Here comes Useless John, skulking up the road. Every evening: twenty minutes past seven. You could set your clock by his leaving.
Past this house he'll go, another three miles to the pub in Rathmeelin instead for his nightly imbibement. Five bottles of stout and a couple of whiskies. More, if somebody else is doing the buying.
And here comes young Cissie Cummins running up to have a go at him. "Hey, Useless!" she shouts up after his wake. "You're useless!"
She keeps a safe distance, mind, in case he might turn and give her some of his talk about Coolanagh.
Coolanagh. The word alone is enough to frighten Cissie out of her brazenness. I can hardly bring the ink out to name myself. "Do Norah, says Peg. "Do write it." All the words. Get them all down onto paper, like before."
It was good, right enough, when I used to do that, but I got afraid of where my mind went when let on the loose.
No need for fear, Peg tells me. Just write it, the best and the worst of it, only for myself. It's what she does and it always helps her.
Coolanagh that night, December '23, near two years ago now. The time of the Big Fog. None of us had ever seen the like of it, the way it clung, shrouding the sky and the water, pressing thick and white on the windows. People were shadows moving about and everyone's talk was on it. Where had it come from? Would it never pass off? And what were we to do about the herring?
The shoals, long awaited, were in. A bay full of fish but every boatman grounded.
Six dull days of it, morning, noon and night until, the seventh, when it shifted. The air started to stir and hopeful men got up and sat by their windows, watching it peel back and the sea come towards us, inch by slow inch.
When John Colfer saw the island emerge, like a big battleship creeping, he knew it was over. He left his house, went down to the hut and took out his craft. Dragged it through the sand and shingle into the water, then clambered in, trousers wet to the knee. Off he set, slicing through the sea and the patches of mist, small fallen clouds, that floated on it still. Just as he was about to pull right of Coolanagh Island, to steer his way out into the bay, one of those billows shifted, revealing a shape on the flat sands close by.
Colfer stared. Shreds of mist teased his eyes, made him question himself: Was it...? It couldn't be...? Even as he was asking, he knew. By the hammering of his heart, he knew. He steered his boat across, as close as he could go without danger. Yes, it was a person, jutting up out of the sands like a bust of himself. Face bulging blue and smeared with sand, but unmistakeable. Dan O'Donovan. My brother.
It was his eyes that were the worst of it, Colfer always said, when launching his tale from his high stool in Ryan's. Wide open, apparently. Crusted with a grainy glaze of sand. "One look at them eyes and I knew I was dealing with a corpse," he'd say. "No living person could stand it."
Shameless, not Useless, is what John Colfer should be called, for that is what he is, flourishing my brother's death about in exchange for drink. But for all his bar-stool blather, he has at least held his tongue on the question everyone was always asking: what was Dan O'Donovan doing out on Coolanagh sands that night, in that fog? Colfer's reply is the same to this day: three heavy-fingered taps to the side of his nose.
They know what he thinks all the same, with him not setting foot here in Parle's since the day it happened. In the main it's admired, this reluctance of his to put words on his thought. "Not so useless in that department, thank God," Peg says.
Even the curious have to admit Mucknamore has had enough talk. Wasn't it talk that unhinged the country, talk like "betrayal" and "honour" and "loyalty" and "principles"? Wasn't it talk that turned our young men's guns on each other? If another young man was dead, where was the use in asking why? Wouldn't an answer only lead to another question? Wasn't the country riddled with why?
Cruel it was, all the same, to see what John Colfer's queer mix of story and silence did to him, how the gap between what he said and what he could have said grew so wide that he fell right into it. His only pleasure is turning on the children who jeer him, frightening them with stories about Coolanagh, about the voices of the dead that can be heard calling from there on a quiet night, when the wind blows a certain way. He's never married and now he hardly will. The bit of a farm his mother left him lies neglected. His boat rots in the hut from lack of use, while he walks the village drunk or fixed on drink.
Finding Dan the way he did, knowing what he knew, not being able to do anything with the knowledge: that's what turned the man useless.
My brother did that to people.
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