After he left for the fighting, Patrick’s mother began to advance the notion among us that two rather peculiar developments had occurred in relation to his father. These developments were thus: his apparent transformation into a man, shall we say, newly troubled by the strains of paternal devotion; and his conversion to the arcane delights of dry stone walling. It makes me chuckle to imagine it. Her, recounting these charges over a choppy satellite line beaming itself halfway around the other side of the world into desert and scrub. And Patrick thinking to himself, nonsense, or, she never really did get the old man, did she?
I can vouch for part of her claim. There’s a story in there. The rest we’ll have to hang on trust and best guesses.
Patrick’s mother was from another time. That’s how I’d describe her. A petite woman with modest appetites, modest vices. She drank a finger of amaretto with a halfglass of cranberry juice, twice, on a Friday evening. She kept her dinnertable clean of even tertiary greyshade profanity: jeez, frick, frig, feck, freak, fudge, fetch, beggar, shoot, dang, heck and hell. The whole shebang.
She had acted faithfully in the self-appointed role of guardian, purveyor and curator of the Gorman family history for about as long as I had known her. Some of the others liked to dismiss her testament as honest, oh yes, but ultimately deluded. Wishful thinking. And they would cock their heads and nod so with a delicious pitysmile on their faces, as though solemnly narrating a neighbour’s crops lain waste by borers and rootworm. Superficially, I suppose, one is hard-pressed to disagree: there was what the women on the PTA termed a ‘propaganda drive’ a few years back after Patrick drove his father’s Volvo through the shopfront window of the Post Office on the hard turn into the village; her insistence in the weeks to come that ‘the incident’ (it was only ever spoken of afterwards with quotation fingers and knowing eyes) was little more than high spiritedness gone awry, adolescent japery. A few of us heard the yelling before, the sieved sludge of hard voices through soft walls. We knew. But she had actually used the word japery. I liked her for that.
Calling her deluded though. That was just wrong-headed through and through. I knew her well enough to say she had an uncommon eye for observation when she wanted, for getting deep under things. An eye for detail to stop you dead in your shoes and make you feel like she has a tongue-wetted finger paging through the open ledgerbook of your most secret life. The simple sum of things was that she saw it all, I mean really saw things cold and plain, but that she refused to apportion blame or keep a running tally on guilt and its accumulated interest. The womenfolk in the town viewed this as a tragedy and a weakness; the same, I imagine, as if she had been struck under by some wasting disease. And they disgorged their scorn on Patrick and his father many times over in recompense for her lack as the sole cause of that family’s, that poor woman’s troubles. But for me that refusal to blame, those manifold and earnest explanations for the misfortunes that life had visited her, expressed some kind of deeply realised understanding of how scraps and debris and chance all play their part shaping the courses of our own crooked little paths. The impossibility of saying I know this person and I know why they do the things they do. I like to think that, in its own way, her cosy constancy of belief was evidence of a clear-sighted and revolutionary spirit. Although this is one instance where we’ll have to go with a little bit of trust. A little bit of best guessing.
And so her toughest break, that which would eventually become her raison d’être, was the charge to justify the thing that existed between Patrick and his father. The coolness that had crept up between them that had once been a brief and sumptuous and easy love (I had seen it for myself), what had turned to mutual awe, incomprehension perhaps, whilst Patrick was still an infant, then slowly to silence and to the hardening of that incomprehension into suspicion and muted hostility, and then, at the end, to a tough blue frost. Frost and ambivalence. The coolness that had crept up unnoticed and pleasant like a summer breeze that had gone to glue deep in their arteries and finally bore them apart from each other. Two dogs tearing each other to rags over a big old bone with more than enough meat on it for the both of them. Too much the same, too much the same, and therein the tragedy. To this problem and this alone she attributed solely the unknowable solitudes and mysteries of Men.
And what of his father? I’m no man to judge heart or soul but I knew him well enough to bear witness to his earthly habits. Looking back I would say we had probably been friends long enough for us to forget what it was we had first valued between us but not yet long enough for us to entirely unlearn the habit of companionship. I’d hazard that such arrangements are more commonplace than many of us would care to admit. It’ll suffice for an excuse in any case.
