Gildea Young

Stephen, writing fiction under the pen name of Gildea Young, is a sports journalist with a national and Sunday newspaper in Ireland. His fiction work has appeared on Bob’s Short Story Hour, a Canadian podcast, and is soon to feature in Neon Magazine. You can find more info on the author at his Twitter page https://twitter.com/gildeayoung

Railway Men

They’re gone now, the two men who lived by the shores of the lake. Where that lake met the mountain there were two cottages. In one there lived a bastard. In the other there was a farmer.

The bastard acquired his moniker early in life. He was born with no father present and no father could be found for him. But he became a bastard, too, in the colloquial sense; he was a rude man. He had a sharp tongue that got sharper when wet by drink. A deep anger seemed to boil up inside him. And that anger, the vicious rage he called his ‘cloud’ came on quickly. And violence followed. It was because of the bastard’s ‘cloud’ that he was unwelcome in most of Quinntown’s public houses.

The farmer was a good man, as quiet as a clear-skied midnight. He raised sheep and sheared them for wool. He had a wife once, but she died not long after they were married. Now, he spent his widowed evenings alone, usually in a wooden chair by the lake with his dog, Digger. He liked to smoke cigarettes and drink tea ’til the sun went west.

How they had come to live there was never known in Quinntown. Locals wondered if the men were related, distant cousins perhaps? Seanie Mac asked the farmer once at market.

“No,” said the farmer. “He’s no relation of mine.”

Nothing more was asked of the farmer, he’d given Seanie Mac a straight answer and he gave it with a straight face. People didn’t dare ask the bastard man. He was rough, and were he to be caught with whiskey on him then he’d likely clatter the questioner for asking, or so the locals reckoned.

It was a source of endless conjecture. A mid-Donegal mystery. It would have stayed a mystery, too, until one spring day. A black car slowed and stopped on the raised road on the south bank of the lake. Two men in fine suits got out and paced about the tarmac. The bastard and the farmer both saw this. The men pointed at the ground. They dangled their fingers at the far distance, to the left, and to the right. After ten minutes of pointing they got in their black car and drove off south.

“Hmmph,” the bastard bristled.

The farmer heard him but said nothing. He smoked his cigarette with Digger sat beside him.

It was early the next day when the two men in the car returned. They brought more men in fine suits, who came in more expensive cars. The gaggle of suited gentry stood in the same spot. They pointed all around, east and west and then down below their feet. The bastard and the farmer saw this too, the former woken by the businessmen’s chatter and their hearty golf-course laughs.

What happened then struck the hungover man as very odd, if not downright worrying. One suited man pointed across the lake at the farmer’s house. They went on talking amongst themselves, only a little quieter then.

Bemused, the bastard drew his eyes from the suits to the farmer’s field. There, his neighbour was watering the trough.

“Oi!” shouted the man with stale whiskey on his breath. The farmer stiffened his sore back and turned to him. “What’s all this?” the bastard nodded at the men.

But a meek shrug was all he got as the farmer turned his back and went on pouring water into the trough. The bastard sent a bitter stare in the suited men’s direction. He muttered himself to sleep with a flask of local poitín that night, awoken the next morning by the rumble of engines. A line of expensive cars filled with suited men approached the two houses from the east. They drove to the furthest of the two buildings – the farmer’s house.

Two men got out of the black car at the front of the convoy and walked, briskly, down the grassy path. They knocked three times on the farmer’s door, each thud echoing in the half-valley. Digger raced to meet them, barking. Then the farmer came and shushed his dog.

“Good morning, sir,” one man said, his voice, too, carrying out across the still, blue lake. “We’re from the railway company. We’re looking for a minute of your time?”

A head nudged out of a kitchen window a hundred feet away, ears straining to hear a word, a yelping sound in his throat like a pup restrained at the leash. When the two suits disappeared inside the farmer’s house the bastard gave. He unhooked his front door and marched out onto the boreen road. His road – clogged with flash cars a dozen vehicles deep. Who do these fellas think they are? Talking to farmer… about land, no doubt. He eyed the men in each motor and moved on up the line until he reached the empty black car. He had all but made up his mind about what the three men inside where talking about. The farmer would sell off his land to the suits. They were up to something. They’d lowball the senseless souse of a neighbour with their next offer and say the farmer had accepted the same amount. Scurrilous, greedy, good-for-nothings.

His temper was simmering when the farmer’s door opened and the men appeared again, beaming big salesmen’s smiles. The suits said their goodbyes with a warm “thank you” to the farmer. They greeted the bastard with a “good morning to you, sir” as walked around him at the gate. Then the men got into their car and the convoy reversed back down the lane.

“Good morning,” said the farmer.

“Good mornin’ yourself. Early business on the lane I see.”

“Oh aye, must be a busy bunch of fellas, the rest of ’em, sitting around waiting for their buddies. Well eh, I’ve a pot of tea made and a plate of biscuits those railway men barely touched… would you like-”

“I would,” snapped the bastard and he marched into the farmer’s house. “Railway men ha?” He was three feet inside the door when he stopped. “Well holy shit… I’m not surprised they didn’t stay long.”

“Oh aye? Right of course, it’s untidy alright… well, Digger’s not much for housework and me neither. I like being outside in the field there. I only use in here for sleeping and eating. My sleeping quarters I keep tidy enough if you must know.”

“My friend, I’ll tell ya… it stinks in here. There’s something dead in the house is there? Ha?”

“Not that I know of,” the farmer answered, feeling his cheeks blush. But the bastard’s nose still wrinkled as he traipsed about the kitchen. The farmer wanted him gone, but his neighbour had irked him still. “Maybe it’s cos I’ve no sense of smell… what with all the cigs I suppose…” the farmer said as he bristled. “Now, you’ve had your say on my affairs in here and on my home, might I have a say on your affairs then?”

“Go on ahead, if you think you’re standing on solid ground.”

“I’ll take little offence for your comments on my house. I’m not an upkeeping man. But it’s rude to pass comment when you’ve not been asked and you were not asked but you passed comment anyway. So I’m asking if I may pass comment.”

“You may say what you like, but I can’t promise ye yer teeth in subsequence…”

The farmer sucked in a breath of courage and proceeded.

“You’re a drinker.”

“Really?” replied the bastard with a wry smile.

“Right. Well you’re an awful drinker so ya are.”

The bastard laughed: “Yeah. Go on…”

The blood had pulsed around the farmer’s body so fast that his cheeks went from red to purple, his hands shook like leaves in a spring blizzard.

“I’m going on down to the lake,” said the farmer, his voice shaking. “If my house repulses you so much you’re welcome to join me.”

He walked out and Digger followed. The bastard wasn’t long in following either. His stomach had turned sour standing in the farmer’s kitchen. The farmer lit a cigarette by the shore. He offered one to his guest but his guest refused.

“I’ve only one vice,” he said. “An awful one as it may be.”

The bastard winked at the farmer and the farmer grinned back, nervously.

“You’ve a cheek. I can see why they don’t let you in the pubs over in Quinntown.”

“Oh they’ve got me sussed alright. ‘A wreck of a man’ that woman in Dwyer’s called me. I said: ‘Me a wreck?’ I says to her. ‘With all the money you make here off the shite booze you sell you’d think you’d be able to afford a mirror for yourself by now’. Ha! You know how she took it? Well, that’s how I got this scar here, you see that?” The bastard lifted a shock of greying brown hair off his forehead to show the farmer a thick and long white scar from his hairline halfway down his forehead.

“Well you deserved that one.”

“Oh rightly I did. Though often I’ve found that what you get and what you deserve in life are two different things. I deserved that scar, every dripping drop of blood from it. Now tell me this, what did you do to deserve a line of railway men at your door this morning ha? Money bags. Where’s my house call?”

The farmer smoked and looked down at Digger, who was sniffing around the bastard.

“Go away dog,” said the bastard.

Digger, his tail wagging, leapt up onto his neighbour’s thighs. The bastard kicked out, knocking the animal ten feet down the slope to the lake shore.

“Now, now!” wailed the farmer, chasing after Digger, who rolled into a ball, yelping and howling. “You scoundrel. You drunken… ah Digger, girl, you’ll be ok,” he cooed, kneeling down. “You ok ya wee thing?”

The dog hopped into the farmer’s lap and the farmer turned a fierce scowl on his guest: “Your mother warned me you’d end up like your father.”

