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Gabriel’s Lark

J. Vincent Moran

Copyright (c) J. Vincent Moran 2018

First published in Ireland by

The Limerick Writers’ Centre

12 Barrington Street

Limerick, Ireland

All rights reserved

No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form

or by any means, electronic or mechanical without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

Book design: Stephen Riordan

Cover Image: Dominic Taylor

ISBN 978-1-3701896-9-4

A CIP catalogue number for this publication is available from The British Library


Gabriel’s Lark is a dramatic and, more often than not, humorous novel about travel, independence, the struggle to find employment, and the dedication to family life. Its narrative weaves its way from Ireland and across continental Europe where adventures and hijinks lay waiting for Gabriel Costello, a young father and husband with an itch for adventure and a responsibility to provide for his family.

Gabriel’s decent into chaos amid a snapshot of Europe will have you gripping to turn the page. From drunken misadventures in France to brushes with the law in Germany, there is no shortage of excitement in J. Vincent Moran’s debut novel.

Chapter One

Gabriel Costello was in an agitated state of mind. But that was not unusual. It was early morning, and he was doing his rounds in his job of supervision, ensuring everything worked efficiently. It was a job he hated. Outwardly, he looked every bit the professional; he was attentive to duty, and his eyes revealed no evidence of inner turmoil. For those happy to have found their vocation in life, this might be the thrill of another working day on the factory floor. For Gabriel, however, it was nothing less than a treadmill to retirement, and beyond the unfulfilled climax of a boring life.

As he stepped wearily forward along the factory floor, he found himself looking through the proper workings of each machine to a crystal ball that suddenly unearthed an imaginary robot in his mind. It seemed to be scoffing at him, and he felt pulverized by its bleak vision, for it suggested a fate worse than death!

But it also prompted something else: escape from a mechanical existence that might wrench him free from dawn-to- dusk drudgery, from hurried breakfasts and out-the-door departures, from rush-hour warfare with motorists striving for advantage, and above all, from selling his soul to monstrous contraptions belting grating sounds that resonated in his ears long after he exited the factory gates each miserable rain-drenched evening.

Indeed, from everything that constituted mindless conformity to a daily routine, even if that meant getting away from the woman he had married and who had borne him four beautiful children, for it was she who had kept him firmly tied to that millstone, ceaselessly reminding him, like something of a broken record, of his responsibilities as husband and father.

The alternative, his imaginary robot reminded him, was to forfeit his existence to falsehood, and eke out a dull existence as a phoney human being. God-awful!

Advancing ostensibly, like a diligent soldier along the factory floor, notepad in hand, he cast a jaundiced eye over the figures tending their machines, slavishly committed to lives of voluntary drudgery out of touch with their real selves.

And he, unwittingly, one of them.

Somewhere deep in far-off woods, reclusive words he had once read in distant pages stalked him. And they reminded him he was right there in the middle of that conformist herd, quietly succumbing to a life of quiet desperation destined to go down in the soil with the song of life buried inside of him. He shuddered. Sooner or later he would have to obey the inner call.

Or die.

But how? Like those around him for whom he nurtured secret contempt, Gabriel knew he was trapped. His job told him he was in it for life. Ditto his marriage, which, because of its Catholic vows, enshrined permanent servitude. The former guaranteed subsistence, through money; the latter enslavement through the only known earthly purpose beyond religious speculation. He was, of course, only too painfully aware that propagating the species was central to the survival of the human race, and he, albeit unintentionally, was playing his part in that vital process.

But on a personal fulfilment level, where an undiscovered world beckoned to him outside the cage-like twin-windows of a marital home surrounded by factory walls, it seemed peripheral because it demanded he live his life in a cul-de-sac. A dead end! Surely there had to be something more than just marriage, children, domestics, and, most of all, the irritating roar of monstrous machines. Better to hear the roar of the waves on the high seas.