He was foreman at the factory where I had worked before Patrick was born. A drunk and a charmer and a man whose passions had gently, opiately, degraded to time-killing. I think this lot suited him about right. No longer able to exploit the romanticism that made the hard drinking and the gambling of his youth like something godly, something courageous, he was still able to summon a kind of magic for his dead hobbies that could really turn a conversation, could somehow grab a moment and fix it right there, right in front of you, fully-formed and ripe and appetising. He could still polish up a drinking story to a decent glassball shine. And as far as I knew he had never had any truck with building walls, dry stone or otherwise, nor with any manual labour or exertion beyond the factory floor that didn’t conclude directly with a cold beer and a pout and a stagefront position at the bar.
She told me once about how he liked to waltz when he had whisky in his belly. How his hands would go soft like a boy’s and his eyes would lose that frantic, windswept quality, and how they would dance in the privacy of their living room to the smoke and the sad of This Nearly Was Mine. How that was like a glimpse through a lifetime haze of frustration and little cruelties into a forgotten place of sweetness. Of deep regret.
There was that thing with Patrick, but only until he went away. After that everything changed. Or so I heard.
The first of it came to me through Morris Delaney. Morris had been there at the factory since even I was a lad and he knew its peculiar dynamic, that blissful deepbore catatonia of career clockwatching, intimately enough to have a kind of animal sensitivity to any atmospheric disturbance that needled infinitesimally off the norm. Arthritis had his limbs fixed and jagged like a figurine. He was all angles. That was how he drank his beer while we were sitting there: all angles and sharp movement and him tipping his head to the glass.
Morris told me that Patrick’s father had recently taken to working up conversation over the breaktime kettle. It didn’t seem to matter all that much who he was speaking to and the conversation didn’t require much in the way of a response. He just wanted to talk. And he would talk about his boy, and did you know (Morris shaking his index finger at me the same way that Patrick’s father would spike his sentences), did you know that Patrick is part of 148 Battery? which is basically a part of the Special Boat Service, even though they don’t wear the same cap badge, but it’s close enough to count, and, just think of it! my boy in the Special Forces, well, he always had been an outdoorsy lad, I should have known it from the time he swam the Firth of Forth on New Year’s day that year for a dare, do you remember me telling you? all that way in the freezing cold, I had half a mind to box seven shades of brown out of him when he got home, but oh, oh I should have realised then. These soldiers, the really good ones, they have a type you know, not many people can do the sort of work they do. And this 148 Battery is an elite outfit, really they are, working alongside those Special Forces and calling in artillery strikes behind enemy lines, and Patrick doesn’t say it to us because I know he doesn’t want his mother worrying, but I’m pretty sure he’s been deep behind the lines already, probably causing all sorts of trouble knowing him, and it’s only a shame his granddad isn’t alive to see him now, he’d be a proud man, a very proud man indeed – And Morris catching the astonishment working across my face and saying:
Honest to God. Honest to God. I’ve never heard him talk so much in all the time I’ve known him. And that’s all well and good but it’s getting to the point where no one wants to be the first man to get the coffee on the go at the risk of getting caught up in it. Ten minutes for a break isn’t long enough at the best of times.
And what do you think it is? Is it a pride thing? Is he just enjoying his time in the limelight?
I don’t think it’s that. – His eyes rolling around in their sockets a little with that soft, punch-drunk look Morris had going – He says it all with a smile on his face, so you might think it was bragging if you didn’t know any better. But there’s something else too. Like you can imagine him suddenly grabbing you by the collar and getting all close in your face and just begging you for something.
Begging? Begging for what?
I don’t know. But begging. That’s the feeling I get underneath it; like he’s begging you for something he can’t ask for and you can’t give. And I can’t say it’s something I like all that much either. Now. Are you going to buy me another beer or are you just gonna sit there and watch an old man near as damnation die from thirst?
I went out to see him where he was working on the wall. It was about two feet high by then, skirting the front of the old barn from the stable end and tracking along a guiding wire that ran parallel to the threshing floor. The stones were clean and smooth and wet from the morning fog. He came through the clearing over the road with a plastic sack over his shoulder and when he saw me he showed neither surprise nor interest. His cheeks were red and wet and his exhaustion seemed like a happiness of itself.