The bastard’s face whitened. He opened his mouth to fire a instant broadside back at the farmer but he stuttered. Then he cleared his throat and, just above a whisper, the bastard croaked: “What did you say to me?”

The farmer picked up Digger, her black and white fur huddled into his coat. “Go on home,” he said. “I’ve nothing to do with you. Never have. Never will. You call my house dirty… well you’re a dirty man and that’s the worse in my book.”

He went back to the cottage with Digger and closed the door. An hour passed and there was no sign of his neighbour. Digger seemed sprightly and unhurt, though she stayed close to the farmer everywhere he went.

Then, like the farmer knew it would, a knock came on the door, followed by – “I’m sorry about the dog. I’m not an animal person.”

“Go ’way.”

“Let me in now, or I’ll come in anyway.”

“What do you want with me? You’ve been happy over there for thirty five years not saying a word to me and I’ve not missed anything from your silence. So go on now, leave me be.”

“What did the railway men want? Is there talk of money? Money for land?”

The farmer sighed as though his last breath was leaving his body. He picked up Digger and brought her into his bedroom. He laid her on his bed, closed and the door behind him and locked it.

“They want to buy the land over the far side of the lake.”

“Why did they come see you?

“Cos it’s mine, Frank. All this land is mine.”

Frank – as few knew him by – was quiet on the other side of the door.

“The lake is mine,” said the farmer. “The land this side and that side, all of it; my family’s for generations.”

Frank struck the door open. His right boot still raised. Under his arm, he held a rifle. The farmer sank back into a kitchen chair with his hands raised above his head.

“My house is mine!” cried Frank.

The farmer shook his head – “No. It’s my sisters’ house, Frank. She gave it to yer mother when you were born because her parents wanted nothing to do with ye. It was that or off to the laundries with the pair of ye. Your father was nothing but a blaggard, and your mother hadn’t the strength to fight him off. Then you were born. My sister Anne gave your mother and you a home. A nice small house for the pair of ye. Annie was off to England anyway with her husband and I didn’t mind ye. I only wanted my quiet life. But when your mother was ill you took off strange, carousing and the like. I didn’t mind ye then still, but you’ve no right to be in my house now.”

“I’ve no right? You’ve no right selling my house from under me.”

“That hasn’t been negotiated. Only the far side of the water they want for now. They’ll leave us be. Now you leave me be…”

Frank’s face flushed red and his eyes welled up.

“For now…”

His hand shook as it would sometimes the morning after a heavy night when he knew he’d done something wrong but couldn’t remember what. Often his cloud would come and he’d recall nothing. The only proof of it would be the scratch marks, the bruises, the teeth marks, the lipstick. He clouded over then and not even the panicked words “no that hasn’t been negotiated. Now leave me be” came through the thickness of it. He didn’t remember the pleas of the farmer sat in his chair in his dirty kitchen or the sound of the dog barking. There was no memory of his finger sliding onto the trigger. No loud boom haunted him for the rest of his days. He couldn’t recall, or so least he told the police, the second gunshot either. Frank’s clouds came like that. They were always emptied from his mind, and all he had was the memory of a forgotten dream.

He wondered, in October of that year, as he sat in the back of the Garda car leaving courts if his father had had those clouds too? Would make sense alright, he thought. All things considered now in light of the revelations.

“It’ll be off to jail with you Frank, and no better place for you,” said the Guard in the front seat.

“Yeah,” Frank replied. “Or the mad house more likely…”

“You’ll be locked away regardless. The farmer’s nephew in England will grant the railway men all that land,” continued the Guard. “Your house too now I’d reckon.”

“The railway men ha? They get what they want.”

“What did you want Frank, ha? Why’d you do it? The farmer wouldn’t have seen you homeless. The railway men only wanted the south bank. You killed a poor old man – wasted his life and yours.”

Frank’s eyes wandered out the window catching the town’s concrete walls and the people’s staring faces.

“You know Garda…” Frank said after a while. “I don’t know, God’s honest truth. It sounds trite to say something came over me but it’s true. But I was never much fit for life out there amongst all them faces. I don’t have much goodness in me. I reckon my new life will suit me better. Now, I am sorry about the shooting. I suppose he didn’t deserve it. But isn’t it true sometimes, Garda – and I’ve always said it – what you get and what you deserve in life are two different things.”

© 2019 Gildea Young