Illustration by Pedro Gomes

Before the bubble burst, the conditions were set in by which the Chief would have to work his dying day, tilling his grave in the fields with the heatless sun hung low in the sky. Until then, we wouldn’t know the goings-on of his mind, never mind the spoiling meat of him. To think of the foreign things he let eat him alive for he wouldn’t leave his sons a worse debt than what he’d already accumulated. The foreign things we’ll get back to. First, how did he get so sick as that, as if his lips had been stretched round a chimney flue? By association. Haven’t we the Black Death and the well-fed crows and the Famine Roads going nowhere to teach us that in Ireland? Many a friend the Chief had despite his being largely silent. When he had something to say, he knew how to open the chamber of his throat and come out with something brief but mighty, so that everybody heeded him and the principles he lived by—hard-earned learnings. The stories he told were local in the sense of being local to the soul, not to the landlocked midlands culture. But primarily, he was a listener.

* * *

One day in the height of the country’s delirium, he listened to a subsidy-suckling sheep husband by the name of Tony Morrigan, whose palms convened round a pint of Guinness of a Sunday morning. With a necktie he must’ve tugged up from his grand-father’s grave, he’d come to our house midday midweek to show the lazy hours of a sheep-farming property owner (he’d hired shearers) with the advice of the centuries: ‘There’s azy money to be made off bricks and mortar. Spain’s past its best now, so you’ve to know what you’re at. I’ve four bought off-plans in Bulgaria. I’ll keep one and dole out the rest to my pals with only ten percent atop the price I got them. Going up sure as escalators. More reliable even. Stairs! I’ll be having me ease retiring before my own father, I’ll tell you that for nothing. There’s a ticket out of this slog, Manus, and here’s me handing it to you on a platter.’

I won’t make excuses for the Chief—he shouldn’t have heeded such an infested-arseholed skiving prick, but they’d copied each other’s algebra sums on the school bus, so why shouldn’t they copy each other’s assumption sums on the train to Dublin? The way you come to trust a thing you’ve known your lifelong is the way you come to trust the sea, until one day you’re napping in your La-Z-Boy and a tsunami rolls in and wakes you with the lungful of salt water and the shame of dying without your feet on the floor. Like that, he wound up with an apartment in Malaga and the plan for one in Sunny Beach—the portent of it—on the east coast of Bulgaria by the time Morrigan had jellied him up like an aul sow in muck and introduced him to the creditor—citing the Chief ’s land for leverage, his cultivator, seeder, sprayer, the harvester he’d been prompt in his hire-purchase payments for. The three of them sipping lattes and our father who never had a latte in his life—who drank milky tea only. Our father who didn’t have an atlas to look up where Bulgaria was besides—not for stupidity or naivety, but he was a working man with no time for atlases or affogatos or amortisations.

He looked for proof and he saw it in the Range Rover he was picked up in, in pals calling round on a Thursday afternoon, saying to leave the spade alone and join them for a jar in Monroe’s, in the mansions going up along these boreens, the ribbon housing that made no sense for the development of townships. But no one voiced a word of provocation or changed the planning legislation or sought out unbiased advice or turned down the 10K loan when they’d only asked the bank teller for directions. They let it happen and our father saw that. He envied the people of Ireland their long driveways that Polish hands were weeding on the weekends. Their furniture imported from China and not fought over from the pickings of a dead relative. Underfloor heating warming their soles. Their kids driving themselves to school in Mini Coopers. It was true, he feared himself left behind. He’d been left behind before—as he saw it, his loved ones gone off to greener pastures. The scent of smoke had never left him. But mostly it was Tony Morrigan’s visits and promises. He was buying from someone he knew—not some faceless developer. That was the way he got himself half a million in debt. Two sun-soaked chalets he’d never cross the thresholds of when he hadn’t the roof above our heads paid off.

Us youths were staggered at his undertaking: the back for labour, the perseverance for farming, the mind for finance, the foresight for investment, hands big enough to hold everything in them at once. He was a veritable twenty-first-century Irishman as should be governing the country. Cormac took close measure of our situation. As to where he reckoned us headed, I only knew it was away from where we came. But as time went on and the forecast changed, the redness in the Chief ’s face never fully drained and we quieted down. He thumped our shoulders less often. Rarely. The food he shovelled down wasn’t tasted. Like how you could settle the interest on a loan, and something would have been spent, but nothing would be paid. The working day ate away at the night hours till there was almost no break in his work but his back. Two silver coins in his pocket reminded him of what his great-grand-father set out with in the 1800s. The bottom line might have been writ on his brow: ‘And I’m about to lose it all here.’ We became a quiet house. Though I barely went to school, I was aiming for my Leaving Certificate, reluctant to sign on just yet—to be relied upon. Cormac had moved to Galway for college in ’06 and only came back the odd weekend. He helped out when he was around so long as he could sleep in and take his pick of the chores. But eventually, he avoided us. Home was some nugatory equation he couldn’t solve, and so couldn’t stand the sight of.

Nóra muted the radio whenever the Chief came in, for all that was on it was the R-word that should never have entered a country-man’s vocabulary. He didn’t tell us, but we knew well enough. Morrigan hadn’t shown his wet-eyed weasel’s face in months. The Chief was ruined—as were we all, by default—and the retirement that had been nearing backed away like a pike till he lost sight of her entirely. That was when the brothers Black put differences aside and heads together to restore the pride of our father.

*

The Wild Laughter (C) Caoilinn Hughes, 2020 First published by Oneworld Publications

Caoilinn Hughes

Caoilinn Hughes is the author of Orchid & the Wasp (Oneworld 2018), which won the Collyer Bristow Prize, was shortlisted for the Hearst Big Book Awards, the Butler Literary Award, and longlisted for the Authors' Club Best First Novel Award. Her poetry collection, Gathering Evidence (Carcanet 2014), won the Shine/Strong Award and was shortlisted for four other prizes. Her work has appeared in Granta, POETRY, Tin House, Best British Poetry, BBC Radio 3 and elsewhere. She has a PhD from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and she was recently Visiting Writer at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. For her short fiction, she won The Moth International Short Story Prize 2018 and an O.Henry Prize in 2019.

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