“Hares in the Old Plantation”: a short story by Kevin Barry

A lock-in, a fire, a sleuthing fox: the west of Ireland by moonlight.

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Illustration by Laura Carlin

Listen –

There’s a lock-in at the Connaught Arms, and every melodious old soak in town is inside the place, wall-eyed with drink and songful as crows – it’s three in the morning – and the liquid drunken notes float off and above the town – there are no women to be heard – and from the dark of the alleyway I can name each voice as it rises and taunts, and who have we now, cresting the happy babble, but Mr Cremins – Mr Teddy Cremins of the square jaw and the emotional shoulders – and he rants directions to the Highwood quarry at the top of his burly throttle:

“Oh no, no, no, no, no! You’d go past the Proddy church and take the left, you’d go along by the Moriarty house . . .”

The way that it’s a matter of life-or-death, always, in the hoarse, sentimental delivery of Ted Cremins, as if all in Creation now depends on the quickest road to the Highwood quarry. The flutey yodelling and the puddled laughs, the half-sung notes, the gossip: they are barely inclined to draw the blind on a lock-in at the Connaught. Army of merriment in the drinkers’ hide. It has the name of a guard’s pub since God-only-knows. Three o’clock in the morning and big filthy pints are being shovelled out like murder. From the alleyway, by the side door, I stay hid for a while and listen. Who’s being talked about and what’s being said and not being said and I listen for any mention of her or mention of the man from the Forestry Commission.

My gut twists with dread as I listen and I could weep in fear if I let myself go a bit but tonight there is no mention of the widow or the forester.

The door cracks – for a moment the lights and the shudder of bodies can be seen; it is hellishly lit. Out steps Ben Knott. Mr Benny Knott, from the Ballymote direction, and he sidles from the Connaught with a glamorous sway and tips at his brow with dainty fingers as if to wipe a bead of manly sweat away, and he looks up to the moon, one-eyed, to keep it in focus, with the big awed face on him, as if some dark romance is dripping from the stars, as if stars before he has never seen. He catches the trace of me as I quicken to move away:

“Oh and here’s Chalkie,” he says. “I hear you’re weeding the widow’s garden, Chalk?”

River’s quick after rain; there are angry voices in the moving water. The Boyle River is giving out yards to itself. Waft of Persian lamb from Kebab Station. Fingers of breeze part the leaves of the trees and then fix them again. Fatty rump of County Mayo lamb. The slow night sighs. Guided by voices a minicab trawls. Spices of Persia. Voice of the despatcher a tiny whip from the radio as the cab scoots past, like a lamb’s bleating:

“Anyone for Ballinafad, lads?”

A tap dancer could sidestep and whistle the tune of the town along the rise and fall of its comical roofs and jaunty chimneys. But jaunty we are not. Now the sound of girls in a travelling pack. As if I did not have enough to contend with. Duck down a sideway until I can place them for sure. Stay hid the small while for safety. If they’re from The Hill, I’d be as well to stay hid. They would bleed me with their eyes and take the skin off me with their comments. The way that my face fills up with blood and shame when there are comments made. The girls from The Hill gather bravery in a pack as they move at night through the town. I’d be as well to stay hid. Chalkie, in the shadows, a pale ghost of the place – listen? Quiet but my heart stirs. Mrs Casey is not an old widow, not by any means. I believe that she’s fifty-two years of age, and she doesn’t look it, not nearly.

The girls pass by. Their dimpled voices, their white necks like swans. By the clock in the square the moments of the night can be named. The girls are back from a disco in Carrick, and Carrick lies waste behind them. They would leave any male brave enough mauled and quickly sobered; the courage of a Spanish bull you’d want to deal with the girls who come down off The Hill, the long bleached locks and the Gaga make-up.

I don’t care what they say around this place but I have never once crept up to a window in the night and I have never once investigated the washing lines. But they’d mark you for a peeper as quick as they’d look at you. They’d libel you the knicker-snatcher. And this is quite simply not the case. May I remind all that I am not the one sat inside on a couch on the internet watching filth in China.

Snake down again by the river. Snarky tonight over its stones, the Boyle River. I’ll come the back way to the station. The houses are nearly all dark at this unmerciful hour, but there is a light on in Tubridy’s – as there would be – because Mrs Tubridy is a stranger to sleep since 1986 and the night of the visitation, the night a mouse sat up on her pillow, almost suavely, and the handsome yellow eyes of the mouse locked on to the mad thyroidal eyes of Mrs Tubridy, and that was an end to it: a woman’s peace for all eternity ruined. Life, as such, can be very hard to fathom. Or so I find.

As it happens, I can’t look Mrs Casey in the eye at all. If it is eyes that we are on about. The way one of Mrs Casey’s eyes – the left – turns slightly in to say hello to her other, and this . . . Well. It takes my breath away, in a mysterious way, and a way that doesn’t seem entirely proper. She lives in the gate lodge of what used to be the big house, or the plantation, as my grandfather called it. I’d a grandfather who’d eat duck eggs boiled hard and wince against the daylight and talk about things that happened in 1482 as if it was the other Wednesday. But Mrs Casey, in the gate lodge, after I’ve the grass cut for her – the Wednesday afternoons – and the dogweeds pulled, she makes me lemonade, with actual lemons, and brown sugar – demerara – and she smiles when I tell her stupid things from the town, and when I do for her all the voices.

