‘You can’t downsize a potato field… agus sé sin an fhadhb,’ the Chief called from his tractor that night when I went out with a sandwich. The Chief ’s parents – who were burnt to slags in a hay barn when he was a youth – were Gaelgoirs. He kept on the bit of Irish to honour them. I made my way along the mud bank towards him. I wanted him inside in the sitting room with the paper flopped across his wide lap like a dead stingray and me sprawled sleepily on the couch, pretending to read Philadelphia, Here I Come! (the Leaving Cert. play text, all about what Private wants to say but

Public can’t manage to get out because of the Indian cobra between his thighs and for fear of how the outside world would react, and couldn’t we all relate to those obstacles?). I wanted to put an end to all this. To get straight to the point with the Chief, like the garrulous Private, and make frantic recommendations to do with the properties:

Wasn’t there some poor illiterate creature who doesn’t get out much or have the internet, who by some miracle doesn’t know the home soil has gone to slurry, who’d happily lap up a villa in Malaga with a shared swimming pool and a dishwasher and a motorised awning and oversized tiles? Alternatively, wasn’t there investing to be done, now that we were all in the pits and could only crawl upwards? Wasn’t it time to let go of this outdated life? If we could sell something – I’d live without a kidney, I had my looks – or arrange a countywide poker championship for my brother

Cormac to work the odds of with the Brobdingnagian brain on him… for us to win ourselves back, slowly but surely? What I ended up saying, holding out the sandwich, was:

‘There’s lamb in that.’

He laboured out of the tractor. It was dragging a disc-type hiller behind for bringing earth up to the potato vines. Though the engine was turned off and its hoovering noise had fallen silent, the pattern of it carried on: the angled discs scooping in soil like a child’s hands gathering sand to make a castle. The vines bowing down to let the tractor pass over them and then springing up behind – seeming renewed, devoted.

‘Doing lines?’

We both squinted back down the length of the row that had been turned a deeper shade of earth, illumed by a flash of moonlight, leading straight back to our lit house an acre off.

‘A manner of lines,’ he said. ‘I’ll be doing it by hand before long. Spraying pesticide one squirt at a time.’ He took the sandwich from me.

‘Out of a Mr Muscle bottle?’

He winked and put a quarter of the sandwich in his mouth at once. Opportunities come in all ways and sizes: this time, in the form of a stuffed gob? No, it was too soon. But then my mind was so filled with the large things I wanted to say, I was stuck for small ones. The Chief chewed away and swallowed dryly. Never one to force talk. He was happy enough in his calm refuelling.

‘We’re back to school Tuesday. Tomorrow’s off,’ I said. He made a noise of acknowledgement. ‘Cormac’s doing college stuff.’

I tried to understand him but it was a tone I hadn’t heard. Then I knew he wasn’t talking bankruptcy. Somehow, he must’ve found out what we’d done: avenged the bastard who’d led our father off a cliff.”

He looked at me sideways, then spoke with a full mouth: ‘Have you enough to be doing?’ I cringed suddenly at my school talk, so late in the day. I’d scraped together three of the six Leaving Cert. subjects last year: Irish, Geography and pass Maths. Managing the others this year was doubtful. ‘You could help me widen the pond below,’ the Chief said, almost optimistic, ‘drain out the wet year that’s in it.’

‘Ya, I’ll do that. I want to do something though, I don’t know.’ Some variety of physical mastery would’ve been the thing to want, but I tried not to lie to him. ‘I like making things. Woodworking maybe, if I wasn’t so tired from—’ I looked from field to sky to lay the blame elsewhere for my wreckery. Huge iron clouds blockaded the moon. ‘Gandhi wouldn’t’ve had the fortitude for stargazing in these parts.’ I heard the promising outbreath of a laugh. ‘Home-brewing’s inevitable, one of these days,’ I said. ‘But maybe I should take that fiddle down from the attic. Learn to play a woeful recession tune.’

He grimaced. ‘Woeful ’twould be. Don’t be demanding fiddle lessons, is all I’ll say.’ I saw his hand go to his pocket in the gloom. ‘Always on about the travel, you might take a look at your own country before scarpering off to Germany or Cambodia or wherever it is you’re thinking? Walking’s as good a pastime as any, to know yourself. There’s history in these flatlands to fill a sizeable mind. No elbowing tourists along the stone wall.’

I looked across to let him read my expression: the fear of dogs that doubly landlocked me.

‘Oh. I do forget about the dogs.’ He took in the last of the sandwich. He didn’t press me on it. I handed him a flask of grey tea in exchange for the kitchen towels. Then I gauged him loosened enough, so I took a deep breath and spoke quickly:

‘We could declare bankruptcy. It was Cormac came up with it, so it’ll be well thought out. The thing is, neither of us wants the farm, Dad. It’s a good life but Cormac’s too arrogant for it. He said he will in his shite work for government subsidies… And… you can go anywhere with a face like mine! I might meet a girl who won’t want this. I’m thinking Australia sounds the job. And the thing is… if you go bankrupt you could retire then, that was the point of the houses and the whole mess anyways?’

He had the mouthful long-swallowed and was looking into the restless landscape, sporadically moonlamped, as if the night was giving sign to a dangerous reef up ahead. He was six foot two and had another year of standing to his full height, then a five-year crash and collapse. I felt a gossoon stood by him.

‘You lads and yer grand plans,’ he said, not to me but to the hours of work ahead. I was glad not to have his gaze on me then. There was no way of knowing how wrong I’d been, but I was relieved not to have the idea strangled in my skull any longer. ‘You can tell your brother your ideas are for lining the pockets of men like Morrigan. And making them more self-righteous, while you’re at it.’

I tried to understand him but it was a tone I hadn’t heard. Then I knew he wasn’t talking bankruptcy. Somehow, he must’ve found out what we’d done: avenged the bastard who’d led our father off a cliff. We’d butchered his lambs in the night. Fleeced them, as he’d done us.

‘It was to get back at him,’ I said.

The Chief lifted his stubbled jowl, the cap shadowing his face. ‘On the insurance claim them lambs went, and Morrigan unable to sell them for the price he was asking, the fierce market that’s in it. He was waiting till the last minute to get rid of them. He telephoned this morning, boastful of the Easter godsend.’

The Chief would never have spoken so freely with Cormac. It was as if the night air and the waxy ears of his harmless youngest son were the particular conditions for talking. But I would’ve gone ignorant just then. Like a gomey, I said, ‘I’ll do an hour for you now. I’m used to doing lines.’

He didn’t smile but threw the thermos into the tractor and hauled the new weight of himself up onto the seat. ‘What ye lads don’t understand—’ He stopped himself. ‘But sure, why would ye? Who’d have taught you?’

The engine coughed up, and off he moved in his tired machinery, making lines as straight as humanly possible into the unknowable night.

from The Wild Laughter (Oneworld, £14.99)

Caoilinn Hughes is the author of Orchid & the Wasp (Oneworld, 2018), which won the Collyer Bristow Prize, was shortlisted for the Hearst Big Book Awards, the Butler Literary Award and longlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. Her poetry collection Gathering Evidence (Carcanet, 2014), won the Shine/Strong Award and was shortlisted for four other prizes. Her work has appeared in Granta, POETRY, Tin HouseBest British Poetry on BBC Radio 3 and elsewhere. She has a PhD from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and she was recently Visiting Writer at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. For her short fiction, she won The Moth International Short Story Prize 2018 and an O. Henry Prize in 2019. The Wild Laughter, her second novel, is published in hardback by Oneworld.
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Author portrait © Danijel Mihajlović