‘Exiles’

Exiles

From the manor’s kitchen Jimmy heard the opening of the grand front door. As he listened to the sound of shoes travelling down the hallway he recognized the pace. He was thrilled his boss had returned.

‘Good mornin’ Mister F!’ he beamed.

‘Ah Jimmy, how are ye?’ Flynn returned the smile, shaking hands with his foreman. ‘Jimmy, how many have we on the list for tonight?’ he soon asked.

‘Fifty-five.’

‘Better make that sixty. Have ye heard of the writer Oliver Copeland? I was at a book launch of his last night. Met him once before; a marvellous man. Anyway, got talking to him and a few others and invited them along.’

‘Ah sure the more the merrier.’

Flynn became conscious of his own seriousness towards his foreman and old friend. ‘Ye must have had some good dryin’ weather while I was away,’ he changed to the issue of silage. ‘Won’t be long now ‘til the first cut.’

‘It’s been fierce dry alright; another two weeks I reckon.’

Flynn would be away for it again, and would miss the hum of life across the golden vale as farming contractors worked the long days and nights for the first cut. It irked him to be removed from such occasions. ‘I trust we’ll be seeing Noeleen and the gang tonight?’ he changed again, plonking the morning papers on the kitchen table.

‘Ye certainly will.’

‘She’s fully over the ‘flu?’

‘Right as rain again. And what of Mary and the girls, Michael?’ Jimmy always switched to first name terms with his boss.

‘Yeah, they’ll be flyin’ in this afternoon. You’ll make sure they’re looked after if I’m out?’

‘Of course!’ Sensing his boss was apprehensive and in need of space before the night ahead, Jimmy took leave. ‘I’ll be on my way now. I’ll see ye later.’

‘Thanks Jimmy,’ and he shook his hand, grateful for his constancy, ‘well done again. Tonight wouldn’t be possible without ye.’

After reading the newspapers over breakfast, Flynn went to his study. Usually the daily round of business calls kept him on the phone for hours, but with the party and his speech to prepare, he kept it brief.

Thoughts about the party reminded him of the writer. At the book launch the previous evening, he had read out excerpts from his latest novel: a powerful story of life in a rural Irish village. The lyrical prose had moved Flynn and reminded him of his own community. He wanted to find such lyricism for his own speech that night, for the retirement party he was hosting for his star racehorse. He especially wanted to convey his gratitude to the locals for their support now that he saw them less.

At three o’clock the horse arrived in a trailer.

‘Easy does it!’ Flynn cajoled the chestnut gelding as he led him into one of the stables, the victories and dramas of the twelve year old’s career streaming back to Flynn’s memory. All the horse’s connections had understood when he’d slowed up in the final furlong of the previous year’s Arc that the champion had ran his last. Only that he’d owned so many before, Flynn might have believed Hibernian Way was immortal. The party would be a celebration of the horse’s career at the outset of a long, luxurious retirement at the Ballymac stables.

Flynn chatted heartily with the men who delivered the horse before leaving them with the promise of seeing them later, then took Hibernian Way for a canter around the demesne. It felt good to be back on the land he loved, to be fleetingly re-connected with a past life, when he and the children would ride around the estate every morning. When they were forced to move away, they had been devastated.

The guests began arriving at eight. Mary, Flynn’s wife, did most of the welcoming. Apprehensive about his speech, the businessman remained illusive at the start of the bountiful night. When he saw the writer arrive he started to relax.

‘Oliver! Thanks for coming,’ Flynn greeted him warmly.

‘I didn’t know you knew this great writer!’ remarked a friend of Flynn’s who was speaking to him.

‘Well, our friendship is only beginning actually! We met about three years ago when Hibernian won the Breeders’, then we met again last night at Oliver’s book launch.’

‘A follower of the sport of kings Mr. Copeland?’ asked Flynn’s friend.

‘Well, when the Irish are racing in New York anyway I go. I go to Belmont for the big races. A few of us were there the day Hibernian won the Breeders’. We were invited to the celebrations. That’s where I met Michael.’

‘God we drank that night!’ Flynn recalled, nostalgia in the two mens’ eyes as they remembered that warm New York night, the bar and the city the best in the world in which to have been Irish that night. ‘All that stout, the champagne, the poitín!!’

‘And the next morning,’ the writer took over, ‘with our heads about to crack with the pain, a terrier walked by us on the street. Michael here closes his eyes, shakes his head, and says to the dog: “You can bite all ye like, just don’t bark!”’ Amidst fitful laughter Flynn took leave of the two men to call everyone outside to the stable yard.

When all the guests had congregated outside, Flynn and the horse’s trainer emerged from one of the stables, leading Hibernian Way out by a halter. Proud applause rippled through the crowd as the racehorse sauntered out, emerald green jacket draped over him, the puff of the gelding’s breath visible in the cool evening air. A shiver ran through owner and trainer, the same excitement they’d often felt when the horse had strutted by crowds on route to winners’ enclosures.

‘If I could just have everyone’s attention for a few moments – I know everyone’s eager to get back to the food and the drink – I’d just like to say a few words about the cause of our celebration tonight, that is, this amazing horse beside me, Hibernian Way, whose career has finally come to an end.

He thanked his wife and two daughters, for their tolerance and support through his extensive travels to follow the successes of the horse. He thanked the trainer and stable mate at the Ballymac stables. There was acknowledgement of the staff at Charlemont House, ‘Jimmy, Frank and Maria in particular, without whom tonight would be impossible.’

