with ice, floats for a second on its own melted water and then sinks to the mahogany.

‘Aye, I did, sort of,’ Michael lies.

This place was Sweeney’s before it was Jackie’s. This was his father’s place, the family business; it was pints and undertaking. Michael saw his first dead body when he was six and drank his first stout when he was twelve, stolen from the back bar—it made him puke through his nose.

His father, John Joseph, was a big man around the town. Michael and his brothers were reared over the bar. They heard the pints and party songs, the bottles clinking in moonlight crates in the yard. It was a place just for the men. The boys would get a treat on a Saturday, a warm bottle of Red Lemonade to share and a packet of Tayto crisps. Their Mother never set foot inside the bar when the doors were open. She was only there with the bucket and the mop. This was the place that bore him and shaped him and he can still smell the Jeyes.

Michael takes his drink outside. The chilled bottle sticks to his skin. He puts the bottle and the glass down on one of the mirror-bright tables and takes his jacket off, folding it over the back of a chair. He checks his phone, flipping the leather cover over and swiping the face. He has time still. He sits on the bench, underneath the petunias. He can feel the heat of the dark wooden slats through his suit trousers.

An old boy is standing uneasy, a few yards up the road. He is wearing a short-sleeved checked shirt, tucked into Crimplene trousers. His belt is two inches below his nipples. His socks are showing Homer Simpson smiles, underneath his sandals. His hips are thrust forward but his torso leans back in that curve of age that leaves pigeon chests and chicken necks. He is smoking a Carroll’s, taking time to savour the whole cigarette. His hair is stiff and white and sweat dews his lip. He rocks slowly on his feet, unsure whether to walk further down to the bridge or back up to the Chapel.

‘Paul,’ says Michael.

The old boy stares, his eyes skewed.

‘It’s me, Michael, Michael Sweeney,how are you?’ Michael says as he stands and offers a hand.
‘Yes Mick, yes it is you. How are you now? Great weather.’

‘How are you keeping Paul, it’s been a long time, how are you? I… I heard about Ida. I’m, I’m…’

‘Aye, aye, thank you.’

‘And the boys? How are they?’

‘Ah topping, they’re topping. So you’re home for this then, for him.’

‘I am, has to be done.’

‘It does that, it has to be done. A good fellah, always a hello, a topping fellah, I’m sorry for you.’

‘Yes Paul, thanks, you’re right, topping. Will you all be there tomorrow?’

‘Aye, we’ll be down, we’ll be down to say… to say… me and the boys, we’ll be down.’

‘Sure I’ll see the boys then, it’ll be good to catch up.’

‘Aye surely, surely. I’ll head on up now, you’ve to wait I expect,’ says Paul, as the Carroll’s burns blue to the filter.

‘Yes, Paul, I’ll see you up there.’

Michael watches Paul as he turns and walks towards the Chapel. Michael has known Paul all his life. It is shock to see the familiar grow old, to see youth peel and leave a curved spine and grey skin.

He sits again and pours the cider into the glass, listening to the ice creak and shatter. A wasp flits around the bottle top as Michael drinks. He opens the Tayto and he is back again in a cheese and onion childhood.

His mother had been a big, bright woman. Mary Sweeney that used to be a Kelly. Mary who smelt of Lifebuoy soap and ‘Evening in Paris’, splashed from the blue bottle beside her bed. She had cooked and washed, ironed and laughed. She had chased Michael and his brothers with a wooden spoon but had never laid a hand on them.

She’d kept John Joseph in socks and manners. When he ran for the council she was the one who stood on the Chapel steps talking to the women, getting them to haul their husbands down to the school on election day.

‘Vote for J.J. Sweeney, the man who’ll gets things done’

She was the one who ran up the bill with the P & T, organising lifts for them ones who couldn’t get down; trains of Massey 135’s crawling down from the hillside, with the promise of tea and sandwiches for the ladies and whiskey for the men. John Joseph was elected onto the county council but it was Mary Sweeney that got him there.

The small town silence of hums and soft engines waits like some old-time western film. Across the street, outside McGinn’s bar, a white transit van pulls up and parks in the shade, windows open. She is sitting in the passenger seat with a child on her lap. She is wearing a faded-yellow top; the young boy is eating an ice cream; he is wearing a red striped t-shirt. The father has a white shirt, top button loose and a tie that is slung below his neck. They sit staring straight ahead, not a word passes between them.

The sun’s heat against Michael’s forehead and left arm isn’t comfortable but still he sits and waits, drinking slowly. The glass leaves circles of water on the tabletop, the wasp lands on the bottle.

Opposite Jackie’s is another bar, Smyth’s. Three barmen in polo shirts are standing outside, smoking. Michael hasn’t smoked for years but as he had walked past the supermarket at the bridge, he’d stepped inside and bought twelve and half grams of Drum, a pack of Rizla and a box of matches.

He pulls the tobacco pouch now from his trouser pocket, tears the plastic off with his teeth and peels the pouch open. A cigarette paper is filled with the tobacco and his practiced fingers roll the cigarette. There is a lick and a final twist. Michael puts the cigarette between his lips and feels the dry paper stick to his lips. He moves it from side to side. The matchsticks are splinter-thin; the heads are not much more. He strikes two together.

A flatbed artic clatters the manhole covers up by the hotel. Fire-engine red, its air brakes hiss and spit; a Dublin steel wholesaler. On the tail of the trailer is a rusted cut-off I-beam, held down with bright orange ratchet-straps. The truck passes, the trailer rattles and bounces, whipping the air, twisting the dirt. A crisp packet is sucked up and floats up like a Chinese lantern. Behind Smyth’s, dogs bark, a small terrier, a deeper-voiced larger breed and then a German shepherd. The dogs settle, the truck’s brakes squeal at the bridge and then it is gone.

The matches have died, extinguished by the passing. Michael lights two more and the cigarette catches.

The smoke is familiar as Michael sucks on the cigarette. He shudders and coughs. He feels the drug flood his lungs, seeping into his blood. The buzzing starts in his head and reaches down through his body. He shakes again and takes another drag. The wasp flies away as he exhales.

John Joseph served the town in the bar and the town spread its concerns across the counter. He had the ‘lectric fixed for this one and the water for that. He had the potholes filled and a few pound spent on the football pitch. He stood at the Chapel steps on collection day in his grey suit, thanking every good soul who put tuppence into the box and he shook the hands at every funeral. He was a commissioner for oaths, the big man on the council and the man who got things done. Mary Sweeney stood by him, raising the children until the rooms above the bar were too small. They moved to one of the big houses on the Carrick road, with a modern kitchen and four bedrooms. He left the undertaking business to McGinn’s.

A Garda car skulks down from the top of the town, a battered, filthy Mondeo. The registration is five years old, the bodywork tells a different fiction, a country car. There is just a driver in fluorescent yellow jacket. His window is rolled down. He waves at the smokers of the Smyth’s. He sees Michael and nods, no more than that. He turns the Mondeo at the bridge and drives back up the street, double-parking beside the Transit van.

The Transit driver gets out. He is wearing a kilt; it is bright red, even in the shadows. He is bald, purple-veined and sunburnt. He puts on a black, double-breasted jacket. His tie is dark green. He nods to the guard and they pass a few words, then he leans in through the Transit window and talks to the child.

Michael drops his cigarette, half smoked, to the floor and crushes it with his shoe. Michael’s shoes are black leather, scuffed, rarely worn except for days like this.

A Toyota Landcruiser blusters past, heavy house beats, muffled and dropping away. The Landcruiser slows when the driver sees the guard, a country wave, back of the hand and a finger raised. The Guard returns the gesture. Michael knows the language of this place. He fits here or at least he did once. This was his geography, his home place.

