Mícheál Ó Conghaile is one of Ireland's great writers. Born and based in Connemara, Galway, Micheál, a member of Aos Dána established the publishing house, Cló Iar-Chonnacht in 1985. This short story The Colours of Man has been translated from Gaeilge by Gabriel Rosenstock
The Colours of Man- Micheál Ó Conghaile
I was with him that night. Indeed, I was the last person to see
him, bolting the gate from the inside. He was wearing a red
polo neck, blue jeans, and a scarf the colours of Man United.
I thought he was in great spirits that night. We started
off in Greens. Couldn’t say exactly what time. It was well
after seven, maybe nearer eight. You have to go out early on
Sunday nights. You have to have an early start, he used to
say, cursing the pubs. Ten o’clock was no hour to be closing,
not at all. Not that he would drink an awful lot; he liked a
few pints, that’s all. Craving for a drink wasn’t what brought
him to the pubs.
He had four pints that night. I’m sure he had no more.
He was only out for the company, like myself. The fun. The
lads. Meeting people, that’s what he wanted. I don’t think I
ever saw him stuck to a seat in a pub. He’d normally be
standing at the counter, gabbing away. He’d stop people
going by and pick on them, or pretend to, or ask them about
something. They’d talk of drink, dances, football, women.
He’d an eye for the ladies, like myself. What’s the harm in
that? A young lad. He would have been twenty-one next
autumn. I don’t think he was going steady with anyone at
the time. I’d have known. Pauline had left him a long while
ago, coming and going. Róisín, he dropped. She was no
good, he said. None of us had a woman with us that night.
There was nothing cooking in Greens. We went off to
Doody’s. It was coming up to nine. The music was great, but
we were packed like sardines. We stayed there until closing
time. It was good crack. We spent most of the night with the
lads. Sussed the place out a few times, but got nothing. Bit of
skirt there all right, talkative and lively among themselves,
until you’d say something to them. We tried our best with
them, but it was useless. They’d too many excuses. Didn’t
want to dance. Had boyfriends of their own. Had no interest
in us. They were in company. Most of them looked at us
brazenly, sour-faced. All we were after, in the heel of the hunt,
was sex, or so they seemed to be telling us. We didn’t care.
We finished at the disco. We didn’t leave the corner of
the hall until we’d demolished a six-pack one of the lads had
brought in under his coat. The place was packed. We spent
the rest of the night on the scent. ‘How ya, how’s it going?’
We elbowed our way into groups. Circular groups knitted
together. We weren’t always welcome. They didn’t need us.
Too busy whispering, acting the fool, repeating stories.
We moved about. Spoke to a lot of people. Got the odd
dance too. I remember he danced his heart out. He’d always
liked a bit of footwork and that night was no different. As I
said, he hadn’t much taken and he had his wits about him.
He danced to all types of music and fairly shook the floor.
The Boomtown Rats had the most effect on him: ‘I Don’t
Like Mondays’. He liked the music, the movements, and he
moved with them. He would sing the words with gusto.
Knew them all. I was out dancing too. You’d think by the
end of the night that he hadn’t got much out of it; or maybe
I’m just thinking that now.
‘We didn’t do too good,’ I said, ragging him a bit. ‘Not a
skirt or even a hem.’
He lit a fag. Inhaled deeply. A tunnel of smoke came from
his rounded mouth.
‘Says who? What put it in your head it was a woman I
That stopped me in my tracks. For a second it wasn’t him
that was there at all. Somehow it wasn’t him, but then it was
I made little of the outburst. ‘You wouldn’t say that now
if you had an armful of one, or if you were saddling one up
for yourself after the first whiff.’
He pretended not to react, but I saw signs of a smile on
his mouth. He took another drag. Suddenly he burst out
laughing. It was after one o’clock by then.
We spent about another hour hovering around outside.
Someone took off to the chipper and came back with burgers
and chips. We were messing around, lighting up, blathering
and arguing about women. In praise, in blame, and,
sometimes, in judgement. The Sunday match was talked
about. The team was blamed; the referee damned. We talked
about powerful motorbikes; Suzukis were praised and others.
The great big cars we would like to drive some day if we won
the Lotto. The Subarus and the BMWs that the joyriders in
Dublin go for. We cracked a few jokes. Some of them foul.
Someone mentioned the casinos. We’ll go. It’s too early
to go home. Who’d want to go home this early? Would we
go or not? What’s the point? What’s the point going home?
We have to go somewhere. Eventually a gang of them went
there. Everybody, except the two of us, myself and himself.
