The Wettest Town in Ireland
This is the town. A mixture of faded cream and dirty white for the shops and houses and the archways leading to the back yards; the uniformity of the street broken by the pubs and by the grey stone of the Bank of Ireland; cars parked haphazardly and gathered in greater numbers where the street widens to form the Market Square. And at the centre of the square is the strange sight of Fitzgibbon’s column.
This is the wettest town in Ireland. There was a time when I thought this street was the most drab and lifeless in the world, and when the clouds hang low on a cold February afternoon, and all of the colour has drained through the mist into the dark pools of water that pockmark the footpath, I’m still not sure it isn’t.
I told Sarah this when we first talked about living here and taking over the shop. I told her it wasn’t like California with three hundred days of sunshine every year. She just smiled and said she knew that. As if I was exaggerating. As if these things don’t really matter. I sighed and let it go. We were sitting outside a restaurant in some town in the Napa Valley, sipping a cold glass of white wine on a weekend afternoon. Her blonde hair was held back from her face by the baseball cap that she had had pulled down to shield her eyes from the sun. What did she know of winter?
And now here we are taking a walk down the street on an evening in September, and its not raining and there are patches of blue sky visible through the grey clouds.
‘This is nice,’ she says, as she takes my hand and we watch Liam run along ahead of us, eager to get to the playground and to the swing that he will insist we push over and over again. I agree that it is but tell her too that it won’t always be like this and that in a few weeks we will be lying to Liam and telling him that the playground is closed so that we don’t have to stand there with the wind cutting through us and the tips of our fingers biting with the cold. But I stop then. I have said it all before. I think she understands all that I am not saying because she laughs and squeezes my hand.
The playground sits behind Fitzgibbons Column and in a ritual that must be followed Liam walks in a tight circle about its base, his fingers trailing along the crack that is visible just about the height of his eyes.
The column is our only true landmark. It is most notable for the fact that it has no pinnacle: it does not rise high above the street to provide a platform for a Nelson-like figure to survey the town and it hosts neither a ball of fire nor an heroic bust. It does not even taper to a spike of impressive sharpness. Instead it rises to head-height and stops, the stone cut at an angle. This is no accident. In fact, it creates its symbolism, because the column commemorates the death of the only son of a local landlord in a long-ago war. The pinnacle is absent to leave us wondering what it might look like if it was present. Just as we might wonder what the youthful Mr. Fitzgibbon might have become, had he only lived.
‘What is that crack?’ Sarah asks now, as we watch Liam complete his circle and jump carefully off the curb-high plinth before running to the swings. She has caught me off guard. I had expected the question months before and had an answer formulated. But now that answer has abandoned me and all I can say is that ‘it was kids. Years ago. Drunk.’
I hear her sigh in disapproval as I follow Liam over to the swings.
As I push, I watch Sarah take a seat on the bench that sits beneath the column and behind her I can see the broad street sloping down past our shop and the Bank of Ireland and the three pubs until it meets the base of the small hill on top of which sits the protestant church, surrounded by gardens and tall trees. I catch Sarah’s eye and smile. I say that despite myself I have to admit there are days when the town rises above its usual dreariness to be something close to pretty. She returns my smile but I’m not sure she can hear me. She leaves her seat to come over and join me, taking her turn with the pushing and warning Liam that we will have to go back for our dinner soon.
‘But can we really live here?’ I ask.
‘Of course we can,’ she says. ‘I like it here.’
Her tone contains a trace of impatience and I understand why, so I don’t argue. I don’t tell her about how the winter will soon close in, and how the aged boiler out the back is no longer strong enough to drive the hot water up to the bedrooms, or how the daylight will soon seep away until the dawn stretches almost to dusk. And I don’t tell her how the streets of this town are haunted by the ghosts of my youth.
The shop we are working in now is my family’s shop. As my parents test the waters of retirement on an extended holiday, we are testing the waters of responsible adulthood. The logic is clear. Sarah’s background in business means that she knows how things are meant to be done. And I know how they always have been done. Somewhere between the two lies the future.
For her this is new. It has novelty. She says that she loves the long days of summer, bright from early morning until late evening. but that she looks forward to the long nights sitting by the fire over the winter too.
For me, of course, nothing in the town is a novelty, and I am no novelty to it. Margaret who works in the shop remembers me as a child and as a teenager and I know that – remembering both – she disapproves of me now. She sighs when I hesitate over the till, looking for codes that we haven’t used in years, struggling to learn the new system when she knows I never properly learned the old system either.
And there are customers who remember me too. An old teacher of mine who frowned when he found me taking his money one Sunday morning. He was searching for my name, seeking the recollections he knew were there and I could see his face crease in distaste when he found them. ‘You’re back,’ was all he said. He looked away before I could answer.
But it is not just their disapproval that oppresses me. Because I didn’t like them either. I want Sarah to understand all this. I want her to see how I know the town has much to offer us but that my doubts do not come from nowhere.
