Surprise by Dermot

Some persons are born skittish. That is they are easily and frequently frightened by the simplest things, a piece of paper blowing along a darkened street, the sudden rushing noise a cat makes as it dives across the room in pursuit of a mouse, or the unexpected backfire of a passing car.

Tony was one of those persons affected by sudden surprise. It didn’t take much to frighten him, and when frightened he seldom stuck around to find out what the cause of his fear might be. He simply took off running and thought about reasons at some later date.

The rain had been falling steadily for three days. It wasn’t as bad in Dublin as it was here in Wicklow, but Tony liked to drive in the rain; one hour driving at a steady 50 MPH, the traffic, the splashing on the windshield, the road empty of traffic, the heaters on, gave Tony a warm safe feeling.

He hadn’t seen Johnny in a long time and hoped his mate from prison would remember him. This visit was to fulfil the promise he’d made to Johnny while a riot was going on around them; Tony had gone to get water and Johnny had gone down to try and get him to the safety of their cell.

There wasn’t a bag of heroin in the prison, and the addicts going through cold turkey bought tablets in an effort to ease the pain and hope to get their heads down. Kicked off with boiling water mixed with sugar, tins of paint and an array of weapons.

They had been cornered against a wall; watching the prison officers come towards them, their riot shield in a tight formation, the blue helmets with visors and the big wooden clubs high in the air striking at anything that moved in their path. Tony had nightmares over the incident. Sometimes he woke up screaming in the night.

The scrap of paper on which Johnny had drawn a crude map of how to get to his house was tattered and soiled, but Tony felt he could decipher the directions.

The rain increased in intensity. Tony stopped near a turn in the road indicated on his map. Far back in the trees, almost hidden by dense foliage, was a large house. He was trying to read a road sign with his window rolled down when someone placed a hand on his shoulder. Tony let out a scream.

 “Are you looking for somewhere?” It was the postman. “Ryans” Tony said, “John Ryan, he lives around here somewhere”. “That’s the place” said the postman pointing up the lane, “I’m going in there myself”.

Tony knocked on the front door of the house and a few minutes later a young girl opened it. Her resemblance to photos Johnny had once shown him of a much younger girl were distinct. She was eight years older now, around 5.10 in height with beautiful blue eyes framed by naturally dark hair with wine highlights. And Tony felt a bit embarrassed as he made a concerted effort not to stare, the postman winked at Tony.

“You’re getting bigger every time I see you Eileen” he said handing the girl an envelope. “Give this to your mother.”  Tony introduced himself. He tried to explain his presence hoping the girl would understand that he wanted to surprise his old friend and that they had not seen one another for many years.

She took his jacket and hung it on a wall peg by the door. Then led him into a large room that took up most of the ground floor of the house. The opposite wall had a huge mantle and fireplace which burned a roaring fire. In spite of the fire, the room was chilled and the cause of this Tony noted was the wide back door of the house. It stood fully opened and now and then, gusts of wind rushed in from outside. Tony could see an open field, it was quite long with trees at the bottom and a drystone shed in one corner, on the other a barn, two wooden sheds and a tractor up on blocks with its two front wheels missing.

Tony stood in front of the fire, feeling the heat flow up his spine. He allowed himself a generous look at the girl. She had crossed the room and was lounging on a sofa. He looked into her blue eyes and noted a darker fleck in the left eye, and over it an eyebrow piercing, a nose piercing and another one in black lipstick lips. She had an oversize t-shirt with The Cure embossed on it. A long green school skirt. A pair of heavy black boots with two buckles.

“My mam will be in soon” Eileen said. “She’s in the bath.”

“Your dad and I were friends,” said Tony. “We always talked about getting together when we got out of prison and having a ball. I went straight to England, got a job, a flat, and a good life for myself, when I got out. We made a lot of plans to go over together. But I guess he loves you, your mother and Ireland too much to take chances of a new life.” He shivered and turned to the fire, rubbed his hands together and felt the heat burn up his face. He glanced inquisitively at the open door, through which a cold wind continued to blow. Eileen caught his motion and followed his eyes.

“You haven’t heard from my dad in six years? Then you don’t know. I guess you haven’t heard,” she said, lowering her voice to a confidential tone. “I was going to wait and let my Mam tell you, but she gets so emotional. For a couple of years she’s been like that. She lives in another world. A world of her own making.” Eileen sighed dramatically. “She keeps hoping and wishing, but nothing can change what happened.”

