On a barstool, in a small Dublin boozer, studying himself in the mirror, forty-year-old Northerner, Charlie Murphy, tried to imagine John McGahern in Blakes of the Hollow, Enniskillen. At the white-marble bar, face in the mirror, between the large, four-wooden, sherry casks, hovering over a glass of whisky. His geography-like, teacher-mildness — with suede patches sewed onto his imagined blazer — deft and quietly spoken.
History teacher, Charlie, had taken time off work due to stress, often read McGahern’s prose and sifted over it in his mind and ruminated about hares rushing out of ferns to a copse in half-light. His capturing of the Irish countryside excited his reading mind. A natural world described well which Charlie adored himself and walked in as often as he could. He read about the Guard, McGahern’s father who was full of simmering rage ready to blow if you didn’t walk on egg-shells around him and yield to his way of things. He read about McGahern’s censorship by the ruling-elite of the day, namely the Catholic Church, and its pious minions, who, out of enmity, banned his novel, The Dark. Things had changed somewhat in Ireland nowadays and more liberal ideas prevail. Thanks to be God, Charlie said to himself while raising a pint of stout in the bar’s mirror to any progressive change. He raised it to the memory of McGahern too, who was for Charlie (an avid reader) at least, the Irish Chekhov.
Charlie’s beard was a dreadnought, galleon-brown as he like to imagine it… A galleon turned on its axis with the rigging still affixed. He had a small gold hoop of an earring in his left earlobe like the Chandos Portrait and often deliberated to get a t-shirt with said portrait on it for fun.
He lifted a freshly poured pint of trembling stout to his parting lips and took a deep draught. The roasted barley flavour was deep, rich and satisfying. A foamy droplet of the creamy white-head clung onto the moustache of his beard and then fell with a solitary soft pat onto the tiled barroom floor below. The barroom fire burned contently in the grate in the corner. The pub conversation on this Monday night was murmuring and calm. Until,
‘Shure, Van Morrison was the only good thing to come out of Belfast…’
‘Away outta that, you.’ Charlie turned to McGuff, a Dubliner, and an old soak who was drunk and laughing to himself mysteriously, sat on the seats behind, between throwing Northern slurs up to Charlie on his barstool.
‘Van the Man from Ehast Belshaft. The plinking euphoric chords of Into the Mystic…’
‘What about Georgie Boy Best?’ ‘Alex Hurricane Higgins?’ Charlie retorted. McGuff waved his suggestions away.
‘Ach! Unionists!’ He said. Looking down into his tumbler half-full of rum and blackcurrant. Swirling it around in the glass,
‘Those are Unionist fellas…’ McGuff said absentmindedly to no one in particular.
Charlie turned back to his drink and to his mind. His relationship with Fiona was on the rocks. He was spending more time at the pub, recently, and she was at her mother’s. He was living in their flat, and they had yet to formalise where they were headed, but, deep down, Charlie knew, felt, that it was over. They had been arguing a lot over trivial things lately — the small, trivial things which led to bigger psychological assaults on to see who would win out and who would capitulate. Fiona was as stubborn as a mule, and so was Charlie; this tug-of-war would end in one way: with both hurt, smarting and the end of their two-year relationship. It was very sad and he felt his heart sag at the very thought of it.
‘And, I’ll tell you what, boyo, there’s no homemade, farmhouse, vegetabule soup, in Dublin. Like youse have in da North.’
McGuff, again. At the bar with his syrupy tumbler-glass emptied of its contents. He leant on the bar. He owned a Northern Farmer’s looking-face: weathered, brown, like Louis van Gaal’s, the former Manchester United manager.
‘Aye. That’s very true… I miss my Granny’s homemade-soup made with pearl barley, split-peas etc., gorgeous stuff and with a few floury potatoes in it, you’re sitting pretty.’ Charlie smiled at the memory.
‘I miss the Soda Farls from the North. Can hardly get them down here. Not in bakeries at any rate.’ Charlie whined. McGuff studied Charlie’s face and nodded.
‘And this Brexit farce will end in one way.’McGuff added.
‘Go on — how?’ Charlie replied to amuse him.
McGuff knocked the bar with his knuckles twice to reinforce the point,
‘A hard border!’
