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A short story

It’s raining still. Will it ever let up? God, what a desolate country this is. Merry old England how are you; it’s nothing but bad news and rain. I’ve been on the road for two days and two nights now and it’s been pouring down buckets for the duration, as if the Man Above, in his almighty bloody glory, has deemed the heavens open to urge me to throw in the towel, repent, give myself up like a Christian, and go back to the prison.

There are two chances of that - none and sweet bugger-all.

I’m in the lap of luxury tonight, comparatively speaking. Just when I’d resigned myself to a watery berth in the open, as darkness gathered and exhaustion sucked at my marrow, I came across a hay barn mercifully empty of animal life. It’s cozy in here in the straw. And the roof doesn’t leak much. Like Christ on Christmas Day I am, non gratis, on the run, taking refuge in a meagre manger. It’s not the Ritz by any means, but it’s a decided improvement on last night.

Last night I shared a soggy ditch with a loquacious tramp who stank of body odour, damp and methylated spirits. On seeing the novice outdoorsman in me he passed me his bottle, lectured me long on the ways of the road, sang The Streets of London three times and slept. Wrapped in the Sunday Times, if you please, he snorted in his sleep, contented as a well-fed sow, blissfully oblivious as the rain came down in a deluge.

There’s a village yonder in the distance. What quiet peace must sit inside those houses boasting brightness in their curtained windows and their chimneys puffing wisps of smoke, taunting with the suggested warmth of fire and cocoa.

I could have had all that.

I think.

Once upon a time.

But some of us have to be different, I suppose.

I’m tired now, all worn out. I only want to go home and rest. It’s been a long time since I took my leave of Ireland. Forty odd years. Four decades and a bit since the evening ferry took me out of Dublin Bay in search of adventure and work. I was nineteen years old. Just a boy. In the fading brightness of a late summer evening I stood on the deck of that ship and watched the Wicklow Mountains fade away to a misty nothing. The feeling that filled me was awesome. Sometimes still, in the hard times, I feel it all over again, fresh and raw and ruthless.

I stood there with my future at my back and all that went into the making of me slipping away on the tide. The fear surged big and tight in my gut. I filled up with the grim knowledge that the old familiar haunts and faces would no longer be nearby for succour. I was almost overwhelmed with the craving to be safe and sound in the warmth and comfort of the home I was leaving.

It was all downhill from there.

I never went back. Wouldn’t when I could have and couldn’t when I would have. When my poor mother died I was doing time for armed robbery; they wouldn’t give me parole. On the day of her funeral I lit a candle for her in the prison chapel. Then I sat in my cell and I smoked and remembered her face full of worry and prayer on the morning I left as she fussed over me, tucking a tenner into my hand and a miraculous medal into my pocket.

I was still inside ten months later when my father went to join her.

Back in the prison (I nearly said home), they’ll be all settling down for the night now. Here, when I doze off and waken disjointed, for a moment I think that I’m still there. I hear the hollow echoes of the cell doors clanging. The distant bellows of the screws resound down empty corridors. I feel the cell draw round me. Cover me.

I can’t believe I’m out. Can’t believe how it happened. One minute I was all alone in the garden, tending Her Majesty’s vegetable patch - for I was known for my green fingers - and the gray, unyielding walls loomed familiar above me. Then my eyes were gaping in stunned disbelief at the back gate yawning open right before me.

Not a screw in sight.

I thought I was dreaming.

With the autumn dusk just falling and not a sound to be heard in the world save the sweet distant song of a bird and the thump of my heart in my breast, I walked out and into the country.

I had a quick look behind the gate to make sure the Devil wasn’t standing there, grinning and holding out the deed to my soul for the signing. He wasn’t, so across the field with me like royalty, back ramrod stiff, rigid all over with the trepidation, expecting the shouts any minute, unsure that this long walk wasn’t the desperate hallucination of an ageing convict.

After an eternity I reached the other side of the field, where the woods began. I breathed deep and I ran then, ran like all the packs of howling hounds of Hell were after me demented. My clothes ripped by thorns, my face lashed with whippets of trees, through a field and a meadow I ran, up hills and down them, slithering through long grass, cow dung, muck and mire. I ran until my lungs were fit to burst and felt like they were filled with hot coals.

