Rory Duffy, The Fifth Why

I start to read about it on the bus. Bob Dylan is thrumming a prayer into my ears while the rain streaks the windows like long wet hair. Outside the hedgy night rushes by. Nothing from around our village ever gets in the papers, not even that time when one of the Dolan’s won a heap of money on the lottery. This story is on the front page though! It gives details in black and white for all to see. The words, like little blades, keep nicking at me, loping shards from an inner skin. As the details unfurl from between the words, the little cuts get deeper and began to weep guilty blood. “Smashed Lives” is the header, followed by line after line of graphic detail. Nouns and adjectives poke at me.

As we pass through each village and town the photo flashes neon in the yellow street lights. My eyes scratch and feel like they have tiny grains of sand sloshing about in them. It says that Peter’s car left the road near Dennigan’s Cross and that speed may have been a factor. I wonder if his emotional state was a factor too. The car doesn’t look too bad. It resembles a great black insect lying on its back, wrapped in a the spindly fingers of blackthorn and ragwort. I remember one of the girls in my house telling me that people often bleed to death while waiting for an ambulance when it’s out in the country.

The bus is populated with two main groups of people, those who have gone into Galway for the day to get shopping and those who are based in Galway and are going home for the weekend, students and shop workers. The day trippers are drooping, heavy handed with shopping and stories, bags and shoes, bargains and frowns. The woman in front is showing a pale blue shoe to her balding husband who is reading a paper.

“They’re for the dinner dance,” she says.

“They’ll go perfect with that blue dress.”

She sounds excited. He nods, mumbles something and goes back to his paper. She tuts.

Others going home are younger, mostly students judging by their haircuts and skinny jeans. I see no-one from my course on the bus, no one else sad enough to want to study Health & Safety Management. Paddy Mulvey is at the front though.

“The oldest student in town,” my father calls him. He works behind the bar in the Quays and is a bit of a legend around home. They say he never finished college and he never went home from Galway. I heard him one time telling Sally Dempsey how he met all the greats over the years, The Saw Doctors, Sea Sick Steve and Damian Rice. I knew he was just trying to get off with her though. He even said he met Dylan once when he dropped in for a pint.

Daddy picks me up from the bus. I know the shape of the Jaguar headlights and I can see the little orange glow of his cigar in the dark. I want a smoke too but I know that even if I could hide it from him, mammy would know the minute I got home. The rain is coming down in plopping clumps and I have to skip-dance across the puddled road to the car. Daddy is grumpy. He just nods at me and mumbles before driving off, his wheels spinning on the glassy road. As we pass the rusting carcass of the mart he says he heard about the accident Thursday night from one of the lads in the GAA club. He says it’s a terrible carry on altogether. I wonder if he knows about me and Peter. If he does know he doesn’t let on. Under the drumming night I think to myself how Mammy would go mad if she knew I was going out with Peter, a boy from the terraces. As we drive the rest of the way home the rain makes two peppered tubes of light in front of us. When we come to our gate they suddenly swing off the road and up between the hedges that line what mammy calls the “avenue” but daddy calls the lane. The wet leaves spangle as the light bounces and dances. Daddy’s big wheels crunch up across the gravel to the front door. He jumps out and heads around the back to put the mower away. I can hear him swearing about the rain as his phone starts to sing. I go into the porch and kick off my trainers.

“Do you want soup,” mammy shouts from the kitchen.

“Terrible news about Peter!”she adds before I get a chance to reply.

“Sounds like his passenger isn’t going to make it either.”

“I didn’t know there was a passenger?” I say shakily as I pad, sock-footed into the kitchen. She looks at me with an intensity I haven’t seen since Packeen got the bad chest infection.

“You don’t know who was in the car with him?” she winces.

“You’re scaring me mammy,” I say. “Who was in the car with him?”

Daddy comes tromping in through the back door and shakes himself from the rain.

“Maureen was in the car with him,” Mammy says quietly.

“Maureen Connaughton!” I cough.

Daddy puts his big arm around my shoulder. He smells of cigars, cut grass and a hint of musky aftershave. He squeezes me slightly and sighs.

“Sweetheart,” he says, “Maureen died an hour ago, got a call from Danny just now. A terrible business altogether.”

We have combined several jobs by coming into town today. We’ve gone to visit Packeen inside in Saint Teresa’s, we’ve had dinner out, and, we’ve come to the removal after. Mammy said it was like a day off after we went and got a carvery dinner in the Lodge. The gravy alone was worth it daddy said. In Saint Teresa’s the nuns were all soft talk about the accident, their faces drooping like unwatered plants. Packeen didn’t notice. He just continued to twiddle his fingers around each other, humming and sucking on the sweets we brought. Mammy ended the visit in the usual way. Me and daddy knew it was coming and let her take control of the leaving part. About three years ago I asked daddy why she got so upset leaving Packeen each week. He said that it was as if Packeen was some sort of mistake that she alone had made, as if she had simply pushed too hard.

