No Tears for a Cuckoo
He sits in the front window framed in a halo of dusty light and frozen in the moment of contact between his fingertip and the cold arc of his half-pint glass of porter. A car horn sounds outside and in a flash he’s up, craning at the sash between the opaque and the clear panes to get a sweeping eye on the village street before sitting down once again to ogle his drink with the guilty satisfaction of his crime tickling his wet lips.
Frisky, they call him: a wiry little hoor who usually travels unseen by field or ditch pulled headlong by some sudden necessity. He’s like an urgent version of me and I can see he’s cut from the cloth, the last scrap of it, the bit you didn’t think you’d get anything worthwhile out of but were happy to be proven wrong. He could have been my twin brother if he’d come out a generation earlier. Me and him would have been corner–boy legends in some town with our name fingered into fresh concrete steps and knifed into school desks for posterity. But he’s my son and we’re stuck here, internally displaced in this secret war, and even I never imagined that he had the bollox on him for a stunt like this.
Truth is, I can’t get my thoughts straight for long enough in this brutal light to know anything except that my knowing days are long gone, bar the one certainty that I’m gagging for a pint myself but my drinking days are also gone and it would seem that I have to follow him around now because he’s the only one left who gives a shite.
The girls, on the other hand, are out to finish us off for good. My surname is a legacy to be bleached from the collective memory and it’s Frisky here, my only boy: womanless, childless and usually penniless, is the last line of defense in this tiny genocide.
Prionsias, I named him, after the Da, to ensure that I projected at least his first name into the next century. That’s the very least I could manage to do for him. He learned to answer to Francie, but as a kid I often called him Princie if he poked a curious runt’s head around the parlour door in the whisky-soaked hours before a hopeless dawn.
He’s not exactly academic or physical, nor particularly handsome, so I reared him good and sneaky for getting his own way when it matters. But what he’s gone and done now is after giving me a proper bastard’s hangover.
His sisters will be time-traveling back here on the road from the city right now, having gotten the gossip from a septic classmate still festering in a crease of the land and holding some ancient grudge hostage for just such a moment of delicious scandal.
In the monastic hours of the morning a scrum of heads gathered around the neglected burial plot with phones and rosary beads clicking. I winged in for the occasion, looking down on the ancient plastic wreath framing the tightly cut hole. The washed out pink and purple blooms circumscribed the orifice like piles where the sacred ground had defecated back a nomad.
Francie was absent. He knew the crime scene better than any, having concocted it while nipping from his bottle of plum poteen in his cowshed. He baked the plan incrementally till he could smell it in his dreams because that’s how we do things: brave cowards like us.
Now he whips out his tobacco bag and assembles one for behind his ear then another for his mouth before secreting the bundle in a fragrant side pocket and raising his head for the parapet once again and—Christ knows—I’d destroy twenty Major but I’m roasted through with smoke at this stage and it would only leak out of me and leave a rank smell at the bar.
The puff of the match explodes in a sunbeam and the smoke curls into a floating question mark around him.
There’s a plastic bag in the hole under the tree where I used to let them climb and make their swings on Sunday mornings after mass with Patricia feigning happy behind the steaming window and basting in pious fumes. I’d leave them dangling from branches and presume that the girls wouldn’t hang themselves before their mother called them with that irritating cuckoo refrain of hers. I’d saunter away up the road into the village, stopping off to visit the Ma and the Da in the graveyard.
Standing astride the plot I’d cast a listless silhouette on the gravel with the tingling grip on my guts pulling me down into their loveless arms. But I could always sense my real shadow not far away: little Francie after following me again, straining on his tippy-toes to squirt piss against the trumpeting angel on the edge of the orphan’s tomb. Patricia would never miss the wretch and he knew I’d let him suck the cream from my pints if his sisters weren’t there to rat us out.
I would feel him X-ray my bones in that sickly light that comes in off the fields as I stood dead still with my hands buried in my pockets being lambasted by a tree full of country crows and just the tip of my slacks licking at the breeze.
Then I’d say my few words: Come out, ye little pisspot.
The moments that it took for the boy to tread his well worn path between the corpses were my favourite. My stone-cold hand would wait for his wet little fingers to push their way in and the spiraling would slow and give me a little more time to figure out in this moment of clarity what exactly had been lost, or given away, or stolen from me to make me hate this fucking place so much.
