Mahony shoulders his rucksack, steps off the bus, and stands in the dead center of the village of Mulderrig.
Today Mulderrig is just a benign little speck of a place, uncoiled and sprawling, stretched out in the sun. Pretending to be harmless.
If Mahony could remember the place, which he can’t of course, he’d not notice many changes since he’s been gone. Mulderrig doesn’t change, fast or slowly. Twenty-six years makes no odds.
For Mulderrig is a place like no other. Here the colors are a little bit brighter and the sky is a little bit wider. Here the trees are as old as the mountains and a clear river runs into the sea. People are born to live and stay and die here. They don’t want to go. Why would they when all the roads that lead to Mulderrig are downhill so that leaving is uphill all the way?
At this time of the day the few shops are shuttered and closed, and the signs swing with an after-hours lilt and pitch, and the sun-warmed shop front letters bloom and fade. Up and down the high street, from Adair’s Pharmacy to Farr’s Outfitters, from the offices of Gibbons & McGrath Solicitors to the Post Office and General Store, all is quiet.
A couple of old ones are sitting by the painted pump in the middle of the square. You’ll get no talk from them today: they are struck dumb by the weather, for it hasn’t rained for days and days and days. It’s the hottest April in living and dead memory. So hot that the crows are flying with their tongues hanging out of their heads.
The driver nods to Mahony. “It’s as if a hundred summers have come at once to the town, when a mile along the coast the rain’s hopping up off the ground and there’s a wind that would freeze the tits off a hen. If you ask me,” says the driver, “it all spells a dose of trouble.”
Mahony watches the bus turn out of the square in a broiling cloud of dirt. It rolls back, passengerless, across the narrow stone bridge that spans a listless river. In this weather anything that moves will be netted in a fine caul of dust. Although not much is moving now, other than a straggle of kids pelting home late, leaving their clear cries ringing behind. The mammies are inside making the tea and the daddies are inside waiting to go out for a jar. And so Tadhg Kerrigan is the first living soul in the village to see Mahony back.
Tadhg is propping up the saloon door of Kerrigan’s Bar having changed a difficult barrel and threatened a cellar rat with his deadly tongue. He is setting his red face up to catch a drop of sun while scratching his arse with serious intent. He has been thinking of the Widow Farelly, of her new-built bungalow, the prodigious whiteness of her net curtains and the pigeon plumpness of her chest.
Tadhg gives Mahony a good hard stare across the square as he walks over to the bar. With looks like that, thinks Tadhg, the fella is either a poet or a gobshite, with the long hair and the leather jacket and the walk on it, like his doesn’t smell.
“All right so?”
“I’m grand,” says Mahony, putting his rucksack down and smiling up through his hair, an unwashed variety that’s grown past his ears and then some.
Tadhg decides that this fella is most definitely a gobshite.
Whether the dead of Mulderrig agree or not it’s difficult to tell, but they begin to look out cautiously from bedroom windows or drift faintly down the back lanes to stop short and stare.
For the dead are always close by in a life like Mahony’s. The dead are drawn to the confused and the unwritten, the damaged and the fractured, to those with big cracks and gaps in their tales, which the dead just yearn to fill. For the dead have secondhand stories to share with you, if you’d only let them get a foot in the door.
But the dead can watch. And they can wait.
For Mahony doesn’t see them now.
He stopped seeing them a long time ago.
Now the dead are confined to a brief scud across the room at lights-out, or a wobble now and then in his peripheral vision. Now Mahony can ignore them in much the same way as you’d ignore the ticks of an over-loud grandfather clock.
So Mahony pays no notice at all to the dead old woman pushing her face through the wall next to Tadhg’s right elbow. And Tadhg pays no notice either, for, like the rest of us, he is blessed with a blissful lack of vision.
The dead old woman opens a pair of briny eyes as round as vinegar eggs and looks at Mahony, and Mahony looks away, smiling full into Tadhg’s big face. “So are there any digs about the town, pal?”
“There’s no work here.” Tadhg crosses his arms high on his chest and sniffs woefully.
Mahony produces a half pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket and Tadhg takes one. They stand smoking awhile, Tadhg with his eyes narrowed against the sun, Mahony with a shadow of a smile on his face. The dead old woman slips out a good few inches above the pavement and points enigmatically down towards the cellar, muttering darkly.
Mahony increases his smile to show his teeth in an expression of considerable natural charm altogether capable of beguiling the hardest bastard of humankind. “Well, the last thing I need is work. I’m taking a break from the city.”
“It’s the city, is it?”
The dead old woman draws close enough to whisper in Mahony’s ear.
Mahony takes a drag and then exhales. “It is. With the noise and the cars and the rats.”
