When Dan Starkey's hire car hit the hairpin bend on the N45 highway that icy January night at 145 kilometers p.h. (90 m.p.h.), it was the last thing he knew—if indeed he knew anything about it at all, with two liters or so of vin de table and cognac chasing dinnertime's oysters and galettes down his gut. Tragic? Not at all. Most of us, condemned as we no doubt are to a slow and painful exit in some bleak detergent-scented hospital ward, should pray for a death as quick and merciful as Dan's. After all, one minute there he was, ruddy, wine-redolent, and fully alive, rendering "The Old Triangle" in a husky tenor; then, one blinding flash and a hell of a racket later, he was dead as a bloody doornail (and "bloody" is the mot juste, believe you me). He was 63, a widower for seven years, a father, and a banker retired before retirement. Upshot, anyway: His boy Liam, 30, a history teacher at Thomas Maher Community School in Killoyle City, inherited the lot. Liam was average in most respects: sporadically churchgoing; unopinionated until you got him into a comer; frequently ossified on Earwicker's Mild; not much for sports, bar the odd World Cup game if Ireland were in; fairly devoted to his missus. He was married to Molly Devlin, a designer of computer graphics. They had no children but they'd only been married four years, so it was early days yet. Meanwhile, in lieu of kids they had a Dalmatian named Trevor. Then came the news of Dan's death.
"Poor old bastard," said Liam. He waited for tears: none came. After a moment, he wondered, "How much?"
But the proceedings were complex. Not only did Liam have to go to France to identify the body, the French authorities also wanted copies of his and his parents' birth certificates, his mother's death certificate from seven years previously (tumor that metastasized all over her innards, poor old thing), his parents' marriage certificates, a blood sample, and a hefty check for "administrative expenses." All this Liam, who had studied French in college, gleaned from laborious perusal, Larousse at hand, of a fax from somebody called "Maitre Durand" at something called a "Tribunal de Grande Instance" at someplace called "Killouaille" in Brittany, where his father lay dead.
"Bloody hell," he said.
He took a week off from his duties at the shop and booked a flight to France. At the town hall a sallow key-entry specialist named Rosemary, whom he'd once gone out with, unearthed the necessary certificates and waived the fee, for old times' sake.
She smiled wanly in token of what might have been.
Molly, although busy with her career, looked in at home from time to time, so on the day Liam left she joined him in the kitchen and they shared a carry-out Tandoori from the Koh-I-Noor. "Fair sets the wind for France, eh?" joshed Liam, who had recently seen Keith Barraclough's film version of Henry V on RTE TV6. He handed shards of papadom down to Trevor, who crunched them loudly, with an avid look. "What?" inquired Molly; then, not waiting for an answer: "What was your da doing over there anyway?"
"Oh, you know he used to go across all the time for the fishing. This time he was looking for a place to retire to. Brittany 's the in place now, for some reason."
"Is it? Poor old Dan," said Molly, through a mouthful of chapatti. Liam said nothing. His wife's sole comment on the old fella when he was alive had been "He's a nosy old git and he drinks too much," so Liam took her expression of regret as a mere formality as mere as formalities come.
As the airport bus rattled its way into the town, Liam opened his Blue Guide to France and, as an apprentice historian, was mildly interested to learn that Killouaille, "a charming town of many buildings," was the capital of the Haute-Killouaille department of the Brittany region and an Atlantic fishing port at the estuarine confluence of the Poute and Salot rivers; that the town had suffered grievously during the local wars of succession, notably in 1344 when it was sacked by Duke Charlton the Bad, who redeemed himself by building the city's Gothic cathedral, St. Oc's, thereafter being known, on pain of death, as Duke Charlton the Good; that St. Oc was a local boy who went mad in the tenth century and was bodily assumed to heaven just before the bailiffs closed in, as depicted in the Uyl Van Rensselaer triptych in the cathedral; and that many of the streets dated from other centuries, from the eleventh (Rue des Ballons, half-timbered houses converted to artists' studios and microbreweries) to the twentieth (Avenue de la Parade, handsome townhouses and shop windows displaying uniforms).
The handsome municipal cemetery, the Guide Bleu went on to say, contained the tombs of Admiral Beausoleil and the poet Jean Ducasse, as well as a host of drowned fishermen from the seventeenth right through to the early twenty-first centuries. Coincidentally, when Liam looked up from the guide, the bus was stopped at a red light outside the cemetery's main gate. Ornate tombstones sat among neat avenues like tiny chateaux amid their formal gardens. Orderly even in death, the French, thought Liam, whose sole previous exposure to France had been a tour of the Loire chateau country in his first year at college. He had been struck then by the geometrical obsessiveness of the race: the straight avenues, the symmetrical ellipses, the trim hedges. Soothing, somehow, in an unpredictable world.