But that time is all gone now and here he sits in the window like my fidgety twin and there’s a plastic bag in the hole under the hanging tree with human remains in it and the Sisters of the All Consuming Silence are gunning for him before nightfall.
They sent Patricia to die in a home, saying that’s why they had to sell the farm, but even Francie knew you could buy an awful lot of dog food dinners and scrape the dwindling shit from a tower of bedpans for what they made. They let him keep the cowshed and the old tree, but not much else. He put two windows in the front so he could see them coming the next time and a red double-glazed door in the back with a scaffolding plank over the shitting ditch for a theatrical getaway. But he needn’t have worried.
In the end they buried Patricia’s urn using her maiden name and slipped her in with her parents up in Headford Town, making children of us both before God and erasing the proof of our union along with the fear that my surname might come back to haunt them.
With me already dead, that officially made Francie the very last bit of evidence. But nobody pays heed anymore to a wiry man living in a shed and washing in a trough.
He empties his glass, blows hard for courage then crosses the grey floorboards and winds up against me ordering another glass of porter and a bag of crisps. He turns and looks through me with his cow-eyes and I through him until I can see that the seed of a familiar loathing has taken root.
Fair play to ye, Princie.
I rub him on the back and he shivers, taken by surprise, and grinds to a halt with the realisation that in digging me up he has inherited the mantle of the carrion-king who looms over skeletons. He squints his birthright into stark focus for a moment then goes back to his lookout to savour the bitterness of vinegar and salt against the wound he’s just gnawed inside his own face and—Jesus Christ forgive me—I’d love a fucking crisp but the sting of it on my guts would surely make me howl like a stray mongrel in this valley of sheep.
The Ma and the Da never thought of that when they first laid eyes on me in the convent in my short pants and split shoes: maybe the boy’s just a hoor’s curse on the world.
They had a son, my brother, of sorts, marooned in London, still sucking air, but not for long, and his inappropriate finesse has long wilted in the years since we last saw him, leaving him emotionally paralysed from his dancing shoes up. When the time comes for him to take his final bow he wants to come home and go in the hole with his folks and reconcile with them for being born a little too colourful for the place.
But the grave has been desecrated—or so he said, when he eventually condescended to see what the daughters had done with my remains. Never ones to disappoint a stranger, they offered to root me out of it when he said he’d pay for a spot in a graveyard wall in the town where I was reportedly born to an alcoholic spinster with a reputation for a loose hinge and the late night leg-over.
He fanned his scrawny neck with his leather gloves and swooned for his audience of weeping angels and silent tombstones, but he never stooped an inch to pick up the faded plastic ring of hemorrhoids he’d sent me when I died and was buried shallow with just my Christian name and some dates embossed in tarnished gold on a flat stone the size of one of the Ma’s half-read romantic novels. Until the wee hours of this morning, when Francie here took a hammer and chisel to it.
If it were up to me I’d be happy to stay in the plastic bag under the hanging tree. I could watch Francie marinating in the ripe juices of each autumn night with only his cowshed windows to illuminate the briar-strangled nest of dead grass and leaves There’s a few sweet memories squirreled away down there from the early years, when the Ma and the Da took me in and fixed the nightmares and finally resolved to let the farm fall into these vagabond hands after their progeny ponced off to conquer the West End.
And each spring, the cuckoo would return and the ghost of Patricia’s voice calling us to wash our hands at the outside tap, still too mortified to call it a cattle trough since the day I sold every last cow and closed the gate on the family meadow for the last time.
Francie has a bus ticket to Headford Town in his breast pocket and we’ll be on our way once he’s collected enough courage to see the next phase through. I can see it now, me and him on the Intercity, in a week, or a year, letting the fields and the stonewalls slip past us from out of a sunset blur. An aged plastic bag on the seat: hammer, chisel, sandwiches, a bottle of poteen and a can of ashes, headed for another invigorating moonlight excavation.
Who knows if he’s going to put and end to the nomad and drop me in with Patricia or if he’ll root the poor girl up again and scatter us together from a stumbling point on some precarious cliff edge. Maybe he’ll just lose interest along the way and leave us at the bus stop and head back for the long vigil in his cowshed Alamo.
I’m going to sit here for now and see can he take it on the chin, like I taught him, knowing all he has to do is draw the line between him and the world with a blatant lie and a bastard’s grin. And if it wasn’t for the fact that it’d only run through me and leave an alcoholic stain on my favourite bar stool, I’d certainly murder a few hot ones while I’m waiting.