‘But above all else,’ his voice straightening up as he looked directly at the crowd. ‘I’d like to thank my local community. It’s often overlooked that successful horse-racing in Ireland isn’t just about trainers, owners or money, but also about the community that surrounds the stable, the horse and their efforts – win, lose or draw. And I know that Angie and Martin and all the gang in Ballymac will agree that the well wishes, the helping hands, the encouragement, and the trips by the people of these parts have been instrumental to Hibernian’s successes over the years. Thank you for your unforgettable support.’

‘Hear, hear!’ boomed several of the crowd, another burst of applause breaking out. After it subsided, all were invited to take a glass of champagne from the table near the horse. They were raised to toast Hibernian Way.

‘Hip-hip…hurray! Hip-hip…hurray! Hip-hip…hurray!’

As the final applause died down, Flynn laughed heartily at a joke he didn’t really hear, his laughter more in relief that his speech had conveyed what he’d wanted.

At the meal in the banquet room the writer settled in to the company of those beside him. The dinner tables were awash with talk of the story gripping the country: the bishop of Galway and revelations of a son.

‘That woman was out to milk the Church for every penny she could get,’ a woman wearing a hat told the writer, certainty in her eyes.

‘Is the real scandal not that these high moralists are preaching to us about something they know little about?’ he prodded.

‘Not at all,’ she dismissed, deaf to his question, ‘that woman knew exactly what she was doing.’

The writer laughed as though she had told a joke, but she didn’t notice. He wondered if people back in America would have shown any interest in such a story.

After the meal all the guests adjourned to the other dinning room. Glasses were refreshed and the country’s most famous ‘trad’ band began playing near the fireplace. The velvet curtains were drawn to shut out the night. The flames in the hearth leapt about in a dance. A joy swept through the house, just as it often had on nights of Hibernian Way’s victories. Several people remarked on the new portrait of the horse, hanging in the hallway.

As he watched the host move through the room, pressing flesh with personal words for everyone, the writer got talking to a local man.

‘There’s no more generous a man in these parts,’ the local remarked, beaming with pride for the man they both watched. ‘All the local sports interests, the charities, the community centre, even the bridge club!’ he chuckled. ‘He gives them all something. Sure the new swimming pool in Áth na Cloiche wouldn’t have seen water but for his money. He’s incredible. He hasn’t forgotten anyone since he moved away.’

‘Moved away?’

‘Yeah, himself and the family moved away a few year ago. He lives abroad now.’

‘Why did he move?’

‘Moved for tax reasons. He was gettin’ murdered with tax here so he was.’

‘And where do they live now?’

‘Somewhere over in Europe. Is it Gibraltar or somewhere? Somewhere like that. But sure he’s home often enough. He’s never gone for long.’

‘I guess he gets the best of both worlds,’ the writer tested.

‘Ah, I don’t begrudge him the move,’ the local man philosophised, gazing now at the musicians. ‘Sure if he can’t feather his own nest, how can he feather anyone else’s?’

As the night edged past midnight, the talking and laughing grew louder. After taking a break, the trad band resumed, so engrossed in the occasion they might have played until dawn. The writer observed that Flynn was in his element, though he himself felt nostalgic for the night Hibernian Way won the Breeders’ – that experience of being Irish in a time and place of no better coincidence. The retirement party felt strange. He decided to leave.

‘You’re off so soon?!’ Flynn asked in shock, hoping to have chatted to the writer at length.

‘Yeah, I’ve an early start tomorrow; a lot of things to do before headin’ home on Tuesday.’

‘Why is it that every time we meet one of us is about to head across the Atlantic again. Listen, Mary and I would love to have you over for dinner the next time you’re back. How often are you home?’ he asked as he walked the writer to the door.

‘Oh, not often any more. This is my first time in nearly two years.’

‘How long have you been in New York?’

‘I moved there back in 1959. Over thirty years ago now.’

‘What sent you there?’

‘What drives any Irish writer away? The theocracy, the censorship, the small-mindedness. I wanted somewhere where I could just live and write, just think freely, you know. America gives you that.’

‘Ah, there’ve been tough times here but this is a great country all the same. That sense of community you wrote about in your book: that’s the most amazing thing in the world!’

‘It’s unique alright, but it’s built upon shallow foundations – religion, poverty, ignorance. They’re still very evident. All this hysteria about the bishop? Where’s the humanity? I read about the ‘X’ case. A fourteen year old, pregnant from rape, prevented from crossing the water?’

‘It’ll change though,’ Flynn countered.

‘It will. I know. And when it does, that sense of community will soon fade away.’

‘Ah,’ the host concluded quietly, ‘I guess you take the good and the bad in a place and you make the most of it. You never think of coming back?’

‘No. I think I’m happiest in Ireland at the airport – either arriving or departing!’ The two men laughed loudly. ‘Besides, everything I have is in the States – the family, the house,’ he paused, ‘the tax bills!’

‘Jesus tonight!’ Flynn gasped, ‘And with the artists’ tax break in Ireland you wouldn’t even have to pay tax here!’

‘The good and the bad I guess,’ the writer retorted, but stopped short of contradicting his host.

After giving him his business card, Flynn shook Copeland’s hand and watched him enter the night. To the sound of the writer’s shoes crunching the gravel of the floodlit driveway the host returned to his guests, mystified by him, but eager to enjoy the remainder of the party, knowing he too would soon be flying back into exile.

© Stephen Dineen 2013.

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