By Ian Patterson

 

Early August and we're heading downstream along the east bank of the Powder River. Shammy is talking about all the scalps we're gonna knot on our flag pole after we get to the Little Big Horn, about the tomahawks we're gonna bring back as trophies, but mostly he's happy to be just getting the hell out of Fort Callow. Stay put and they put you cleaning latrines, he says. Leave and the woman we call Mam will do the chores herself. We don't know why she prefers it that way but she does. Sometimes she can't even get out of bed in the morning she's so tired. We hardly saw her over Christmas and Easter she spent so much time sleeping. Daddy tells me and Shammy to stay out from under her feet. He says it quietly, with that patient smile of his, and that we're not to go worrying ourselves. 

'Just mind the river,' he says with a wink. 'Or the callows will get you.'

Then he sends us off to find new names for the Shannon. Shammy won't answer to anything but Tex, and he won't call me anything but Ringo. He turns towns into forts and eyes the terrain for enemies we can never find.

'Well, Ringo,' he says, doing his best John Wayne, 'this time tomorrow I'll be branding cattle at the ranch.'

'Why won't Daddy let me go witcha?'

'Why? Coz you're a feckin-eejit.'

It's safer to take this than give him lip. The way he sees it, the three years between us gives him a right to say whatever he wants. There's a whole bunch of things he won't let me do, and you can just never tell when he's going to flip. One minute he's General Custer, the next he's tying you to a tree. Sometimes it's funny, except when he goes off looking for kindling to pile around your feet.

He lights a fag he's pinched from my mother's pack. 'You're staying because he needs someone to look after the women folk. Remember the Alamo and all that.'

'What's wrong with her?'

He spits and looks away. 'Nerves.'

That's what Dr Ford calls it. Shammy heard him speaking to her from upstairs. She shouldn't have any more children, he said. The twelve she had was enough.

'There's only eleven of us,' I say.

'There was one after.'

'Where is it?'

'Dead.'

He doesn't know when or how it happened. I can only say she hasn't been the same since we left Fermoy. None of us have. You could say we follow her moods. Feel what she feels. The funny thing is it's not even three miles from here, but it might as well be on the dark side of the moon. The house at St Anne's had room for the last six of us. Now Daddy's retired and we're not allowed to live there anymore because it's only for policemen. His thirty years of service only finished last Christmas. I think she was hoping he might become a sergeant instead of going to work in Bord na Mona at the age of fifty-three. She sure didn't want to leave St Anne's. The change is written all over her face.

Daddy drives Shammy down to the Arra Hills in the Vauxhall early next day, to help our uncle Pat with a week of harvesting. It's a relief in a way. Our fort becomes a house again once I'm alone with Mam. Small, dark, last in the row of the estate they call The Green. She gives me a few chores, and once they're done she lets me read Kid Colt in the kitchen. She spends the morning washing socks, ironing shirts, hanging out sheets. It's still a big wash, even with the few of us left in the house. The rest are away in London and Manchester. My brother John is in prison but nobody talks about that. I only know he ran away from the navy. You'd think he'd committed murder the way my parents went on. Mam especially. She almost died of shame. I suppose it was just one more worry. The slightest thing upsets her now, but she seems okay today. She's singing that radio hit Down by the Riverside in her shaky voice, only stopping to listen to some announcement. When the bells ring at midday we're on our knees. The forecast talks about the high pressure over Ireland. Temperatures of twenty-five degrees or more. She smokes a cigarette and gives me an apple, half listening to the Kennedys of Castleross.

'Is that any good?' she says.

'What?'

'The thing you're reading.'

'Good enough.'

I want to say things will get better. Ask if she's heard anything about John. Or if she knows when they'll let him out. I'll even talk about dead babies. There's a lot of things I feel like saying but never do.

'It's a good day for a swim,' she says, as if it's something she'd like to do herself. But I know she just wants me out of the way. 'A pity you've no-one to go down with.'

'I'm going over to Hanley's later.'

'Oh good. David's a nice boy.'

'He's okay.'

