“As you go through life Shane, remember one thing. There’s a price to pay for everything.” The words of Aodhán Madine, my father, once spoken flippantly, now touch a raw nerve. Time has passed and they’re like daggers, sharpened by the whetstone of the crash.
We were happy back then. Through the untarnished eyes of infancy my family’s fortunes seemed promising. Glimpses of things to come were bathed in the deep tones of Dad’s voice, like stars in the ether.
January ‘94 was my fifth birthday. I remember it vividly. Dad had taken my elder brother Joe and I out for a drive. Perched beside him in his clapped out Ford Transit we gazed out at the barren building site. I’ll never forget his smile as he pulled up by the curb. It was one of unadulterated relief, stretching from ear to ear.
“Your Dad’s building twenty houses here. It’ll keep dinner on the table for the next while”, said Dad.
He put the van in gear and pulled away while Joe and I fell back into childish nonchalance, playing ‘I Spy’ as we weaved through the labyrinth of Dublin streets.
Back then the Madine household was lively. We moved after Dad’s building firm took off. ‘A. M. Construction’ was gathering strength. He was never out of that van. Joe and I would ask over the breakfast table, “Where are you building houses today, Da?” He’d reply, “Lucan, boys” or, “Sandymount, lads”. He had signs up all over Dublin with embossed letters that read: “A. M. Construction – Getting the Job Done”. Mammy used to tell us that he was off to build a cage for the Celtic Tiger.
I find it haunting that some of those signs still hang in tatters, nineteen years later.
We arrived home. Heaving me up onto his shoulders, he ran up the driveway and through the open front door, with Joe giving chase. The house was peppered with boxes crammed with our things, like parcelled promises of life to come. We moved through to the kitchen. A horde was gathered around the table.
“There’s Sarah”, said Dad, kissing my mother on the cheek. Granda Michael was there with outstretched arms to receive Joe and I. Dan Harrington, Dad’s business partner, looked on with a smile, as did Mickey Bishop, his best friend. His billowing black moustache gleamed in the half-light. Joe and I were mesmerised by my birthday cake with its five flickering candles standing proud and tall.
Later that evening, briefly stirring from the joy of the celebrations, I ventured back into the kitchen. The adults were gathered around the table in animated conversation. I was hit by a number of sensations: the shadows dancing across their faces; the veracity with which they held one another’s gaze; and most strikingly, the rumbling tone of their voices.
“You’re onto something big, Aodhán”, said Mickey Bishop. My father began to stare wistfully into space. “Jaysus, I could pocket two-hundred thousand punt”, he whispered.
“You’ll have to sign the Lucan deal by Monday and maybe the whole lot”, said Dan. Mammy joined in. “Sure the bank said they’ll approve any loans you’ll need.”
For a fleeting instant I caught Granda’s eye. They were moist with tears as he spoke. “Sign it Aodhán. Give your boys the comforts I could never afford to give you. The Madines deserve a break. It’s our time.”
Mammy turned and saw me. She carried me upstairs and had me ready for bed in an instant.
I loved my room. My bed was in the corner beneath a skylight embedded in the ceiling. The stars glistened in the deep blue azure of night. Sleep enveloped me. My eyes began to flicker as I stared into this hypnotic tapestry. One of my closing thoughts was of how the stars, like majestic sentinels, watched over all the children of Ireland… and I thought of how the phosphorescence of Granda’s tears looked just like those stars. They appeared as one and the same thing, curators of hope and of dreams.
The years wore on. Each cycle of the calendar saw the promise of the last dwarfed by that of the next. Ireland’s destiny became enmeshed with the prosperity of the times, woven into a single fabric that we hoped had no end.
Houses, roads and bridges flashed into existence as the country was enveloped in an economic mirage. Dad’s work went with this rushing tide. During those years the house was in an eternal state of flux. Workmen came and went, trailing a veil of dust in their wake as rhythmically as day and night.
I’d rush home from school in the evenings in anticipation of the surprises and changes awaiting me. Initially they were subtle, like fresh coats of paint on the walls or a new vase for the dining room. In time they became magnified and exuberant, at least in the eyes of my brother and I. One balmy spring evening we rounded the corner of our Avenue and stopped dead in our tracks. Dad was waxing a new BMW. With its opulent, black body and tapered exhaust it rendered Joe aghast. It fuelled my imagination for many weeks. I christened it ‘The Bat Mobile’ there and then. Dad replied, “Good man”, before grinning and patting me on the head.
That evening my thoughts became sinister. Gazing through my skylight the night revealed itself. Dad had scolded me for bursting into his office. He’d been sitting nestled behind his desk with his glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. He scrutinised numbers of impressive length inscribed in a thick ledger. A sole desk lamp provided the only light in the room. Squat piles of money were neatly arranged on the table. He laced the notes back and forth between his fingers as though in a trance. He whispered as he counted with his face held taut in a concentrated grimace.
When he looked up his face went limp. His expression was a rich complex of surprise and hostility. Even as an eight year old boy I could deduce a veneer of embarrassment…even shame. It was barely perceptible but it was there.
“Out now Shane”, said Dad. His voice cut through me like a knife through butter. I turned to leave but hesitated, compelled to be defiant.
Squarely holding his gaze I turned his familiar phrase back on him, “There’s a price to pay for everything, isn’t there?”
He hurdled the desk and raised his hand before I could blink. It stopped short. He became as still as a statue. The colour drained from his cheeks as he spoke. His voice was as cold and piercing as his stare: “I’ve never been able to decide whether you’re incredibly bright or incredibly stupid.”
His pallor returned on a reinvigorated wave of rage. The crisp notes were bunched between his fingers as he yelled, “Out!” I burst into tears. He took me in his arms. I remember him whispering to me as he carried me from the office, “I’m just tired. I didn’t mean it Shane…did I?”
His animated voice later drifted up the stairs. Mammy reproached him for losing his cool. I heard the rustle of leather as he settled in his chair. He sighed and spoke. “Look at that money on the table Sarah. It doesn’t look right, like it shouldn’t be there. More and more keeps coming in…but sure, everybody’s at it. I often question whether that makes it right. Then I remember how I’ve broken my back since 1988…for you, for the boys. Shane was right. Everything has its price.”
He fell quiet. Mammy broke the silence, “Aodhán, he’s only a child…” Dad cut in. “I hope he learns one thing. In this day and age ask no questions. You go forward or you fail.”
As I rolled over in bed I willed sleep to come. You go forward or you fail. His words seemed defamatory back then. Jesus, if he knew what was coming…
Joe and I were always close. We loved cars. Joe would idle away the weekends staring vacantly at Dad’s BMW. With his legs tucked under him he’d crawl beneath its aggressive bulk, combing every inch of its garrulous opulence. Dad used to humour him and say, “She’s worth every one of the thirty thousand invested in her, Joe.”
Whenever he mentioned money I’d lose interest, as though by linking the car to reality its magic was dispersed. At this juncture I’d jump on my bike and cycle around town, often passing through one of Dad’s building sites as the lifeless shells of innumerable houses merged and blurred. With my heart booming I’d return and collapse on the front lawn, taking pride in my exertion. I never touched the brakes. One afternoon Dad forced a helmet on me. “There’s a price to pay for everything”, he said knowingly, staring me down.
High on the elixir of risk, I didn’t care. In my head I was Michael Schumacher and he never lost… just like Dad.
Come back next week for the conclusion of Raw Words. If you are interested in submitting your own short fiction to Felix, don’t hesitate to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org .