Country lanes and roads proved to be a conundrum. James followed the signpost to Coraclore, and a few miles further on, found another, pointing in the direction he’d just come. About to pass the same pub for the fourth time, after driving mile upon endless mile, he pulled into the small rough-stoned car park.
A few antiques adorned the walls of the sparsely furnished Broken Sickle, and in their midst a faded picture of Marilyn Monroe leaned towards a rusted reaping hook. A sole customer sat on a low stool in front of the open fire. Middle-aged with long unkempt hair, he glanced up as James entered, then returned to staring into the embers.
James sat at the counter and waited for someone to attend on him. Cold and impatient, he dragged a cough from his malcontent lungs. This achieved the desired result. More corpse than barwoman, an ancient frame of skin and bone appeared from a backroom, and shuffled towards the counter. She peered at him through glasses as thick as the base of a jam jar.
“I will have a pint of Guinness and a Paddy to warm me up, thank you.”
Too slow to prevent his blood pressure from rising, she filled the pint to three quarters, poured a shot of Paddy in a glass, and handed it to him.
“Eight euros, please.” She opened the till and stood with her hand extended. “You’re not from around here.” Her tone suggested strangers were not welcome.
Wondering whether his bright red, leather jacket contributed to her scowl, he downed the whiskey, enjoying the warming sensation. This wasn’t the first time he faced rural hostility, so he used his usual weapon. James offered her his hand across the counter, “Father James Brennan from Castlebridge.”
The scowl replaced by a warm smile, she shook hands before pouring a liberal shot of whiskey into the empty glass. She swapped this for the tenner he offered her.
“A whiskey on the house, Father. You’re welcome to The Broken Sickle. What brings you to these parts, dressed like a hippie?” Her gnarled fingers plucked a two euro coin from the cash drawer and the note he handed over disappeared into the embroidered pocket of her apron.
Knowing she’d use its influence to garner gossip, he accepted the whiskey.
“It’s bitter outside, and the heater in my crock of a car has seen better days. I’ve been driving in circles for an hour and I’m as good as lost.”
Putting the final touches to his pint, she added the impression of a sickle on the creamy head. He admired her handiwork. He’d tried the technique in Lavelle’s when the name was temporarily changed to ‘The Devil’s Door’, but he couldn’t get the knack of it. This led to Sean telling him to stick to praying and leave the pulling of pints to barmen.
“I’m looking for a fella called Tony Hennessy, would you know him?”
She laughed. “I do.”
“Could you tell me where he lives?”
“I could,” she replied, once again cackling.
He paused, waiting for a more enlightening response. Stone-faced, she stared at him.
All right, I shall play your game.
He reached into his inside pocket and took out his mother’s rosary beads. These went everywhere with him. Fiddling with the beads, he mumbled as though in prayer.
“What are you doing?”
“Jesus,” she said, blessing herself. “Why are you praying for me? Do you know something I don’t?”
“I’m praying for your soul and those of the recently departed.”
This had the desired effect. Her false teeth rattled. Confused, her confidence evaporated in obvious thoughts of meeting her maker sooner than expected.
He placed the beads back in his pocket, and downed half his pint before responding, pushing her anxiety to its limit.
“Because if you don’t tell me where I can find him, I will strangle you.”
She fell against the counter. Tears visible behind the glasses, she guffawed for a full minute.
“Father, he’s parked in his usual spot in front of the hearth. All you had to do was ask the right question.”
James glared at her.
“Be a good woman and put on another pint for me, and whatever he’s having. If it calms your wit, have one yourself.”
He strode to the fireplace and sat close to Tony.
“Tony, James Brennan is my name. May I join you?”
Without looking up, Tony grunted. “You already have. Free world, sit wherever you please.”
James stared at the man, wondering whether he’d entered the twilight zone. He surmised they both were of similar age. He’d learned Tony had been an acclaimed architect who quit aged forty. He became reclusive, surviving on his savings and sales of some paintings, another pursuit at which he excelled. A child of the Sixties who never grew up, he continued to smoke grass until the effects dimmed his hatred of modern life.
“Tony, I have a project that may interest you. Tom Mullane suggested you are the only man capable of bringing life to it.”
Tony spat into the fire, “Not interested, I don’t do churches and I don’t work. Tell him not to waste anyone else’s time by sending them down here. Do us a favour. Piss off back to whatever hole you crawled out of, bloody priest.”
Another glob of spittle landed on the hearth.
A lesser man would have retreated, not James. The greater the challenge, the more he enjoyed it. Every fortress has its weak spot. It was a matter of finding Tony’s.
“Are you interested in history?”
The next spit landed between the hearth and James.
“No! Piss off. Are you deaf? I am not interested in you, or working for you.”
Tony placed his hand on the low table and pushed himself to his feet. He wobbled to the toilet, leaving James confused, but defiant.
Returning to his stool, Tony growled, “You still here. Piss off, Priest.”
James spat at the fire.
“I see you’re a stubborn bastard like me. There’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t want you to work for me. I’ve no intention of paying you. I quit priesting for the next two years, because I have a dream. You gave up city life because it robbed you of yours.” James gobbed onto the flagstone floor. “Fate is a mighty powerful thing. It forces you make your choices, me mine, and not a darn thing either of us can do to stop it. Life is a long trip of fighting destiny and with that comes pain. You smoke your weed, I drink my drink, but none of us are without purpose, without worth.”
James lifted his glass and drank before banging it down on the table.
“We can sit here drinking, spitting, farting, belching, and grunting for a fortnight if you want. Or I can tell you my dream and how you can make it yours. What say you, Tony?”
Hunched over the glass he held, he stared at the flames, lost in a distant haze. It seemed an age before he responded.
“Two minutes, Priest, you have two minutes.”
James removed a photograph from his pocket and dropped it on the table.
“That was a school once, full of smiling children. It almost fell to the bulldozers and developers, lost to man’s greed, but fate intervened.” He jerked his finger at the picture. “I want you to take that ruin, and with me, breathe life back into it, resurrect it from its dereliction. We are nearly old men, Tony. Let’s have our best years ahead of us and not behind. Wallowing in self-pity and needless regret is a fool’s pastime. A restaurant, a fly-fishing school, and a museum — a sanctuary for people to escape the crap life throws at them. That is my dream.”
James downed his pint, called for two more, and sloped off to the toilet, leaving the architect space to consider what he had said. When he returned with two fresh drinks, Tony handed back the photograph and spat into the fire. James knew there was little else he could say or do. About to crumple up the photograph and toss it into the flames, he noticed that the granite schoolhouse had a pencilled roof and a stone round tower looming over it. Mouth agape, he turned to face Tony.
For the first time since they met, the architect looked at James.
“I also believe in fate. My grandfather was the final teacher in that school. He died a broken man, losing the will to live after the school was torched. I visit Castlebridge once a year to remember him. I’ll meet you there tomorrow morning at first light. Now leave.”
James understood and nodded before departing The Broken Sickle and the broken but fixable man inside.
Fate is a mysterious beast.