Next morning Liam awoke to the aroma of baking bread rising from the boulangerie below the window of his third-floor room in the Hotel Majestic on the Place Centrale.
"God, this is great," he said to himself after matutinal ablutions, rubbing his hands together in anticipation of breakfast. Then he remembered why he was there, and self-imposed solemnity, even to the extent of muttering "oh gosh poor Dad" through gritted teeth. But the croissants were flaky, the coffee just right, the waitress a looker.
Outside the sun was bright and the cold waters glittered. A light breeze taunted the town's narrow byways. Liam decided to get the worst part over with first and went to the city morgue to identify his father's body. At the Etoile de la Mer Hospital he was ushered into the office of Doctor Jacques Arnaud, the director, and from there, once his business had been explained, into the morgue. On a long tray, under a rubber sheet, lay Dan, or what the coroner's technicians had managed to reassemble of him. Liam recognized him mainly from the Easter Lily tattoo on his right shoulder, one of the few still-intact areas. After the puking was over, and it went on for a good ten minutes in a bathroom with tiles of a pleasant pale-yellow hue, Liam sat down in Doctor Arnaud's office to complete the paperwork. A tall thin secretary came and went. Above the doctor's desk was a color photograph of the President leaning sideways in front of the Elysee Palace.
"Not too good," said the doctor. Sparse-haired and bulbous, with shadows under his eyes, he looked terrible, but Dan had looked worse. "Yeah, he looks quite bad, your papa, poor guy, hein? Like a, I don't know," he scowled, hands grasping the air for analogies, "modern painting by Johnson Pollux or some crazy guy like that. But honestly he must have been completely drunk, your papa. Bourré. You have the certificates?"
Liam handed over his sheaf of photocopies. Arnaud barely glanced at them and handed them to the secretary.
"Yes, OK, here, sign these and we can continue with the, uh."
Liam groaned again. The secretary handed him a form to sign, then another.
"OK, that's enough. We'll arrange the poor guy's body is sent to Ireland, et cetera. “You will bury him yourself?"
"Well, not personally. But yes, we'll have some kind of ceremony."
"Good. But poor guy, hein? Ah, he was drinking the local pommeau, I'm sure," continued Doctor Arnaud, remorselessly. The secretary soundlessly withdrew. "She will have the papers ready soon." He leaned back in his chair. "Yes, it's strong, the pommeau. It's from apples, you know?" He rummaged in a desk drawer and took out a bottle three-quarters full of a liquid that looked like lemonade shandy. "You want some?"
Liam shrugged. "Sure, why not."
The doctor produced two short glasses from the same drawer and was soon pouring refills. At first the pommeau had no taste at all, then it had quite a lot, mostly sweetish but not cloying. Shortly after it was swallowed, Liam discovered, it released a kind of blinding lucidity along with a rhythmic thumping in the temples and ominous stomach chuckling. All in all, the atmosphere was a bit weird for a doctor's office, especially under the circumstances; certainly you'd never find this sort of carry-on in a hospital back home, thought Liam, not even in some far-flung bog hole like Letterkenny or Athlone where they had fuck-all to do at the best (or worst) of times ....
The doctor drained his third pommeau and sighed a deep sigh of Gallic despair. "Look at this shit," he said, pointing to the piles of letters and forms in front of him.
After the tall thin secretary had returned with a form stating that the body of Daniel Starkey, national of Ireland, had been duly identified and would be transported by air to the International Airport of Killoyle in the County of Killoyle, Liam shook hands with Doctor Arnaud and left the hospital. He made his way along a narrow street lined with medieval houses that leaned toward each other like drunkards about to fall over, a condition with which he sympathized. The narrow street opened onto a wide busy square across from the Tribunal de Grande Instance, a wedding-cake of a building. There Liam learned that he was, or would be, the owner of a tiny piece of France. Dan, it seemed, had closed the deal on a house the day before his death.
"But no problem," beamed the genial avocat, Maitre Durand. "When we get the documents from Paris, you can move in."
Only Liam wasn't sure he wanted to move in, quite apart from the job, Molly, Trevor, old habits, etc. He was beginning to feel a touch of homesickness that he accurately diagnosed as a reaction to the bizarreness and unfamiliarity of events so far. At the hotel he called Molly. In the background Trevor's metronomic bark was reaching the usual crazed pitch provoked by the telephone.