While me and daddy wait for mammy in the car park, I find myself staring at a plump baby thrush. His mammy is feeding him. He is speckled and his wings are not really flapping, they’re more whimpering. She flies off into the bushes and the baby bird just stands there. I want it to go into the hedge, to hide, to wait until it’s mother comes back but it doesn’t. We drive silently to the funeral home.

Now, as I queue, I think to myself that Peter has paid the ultimate price for not knowing about Packeen.

“I kissed those lips,” I think as I shuffle along under the drone of mourners.
Peter’s family are all standing except for his mother. She is seated at the end of the terrace of hand shakers; a bungalow at the end of the black bricked street. Her curtains are closed. Daddy is in front and I can hear mammy behind me making small talk. I have the hand of Peters uncle Jim before his mother catches sight of me.

I chose Health & Safety Management because daddy said he would get me work if I studied it. I especially like root cause analysis where you try to figure out the five why’s of an event. With the five whys you keep asking why after each link in the chain of events. Right now I am thinking of the possible root causes of Peter’s accident. Speed, brakes, mechanical failure, drink, sex! I’m also thinking that both me and Packeen could be on the list.

The line shuffles along. A big calloused hand grabs mine. Peter’s dad pulls me in towards him. His arms come around me and I smell the whiskey and cigarettes off his breath.

“Mary,” he says, “thanks so much for coming.”

“I’m sorry for your loss Malachy,” I whisper. He lets go of me and I hover sideways until I am directly in front of Sheila. She stands up. I feel slightly dizzy. She takes my hand.

“Mary, you poor pet,” she oozes. “You must feel terrible,” she adds, as her face begins to change. My heart is pounding as I try to answer her.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” is all I can say.

The five whys principle usually ends up with something that you can identify as the root cause of the accident. In the case of a cracked rung on a ladder causing a fall, you would ask why no one checked the ladder before using it. This may well be that there was no procedure or habit of checking the ladder. The solution to this is to put in place a procedure. Problem solved! This is not where you stop though, that is only three whys, two more to go. The fourth would say, why was there no procedure put in place? Again, the answer may be, because the owner of the company didn’t put one in place. When we ask why he or she didn’t put a procedure in place we arrive at answer number five, the fifth why.

I need a smoke. Mam and dad left quickly straight after. They said they’d talk to me about it later. Relatives are scowling at me over their steaming tea. I go out the back of the funeral home to where I know the smokers idle. I shuffle my pockets for a cigarette. I have none. I look up to see who I know. Paddy Mulvey is at the far end of the little alley. He looks drunk. I decide not to ask him. A deep rumbling voice over my shoulder says, “here, have one of these.” Peters dad has come out to get away from the mayhem that just ensued inside. His big hands push the packet at me.

“Thanks Malachy,” I say.

He shuffles slightly and leans his big frame back against the wall. He takes a long intake of air through his nose.

“So what really happened between you two?” he asks quietly. I hesitate, spin inside, colour my thoughts.

“He called Packeen a spastic!” I lie. He sighs and takes a long draw on his cigarette. It glows brightly, an orange beacon against his Black Sea.

“I don’t like that word!” he says. He drops the cigarette and screws it into the gravel with his long brogue. He places his hand on my shoulder and turns to go. Then he hesitates, turns back to me and says,

“I’ll explain to his mother when things calm down. Maybe you’ll forgive her for the outburst.”

His shoulders droop towards the ground and he is limping slightly.

“Mind yourself,” he says over his shoulder.

“Thanks,” I mouth.

Guilt punches at me. It punches me in the pit of my stomach. I run. I run as fast as I can down into the small high street.

“It wasn’t a complete lie!” I pant to myself outside the butchers.

I lurch along the cracked footpath past the post office with the sun bleached circus poster. Down past the derelict cattle mart buildings until I am opposite St. Teresa’s. There is a dead bird on the road. It might be a thrush.

“I should have told Peter about Pakeen,” I think to myself.

Just then the first misty drops of rain begin to form orange cones under the street lights. I shiver. A car with a loose exhaust makes itself known to the street and trundles towards me. Paddy Mulvey pulls up in his fathers jangling van. His wheel stops just beside the dead bird.

“Do you want a lift there, honey,” he slurs, a packet of cigarettes on the dashboard. I get in.

Rory Duffy has had work published in Southword, Crannóg, The Stony Thursday Book and Penduline Press. In 2016 Rory was 3rd in the PJ O’Connor Award and was shortlisted for the Frances MacManus Award. In 2017 Rory was nominated for a ZeBBie Award and was highly commended for the Sean O’Faoláin Prize.

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