I'd go alone but she won't let me. It's always next year, next year. When you're eleven, she says, but she said the same thing when I was nine. I'd prefer to stay in and do nothing, even if the sun is splitting the rocks. I mean, Hanley really is okay, just a bit serious. Mam says it's because he's an only child, which sounds like a good deal to me. I'd prefer to hang around with Mark Donnelly, but he's away visiting his relatives in Galway. Another thing about Hanley is you can't just visit his house when you feel like it. You have to call first, if you can believe that. He must have got that one from his father. He says that when he grows up he's going to work in a bank too. I think his mother likes me. She smiles every time she sees me. I always go red, because she is kind of good-looking or whatever. Shammy says he'd ride her if she wasn't such a snobby bitch (Like she'd touch him with a bargepole!) and he takes this out on David any time he visits. Pokes him in the chest and tells him we don't like smart people in this house. Mam never hears any of this, but that's what Shammy says to him. There's a lot she doesn't see.

'Can he swim?' she says now.

'He has a medal.'

'Oh to be young again,' she says in a dreamy voice.

Her face goes strange when she talks like that. As if she can't make up her mind to be happy or sad. Most of the time she looks like she's thinking of some far off place. Connemara maybe. The place she calls home. Then something will bring her back. The phone, the door, a dog barking. This time it's the door. I put the book aside but she won't even let me get up to see who's there. She has to do it herself, like she's expecting some important news of her own. Instead it's Luke Costigan of all people. I can hear him calling for me. In a loud voice, as if he's come to arrest me.

'Come in, Luke, come in,' my mother says, and she sounds delighted with herself. 'Paul is inside.'

Sweet Jesus. I don't know why she makes me put up with this fool. When he arrives here it's like he's still blabbing behind the counter of his father's shop. He talks, talks, talks about nothing at all, and Mam just drops everything and sits there grinning. Seriously. Maybe it's because he looks like a monkey. When he smiles you can see his gums, with all the teeth stuck in them like pegs, just like his father. Even the mother looks like a monkey. But the worst is his sister Aisling. Sometimes she runs after me, trying to kiss me. In broad daylight! Doesn't care who sees. It's one of the few things that makes Mam laugh till she's sick.

Costigan follows her in, carrying a satchel, but I already know what's inside it. The first thing he does is clip the top of my head with the back of his hand when she's not looking.

'How's John Wayne?' he says, grinning from ear to ear, all gums. 'Still chasing Crazy Horse?'

I grunt and continue reading Kid Colt.

'Will you have a bun, Luke?' says Mam.

'I will, Mrs Keating. I will, I will, I will.'

Next thing he's eating one of her buns, dropping crumbs all over the kitchen floor because he's in such a hurry to give her all the gossip from the shop. I am doing my best not to listen but it's impossible. I hear him imitate one person after another and it's good stuff. It's strange, but the way he does it you would think the town was full of loons. He has them off to a tee. Mam just dies. It's amazing. I don't think it ever occurs to her that Costigan might know how to imitate her.

'Oh you're gas, Luke,' she says to him. 'Just gas now.'

I can't believe this. He's not gas, I want to say. He's a monkey!

And of course he has to have another bun. And another. She's literally stuffing his face. When he hears Shammy is gone he gets really giddy. That's because Shammy never lets him anywhere near us. Just calls Costigan a flat-nosed gombeen shite then tells him to fuck off back to his Daddy's shop. So he fucks off. Red in the face but still grinning somehow.

'Paul,' Mam says - and I hear the disapproval in her voice - 'Can you put your book aside for Luke, please? You're very rude now.'

'I think he's going to turn into a book, is he?' says Costigan with a wink, as if this was the smartest thing ever.

She doesn't laugh at this. Just looks at me with a sorry smile. But the monkey is still rattling on, still finishing the last of his bun. He's playing for a few final laughs, too thick to see he's lost her. I swear, he just doesn't know when to quit. Can't see that Mam has had her fill of local gossip. She's on her feet again, supporting her back with one hand, a look of pain on her face. I see Costigan watch her, like he's making notes.

'I'd better get on,' she says. 'Out ye go now. It's too fine a day for sitting around here.'

'I brought a towel,' says the monkey, swiping up his satchel. 'You on, Mr Wayne?'

'Don't feel like it,' I say.

'Go on, Paul,' says my mother. 'Go for a dip.'

'I told you. I'm going to David's house.'

'You can bring Luke with you.'

'Yeah,' says Costigan. 'Bring Luke with you.'

'No.'

