Declan Varley’s last book currently with The Feldstein Agency — The Confession of Peadar Gibbons. Tells the story of a tormented small town poet who writes down the story of his life when he wants to get stuff off his chest on his fiftieth birthday.
The Tenth Year
Rap rap rap
a knock, just a tap and another
and then a shush
a grab of a duffle
and the beginning of an end a pat of a shoulder
then a scream
a childhood no more
I knew there was something wrong when me uncle arrived at the class door, and spoke to the nun. She looked down at me and went outside for a minute. She never looked at me much so I figured I’d fucked up something. I’d just learned the word fuck from Peter Cuddy. That and bra. Bra were the bumps on a woman’s chest. I’d said fuck and bra a lot in the last few weeks just to be cool. He had been saying them a lot before that. I said Christ too, even though the nun slapped Kevin Sheridan for saying that. Was Christ worse than fuck and were they both worse than bra? I felt bad about saying Christ. That was the worst one, I thought. I wonder was that what the nun was worried about. Was that why Uncle Liam was here? He went to Mass a lot so he would be mad if he heard me say fuck and definitely if he heard me say Christ. He might not skelp me but he‘d tell me father and he would skelp me, so either way I was fucked.
I said fuck under my breath. And then Christ when I saw her walking towards me. “Ciunas” she said to the class, and came down to my desk. “Put away your stuff, Peadar. You’ve to go home.” And she never called me Peadar before, so I knew something was wrong.
Uncle Liam had the car with him, a black Morris Minor with a rusty number plate. We used to borrow it on Sundays and go for a spin across country to the cousins in Galway who lived on the farm.
This day he made me sit in the front and said “your mother said to collect you. Something’s happened.’
He wouldn’t tell me what, so after a few attempts asking him, I gave up. I reckoned that Granny might have got sick or something, ‘cos he didn’t say Father said to collect me. And since Granny was Liam’s mother as well, maybe they just did things like that.
But Mother was screaming when we got to the house. Which was strange for her ‘cos she never said much loud really. Most of the time she’d be just talking in that low voice of hers or sighing the way she did when she’d be doing the dishes at the sink or chopping the spuds. Mother sighed a lot, but today she was screaming and breathing a strange sort of noise that was neither talking nor screaming. Like a scream from the neck. I thought she’d swallowed something and was choking, But she wasn’t. Mrs Fahy had her arm around her and helped her into the chair beside the fire. When Liam brought me in, I stopped to look, but he brought me through the house and out the back garden. None of the lads were there, which was strange.
And then he put his hand on my shoulder, and went down on his hunkers in front of me, and rubbing his other hand through his hair, he said.
“It’s Kieran…he fell into the Soldier’s Hole…. and they haven’t got him out. They’re looking now,” he said.
“Is he drownded? Did he drownded in the Hole?” I asked. He didn’t say anything, but nodded.
We’d been told never to go near the Soldier’s Hole. It was a big swirling pond right at the end of the River Robe, just past the salmon weir. The story went that back in the 1900s when a British infantry soldier was stationed in the barracks just up river, that he jumped into that pond and drownded himself. We never figured out why someone would drownded themselves. Wouldn’t that be a fuckin’ stupid thing to do. It’s one thing getting drownded but doing it yourself would be terrible. That river was full of eels and they’d be swimming around your body and taking little bites out of you. I wondered if the water would be dark black if you fell into it. and if you went to the side walls to climb up, wouldn’t you be scared shitless that you’d put your hand in one of the holes in which the eels lived, the dirty bastards. Charlie Ward the knacker who lived in the caravan in the big field once caught one and showed us that even when he cut it up into a dozen pieces, it hopped around alive on the frying pan on his fire. We reckoned if you couldn’t kill one when ’twas chopped up, what chance had you when ’twas wrapped around your leg or your neck in the dark of that river, or in the deepness of The Soldier’s Hole.
I wondered if Kieran was fighting off those eels now. I wondered if he was alive and collapsed on some part of the riverbank, exhausted from falling into the Soldier’s Hole and finding himself downstream away from where the people were looking for him. I wondered all these wonders and then I took off from Liam down the bottom of the garden, up on the branches of the big pear tree and out over the back wall.
I ran across the fields towards the river ’til I got to the tarmac path that ran beside it. Up ahead I could see a lot of people at the weir, one of them had a long stick with a hook. He was dragging something across the water. I know they said I shouldn’t have seen that. I heard them say that later on. “The fuckin’ child shouldn’t have seen that… Liam was supposed to be fuckin’ minding him. He came along just as they were dragging the young lad outta the river.”
Kieran’s face looked fat and white and a bit blue and he wasn’t moving.
I suppose I should have shouted something or started crying when I saw that ’twas Kieran they were taking from the water. Is this because I’m not right? Would a right child have cried or something? Was I not right even back then, not able to cry when I should have? The oddness in me head stopping the tears from getting to my eyes. Or had I just seen Mother crying and sighing too much to realise that this was the reaction you had when you were sad. Me other brothers were crying and my father was shouting to the sky and calling God a cunt. And me mother was at home making that strange noise.
So I just ran away back across the fields and back over the wall into the garden and hid there in the trees. I looked at our back yard with the various bits of bicyles and the football that we used to play with and there was nobody playing there today, not a sinner.
Kieran slept in the bed beside me by then. He was older so when he’d come in later at night, he’d tell me to turn into the wall ‘cos he didn’t want me breathing in his face. So I’d stare at the wall and the little luminous stickers that I’d look at to tell meself I wasn’t blind when the light went off.
But that night he wasn’t there. I’d the whole bed to myself so I could lie whatever way I wanted. So I did. I slept on my left shoulder and faced out, the whole bed to myself. His pyjamas were there under the pillow, so I took them out and put them in the press so that they wouldn’t be reminding me of him.
I felt a big sore pain in me chest that night, I remember like a sickness but I didn’t want to puke out. I thought this pain was a strange one. It came and went. When I tried to read my Beano comic, the pain stopped for a while and then came back when I put it down. So I picked it up a lot and read it a lot in the hope that I’d have no pain at all in me belly.
None of the others went to bed early, and there were people coming to the house all night. The knocker was going rat a tat tat for hours and there were the murmured voices and I’d hear Mother wailing, but she stopped being as bad after Dr Mac came to see her and gave her something.
And the priest came to see her.
And that night, Father didn’t come up to rub my head and say ‘sleep well astoir”.