Sometimes I think that I live in a strange village. It happens when I am on my fourth or fifth pint. Nothing strange about that, most middle-aged men have what you might call a fleeting moment of clarity that hits them from nowhere when the talking stops for no reason and they catch sight of themselves in the bar mirror. In my case it only happens in this watering hole, because my daughter works here. She doesn't know who I am, that I'm her father I mean. Here is the only place I can see her but tonight it could all come to a head, it has to sometime.
They're a sound crowd in the pub all the same, sure I'd be lost without them. We all have names, they call me Red, on account of my hair and because I paint all the hay sheds in the parish red, then there's Lightning Johnny, who never got out of bed before midday and The Contender, who always picks a fight on Paddy's Day and gets hammered. They have a name on my daughter, she's red too, it's as if they know, The Red Hot Chilli Pepper, but they've shortened it to the Chilli Pepper on account of her mood swings.
She's a bit wild at times, she always has the young fellas eating out of her hand, the way she dresses doesn't help. It's hard to watch sometimes, the way they leer at her, even the old bucks have no shame. I suppose that's why I'm down here most nights to try and protect her. That got me into trouble one night when she threw me out.
"I'm well able to mind myself" she snarled bitterly, "I had to learn early, So don't be acting like a father, you should be at home minding your own family".
I suppose she's right I've been ignoring the wife lately and Paul my son. He was twenty one yesterday. We're having a splash here tonight in the pub for him, he likes a drink too but he's not a real drinker, he just buys them cans in Aldi and sucks them in the flat in Galway. I'd prefer to see him out mixing with real people instead of playing some game on the computer in the flat or trying to chat up some young one on that bloody screen but sure with the drink driving laws now everyone's afraid. I find it tricky enough myself going home, I take a back road through the wood but sure even that's not safe.
He's in his last year in the GMIT college doing Construction Studies - he'll have no bother getting a job, he'll be off my payroll then. He comes home the odd weekend and we've a pint in the village but he has nothing to say, I can't knock any talk out of him. He had his eye on Maria, that's the daughter, the last time too - Jesus, life is never simple. Some days I think everyone knows especially after drink and other days I think sure they can't know, or if they did, somebody would say something. I can't talk to anyone about it, that's the worst part. So I normally convince myself that nobody knows and then I try to convince myself that it didn't happen until I go for a pint and I see Maria and her mother talking to me through her.
Maria has another pint in front of me - she fills them just at the right time. Father Pat is great though - he got us all on a FAS scheme, working every second week, cleaning up the village, the place is looking well even though the bank, the post office and the school are all closed down. There's only the pub and the church left and they too are losing customers; when a village looses the school it takes the heart out of the place. They're bussed into town now and they call it progress. The bank allowed us to paint the place this year and put flower boxes on the windowsills. It makes all the difference to the square, if only we could get the County Council to paint the courthouse.
On my week off I keep an eye on the farm. I used to send milk to the creamery but sure there's no money in it so I quit last year and let the calves do the milking. The young fella shows no interest so why would I be killing myself getting up in the dark to get a slap of a shitty tail on the lug. The missus has a good job now, she done that assertiveness night class course in Castlebar. She earns more than I do on the FAS and the land put together working in what she calls Human Resources with some American crowd that make artificial hips. She talks a lot about motivation and going forward, I think if she was in reverse these days, she'd still be going forward, she's certainly not backward, then its people skills and the importance of communication. When she starts that kind of talk I get dizzy and I have to head down the land to clear my head or go to the pub. The priest even wants her to give a talk in the community centre as part of the festival about modern living in a rural village entitled "Communities Going Forward in Challenging Times , Working Together as a Team".
Anyway she's changed a lot in the last few years, she's not the woman I married, maybe I have changed too, she's probably saying the same things about me. We've plenty of money now she's even on about buying a flat in Marbella . Sure what would we do out there? Golf is her new discovery and there's nothing but brochures and property supplements about Spain all over the house. She wants to change the car too, wants to buy one of those open top yokes - they'd never keep the water out after the seals went but try explaining that to her. She met this lady at the assertiveness course a year ago and it's like she's different. She dresses up a lot, more than before, even going shopping. Sometimes I think she's ashamed of me when she introduces me to her new friends who are all from the right side of town. She never comes to the pub anymore even though she got on really well with Maria. Sometimes I think she knows but has decided to say nothing. They even went shopping to Galway once where she introduced her to Paul - Jesus life gets complicated, sometimes the pressure is too much, if I couldn't get down the land to clear my head I think I'd throw a rope over the beam in the hayshed and call it a day.