'The more, the merrier. Isn't that right, Mrs Keating?'

'I'll get you a towel,' my mother says, ignoring him for once.

'No. I refuse.'

Costigan splutters a laugh. 'I refuuuse,' he says in some stupid accent that's supposed to sound English.

My mother smiles at me, as if she's pleasantly surprised at my choice of words. Not that it makes a difference. 'Go on,' she says gently. 'You can buy me some yeast on the way home.'

'And make sure you buy it in Costigan's!' says the monkey, hopping up on a chair, his eyes rolling like marbles. 'With a permit from Garda Mooney, mind!'

'We keep no poitin in this house, Luke Costigan,' Mam says, half serious. 'Now get down off that chair.'

She leaves for the back room to root for a towel. Costigan goes stock still when he hears her singing Down by the Riverside again. His mouth goes slack, like he's memorizing everything. Then he just as quickly snaps out of it, hops down and gives me another clip round the back of the head, grinning his monkey grin.

'I refuuuse,' he cries again. 'What are ya like!'

'Piss off.'

'Paul!' my mother calls from the hallway. 'Language.'

'Yes,' Costigan hisses, right in my ear. 'Language.'

So now I'm stuck with the monkey. I'm so fed up I can hardly speak. As we go along the street I'm picturing Shammy driving down the Arra Hills with trailer loads of fresh cut grass. The buzz of flies, the smell of cow shit, his back red raw from the heat. Free as a bird. Sitting in a field somewhere passing around a bottle of Auntie Mary's barley water. I want wings so I can cover the miles between us. Head south as the crow flies.

Costigan starts rapping the big brass knocker of Hanley's front door. He does this too hard and too long. Blackie starts barking in the hallway. We can see him leaping against the door through the stained glass panels. David Hanley opens up, holding him back by the collar.

'How's the gingerbread boy?' booms Costigan.

'You're supposed to call,' he says, staring back at us all pale and freckled. 'My father doesn't like people dropping in without calling first.'

'We're not people,' says the monkey, which almost makes me laugh. 'We're frog men today. Come on, will ya. Get your togs.'

Hanley keeps staring back. 'Is it just you two?'

'Sure can't you see it is.'

He glances past us, making sure Shammy's not with us. 'I'll ask,' he says then closes the door again.

He's probably wondering why I've brought the monkey along for company. He knows it's not something I would do unless I had to. But he's probably figured that out already. He's that quick.

I tell Costigan to take it easy on the front gate. He's swinging it hard, really testing the hinges. He's singing Down by the Riverside. Way out of key, over and over, with hints of my mother.

'A cat could sing better,' I say.

Gonna stick my sword in the golden sand

Down by the river side

Down by the river side

Down by the river side

'Shut up, Luke.'

Gonna swing all day on Hanley's gate

Down by the river side

Down by the river side

Down by the river side

'Shuddup!'

The door opens. Hanley appears with his mother. I can hardly look at her I'm so red in the face. She's all smiles, tells us to be careful. 'Mind the river now, won't you, dear?' she calls after David as we head off.

'Don't worry, Mrs Hanley!' Costigan hollers back. 'I'll look after him.' He turns to Hanley. 'Won't we, dear?'

On our way down the main street he's shite-talking nineteen to the dozen. He doesn't see the smirks Hanley and I are giving each other. Just talks and talks like we're hardly there. He decides to convert us into a cavalry unit. Says we're going after Crazy Horse. The Keating brothers have tried, but that this time the blue coats are going to have their scalps. I can see he's trying to take this seriously, the way Shammy and I would. It's kind of pathetic. We're in Callow, I want to say. It's not wild and it's not even west. It's the midlands. A place where everyone works on the bog. And even if we were in the Dakotas, you wouldn't be with us, Costigan. You'd be in the jungle eating bananas. Swinging from tree to tree. That's what I want to say. Instead I end up asking why he gets to be captain.

'Because it rhymes,' he grins.

'With what?'

'With Costigan, ya gom. Captain Costigan. It fits like a glove.'

Hanley only remarks that, in fact, this is not a rhyme but something called alliteration. But Costigan doesn't care what rhymes and what doesn't. He's the captain, end of story, whatever about allita-whatchamacallit. He gives Hanley the rank of sergeant but calls him Sergeant Dear. Me he calls Private Wayne, over and over. He says we have to salute him and call him Sir. Then he stops and shouts at us to line up.