It started to rain and I walked, marveling all the while at my luck and half expecting the air to be suddenly filled with the sound of sirens, helicopters maybe, or sniffer dogs yelping, straining at the leash, my scent breathing fire in their nostrils.

I walked and almost without thinking I set my sights on home.

All night I walked and all the next day, skirting lonely farmhouses, keeping away from the roads. I came across a clump of apple trees, ate greedily and filled my pockets with the fruit. I swapped my prison jacket for the scruffy, shiny duffle coat of a geriatric scarecrow and I later shared a bed in the ditch with the talkative traveler who was on his way to London, he explained with a slightly hysterical chuckle, where the streets are paved with gold and there’s wealth to be had for the simple taking.

I couldn’t tell if this latter-day Dick Whittington was mad or just taking the mickey. I didn’t contradict him; there didn’t seem to be much point in telling him anything. We all have our notions.

He shared with me his bottle of cheap sherry and in the morning I gave him breakfast, my second last apple. We went our separate ways and he leered a sly salute as I bade him farewell.

Again I walked and remembered.

I pictured the face of Fiona, my sister, fourteen years old when I left and wise beyond her years. On the eve of my departure she urged me not to go, said I’d end up in jail or dead. How right she was, my blue-eyed little sister. A bit of both it is.

She kept in touch, remembered my birthday and Christmas. She married Jim Horgan, the butcher, a stalwart soul if I remember. I spent her courtship and wedding in Dartmoor. She has two daughters now. My nieces. I send the occasional postcard.

I often meant to go back. Once or twice I nearly did. Nearly.

A recidivist they call me - they’ve a name for everything nowadays. As my mother, God rest her, would say, I fell in with a bad crowd. For a while at the start I did as the rest did and I earned my crust on the buildings, working from dawn until dusk with the others to drink ourselves into a stupour come Friday to Monday and start it all over again.

But I soon learned that there are easier ways to pay for the drink and not have to get up in the morning. Now, the years have come and gone and there’s a tiredness in my bones and spirit. I’m fifty-nine and running.

It’s time to go home, I’m thinking.

This afternoon, with hunger gnawing at my belly and not a penny to my name, I dared pass through a town. From a cafe crept the aroma of fresh coffee. My tongue was large in my grimy mouth. A pub, the Rose and Crown, spewed out the smell of cottage pie and ale and the otherworldly sound of carefree banter.

A chip shop reeked the pungency of vinegar-soaked chips. I nearly fainted with hunger and want and I leaned against the wall. A little girl came out with chips wrapped up in paper. She looked me up and down and asked me if I had no home. She gave me a chip. Soggy and crumbling with vinegar, it was luscious and my mouth exploded with the lively taste of it.

The little girl’s mother came out and bundled her away. I turned and bumped into a copper. With his hands behind his back and his helmet strap snug on his chin, the village bobby incarnate. My heart did a cartwheel. His expression was harsh, but behind it lurked good nature. He studied me and sniffed. No loitering, he said, no vagrants here, and he pointed to the road.

He turned with me to watch me walk out of his town and his hair. As I started on my way he stopped me with a hand on my arm and gruffly slipped a fiver into my hand. He nodded stiffly.

And I walked.

In the rain.

To here and now and temporary haven in the straw.

I’d sell my soul for a bowl of soup. The cake that mother used to make. I’d murder for a cuppa. A cup of steaming hot strong tea. A sausage sandwich with the butter dripping down your chin and up your sleeve.

If all goes well and I don’t die of hunger or drown I should make Liverpool late tonight. I'll hunt down Whacker Nolan; he’ll give me a bed for the night. And I’ll be on a morning flight.

Back to Ireland.

I could still go straight. I could. I think. If my luck holds out I’ll be home the day after tomorrow. Meanwhile, I should count my blessings. The straw is a comfort, and by the incongruous grace of a copper, I’ve a fiver in my pocket to help me on my way to Liverpool and home.

Won’t be long now. . . it’s warming up in here, getting cozy. . . I’ll sleep well tonight. . . tomorrow the day before glory. . . it’s peaceful, the stable now, peaceful. . . tomorrow. . . I think. . . if it would only stop raining.