March 1 to March 31
"Cowshed" a short story by
I first became familiar with the work of Robert Higgins when I read two of his short stories in the anthology "Abandoned Darlings". I really liked both of his stories (you can read my post on them here) and was very happy when he agreed to participate in a Q and S Session for ISSM3. (You can read his very interesting carefully thought out answers here.) Today I am very proud that Robert Higgins has allowed me to publish one of his short stories.
One frosty November morning, Tom Creegan lay beneath his white linen bed sheets with reels of the past running through his mind. He was brought back to the present, as he was every morning, when his clock struck the hour and let out its familiar pitch. He opened his eyes and winced at the cold winter that greeted him from his windowsill. He was tired and would have happily have sat with his thoughts for another few hours, but there was work to be done, animals to be fed and he knew well there was no one else who was likely to do it. He pulled the covers back and slowly rose. He left his sheets as they were. Tom didn’t believe in making beds. He felt that making beds was only for presentation. It had been twenty years since someone had been in his bedroom. In the kitchen, he cracked a few eggs into the pan and sat listening to Shannon Side on the radio as the old kettle whistled in the background.
Outside, the sun still hadn’t risen and a thin layer of frost that covered the land. Shivering slightly, he set about the jobs that had become second nature to him. He had started these rituals a young man, full of enterprise and hope, and had undertaken the tasks with vigour and enthusiasm. But he was old now. His back ached since his fall and it took him twice as long to do everything. He was ready for sleep.
In the afternoon, when he’d finished most of the day’s work, he strolled up the familiar lane that wound its way through the five acres that his father had left him. When he reached the iron gate at the entrance he turned around to survey his land. It still looked beautiful, even if the farm wasn’t what it used to be. He thought back to the day they had moved there, not long after his father’s funeral. How excited he and Maura had been and how they had gotten drunk on whiskey that night and chased each other around the house and made love. It was hard to imagine that it had been forty years ago. He stood there for a long while, lost in thoughts of the past and what he wished the past could have been, ignoring the cold that was biting at his cheeks.
There was plenty more to be done around the farm, there always was, but Tom decided that he would walk into town for a pint in Daly’s. It was three kilometres into town but he decided to walk it so that he could take in the frozen scenery one more time.
Daly’s was located right in the middle of town, but despite this, it was always empty except for the three or four regulars who ensured that it didn’t close down. Tom was often found sitting on one of their high stools in the early evenings. When he walked through the door, Tom was greeted by Gerry McGovern. Gerry was a mean man when drunk and still not the best sort when he was sober. Tom found him somewhere in between. He had been up until this point drinking on his own.
“Tom, how are things?” he asked, sipping his pint of Smithwicks.
“Not too bad now, Gerry. Yourself?”
“Ah, sure can’t complain now.”
Gerry’s appearance seemed to hint at the contrary. His face was blotched and red from years of drink. The barman was a nineteen-year-old boy named Pat, the son of the owner, and Tom ordered a pint of Guinness along with a short of Jameson. He watched the young man slowly pull a fine pint. This surprised Tom as he was very particular about his Guinness. He talked with Gerry for a while about the minors’ chances in the championship and the local mechanic Frank O’Brien who had been being unfaithful to his wife.
“In fairness to him, I’d do the same. She was a fine bit of stuff so she was,” Gerry said chuckling to himself. Tom only smiled back politely.
“Those were the good old days, eh Tom? Out chancing any woman that would have ya.”
After another pint, Tom announced that he had to go. Gerry was adamant that he would stay and even offered to buy him a pint but Tom assured him that he had work that needed to be done and that he would be back in later that evening. He could sense the menace rising in Gerry and knew there would be trouble soon. He pulled on his coat and his hat, tipped down the end of his pint and left fully believing that he had just finished his final drink in Daly’s.
The sky was grey and dreary when Tom got outside even though it was only 5 PM. He was feeling almost peaceful at this point. It was always nice talking to people. It had been a pleasant day, a good note to leave things on he thought.
When he arrived home, he wasted little time. He had made up his mind and at this stage just wanted to get it over with. He went into the house and gathered everything that he needed: the length of rope and the stool that he sat on every morning while eating his breakfast and every evening when taking his tea. He walked straight to the cowshed, towards the back, ignoring the loud moos of the cows. He was prepared and had tested which bar would be able to hold his weight. He made a knot quickly, his breathing growing faster, not wanting to lose his nerve. He threw the rope over the bar and tightened it, making sure it would hold. It would. This was it. He looked around suddenly in a moment of strange awareness. He was actually going through with it. He had not written a note as he felt there was no one he needed to address directly. They would understand he felt. He was ready; there was nothing to hold him back now. He stepped on the stool nervously, shaking, unsure of what he was about to do. He let the noose around his neck and felt the rough rope against his skin.
“Don’t do it!” a voice shouted.