“You’re gifted, Chalkie,” she says, and quite softly, she watches me. The way that she said “demerara” one time – I was left weak, I could have been hospitalised. I don’t believe for one minute what they’re saying about her and Hendricks, from the Forestry Commission, that big ape, with the big red cheerful face on him, and his hale songs and his slow flirtatious whistling, and the little curt waves for the ladies, and the way that he stands there, outside the hardware, when he’s in town of a Saturday morning, with his big thumbs hooked into the belt loops of his good, pressed denims.

In the railway yard, the Slovakians have a fire going for company as much as warmth because there is no cold there, the May night.

“Hello, gentleman, and how’re we now?”

They make no accusations about me ever, the Slovakians. They have never once accused me of robbing unmentionables from washing lines and at once, courteously, comes the bottle, which I believe is a brandy made out of cherries, and it warms you all down to the bones of your chest, the brandy, and I have a bird’s chest, I’m of the reedy type, and the Slovakians are interested, as always, when I tell them about the birds and the foxes and the hares.

“Rufous,” I tell them, “is the way you’d say it for the colour of a fox.

“And the way that a fox moves,” I tell them, “at night? Well that’s really a kind of sleuthing.”

“A what?”

“A fox is a kind of detective,” I say. “It keeps close to the ground and it sniffs out all the clues.”

Another belt of the brandy and I get down on all fours, and I show exactly how it is the fox interrogates the night, and they laugh at me, the Slovakians, and I look out into the darkness and distance, on my fours, along the track that arrows away into the night, as if it’s piercing the skin of the night that it might sound the high note of its aching, and I mug ferociously to hold the half-scared look on my face, so watchful, and fox-eyed, and the folding hills are soft as velvet in starlight.

“And don’t even get me started on the magpies,” I say, and the Slovakians laugh again but nervously.

The station is empty as a hollow church and it will be until the half-six train is due. Cracked mirror in the toilet – I fix my hair five ways. I will be nineteen this Tuesday coming, I will be nineteen years under the moon and sky.

By the edges of the town. Walk half the length of the hard night away. I’ve a bad five minutes – as so often, around fourish – and I shake my head wildly like a dog after rain. But I get over it. As I do. And all comes quietly for me now, again, and it feels like the whole world is sleeping, again.

And I’m climbing, the road turns itself over softly, and I can see the town from a height, the way its lights sit into the palm of the hills, and this is what I like to see. The Curlew Mountains – we are away with the birds in the Curlew Mountains. The Boyle River moves over its stones and ruts, and it has a few tricky questions for itself, this half-blue night or half-blue morning, its voices are moving. And somewhere over the far side, unseen, but present, the quiet lake that sends up a glow of night-gloom. Greenish, and there are acres of it, the night-gloom, a deep holly’s or a sea-ivy’s green. There is a rustling in the ditches – there are small animals in the ditches and they are up to no good. The stars hang down like blue fruit.

All along the back road the walls of the old plantation lie broken down and breached. Cross through the wood and on to the treed avenue to the big house – Chalkie by night he roams – avenue of hornbeams – and as happy now as the night is old. The big house is in rubble and dust. There are shades that move past its fallen windows. There is an old woman that moves. Silvery, a shimmer, like gasses, her shade. A stage it seems like where the old house sits, and I try to rest for a while, and my head slows, and for a while I hear nothing but the sound of water moving, somewhere nearby, but then I hear above the top of the wood their voices.

And I hear what I want to hear the least of all – the sound of her voice in high humour and happiness.

Through the woods. Come up rearside to the gate lodge, and her voice comes nearer, and now it’s in melody – she’s singing tonight.

They sit outside for the warm air and it’s her voice that I hear, somewhere in the near dark, singing, and his voice, the forester’s, in low deep approval.

“Ah sing another one for me, Kate,” he says, and she does so, and it sounds like a child’s song –

The owl wide-winging through the sky,
In search of mice and lesser fry,
Reveals his long un-haapppy cry . . .

Through the cover of the night wood I move and the brambles crack beneath me and the song cuts, and their voices halt, and there is the held moment of their listening but –

“It’s nothing,” she says, “it’s just the hares,” and she begins to sing for him again –

The blackbird and his mate rejoice
To exercise their singing voice . . .

And I move away quickly and so quietly from what I must not see – the way that her hand will take his, and the way that his arms will fold about her slenderness.

Along the road for the town again. The road is falling now and into the deep-down dark of the night I fall. Oh God it’s so cold now. I am falling again. I hope that I never feel this old again. 

Kevin Barry was the winner of the 2013 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, for his novel “City of Bohane”, and of the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award 2012 for “Beer Trip to Llandudno”. His most recent story collection is “Dark Lies the Island” (Vintage, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris