Nuala Ní Chonchúir, like Doireann Ni Griofa who was featured in last month’s Uimhir a Cúig, is bilingual although she writes predominantly in English. A prolific writer of novels, short-story collections, flash fiction, and poetry, she utilizes a variety of constructs and perspectives often to explore the intimate issues of gender, sexuality and the corporeal.
In her story “Tinnycross,” Ní Chonchúir alludes to the prodigal son parable, but here the unexpected presence of a wife in the family home repositions the fraternal conflict. Her assertive influence shapes the emotional and material divides, internally and externally, yielding ultimately a resolution with hints of forgiveness if not exactly salvation.
The vocabulary rarely comforts. Not surprising since the returning son finds that “the familiarity of everything” is “both balm and thorn to him.” He is at odds not just with his brother but “with every blade of grass on every acre of the land.” To this end, Ní Chonchúir uses language like a plow, turning over the upper layer of the brothers’ hardened relationship to bring to the surface the roots of abandonment in the hopes of cultivating some form of reclamation. A cruelty borne out of rectitude, decency even.
By the time Oliver drove the avenue under the horse chestnuts, the bluebells were already thinning out. He had noticed puddles of cherry blossom along the pathways in the village. It struck some tender part of him that another year was hurtling towards summer, leaving him in a muddled January place, trying to catch up. The house lay squat and crabby ahead, and Oliver could feel his mood switch to match it; the undulating angst that always accompanied him at Tinnycross began to roll through him. He was a young man again, suckled and strangled by the place, and at odds with every blade of grass on every acre of the land.
He pulled up in front of the house and sat for a while to quell his building rage. Oliver knew that like all such rages his agitation was mixed with a kind of love. He often longed for Tinnycross – for home – for a version of it or the past, but it also repelled him. Wanting to be calm when he confronted Bunny, he sat in the car and waited and willed himself peaceful.
After five minutes Oliver got out and went around the side of the house to the back door; the front door was never used. He stepped into the kitchen and was assailed by its brightness. And then by the sight of a woman standing at the table – his mother’s deal table – kneading dough with care in a cabled bowl. She was silver haired, neat as an egg, and she – for it could only have been she – had reawakened the kitchen. His mother’s furniture still stood: the table, the dresser, the chairs, but all of it looked fresh and the walls were painted. Things were immaculate again.
‘You must be…’ Oliver searched on his tongue for the right term. ‘You must be the cleaner,’ he said, eventually, settling on that word because he could come up with no other.
‘I’m Bunny’s wife.’ She threw a glance his way as if she had been expecting him.
‘His wife?’ Oliver said, and snorted. The woman stopped kneading and stared at him. ‘Is Bunny home?’ he asked.
‘He’s below in the field. Will I ring his mobile?’
‘No, I’ll go down to him.’
She wiped her fingers on her apron and came towards him with one hand out. ‘Fidelma,’ she said.
She smiled. ‘I know who you are.’
Oliver left the kitchen and stood in the yard. The land fell to the river – Tinnycross was one huge field with no ditches or fences to mark it out. Hay bales sheathed in black plastic were dotted around like giant cuts of liquorice, and a stand of rape burned its yellow among the green and brown. His heart swelled into his throat and he drew a few deep breaths. The familiarity of everything was both balm and thorn to him. It was quiet in the yard but he could hear the far off burr of a tractor and the bird calls that were the same bird calls as forty years before. Oliver gazed down over the land. How could a field – one ordinary field – have such a pull on him?
He looked at his shoes, then at the muddy track that lead from the yard to the land. A wife? Well. That surely changed things. By what luck had Bunny, of all people, got himself a woman? Oliver shrugged and headed down the track, at first treading the verge to avoid the muck and save his shoes, then staying off the grass because it was littered with pearls of sheep shit like beads scattered from a rosary. The brother is a quarehawk right enough, he thought.