The next day as a hangover nagged at Charlie’s being, he decided to head into the Dublin Mountains for a walk. It being Autumn, he looked up at the dimming sun as it trailed a cornea of golden rose through a brush of rabbit-grey clouds. He remembered how the Macgillcuddy reeks looked when he climbed them in June, a dark hue, the typeset of a bad news’ day. Autumn, now, when garlic roasts in the oven. When knots of sausage hanks drape in the butcher’s window. When tomatoes ripen in greenhouses. When leaves mount on the pavement like cornflakes, crisp, fresh, almost breakfast-table-ready. Charlie walked and listened to The Chieftains’ The Musical Priest on his phone. He stopped and picked up a handful of clinking conkers. Their brown whorls and patterns resonated like expensive chestnut furniture. He poured a few of them into his duffel-jacket pocket. He thought about Stephen Dedalus and the cowries on Sandymount Stand scrunching under boot-fall; cowries which were once used as currency in Africa in the 16th century that he had read about. Sea shells, sea-bed tender. Conkers had no monetary value but to schoolboys they were the ‘father of five hundred’ on the schoolyard. Black-lace strung, some soaked in vinegar and hot-press kept to unfurl the next morning to battle the other boys’ offerings.
He thought about what the old drunk McGuff had said to him last night, in the bar, about the soup, and in particular his Northern Granny’s vegetable soup which he missed a lot since she passed away and he hadn’t a bowl in a while. Also, what about the bakeries up home? Their traybakes! The sodas! Fifteens! Walking on thinking about Brexit and a Hard Border, he kicked a stone through the damp yellowing leaves saying out loud, ‘I refute it thus!’
Charlie walked down through Ticknock Forest, down Kellystown Road and turned a right towards Nutgrove shopping centre where he called into the butchers.
‘Have you any frying steak?’ Charlie asked.
The butcher looked at him wonderingly, ‘“Frying steak”?’
‘Aye, not sure what youse call it down here.’
The butcher went to the white-tiled-wall behind him and untacked a diagram of the cuts of a cow on it to show Charlie if he could point out which cut he was after.
Charlie remember it was called ‘minute steak’,
‘Some minute steak, please. Two slices.’
The butcher nodded and headed for a great chuck of beef and sliced off the order with his knife.
After this, Charlie went straight home, shallow frying the steak cutlets and added cracked-black-pepper, salt, and made green tea.
The News came on that the British Government had crashed out of Europe with No Deal and a Hard Border was, more-or-less, inevitable. Old McGuff was right!
A few hours later, he was back in the local pub. In the same position, propped up on a bar-stool eying up a fresh pint of flabby looking porter in front of him. McGuff was there too.
After an hour of relative passivity and quiet, McGuff slid up beside Charlie at the bar.
‘I have a friend who lives up in Belturbet, a stone’s throw from the North. Ye know, Enniskillen?’
Charlies nods in silent affirmation.
Charlie liked the musical, and fish, sounding connotations of the place. It was almost pleasant sounding. Twee even.
‘Ye, can make the farls yourself?’ McGuff posited to Charlie. But Charlie was off in a Homer Simpson-filled fantasy,
‘A soda farl hit with a drop of butter which melts, and a dollop of strawberry jam.’
‘Border counties have a certain…’ McGuff trailed off.
‘Yes, a certain rep-u-tation, you understand.’
‘Yes. Like anything can happen. The bark of an assault-rifle in the denseness of a solitary forest, or, lonely glen.’
He glanced about the bar to make sure nobody was listening and said in a whispered tone,
‘The hard men that come out of the woodwork to fight for Ireland.’
‘I can git ye whatever ye need.’
‘Ah, Cavan, county of three-hundred-and-sixty-five-lakes. One for each day of the year. Cavan of Percy French…’ He added.
‘By dint of provocation…’ whispered Charlie.
‘Wha? Who? Me?!’ McGuff was angered but soon calmed down.’
‘I understand your concerns, eh, sorry, I forget your name…’
‘Yes, that’s right, Char-lie, I am saying ye can trust me.’
‘Am looking, Soda Farls, Fifteens, baked goods and Co.Down, hand-made butter.’ Charlie knew his list and what he wanted.
Charlie came to with a rounding hangover. Waddling into the lounge draped in his duvet, he sat down booked a ticket onto a bus to Cavan and two nights at a B&B called, ‘Lough-side Bed & Breakfast’ on the laptop.
That evening after a long bath, he was on the bus to Cavan leaving the Dublin Quays behind.
McGuff’s contact waded into the bar in green-wellington-boots, grey-suit-trousers with a greasy sheen, a threading-grey-flat-cap of the same hue, a chequered shirt which hadn’t seen a washing machine in a while balding head, white-hair haloed around the sides, and hairy ears and nostrils and a bony face straight out of a Dickens’ novel.
‘Ye, couldn’t deal cattle.’ He says to Charlie squinting at him when they sat down together.
‘I haven’t no. Yet.’ Replied Charlie, ‘But I do know a briar door from a turkey’s arse, thankfully.’
McGuff’s contact, Shavelin, smiled yellow teeth at the comeback.
The two sat in a snug and horsed down pints and then tots of whisky. It was a wild auld night outside – the lashing rain tormented the trees sending them into a blind fury. The pub’s fire teased gently like the pallor and light in a Rembrandt.
