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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.
Buoyed by recent decisions taken, Sean bounced around his pub with a feather duster in hand. Spiders accustomed to being lords over their manor, scuttled and wove their way to safety as their webs fell. Wearing a pink apron and waving his wand, he paused when the front door swung open, and Father Brennan strode in.
‘Hail, my godly priest. Hath thou a thirst, that quenched within my hostelry shall be? Thou art late this morn and perhaps thy temperance leaves thee forlorn?’
Without pausing, Father Brennan walked towards the back bar and shouted, ‘Good morning Mrs,’ as he rounded the corner.
Sean, with agility borne on a near twenty hours rush of adrenalin and optimism, raced through the gap and stood as Brennan arrived. ‘Thy stool, this very morn, dirt and grime dispatched. Sit, Sir, ale and whiskey I shall pour.’
‘Thank you, Sean, and may I borrow your pen?’
Sean took a pen from behind the till and held it up just out of Father Brennan’s reach. ‘Never a borrower or lender be. Yet fair fellow, your custom means much to me. Take offered pen and when thy writing spent, return, or to hell be sent.’
Father Brennan grabbed the pen and began scribbling on a beer mat. Sean, his cheesy grin unnoticed, began to fill a pint. ‘Sir, why my beer mat doth thou with given quill attack, and render fit for no purpose other than my bin?’
‘Shut thy gob, Sean. Before I came in here, I passed by Mick Casey’s son’s car. Old Mick, perched on the passenger seat, shouted after me, ‘HIJKLMNO, 5 letters.’ His howling laughter followed me all the way in the door. He challenges me with a clue to a crossword and judging by his gaiety, he does not expect me to solve it. Now leave me in peace.’
Still no comment regarding his new found poetic turn of phrase, Sean, undeterred, topped up the pint and skilfully etched a signature on the head. He placed it on the counter, filled a whiskey and set it alongside the Guinness. ‘Pray tell, hath thy, thy daily decision made? In yonder glass shall I water pour, for the quickened spirits diluted be easier to endure.’
Yelping like a rabid dog, Father Brennan, hopped up from the stool. He leaned over the counter, grabbed Sean, and planted a kiss on his head, ‘Thick maybe, and yet thy genius at unexpected times bursts forth, back anon. Water, H2O!’ He raced outside, almost knocking over a painter carrying a ladder, and shouted, ‘Mick, without it our trout could not swim.’ He returned to his seat of power, lifted his pint and stared at the head.
‘Sean, I pose a few questions. Why is a pentagram chiselled onto the head of my pint? Why is there a painter outside? Why are you talking as if you had swallowed Hamlet? And finally, why are you so bloody happy?’
‘My pub. Our new logo is on your pint. The painter is about to change the signage out front from Lavelle’s to The Devil’s Door. That’s why I am so cheerful. A new beginning! Well, what do you think?’
Father Brennan stifled a grin, took a creamy mouthful and licked his lips, ‘Grand, as long as my pint tastes the same. And Hamlet?’
On a roll, Sean replied, ‘It’s to go with the name. It will add to the intrigue. Busloads of feckin tourists will come in the front door. By the time they leave, my till will be tired from ringing. I took to reading after we started our quest to get published, and Hamlet was the only book in the house. Was I lucky or what?’
Liam stared at the new door. ‘Sean, where did the door come from?’
‘The Convent, and it cost me ten Euros.’
‘Give me a large one, Sean. Reverend Mother Concepta’s door, I thought it had been destroyed years ago,’ Liam reached back, grabbed the glass and downed the whiskey.
All eyes turned to the door. Jimmy hadn’t noticed it before now. When he spotted the ingrained shape normally associated with crucifixion, he walked over and examined it. ‘Solid Oak, but not Irish, and it’s definitely handmade. It has an unusual grain. I have never seen a grain like that before.’ He returned to his seat and posed a question to Liam, ‘Why are you scared of a lump of wood, you big sissy?’
‘Don’t mock me, Jimmy, and don’t anyone interrupt me. Pour me another whiskey, Sean.
‘In 1899, a young girl named Mary Jordan became a postulant at the convent. She being a devout girl was quickly accepted into the order. Four months before her final vows, a young man arrived and offered his services as a gardener. He was turned down. Day after day, he knocked on the front gate, until finally the Mother Concepta relented. He found favour with all the nuns, gardening, doing odd jobs. His attentions soon turned to Mary and they started to meet in secret.’
Liam paused and gathered his breath. Enthralled, the others sipped their drinks in silence.
