“Well, which will it be?” he was asking. “Long tea or short tea? Shout now or forever hold your peace.”
Depending on Cathal’s boyish answer Alfie would raise the teapot and pour from a height, letting the rope of golden liquid catch the sunlight that came through the small kitchen window, or he would rest the spout on the rim of the mug making its passage downwards easy. Then Alfie would grin again.
“Or maybe you wanted the top half of the mug filled first?” And he would chuckle at his impossible joke and return the blackened teapot to its resting-place on the hearth.
Cathal remembered many such tea-breaks, time taken off after turnips had been thinned or calves dosed or sticks cut when man and boy had wet their whistles, happy in each other’s company. Cathal, the man, stood in the kitchen – a room full of emptiness now that Alfie Barrett was no longer there to fill it. Alfie’s brother, Michael, had given Cathal the key, calling in to his parents’ cottage across the road after the funeral.
“There’s a few things in a box on the table that you might like to look through,” he said. “I know Alfie always thought a lot of you. Take whatever you want.”
Cathal had thanked Michael for his kindness, startled by the family resemblance as he shook the man’s hand. Alfie was there around the eyes, even tacked into the way the younger brother walked. Yes, he’d go over to the farmhouse before he went back to Dublin, of course he would, and he had struggled to find words to say how much he’d miss the man who had always been his friend, the man he was more indebted to than he had ever realised.
* * * *
It had been a shock – being told the secret the night before. His father had sat him down in the corner of the hotel lounge where Alfie, hospitable to the end, had arranged final refreshments for his friends and neighbours.
“He didn’t want you to know ‘til now because he didn’t want you feeling under compliment,” his father said. “That would have taken the good out of it for him.”
Cathal sat speechless for several minutes, the room full of faces swimming suddenly in front of him. Alfie Barrett had paid for him to go to college…
Every September, according to his father, he had arrived at the door with the bundle of notes in his hand, notes that he had accumulated during the year – a calf sold here, a bullock sold there, Easter lamb money that he could spare. Cathal’s father then drove him into town where they got the bank draft and posted off the fees.
“With a bit of part-time work he should be able to manage,” Alfie used to say. “If he’s short let me know.”
And that’s how it had happened until Cathal got his degree and a job with an evening newspaper.
“He knew you were fond of the books and that you wanted to make something of yourself so he wanted to help out. Your mother and I would have liked to have been able to do it ourselves but you know how it was.”
Yes, Cathal knew how it was. He smiled at his own stupidity. He’d swallowed the ‘rainy day’ money tale hungrily, relief flooding through him that his good Leaving Certificate marks wouldn’t have to gather dust in a job that he was over-capable of. Relieved that he’d taste the challenge of university that none of his family had ever made it to before. Yes, he’d swallowed the story of his parents putting a few pounds by every year for something important.
How could he not have realised that nest eggs, large families and low wages seldom go together? It had been Alfie’s money, every penny of it. Because he’d known he was fond of the books…
* * * *
It was the day they were picking apples in the orchard and storing them in boxes in the sitting-room of Alfie’s house. Cathal was twelve.
The sitting-room hadn’t been used since Alfie’s mother’s time and the lace curtains were now yellowing on the windows and dampness was making the paper part company with the walls. The air was a strange mixture of sweetness and must.
“What’s in those cupboards there?” Cathal asked, pointing to the two small doors that lay either side of the fireplace.
“Books mostly,” Alfie said, turning the now-empty wheelbarrow towards the door. “Have a look there if you want.”
Cathal had taken up Alfie’s invitation eagerly, knowing that Alfie’s house had treasure-trove cubby-holes that his own two-up, two-down home would never boast.
“Yeah, they were my mother’s, or my grandmother’s – they used to read a bit.”
Cathal pulled on the first door, stuck from lack of opening. Eventually it gave and he saw the two rows of books, guarded by an ancient thimble, several dried-out ink bottles and a half-empty jar of ointment that, according to the label, would cure all ills from rheumatism to sties on the eyes. Cathal carefully removed the bottles to get closer to the treasure.
There were books by Charles Dickens, by George Eliot, by someone he’d never heard of called Thomas Hardy. A Tale of Two Cities, Adam Bede, Tess of the d’Urbervilles …
Already he was fingering the pages, trying to get the gist of the story from a few hastily scanned lines.
“These are really good books,” the boy said, bringing them over to the table that the disused oil-lamp still stood on. He was stroking the covers now, some of them mottled with age.
“Have you read them?” he asked Alfie. “You must have when they’re here.”
Alfie had his face buried in his work. “No – I don’t get much time for reading.”
“You like my comics, though, don’t you? You always read them.”
“Comics is different.” Alfie was heading for the door.
“Could I take these home with me and read them – I wouldn’t let anything happen to them, honest. I never let any of the others tear up my books at home.”
“I know you don’t,” Alfie said. “Course you can if they’re any use to you.”
“Thanks. Thanks a lot.”
That was the start of it. Week by week Cathal read his way through Alfie’s store of books, glad of a supplement to what the brown-coated library man brought every few months to school.
* * * *
It was the first day that Cathal took his homework to Alfie’s house. There was no peace for studying at home, not when sisters and brothers short of space cluttered the place with their noise and interruption. He was in third year in secondary school now and it was Alfie who suggested the solution that Saturday in March when they were planting the seed potatoes. He stood in the drill where the potatoes lay like buttons on the brown earth and wiped the sweat from his brow with his cap.
