My annual entry for RTE Radio’s Francis MacManus Short Story Competition again came nowhere, so this is the only place the story will ever appear. It is inspired by a man I knew who regarded anyone representing “officialdom” with suspicion and who regarded day centres and nursing homes as “scrapyards.” It may have been a contentious view, but it was one he held with integrity and is one I have encountered among many older men.
It was time to go back to the house. He picked up his stick and rose unsteadily to his feet; the arthritis registering its presence. His seat had been an old plough. Now wrapped by weeds, it was long years since the blade had cut furrows through a field. It was not the most comfortable of places to sit, but it took the weight off legs no longer as strong as they were, and provided a fine view of the valley. If it wasn’t raining, he would come here each afternoon. Even on January days, there were things to be seen, the usual work of farms in winter, the comings and the goings, the first signs of spring as snowdrops made their initial, tentative appearances. Once, he had asked the price of a wooden bench displayed outside a hardware store, thinking it might be a fine piece of furniture from which to watch; he had decided that a week’s pension was too much to be paying for something that would need painting every year.
He pulled his coat around him and contemplated the plough. When had it been bought? In his father’s time? Certainly. It had become like himself: old, obsolete, worn out, being gradually absorbed into the earth around. When he went, a cousin’s son would inherit, a man without the slightest sense of sentimentality concerning his own heritage and with no love for the place: the plough would go, along with all that had once made these buildings a farm. Perhaps some vintage farming enthusiast would look kindly upon the plough and take it and restore it, repair the broken parts and repaint it in its original colour, bring it to gatherings of the countryside past. More likely, it would just be scrapped. Wasn’t that the way of all things, just to end up as scrap? Wasn’t that what they did with people now, send them to scrapyards where they sat around the walls looking at each other?
The bit of lane from the yard to the house was no more than fifty yards. Once he would have covered it in brief strides, now he might stop for a breather halfway. Sure, what was the hurry anyway? There was no-one waiting for him, whether he took two minutes or two hours made no difference.
His breath was short that day, he’d had a cold on the chest that had been a long time in going and he stopped at the gateway into the pasture at the back of the house. He could never stand at this spot without a moment’s sadness. It was here that Rosie had stood and told him that her family were going to Australia. It was sixty years now, since they had left their farm for a new life. Rosie sent a Christmas card each year with pictures of her fine family and grandchildren in Sydney. Rosie was to be the only girl he would ever love. He was fourteen on his next birthday, there was no question of staying at school; his father needed him on the farm. The farm became his life; there were trips to the mart and the annual outing to the show and, of course, church on a Sunday, but there would never be another girl.
He wished he hadn’t stopped; it didn’t do to be going over that old stuff. Sometimes he would wake in the night and things from years ago would go around and around in his head, and he would get upset and it was pointless, because there was nothing he could do to change any of it. It had been like that since he was ten and his mother had died, his father had called one day at the school to say there had been an accident. After the funeral, they never spoke about it again. “Talk doesn’t change things”, his father had said. They had gone to the grave on her anniversary for a few years, but that stopped and silence took over. Raking over the past brought only unhappiness.
He pushed open the house door. It opened direct into the kitchen. Even he would have admitted the place could have done with a bit of tidying; a clean-up and a lick of paint would not go amiss, but who was there to look at it but himself, anyway? Perhaps he would put a match to the fire this evening. He didn’t like to be burning turf unnecessarily, but these August nights could be cool enough; you would notice now that the nights were drawing in.
Walking to the sink, he filled a kettle with water and pressed the switch. The kettle had been a gift from the cousin’s son’s wife, a city girl who had visited with her husband one day; had said how quaint the place was and what history there must be in the farm. She had seemed worried about him boiling a kettle on the fire and a week later had been passing while going somewhere and had left in the new kettle. He had to admit that the electric kettle was much easier, and much faster. He had hardly poured the water on the tea when there was the sound of a car. It was nearly five o’clock; no-one whom he would want to see would be calling at that time. It would be another two hours before Jimmy, his neighbour, knocked the door on his way home from evening milking. He took his mug and sat in his chair. If he ignored the person, they would go away.
