‘How’s the head, then?’
His father’s voice. O’Keefe opens his eyes, convinced he is waking from one dream and slipping into another. A voice he has not heard in almost seven years. No. Dreaming. He closes his eyes again.
‘There’s tea for you. If you can keep it down.’
This time his eyes snap open. His father looms, sitting in a chair beside the bed, and a jolt of panic flashes through O’Keefe as he scans the room, realising now that it is his own room and, at once, not his at all. His gaze returns to his father—white hair in the years since he had seen him, the moustache that he has worn as long as O’Keefe has been alive and aware, now also white.
‘What …?’ O’Keefe says. ‘What am I doing here?’
His father smiles, and the smile is a comfort to O’Keefe in his haze of waking. It has been so long since he has seen it, though his father smiled often when he and brother Peter and elder sister Sally had been children. O’Keefe’s father had been a happy man once. A respected DMP detective, he had been a man proud of his work and his home and his ability to keep the O’Keefe family safe and secure; well-fed and schooled. Loved. And then Peter was killed in Turkey and his father had stopped smiling.
O’Keefe sits up, and as he does his vision blurs and sharp pain seizes his head and neck, nausea rising in his throat. Gingerly he lies back. ‘Jaysus, my head. What happened to me?’ He squeezes his eyes shut against the pain and senses, as much as hears, his father laugh. Smiling and now laughing.
O’Keefe wonders suddenly is Peter really dead or had he dreamed it all: the war and the water; the blood and the beach and the scattering death of a million Turkish rounds ripping through the men of the Dublin and Munster Fusiliers? And the wounds and the black winds of sadness that blew in when he let drop his guard? The hospital in Cork? His return to the police and the war in West Cork? His last parade in the Phoenix Park depot on his demob day five months before? All of it a dream, because he is in the bedroom of his childhood, in the bed he shared with his brother and his father is smiling, laughing.
‘You really don’t know, do yeh, son?’
O’Keefe says nothing but opens one eye. ‘No,’ he says. ‘I’ve a feeling it’s a good thing I don’t.’
Again his father smiles. ‘Well, Misters Guinness and Jameson thank you anyway.’
Closing his eyes again, O’Keefe dredges up a coherence of events as best he can.
A pub. A darkened laneway. A woman’s laughter. Windmilling punches thrown and the smashing of glass. O’Keefe opens his eyes, checks his knuckles and breathes a sigh of relief to find them undamaged.
‘What day is it?’ he asks, and feels a dart of shame in the asking.
His father is reading The Irish Times, and he looks up over his reading glasses.
‘Monday,’ his father says, and in saying it, his face goes blank, in the same way it had when he’d opened the door to O’Keefe. He then holds the newspaper out at arm’s length, as if it wondering at its purpose. There is a long moment of confounded silence before O’Keefe’s father folds the paper with a flourish and scans the front page. ‘Monday, yes. You’ve been here since yesterday early. Your mother nearly fainted when she saw the state of you.’ He smiles again as if this amuses him. ‘We’d the doctor in—the young Jewish lad from up the road; a fine lad and knowledgeable about medicine from the Continent. He told us to watch over you, but that you’d live if you didn’t die.’
‘Solly, you mean, Da?’ O’Keefe says, puzzled by his father’s forgetfulness, but aware that his own thoughts are sluggish and slow in the aftermath of his spree.
His father’s face returns the puzzlement. ‘Solly?’
‘Harold Solomon, Daddy. Solly …’
His father’s brow buckles in sudden fury, and terror washes through O’Keefe. What did I say? And as quickly, his father’s rage is gone and there is fear in his expression and then something else. Embarrassment, O’Keefe decides, closing his eyes against it, wishing his father would smile again.
After some moments of silence, O’Keefe asks, ‘Where’s Mam?’
‘Your mother’s sleeping now. She’s the knees nearly worn off her with the praying.’
O’Keefe attempts a weak smile at the thought of his mother, on her knees in prayer, rosary beads hurtling through her fingers like the links of an anchor chain through a cat’s eye. An image from his childhood as common as any other he has of her, his mother hard at the rosary. ‘They seemed to have worked. The prayers …’ O’Keefe says, and something in the corner of his mind darkens—a shadow passing through his memory—and he is no longer smiling.