“You could always bring your homework over here,” he said. “There’d be no one to disturb you – that’s if you don’t mind me and the dog. You’d have all the peace you wanted.”
From then on Cathal made his way across the road to Alfie’s farm once the angelus and his supper were over, books and pencil case stuffed into the pockets of his coat. Alfie would be still out fencing or cutting sticks or dozing, maybe, in his chair beside the fire, with the dog on the ground beside him.
Cathal would only lift his head to smile when Alfie’s breathing clattered to a sudden snore or when his friend got up out of the chair about nine o’clock to announce that the fire was now in right order for making toast. Then the fork that was specially kept for the purpose would be removed from its nail on the wall, its long handle extended and great doorstopper slices of Batch bread bought up the road in McCarthy’s shop applied to the prongs.
“Get that into you,” he’d say putting the plate before the boy. “It’ll put hairs on your chest.”
It was when Cathal had his history books with him that Alfie took the most interest. He’d look at pictures of the plane that dropped the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima and marvel at how no one had known the destruction such a little plane had carried. He looked at the picture of De Valera making his radio speech to answer that of Churchill lambasting Ireland for remaining neutral during the Second World War.
“We listened to him here that night in this very kitchen,” he said, his eyes shining at the memory. “You would have heard a pin drop with the attention everyone was paying. He was a great man for putting words together, De Valera..”
Alfie’s birthday was in September. Cathal always marked it in some way. As a younger child he would make a card or whittle something out of a piece of wood or he’d ask his mother to make a tart specially to bring up to Alfie as some sort of celebration but this year he had a different plan. He had earned money helping Alfie out over the summer – bringing in hay, picking wild oats out of the barley, stooking sheaves of corn, a dozen jobs that passed the time and put pennies in his pocket – and he had decided what to do. He’d buy Alfie a book about the war. A big heavy book with a hard cover and lots of talk about De Valera and Churchill and that made fella Hitler and airoplanes that went swoop in the night. And he had found it in Mrs Fitzgerald’s bookshop right next to Old Moore’s Almanac and the History of the World.
On Alfie’s birthday he went over to the house before he got the bus to school and left the book, dressed in its brown paper wrapper, on the window-sill where Alfie would be sure to see it when he sat down to breakfast.
When he asked him later that evening how he liked the book Alfie had thanked him for the present as he hurried off to let the weanlings into the upper yard. His lack of excitement had stung Cathal. He’d put so much thought into it, spent ages picking out the right one.
“There’s some good pictures in it all right,” Alfie said.
“Yes, but what did you think of De Valera’s speech – it quoted him word for word..”
“Grand, grand,” Alfie replied, heading for the gap between the outhouses.
* * * *
It was the day after the census had been taken the following spring. Cathal arrived in the kitchen ready to set the cabbage plants as Alfie finished his dinner of tinned corned beef and spuds.
“Did you fill in the form?” he asked, picking up the big folded sheet that lay on the table waiting for collection. “I filled in ours at home because Da said I’d be good at it.”
“Leave that!” Alfie’s words got lost in the shock of seeing the ‘x’. It squatted there on the line where it said ‘sign here’, above the signature of Father Cleary, the parish priest. Witness. The rest of the writing matched the hand of the priest as well.
“You can’t read or write, can you?”
The words were out before he could stop them. Thinking about it afterwards he wished a thousand times over that he had never picked up the form, that he had never seen the ‘x’, that he could wipe out the sneer of disbelief that had sneaked into his voice as he uttered those words.
If only he had had time to swallow the knowledge, put down the form, change the subject and put no pass on what he’d seen. He’d always remember the look on Alfie’s face.
Alfie got up from the table, put the form on the mantelpiece beside the china dog that was black with years of dust before heading for the door. “Some of us only have the road education…”
“I’m sorry.. I didn’t mean..”
The words sounded hollow and feeble as they left his mouth. “Lots of people don’t know how to read! I could help you if you wanted to learn..”
* * * *
Nothing was quite the same after that. Although Cathal tried to make them be by never alluding to that day their conversation no longer had the same ease. He never mentioned books.
Now they talked only of people and places he’d been and things he’d made and the evenings they spent together were no longer so plentiful. He told his father about the form.
“Your granny was right then,” he said. “She always suspected that Alfie couldn’t read or write. He was never any good in school according to her and after a while he just stopped bothering. School wasn’t such a good place to go then as it is now if you were any way backward at all..”
* * * *
The clatter of the latch brought Cathal back to the present with a jerk. His father was entering the kitchen now, his cap off, looking slowly round him at the chair by the fire that had horsehair peeping out of it in places, at the dusty china dogs on the mantelpiece, at the oil-clothed table where the cold teapot now sat. He took the toasting-fork down from its nail and slowly extended the handle.
“The place won’t be the same without him, will it?” he said.
Cathal took the book with the torn brown wrapper from the box on the table. It was still as good as the day he bought it. The World At War.
It was in the box with the blue cattle registration cards, the whittled what-nots that he had given Alfie over the years as presents, the birthday cards made with childish hands and the framed picture of him the day he got his degree.
“No,” he said, steadying the book in his hand. “The world won’t be the same.”