Walking my father home
I have cousins who hated their fathers, I never did. I never went hungry because my old man had spent a week’s wages in the pub on a Friday night. I was never belted for looking at my Dad the wrong way when he was pissed, but I did live close to those realities.
I have cousins who knew the humiliation of both hunger and abuse, and at one time, I envied them. I was jealous because their parents laughed or roared or raged. My father did none of those things; he simply got on quietly with the business of living and eventually the business of dying.
Da came from a family that were either staunch pioneers or belligerent alcoholics. Of eleven brothers and two sisters, he was the only one who seemed capable of indifference to drink; he was neither opposed to it nor addicted to it.
Dad was not a drinker. He enjoyed an occasional glass of cold ale, but he never drank spirits. On those few occasions I remember him drinking, it was sitting on the headland of a field recently harvested or on the concrete steps of the greenhouse where he grew deliciously sweet tomatoes. I guess he considered those drinks a sort of reward for work done. But I’m not sure. The truth is, Dad was unknowable. He came from a generation of men who were cut from stone, never speaking about feelings or emotions. Except, that one time…
That one time when my cousin, Paul O’Neill, came running to our house, distraught because my uncle William who was Da’s eldest brother, was on the roof of the house standing dangerously close to the edge and shouting abuse at passersby.
We stood on the ground, looking up at William O’Neill walking along the edge of loose capping stones, his arms wide as though he were a preacher and those below his flock. Da told Paul and my Aunt Polly that Willy was a bloody fool, and then, he climbed up on the roof beside him and sat down. William, having found a new target for his bile, immediately started to hurl abuse at him,
but, Da paid him no mind; instead, to my surprise, he took a bottle of whiskey from his inside pocket and unscrewed the cap. He eyed Willy and held the bottle out towards him.
‘Well, Will, what do you say? She’s open now; she’ll have to be drank.’ He tossed the gold screw top over his shoulder.
‘There’s no going back now, Willy, lad,’ he spoke, and I understood that it was a challenge.
Uncle William, who was walking a fine line between the slate roof and thin air, regarded Da, then he looked at the bottle.
‘It’s open right enough,’ he bellowed, ‘But are you man enough to drink it, Robert. Sure you’re no fucking drinker, no fucking man either.’
Da shrugged, then lifted the bottle to his lips. I watched as his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down three times, and then he set the bottle down beside his legs which hung over the edge of the building and rubbed his mouth.
‘Are you going to have a drop, Will?’ He looked towards his brother. ‘Or am I drinking it all myself?’
I’d never heard my father use course language, nor had I seen him drink whisky. I was frightened but at the same time, thrilled by his daring.
‘You won’t, Bobby, you’re too fucking…fanny whipped.’ William staggered a step closer to Da.
Da smiled, though I was sure William’s words infuriated him. ‘I’m drinking now,’ he answered, ‘But fuck it all, Will, I’m drinking on my own, and that’s no good, is it?’ he lifted the bottle again and took another long swallow.
‘That’s half of her gone now,’ he held the bottle up to the light.
‘What’s he at, for Christ sake!’ Aunt Pauline was at my shoulder, her eyes dark with worry. I shrugged. I had no idea what my father intended. I watched as he swung the bottle; I heard the clink of it as he slowly tapped it on the wall between his dangling legs.
‘You’re right, Will,’ he said. ‘I’ve been too soft on that woman of mine, letting her dictate to me.’ His jaw hardened as he glared at William. ‘If I want to go for a drink on a Friday evening, haven’t I the right?’
‘Fucking well you do.’ William took another tentative step towards Da, who held the bottle out toward him.
Come on,’ he roared. ‘Have a drink with me.’
‘I will.’ William said, his hand reaching out, his legs uncertain under him and I grew tense, imagining William pitching forward, falling and pulling Da from the roof. But Da was too quick for him. I saw his hands move, saw the whisky bottle drop in the same instant as Da caught William by the sleeve.
‘Easy now, you big bollox.’ Da stood, slowly and carefully, his grip on William’s sleeve tight.
‘You let it fall,’ William’s voice was full of mournful longing. ‘Ahh for fuck-sake, Bobby.’
‘Don’t fret now.’ Da’s voice was softer, his enunciation slurred and I knew the whisky was taking hold of him. ‘I’m sure you have some in the house, haven’t you?’
Aunt Pauline hissed as though releasing a held breath. ‘No way, Robert O’Neill, you’ll do no more drinking in my house, not you or your drunk of a brother.
‘Da stood, his grip on William’s arm now firm as he peered down on the three of us, Me. my Aunt, and my cousin, Paul who had been struck dumb. Then, finally, he turned to his brother. ‘What’s that your woman is saying, Willy? Is she telling you what you will and won’t do in your own house?’
‘By Jesus, she better not be.’ William reeled closer to the edge, and I heard my Aunt’s gasp of terror.
‘He’ll kill himself,’ she yelped.
‘Divil the bit of it,’ Da shouted down to her, sure all he wants is a drink, Polly, you won’t deny him that, will you?’
Pauline O’Neill’s shoulders slumped.
‘Come down,’ she pleaded. ‘Bring him down, Bobby, please.’
‘Good woman,’ Dad nodded and turned towards William. ‘Did you hear that, Will? She’s a great woman altogether.’ William was tottering, his head bowed forward, his chin resting on his chest.
‘The very best,’ he slurred as his legs buckled.
Da grabbed his shoulder and steadied him.
‘It’s what you do for those you love.’ Da said quietly.
The whisky was sharp on his breath as he leaned towards me.
He had all but carried his brother down from the roof and to his bed, shushing Aunt Pauline, reassuring her. And then we’d left. It was almost dark, the sky the dark blue of late summer twilight.
Da stood up straight, trying to regain his balance, his face in shadow.
‘I’ve always looked forward to seeing you become a man, Joseph, he said, unexpectedly. His eyes grew unfocused again, as though he was speaking to someone or something distant, and I stood mute. It was the closest my father ever came to saying he loved me. I nodded because I didn’t have the vocabulary then to respond to such a declaration.
‘Here, let me lean on you,’ Da said, his body swaying. ‘I’m somewhat the worse for the drink.’
He giggled, it was the first and only time I heard him laugh, and as I supported him, I felt something swelling in my chest.
Before we turned in towards our house at the end of the lane, Da stumbled and almost fell. I managed to keep him upright.
‘You’re a good lad,’ he whispered. ‘The very best.’
‘Why did you do it, Da. Why did you go up on the roof with that bottle of whisky?’
Da was standing in front of me, swaying.
‘It was the only way to get him down,’ he responded.
‘But it was dangerous,’ I said, finally allowing the fear I had felt to settle on me. ‘You could have fallen.’
‘Divil the bit of it,’ he answered before pitching forward towards me. I grabbed him, placing my shoulder under his arm. I turned toward the house, walking my father home drunk, because it’s what you do for those you love.
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Dave Kavanagh is a writer and publisher based in Co. Dublin, Ireland. His work is widely published both in print and online. As well as writing, Kavanagh is passionate about growing food in a sustainable manner and when he is not at his desk writing, he manages a large home garden where he grows vegetables and fruit for his extended family. The Tangle Box is his first novel came out in 2021 and has been well received. He is working feverishly on a second.
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