Oliver looked up to find Bunny strolling towards him; he was a shambles as always in his torn fisherman’s jumper and folded down wellies. The wife’s ministrations had extended only to the house, it seemed. Bunny was swinging a stick like a dandy.
‘Olly,’ he said.
‘Bunny. How’s the form?’ They shook hands. ‘And it’s Oliver. Please.’
‘So I don’t get to be Bernard but you get to be Oliver. Big man Olly.’ Bunny slapped the ground with his stick.
‘Did you get my letter?’ Oliver said.
‘I got a letter from Folan and Company, if that’s the one you mean.’
‘We need to settle this, Bunny, for once and for all.’
Bunny whacked the tree beside him with his stick; it was the old hawthorn, bent sideways by the wind, its branches beseeching the tree beside it. That hawthorn was their mother’s favourite tree; she would stand under its dense crown to call daddy from the field.
‘Settle, Olly?’ Bunny said. ‘What’s to settle?’
‘Ah, don’t start.’ Oliver put his hands on his hips and stood in front of his brother.
‘You think you’re the prodigal coming back here. Well, you’ll get nothing out of me.’
‘Bernard.’ Bunny’s wife had come down from the house without either of them noticing. They both looked at her. ‘Why don’t we go inside and talk?’
‘It’s none of your business, Fidelma,’ Bunny said.
‘Oh, I think you’ll find that it is,’ she replied.
She walked behind them up the track towards the house, a shepherdess herding a pair of recalcitrant rams.
Oliver stood in his parents’ bedroom, watching dust waver in the air. Their marriage bed had become Bunny’s. The lousy shite hadn’t even bought his wife a new bed. Oliver recalled his father’s last days in that bed. Daddy had started to say their mother’s name again; it fluttered out of his mouth like a butterfly looking for somewhere to land. It sounded alien launching off his tongue: ‘Catherine. Catherine. Catherine.’ He hadn’t called her by name for years; hadn’t cajoled her, or pleaded, or thanked her with her given name. Their mother sat by the bed day after day, holding their father’s hand, soothing him, wiping his drink-haunted face.
‘It’s all right, Daddy,’ she said. ‘I’m here, I’m here. Your Catherine is here. I’m right beside you, Martin.’
Mammy was gone now too – Oliver had not witnessed her death – but he could feel her in the house still, a revenant gliding from room to room. He put his hands on the cold iron of the footboard and gripped hard; he rocked himself and pushed his chin to his chest.
‘Come through to the kitchen, Oliver.’ Fidelma stood in the doorway; her voice was gentle. ‘I’ve made tea. We’ll talk.’
He didn’t turn to look at her. ‘Both mammy and daddy died in that bed.’
‘I know that. Bernard told me.’
‘I’m not trying to be cruel,’ Oliver said, hanging his head. ‘I just remember. This place makes me remember.’
‘Memory is a true thing, but it can make fools of us too,’ Fidelma said.
‘This all ends with Bunny and me. No offence, but you won’t be producing an heir. Tinnycross will go to God-knows-who.’
‘Let’s talk it out and see what we can come up with between us.’
Oliver followed her into the kitchen; Bunny had their father’s seat at the side of the table near the range. If visitors ever deferred to daddy, wanting him to take the head of the table, their father always said, ‘Wherever O’Donnell sits is the head of the table.’
Oliver said this to his brother, hoping to make him smile, but Bunny ignored the remark.
‘We’ll give you a third of the market value,’ he said. ‘There’s the three of us in it now.’
‘Mammy died during the boom; I’m entitled to half of what it would have gone for then.’
‘Are you trying to put me out of my home?’ Bunny crashed his fist onto the table. ‘Are you trying to kill me?’
‘I only want what’s mine.’ Oliver rattled a teaspoon around his mug. ‘My business has gone under. The bank is talking about repossessing my apartment.’
‘Well, boo fucking hoo. If you can’t look after yourself, it’s no concern of ours.’