It's great down the land away from the racket. I sit on a rock on top of a rushey hill and smoke two Major looking at Croagh Patrick. It must be twenty miles away but it always takes my mind off things when I go there ever since I was a child and there was trouble in the house, when the old fella fell in drunk. What was St. Patrick at up there? He must have had a lot of short circuits in the fuse box or maybe he was trying to achieve closure as my wife would say. I'd nearly try it myself if I had a few crates of Heineken and a few boxes of Major. I might find some answers or at least the questions but here in this fog I can't see anything.
They'll all be in soon now for the party and Maria's on for the full night. Same again I say to Maria and a drop of anti-freeze from the top shelf. I wish this night was over. We bought Paul a laptop, the wife got it at the sales last January but sure they're cheaper now. It's all wrapped up beside the stage. The band is the usual clot of Country and Western leprechauns who were has-beens before they started. Their C D is flogged on local radio and they've even been to Nashville. Since then they whine in a Mayo-Tennesse accent, wear white suits, cowboy hats and have a huge middle-aged female audience. Their delivery is as subtle as a grey crow landing on a dung pit. They're costing me a thousand euros.
"Hello Red" they say as the place fills up. Maria is dolled up more than usual and has another pint and a short out on the counter before I know it. I'll try to stay fairly sober tonight. The wife is coming here after some rural development committee meeting and Paul is supposed to be here around ten if he leaves the pub in town on time. He's into rock music since we got him that electric guitar for his eighteenth. I suppose there's nothing wrong with that as long as he keeps his eye on the ball. He plays in this band, they tell me he's good, sure I can't listen to that noisy racket, give me a bit of Willy Nelson or Hank Williams. The sandwiches are covered in foil and sitting on trays inside the bar and I have the barbecue ready for the sausages and burgers.
Maria has stopped talking to her mother Bernie. It seems they fell out around the time the misses introduced Maria to Paul. Maria moved out around then into a flat in town and has had a trail of boyfriends since then. She's been drinking a lot too, she's changed, it seems that she's interested in Paul again, cut the hair up short and became even more reckless. I doubt if her mother told her anything but I don't know, I'll have to meet her some day to try and find out what she has said to Maria.
Bernie is a nice person. I knew her from school days. She's very bright and the parents had big plans for her. Her brothers and sisters have all done well. You'd often see her brothers mentioned in the property supplement in the Irish Independent. Two of them started as block layers up in Dublin and sure now they own three pubs and have fifty men working under them on sites, house building. They come down a few times a year driving bigger cars each time. One of them has the latest Merc. The rest of them are teachers and one is a doctor. Bernie's parents are still alive but you never see them out anymore except at mass. They have a two storey house with two big monkey puzzle trees on either side of a long driveway and a Virginia creeper covering the gable.
We were going out for three years when it happened. We had planned to get married. That night after Mayo won the Connacht Final we had a few drinks on us and going home in the Cortina she insisted I pull in at the bend where the council dump the tar barrels.
"It's safe" she demanded. "We're using the rhythm method. Remember they showed us on the chart in the pre-marriage course the night Father Jack tiptoed out of the room".
That chart looked like some kind of board game to me like the Ludo we played when we were kids, I didn't argue but I wasn't too comfortable about the whole thing.
We were getting on well then, four months away from the big day. We had picked a site that my father gave us on top of the hill overlooking a lake and had chosen a house plan from Bungalow Bliss for a dormer bungalow. Her brothers would do the block-laying and my uncle would do the plumbing, I'd do all the ground works and build the septic tank.
Anyway she got a bit nervous the following month and everything was put on hold. Then after the second month she called it off. It seems her parents couldn't handle the shame. My parents were furious and took offence that I wasn't good enough for her. She had to take sides with her crowd and we had to stop seeing each other. It was unbearable.
I called down one night after a few pints. She met me at the door and bundled me into the garden. "I'm taking the boat on Thursday" she said.
I found out afterwards that her parents gave her the return fare, organised the clinic and her uncle would put her up for a week. I couldn't handle that type of thing. For me it all starts at conception and after that it's all progression until the final whistle. Anyway I went to England with her to try and persuade her to see sense.
She was awful sick on the boat, bobbing around on the Irish Sea in a gale all night. There was sick everywhere, they couldn't get the smell of it out of the carpets. It took her a day to recover in Holyhead where we had to stay in a boarding house for the night. God I remember looking out the window at the gulls and the smell of salt everywhere and trucks waiting in patient lines for the delayed ferries. After we got the train to London she slept for almost fifteen hours at her uncle's while I crashed on the floor of Johnny Riley's flat in Harrow.
There was nothing between us now, all those nights in the Royal Ballroom, all those Sundays we spent in the Cortina going to the beach or football matches all over Connacht with my father, who was proud at the thought of having a teacher in the family, evaporated. There was only the clinic at three. Bernie could have done any job; she didn't have to depend on the priest and the national teaching. After three hours I hoped that I had persuaded her to keep it. I told her I'd support her and pay for the education. I told her that I loved her and I'm not one for that class of talk, maybe that was what she wanted to hear, but it was too late now. We went to the clinic at three. I stayed outside praying the few prayers left in my skull. She came out soon afterwards holding these tablets, crying, shaking all over before she screamed and threw them in my face.
"They wouldn't give a refund", she sobbed after a long time. I didn't care a dam about the bloody refund, I tried to put my arm around her but she was having none of it. "Christ" I said, "Can't we be friends at least?"
I never felt so lonely. Walking around London with four days to kill, waiting for the return ticket and pretending to her uncle that everything went according to plan. We went to the sights, Trafalgar Square, the Tower of London, we even took a boat down the river to see the Cuttey Sark but it was useless - she wouldn't thaw. I took to drink on the last day. I've never gone to London since.
Anyway speaking of herself she was born seven pounds four ounces or so they told me in the local shop, "red curly hair a bit like your own". They made a point of telling me that - some days I'd think nobody knows and other days I'd think sure they all know. We agreed not to see each other after London. She got a job in Dublin, the brothers set her up in the building company doing accounts. She wasn't seen around for five years until the father got sick. Then she moved down and put Maria in the local school. There are times when I think I still love her, I suppose I can't admit that to myself or that would cause more trouble, anyway its too late now. She was so bright and witty but she lost all that. Now it's just a cloudy face that greets me when I meet her outside mass. What a waste, what a stupid senseless waste. It makes me very angry. If times were like they are now we'd be together all three of us but respect got in the way.
The place is filling up nicely and the sandwiches and cocktail sausages will soon be out. I see Paul coming in the door a bit tipsy with his friends. By now the band has started wailing out some Charlie Pride song. I'm not drunk but I'm not sober. I welcome Paul and point to the presents. "You're a popular young fella" I say. "Yeah Da" he says and brushes me off. "And how's the hottest thing within a hundred mile radius?" he croons at Maria and sweeps towards the bar. I order more drink off Maria to distract her, in fact I order drink for everyone in the bar. Paul looks up at the band and the singer winks back. I'm hoping he won't give him the fingers. I don't want trouble, all I want is a quiet life, but that's too much to ask I suppose.
The wife and her golfing friends from town announce their arrival. She is introducing Paul to them but she doesn't seem to see me. They keep to themselves. Paul has a lot of friends here and there seems to be loads of Maria's friends here too for some reason. Maria has left the bar and is gathering glasses. Paul is introducing Maria to my wife's cronies.