The shock of hearing these words nearly caused Tom to fall from the stool but he just about managed to keep his balance.
“Who’s there? Who said that?” he shouted, his voice echoing through the shed. There was no reply. Tom stepped down from the stool.
“Show yourself!” he shouted again, his voice trembling slightly. There was still no reply. He picked up a nearby shovel and held it over his shoulder in a manner that would allow him to defend himself. His mind was temporarily distracted from what he had been doing and was now focused on the defence of his homestead.
“Come out now or I’ll take your head off!” he said, refusing to allow his voice to betray any sound of fear.
Tom heard some rustling and realised the intruder was going to reveal himself. He kept the shovel cocked in defence.
“Please don’t hurt me,” said the voice and it became clear to Tom that the voice belonged to a child. The boy, who could not have been older than twelve years old made his way out into clear view from behind the wall, both hands held above his head.
“What are you doing on my land?” Tom barked, feeling an unusual mixture of relief and annoyance.
“I’m sorry,” the boy offered in the tone of a scolded schoolboy. Tom stared at him. He seemed familiar, one of the boys from town he reckoned.
“That’s not answering my question. What are you doing on my land?” Tom asked again. The boy was clearly scared but Tom, still embarrassed from the situation the boy had found him in, was not inclined to show mercy.
“Well, go on spit it out,” he said again. The boy looked down at the ground and began to cry quietly, hurriedly trying to wipe the tears away before they could even form.
“I’ve run away from home. I was only gonna stay in the shed for one night. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any harm.”
The tears were streaming down his cheeks now and Tom found sympathy replacing the anger that had gripped him. He noticed that the boy was wearing only a tracksuit and surely must be freezing in the conditions.
“There’s no need to cry now, I was just shocked is all,” Tom said gruffly. The two of them stood there a moment looking at the ground, vaguely embarrassed, the sound of the boy’s sniffles the only thing punctuating the silence. Eventually Tom broke it.
“You must be frozen. Do you want to come in for some tea?”
In the warmth of the house as evening crept in, Tom fried some bacon in a sizzling pan while the boy sat at the table trying not to look around too much.
“So what is your name if you don’t mind me asking?” said Tom as he placed a mug of tea on the table in front of the boy.
“Liam,” the boy answered gulping from his mug. Tom nodded slowly in familiarity but did not turn from the cooker.
“What’s your name?” he asked chirpily. He had been put at ease by Tom’s invitation into his home and was now unrecognisable from the boy who had been weeping in the shed minutes earlier.
“Tom is my name,” he replied as he carried the plate of bacon over and laid it in the middle of the table. Liam wasted little time and had already buttered two slices of bread anticipating the meat.
“You’re hungry anyway,” Tom observed and Liam nodded between bites of his sandwich.
“I haven’t eaten since I ran away this morning.”
Tom made the tea and let it to brew for a minute.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Tom began, “did you really plan on sleeping in that shed in this weather?”
Liam seemed nonplussed.
“Yeah, well I thought I’d just pull some hay over me and I’d be grand.”
Tom couldn’t help but smile at his innocence.
“And where do you plan on going after that, you picked a bad month for running away, that’s for sure.”
“Sure wherever the road takes me. I might try get over to England.”
“Do you have money for the ferry?”
“I’m sure I’ll find some way or other,” he said without a hint of irony. “Is it only you that lives here?” he asked, still chewing.
“Yes just me.”
“Do you not have any children or a wife or anything?”
“No, no children. I was married but she passed away.”
Liam simply nodded as if they were discussing something as trivial as football scores, offering Tom none of the reverence he was usually afforded when people heard of his deceased wife. Tom was glad of it in a way.
“So what is it that has you wanting to go all the way over to England?” Tom inquired.
“I did something awful.”
“Are you sure it’s as bad as you think it is? When you’re young a lot of things you think will be the end of the world turn out to be nothing, you know?”
“No, I’m sure what I did was awful, it’s so awful they’ll put me in prison if they catch me.”
“Surely not, you don’t seem to be the criminal type.”
“I didn’t think I was but I surprised myself.”
“Well, tell me. What is this awful thing that you’ve done?” Tom asked and Liam looked back at him as if he was working out in his head whether to trust Tom. He finally spoke.
“I killed my father.”
Tom stared at him in disbelief.
“I told you it was awful.”
“Why did you kill your father?”
“It was an accident. I didn’t mean to kill him; I only meant to shoot him.”
Tom went silent for a moment, his breath taken from him.
“You’re going to turn me in now aren’t you?”
Tom stared at this boy who claimed to be a murderer.
“You won’t? Really?”
“Well it depends, why did you shoot him?”
“Well, he’s always drunk and when he’s drunk he hits me. Look what he did to me last night,” he said, pulling up the sleeve of his tracksuit to expose a deep purple bruise on his bicep. “So this morning when he woke up I took the gun that he keeps in the wardrobe and I pointed it at him while he was lying in bed and told him that if he didn’t stop drinking that I was going to shoot him.”
