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Published: 3 January 2024.

by Gerry Gaffney

Line drawing of a dolmen

His sister Bridget picked him up at the railway station in Athenry and drove him to the house in Monivea.

At the house his father was waiting. He was standing next to an armchair, looking frail but with a smile on his face. He was leaning on a walking-stick.

Damian! Long way to drag you to visit your old man."

I thought you were supposed to be dying. You look like getting ready for a céilidh."

His father laughed, grasped Damian's shoulder and hugged him.

We're hugging these days, are we?"

It's the EU," said his father. "Foreign influence. People gallivanting off to exotic lands and coming home with strange habits. Olive oil. Paella. Bordeaux. Hugging. Air kissing too."

After dinner, while they were doing the dishes, Bridget said, "If you're up to it tomorrow, if you're not feeling too jet-lagged, I thought you might drive dad into the hospital in Galway for his appointment. You can have the Skoda while you're here. I've added you to the insurance. I presume you still remember how to drive a real car with gears and haven't lost all your practical skills in Far Amerikay."

I think I can manage."

The next morning he drove his father into Galway.

How is Clara?" his father asked.

Great. Working away. She sends her love."

And young Pat?"

A teenager. Troublesome. Doesn't like school. Doesn't like rules. Won't do what he's told. Won't study."

His father laughed until a coughing fit took over.

Ah sorry, but you know, watching your kids have teenagers of their own and all that. I'm sure he'll be fine. Sure you turned out all right. All things considered."

I'll take that as a ringing endorsement of my achievements."

Do. Do that."

The hospital car park was busy. His father pointed. "Park there, on the left."

Damian turned to park on the right.

Or there, on the right, if you prefer."

His father leaned on Damian's arm and they walked very slowly into the hospital. He knew his way around and nodded to some of the staff members as they made their way to the clinic.

They were only in the waiting area for a couple of minutes when the consultant opened the door.

Jim," he said. "Nice to see you. This looks like one of your tribe. Your son?"

Indeed. Damian. All the way from California. Abandoned his post at the forefront of the wildfires to ferry his old man around Galway and environs. Damian, Dr Higgins."

Damian and Dr Higgins shook hands.

Do you want me to come in with you?"

No, no, I'm grand. Stay there and I won't be long."

Damian sat and closed his eyes.

Shortly his father came out. Dr Higgins had an arm around his shoulder.

If you need more of the pain meds, come back in a couple of weeks."

If I'm still alive, you mean."

That too." Higgins seemed close to tears.

Oh for God's sake don't go sentimental on me now. There'll be plenty more to take my place and cover the payments on your Ford Fiesta."

Yes, but not many with the same cranky old bastard charm."

His father and Higgins laughed. Higgins nodded at Damian.

Abruptly he turned away and went back into his rooms.

The forecast was for a deep Atlantic low moving in from the southwest, a storm.

Would you be up for a spin tomorrow?" Damian asked. "Maybe down to Kilkee. Or is that a bit too long of a trip?"

His father was keen.

They set off at ten in the morning. Already the sky was low with clouds and heavy with rain.

In Kilkee they parked near the Diamond Rocks cafe. They sat in the car looking out over the wild Atlantic breakers.

The car was shaking in the wind as squalls of rain drove in.

Will we chance it?" asked his father.

I'm game."

Come on, so."

Wait, I'll come round and get you."

Damian got out, holding the car door to stop it being taken by the wind. He struggled into his raincoat and pulled a cap down on his head.

He opened the passenger door and held it while his father slowly climbed out.

He helped him on with his coat and hat, and handed him his walking stick.

They made their way up towards the cliffs, his father holding tightly to Damian's arm.

The air was full of salty mist, rain mingling with spray as the huge waves breached the cliffs.

We must be mad," yelled his father. "Two eejits out in the elements when we could be at home sitting by the fire!"

They were both exhilarated, but after a few minutes they were defeated by the wind and the rain.

Damian turned on the motor and put the heater on full. They sat there shivering, his father rubbing his hands together and laughing.

Oh that was worth the trip all right."

It sure was," said Damian, "worth the whole trip."

They took the scenic way home, along the coast road, a long and winding way with old familiar names. Doonbeg, Quilty, Miltown Malbay, Spanish Point, Lahinch. Then along the little roads, Doolin, Lisdoonvarna, Ballyvaughan. Skirting the Burren, that strange landscape scraped by glaciers and shaped by water, with secret caves and grikes. His father stared out the window.

I think I'll miss this," he said. "This is my heartland."

They stopped at Linnanes in New Quay for an early dinner.

There was a young German couple at a nearby table, dressed in rain gear and looking entirely windswept. They's arrived on electric bikes.

Where did you ride from?" asked his father.

We are staying in Kinvara." His emphasis was on the first syllable. "Is that right, how to say it?"

Kinvara," said his father, putting the emphasis on the second syllable.

Kinvara," repeated the German.

Perfect. You'll have a great wind at your back on the way home and good fuel in your stomach."

They smiled at each other. Then the German turned back to his companion.

Do you remember teaching me to ride in Monivea? It was on Mum's bike. It seemed huge. You pushed me along, up and down outside McGann's, holding onto the back of the saddle until I was steady enough to let go."

Like it was yesterday. You and your sister before you. Hard to believe this old body could run once upon a time."

He stared out across the water.

I still dream I'm running sometimes. Just running. Not being chased and not in a hurry. I'm just running. I can feel the deep breaths of air filling me up and my feet are fleet on the ground. It's not a dream about being young or anything. I'm no age at all. I'm just running."

By the time they got home his father was asleep. He only half woke when Damian and Bridget helped him from the car. He went straight to bed.

You wore him out," Bridget said. There was no accusation.

I did, and myself."

The wildfires in California were getting worse and Damian's boss was keen for him to return to work.

If you're needed, go," said his father. "You came home and I'm glad to see you but life goes on."

It's not as if I'm holding a hose. I'm not on the fire front. Just organising logistics. It's almost just admin."

I gather you're understating it. Being uncharacteristically modest. But really, go. You won't stave off the angel of death you know, just by being here." He laughed. "I'm on a road I can only travel alone."

The day before Damian was to leave had been made bright and clear by the passing storms.

He sat in the sun-room with his father. They were alone.

You know, when you were born, one of the nurses at the hospital told your mother that you'd be trouble. 'He's got a temper on him, that one,' is what she said."

Not that old story. Jesus, you and Mum always loved rolling that one out."

Well it's true, you know? You were a difficult child."

And you were a difficult parent."

I suppose I was."

They laughed.

But I came home," said Damian.

You did. You came home."

The next morning Bridget waited in the car to drive him to the train. In the house, at the front door, he hugged his father goodbye.

Copyright © Gerry Gaffney 2023