I can't let the whole thing escalate but Jesus what am I going to do? I interrupt the band and ask them would they let Paul play for a while. They agree and they call upon him to join in on the lead guitar. I can see he's angry but his mother cheers him up onto the stage. It gives me a chance to talk to Maria but what am I going to say? I didn't think he could play, the state he was in but he managed to clamber onto the stage. "Ever heard of Led Zepp?", he growls. "Go for it" his friends shouted. "This is called Whole Lotta Love", and he dedicates it to Maria. The band don't seem to be able to join in so he grabs the mike and takes over the stage. I can see Maria is impressed. I can't handle the tension, I should have sorted all this mess out before now but I'm not one for confrontation. It's all going to come to a head tonight, I can see it now. I steady myself and decide to ring Bernie. I kept her number just in case anything happened to Maria. I'm not supposed to have her number; I got it off Maria one night when she left her wallet on the counter.
I ring Bernie her mother answers. It was a long time since I heard that voice, memories came flooding back. It hadn't changed since we were engaged, still cold and frail. I freeze and cut her off. I ring again, when Bernie answers I apologise for calling so she wouldn't hang up. "It's an emergency", I insist and plead with her not to leave the phone down, I keep talking about Maria and Paul and how we have to stop it, it's hard to hear anything with the racket in the pub. There is still no response from her. "Please" I beg. Then the phone goes dead.
The food is circulating now. Paul is still beating the guitar and his mates are singing along with him. When he finishes there is huge applause. He can play the thing alright. It's strange how you notice things sometimes when you have a few pints. I guess I haven't noticed him much lately, where do the years go. Here I am looking across at my wife and sure a stranger would never know we were, I mean are, an item. She never even looked my way all night. It's hard to know when things die between people. We never have arguments, it's like we stay out of each other's way. We never do anything together. All I know is that it's dead as far as I'm concerned but its hard to admit to that too, sure I can live with that if I could get over tonight. Paul is still on the stage. His crowd are shouting "Led Zepp, Led Zepp" and my wife is presenting him with our present.
"I have an announcement to make" Paul shouts. "Not yet" Maria shouts back. Then Paul blows a kiss over the bar and wades in with a few phrases thanking his mother. "I have an announcement to make" he insists and he calls over Maria. I can't believe this is happening. It's like you've been told that you're terminally ill but this is supposed to happen to other people. "This lady and I have some news" he declares to everybody. My wife seems to be thrilled and everyone gapes at the stage. They all seem to be happy. It's only now after all these years I discover that, nobody knows.
How could it have been a secret? "This lady" my son goes on, "and I would formally like to announce our engagement. " There are great cheers and hugs all around, nobody hugs me, it's like I have become invisible I don't know where to disappear to when I see Bernie coming in the door, my heart is jumping in my chest. "Congratulations", they hug her. "How did you know Mum?" Maria calls her up onto the stage, but Bernie isn't smiling. "I've got an announcement to make too" Bernie says. She stuns the pub. She was never one to be in the limelight but now she is a teacher again and we her pupils, my knees are shaking. The place is silent except for the machine washing the glasses.
"I've been living a lie for twenty four years" she proclaims solemnly. "Ireland has changed a lot since then. There were no choices back in nineteen eighty two, if it was now I'd have had a life. You might wonder why I'm talking tonight, well it's to do with Maria, or more to the point, her father." Everyone looks at me and then I wonder sure they must have known all along or was it because I was the only one left at the bar. "I have done him a great wrong, he's a gentleman. I left this village before Maria was born, I had to before they sacked me. Those of you old enough know, that I had plans to live with a local man. I made a great mistake, I should have listened to him, anyway he is Maria's Dad."
I could feel all the eyes on me now. The silence was terrible and the sweat was running off me, my wife and her friends burst out the door. "I should have allowed him to see his daughter" ,she went on "and involved him in all the decisions made as she was growing up, instead he's had to come down here every night to see her. I have been very cruel. I want to apologise to Maria and Paul for blighting their night and to ask Joe" - that's me - "for forgiveness".