Wall’s coming along then.
Much left to do?
Some. – Pause – Need to get these top courses laid before the winter cold comes in. Disrupts the setting otherwise.
The end’s good and firm though. – Pointing over to where the stone was packed in under a wooden A-frame – That’s the worst of it beat.
Nodding. Slow work.
You’ll have to bring me out when it’s finished.
Patrick’s mother had said he would be like this. Said he had been trolling the quarry for weeks now to find the right field stones for the wall and had hauled them across one sack at a time. We were blowing our coffees and she was talking at me all nimble and fleet: At the weekend he comes in after dark, exhausted, sometimes as late as seven or eight, and filthy. Absolutely filthy. Sort of happy and dirty and kind. And he scrubs himself up and I make him a hot scotch toddy and he sits himself down and he reads for the evening (actually reads, can you believe it) and afterwards he’ll tell me about the things he has read, about those stone walls that date right the way back to the Bronze Age and how they are like vandalism against the gods or somesuch, and I try to understand but really, it’s like a foreign language to me, but I try to keep up, I do, and when he’s had a good day at it he sleeps like a little boy, just like Patrick when he was a child. And oh, it is wonderful to see him this interested in something.
That’s what she told me. Of course, I’d already heard talk of the wall-building from Mrs Fowler, that conduit of local happenstance and gossip, and there had been mention too at the book club that Patrick’s father had been considering renovating the barn. Something along those lines. But all of it sounded strangely incongruent, somehow off-key, at least until I heard her say it for herself.
I remember us talking lightly of other things and then the conversation lazing back onto itself, and after only a minute or two he had righted himself stubbornly between us as the subject and the centre of our conversation. She edged towards me in a conspiratorial lean though there was only the two of us and she told me how she had caught him watching rolling news coverage – those were her words – and I said, caught him? how do you mean, caught him? and she told me how she had recently started walking in on him watching the news when he couldn’t sleep at night or when she arrived home early from school, and she described how it had begun to become somehow seedy and unwholesome (not for me, oh no, but for him, just in the way he looks at me when I catch him: embarrassed, angry: and in its own way that makes it shameful for me as well, do you see?). She told me that he didn’t take any more of a role than he used to in writing letters or emails to Patrick, nor in speaking to him on the phone on those rare, hurried calls. Nothing except the usual blunted and rhetorical pleasantries. But that he would creep by the phone. That’s another of the words she used, creep, as though describing something base and primal about the very mechanism of the act itself; a guilt or a lust, like a household pet drawn terribly and thrillingly and inescapably towards kitchen smells. She told me how the evening before he had stood out in the front garden and watched the traffic for almost an hour. Just standing there, watching. I could feel all of this leading somewhere and I said, but look, I don’t get it. I really don’t get it. Rolling news? Letters and emails and phone calls? I shrugged, dumb, and she opened her hands and laughed as though explaining something wonderfully elementary that only needed a kind and patient voice to invoke its revelation. And she said, oh don’t you see, don’t you see? It’s him he’s waiting for.
And so I had come to see the wall with my own eyes. Like it might give design and surface to everything else that was happening back then. I couldn’t know about him suddenly becoming a strange and doting father. How could anyone? But I found out about the wall alright. That’s the part of all this I can tell you near enough true and proper, far as it pays to put any faith in what I have to say. Anyway. Love and compulsion. It’s all part of the same sickness, isn’t it?
Patrick came home. In the town they said he had seen some of the fighting.
At dinner that night we toasted to homecomings and good health and to absent friends. Patrick behaved impeccably. He sat very straight in his chair. He had never been a tall boy but he carried himself now so that he seemed to fill a space two or three times over. Duncan Hennessey buried his curiosity with a workmanlike rendering of uninterest and Juliette Hennessey buried her lack of interest with a workmanlike rendering of curiosity so that, between them, they managed an agreeably diplomatic conversational line. Only the slightest of jarring notes to an ear attuned to such things. Patrick nodded courteously throughout and expressed himself in tidy, authoritative sentences, lean of any unnecessary weight. A smile garnished as an afterthought. He insisted on pouring the drinks: sparkling wine and then a chilled white Burgundy for the starter and a heavyweight Argentinian red to follow with the lamb.
