Via RTÉ Radio 1, listen to another entry from the shortlist of this year's Francis MacManus Short Story Competition - The Planters by Mel O'Doherty is a story of a family tragedy at a time of great change in Irish history.
It’s read by actor Gary Murphy - listen to The Planters above, and read it below...
He walked off the road and came across the land and he could see the house way off – a horrid grey stone amidst all the green and he thought for a while that the front door had been painted a ludicrous white until he came closer and realised it was the daylight out the other side. He looked through to it now, a squarish wedge of day, brighter for its being cloaked like that in the bleak stone. He stood in the grass for a long time and stared up at the house and the common ragwort and prickly sow-thistle swayed and bounced in the breeze like marionette armies. He stood with his mother and father that day seventy-five years ago, right where he stood now. They watched the fire creep across the windows for a long time and he turned to them as the night came and he saw the fire in the water of their eyes and when the wind blew the house roared and his father would squeeze his hand and his mother would pluck at the grass in mute agony and he could hear the capped men cheering way off in the woods. He hadn't seen those woods since. He looked back to them now, they sounded like the sea. Then he turned up to the house again. The branches of trees poked out of some upper windows and low down the strokes of an ancient craftsmen were etched in the plaster of the dining-room wall and he could hear birds echoing in the floorless, roofless rooms and he thought of the black-capped man that put them there and he wanted to kill him, for seventy-five years he wanted to kill that man. He walked up the steps of the house and he lowered himself down and sat there for a long time staring out to the land, the land in which he’d walked and the woods from which they’d cheered and he turned over his shoulder and gazed up the face of the old mansion and then turned back and sat listening to the breeze squeal way up in the crenellations.
"We are here, Daddy," he said. And he wept.
The knock was loud. He heard it from his bedroom where he had been making a wood puzzle on the floor. He could hear the housekeeper down in the hall. "Out, out, out," and he thought a cat from the courtyard must have got in after his mother’s canary. And then he heard boots and shouting. When he went to the banister he saw them in the hall, some had opened doors to his father’s study and the dining room and he saw men head down the backstairs to the servants’ quarters and the cellar and they giggled as they did so. They all had long coats and caps pulled down and some wore cloth across their mouths and some had the puttees about their legs like the Tommys of the great war.
"Out, out, out," she kept saying, then a black-capped man jabbed up the peak of his cap with his pistol and said, "Where’s himself?"
He stood at the banister and he was terrified and did not hear the butler Mr Jones come across the landing and rush past him down the stairs. When he got to the last step the men rushed him and caught hold of him and the black-capped man beat him on the head with the butt of his pistol. He lay on the floor with the blood flowing off his head onto the white collars of his livery. The black-capped man walked away and leaned into a portrait on the wall. Then he stepped back and shot the brass dinner gong beneath it.
"Dinner is served gentlemen," he said, and the men laughed. It was then he noticed the boy at the banister. He looked back at the men and pointed with his pistol up the stairs.
"Come down child," he said. "Join the party."
The boy ran away but the men caught him and brought him down the stairs.
The black-capped man turned back to Mr Jones. He took some flowers out of a vase and threw the water on his face. The butler flinched sharply and wiped his eyes.
"Where’s his lordship?" the man asked.
"Never," he said.
The man went to the glass doors and looked out across the back gardens. Then he glanced back to the butler, giving tiny meditative nods.
He flicked his head and some men disappeared out the front door and could be seen moments later race across the back lawns with their guns diagonal across their bodies, seeming to skewer them. He dreaded to think of his father’s face when they came upon him; his mother’s face, for he knew she was with him. They walked a lot together since he came home from the war. He walked with his wife in the bluebells in the woods and about the lawns and they’d sit for long spells in the summer against a tree down by the river and their son would sit with them until he became bored. They were lucky. They were lucky to have his father, though he knew his father was not the same. He’d heard the staff say it: The war put him odd; walking about the demesne at all hours, out to the gate-lodge and back around and out to the woods and keeping the game-keeper and gardener from their work and he’d take his wife with him sometimes and sit with a picnic by the river and there’d be no orders given to the cook for dinner and they’d wander back to Somerville drunk from the brandy, both of them, singing and hugging like Parisians.
He’d sat with his father not many days before. On the stone bench by the roses. His father gazing at them half-eyed, like there was effort in it or effort elsewhere in his mind and he needn’t tax it more with a full beauty.
