As he reëntered the barroom, three slow knocks sounded on the front door, followed by two rapid ones, as if a code were being employed. He went to the window and looked under the blind and saw a blocky man in late middle age faced to consider the bay, the Stags, the equinoctial sky. He did not recognize the man but his mood turned quickly sombre as he moved to the front door. An experienced publican is an educated reader of mood’s nuance. It wasn’t Death, by any chance, that stood there?
As he opened the door the man turned to him with an owl’s incredulous eyes and spoke lowly to inquire—
“There’s a cuckoo, hey?”
“Oh, there is,” he said. “In the bushes beyond the schoolyard. He’d let you know all about himself.”
“Loud all right, a throttle on him. Would you sell me a pint?”
“I can’t do that.”
The man let his jaw drop in an exaggerated, vaudevillian way.
“Are you not allowed to sell takeout?”
“Some are doing so in the towns. I’m not. I have no stock at all.”
“Hard aul’ times all right. I noticed the window was open. Thought I’d chance it.”
“There’s no harm in that.”
“You wouldn’t recognize me, I suppose?”
“No, but I’m trying to place you.”
It was true that he was. The stranger was fastidiously keeping the two-metre distance and he had to narrow his glance against the sunshine to make him out. The face had an antique bearing; it was somehow medieval. The clear, hard gleam in the eyes—these were eyes that might seek a quick killing. But he spoke pleasantly enough.
“I grew up not far from here,” he said.
Age receded from the stranger’s face then to allow an O’Casey be made out. A poor family from a sad stretch of the shore road they had been. One of those families that had broken up and trickled away in all directions. They’d left a wound of a house behind them. The gaping maw of the blank doorway had stood on the shore road for years as invitation to the miseries banked within. It must have been three decades since the family had lived there. Hadn’t there been a story about the father gone mad?
“Are you an O’Casey?” he asked.
The man smiled broadly and parted his lips to show a proud battalion of remade teeth.
“You’d be a long time stepping out from your own shade,” he said, confirming the speculation.
The afternoon conspired with its languors. The heron stood beyond time on the wrack-encrusted rock. The O’Casey peered across his shoulder, into the gloom of the barroom.
“I’d take a whiskey?” he tried.
“I suppose if I don’t charge you for it.”
He turned from the doorway and crossed the floor of the barroom—his breath was coming more thickly now. He dipped beneath the bar and polished a whiskey glass that did not require polishing and set it beneath the optic to fill a single measure of Powers. He was watched all the while and smilingly from the doorway.
“I’ve no ice even,” he called out. “A drop of water?”
“I don’t take it.”
He brought the drink and placed it in the stranger’s hand.
“I don’t remember which one you were,” he said. “There were a few of ye, I think?”
“There were eight of us for children,” O’Casey replied. “Your father would have put mine out of this place more than once.”
“Is that right?”
The man turned his face bayward again and bore down on the slow years, the decades. He sipped at the Powers and made no comment on it. The world had grown so quiet in this season of eeriness. Down the long solitude of the shore road, across the new fresh green of the fields, upon the clear and boatless bay, there was not a soul otherwise to be seen.
“One night my father came home from this place trembling,” O’Casey said. “I remember he sat looking into the fire and I could tell that he could hardly breathe.”
Keeping his eyes fixed on the bay, letting them fill up with its springtime radiance, O’Casey dredged from the past a woman’s voice, his mother’s, and it was perfectly got—
“What’s wrong with you, Joe? Wrong with you, for the love of God? Did he say something?”
“My mother worried over him all the time,” O’Casey said. “His nerves weren’t set right. He had what she called his spells.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t recall any . . .”
“Ah, you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t recall any of it. You’d have been away at the boarding school.”
The greatest mystery is how others perceive us. The pub had been a respectable premises always and he could not have imagined that the family was other than well regarded. But he realized, too, that the charge of snobbery is often an astonishment to those so arraigned.
O’Casey finished the whiskey quickly and held out his hand to offer the empty glass but as he reached for it O’Casey withdrew it again, as if playfully, and he did not smile. He just set it down on the stoop by his feet and turned and walked away.
He reëntered the pub and locked the door. He sat at a low table in the guise, briefly, of a customer. He looked around the bar for a slow minute. No singsongs; no recitals; no displays of romantic affection. This had been a house that favored schoolmasters, respectable farmers, country solicitors. The meagreness of his world closed in. In such a quietness all was amplified. The veils slip away; the edifice itself might crumble. In late March of the year the light was rawly new and revealing.
“He’d mind a mouse for you at the mart in Ballina,” Tim Godfrey said. “A careful man, he would not be found wanting. Hard enough tack to have a father the like of that?”
He must concede that it had been. It was many years since Godfrey had haunted the premises, had across the low tables roamed a humorous gaze. Godfrey had been a Church of Ireland farmer from the Ox Mountains transplanted by a peculiar marriage to the North Mayo plain—from beyond the place himself, he could see it more clearly. True enough that his father had been a careful man. Growing up in the house of such a man you could hear yourself thinking. Without a single word being said you could sense that you were being measured for what tasks might be presented. The running of the pub was at slow length presented.
He rose and went behind the bar and set a glass beneath the optic and poured himself a large Bushmills and diluted it with three or four teardrops of tap water. He drank it in a swoop and felt the slow fire descend into his belly. It was years since he had taken a spirit. The charge of its heat stirred him powerfully. He had felt the intensity of anger in youth. He had not wanted this place but had allowed himself to be shaped to it. There was a resentment he had never quite named before. He shook his head against this feeling and came out from behind the bar and went to the window and raised the blind another fraction and saw the expanse of the bay and the Stags of Broadhaven looming and the cormorant arranged gothically on the black glister of its rock. Time could not be measured in the usual ways. The markers of day and evening had fallen into disuse. Subtracted from his routines he was no longer the full equation of himself. These afternoon visits to the pub were to simulate routine but now they were failing. They were filling increasingly with the old lost voices. He went to the door and opened it and leaned down to take the whiskey glass from the stoop where O’Casey had left it but there was no glass there. He closed the door and locked it again. He sat at a low table. The sun was moving without regard and rounded the building and suddenly its light filled the kitchen out back.