He climbs the twenty-three steps of the metal traverse bridge at 9.25 a.m., and not an instant before. Boyle station, a grey and blowy summer’s day. He counts each step as he climbs, the ancient rusted girders of the bridge clamped secure with enormous bolts, and the way the roll of his step is a fast plimsoll shuffle as he crosses – the stride is determined, the arms are swinging – and he counts off the twenty-three steps that descend again to the far-side platform. The clanky bamp of the last metal step gives way to a softer footfall on the platform’s smooth aged stone, and the surge of the Dublin–Sligo train comes distantly, but now closer, and now at a great building roar along the track – the satisfaction of timing it just right – and the train’s hot breeze unsettles his hair. The train eases to a halt, and his hair fixes; the doors beep three times and airily hiss open: an expectant gasp. He takes his usual place in carriage A. There is no question of a ticket being needed but the inspector sticks his head into the carriage anyway to bid a good morning.
‘That’s not a bad-looking day at all,’ Donie says.
It is his joke to say this in all weathers. He said it throughout the great freeze of Christmas and the year’s turn, he said it during the floods of November ’09. Now a roar comes out of the north, also, and the Sligo–Dublin train pulls in alongside, and its noise deflates, with the passengers boredly staring – it is at Boyle station always that the trains keep company, for a few minutes, and for Donie this is a matter of pride. Boyle is a town happily fated, he believes, a place where things of interest will tend to happen.
The beeps and the hissing, the carriages are sealed, and the Dublin train heads off for Connolly station, but Donie’s train does not yet move. The schedule declares his train will leave for Sligo at 9.33 a.m. and he becomes anxious now as he watches the seconds tick by on his Casio watch.
And when the seconds ascend into the fifties, his breath starts to come in hard panicked stabs of anxiety, and he speaks.
‘We’d want to be making a move here, lads,’ he says.
It is a painful twenty-eight seconds into 9.34 a.m. when the train drags up its great power from within, and the doors close again and the departure is made.
Why, Donie demands, when the train has had a full eight minutes to wait on the platform, can it not leave precisely at the appointed time of its schedule?
‘There is no call for it,’ he says.
And it is not as if his watch is out–no fear–for he checks it each morning against the speaking clock. The speaking clock is a state-run service; it surely cannot be wrong. If it was, the whole system would be thrown out.
The train climbs to the high ground outside Boyle. He rides the ascent into the Curlew mountains, and he whistles past the graveyard. The judder and surge of the engine is its usual excitement and he tries to forget the anxiety of Boyle station, but it recedes slowly as tide. Now the broken-down stone walls of the old rising fields. Now the mournful cows still wet from the dew and night’s drizzle. Now the greenish tone of the galvanised tin roof on the lost shack. The spits of rain against the window, and the high looming of the Bricklieves on a mid-distant rise, north-westerly, a smooth-cut limestone plateau.
He was allowed to make the journey first on the morning of his sixteenth birthday. This is now the twentieth year of his riding the Boyle–Sligo leg, all the working days of the week, all the weeks of the year. It is Donie’s belief that if he is not on the 9.33 train, the 9.33 will not run, and who is there to say otherwise?
And distantly, now, the iridescence of the lakes, a vapourish glow rising beyond the hills, and the father is dead of the knees. The father was a great walker and he walked five miles daily a loop of the Lough Key forest park, among the ferns and the ancient oaks, across the fairy bridge and back again. Then the knees went on the father – the two simultaneously – and he could walk no more.
‘Oh I have a predicament now,’ he would say from the armchair, looking out at Boyle; the slow afternoons.
The weight piled up on the father quickly. He turned into a churn of butter on the armchair. He took a heart attack inside the year.
‘My father,’ Donie tells people, ‘died of a predicament of the knees.’
