Friday, December 25, 2020

Going Home by Eamonn Murphy

Patrick, now an old man, wants to move back from England to Northern Ireland, to live with his brother near their extended family; by Eamonn Murphy.

Passengers were boarding for the three-thirty afternoon flight from Bristol to Belfast, and the queue snaked forward with its usual agonising slowness. Patrick patiently waited for his turn. In a long life of seventy years he had, finally, learned patience. He was a far different man than that fiery youth who had come over on the boat to Liverpool back in the Fifties.

He felt a tap on his shoulder. 'Is that you, Mister O'Rourke?'

Turning, he saw the top of a man's head. He had to look down to see the face. Patrick stood a couple of inches over six feet, tall for his generation, and the shoulder tapper was only a small man. His bald patch was clear to see, but that wasn't the sort of thing one mentioned to an acquaintance, though you might kid about it with a friend.

'Roger,' he said, recognising Mister Brown, a civil service clerk he knew from the local church where the little man played the organ. Then he frowned in puzzlement. 'You're going to Belfast?'

The Englishman grinned. 'A city break for us. A long weekend.' Patrick presumed that 'us' meant Roger and his wife, Pam. 'There's loads to see, you know, and now that the natives have settled down a lot of us are keen to go there.'

Patrick nodded.

'How about you?' asked the other man. 'Where are you going?'

He smiled. 'I'm going home.'

'Home?' It was Roger's turn to look puzzled. 'Patrick, you've lived two streets away from me for the past forty years. Your wife was a Bristolian, bless her. Your children were all born here, and all live here. You've been here most of your life now. Surely that's your home.'

Patrick shook his head. 'I live in Bristol. Home is the place you grow up. Hilltown in County Down, Ireland is my home and always will be.'

Roger shook his head, looking mildly annoyed. 'Home is where your family lives, I think.'

'Home is where you come from,' said Patrick.

The other managed a wry grin. 'We'll have to agree to disagree on that one. Anyway, I'd better get back to Pam. She hates airports. See you on the plane.'



"It's great to see you, Patrick." In the arrival lounge, his brother John shook him warmly by the hand then led him out to the car park. John was just over a year older and had been his closest accomplice in the misadventures of their youth, frequently frowned on by their many elder sisters. All bar one had gone to the Pearly Gates now.

On the journey to Warrenpoint, Patrick watched the scenery while John updated him on the local family news. Both brothers had left Ireland in the Fifties to work all over England. John ended up in London where he married a fine cockney woman; Patrick landed in Bristol. The sisters had stayed home, and the next generation of the family was theirs. The genes carried on in Hilltown, but the O'Rourke surname did not, or at least not their branch of it.

They were soon at Warrenpoint, pulling into John's detached bungalow. Patrick had never seen it before. His wife had been disabled in an accident shortly after their marriage, and he had never gone back to Ireland until now.

"Why did you never go home to Hilltown?"

"Too close to the next generation and all their fuss," said John.

This earned him a quizzical look. "They're family."

"This is close enough. I'm ten miles away - near enough to see them when I want to and far enough to avoid them when I don't."

Patrick smiled. "I've not been home since I left as a young man. I suppose it's different if you live here."

"Any news on the house sale?"

"Not yet but Bristol's booming. It won't take long. And it's bought and paid for, so there's no chain. Makes it simpler."

John grinned. "I look forward to you living here. It's been lonely since Laura died."

That night they drank too much for men on medication and had a million laughs about the good old days. Every other sentence started with "Do you remember when..." and ended with laughter. "When mum dressed as a ghost to frighten us and I knocked her into the ditch... When we took McClaren's pony and trap apart and reassembled it in his living room while he was drunk... When you dived in the river and got stuck head first in the soft sand."

Patrick went to bed very happy and decided he was going to love living back home.



He woke early the next morning and was up and dressed and having tea before John appeared in a bathrobe yawning.

"Will I be able to walk to the church?" he said. "Saint Peter's, I think it is."

"Cut through the park, and you'll be there in ten minutes."

Patrick didn't ask if John was coming. He clearly wasn't, and there was no point in saying anything. Faith was an old bone of contention between them and not one to be gnawed at anew. "I'll be off then."

When he entered the church, he saw only a dozen people and wondered if he had got the time wrong. He checked the board and sure enough first mass was at 9am. The service proceeded as usual, and he felt soothed by the ritual. At the end, he went up and introduced himself to the priest, a dapper little man with round wire spectacles and an air of gentle bewilderment.

After a bit of idle chat, he said, "I suppose most of the people turn up for the high mass at eleven, Father?"

The cleric shook his head. "There's a few more, but it's not that well attended." He smiled. "How long since you were last home?"

Patrick had to think for a moment. "About fifty years." He looked around at the empty pews. "When I was a lad, the churches were packed to the rafters every Sunday."

The priest shrugged. "Things have changed." Then he smiled wryly. "I fear it's a long time since you were a lad, Mister O'Rourke."



That afternoon they ventured up to Hilltown to see the relatives. Patrick and John had been almost the youngest in the family, but there was one sister born after them - Emma - and she had married a local. It was her family they went to see. Their elder sisters had all moved away - usually to jobs 'in service' - and settled with men elsewhere.

"Emma's family all okay?" asked Patrick, admiring the lovely scenery as his brother steered the car up the Mountains of Mourne.

"They're fine. Brendan's a nice lad. Your namesake Patrick was a bit of a handful when he was younger, but a wife has settled him down. Frank's okay. Hard to tell what he thinks about anything."