His father drank quickly that night and said little. It was difficult to read him. I was coming at him with coloured eyes and I couldn’t shake off the stories I’d heard. At a push I would say the only thing he did was look at that boy with a quiet awe. There’s that phrase, hanging on every word. That’s what it was like: Patrick spoke and his father seemed to attend the things he said with keenness and great concentration, as if sifting those words for hidden meaning, unheralded depths, and his chin would lift and drop as though buoyed by an invisible thread to the lilting patterns of his voice.
The conversation danced and potted and only occasionally glanced up against the edges of that which we could not speak of directly. The Hennessey’s skiing holiday in Kitzbuhel and the price of petrol and press intrusion and freedom of the press and the best way to roast lamb and the merits and pitfalls of barbequing and piracy off the Horn of Africa and the price of petrol. Finally, inexorably, we came to the wall. There was an off-joke to start and laughter across the table and Patrick’s mother boiling a look of mock disapproval. Duncan Hennessey: Moving swiftly on then. Now do tell us. Julie and I are dying to know. What have you been doing with that old barn? Patrick’s father parried their questions, bashful and flustered and unsteady, and then the boy joined them and his brittle defences seemed to crumble to nothing right in front of us:
Oh well now. It’s nothing much really. Just a hobby. I’ve been wanting to rebuild the stone wall that used to sit along outside the barn, is all. I remembered it from when I was only a boy myself, although it was half broken down even then. Till all the grass and the moss grew in it and lifted it apart and then it was just rubble for a while and after that the rubble went off with the wind and rain and under the ground and there was nothing left.
He’s done such a wonderful job.
That’s all there is. It keeps me busy. Keeps my hands busy.
And lost such a lot of weight too. Doesn’t he look good for it?
I’ll take you along to see it tomorrow. If you like. It’s almost done.
I agreed, of course. We set a time to meet. But it wasn’t me he was asking. Patrick agreed too. It set the unhurried quality of a smile deep in his father’s eyes. Like the sudden still and weightlessness of a field over which the wind has just died.
Talk got to politics as we got drunker. Patrick’s mother riding a blank hostess smile, Juliette Hennessey sunk into visible boredom. We became ashamed or afraid to talk of the fighting, I can’t remember which. Like just saying it might raise up the recently dead among us in that dining room. And because we were ashamed or afraid or both but still mad in our curiosity we spoke of it in blowy and abstract terms.
I was talking. Slightly drunk and knowing:
Well we had a bash two times before and the Russians had a crack at it too and no one has yet managed to win a war against the Afghans. That’s the truth of it. Is this time different? Is it? – Swilling the bowl of my glass – You know what? I think maybe it is. From what I’ve read, I mean. (To Patrick: I don’t pretend to be an expert, so do correct me if I’m wrong). The politicians seem genuinely committed to tying up the war effort to a political solution. That’s a good start, isn’t it? And all this talk of negotiations with the Taliban. I think that’s a fundamental step to be taken. It’s distasteful, certainly. But if we learned anything from the Troubles, then surely it was the necessity for compromise and dialogue.
The problem is you’re coming at it from an exit-strategy perspective, said Duncan Hennessey, also slightly drunk and knowing. When in fact, we haven’t even yet defined the reasons for going to war in the first place. Do excuse me, Patrick. It goes without saying that what you and your colleagues you have done is beyond comprehension for any of us here, something for which we as a country are honestly and wholeheartedly grateful. – Pause – But the fact remains that without clear reasons for why we went to war in the first place, all those so-called solutions and negotiations are little more than escape routes disguised by politicians without the balls for the fight. It’s simple economics. If you’ll forgive me for saying as much, Patrick. War and conflict generates big business. Politicians like the military because it galvanises public opinion in their favour and it fills their coffers and it gives them a grandstand on the world stage. But long war drains the coffers and it drains public opinion and it turns that opiate of the masses into a clunking albatross of a foreign policy decision. That is why you need sound reasons for going to war: because one day you will need sound reasons for leaving. And that – he concluded, cracking his knuckles on one hand as though surprised by his steady eloquence, his fortuitous arrival at a place of passable interest– is why mission creep is the unforgivable sin of military strategy in the twenty-first century.