"Daddy," the boy said.
"Yes?" he said, sleepily.
"What was war like?"
His father did not answer, just gazed at the flowers for a long time and the boy came to regret being there and regret asking him about the war, as his mother had.
"War," he said finally, exhaling.
But he said no more and the boy looked up at the clouds drifting across the sky and he figured the darker clouds were the colour of a bitten plum or like giant bruises. He closed his eyes for a time and opened them to where he’d judged they’d drifted, then he picked another cloud and closed his eyes again.
His father said then: "You hate a man you never knew. Can’t explain it. The Bosch has a wife and child just as you have. You pray to God above that He’ll let you widow his wife, leave his boy fatherless and not he yours. It’s a terrible thing that puts a mind to only the love of his family and the destroying of another man’s. They’ll tell you, Destroy enough – you’ll go home."
"And you did, Daddy. You came home."
"I did my son. Only –"
His son waited for him to speak but he did not speak, just as before.
Then, after a while: "Only they tell me out beyond the gate that it’s not my home. Must’ve followed me back, war. A rabid dog. I walk around now, just to wash these things out."
He pushed his thumb and finger into his eyelids and rubbed them and brought his hand over his brow and up through his greying hair to hold the back of his head. They sat there for a while longer then rose and walked across the lawn and they could see his mother at the window, watching them at the turn of the stairs.
He watched his father and mother cross that lawn now. The men were behind his father and his father had his hands in the air and his mother walked alongside him, looking toward the house then up into the face of her husband who turned his head away toward the orchard and the greenhouses then across to the raised garden where the net of the tennis court slung low to the ground. He could see his mother beckon the men in the stables and he could tell they would not come for her hand collapsed wretchedly to her side and he could see the tears in her eyes and when she looked back to her husband his head shook faintly.
When his parents were brought into the great hall they saw Mr Jones lying on the floor with blood about his face and in lines off his temples into his hair and his ears. His father rushed to him and pulled him up. Mr Jones pulled his uniform straight on his body and fixed his sleeves and buttons and steadied himself for a moment – then he socked the black-capped man square in the nose. The man stepped back and cupped his nose for a moment then held out his hand for inspection. He wiped the blood on his coat and stepped forward and shot Mr Jones in the chest. He fell to the floor near where he had lain previous. His father rushed the man but the others stopped him and held their guns at his face. The black-capped man went over and shot Mr Jones again. The noise was terrible and some winced at it but his father just stood staring down at the dead man with a daydream-glaze to his eyes, the way he had the roses.
"You will regret that, Sir," he said.
"You going to arrest me, lord? Your days of jailer are over. Eight hundred years late – but over. Believe me."
"Years from now," his father said, still gazing down at the body. "Walking about Killarney on a day-trip with your wife and children and grandchildren when your hair is greyer than mine, you’ll think of that man there. And there’ll be no bars and no key. But you’ll be stuck here, in this house, with him."
They took his parents out the front door and down the steps and the boy followed them out and joined them in the grass at the edge of the turnaround. The men stood away from them with their guns pointed and husband and wife and son stood watching the black-capped man with a bloodied face put a match to the curtains in the window. They could hear the staff running into the trees out to the demesne wall and he could see stable-boys and garden workers heading down the avenue toward the road, looking back at intervals and he thought they sniggered.
The black-capped man came out onto the steps and paused to survey the land and the trees then he walked down the steps onto the gravel of the turnaround and walked toward the woods behind them. As he passed he spoke to them.
"Good evening, planters," he said.
They watched the house burn through the evening and into the night and when they could not stand any longer they sat in the grass and watched it as though it were a bonfire they’d come to enjoy. They did not speak. They listened to the fire and watched it and they watched it rise into the black sky. His father reached for his hand and his wife’s hand and he held them on his lap.
"This is war, my wife, my son."
They did not speak for a long time but sat staring into the flames and now again his father would squeeze gently their hands and drop his head down to them then look back up to the house.
Somewhere in the night he said, "But we are here."
And the boy said, "We are, Daddy."
The Planters by Mel O'Doherty is one of the ten shortlisted stories from this year's Short Story Competition in honour of Francis MacManus. The three judges of this year's awards were writer Liz Nugent, RTÉ's arts and media correspondent Sinéad Crowley, and Declan Meade, publisher of The Stinging Fly. The programme was produced by Sarah Binchy. Listen to more entries here.