I only run into the boys, as they are called around town, now and again these days (in reality they are three middle-aged bachelor brothers all living under the same roof). Each time our paths cross I notice an unwillingness in them to make eye contact and a certain look of discomfort or even shame coming over them. I suppose because of our paths not crossing very often and the difficulty of separating me from their memories of childhood, seeing me they are almost forcibly reminded of things they would much rather not be. For them I probably represent someone who has seen and heard too many things they wished could lay forgotten forever. My father was able to raise a laugh out of them, usually through some comment about a “dolly bird” off the television or a piece of juicy local gossip but I, however, not having his easy ways, could never bring them out of themselves. And perhaps I also cannot look beyond our shared past. Whenever I see them I think of their own father. In my mind’s eye it is always summer and all of us are wearing short pants — me, the boys and whoever else from the road has joined in that day’s play. Whatever we are at — football, soldiers, ups and downs — comes to a sudden end when the boys’ father’s huge grey Jetta sails in the driveway and those of us not of the household scatter, like starlings at the sight of a cat, each of us taking his own well-worn escape route. I always vaulted the boys’ back wall and tore home across the fields, taking care to steer my bare-legged path clear from nettles and more often than not blocking out the sound of the brothers’ panicked squeals and shrieks of fear and pain. For them, there was no escape.
There were five pieces of data widely known about the boys’ father around town and these would make their way into most conversations that third parties engaged in concerning the man. He was no special case in this regard. No matter who was under discussion on the streets and laneways of our town it was almost obligatory to bring up specific, prescribed facts about the person— as if there existed an official set of trump cards giving the particulars of each of our town’s ten thousand or so souls.
“He’s a devout man,” was always said. The boys’ father went to confession every Saturday, took first mass every Sunday and led the Rosary each night at home before the children were sent to bed. During Lent he went to seven o’clock mass every morning.
“He never touches a drop of drink,” was another stock phrase. He was a Pioneer — a teetotaler. He had rarely set foot inside our town’s two-dozen pubs. The only use he had for alcohol was as a rub. Any whisper of a muscular complaint or joint pain in the family would see him produce an old 7-Up bottle containing poteen. Strangely enough for a teetotaler, he was the town’s poteen supplier, acquiring the stuff during his dealings with mountainy men farmers out west. Neighbours would often be seen coming away from his front door with a green 7-Up bottle or two — for medicinal purposes of course.
“He has great luck with animals.” If he bought a half-dead horse from you — a broken-down old nag — or an ailing heifer or a scabby, balding sheep, as soon as he got it on to his own land a most remarkable recovery would be witnessed and the beast would soon begin to prosper. There were mixed opinions on this habitual good fortune. Some saw it as the dividend of a righteous, clean-living man. Others saw him as taking advantage of an uncanny eye for animals — a gift it was sometimes called — to underpay struggling farmers for what must have been at root perfectly good livestock.
“He’s an awfully contrary man.” It was said that there were more townspeople boycotting his business — a filling station/grocery shop on the outskirts of town — than patronising it. This was on account of his difficult, awkward ways — his truculence, his oddness. A customer’s innocent request for help in finding a magazine or a tin of sweet corn could witness the boys’ father make a comment on the person’s vision or ability to read. A carefully worded pointing out that a pint of milk was leaking or out of date could see you being asked to take your custom to another premises. You would be made aware of his displeasure if payment was made with notes of large denomination or fistfuls of loose change. For seemingly no reason, customers would be left waiting at the till for minutes on end while other matters were attended to in the shop’s rear or on the forecourt. Disparaging remarks would be made on the contents of one’s shopping basket as he rang up your purchases.
“He’s very hard on those children.” No one had to tell me that. In an era of stern disciplinarian fathers, the boys’ father stood out as being stricter with them than any of the other fathers I knew. I never once saw him being tender or playful with the boys but saw him reprimand or cuff them many times — often for no discernible reason. The boys’ mother, who we rarely saw outside the house, apparently did nothing to curb her husband’s enthusiasm for corporal punishment, but on her rare trips into town or up to Galway always made sure to buy her sons a toy or game, such that, of any of my friends, they had the most enviable collection of, for example, Star Wars figures or Matchbox cars. Nowadays, the boys’ treatment at the hands of their father would be viewed in a dim light by the majority of society and I can even see neighbours or relatives calling the gardaí or social services. Back then a solid minority of parents would have admired his spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child approach, while the rest of adult society would have seen very little wrong with an adult’s occasional light beating of his or her child.
Even as children, my friends and I knew that the boys’ was different from our own fathers. It was not his religiosity that marked him as strange in our immature understanding of matters to do with adults. Nor was it, I am pained to say, his predilection for corporal punishment — most fathers hit their children. No, it was something at the one level more superficial, but at the same time based on intuitive impressions of aspects of the man that went beyond mere witnessed behaviour or overheard adult conversations. Put simply: there was something old-fashioned, of the past, about him. He seemed to come from a different era than my father or the other dads on the road. And it wasn’t that he was particularly old compared to, say, my own father — he just looked out of place in our early 1980s world, like he could have been given a splash of colour to cover over the black and white and plucked from a TV documentary on the 1916 Rising or the War of Independence. He dressed differently to all the other fathers. He never wore anything other than a three-piece suit — usually chalk-striped and of a cut we recognised from television programmes set in the past such as All Creatures Great and Small or The Sullivans. Even on the warmest day of the year he would persist in donning the full suit, which would be worn underneath a brown warehouse coat on the filling station’s forecourt or a white one in the shop, without so much as the tie loosened or the top button of his collar undone.
There was also something of the fuddy-duddy about the boys’ father’s haircut. He was the only man we knew who was still using Brylcreem to style his hair. His full, silvery–white head shone no matter whether he was pumping petrol beneath the forecourt’s strip lights or stacking shelves in the dimness of the shop. The man had a widow’s peak and the fact that he combed his oiled hair straight back off his forehead made it all the more prominent. The widow’s peak, along with other aspects of his physiognomy, lent him a menacing air in the eyes of us children. These features were not so pronounced, though, that they wouldn’t have been overlooked if he had been less austere with his boys and more indulgent of their friends. If, for example, he had brought home the odd box of choc ices from the shop to distribute among the gang of kids that played in the extensive grounds surrounding his house, we would have disregarded the pallor, the Christopher-Lee-as-Dracula canines, the dark, probing eyes that seemed to look beyond your own into your soul and maybe we could have accepted the boys’ father as we accepted all the rest: an adult with faults and foibles, a bit heavy with the hand, but a good egg at the back of it all.