I feel as if a great load has fallen off my shoulders, I find myself crying, I'm so ashamed, I haven't cried since my mother was buried . "Are ya alright there, Red?" they ask. I look over at Maria and she runs towards me and slaps me on the face. "Red how could you be such a coward living a lie all these years, watching me grow up without a father, now its too late Red. All you and mother can do is ruin my only chance at happiness." She storms out of the pub with Bernie after her. Paul at this stage has gone missing. I'm worried about him. I track him down in the nettles beside the barbecue. "I'm sorry son" I say. He hits me and lands me on top of the cocktail sausages. "Mam was right" he shouts, "you're just the village looser." I get up and grab him by the shirt and want to say this looser has sacrificed his best years to make a home for and educate an ungrateful punk who's going to have to paddle his own boat from now on, but I don't. I just hold him really tight six inches above the ground by the lapels and let him go. He kicks the barbeque into the nettles swings again at me before heading out across the village fair green.
At this stage the pub has cleared. Bernie and Maria are having a stiff drink. I enter sheepishly. "It had to be done" Bernie says, Maria is wilting with tears. "We couldn't go on living a great lie." Maria has her arm around her mother. I sit down a distance away from them. They ignore me for a while but I stay. Maria is still sobbing in her mothers arms. I cross the floor in front of them to the bar to grab my pint. "You better sit down here now", Bernie is firm. I feel a huge joy, as if everything is possible again, as if I can start living. I cautiously sit near her. "Here", she insists and I sit beside her. She puts her hand on mine and looks at me. I risk looking at her. Her eyes are welling up, Maria leaves. I look away again. Then the sadness overwhelms me. It comes from nowhere. It's as if all the pain of the loss I had for the twenty four years has been converted to sadness. I want to cry but I suddenly feel cold. I can't trust all this now, how am I supposed to believe that everything is going to be alright because now Bernie has decided it is going to be alright. I pull away my hand from hers and fire the glass against the wall. I don't know what to think, I don't know what I'm supposed to feel. I want to believe it will work out this time but I can't feel anything. I wont let myself feel or maybe I can't feel anything anymore.
Maria comes back, she holds her arms out, then she turns them into fists. "Fuck you Red, could you not see me bleeding all these years in front of your bloodshot eyes. I've only one thing to say to you, sad, village, looser", she poked me across the chest with her fist on each accusation, "only one thing Red, you re twenty four fucking years late". She stormed towards the exit. "It's ok Red," Bernie reassures me, as I leave for the lounge "she'll calm down she needs time." Bernie runs after Maria and catches her before she leaves, she's still crying, "I'm sorry for being a bitch to you all those years", she hugs her mother. "It's ok love," Bernie reassures her, "it can't have been easy for you either". What about you and Paul?" Bernie asks. "You must be angry." "I am mum", she says, "but they say you must find your father before you find a husband according to the psycho books" Marie adds ". "That fucking Red ,I want to break a pint glass into his bloated pimply face ,that fucking coward ," her voice fills the empty bar. Bernie comes back into the singing lounge. "I ll drop her home and be back in five minutes" she whispers to me as if we were married for twenty five years. I look around the pub, empty now, the owner left it to Maria for the weekend ,I could rob the till but it means nothing to me .I'm beginning to feel a strange happiness come over me while I'm waiting for Bernie to return, like something has lifted, to think that I have a wife and a family seems alien. Everything is now different. I help Bernie to lock up and we leave the place in a total mess. We're all red eyed and washed out. I offer to leave her home but Bernie won't hear of it.
"I'll drop you home" she says. I'm sober after this night, that's one thing I'm sure of. I hop into Bernie's Peugeot with the Woman's Way. The purple dawn is caressing the mountain peaks and the fog along the river seems magical, I haven't noticed that type of thing for years. Bernie looks at me every few minutes as if I'm going to disappear. Maguire's sheep are in my meadow but it doesn't bother me. I'm beginning to feel as if someone cares for me, sitting in the passenger seat being driven home. "There's great suspension in these Peugeots" I say to Bernie to make sure she hasn't changed her mind about me, trying to make her talk as we cross the humpback bridge. She laughs. "Do you remember the first time you said that to me?" I had forgotten. She laughs again. Bernie was always a great one for the Peugeots
"What a chat-up line." We're laughing as she pulls in outside the house. "Well now you're home safe", Bernie says cheerfully. But something else is dawning on me too as the Peugeot goes out of sight and I'm leaning against the garden wall looking up at that crack in the chimney smoking a Major. Where is home?