‘They do betimes,’ his father replies, looking away to the window as if recalling all the times when prayers had gone unanswered.
In his reverie, his father’s face goes slack and then brightens suddenly. ‘Peter’s due back from college soon, of course. And Sally, as well, with that friend of hers,’ he says, smiling and nodding.
‘But Peter is …’ O’Keefe stops himself for a reason he does not understand. He studies his father’s face and is unable to read it. It is as if a stranger is wearing a mask of gormless, glad perplexity that resembles his father but is not like his father at all. He decides he has misunderstood his father’s words—that he is dreaming after all—and closes his eyes again to the mercy of sleep.
Some time later that night, O’Keefe awakens and it is dark in his room and his father is no longer there but he can hear his voice, deep and grave somewhere below in the house. And the voice of another man, something menacingly familiar in the tone of it, speaking with his father, his father’s voice now raised in sudden anger. A door closing and then his father and the man speaking again, outside the house, and O’Keefe wonders if he is dreaming—hopes that he is—but knows that he is not and that his father has always taken guests outside when he wanted to speak of private matters. Of matters he did not want his wife to hear. But before long it is his mother’s voice O’Keefe hears as well, outside with the men. He closes his eyes and prays that his father and the man are not speaking about him. He thinks of the blankness in his father’s face, and remembers that he has come home to ask after his health. A dark shard of fear wedges itself beneath O’Keefe’s ribs, and for the first time in as long as he can remember he prays, and does not feel a fool doing it.
The shadow of fear is still there, but it is mostly at bay because it is his mother who comes to him in the morning, bringing sweetened tea and scrambled eggs, bread and butter and a bowl of custard. He thinks of his father’s words from the day before. He is certain now that he had heard him correctly. And Peter’s due back from college soon. And Sally. The fear returns.
O’Keefe listens to his mother chatting, recounting street gossip—marriages, births, deaths, minor scandal—and he finds that if he closes his eyes and concentrates on her voice, he can fall under the comforting weight of the dream that has him still a boy; sick and off from school, his mother sitting beside him as she does now, Peter and Sally due home but not for a while yet; his father at the barracks and O’Keefe alone with his mother. Blessedly sick. A dream of times past so rare and precious and full of flat lemonade and scrambled eggs; bread and jam and Seville oranges and the sweet musk of his mother as she leans over to fluff his pillows, her hand on his forehead in search of fever.
His mother is oblivious to the fantasy, however, often mentioning the civil war that has ravaged Ireland these past months, flaring up in incidents of savagery almost unheard of in the fight for independence against the Crown that preceded it. His mother speaks of so-and-so’s boy—were you at school with him or was it Peter?—gunned down in broad daylight. Can you imagine? Reading from the newspaper now. Another bank robbed. Limerick shelled by Free State troops. And other stories—sotto voce over garden walls or in the bakery or butcher’s—that the newspapers were forbidden by the Free State government to tell. Tales of the bloody, vicious things Irishmen were doing to each other in the fight for a country to call their own. A Free State? A Republic? O’Keefe thinks, when he is lucid and in the present, that no notional nation state is worth the damage being done to the country and its people by the men who have claimed to be its liberators.
But now, as she speaks of these things, O’Keefe burrows deeper into the blankets and pretends that Peter and Sally will be home soon from school. Daddy home soon from the barracks for his tea. Mammy will be reading him Oliver Twist or Great Irish Legends and not newspaper stories about skirmishes and casualties and bloody-minded murder. Blessed illness.
Shame drives him up from the dream, and he rises to sitting in the bed. ‘I’m sorry I took so long to come back here, Mam. And the state I came in …’
‘Hush, Seán, don’t mind. We’re only happy to have you here, your father and I.’
O’Keefe is silent, and the guilt and relief he feels well up in him and his eyes brim with tears. ‘Thanks, Mam.’
‘Go ’way out of that, pet. Where can you come to when you need it but your home? Did you think we’d not have you?’
For a moment, O’Keefe does not answer. ‘I thought Daddy might … I don’t know.’
‘Your father’s different now, Seán,’ his mother says, and even in his condition, he can sense that she wants to say more.