‘Jazyhus, would you look at that now,’ Shavelin said, whispering, ‘you’d think you were a Provisional in a big gansey, with possible chat of Semtex in between pints.’
Charlie wrinkled his nose and laughed gently at Shavelin’s dark humour.
Late the next evening, he was to be here, Shavelin pushed him a print-out of Google Maps with a red X on it.
Charlie excused himself and went to the jacks.
Steadying his weight by his right hand, on the door-frame, he made his way in the opaque darkness to a white urinal, unzipped and pissed warm and hard against the cold enamel. Shivering moonlight glanced in the box-window above the toilets. He was too drunk to have anymore drink and headed down the road to his accommodation. Falling into the hedge, he fell asleep only to wake half-an-hour later with something, a creature at his feet. Something was tugging on the laces of his boots. Sitting up to look he saw a badger waddling off down through the hedge and on into the safety of a fern-filled field. The fronds of the ferns gleamed like cheap leather in the moonlight. Charlie laughed into the night. He entered into the B&B quietly and his room with its well-lacquered, cheap, pine-furniture, stripped off and was asleep in the bed in seconds.
The next evening the weather abated somewhat.
Charlie, after consulting Google Maps on his phone, and looking at the print-out, walked up what Heaney coined ‘the bed of the lane’ where the grasses grew free and lay undisturbed by tyre-tracks in a rural part of Fermanagh just over the border.
Spats of rainfall flecked the stones of the lane. It came on heavier and the sky brooded with dark clouds. Charlie sheltered under the branches of an ash tree.
There was a cough in the lane.
Shavelin was walking down it.
‘My car’s on up here.’ He said upon seeing Charlie.
‘Any grouse in that wood?’ Charlie asked nodding in the direction of a densely covered copse.
‘Oh, aye, you can often hear them cranking in high summer and lifting over the wheat and barley.’
They got to Shavelin’s maroon-coloured Toyota.
In the boot was a bounty covered. The rain had quit for a moment.
Shavelin drew back the blue tarpaulin. Moonlight lay clear and buoyant in the puddles. The bounty was revealed in six, sturdy, white-plastic trays. The smell of baked goods rose to meet him. Coconut fingers. Apple turnovers. Scones. Five small farmhouse loaves.
A drop of rain dappled a soda. Its brethren followed. Shavelin dropped the boot.
They drove down the lane and onto the road and round the corner ran into a roadblock.
Shavelin cursed. He slid down the driver’s window.
The rain sploshed off the brim of his Policeman’s cap’s. The sounds of heavy rain drips could be heard falling through nearby alders.
A riffle’s barrel jutted out of the dark, rainproof poncho.
His flushed face beamed in the window,
‘Now, where would you fellas be headed?’
‘Cavan.’ Shavelin grunted. Charlie felt an unease in his stomach.
‘Right. Open up the boot!’ He said, unreservedly.
Shavelin grumbling got out of the car and opened up the boot.
‘What’s this, lads, explosives?’ The police man said.
‘”Explosives”!’ ‘Ah, jazhyus, no. No! It’s butter!’
‘I think youse fellas had better come down to the station, with me… and am not offering… am telling ya.’
Charlie, reluctantly, rang Fiona. He half-expected her animosity.
She answered after eight rings,
‘It’s me, Fiona… Charlie…’
‘Yes? Ch-ar-lie?’ That’s the way she said his name, broken it up into its tri-syllabic register.
‘Am in jail… in Enniskillen.’
She didn’t speak for forty seconds or so. Then gathered herself.
‘Jail?! You’re in… in… jail, Charlie?!’
‘Yes…’ he croaked, wearily. Pulling on his beard to alleviate the stress.
‘Well, that’s just terrific, Charlie, just terrific. What for?’
‘There’s been a dreadful mistake.’
The duty, desk sergeant interrupted his call,
‘Hul-lo, you there!’
Charlie glanced up at the desk sergeant making eye-contact with him.
‘You lads can go, there’s been a misunderstanding…’
Charlie held the phone by its lead. Fiona was arguing into his knee.
‘Ye are free to go. The results are back and what we found is only a locka auld butter is all.’
On the way back to Dublin on the bus, Charlie mused on Heaney’s poem, Bogland with the ending verse,
‘Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless.’
*Soda Farls/Soda Bread, is, usually, a Northern Irish bread made with flour and buttermilk and divided into farls, four parts.
Neil Burns is originally from the North, but now lives and works in Dublin for a charity. He has been published in The London Magazine, The Honest Ulsterman, The Rialto and other publications. twitter: @foreverantrim Image: O'Malley Home (Achill Island, County Mayo, Ireland), Robert Henri, 1913