There was a knock at the front door and, half a minute later, another knock. A woman’s voice called out, “Hello, hello. Is there anyone here?” The door had not been opened in years; there was no danger of her coming through. He sat perfectly still and perfectly quiet. The caller would leave, they always did.
Five minutes must have passed. He had not heard a car engine but thought, by now, it must have gone. If the fire was going to be lit this evening, more turf would be needed to get through to bedtime. He picked up an old tin bucket and went to the back door.
Hardly had he set a foot in the yard when the voice called out. “Ah, Mr Hearn, hello!” A woman came walking towards him. “I knocked the door, but there was no answer. I thought you must be out the back here. I’m Oonagh Murphy. I’m from the Social Work Department. Here is my identity card”.
He took the plastic card from her. His glasses were in the house and he struggled with the small print. He searched for words. What did this woman want? What was in the thin black case she carried? He was worried. He had stopped taking land when the arthritis had got bad and had set the few acres he owned himself, had she come to tell him they were cutting his pension because he had got a bit extra in the rent for his land last year?
On a Saturday evening after Mass, he would call in to Kelly’s for a glass. The stories there about the government cuts were plentiful. He had been told he would have a water meter attached to the well in the yard because the government owned everything more than six inches below the surface. Michael Kelly had said if that was the case, people should be careful about not planting spuds too deep. Everyone had laughed. All the same, it was worrying; it did not do to be annoying people from the government.
“Mr Hearn, can I come in?” He was still thinking he needed to be careful when she walked by him into the house. Looking around, she picked up a kitchen chair and set it opposite his armchair at the fireside. “Mr Hearn, why don’t you come and sit down?” Still unsure of what to say, he sunk heavily into the chair. This woman was bringing him bad news; perhaps it was his phone that they would take from him.
“Have you lived here long, Mr Hearn?”
“All my life”.
“You must find it a lonely place. What are you, three miles out of the town? You must miss having company? What do you do in the evenings? Watch television? Listen to the radio?”
“I have neither. My neighbour Jimmy calls of an evening and we have a cup of tea and sit at the fire”.
“That’s good, that’s good. We like to encourage people to be neighbourly”.
“Now, I want to show you a brochure I have with me”. She took a booklet from the thin black case and handed it to him. He had seen this sort of thing before.
“We have funding for a new centre in the town. It will offer a whole range of services to older members of the community. There will be arts and crafts activities and lunch and music and storytelling”. This was not the first time he had heard this. “There will be a full transport service, picking people up at their own doors”.
“Wasn’t there to be one of those things one time before?”
“There was Mr Hearn, you’re right, but with the spending cuts it was all postponed”.
So that was what she wanted. There were always people looking for money. Sign up for this or that. Give us this much a month. Fill in this form. They would have colour booklets and tell you what a difference your money would make.
He kept a careful count of his money. He had enough, but not much to spare. He didn’t want to annoy this woman. He didn’t want to lose his phone or his free electricity; he didn’t want to have to put money in a meter to get his water; but he couldn’t afford the two hundred and fifty a year, or whatever it was, that these people usually wanted.
She had carried on talking about all the things that there would be in the centre – a hairdresser and someone to do your feet and a keep fit class. He waited for her to get to the point.
“Now, Mr Hearn, how would you feel yourself about such a centre?”
He must choose his words carefully; this woman might go back and talk to other government people. “I haven’t enough money to be writing one of those standing order things, but I can give you a donation”.
The woman looked at him strangely. “A donation?”
“Yes”, he said. “I can’t afford to be giving you money every month.”
“Mr Hearn, I’m not looking for money. I have come to offer you a place in the day centre”.
So that was it. That was what she thought of him, she had come here offering him charity.
“Ma’am”, he said, “thank you for calling. I’m sure you mean very well, but I’ll not be going to any such place”.
Of course, she continued for another five minutes, but he had closed his ears to her words. Eventually, she left and silence returned. He must get that turf; there would be a long evening with Jimmy.
Setting the bucket down at the turf shed, he walked back up to his afternoon viewpoint. The cloud of the afternoon had cleared and it was a fine evening. He sat again on the plough. “We’re not for the scrapyard yet”.