“And he refused?”
“Well he didn’t refuse, he just came charging at me cursing and then I shot him.”
“And this all happened this morning?”
“And you’re sure he’s dead?”
Liam’s voice was shaky. He couldn’t believe that this old man could be so calm when he had just confessed to a murder. The two sat in an uncomfortable silence for a few moments until Liam couldn’t take it anymore.
“Why aren’t you calling the guards on me?” he asked desperately.
“Well, it seems you had reason.”
“Do you want me to leave?”
“No, no you can stay until the morning. Can’t have you sleeping out in that frost. You can stay in the spare bed. Come now and I’ll show you where it is.”
Tom stood up and Liam followed behind, confused by this stranger’s charity. They went up the creaky old stairs. Liam recognised the damp musty smell familiar to him from his visits to his Grandfather’s house. When they came to the top of the stairs there hung a framed picture of a smiling woman in her forties, pretty with brown hair.
“Is that your Mother?” Liam asked pointing at the picture.
Liam paused a moment and looked at the picture.
“How did she die?” he asked quietly.
“Well, she got sick is what it was.” Tom said shortly.
Liam nodded and said simply, “She looks like she was nice.” Tom couldn’t help but smile. They continued down the hall to the spare room.
“It’s not much but it’s better than the shed anyway. I can get you a hot water bottle if you’d like?” Tom offered.
“No I’m fine.”
“Well, goodnight then.”
Tom closed the door gently and the last beams of light disappeared from the room. He walked slowly into the silence of his own bedroom. He caught sight of his reflection in the mirror and paused for a moment. He picked up the telephone and dialled.
When Tom opened his eyes the next morning he was surprised to see Liam sitting on the end of his bed. He nearly jumped in shock.
“Sorry it’s just me,” Liam said quietly.
“Liam, what are you doing in here?” Tom asked rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Tom but I have a confession to make. I lied about something yesterday and I feel bad after you being so nice and all,” he began. Tom sat up to hear what the boy had to say.
“I didn’t really kill my father.”
Tom looked at him sympathetically, aware of the guilt the boy must have felt.
“I know. It’s okay Liam. I knew all along,”
Liam stared at him in disbelief.
“How did you know?”
“You’re Gerry McGovern’s son, aren’t you?”
“Well, I saw him drinking in Daly’s yesterday afternoon so, unless someone had brought him back from the dead, I reckoned you were making it up.”
Liam shook his head slowly.
“But how did you know who I was?” he asked, still confused.
“It’s only a small town, Liam. I’ve heard your father talk about you before. I want to ask you a question though. Why would you lie about killing your father?”
Liam stared at the ground as if hoping that an answer might materialise there.
“Because sometimes that’s what I feel like doing ...” was all that he could offer.
“I also have a confession to make, Liam. I did call the guards after all last night but it wasn’t on you. It was on your father.”
“What will they do to him?” Liam asked quickly.
“They’ll try to make sure that he doesn’t hurt you again.”
Liam frowned before saying, “Good.”
“Come on downstairs now and we’ll get some breakfast and then I’ll drop you home to your Mam.”
The drive into town was very slow as there was thick ice still on the road. Any hint of a brake would send the jeep skidding. Tom hated driving in this weather. Liam stared straight ahead for most of the drive; he had been a bit shaken by all that had happened over the last day. Eventually he summoned the nerve to ask the question that had been on his mind.
“Would you have killed yourself if I hadn’t come along yesterday?” he asked cautiously.
Tom took a deep breath. He wasn’t sure how to respond, though he knew the answer. He knew that had it not been for Liam he would have gone through with it. He would have never had the previous day’s experiences, and the small joy helping the boy had brought him.
“We all have our bad days. I had just had too many in a row. But yesterday was a good day and I feel much better now.”
“You won’t go trying it again as soon as you leave me home will you?”
“No, I won’t, I promise,” Tom said smiling weakly. “Do you mind if we keep this between us though? I don’t want people worrying.”
“I promise,” Liam said, nodding.
Soon they were outside Liam’s mother’s house and the time had come to say goodbye.
“Thanks for the place to stay, Tom.”
“Thank you too, Liam,” Tom said with a smile.
Liam got out of the car and walked up the driveway and into the house.
On the drive home, Tom felt happy, as if he’d made a difference for the first time in years. He drove off into the icy horiizon, slowly, smiling.
End of Guest Post
"Cowshed" is protected under international copyright laws and cannot be published or posted online with out the permission of the author.
Again I offer my great thanks to Robert Higgins for allowing me to post this great story.
You can learn more about his work on his blog.
I hope the day is not to far off when I can post on a collection of the short stories of Robert Higgins. I am confident that if he wants to be back for ISSW4 next year, God Willing, then he will be.