'Luke?' I say. 

'That's Captain Costigan to you, Private Wayne!' he says then clips me across the back of the head. 'Ten-shun!'

'Shuddup!' I yell, giving him a good shove. I can hear the shake in my voice. I've surprised myself even.

'Jesus,' says Costigan, the grin fading. 'I'm only messing, sure.'

'You're not captain. I'll tell Shammy you tried to take over. I swear to fuck I will.'

He looks at Hanley for support, smiles a new kind of thick smile. 'Jee-zus. Talk about serious.'

'I am serious.'

'Yeah. Way too serious. Fine, so,' he says. 'If that's how it's going to be, I'll just keep nice and quiet, so I will. I won't say another word. Not. Another. Word.'

There's something like peace as we start following the Shannon in the direction of Fermoy, though it takes me ages to calm down. The air is thick with heat, even with the cool river air. The sun is right over us, burning in a clear blue sky, and it isn't long before we start stripping down to our waists. Costigan starts yelping at the attentions of a wasp. He's hopping this way and that, swiping the air with the tail of his shirt. Jesus, if I could only get away. It's my mother's fault. If he wasn't with us, Hanley and I could keep walking. We'd reach St Anne's in an hour. Last thing I want to do is bring a monkey looking for pig nuts. He'd wreck the place. Shake the fruit off the orchard trees until they were bare. That's what monkeys do best. Then he'd trample on all those wild flowers my sisters used to gather for Mam. He'd make fun of the names - twayblade, eyebright, summer snowflakes - and then I'd get mad again. I'd pick a bunch for her if he wasn't around. There's not much along the river anyway. Nothing but clover. I spot some wild orchids after we ditch our gear on the bank, but I can't even go near them. Costigan would never let me hear the end of it.

His spirits are up now he's down to his jocks. He's singing again, sounding more like Mam this time. He even takes out his mickey and flaps it around.

Going to take out my big fat willy

Down by the river side

Down by the river side

Down by the river side

The river is low, but he's first in the water, leaving a trail of monkey tracks behind him in the muck. Poor Hanley is undressing slowly, like the whole world is watching. He's as thin as a bird. So thin and so white it's hard to believe he can swim as well as he does. He folds his shirt and pants into a neat little stack, talks nervously about this new book his father got called The Bridge over the River Kwai. He read bits of it, he says. Then his father took it away, said it was for grown-ups.

'Why?' I ask, grinning. 'Too dirty?'

'No,' Hanley frowns. 'It's because of what the Japs did. My father hates the Japs. He says they're evil.'

'So you don't know what happens in the end? That's shit.'

'No, no. He told me the end.'

It's so good I picture myself blowing up the railway bridge in Athlone. I see all the carriages from the Galway-Dublin train tumble into the Shannon and disappear. I'm shot trying to get away. It's a true hero's death.

Gonna duck Paul Keating's big thick head

Down by the river side

Down by the river side

Down by the river side

'I think they're going to make it…make it into a film,' Hanley says in a voice that starts to drift. 

'What's wrong?'

'He's too far out.'

The monkey is splashing around in the current, yelling at us to catch him if we can. He's drifting towards an island of reeds in the middle of the river.

'Look at this!' he yells, and his voice echoes like he's miles away.

We watch as he rolls over and goes under. One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four one-thousand…

'Where is he?' I say.

Hanley doesn't answer me. He's breathing in a way that sounds a bit panicky. 'I dunno.'

Six one-thousand, seven one-thousand…

'Luke!'

'Looooke!'

'Luke!'

Nine one-thousand, ten one-thousand…

The surface explodes. Costigan comes up gasping. 'Chicken shits!'

'You're too far out!' Hanley cries.

'Chickens! Buck-buck-buck!'

'Come in!'

'Noooo, Private Wayne. I refuuuse! Ha ha! Buck-buck-buck-awk!'

'Tell him he has to come back,' Hanley says to me. 'Tell him.'