‘Mary succumbed to temptation. No longer chaste, in her torment she told the Reverend Mother and begged for forgiveness. In her fondness for the girl and accepting that her remorse was genuine, Concepta decided that the child would be sent for adoption when it was born. Mary would then be allowed to take her vows. It was a rash decision, against the rules of her order, a bad judgement call that she would come to regret. Will I continue?’
‘Go on with the old wife’s tale and hurry up,’ Jimmy looked at his watch.
‘Sssh, Jimmy, let him finish,’ growled Sean as he sunk a very large brandy.
Lowering his voice, almost to a whisper, Liam continued the story. ‘The male child was born on the 6th of June 1900, the new millennium, and for some strange reason was kept at the convent and not handed up for adoption. Instead, Mary was sent home in disgrace and had no idea what had become of her child. The young gardener was also expelled from the convent.
On the 6th of June 1906, the 6th day of the 6th month of the 6th year of the century, the child walked into the Reverend Mothers study. Around his neck hung an upside-down crucifix and his red eyes glowed in the candlelight. She screamed in horror as he stood on his hands and moved towards her. His six inch tongue hurled obscenities, blaspheming, cursing Our Lord as hand over hand he closed in on the distraught Reverend Mother. Thinking she was doomed, she closed her eyes to the vile creature and said the Lord’s Prayer. The Holy Spirit guided her hand to the bottle of holy water on the desk. She twisted the lid and fervently prayed as she splashed the water in every direction.
It’s said, the shriek as its foul flesh burned was heard in Dublin. Agony gripped the beast and it flew into the door and was never seen again.’
Sean’s false teeth clattered and he could not take his eyes off the door. ‘Holy shit, you’re taking the piss, Liam.’
‘May the ground open and cast me into the bowels of hell. I know it to be true. So help me God, Mary Jordan was my great, great grandmother.’
‘Feck off,’ said Jimmy, ‘What book have you been reading? You have the shite scared out of Sean.’
‘I had to tell ye.’
‘Why?’ asked Father Brennan.
‘How else would Sean know that the door is hung upside-down?’ said Liam.
If you ever wondered how to train a slow greyhound, Pups O’Leary has the answer.
Father Brennan glared at Pup’s. ‘What are you doing here?’
Pups shuffled his feet, stuck his hands in his pockets, and stammered, ‘Jeh, Jeh, James, sorry to intrude on yer, yer drinking. I need a few quid for the daw, daw, daw …’
‘Spit it out for fecks sake.’
‘Soh, sorry, Faaaather, a few quid for the daw, dog.’
‘Afflicted by a terrible hangover on the day I buried your poor mother, I made a fatal mistake. When you offered me half a share in a hound, I should’ve told you to shove it up your arse. Do you see ‘BANK’ written on my forehead?’
‘No! I see a wise investor that will qua,qua,qua, quadruple his money.’
‘All right, stop squawking and give me one good reason to open my wallet again.’
Pups, at the mention of the wallet, ceased stuttering and pointed to his dishevelled head. ‘Pupsy has a plan.’
‘Pupsy always has a plan. Out with it, ya fool.’
‘Castlebridge Lad is the fastest hound that I ever bred, but he has one small problem …’
‘Yeah, his bloody trainer!’
‘He still refuses to pass the other dogs. For the past week I made him chase Old Ned around the field.’
‘Old Ned keeled over onto his back, raised his paws, and the poor divil died. I swear Castlebridge Lad looked like he was about to race past him.’
‘Jesus! A one legged, blind poodle could have beaten Old Ned. I’ve heard enough.’
‘Way, way, wait, Father. I’m getting Old Ned stuffed and mounted onto a skateboard.’
Father Brennan’s mouth opened, incredulity hampered his speech and mirth tempered his reply. ‘For Sale. Dead hound on wheels. One careful owner. Low mileage,’ was as good as Father Brennan could muster, and its delivery, wrapped in a parcel of snorts, demanded a more astute audience than Pups to denigrate his clichéd humour.
Pups rubbed his ear, grinned widely, and raised his hands in submission.
‘Funny idea, but Pupsy has a better one. I’m having a frame welded to a skateboard so that I can tow it around with my bicycle.’
Unable to take much more, Father Brennan sat on an empty keg.
‘Just so I am reading this correctly. You are going to cycle around the parish, towing a dead greyhound on a skateboard with a For Sale sign on its back.’
‘Apart from the sign, that is exactly what I’ll do. I only need two hundred.’
‘Here’s three hundred, the extra is in case you need an undertakers licence. Let me know when you are ready to go. As God is my witness, I would pay double to see a dead mutt on a skateboard, chase a gobshite on a bicycle.’
‘Ya, ya wone, won’t regret it.’ An elated Pups snatched the loot and hugged Father Brennan.