‘Tinnycross belongs to both of us, Bunny. Mammy always said it. There’s no way around that.’
‘You took your time looking for your share.’
‘I thought you’d give it to me and, then, well, you didn’t.’
‘And bankrupt myself? Are you fucking mad, Olly?’
Fidelma reached across and squeezed Bunny’s arm. ‘We have my money, love; the money from my house.’
‘You want to give the man who killed my mother your money?’
Oliver stood. ‘Ah, here, there’s no need for that.’
Bunny dropped his head and spoke his words to the table. ‘Mammy asked you to come to Tinnycross and you wouldn’t come. She asked you again and again.’
‘It wasn’t that simple, Bunny, and you know it. I was in Dubai for Christ’s sake.’
‘Your mother begged you to come and you turned your back on her. You turned your back on Tinnycross.’ Bunny pushed back his chair, stood and left the room.
‘Not to worry, now,’ Fidelma said, patting Oliver’s arm.
‘That was harsh. Bunny knows I was abroad, I couldn’t get on a plane every time she asked me to; she was always trying to get me to come. I helped mammy in other ways.’
‘I know you did,’ Fidelma said. ‘Bunny is very attached to this place; we both are. He lashed out there and he shouldn’t have.’
Oliver suffered a twist of jealousy – Bunny hadn’t just landed himself a woman, but a decent woman, one who was happy with what she was made of; a woman secure in herself and the world; someone who liked to give.
Fidelma invited Oliver to stay the night. He didn’t want to, but he didn’t want to leave everything undone either; he hesitated.
‘Sure stay. Do,’ she said.
‘I will so,’ Oliver said, and thanked her.
Fidelma made up his childhood bedroom. He could barely get himself across the threshold and into the bed, the room bulged with so many memories: days spent in sickness fevers, nights spent in girl-induced ones. At least it smelled different now – he couldn’t have stood it if the room held the small boy and young man stench of himself.
Oliver lay rigid in the narrow bed, watching the moon with her mouth agape, spilling light over Tinnycross. He could see the corner of the barn, lidded with corrugate and lit up by moon-glow. He felt the presence of his parents and was unsettled by the knowledge that through the wall his brother was in their bed with his wife. His decent, loving wife. Sleeping warmly beside her or, perhaps, complaining about him in a low voice.
In the morning Fidelma propped a neat envelope against the milk jug that sat on the table in front of Oliver. He was breakfasting on his own; Bunny was already out on the land. Oliver picked it up, knowing without opening the flap that the cheque would have her signature on it; hers alone.
‘Are you sure?’ he said.
‘I am. It’s best to leave himself to me; I can deal with him. I’ll sort it out.’
‘Thanks a million, Fidelma,’ Oliver said.
When he had finished eating he shook her hand.
‘Don’t be a stranger,’ Fidelma said, and she let him out the front door and waved him off as he drove away.
The plains around Tinnycross were green and dappled with sheep. Every other field held an inky lamb among its white brethren. This lamb was always a maverick, sitting or standing apart from the others, living its own quiet destiny. Oliver drove past and watched the lambs, willing the dark ones to gambol and play with the others, but they stayed where they were, resolutely alone.
He thought about Tinnycross as he drove further and further away from it, on towards the city. He could feel the backward pull to it, to its green and its yellow and its light. Oliver knew he might never see the place again. Is it possible, he wondered, to be in love with a field. And if it is possible, is it wise?
—Nuala Ní Chonchúir
Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin in 1970; she lives in East Galway. Her fourth short story collection Mother America was published by New Island in 2012. A chapbook of flash Of Dublin and Other Fictions was published in the US in late 2013 by Tower Press and Nuala’s second novel The Closet of Savage Mementos appears April 2014 from New Island. Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, appears 2015 from Penguin USA and Penguin Canada. www.nualanichonchuir.com
another wonderful story from nuala o’connor/ni chonchuir