A bundle of tissues lay on the front seat of Gus’s car. Eating apple tart was a messy affair. A full one devoured whilst sitting in a vehicle, was the work of a glutton. He removed the last streak of apple from both chins and tossed the tissue on the growing mound. A glance at the mirror confirmed that he’d cleaned the crease between them, and licking his lips he thought, that was nice. I’ll give the second one to mother. He hopped out of the car, brushed away the stray crumbs from his clothes and strode towards Lavelle’s pub.
The outside facade suggested that it was a traditional man’s pub, untouched by the Celtic Tiger and Bacardi Breezers, his type of establishment. He walked in and immediately grinned as he surveyed the dimly lit and sparsely furnished interior. A single customer at the counter slouched on one elbow over a glass, his other hand to his rear, scratching his behind. He looked up at Gus, grunted, then took a sip of air from the glass and banged it on the counter. Gus smiled, a ripe mark ensconced at the counter with a thirst and an empty glass, this would be too easy. He walked past him and pulled out the adjacent stool, its cast iron legs grating on the stone floor. The mark looked up through his glazed alcoholic eyes and spat on the floor in front of Gus.
‘That’s Gerry’s stool.’
‘Oh, sorry, is he gone out?’
The mark’s was the only glass on the counter.
‘Nope, he won’t be in today. His dole money has run dry. No mon, no fun!’
Gus leaned on the stool, ‘Dole day was only yesterday, wasn’t it?’
The mark gagged and spat again, ‘That’s the truth, try telling the government fuckers. You couldn’t get half a hangover on what they pay us. Shower of lazy bolloxes.’
‘You’re right about that, I lost my job three months ago and I haven’t got a cent out of them. Can I rent Gerry’s stool? It looks well-worn and experienced. Would a pint and a half one cover the expense for an hour or two?’
The mark opened his mouth and grinned through his single tar stained tooth, ‘A temporary arrangement while you keep the stool warm for Gerry.’ He banged his glass on the counter and shouted, ‘Marietta, a pint and a Paddy, and whatever my friend, GT, requires. I’m Mouse, Mick the Mouse, what name will I put on the rent book?’
Before he could reply, a stern looking Marites arrived. With elbows sticking out defiantly, she glared at them. ‘Mouse, if you ever shout like that again, I’ll tie your tail to the back of the bread van and see how good you’re at shouting then.’
Mouse doffed his imaginary hat. ‘Begging your pardon, Marietta, but the taxman here has a rebate for me and insists on me buying him a drink with it.’
Gus struggled to keep the apple pie below deck. Laughing, he ordered two pints and two Paddy’s.
Marites looked at Gus suspiciously, shook her head in resignation, poured the drinks, took payment and glanced back over her shoulder before returning upstairs.
‘Cheers, GT,’ said Mouse, as he did a Houdini with the whiskey before Gus had placed the change into his pocket.
Gus sipped, weighing up how best to proceed. He decided to play it by ear and seize an opening when it came. Mouse was a strange fish for sure, but Gus had detected a sharpness and underlying intelligence that suggested that he would not be a pushover. This diagnosis was quickly confirmed.
‘Have you lived in Castlebridge all your life?’
Mouse replied, a steel resonance to his squeak, ‘Who says I live here?
‘I might, depends who is asking.’
Gus inwardly groaned. It was going to be a long afternoon and his stomach did not feel in the best of order. ‘Only making conversation with my landlord’s drinking partner, where is the harm in that?’
‘Are you from the dole office?’
‘How can I prove it?’
Mouse scratched his tooth as he seemed to consider GT’s identity crisis. ‘Show me your hands.’
‘Feck off, what would that prove? Go away and eat some cheese.’
Mouse stood and raised his fists, ‘Fucking dole man, show me your hands or I’ll beat the bejesus out of you.’
Gus could have knocked him over with half a feather, but acquiesced for the sake of peace. Mouse carefully examined Gus’s hands before making his judgement, ‘No biro marks, but your hands are soft. Are you a priest?’
Gus pounced on the Mouse. ‘Lord, no, if you want me to prove it, we can go up to the church and ask the local priest.’
‘Can’t what? Would you spit it out, Mouse?’
Mouse spat on the floor and grinned, ‘Can’t, Father Brennan isn’t around.’
‘How do you know? Were you at mass this morning?’ not bloody likely.
Mouse rasped, coughed for at least a minute and spoke as though laryngitis had set in, ‘I need a packet of fags and a pint to wash it down. Any chance of some rent in advance?’
Marites was summoned, cigarettes and drink purchased and while Mouse was outside polluting the street, Gus loosened his tie and hung his jacket on the back of the stool. He’d finally met his match.
‘You were saying something about Father Bacon,’ said Gus when Mouse returned.
‘Was I?’ double spit, ‘Father Brennan you mean, are you half deaf or something?’ a third of a pint sunk, ‘What about him?’
Gus took off the tie, stuffed it in his jacket pocket and opened the top button of his shirt.
‘What are you doing? Marietta doesn’t allow strippers in this joint. You’re not going to get frisky or something, I’m no queer.’
‘Who said you were? What about Brennan?’
Mouse looked long and hard at Gus, opened his mouth, rolled his tongue over his tooth and looked as though a lengthy speech was imminent. Gus leaned a little closer, ready to receive data, be it intelligent or otherwise.
‘Back in a minute, I need a fag’
For fucks sake!