"How's the weather?"
"The what? Trevor, be quiet."
"What? Trevor, shut up!"
"Well, never mind. I should be back sometime..."
"Kiss kiss." She rang off.
A cold rain was starting to fall when Liam was met at the house the next day by Madame LaPage, the estate agent who had sold the place to Dan. She was in her late forties or early fifties, blonde (possibly not genuinely so), dressed in a tweed suit, with smart black boots and a shoulder bag. She had, thought Liam, the slightly aggressive elegance of the typical Frenchwoman; then he found out she was from Ireland.
"Maureen Paterson from Ballygobackwards," she said. "Longford, actually. Couldn't wait to get out, and France was the place. Still is, if you ask me." She was looking at him quizzically. "You know, you do look like your father," she said, nodding, as if a worrisome doubt had been put to rest. "Especially around there," pointing to his nose. He recoiled ever so slightly from her pointing finger. It was an unexpected gesture that might have verged on rudeness if it hadn't also had an odd, almost familial intimacy to it.
The house was named Villa L'Hirondelle. No swallows were in evidence, but of course it was only January. Still, Liam thought the name was a bit pretentious for a pebbledash bungalow of the type commonly found in Irish suburbs: a patio, arched doorways, an attached two-car garage, a bare trellis awaiting the roses of spring. The Villa L' Hirondelle sat in a row of identical "villas" in an estate development in Killouaille's outskirts. If you stood on tiptoe in the driveway, between a stand of elms and two neighboring houses you could just see the sailboat-thronged harbor dominated by the bristling spires of St. Oc Cathedral and the burly turrets of the Castle of Charlton the Good. Otherwise, the house looked out on trees, a wall, a car park, the house next door, and the HyperFleche supermarket across the road. And the gray weeping Breton sky.
"Sorry about the inside," said Maureen LaPage. "I haven't had a chance to clean up yet."
They went into the house. At first it looked pretty much like Liam and Molly's house in Maher Park Estates in Killoyle City: the same parquet floors, bookshelves, island kitchen, satellite TV, and sundry mod cons. But in the sitting room the spirit of Liam's dead father rose like a welcoming host from the untouched memorabilia of his recent life: a pile of detective paperbacks on a side table, teetering on the verge of collapse; Silk Cut cigarette ends littering an ashtray; last week's SkyTV television guide sprawled face down on the TV; a pair of carpet slippers peeping out from under an armchair; all as if Dan were about to walk in from another room. And as if he were still thumbing his nose, on their now-shared side of the great divide, at Liam's poor Mam, in whose house every tissue box had an ornate lacy cover and nothing was ever out of place. Maureen led the way up the stairs.
"Here's the bedroom," she said, standing aside. "Good view from here. Look, you can actually see the harbor."
The view was over the trees next door and took in a larger slice of gray horizon than the view from the driveway. Liam looked out at the rain and the sliver of sea and imagined the matching contours of Killoyle harbor over the waves and thought of Dan in this room, looking out at the same view with a drink in his hand, happy. Indeed, there was an empty glass flecked with beer foam on the bedside table: At the sight, for the first time Liam felt a sob rise in his throat, but he transformed it into a cough.
"Yes, it's a very nice view," he said. "And that's also very nice," pointing to the bed. It was, too: large, heavy, mahogany, anchored by four tapering half-posts.,/p>
"Special order, that was. 1 had to get it from a furniture place in Rennes, but Dan... your dad... wouldn't have any other. 'I'll have a mahogany four-poster,' he said, and I knew he meant it."
They went downstairs.
"Who owned the place before?" inquired Liam. It seemed to him that the air was becoming charged with unspoken emotions. Maybe he only needed a smoke.
"I did," she said. "I had it built. It was my house. Then, briefly, it was your dad's. Now it's yours."
Liam took the bit.
"And what about, eh ... Monsieur LaPage?"
"My husband? Ah bless you, he drowned out there," she waved a vague hand seaward. "Ten, no. Eleven years ago." Suddenly she grinned broadly, with her blonde head tilted to one side, like a mischievous schoolgirl. "Liam, let's have lunch," she said. "There's a great place just down the road I used to go with your Da."
There was a delay at the Tribunal that resulted in Liam's papers taking longer than expected. He'd already been in France for four days. Dan's remains—or, as Liam said to Molly over the phone with a small guilty pleasure, "The remains of the Da" (she'd actually laughed louder than Trevor's bark, a good sign) lay in cold storage at the airport, still waiting to be sent home. Finally, impatient to find out how much he'd snagged, and worried that he'd go into debt paying death duties, Liam phoned his lawyer, Earl Gallowglass, of Musk and Gallowglass, with whom he'd gone to school long ago.