Costigan is struggling, but he's still too thick to admit he might be in trouble. His eyes start flashing as the current pushes him into the reeds. He manoeuvres round to see what they are. 'Ah!' he yelps then tries to laugh. He's grabbing on to them, clutching hard, but they bend and break like they're trying to shake him off. 'I can't…' He's swimming hard against the current and for a moment it looks like he's in the clear. We should be cheering him on but instead we're struck dumb when he shouts 'Cramp!' We watch as the river carries him back again. Back to the reeds. We see him try to sweep them off as they close in around him.

'You better go in,' I say to Hanley.

Hanley looks frozen, says nothing.

'I can't swim,' I tell him.

Costigan tries to shriek for help but the Shannon won't let him. It wants to get south and he's in the way. It's trying to swallow him up, force itself inside him and carry him off. He's clutching like mad at the reeds again, but they won't save him either. They lean over, whispering, watch the terror in his monkey face as it struggles to stay above the surface.

'Ya gotta go in,' I say to Hanley.

He stands there, hesitating like a man going over the top.

'Go!' I shout, giving him a shove. He takes a couple of timid steps then stops. 'I can't, Paul,' he says, tears in his eyes now. 

'You have to! Look at him!'

Costigan is coughing his guts out. Making sounds we've never heard.

Hanley follows the monkey tracks down to the water's edge. He stops again, starts sobbing. 'I can't.'

I get my pants on, run like hell for the town. It's a good mile but I don't stop. I'm near the bridge when I fall and skin my knee, but I get right up and keep going, hardly feeling the pain. There's a distant rumble, like rocks breaking off the side of a cliff. It's the day starting to break. Rain coming. I race up the street, hear girls giggling behind me. Costigan's sister, running after me with some of her giggly friends. When I reach the station I burst in the door, gasping so much I drool on the counter. There's no-one around. Not a soul. Just the sound of a radio somewhere in the back. A crowd in Croke Park. I want to shout but I'm still out of breath. I hear the girls again, giggling outside the station door, waiting for me.

'Hello!' I shout.

A roar from the crowd. Mooney whooping.

'Garda Mooney!'

The volume drops. Mooney appears, stops chewing whatever he's got in his mouth, then starts again when he sees it's only me.

'Mr Keating,' he says, surprised at the state of me. 'What's up, young sir?'

He's quick to get us into the squad car. He goes capless, in shirt sleeves. The smile disappears from Aisling's face when we exit the station.

'What's wrong?' she says.

'Your brother's in trouble,' I say back. I feel a peculiar giddiness breaking the news. I don't know why but I almost want to laugh. I try to banish the small, mean part of me that wouldn't mind a tragedy.

'What did he do?' she asks.

'He's in the river.'

We can't drive far. Only to the end of the street where we'll have to park by the bridge. I don't know how, but before we get there we can see the word is already out across town. Kids are racing for the river bank, a few men trying to keep up with them. Costigan's loons, all coming to the rescue. I want to run with them but I'm afraid to leave Mooney now I've gone to the trouble of bringing him with me. I've already given him my version of the story. I told how we couldn't stop the monkey - except now I call him Luke - and that David Hanley tried to warn him.

'Stupid,' says Mooney. 'Pure stupid.'

The air is almost unbreathable as we go along the bank. So thick you'd be afraid to strike a match. Sweat patches are quick to spread on the blue of Mooney's shirt. He's swinging his arms, puffing like mad. I wonder what he can actually do when we get there. We're being overtaken by everyone else with half a pair of legs. I wonder if having Daddy with us would make any difference to the situation. He says he can swim but I've never seen it. Shammy could save the day. Begrudgingly. He'd sit on the bank with a fag, take his time so he could watch Costigan splutter and choke. Wait till the last minute then plunge in like a croc. It doesn't matter now. I've brought the cavalry with me. I expect to see Costigan and Hanley being clapped on the back by all the loons. See the monkey grin as we approach. Hear all the whooping that comes after that close a shave. Costigan will buck-buck-buck and cock a snook, but I won't mind that. No matter that Mooney will give us a bollocking and tell our dads. We'll be able to laugh about that in time. We'll look back on it.

Instead we find people gathered by the river. They're watching a boat out by the reeds. Two men in a little white boat, looking into the water. Another comes up with a splash, grabs the starboard side, takes some air. He shakes his head. 'No,' we hear him say then see him go down again. Mooney pushes through the small crowd and tells them to stand back, but he doesn't do anything accept watch. Just stands up front like some bully who's jumped the queue. I expect him to send everyone home. Declare that there's nothing for them to see here, like the cops do on the radio. Instead he turns and squints, searching for a face.