The high land of the south county. The approach to Ballymote. He names the fields for the elder, the yellow iris (the flags), the dog rose. Past the hill of Keash – a marker – and it is 9.45 a.m. on the nose, the lost seconds have been regained; the breath runs easily the length of Donie again. High above the treetops the tower of the castle of Ballymote appears, it is worried this morning by rooks, the rooks blown about on the fresh summer breezes; the rooks are at their play up there. Two elderly ladies wait on the Ballymote platform and Donie knows they are for the Sligo hospital – he can see the sickness in them; they are gaunt and drawn from its creeping spread.
He rides the descent to Collooney. He wills it along the track. Collooney is the last stop before Sligo and as always an encumbrance – he is anxious again; he wants this stop done with; the train must hit Sligo town on the clock. If the time is out, he will know it is out, and it will be an aggravation. Collooney brings on three passengers and he cannot help but mutter at them as they move along the aisle.
‘Ye’d be as quick to get the bus, lads,’ he says.
Sea’s hint on the air, and the surge of the motorway beside, and it is the gulls that are flung about now on the breeze, and the back gardens of the terrace houses are a peripheral blur – unpainted fences, the coiled green of hoses, breezeblock – and his eyes water they are focused so hard on the seconds of the Casio watch . . .
. . . and he knows it is all to the good now, as the train eases into the station, as its surge diminishes, and dies.
10.09.15 – the arrival has been made within the named minute of the schedule, and there is a lightness to Donie’s step as he walks out through the station; the stride is jaunty, the arms again swinging.
It is time to head down to the Garavogue river and have a check on the ducks.
Where the river breaches before the bridge, the current is quick and vicious. Often here, in summer, a mallard fledgling is swept away from its brood, and more than once Donie has climbed down the stone steps – one careful plimsoll at a time to gauge each step for slickness – and he has made it with great trepidation across the rocks where the water diverges, and more than one family he has remade, the tiny damp fowl held carefully in his hands. On a morning two years ago, schoolgirls applauded as Donie went about his work. The delicate thrum of life fluttered within his cupped palms.
This morning, all seems to be flowing well enough, but he keeps an eye on things, duck-wise, for the full half-hour anyway.
Now the satchel.
Donie has taught himself to ignore the presence of the satchel on his back until quarter to eleven precisely. If he does not, the sandwiches and the biscuits will not survive even the train journey. He sits on a bench further along the riverside than his usual bench but it is not a major annoyance. Often enough, the usual bench is taken, especially on a summer morning, and he is resigned to the fact. It just means that this will not be a 100 per cent day, a day when everything falls into place just as it should. A sadness but a mild one.
From the satchel he takes first the larger of the foil packages and carefully unpicks the ends of the foil and releases the warm smell of the bread. Two sandwiches, halved, of white bread, ham, spread, and nothing else. When it comes to sandwiches, Donie is straight down the line. No messing.
Would ye go ’way with yere coleslaw, he thinks, and cheerfully he lifts the first plain bite to his mouth.
The sandwiches are washed down with the bottle of orange. The orange is followed by the four biscuits wrapped also in foil. For a while, the biscuits would vary – if only for variety’s sake, was the mother’s reasoning – but the variance threw Donie out. It became an agitation to him that he did not know whether it would be fig rolls or Hobnobs he was getting. He could guess accurately enough by shape but there’d come a morning of round biscuits and who was to tell a Chocolate Goldgrain from a Polo? It was a dead loss, and it is specified now that it is Chocolate Goldgrain he will unwrap.
He has just finished the last of the biscuits when someone sits down beside. Donie needn’t look up to know that eyes are on him – the heat of a stare burns like nettle sting across every inch of his flesh.
‘How’re we?’ the man says.
Donie raises his glance now and finds a man wearing a thin, half-grown beard, and he is pale-eyed, and yellowish of the flesh.
‘What’s it they call you?’ the man says.
‘Ah yeah. Is it short for Domhnaill?’
‘The Irish spelling?’
‘That’s right. D.O.M.H . . .’
‘Good . . .’