"You're rich, Liam," said Gallowglass. "Game ball, boy. Wait till I tell ya." Liam's estate had grown to the extent of Government treasury bonds worth 10 grand, 45,000 Euros in the Killoyle bank of which Dan had been a director, another 3 grand in an offshore account in Jersey, Dan's condo in Killoyle, and an '02 Merc C-Class.
"Immaculate. Like he hardly ever drove it. With electric moonroof and Boaz 12speaker stereo," said Gallowglass, avidly.
"What about taxes? They're the wild card, yeah?"
"Nah. We'll scrub round 'em somehow. Don't you worry. Pay what you have to, and screw the rest. And now that you have a few grand in the bank..."
"And the bungalow over here," said Liam.
"You're well off, my son," said Earl. "Fair play to your old wan, he had an eye for the investment."
And, as Liam had suspected, for Maureen LaPage-Paterson. Her tongue loosened by a glass or two of Bourgeuil, and picking at her cótelette de pore, she'd told him her story over lunch the day before at Le Bouillon, a roadside auberge a mile or so down from the house.
"I was widowed fairly early on, you see. I'd met Henri, my husband, in Ireland. In Killoyle, in fact, I was down there doing a secretarial course at the College. Henri ran a fishing boat service back then. I was eager to get out. You know what Ireland was like in the fifties and sixties ... no, of course you don't. Silly of me. But believe me, it was a place to get out of, not like today. And I met this handsome French fella, a desperate chancer he was, all charm and promises, but fun to be with. But when he drowned out there," she waved her fork vaguely in the direction of the sea, "drunk, during a storm...." She paused. "That's two I've lost to drink," she murmured. It was at that moment, or immediately afterward, when she looked out the window with a look of pure sadness—there was even a tear in her eye—that Liam realized that she and his father had been lovers, probably for years; that, in fact, Dan had been coming over to see her ever since... well, pretty nearly all his, Liam's, life, before and after Mam died.
His heart paused, looked back, and jumped over itself, before resuming its normal rhythm. Embarrassed, he lowered his face to his herb omelet. When he looked up, she was studying him and he knew she'd seen his embarrassment and knew the reason for it. But she went on.
"Henri left behind his debts and nothing else. That's one good thing about these otherwise totally cocked-up French inheritance laws, as you may or may not know, although with you it's pretty straightforward, you're the only survivor ... Anyway, they may not automatically let a widow inherit her husband's estate, but she doesn't inherit his debts either. Still, that left me with nothing. So I went home to Longford for a while but it was too poky and small-minded for me—I know, it's changed, Ireland's all trendy now, but I'd been over here too long and I missed it, quite frankly. The way of life, you know. The food and that. The life—or do I mean the living?"
"Ah yes, the good old savoir-vivre," said Liam. His words hung in the air like a helium balloon while Maureen meticulously cut her cutlet into tiny pieces.
"Well, yes," she said. "Exactly. That's why they invented the expression, isn't it? The way the French don't really give a damn what you get up to as long as you do it on your own time and don't bother anyone? Anyway, with a little help from here and there I started up as an estate agent, and I've made a packet at it, I don't mind telling you. Thanks in large part to our compatriots, so much so that the road just south of town is called the Boulevard des Irlandais. And then five years ago I met Dan. Your father," she added, unnecessarily. Her eyes shimmered with refreshed tears. She dabbed at them with the corner of her serviette. "Oh I do apologize. I mean, you're his son, for goodness' sake. Please, just get up and go away if you can't stand this owld slapper bletherin' away at ya. Please."
Liam reached across the table and patted her hand. "You're no owld slapper," he said. "You're a knock-out, Maureen."
She hid her face in her serviette and smothered deep sobs. Liam looked nervously around. It was a cinematic moment, in fact a very French cinematic moment, but he had no idea what his lines were, so he finished his omelet and let her sob quietly into her serviette. The other diners went on with their meals. One or two glanced over, but assumed, no doubt, thought Liam, that a small or large domestic crisis was underway between Monsieur and Madame. Physically—from a distance at least—they split the age difference: he looked old enough to be her husband (or boyfriend), she young enough to be his wife (or girlfriend). Liam thought how ironic it would be—no, more than ironic, how decadent it would be—for him to have a fling with his dear dead Da's mistress. in France. Not at all what a married history teacher at a suburban community school was expected to get up to. Another glass of Bourgeuil almost emboldened him to suggest it, but by then the moment had passed. Maureen recovered her poise, which was considerable, befitting a French businesswoman. She summoned the bill, then withdrew to powder her nose. When she came back she was all business, busying herself with her mobile phone and the contents of her shoulder bag; Liam, nouveau riche heir, took out his wallet. "Now put that away, young man. This is on me," she said. "No, no, no protests, I won't have it. The very least I can do. And if you want to sell that house, I'll find you a good price, you have my word on it."
