“On her birthday,” by Seamus Scanlon
He left Belfast around 2 am. Light traffic. He liked driving at night… no school runs, no rush hour, no old people stopped at junctions bewildered by the lights and traffic, only a black Opel Vectra sailing through the seas of the dark, pulling in the miles, the wind buffeting the chassis, wipers scooping aside the heavy rain from the windscreen into the surrounding dark edges, the soothing hum of tires against the wet asphalt, the oncoming lights flooding the interior of the car, scanning him, the machine to machine pull as they speed past, disappearing into the rain and darkness, taillights fading splashes of blood in the rearview mirror, the vectors of sound and speed and direction intersecting with the blurred dark contours of hedges, broke stone walls and trees.
The disembodied reflection of the dashboard’s dials keeps pace outside, banking, stopping, flying onward. Cold night air through a narrow gap at the top of the driver’s window stings his face, keeps him alert, the whistling sound a lament.
Past Newry, squaddies lie prone against soft hedgerows, following him in their scopes, fingers stiff from the rain and wind. High observation towers bathe the road in shocking strobe lights. Safe into the Irish Republic he breathes easier, then through Ardee and the lush pastureland of Navan and Trim. Forts, castles and monastic sites, woods, graveyards, schoolyards, church steeples, grottos to the Virgin Mary, cattle lying solemn beneath tall elm trees.
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At total ease he drives along narrow secondary roads through low flat bog land bordered by tall swaying rushes heavy with rain. The macadam skin is cracked in places, pushed up by the peat land that swells during the long winter and then contracts during the short summer. The car bounces over the uneven surface, a satisfying surge rushing through his belly, a satisfying humph when it lands and skims onwards. Onward past Athlone, past a slippery junction where he crashed years before, skidding across the blacktop, greasy with rain and leaves, smacking into a boulder, skittering into a tributary road. Images and memories of near-death written in a past notation he can’t decipher. The hieroglyphs of near-death etched on him forever.
Past Ballinasloe, bandit country in the eighteenth century where highwaymen on black horses waited in the shelter of tall Irish oaks, a brace of pistols drawn, bundled in black long coats and tricorn hats, listening for the sound of high rimmed wheels against rough roadway, breath from their horses’ nostrils smoking the air, then rushing out from cover to strike at mail cars, landlords, and magistrates.
Near dawn he drove into Galway, in past the docks, the heavy heft of straining diesel engines from Atlantic-bound trawlers reaching him through the open window, their yellow cabin lights pale and diffuse, obscured by low lying mists rising off the sea, the smell of salt water soothing him.
Out past Salthill, past Claude Toft’s casino, to the Prom, the hills of Clare obscured, rain-heavy low black clouds out in Galway Bay promising heavy showers, swelling waves bursting on the defense wall of the Prom, shattered fronds thrown up on the road like dismembered children’s limbs. Past the Crescent, home of doctors and architects, whose sophisticated daughters in Taylor’s Hill uniforms looked at him in disdain once. Past Palmyra Avenue where the teenage Lord Haw Haw lived until the IRA waited in ambush for him one dark evening in the shade of trees on Saint Mary’s Road. Past the Regional Hospital where once he lay dying, watching dusk fall, but fought back. Fought back from the dark, from the deep.
Around Eyre Square defiled forever where he lay once on the long grass in the summer when life was easy, when life eased off him at the end of the day.
At dawn now he drove down Lough Atalia Avenue. The house looked the same. He sat watching it for a long time, the water in Lough Atalia reflecting back the low clouds. He stepped out. Memories and emotions towered over him, fell down on him, fetching him back to here.
Inside the house, the wallpaper was mottled with age, the colors fading, leaching away now, the rooms quiet. The piano in the front room stood in shadow, sheathed in a cover of dust. On the mantelpiece were framed photos of his parents on their wedding day, monochrome print, suits, no wedding dress, both handsome, both destroyed now. His father dead, his mother failing.
He pulled the door behind him and drove out to Athenry, to the nursing home. It was still early morning. The mist clung to the fields. The sun outlined the webs of dew created in the night. He drove up the long avenue to the front door of the home.
He saw her at the glass door staring out. She waved. She waved at everyone. He had seen her once-lustrous intelligence ravaged. Had seen her washing her hands in the toilet bowl. Heard her crying at night. Felt her heart beating in panic when she startled awake and cried out. Listened at the foot of the stairs while she murmured her prayers in Irish. Listened to her random chatter of inconsequential matters.
He got out of the car. Reached the door and pushed his face up against the glass.
The occupants moved back in alarm.
Since he had an archipelago of wounds and stitches from eye to ear, it was not surprising. He didn’t look his best. A ricocheting baton round in the Falls hit the gable end of a house and struck him. Crowd control, allegedly. That pint of milk he was carrying home for the tea was obviously suspect.
Forty stitches it took, but he kept the eye. It was bloodshot and pinched closed by the deeply bruised, black-red tissues.