“Rats, are there?” Tadhg narrows his eyes.
“As big as sheep.”
Tadhg is outwardly unmoved, although he sympathizes deep in his soul. “Rats are a very great problem in the world,” he says sagely.
“They are in Dublin.”
“So what brought you here?”
“I wanted a bit of peace and quiet. Do you know on the map there’s nothing at all around you?”
“It’s the arse end of beyond you’re after then?”
Mahony looks thoughtful. “Do you know? I think it is.”
“Well, you’ve found it. You’re on the run in the Wild West?”
“A lady or the law?”
Mahony takes his cigarette out of his mouth and flicks it in the direction of the dead old woman, who throws a profoundly disgusted look at him. She lifts her filmy skirts and flits back through the wall of the pub.
“She was no lady.”
Tadhg’s face twitches as he curbs a smile. “What are we calling you?”
Tadhg notes a good firm handshake. “Mahony it is then.”
“So will I find a bed tonight or will I have to curl up with those antiques on the bench there?”
Tadhg withholds a fart, just while he’s thinking. “Shauna Burke rents out rooms to paying guests at Rathmore House up in the forest. That’s about it.”
“That’d be grand.”
Tadhg takes a thorough glance at Mahony. He’ll admit that he has a sort of bearing about him. He’s not a bad height and he’s strong looking, handy even. He’s been into his twenties and he’ll come out again the other side none the worse for it; he has the kind of face that will stay young. But he could do with a wash; he has the stubble of days on his chin. And his trousers are ridiculous: tight around the crotch and wide enough at the bottom to mop the main road.
Tadhg nods at them. “They’re all the rage now? Them trousers?”
“They are, yeah.”
“Do you not feel like a bit of an eejit wearing them?”
Mahony smiles. “They all wear ’em in town. There’s wider.”
Tadhg raises his eyebrows a fraction. “Is there now? Well, you wouldn’t want to be caught in a gust of wind.”
Tadhg can see that the girls would be falling over themselves if this fella ever had the notion to shave himself or pick up a bar of soap. And Mahony knows it too. It’s there in the curve of his smile and the light in his dark eyes. It’s in the way he moves, like he owns every inch of himself.
Tadhg stakes a smile. “You’ll need to watch the other guest who lives up there, Mrs. Cauley. The woman’s titanic.”
“After what I’ve been afflicted with I’m sure I can handle her.” And Mahony turns his laughing eyes up to Tadhg.
Now Tadhg is not a man given to remarkable insights but he is suddenly certain of two things.
One: that he’s seen those eyes before.
Two: that he is almost certainly having a stroke.
For the blood inside Tadhg has begun to belt around his body for the first time in a very long time and he knows that it can’t be good to stir up a system that has been sumping and rusting to a comfortable dodder. Tadhg puts his hands over his face and leans heavily against the saloon door. He can almost feel a big fecker of a blood clot hurtling towards his brain to knock him clean out of the living world.
“Are you all right, pal?”
Tadhg opens his eyes. The fella who is having a break from Dublin is frowning up at him. Tadhg reels off a silent prayer against the darkest of Mulderrig’s dark dreams. He takes a handkerchief from his pocket and wipes his forehead. And as the hairs settle on the back of his neck he tells himself that this fella is really no more than a stranger.
Whatever he thought he saw in his face has gone.
In front of him is a Dublin hippy passing through the arse end of beyond.
“Are you all right?”
Tadhg nods. “I am, of course.”
The stranger smiles. “You open? I could do time for a pint.”
“Come inside now,” Tadhg says, and resolutely decides to lay off the sunshine.
Luckily the sun has a desperate struggle to get in through the windows of Kerrigan’s Bar, but if it can seep through the smoky curtains it can alight on the sticky dark wood tables. Or it can work up a dull shine on the horse brasses by the side of the fire, unlit and full of crisp packets. Or it can bathe the pint of stout in Sergeant Jack Brophy’s hand to an even richer, warmer hue.
“Jack, this is Mahony.”
Mahony puts his rucksack by the door.
Jack turns to look at him. He nods. “Get the man a pint, Tadhg. Here, Mahony, sit by me.”
Mahony sits down next to Jack, a strong square wall of a man, and, like all mortals, he begins to feel soothed. Mahony isn’t to know that Jack has this effect on the mad, the bad, the imaginative, and skittish horses, whether off duty or on. Ask anyone and they will tell you it’s what makes Jack a good cop—a great guard. For here he is working his stretch of the coast, sorting out the wicked, the misjudged, and the maligned without having to once raise his voice.
Tadhg puts a pint in front of Mahony.
“Now, tell me about it,” says Jack, barely moving his lips.
Mahony could tell him about it. Mahony could start by telling Jack what happened last Thursday.