Mouse returned reeking of cigarettes, which happily concealed the numerous other odours that emanated from this particular rodent. ‘GT you ask more questions than a priest, are ya a bishop?’
‘Mouse, if you want any further rent, then tell me about Brennan or I’ll move to the stool the other side of you.’
‘You can’t do that! That’s Larry’s stool and a much more valuable property as it has a cushion, rent is double on that one.’
Unable to take any more, Gus rose and went to the toilet. Urinate he did, relieve himself of frustration he could not. Enough, I’ll try another pub! Returning to the bar, he lifted his jacket and put it on. He grasped his glass, and staring straight ahead, he sunk the last drop.
‘See ya Mouse, find a new tenant this one has to go.’
Mouse grabbed him by the sleeve, ‘Brennan has done a runner. Every morning after mass, he usually has a few pints in the backroom, but not these past few days.’
Gus settled back onto the stool. Using his practiced state secret whisper,
‘Why has he vamoosed?’
Mouse spat regular before replying. ‘The priest has fathered a child with a married woman, and he old enough to be her father. I knew he would come to no good when he stayed…’
Lips were closed and permanency stitched across Mouse’s face. Gus called Marites, another two pints secured, he changed tact. ‘Is he a womaniser?’
Like the parting of the red sea, Mouse’s barriers came down and his tooth vibrated as each charge was levelled at Father Brennan.
‘He is, and a bad bastard as well. Some clever-shite is even writing a book about him, full of sex and dirty pictures.’
For the tenant and his thirsts benefit, Mouse blessed himself with his cigarette lighter. ‘That poor woman, Maggie, feeling sorry for him after all the gossip that travelled the parish, she has let him into her knickers.’
‘That’s terrible! Who is Maggie?’
‘Sure, she is his housekeeper. The two of them packed their dirty bags and left a few days ago. Even the sheep aren’t safe with a randy priest like him around.’
‘He likes sheep?’
‘Aye, and goats; hates cats and mice. Fish as well. He spends that much time at the river, I expect he gets a blow job from any willing old trout. He is a tranny as well, a feckin weirdo.’
‘No, ya clown, a tranny likes wearing women’s clothes.’
Gus called Marites. Mouse’s glass needed fuel. They had moved onto gay orgies when Sean arrived at the counter.
‘Good afternoon, gents. What are ya blathering about, Mouse?’
‘Nothing at all, this fella here, GT, was asking about Father Brennan and I was just telling him what a fine priest he is.’
‘GT?’ enquired Sean.
Gus stuck out his hand as he rose, ‘Gus O’Louglin, I am doing a piece about village priests, for the paper. Shame he is not around, no matter, I’ll try the priest over in Elmwood.’
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.
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There is a poet in everyone, somewhere hidden, perhaps it should remain there.
From The Legacy of Father Brennan.
James had read many angling books, some old fishing diaries, but none touched him like this masterpiece. Old Monty clearly loved this river, and the simple eloquence of his writing was extraordinary. His tales of catching fine trout, the passion, the beauty of this simple pastime and the darkness of war that had followed him all his life, all carefully penned in poetry and prose.
The diary was clearly that of a passionate and courageous man. It started on the battle fields of Ypres and ended where James now sat.
Shattered limbs, tortured mind, lifeless corpse.
Young man, why lie you so still?
On the cold earth amidst the poppy’s swaying in the summer breeze.
Where is your home, your dreams, your dreams?
I cast in hope, some day to return, a gentle swirl,
upon my stream.
My stream, far from the bloodied fields of Flanders.
Return he did, and for the next thirty years he tended his flock and cast his flies. Fishing was the only solace, the only sanctuary that would dim the memories of those dreadful days during the Great War.
Echoes of smiling children, looking out from granite walls,
their carefree days, dancing in the meadow,
skimming stones upon the stream, before the flood,
that bore them away to the labyrinth of life, and death,
that took our young on a distant shore. I implore,
no more war can we endure, the needless waste
of young men’s blood for old men’s greed, no more.
In the shadows of the granite schoolhouse,
I sit, await my call.
A mayfly drifts towards the shore,
borne on a gentle breeze,
caressing my waiting soul.
It calls my name, wings unfold,
I go soon, for I’ve grown old.
Do not lament, do not despair.
Where I go, a wild river runs,
through meadows of sweet myrtle, a trout turns.
Free at last, the memories of Flanders, no more.
Rev. Montague Nelson, Resting in the shadow of the school house. 1944
From The Con-quest of Father Brennan.
There should be poetry written to describe the landing of a beautiful speckled brown trout. It should be poetry that would task the brains of Ireland’s finest, and burn the image of sparkled water, the struggle of wits between fish and angler, and the joy of success into the hearts of its readers forever. Sadly, James P. Brennan is a fisherman, not a poet.
Bloody stockie, drooping belly,
tattered fins, of little beauty.
Sterile clown, unwelcome freeloader,
in my stream how dare you swim.
Squatter trout, you took my fly,
nose to tattered tail, I’ll not bother measure.
If no more I catch, this God-given day,
a blank, my fishing diary shall display.
Squatter trout, of un-natural flesh,
I dispatch you now, so take your rest.
To Mick Casey’s pig pen next you go,
to swim in pig muck, where no rivers flow.
When Egan next on bacon dines,
I pray to God he gasps in pain.
when a squatter’s fish bone,
his tongue impales.
Stupid Egan, with your stupid bees,
by seasons end,
I’ll bring you to your knees.