The Sweeneys had not been more than a year in the big house when Mary got sick. She had complained of sore belly for a month or more, losing weight, sinking into herself. She had taken to Milk of Magnesia from another blue bottle, mixed into her tea. The stomach cancer killed her quickly. She came down from the bedroom one morning, sat in the chair and her head tipped.

After John Joseph had buried Mary he took to the drink. He’d always been fond but after the funeral he was bad with it. That summer he left the boys in the care of his sister and went up to the horse fair looking for a wife. He was gone for three days and came back, promised to a thin, bitter one.

The kilt wearer reaches into the Transit and lifts his bagpipes. He slings them under his arm. The small town noise is broken by the burst of the chanter that sounds like tuned geese. He is wearing his Glengarry now; plain black, ribbons falling. He fills the pipes again and lets the drones sound as he practices a scale. The sound bounces off the houses, up the street past the pubs and the library, on past the Chapel and the Commercial and Tourist Hotel. He plays some more; simple runs up and down, warming the instrument. Then the pipes are silenced as he stands, waiting.

Michael checks his phone again. Not long now. He takes another drink. The Yorkshire terrier walks out of Jackie’s and cocks its leg against one of the aluminium chairs. Michael tilts his head.

‘Hello pup, kck kck.’

The dog jumps back and yaps before running back inside, its ears flat and its tail tucked.

It was not a good union. Theresa was her name, she had come from twenty-one acres and a cottage off the Enniskillen road, most of it rush-scattered bog. When their mother had been alive, the boys had breathed the fresh air of open windows and wallflowers. Theresa shut the windows, pulled the curtains and left the garden to the ragwort.

The cars start to arrive from both ends of the town. Dublin and Mayo, Galway and Roscommon registrations, their parking is awkward, country parking; nose forwards into a space and a slow creep up the kerb, then reverse, forward lurches. The cars sit at small town angles, far from the kerbstones. Handbrakes ratchet and electric windows whirr. Silent conversations behind tinted glass. White shirts and summer dresses. Middle ages, older; acrylic cardigans and suit jackets on hangers in the back seats. They sit, up and down the street, and wait.

A young man in a black suit passes Michael. His tie is black, his trousers half an inch too short in the leg. He crosses the road holding his jacket pocket; a stumbling run that breaks into a walk, half way across. The guard and the piper look up. The young man talks to both of them then makes a phone call. His head nods and his hand moves. He nods and nods. The call is finished. He says something and the piper and the guard both turn to the bridge.

The piper blows again, an aching glissando up to tune. The dogs behind Smyth’s bark again. The Guard drives off, up the road, up towards the Chapel. He’ll stop the traffic before the Commercial and Tourist, the side roads will mind themselves, everybody knows what is happening, who it is or who it was. The parked cars start to spill their passengers, scrubbed, shaved, and smart. They walk in pairs up towards the Chapel.

The main street is still. No cars, no buses move in either direction. The shops close, blinds are drawn, the pub doors shut. People line the street. They wait together, hands crossed, uncomfortable in the heat. Michael can smell tobacco smoke from across the road. The cigarettes are stubbed. Heads turn to face down towards the bridge.

Michael can hear the canal weir now. It is the first time he has ever noticed the noise from the main street, it reminds him of the medium-wave radio static John Joseph used to listen to as he chased the airwaves for dance music on Radio Éireann. Michael remembers the dials on the radio, the amber glow of the valves, his father searching up and down around the word Athlone on the backlit Bakelite. Those were times his father smiled. He would dance around the kitchen with Mary Sweeny and they would laugh. In the big house there was no music, Michael never saw his father smile.

The vodka women appear, red-faces, broken veins; the Yorkshire terrier sniffs around the table. The wasp lands again on the bottle and bends its body into the opening, its antenna twitching. Then it slips inside, drowning in the dregs. Its buzzing is amplified by the bottle. Its death throes are the loudest thing Michael can hear now, louder even than the distant weir’s rush.