'Where's David Hanley?' he says, hands on his hips.

The faces gape back.

'Davy, boy?' he calls. 'Are you there?'

'He went in,' someone answers. 'He went in after Luke.'

For a second Mooney has the look of a man who doesn't understand. But only for a second. 'Jesus wept,' he says, rubbing his eyes.

I'm looking down to see if Hanley's clothes are still in their neat little pile. Someone has kicked them over, scattered them along with Costigan's. The diver comes wading out, goes to one side with Mooney speaking low. They both turn at the cry of a woman. Mrs Costigan comes pushing through the crowd.

'Where is he?!' she screams at Mooney. 'Where's our Luke!'

Mooney looks embarrassed, as if the question isn't fair. He comes up to her, rests a hand on her arm.

'We're still looking, Mary.'

Before he can say another word she doubles over and falls on the grass, so hysterical she's nearly tearing her hair out. She pushes people away, screaming at them. Aisling is wailing, trying to grab on to her, but her mother doesn't even notice she's there. I'm crying too. We all are. Even some of the men. I have to get away. I have to run. I race along the bank for home, barely noticing Dr Ford as I brush by. Hardly feeling the first rain drops. There's no-one in the street. I see my mother standing at the door of our house on The Green and go straight to her arms.

 

She says I've been calling their names. That's what she tells me next day. She rocks me back and forth on the bed, calls me darling, lies down beside me. Maybe it never happened. That's what I tell myself first. Maybe a thing can happen and not happen at the same time. Even dead they might still somehow be alive. But the radio doesn't agree. We hear the report hour after hour on the news, like gossip. Two bodies found on the banks of Lough Ree, the man says in his brassy voice, but he doesn't sound impressed. Two nameless bodies. He doesn't say how they got there either, only that they 'got into difficulties'. A third boy alerted the Gardai.

'People are talking about you,' Mam whispers as she strokes my hair.

'What are they saying?'

'How brave you are.'

'Why?'

'Sure why wouldn't you be?'

I suddenly get that I'm the only one who knows the full story. The radio might be short a few details but it's got the broad strokes. I already know what I'll say to Mooney. Luke got caught in the reeds, I'll tell him, but David was quick to take control of the situation. He told me to run and get the help, and I said okay but that he shouldn't go in after Luke by himself. I told him to wait because I knew the current was too strong. But he wouldn't listen, Garda Mooney. He said he had a medal for swimming and that there was no time to waste. So I ran as fast as I could and got you.

It's a better version all round.

'I've to do some baking,' my mother says in her tired way. 'Oh Lord above. I could stay here all day, so I could. I could just lie here forever.'

'What are you making?'

'A few loaves, a few buns. The usual fare.'

It's hard not to wonder if it was all her buns that gave Costigan his cramp. Or if it's something I should mention to Mooney, by the by. I wonder if she might be wondering the same thing. There's no flicker of a sign that she does. It might be better to say nothing. That wouldn't be lying either. Not exactly.  Lord knows she has enough on her plate.

She climbs off the bed, groaning and holding her back. She's been lying on Kid Colt.

'I'm never going outside again,' I say, shoving the book off the bed. 'Never.'

'You'll feel different tomorrow, love.'

'No. I'll still hate the place. I don't care what they're saying about me.'

'Okay. You rest yourself now.'

I pick up the book and try to read again, but the words are dead on the page. There's a bit of grey sky showing through the drawn curtains of my room. Another day, less a few souls. I think of Mrs Hanley, see the ruin of her beauty, then drive her from my mind again. I feel the urge to get out and start running, but now I've promised not to I'm stuck here stewing in my own stupid juice.

I have to wait till Mark Donnelly comes knocking. He's back from Galway. It's the tomorrow I'm supposed to feel different about, and I do. I hear him ask Mam if I want to play football with the lads. I peek through the curtains to see who he's brought. Half the town. I don't even answer when she calls up the stairs. I just jump off the bed and go.

---

 

Ian Patterson is an actor and playwright. He founded Hourglass Theatre Company in 2010 and is the author of the plays Zed's Erroneous Zones, Red Handed, Leda Come Home and Loose Change. He lives in Galway.