The last true and final peace had been struck. Instead of the raucous celebration we all expected (not to mention the undying adulation of the people sure to follow), we found ourselves greeted with silence and sullen stares. Our services were no longer required, it seemed. In the awkward dawn of a new era, we bid one another farewell. I watched as my comrades faded one by one into the crowds, then into the countryside, and then into the mist.
I had plenty of time on my hands and no money in my pockets.
I stopped in at the bureau, which was empty save for a lone clerk who eyed me suspiciously over his glasses, which were hopelessly outdated, and therefore, in fashion.
“Your name?”, he asked.
I gave it, as it was all I had left to give.
He picked his way through a rather large assortment of files, muttering as he did so. No real words, not even curse words, just some sort of bureaucratic speaking in tongues that pencil pushers erupt into when they’ve reached the depths of their uselessness.
“Aha! It says here you’re dead!” he exclaimed triumphantly, waving a rather thick folder over his head.
“Clearly, I am not.”
He jabbed his index finger at the name on the file. “This is your name, is it not?”
“Yes. It is also my father’s name, and his father’s, and so on. Keep looking. I’ll be the alive one.”
The clerk glowered at me and mumbled something about my family being “unimaginative but consistent”. He narrowed his search until he found a file with no death date and began reading. At length he sighed, relaxing his shoulders, and looked up at me.
“What is it that you want?”
He snorted derisively. “There are no benefits for volunteers. Save the plot when it’s your turn. That’s a part of it. As you know.”
“Surely you can help me find some sort of employment?”
At the word employment his whole demeanor changed from frustrated to fascinated, as if I’d revealed we shared an eccentric interest like underwater basket-weaving, or the keeping and breeding of racing snails.
“Well of course! What is it that you do?”
“Er. Well, I’ve only ever done the one thing…”
“What about your education?”
I felt my face burning and struggled to maintain eye contact. “I have an interest in history.”
The man’s eyes softened a bit and he looked at me with what seemed to be genuine sympathy.
“I think we may be able to find you something,” he said softly.
The Ministry of Cultural Resources assigned me to a position in a small town in the Derryveagh mountains. The job description was vague—“distribution of information and materials relating to history and culture”. But the little town itself was familiar to me, as I had spent many happy summers there as a child. I was both hopeful and apprehensive upon my arrival.
The Ministry had arranged for my temporary lodgings at the home of a woman sympathetic to the plight of men like myself. After a brief tea with polite conversation that did not include a further description of my new job, she pointed me towards the town diamond, where she said I would meet the man with whom I would be working.
“I reckon you’ll know him when you see him,” she said.
And know him I did, for who did I find but Phil, my old friend and comrade in arms. Good old Phil, looking twenty years older than the last time I saw him. Phil, my mentor and hero, guide in all endeavors, sitting on a blanket, selling all manner of paddywhackery and knick-knacks to tourists.
Thankfully I saw him first. I watched him for some time, until my heart dislodged itself from my throat and found it’s way into the pit of my stomach. So this was what they had in mind for us. We were to be cultural relics ourselves, dusty old museum pieces, not worth much, mind you, but good for cheap entertainment.
There was nothing for it but a bad joke. I sidled my way up to him and shouted—
“Phil! What in God’s name are you doing?”
He fair jumped out of his skin with shock, and upon seeing it was only me, turned crimson with shame.
“Ah, Jesus mucker, if I’d known you were coming, I’d—”
“Mór mo náire,” I intoned in an old hag’s voice, “mo chlann féin do dhíol a–“
“Oh, fuck off!”
I couldn’t help but laugh and clapped him on the shoulder as I sat down next to him. He wouldn’t look at me and I could feel the heat of shame and anger rolling off of him in waves.
“It’s alright, Philip,” I said. “We’re both in the same boat, just as always.”
We sat in silence for some time.
“Remember when we used to come here, when we were kids?” he said.
I nodded. “It hasn’t changed all that much.”
“No. Well, yes, actually. All of the old people are gone. And they’re the only one’s who’d appreciate us, to tell the truth of it.”
The mention of the old ones lit a faint spark of joy in me.
“Remember old Desmond? God, he was great craic. Had a million stories, that one.”
“Aye. We’ve only just missed him, apparently. He died late last year. Pneumonia. His place up in the hills in still there, just sitting, empty.”
It was a lovely home, very old and remote. Desmond had liked his company alright, but he wanted to know when it was coming. There wasn’t another house for miles around from his own, and it was so remote you couldn’t reach it with a car, but had to walk the last four miles uphill and on foot.
“Empty,” I heard my self repeating. Phil turned and looked at me.
“What are you thinking of? Going to have a look?”
“Maybe more than a look. Maybe to stay for a while. Sure, who would know the difference?”
He swallowed hard. “I hear you, but it’s not as if…we’d have nothing to eat, nor coal…and the landlady would be sure to tell someone we’ve wandered off this…fucking reservation, or what ever this is…they’re not just going to let us bandits wander around up in the mountains…”
“What’s so funny?”
“You said ‘we’ and ‘us’. I didn’t say anything about you going.”
“I’ll go,” said Phil.
Autumn was growing long in the tooth when we made our move late one afternoon. A boy with a pickup gave us a lift up into the hills and let us off where the road ended. As we walked in silence, a heavy fog began to drift in around us. It chilled my skin, but the steep hike kept me warm inside. Phil was shivering.
“I don’t want to go back down there to all that, but after a few days or so, seriously, where would we go?”
I had given that some serious and sober thought. It seemed to me that there was nothing left for us in our own country. That only left one direction.
“We could cross the border,” I said quietly. Phil didn’t stop walking, but I saw a catch in his step.
There was only a sliver of daylight left once we reached Desmond’s old place. The door was unlocked, the coal bin full. There was enough canned and dried food left in the pantry for about three days. There was a bunk bed in the guest room and Desmond’s bed sat made in his room. I checked his wardrobe where I knew he kept an old rifle. It was gone, as were his other personal possessions, including his books.
“Guess he must have needed them on the other side,” Phil quipped.
“Eh, he’s welcome to them.” I made a fire and sat down. Phil took a seat in the kitchen. I could just make out his silhouette in the dim light.
“Never in my life,” he said, “did I expect this. So many other things, but not this. You know? A choice between that life down there, and this…are you sure about crossing the border? Because I’m not, my friend. Not just yet anyway.”
I had felt in my heart he wouldn’t go with me, not just yet. I didn’t begrudge him the decision. He had his brother and his sisters, his nieces and nephews; they would provide him with the smallest of human comforts over the years to come, just enough to keep him going along. I had none of those things. I had foregone them all for years in order to get what I wanted. Or what I’d been told I’d wanted, anyway, and for my whole life. And here I had gotten it and there was no one to share it with. No foe to hold my prize in front of his face and declare myself the victor. Just an empty cottage on the border of an empty country.
“I am sure,” I said. “And when you do come along, I’ll be there.” I smiled at him. I couldn’t see if he was smiling back. “And I’m sure I won’t be alone when you get there. There’ll be a lot of us, I expect.”
“I expect so. Will you be alright here by yourself, then?”
I dozed off. When I woke, the fire had died and Phil had gone. I stayed in Desmond’s empty house for three days.
And then I walked across the border.