At the end of Hilary Term I had nearly a month off ahead of me before classes would resume for Trinity Term right after Easter. My flat-mates would be gone most of that time, so I’d have the place to myself. At first I thought I’d pass the time relaxing, reading crime novels from the paperback exchange shop, going to the movies, taking aimless walks around the city and otherwise being quite lazy.
But after a bit more than a week of that, I grew bored and restless. After another day or so considering the possibilities, I decided to go down to Kerry and spend a little time poking around among small towns and villages. I’d already been to the Ring and the Dingle peninsula a couple of times, but there were parts of the county north of Dingle that I had never seen.
The next morning I packed a small suitcase with clothes and toiletries. I was able to catch a train to Tralee, then took a taxi to Ardfert and landed at a bed-and-breakfast recommended by the driver. My landlord, Mr Turley, was pleasant enough and agreeably uninquisitive. My room was spartan, but clean and perfectly adequate.
Ardfert was a small town, but there was enough to it to make it a good base for my activities, and it was not without its own points of interest. I spent the better part of one afternoon tramping around the ruins of St Brendan’s cathedral and climbed the steep, narrow stone steps to the open top of its tower.
Mr Turley directed me to a garage where I was able to rent a moped on a daily basis for a modest fee (plus petrol). Every day I set out in a different direction – east to Tubrid More, Rathkenny and Tubrid Beg; south to Liscahane and Knocknahaha; west to Sackville and Banna Strand. I found the Kyrie Eleison Abbey in Abbeydorney. I passed through many villages that consisted of little more than a cluster of small houses lining both sides of the main road, perhaps a shop, one pub, and a couple of short side streets that spurred off to dead ends.
The reason I am writing this – all these years, decades later – is to refresh and review my own memory of an incident that occurred in one such nameless village after I’d been in Kerry for five or six days. It’s not at all unusual there to see a home, a private residence, with a sign in the front window: BAR. If the sign was lit up with a bulb or a lamp, the bar was open. You see these in villages too small to support a full-time pub. I’d never visited one, so in the late middle afternoon of that day I decided to do so. One drink, then I’d putter back to Ardfert.
The front door of the house was unlocked and I stepped inside. The hallway straight ahead went to the kitchen, no doubt, and the stairway on the right to the family bedrooms above. There was an index card tacked to the door on my immediate left with the words “Bar Room” hand-penciled on it. As I opened the door, a bell inside clanged a couple of times.
It was of course the front sitting-room of the house. Along one wall was a lumpy old sofa with a narrow rectangular coffee table in front of it. There were two small round tables, one at each end of the large bay window looking out on the street, and a couple of plain wooden chairs by them. The standing bar itself was in the back right corner of the room, with two tall stools in front of it. A hall-full bottle of Jameson sat on the bar with a clean glass next to it. On the wall behind the bar was a long shelf full of various bottles of spirits. There was no tap for Guinness or beer.
I was the only person in the room, but within a few seconds an older gentleman appeared and asked if he could help me. I took another quick look at the bottles on the shelf.
“Powers, please. A double.”
He nodded, poured my drink and also set out a small pitcher of water. I paid him, he nodded again and immediately left the room without another word. I carefully tipped a very small splash of the water into my whiskey and sat down at one of the small tables by the front window. I took another look around the room but there was little to note. The floor carpet was thin and a bit frayed. The beige wallpaper was faded to the point where the design pattern printed on it was nearly invisible. The only two decorations on the walls were a framed photograph of President John Kennedy and another of Pope John XXIII. There were no plants in the room.
Outside, the quiet street. A couple of kids appeared briefly, coming out of one house and scooting off somewhere. An occasional car or small lorry motored down the road. I sipped my drink and felt oddly comfortable by myself in that drab little room. I have never been overburdened with a need to be among other people.
A few minutes later, the bell clanged, the door opened and another man entered the room. He didn’t look around, didn’t even glance in my direction. He went right to the bar and sat on one of the stools. From the brief glimpse I had of his face, he looked to be in his late 30s, maybe early 40s, and his expression seemed to be that of someone who was very agitated or distraught about something.
He immediately took the bottle of Jameson on the bar and poured himself a large measure of it into the glass – a very large measure, I should say. Then he proceeded to drain the glass in just two or three large gulps, which startled me to see. I expected the older fellow who’d served me to come into the room, but he never appeared.
The man at the bar quickly poured another large measure of Jameson and began to drink it, though this time at a somewhat more moderate pace. He was wearing plain cloth trousers with no crease and a lumpy autumnal tweed jacket over a white shirt. When he first came into the room I’d also noticed a red necktie.
From the angle where I was sitting, the man’s back was largely to me, though I could just see some of the right side of his face, depending on his movements. And his head did move a lot as he worked steadily away at his drink. It bobbed tightly one way, then another, sometimes looked down at the floor, then up – as if he were focusing on the corner of the back wall and ceiling.
Then he propped his right elbow on the bar and clutched his forehead in his hand. A sound came from him – a kind of long, low, moaning exhalation. A moment later, he banged his other elbow loudly on the bar and slapped that hand to his head as well. He appeared to be trying to keep his body from shaking, slumping forward and using the bar to help steady himself, but not quite succeeding.
He sat upright again and seemed to be taking large open-mouthed breaths of air. And a few seconds after that, the man gave forth a huge, ghastly cry, an ungodly mix of pain and anger, anguish and despair, and it was the most harrowing, life-negating sound I have ever heard. It was loud, it seemed to fill the room. I knew I should say something to him or even get up and go to him, but I was frozen in silence.
The man abruptly gulped down the rest of his drink, stood up and glanced around the room. He looked right at me, at my face and my eyes, but didn’t seem to register my presence at all. His eyes looked empty to me, eyes that no longer saw anything but the boiling storm within. Then he strode out of the room and was gone. I thought he might have a heart attack. Or kill himself – or someone else.
I lost interest in my trip after that. I returned to Dublin the next day and spent the rest of my trimester break reading James Hadley Chase novels, watching horror movies at the Carlton and, in random moments, wondering about that man, about what I had seen and heard in that room – everything that remains with me to this day. There are no answers because there are no answers, and if you are unlucky enough to realize it, there is no somewhere else.
This story was written for Necon 39 and appeared in the program book.
Copyright 2019 by Thomas Tessier