‘Very good. Give the boy a biscuit.’
‘I ate my last biscuit.’
‘It’s an expression, you poor dumb cunt.’
Donie knows that he must rise and go but the man reaches across and lays a steel-cold hand on his. Clamps it to the bench.
‘Stop that,’ Donie says.
The man giggles.
‘I’d say the best part of Donie dribbled down the father’s leg, did it?’
The thin hard bones of the hand, the yellow of the skin… there is something the man brings to mind but Donie cannot place it specifically. He knows that there is the sensation of an animal.
‘I’ve to go now,’ Donie says.
‘If you get up I’ll kick the ankles out from under you.’
‘Don’t do that!’
Donie’s voice quakes and the words are tiny and lost almost to the roar of the river.
Donie looks at the man’s hand locked on his and the yellow of the spots on the back of the man’s hand and it comes to him, the word comes from the colouring: hyena.
‘You’re like a hyena,’ he says.
The man whistles a laugh down his nose. Another comes in quick succession. He shakes with thin hilarity. He continues to lock Donie’s hand to the bench but now moves his thumb slowly and sensuously along the back of the hand.
‘And what would a hyena do to you, Donie?’
‘Will you leave me go now?’
‘What would he do? A hyena?’
‘I have to go home to my mother. I have the twelve o’clock train to get.’
‘Would it have a feed off your corpse, would you say?’
‘I get the twelve o’clock to Boyle station. It gets in 12.33 p.m.’
‘Take tiny little bites, would it?’
The man grinds and bites with his teeth rapidly – he gnashes, and he aims a sharp smile at Donie.
‘Will we go for a walk so?’ he says.
Donie with all the force he can muster wrenches his hand free and rises from the bench to go. The man is up as quickly, and as he walks beside Donie, he places a hand softly on his lower back, and he whispers super-fast the bad words now.
‘Do you know what I’ll do to you when I see you down here again…’ is how it begins but the rest is lost to the high-vaulted pitch of Donie’s screech. The screech is held as a shield against the words. But the man just gently shushes.
‘Easy now, honey-child,’ he says.
The man stops suddenly, and Donie feels the hand lift from his back, and he feels the dread of the pause, and now there is a piston jerk of force from opened palm to small of back, and the man sticks a leg out to trip Donie as he flails forward, and he is sprawled on the pathway by the riverside and there are people all about, but nobody comes forward to help. Donie knows they think it’s just mad fellas fighting.
He is on the ground and the man is for a moment above him, is blocking out the sky, and he leans down close.
‘Hyena,’ he says, and walks away.
All is thrown out for Donie now as he goes through the tight streets of Sligo town. He does not stop today to look at the equipment in the mountaineering shop, and usually that is a fifteen-minute dream for Donie, a dream of crampons and frost-in-the-beard and great snowy peaks. He does not today say hello to the wood carver. He does not count the paving slabs through the arcade shortcut.
An hour is lost to trembles on the platform. And he is sat on the twelve o’clock train now but he misses its departure utterly as the eyes of the hyena burn into him. He misses Collooney and the climb to Ballymote. He has no joke for the inspector. The high land of the south county; hyena. The lost shack, and he does not today fantasise the happy family that once lived there. Boyle station; hyena.
‘What’s up with you, Donie?’
A kind man notes the distress and says the words on Elphin Road in the town of Boyle but Donie does not stop to talk to him. He does not go to Supervalu for the bag of six donuts. He goes straight back to the terrace.
The sun has come out. It is a pure white screech of sun. He hurries along the row of houses as familiar as the mouth- feel of his own teeth and he must squint into the sun, into the light, and the feeling does not break and it will not ease – hyena – until the door of the house opens for him, and it does so, and she steps outside, the moment timed to his arrival, her silhouette against the glare of the sun, mother-shaped.
From DARK LIES THE ISLAND. Used with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Copyright © 2012 by Kevin Barry.