‘I met Solly, in Rathmines last …’ he cannot recall the day, and shame stabs at his ribs, ‘… last week. He asked after Da and said he’d been in to see him.’
‘He was. Good auld Solly. And in to see you as well, saying how you were suffering from the most common of Irish illnesses and not to worry for you.’
O’Keefe smiles weakly, thinking of his father’s reaction when he had mentioned Solly’s name. The rage his father’s face had shown at the mention of the old family friend. A rage directed at himself.
His mother continues, ‘What a fine man he’s become. And such a doctor. All the best of the Jews and Protestants attend his surgery, you know, Seán.’
O’Keefe laughs a little at his mother’s casual snobbery. Only a doctor good enough for the wealthier of Dublin’s Jews and Protestants would do her and her own. She is aware of this snobbery, of its general but necessary absurdity, and winks at her son.
‘Is Da all right, Mam?’ O’Keefe asks.
His mother is silent for a long moment and her eyes are suddenly sad and tired. Like his father, she has aged. It is he who should be looking after her and, again, shame and guilt course through his blood.
‘You’re father’s not well, Seán, but not in his body. He’s fit as a fiddle, his heart would do an ox proud.’
‘What is it then?’ But O’Keefe recalls the blankness that had visited his father’s face, his need to consult the date on the newspaper’s front page; his talk of Peter and Sally coming home from college, and he knows. ‘He’s not well in the head, Mam? Is that it?’
His mother nods. ‘He forgets things. Simple things. And he gets frightened, at night …’ She looks to the open doorway as if his father might enter at any moment. ‘And gets so angry when he can’t remember something, Seán.’
‘What did Solly say?’
‘He sent us to a surgeon, one of the masters in the Mater. He has your father on cannabis tincture and other pills.’
‘And are they working?’
His mother smiles, and it is the saddest smile O’Keefe can remember her ever giving. ‘He’ll only get worse, the master says, until he’ll have to be committed, for his own safety.’
O’Keefe says nothing, contemplating his father in an asylum. He had been to such places as a constable, and decides that he will not have his father in such a place. No place for any man, let alone his father. He wonders for a bitter second how his mother can even contemplate doing such a thing, but then decides that she wouldn’t if she knew what they were like.
‘And is he aware of it, Mam? Of how ill he is?’
‘He is and he isn’t, and half the time he forgets. Sometimes he goes out and I worry he’ll be lost and never come back.’
‘Where is he now?’
‘He goes out with Maurice O’Toole most mornings. They go to train Mossy’s greyhounds. I’d be lost without Maurice, I would. He’s a saint, the man.’
Maurice ‘Mossy’ O’Toole, a retired G-Division detective, the same as his father.
‘Jesus, Mam,’ O’Keefe says. ‘Look, I’ll move back in and help you, let me do that at least. I’ve money, saved from my police wages. I’ll help you here.’
‘No,’ his mother says, standing. ‘Not that. You’ll not be a nursemaid. I’ve Mrs Devereaux and she’s a great help all these years. Especially now. She’s better with him than I am, still calling him “Sergeant”. And when he gets in his rages, they just seem to run off her back like rain.’
Mrs Devereaux had been with the O’Keefe family since she was a young woman and O’Keefe a boy. She had married many years ago, but had continued to do washing and ironing, cooking the odd time and cleaning the fire grates for the O’Keefe family, coming each day, though there was hardly enough for her to do. O’Keefe had always been fond of her, never more so than now.
‘Is she enough help for you, Mam?’
‘She is of course. The most capable girl … listen to me, girl, when the woman must be forty-five years old with grown children of her own. The most capable woman in Ireland and she’s a true blessing with your father. And your sister comes some days and that’s enough but sure, doesn’t she have the babby now?’
His sister and her baby he’s not yet seen. Guilt again beds down with the sadness in his heart. ‘What can I do for you and Da then? I want to be of some help. However I can …’
Again his mother is silent, as if deciding something. ‘There is something you can do for me … for your father. When you’re better …’
‘What is it?’
‘Not now. When you’ve your strength back, I’ll tell you. You sleep, now, love,’ his mother says, placing her warm hand on his brow. ‘It’s so good to have you home, Seán. Even if it was an ill wind that brought you.’