“I don’t understand,” Tony said, “What did happen?” Eileen brought her feet up under her, she exhaled noisily. “Well,” Eileen said “My dad and my uncle Paddy; my Mam’s brother went out poaching salmon down the river one day. It was a day almost like this one, except that it had been raining terribly for more than a week. The river is way down there at the back of the forest.” She pointed out the back door towards the forest. “My Dad had on his yellow rain suit and my little white poodle Yogi was with him. She always followed my Dad every time he went down there. The bank gave way and they went right into the swollen river. They were never seen again. Joe Doyle said nothing could be done to save them and when the police came and told Mam, she acted kind of weird. She refused to believe them and still doesn’t. Everyday she says they’re going to come back, so she leaves the door open like that to allow them to come back in, just the way they left two years ago. I know it gets awful cold in here, but it freaks her out if anyone closes it.”

Tony remembered reading about people who had lost loved ones and constantly talked to them as if they were still alive or who even talked to imaginary people. How he felt for those people was a deep sadness. He even remembered a prisoner talk to his dead mother, his mind had snapped and hard as it was, he tried to understand.

A sound made him look up from the fire. A tall beautiful woman entered the room, wearing a silk dressing gown with blue flowers embroidered on it. She had a towel wrapped around her head like a turban and she was smiling as she held out her hand, Tony thought her smile looked pale and wan and filled with some distant sadness.

“Hello,” she said softly, her voice sounded rich with suffering. “I’m Ann, Johnny’s wife. I know who you are. I’ve seen your photo and I’ve heard Johnny talk about you all the time. The moment I saw you. I knew you had to be Tony.”

Tony gave her a smile. “Yes,” was all he could answer. He was at a loss for words. Johnny had meant a lot, but had certainly meant much more to this beautiful sad, lonely woman.

“All Johnny ever does is talk about you and the hard times the two of you had when you were in prison,” Ann said. “He often spoke of how you wanted us all to get out of here and make a fresh start. I suppose men in prison often do that sort of thing. They make so many plans, never knowing unforeseen circumstances might arise and change them.”

Ann walked over to the fire and bent over. She took off the turban and shook out her dark shiny shoulder-length hair.

“Johnny and my brother will be back soon,” she said. “Would you like a drink? Johnny said you were always a whiskey man.” She half-filled a glass and handed it to him, before filling a small glass for herself. Tony exchanged glances with Eileen, who was shaking her head back and forth.

Tony felt angry at life. Here he and Johnny had spent all that time in prison to survive all the stabbings, the blood-soaked yard, walked on until it faded in dust as the prisoners did their laps, then to come home to a beautiful wife and child but to die in some silly river accident. He stood dumbly sipping his drink and glaring out at the open door to the fields. The rain continued to pour down obliterating the landscape and making a blur of distant trees.

Peering through the rain, he stiffened suddenly. It was almost as if someone had jumped him, he made a little grunting sound as he squinted his eyes trying to see through the rain.

In the distance three shapes were coming towards the house. Two men and a small white dog. The taller of the men was wearing a yellow rain suit. They drew closer and Tony recognised Johnny. They walked resolutely towards the house; both men and dog were splattered with mud. The front of Johnny’s yellow jacket was covered with blood.

“Heeow!” Tony screamed. He dropped his glass, turned and raced, grabbing his jacket on the way out the door and down the lane towards his car.

Inside the house, Johnny and Pat took off their muddy boots and went to stand by the fire, while Anne got them a glass of whiskey.

“Get me a towel or something,” said Johnny. “A branch hit me in the face and gave me a damned nosebleed.”

“A friend of yours was just here Johnny, but I think he was crazy or something. Just before you got home, he screamed and ran out the door down the lane and took off in his car. I think he got a fright seeing you coming.”

Johnny took a sip of his drink, then glared angrily at the girl. “What the hell are you doing home this early? Have you been smoking or giving back cheek again, or did they kick you out for lying?”

“You’re going to have to do something about her Johnny,” said Ann.

“That’s all she does is lie. She’s got such an imagination. Yesterday she told the teacher she couldn’t go to school because her grandad died. Next thing you know she’ll be telling everyone that you died. She’s getting worse every day.”


CDETB Mountjoy Education Centre