We went straight home. I asked him into the house for a
while; it was fast approaching three o’clock. I knew the old
folks would be asleep and we’d have the place to ourselves.
In we go. I plugged in the kettle. Put out an ashtray. Took
down the coffee and biscuits. Two hours we spent talking,
about this and that, at our leisure.
We’d been to the same school and we talked about it.
We’d left the same year. Dole after that. Often doing nothing.
Quiet during the week and out at the weekends. Sleeping it
off in the mornings. Doing the odd little job, here and there.
Half thinking of going to England. Never did. Stuck around
Galway. The odd trip to Dublin. He’d often say, actually, that
he would like to live there. That was one of his plans. We
talked about the girls we had ... the type of woman we’d like
to settle down with someday ... films we enjoyed ... countries
we’d visit ... the type of work we’d like to get. Work that
would bring us money and bring meaning to our lives.
He’d stay until morning, you’d imagine, if I could keep
up with him. No sign of sleep at all on him. From watching
him and listening to him, you’d think he was only coming
into his own. At last, whether I liked it or not, my eyes began
to close and I conked out on the sofa.
‘Wake up!’ he said rudely, giving me a good shake. He
stubbed out a butt in the ashtray. ‘It’s time I went home.’
I roused myself. It was making for five a.m. He wrapped
his scarf around his neck. I was only thinking of sleep,
exhausted. Strange, though, that I should walk out with him,
and his people’s house only a couple of hundred yards down
the road. Maybe it was just to fill my lungs with fresh air
before sleeping, to sharpen up a bit? Anyway, I went out with
Down the road we go, in the faintly brightening morning.
That walk, that time of the night, I often remember now, as
though a spirit were following me, a ghost. It was chilly. No
light shone from any house. He didn’t say a word along the
way. I often thought since then that I would have been happy
had he spoke – about anything – so that I would remember
that journey. We stood at the gate a mere moment. All I
wanted – and I hate saying it now – was to hurry off home
out of the cold.
A sharp knock on my bedroom door woke me. It was
only seven. It was my mother – to break the bad news. News
that left me frozen, lifeless in the bed for a long while. Who’d
ever think it? What a weak and miserable little bird was this
world, the way you could change it so drastically with the
flick of a wrist.
What had he been bottling up all this time? Now,
suddenly, I had a thousand questions to ask him. Wasn’t I in
the same boat as him? That’s what I wanted to say. What a
pity he hadn’t told me of this plan, if he had it planned at
all; I was his best friend. He played a trick on me and he
won. In a way, it was easy to blame him.
I remember now, I
felt nausea and even anger. I didn’t know rightly what to do.
I didn’t go to the funeral at all. I couldn’t. I took one
single look at him in the coffin, that’s all. I wanted to die
myself. It was worth dying. We might be together again, the
two of us and, if not, could it be any worse than now?
I was brought up to the graveyard some days later. They
thought it might help me; that I’d have to go early or it
would get worse with the passing of time. I could spend my
whole life and never go there.
It taught me a lot. I understood things properly, I think,
for the first time. Life was over, for ever. Football matches
were over ... hanging around street corners ... winking at the
girls ... all the plans we had ever made.
I won’t visit the grave ever again, I’d say. It’s safer that
way. The grave’s teeth are sharp; they’ve gone through me
already. No, that’s not how it should be. That’s not how I
want to remember him. I’d prefer to remember him young,
full of fun, twenty years old, bursting with vigour, free and
easy. And the two of us planning something new.
I visited his people that evening. I thought it best to get
it over with. They were welcoming and friendly. Considerate.
We drank a cup of coffee together. Coffee and biscuits. We
were very nice to each other. The most difficult part, for me,
was to know what to talk about. I spoke about him. They
spoke about me, about themselves, about life, even about the
weather, about everything. I decided not to go near them
again for a good while.
I prefer now not to bring it up in conversation. I talk to
myself about it a lot. Asking myself and tormenting myself.
I haven’t started answering myself properly yet. Maybe that’s
the way it suits him? That’s why, maybe, he never told me
anything. I’m the best friend he ever had, you see. He
respected me too, I’m sure of that.
Do you know, sometimes when I stroll downtown I half
expect to see him. He’ll come loping around some street
corner, his hands sunk deep in his pockets, keenly gazing at
the world around him, whistling brightly the latest tune in
And I was with him that night. Indeed, in a strange way I’m
happy that it was me who last set eyes on him ... bolting the
gate from the inside. He wore a red polo neck. A red polo
neck, old blue jeans, and a scarf the colours of man.