His mother pressed her face against his on the opposite side of the glass. She didn’t seem to mind his looks.
He rang the bell and the nurse appeared. She kind of jumped when she saw his distorted face. She opened it and said “You’re here to take May out for her birthday?” “No, we are going to the prom,” he said. She didn’t laugh. She looked at him. He looked back with what he had. “Okay, May,” she said in a sweeter voice. “Have a nice day out.” The nurse gave her a hug and held her hand as she passed her over. They treated his mother well here… he broke in one night to check up. He knew they liked her because she still thought she was a nurse and would help them make beds. She did the ward round with the matron every morning as if she was in her training days again in nursing school in England.
His mother touched the puckered tissue around his eye socket and examined it with a professional look. It was the only tenderness he got anymore. She was one of the few people who didn’t recoil at the creased skin and suture marks threading their way from ear to eye.
“What happened, Paddy?” Paddy was her brother. Long gone. Long a favorite. “Nothing, Ma. It’s fine,” he said. “You should mind your eyes. Try Optrex.” “Okay, Ma.” He walked her arm-in-arm to the car. He looked back and waved at the other patients.
Some waved and some frowned and some stared like malevolent watchdogs.
She tried to sit in the driver’s seat. He had to persuade her to go in the passenger side. He had to buckle her up since she lost this ability yearsago. He turned on Today With Vincent Browne for her.
“Hi, Ma. It’s me… Victor.”
“Do you remember me, Ma?”
She forgets everything.
She forgets her childhood, and walking barefoot across the fields from Renbrack to Callow school, how she would lie in the shade on summer days and watch her father save hay, how she once pulled a pot of boiling water from the range down on herself that melted the skin off her back. She forgets her adolescence too, and the story of her friend Winnie Battle dying alone in the river field. She forgets the years she spent nursing in the open TB wards in Dublin and cycling through the hard rain to dress wounds of working class Galwegians.
She forgets his name… her first born.
Victor sped down the driveway so he wouldn’t have to think too much.
He was bringing her to Callow Lake near where she grew up. At tight bends she squirmed and protested.
“Slow down for Jaysus’ sake!”
Victor threatened to blindfold her. She laughed. She could get jokes, which was strange, but that’s all she got. She touched the bruised tissue again.
“What happened, Paddy?” “It’s nothing, Ma.” “You should mind your eyes.” “Should I try Optrex?”
“Yes, Optrex is great.”
They drove through Tuam and took the road to Claremorris. The sun was warm after the night’s rain. The scent from the hedgerows and fields intensified as the day got warmer. They stopped for ice cream after fifty miles—she did pretty well, but he had to intervene at times to make sure it didn’t dribble down her dress, not to mention the beautiful upholstery of the black Opel Vectra.
When they got to Callow Lake, the August sun was warm, not scorching like a New York August. Dogs barked across the valley in the far-away farms of Renbrack, the hum of cars on the distant road a mantra. The lake surface was dark blue, like the iris of his one good eye. The wind coming over Cullneachtain smelt of heather, freshly cut grass and turf smoke. The wind produced ripples on the lake surface. They went arm-in-arm down to the landing.
She put her feet in the water—he got her shoes off just in time.
Teenagers with tanned bodies jumped from a rocky outcrop.
She sat there looking across the lake. “Do you remember this place?” he asked her. “I remember being happy.” She started crying. He looked away in case she saw him. He could still cry from both tear ducts. How is this fair? he thought. They stayed all day. They ate food he brought and walked around the lake. She even lay on an outcrop of rock and slept for a while in the sun. Sleep smoothed her worry frowns. Near dusk they had tea.
“I’m tired, Paddy,” she said. “Can I go home now?” “Soon, Ma.” He stroked her forehead. Her wild Irish hair felt like the rough gorse bushes all around them. When her breathing slowed into a steady rhythm, he carried her in his arms down to the car. The August sun slipped away over the hills of Cullneachtain.
Behind them, Callow Lake was a deep black pool.
Seamus Scanlon was born and raised in Galway City. His debut book of stories, “As Close As You’ll Ever Be” (Cairn Press, 2012), is comprised of 23 stories about “violence, rage, redemption, loyalty, immigration, the Irish sensibility, Bootboys, Mervue, Renbrack, Galway, Belfast, Washington Heights, Boston, Barry’s Tea. It has black humor to soften the message.” More recently, “The McGowan Trilogy” debuted on the New York stage at the Cell Theatre and has since been performed in Ireland and Britain. His work has appeared in the Roanoke Review, Crimespree Magazine, the Irish Times and the Fish Anthology, and he has won a number of literary prizes. Scanlon has worked as a librarian in Northern Ireland and England. He is a winner of the Carnegie Corporation/ New York Times “I Love My Librarian Award” for which he won $5,000 and a plaque for the library at City College’s Centre for Worker Education.