"And the daughter?"

"Oh, Vanessa has a little girl herself now. A lovely child called Lara."

"She's married!"

John smiled. "I didn't say she was married, brother. I said she had a little girl."

Patrick sighed. "My son Kieran is hooked up with a girl who's already got two by another. Liam is with a girl and has a son, Kevin, though they haven't bothered to get married yet. But that's England. I thought things might be different here."

"Not so different." John pulled into a space outside Emma's home, a large bungalow about half a mile from the main village street.

It all went well. Emma's family treated their doddery old uncles as honoured guests and plied them with tea and cake and questions about how it was when they were young. A spare bed was arranged for Patrick, and John drove back home. Patrick couldn't help but notice the relief on his face as he left. But John lived here all the time, so it wasn't the same. Also, he was getting a bit deaf and found it hard to follow the conversation when there was a jumble of voices.

The nephews and nieces were all young men and ladies now so later they went down the pub. Patrick found himself wishing he was a bit deafer, and not just because of the blaring pop music.



"The language is unbelievable!" he said to John the next day over lunch. The relatives had arranged a taxi to take him back to Warrenpoint. "Even the girls. Especially the girls. It was like being back in the work camps in the Fifties. Worse. And they certainly like their drink."

"Didn't you when you were young?"

Patrick nodded an admission of guilt. It occurred to him that John didn't seem a bit surprised by all the things he found surprising, but his brother was a big, calm, placid man, virtually imperturbable. He had been the same in England.

Which reminded him. "They have some queer ideas about the English."

John's reply was slightly peevish, for him. "You have to remember that they haven't been there. They haven't been anywhere except that little town in the mountains. We worked all over Britain and met all sorts of people, including other immigrants. I was in the army. London is one of the biggest cities in the world. They're very provincial here, Patrick." He shrugged. "And they're still young, you know. They're fine kids really."

"Oh, I'm sure they are." Patrick rose from his chair. "I had better phone Liam and make sure everything's okay back home."



That night found them down the pub again. Although his brother would soon be moving in, John still treated him like a rare visitor, so every night had to be a bit of a celebration. They sat with some of his local friends, and the chat was good. They were all decent folk who asked about Bristol and his family. One fellow was that odd kind of super-patriot who thought no one should ever leave Ireland, but John mollified him with a long talk about the economics of emigration. The others departed after ten, most having to work the next day, and the two old men were left alone.

"You seem a bit pensive tonight," said John.

Patrick took another sip of his beer. "I'm fine. Just, when I rang home, Liam said little Kevin was a bit ill. He's three."

"Ah, they're always getting little bugs at that age. He'll be fine. Shall we hit the road?"

They took the shortcut through the park to get back home. The footpath wound past a couple of benches. Two boys and a girl sat there, giggling. One of them pointed at the old men and jeered something. Patrick gave him a sideways look and wished he was forty years younger. Even twenty would have been enough to sort out the little... Then he saw the silver foil and the thin plume of smoke. He said nothing.

"What's that caper with the tinfoil?" he asked John when they were out of sight.

"Oh, drugs of some sort. I don't know."

Patrick spat in disgust. "Drugs. Is a pint of beer not a good enough 'high' for them? Damn fools. That caper will drive you astray in the head."

The imperturbable John said nothing at first. When he finally spoke, his voice was a little world-weary. "It's not Ireland of the welcomes anymore, brother, or the little cottage with a horseshoe o'er the door. It's not a stage set for The Quiet Man. It's a real modern country with modern people in it. Things have changed since we were young."

Patrick could think of no reply and silence prevailed 'til they were home. As John latched the front door, he headed for the phone.

"I'll just ring Liam quick and see how the grandson's doing."

When he walked back into the living room, John raised an eyebrow.

"Not good?"

"Kevin's in hospital. They think it might be meningitis."

John said nothing.

"I have to be there for them."



John was brilliant. He was on the phone early the next morning and managed to get his brother on a flight for noon. Patrick would be back in Bristol by mid-afternoon, and his daughter-in-law would pick him up and take him straight to the hospital. They had a cup of tea in the departure lounge. Patrick wasn't in the mood for drinking.

John wished him well and left. He queued up for his boarding pass and noticed a little man with a bald patch two places in front of him. Patrick leaned forward and tapped him on the shoulder. "Is that you, Mister Brown?"

The Englishman turned, saw him, and grinned. "Patrick. Good to see you again."

He nodded, suddenly deciding not to burden the other with his troubles. He would keep the chat inconsequential. Roger and his wife both knew Liam and would be downcast if they heard about his son in the hospital. And in any case, it was early days yet. No point in spreading gloom.

Pam Brown smiled at him. Roger said, "You're heading back to Bristol then."

Patrick remembered their previous conversation and shook his head.

"I'm going home."

4 comments:

  1. Great story for Christmas..well written sense of place about an expected nostalgic visit..going home in memory and nostalgia is different from the reality..as Thomas Wolfe said 'you can't go home again.'

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  2. The world is always changing (whether Ireland, England or anywhere else). What a great depiction of memory versus reality. I really liked this story. Well done and thank you.

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  3. Oh, dang! Good story. I really liked the ending.

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  4. Enjoyed Patrick's nostalgic journey...seems it was a necessary step for him to understand the emotional connections that make a place "home." Unfortunate that it took a family illness to arrive at this realization...but I suspect he would have reached the same conclusion eventually regardless.

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