Liam was embarrassed. In small but expert female ways—paying for his lunch, calling him 'young man,' talking business—she had neutered the hormone and wine fueled advance she had no doubt sensed was imminent. It reminded Liam of romantic failures long past. She drove him back to the Hotel Majestic in her BMW. They shook hands. As he watched her drive away in the rain, he felt a swooning and quite horrible sense of loss.
History was World War I that term, and exams were approaching. They had to know, at a minimum, who Franz Ferdinand was, what happened to him and why, who was on whose side, and who won. A bit about Lenin and the Bolsheviks wouldn't hurt, either, but that was plain sailing. They always sort of liked the Bolshies and the barricades and, especially, they loved it when the Tsar and his kids got shot. And of course there were gory slides of trenches and rubble-strewn town squares to keep the peace in class. Liam usually enjoyed himself with the good old War to End All Wars. It was clear-cut; the guys wore beards and fancy stashes, and it beat trying to explain the fratricidal enigmas of the Irish Civil War, not to mention half-forgotten oddities like the Boer and Crimean jobs. The kids yawned through those. No, at least with WWI the events were big and dramatic and horrible, the consequences even worse, and at the end Liam got to talk about the rise of Hitler; and there still wasn't a kid in Ireland who didn't stop lolling about and sit up at the mention of that name.
But all that was in the future, and today their chore was a scrap of poetry or two.
"Ah not them old war poets again, Mr. Starkey," said Brian, scowling.
"Yes, Brian. Those old war poets again. And pretty strong stuff it is, too. Here, take a look at Wilfred Owen, page forty in your books... "
Owen was too much for them, so they moved on, or back, to Rupert Brooke, a lighter read. Heads were lowered, lips moved silently. A spark was struck.
"Cripes, Mr. Starkey, that's sad," said Eithne.
"It is, it is. Could you read it for us, Eithne?"
She stood up, cleared her throat, and in her clarion young voice she recited, "The Soldier. Ahem. By Rupert Brooke. Ahem.
"If I should die, think only this of me: That there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever Ireland. I mean..."
Pause for giggles, which spread generally until Liam rapped his desk.
"Quiet, now. The lot o' youse."
"Sorry," said Eithne. "I mean England. Shall I go on, Mr. Starkey?"
"Of course. But mind you get your countries right."
"That is forever England."
She'd had it right the first time, thought Liam as the girl stammered her way through the rest of the poem. There was a corner of a foreign field that was forever Ireland—or rather, forever Dan Starkey, but you could go the length and breadth of the island and you'd never meet a more full-blown Irishman than Daniel Aloysius Starkey, God rest his soul, so where he lay, there lay Ireland, too. Maureen LaPage-Paterson had sounded pleased when Liam called her and said he'd decided to have "the remains of the Da" (she didn't laugh) buried in France, after all. In that handsome orderly cemetery where reposed Admiral Beaucaire and the poet Ducasse. It would make things the tiniest bit more complicated as far as the authorities were concerned, granted; but she'd know how to get round that, and anyway how could he plant Dan in Killoyle Cemetery, right back where he started?
"Over there he was happy," said Liam. "Over there he had you. This way he always will."
A silence so long followed that Liam thought she'd rung off. She hadn't; he heard sniffing, then a barely-audible "God bless you"; then she did ring off, and he hadn't heard from her since, except for an obituary cut out of the Journal de Killouaille on the day of the funeral. When Liam told Molly, she was a bit surprised at first, but basically she didn't care, although she was more forgiving of old Dan now. She'd certainly appreciated the bank accounts, and the condo in Killoyle, and the money from the sale of the bungalow in France. Plans for a new dining table and two weeks in the Maldives were already afoot. And there was that Mercedes C-Class, which she drove, leaving Liam her old Escort.
"I'll give him credit, he took care of us in the end, your Da. Of course, he had no one else, did he?"
Liam said nothing, but lowered his gaze, and a morsel of chicken madras, to Trevor, who nearly took off his arm.