A trail of petunias touches Michael’s head. He lifts his jacket and moves towards the kerb, leaving the dead wasp, the pink petunias and the tobacco behind him.

Above the town, an aeroplane leaves contrails in the blue heading towards America; swallows streak over rooftops, rooks caw and cackle somewhere, the German shepherd barks once; then silence and waiting.

In the big house the pretence was of the good family; the poor widower John Joseph and his children; Theresa, the saint to have saved them all. Michael’s reality was far from the pretence. Theresa wouldn’t have a drop in the house, so John Joseph would have take a drink and drive the half-mile home. He had no patience for the boys and she had no love them. He was elected four more times; the big man, the man who gets things done. Michael left the big house when he was eighteen. He went to college in Dublin. He came back for the summers, but there was nothing there anymore to keep him. There was never any scene, never any great argument. John Joseph was too busy being the big man and Theresa had nothing to say to Michael, so he never went back. No letters, no telephone calls.

The stillness ceases with a swoop of pipes. The hearse is coming over the bridge. The piper steps out and walks at the head of the cortège. He is wearing black runners; his socks white are knee length. The piper’s air is the Dawning of the Day. The hearse windows are open, the driver stares straight ahead, next to him the black-suited passenger nods to people lining the street. The dogs bark at the pipes.

From the bridge, the hearse passes the grocers and the supermarket. Girls in supermarket uniforms stand in a group, uncomfortable in the sun. Michael puts his jacket on and slips the knot of his tie upwards.

At the bridge, heads drop as the hearse passes, whispered words and blessings, the recitations of Catholicism, the rites of life and death. Blurred hands make the sign of the cross; there is no thought, the movement is unconscious.

The hearse passes McGinn’s pub where half-a-dozen unsteady men stand, heads bowed in respect.

Michael feels a rush of blood to his face; his head is fuzzy from the cider and the nicotine. He steadies himself against a lamppost.

The piper’s cheeks swell and puff, drops of effort peel down his forehead. The smoking barmen at Smyth’s dip their heads too, as the piper walks the white lines.

The sun is low now, stretching the pavement. The watchers on this side of the street shade their eyes with flat hands. Michael sways; the back of his jacket is soaked with sweat.

There are no flowers with the casket. The Observer had carried the notice¬—Family flowers only, donations in lieu to the Irish Cancer Society, care of McGinn’s Undertakers.

Behind the hearse the cars stretch down to the bridge and out of town. Fifty or sixty cars snake all the way to the lock and beyond. The windows are rolled in every car. The dogs are still barking.

The black Mercedes that follows the hearse carries five people. They are monochrome; the detached air of those whose grief is still sharp is plain, they stare at the casket in front. They are oblivious to everyone and everything.

John Joe Óg is driving; he seems bored almost. Next to him is Paddy, staring at his hands now and then before lifting his eyes to the hearse. In the back, on the far side is Phil, he has put weight on, but his green eyes still shine. Nearest to Michael is Seamie, who rocks forwards and back in his lonely world with a half smile for the rest of them. In the middle is a grey, bitter woman; her eyes have no focus, her face no meaning.

The Mercedes passes Michael. He stays still. They do not see him.

More cars pass. A black Audi; the driver is a handsome woman, Michael’s Aunt. She stares at him.

Michael watches every car, some faces familiar, some not. Only when the last has passed does he walk up to the Chapel. Streams of people come from every direction. They crowd the steps of the Chapel. He sees boys he knows gulping down pints at the Commercial and Tourist Hotel, before crossing the road. They’ll be back there when the service is over and tomorrow after the funeral; pints of stout and hot whiskey until the ballads start.

The priest stands at the doors waiting. The casket is rolled to the steps and sprinkled with holy water. The priest mumbles rites and prayers. The crowd bless themselves prompted again and again by the priest’s words.

Long shadows of rooftops and chimneys stretch over the removal.

Michael watches from the edge of the crowd as his brothers lift the casket and carry his father into the Chapel.