We strap Liam back in his buggy and stroll back across the still empty road. The long shadows reach across the street.
‘You know that crack in Fitzgibbon’s Colum?’ I ask, pushing the back of the buggy down to lift its wheels onto the footpath. Sarah looks down at Liam, who is puffing his cheeks out and rolling his head from side to side in some strange dance. She nods, and glances my way, her eyebrows raised.
‘The drunk kids, who damaged it years ago,’ I say, and she stops walking for a moment, waiting for the next line. I suspect she knows what’s coming. ‘That was me, and my cousin Jim, and Jill Kiely from Kiely’s pub. We were driving home from a disco one night. It was Jim’s father’s van but I was driving, because Jim was too drunk to sit upright. And I was drunk too but not that drunk. And Jill sat up front with me and all the way home we talked about the future and where we would go and how we couldn’t wait to leave. And when I pulled onto the square to let her out, I misjudged my angles. I hit a low wall and slid sideways and spun around. I don’t really know what happened. There were brakes screeching and all that. I saw the column swing into view and then we were stopped. Just short of it.
Sarah is staring at me in concern. ‘But… were you hurt?’ she asks and I shrug. I banged my head and Jill was badly shook and Jim was thrown off the bench in the back of the van where he’d been sleeping and was hollering in pain and confusion. But none of us were badly hurt. Myself and Jill sat in silence for a moment, staring at the column, in shock at what had happened and what had almost happened. I had started the engine again, went to reverse and missed the gears. And then I felt a surge of anger and frustration at this town where nothing ever happened. And excitement at the thought that maybe something could happen. I pushed it into first and put my foot down. We lurched over the curb and onto the tiny plinth and rammed into the column. We got banged around again. A bit. But we were OK.
And then we watched as the column slowly toppled and fell with a crash to the tarred surface.
Sarah stares at me, waiting for more, and I shrug my shoulders and begin pushing the buggy again. Liam is pointing randomly across the street, at nothing in particular.
The rest of the story is told in short excerpts as we work around each other and eat our dinner, and make a bottle for Liam, and get him to bed.
There was outrage of course. Nobody had even noticed the column up to then, and those that had, had all agreed that it was an eyesore. But suddenly it was part of our heritage: a thing of beauty that had to be repaired. It came up at Council meetings and made the local paper under a headline about Vandalism and lawlessness. The paper that we had to sell in our own shop. There was outrage expressed about the insult to the Fitzgibbon family who had built the town, even though no Fitzgibbon had lived around here for fifty years or more. And nobody pointed out that when they were here they had bled the town dry with high rent for bad land. It seemed like everybody was tired complaining about the weather and pleased to have the chance to lament the state of the nation’s youth instead.
Everybody knew who had done it, of course. Because of the big crease in the front of Jim’s dad’s van and the bumps and bruises that we couldn’t hide. Even at home, the icy stares and sad sighs told me that there was no real secret about this. But nobody was saying anything and nobody was talking to the police because that is how we are around here. And I had to keep quiet and pretend to a humility I did not feel. We had knocked the top off a column that had never had a top. Was that so bad? Did it really matter?
And then one day it was repaired and soon after there was some particularly heavy rain and some flooding and everybody stopped talking about the column and went back to complaining about the weather. But that didn’t mean that anybody forgot. I still got sidelong looks of distrust and distaste and I get them still. Because that is how we are around here,. too.
How could Sarah understand this town and how could I explain it to her? Where approval and disapproval, acceptance and rejection, adulation and condemnation are all expressed with the smallest variations in the same, stultifying silence. How can you understand that, coming from a place where the sun shines and people talk?
With Liam in bed and the story told, I flick listlessly through the TV channels. Sarah stays in the kitchen until she says that she is tired and goes to bed. When I join her a little later, the light is out but I know she is not sleeping
‘Are there other secrets you haven’t told me yet?’ she asks when I lie down, ‘Is there more?’
‘This wasn’t a secret,’ I tell her, ‘It just never came up.’
She ignores that answer, and turns away from me before turning back. I can see I’ve angered her now.
‘I don’t know,’ she says then. Quietly. ‘I don’t know about living here. With your family. And your family business. And your secrets.’
It wasn’t a secret, I start to say again and then stop.
‘And I don’t know either’, I say instead. ‘It is the wettest town in Ireland.’
She is silent again for a while. And then she says that it isn’t.
‘I checked it out online,’ she said. ‘It’s not even close to the wettest. It’s not even n the top ten.’
I am startled by this, and lie there for a long time staring up at the shadows that the streetlights shining around the edges of the curtain cast on the ceiling. Knowing she will have checked and double checked her facts. Wondering how something I have always known to be the case is not, in fact, true.
I lie awake long into the night. Remembering the night we knocked the top off the column that had no top. Hearing again the crash that reverberated around the market square. And wondering if it is really possible that this isn’t the wettest town in Ireland.
And wondering too, where is?
Tom Tierney has been published in the Stinging Fly, Southword, Howl and New Irish Writing.
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