Oh, I don’t know about any of that.
It was the first I remembered Patrick’s father volunteering anything all night. The table went suddenly quiet for the novelty.
All this talk about money and politics. If you ask me, the real question is how can we not be in that country? Eh?
He seemed pleased with this and let it settle for effect.
You want to hand it back to those vicious medieval thugs? They’re half crazy for starters. Did you know they banned VCRs and music and nail polish? Even clapping, for God’s sake. And I was reading about how they cut off the women’s noses. How they’d throw acid in their faces or bury them alive or beat them in the streets. Just the thought of it makes me sick in my stomach. How can we not have a moral duty to protect those people? Can someone explain that to me?
Pause. His cheeks were shining.
Ask Pat. He’ll tell you, won’t you lad?
Patrick. What do you say on the matter?
Oh I don’t know, dad.
Come on. You know what it’s really like out there.
Oh I don’t know. It’s not for me to say. I’m just a soldier. Leave the politics to the politicians, that’s what I reckon. Seems to work ok.
But you’ve got to have a view on things. How can you not have a view on things?
It’s just…I don’t know. – Shrugging his palms in defeat – I guess I still haven’t got to understanding how one life can ever be worth sacrificing. For a cause. For anything. It’s something I just can’t get my head around.
There was a long, dead silence. Duncan Hennessey leant back and folded his hands on his lap and set the frame of his chair acreak. The magnanimous blank of his face bellowed a victory.
Let me clear the plates.
I’ll help, Patrick said.
I watched Patrick’s father swallow hard and I watched him look down at his plate with an expression that was boyish in the wholeness and the sincerity of its not understanding, and he sniffed once, casually, and took a quick drink from his glass and set his jaw and I thought of him standing out there watching the traffic pass with an autumn sun oxidising bronze and rust and gunmetal and rosewater above the houses and I thought of him knelt down at the side of the wall black to the knees and his hands ribboned with calluses. And I had that feeling from when I was a child when I thought of my parents and the things they had done for me: a rich, hopeless love mixed up in a swill of guilt and sadness and a sense that I had somehow neglected a charge of protection over them once entrusted to me.
After coffee Patrick opened the port and we drank until the decanter was emptied.
The Hennesseys left. We were very drunk but we had eaten enough so that the drink made us sluggish and malleable and didn’t turn us nasty. Patrick’s father left to pick up a six-pack from a late night store and we made a gentle mockery of him in his absence and Patrick’s mother scolded us with a smile and sipped at peppermint tea and we talked about the future and of bright things and of sleep. An hour later, when his father still hadn’t returned, his mother drove us first to the off-licence, and then to the supermarket and the petrol station and then back through the high street. Patrick was silent and kept shaking his head. The roads were empty at that time and a storm was working itself out slick and cold on the roads. The wipers turned the windscreen to streetlight colours. By the time we made it home the drink had gone out of us from worry and frustration. We found him sitting in the porch with an open case of beer between his legs and his boots black to the ankle with mud and rainwater.
Forgot my keys, he said.
It was midday. The air was wet and breathy and it still had the taste of the rain on it and the three of us stood in a row like mourners at a graveside. The far end of the wall was spilled out on the ground, the A-frame snapped and the pieces scattered over the rubble. I was standing there rooted to myself and Patrick had his hands in his hair saying, Jesus, dad, what happened? and he bent down amongst the stones with his hands hovering outstretched in clairvoyant mediation, uncertainly, inexpertly, as though hoping to compel the waste to sculpt itself back into order and shape, and he ended up just squatted there into his ankles and running his hands through his hair saying, Jesus, dad, what happened? What do we do? And we looked over to his father where he was stood off to one side, staring down at the wall, detached and ferocious in a way that made me think of a general appreciating the spread of his forces across a tabletop, and he stuffed his hands into his pockets and shrugged his shoulders and turned off towards the car.
When I told his mother about the wall she stopped and looked past me. As though remembering something.
Oh, she said. How terrible. She leaned against the counter.
Probably those October storms.
Yes, she said. Probably.
Outside the first lights along the street were just coming on. The twilight was still back behind the rooftops, pooling silent amongst the flower beds and alleyways like something hesitant.