For long, Sophia Bianconi, the woman he married, had suspected something amiss behind the façade he had built up over the years. Apart from periodic bouts of moodiness always wrapped in silence, and warded off with the excuse -- “it’s the pressures of the job” – he gave her no clues as to what burnt inside his head. And helping him do it was his raucous laugh scoffing at the crystal ball and its ghastly prophecy. a laugh that with the help of alcohol copper-fastened the lie that was his life.

Feminine intuition, however, told Sophia that Gabriel’s moods were a direct result of his secret yearning for more freedom from his responsibilities – to be cut loose from the drudgery of the kitchen sink! But in the altruistic marital spirit of better or worse she endured his introspections without rancour because she did not want to lose him. She was determined to save their marriage, if not for herself, then for their children. For didn’t four of them need a father?

But, of late, she had become touchy, and the cause was not his moods, or the irritating volume and sheer length of his loud guffaws that attempted to hide them, but his increasing diversions to Flanagan’s pub on his way home from work where he usually downed three, four (sometimes more) pints of Guinness before stumbling in around seven or eight each evening. Drink had become his analgesic, and a laughing, if not laughable excuse for avoiding rush-hour traffic.

For Sophia, it had become a catalyst for venting frustration on a husband harbouring a discontent he was not prepared to talk about, or even discuss. As he burst in the front door, his breath smelling of liquor, she suddenly remarked: “Could you ever quieten down that stupid laugh of yours? You sound like a bloody donkey.”

The venom of her insult halted Gabriel in his tracks, and an apology was in his head, but it didn’t find his lips as he staggered to the kitchen table, and slumped into a chair. He had hoped to make light of his lateness home with reference to the weather, how wet it was, and would the rain ever stop. That avenue of escape had now evaporated.

But Sophia wasn’t quite finished. “And that doesn’t mean you have to bloody-well drink like one too,” she added caustically, “diverting to that bloody pub every evening, and getting home late. Your place is here with your wife and family.” Stalling nervously to find the right words, she added more angrily than she had intended: “What the hell kept you this time?”

Gabriel banged his fist on the table. He was physically – and mentally - exhausted, but he found the strength to respond. “Don’t use that sort of language in front of my kids!” he rasped, his voice shaking, while vaguely aware through the stupor in his head that her gripe had a ring of legitimacy about it. As the storm rose up around him he sensed the savoury scent of his dinner marking time in the oven, but all he could see was red sprawling all over his wounded ego.

Undeterred, Sophia continued her attack: “Your kids? Since when did a man give birth to children? You don’t know how good you have it!”

“Yeah. You deliver them, and we carry them. It’s not a one way street you know,” Gabriel retorted furiously.

“It is to you, en route to your buddies in the bar. You think you can saunter in here any old time you like, and expect to be served?”

“That’s what I pay you for.”

Sophia looked at him with contempt. “Drop dead!”

Gabriel turned to their two eldest children sitting at the other end of the table doing their homework, and, trying to restore calm, said: “Go to your rooms while I discuss this with your mother? Off you go now children. And be good!”

“Trying to get them out of the way, are you? Afraid they’ll learn the truth?

What do you mean by that remark?” Gabriel was stunned. “What do you mean!” Then, lowering his voice again he trained his eyes on the children once more: “Michelle, Siobhan, go your room. Quickly.” The girls snapped their books shut, stuffed them into their bags, with pencils and pens, and stood up. Sophia cut across his bow: “Stay where you are girls. Don’t mind him.”

“Michelle, Siobhan! Go to your room! That’s an order! Go! Now!”

Mam, we’d better.” Michelle eyes moistened in the familiar murky depths of a parental tug-of-war. She had witnessed it all before. “C’mon Siobhan.” With their satchels perilously tucked under their armpits, they hurried up the stairs, casting furtive, accusing, frightened glances behind them. Training his eyes on Sophia, now looking slightly unsure, Gabriel demanded. “What truth are you talking about? C’mon! Out with it.’

“You know what I mean.”

“I don’t know what you fucking mean. C’mon out with it.”

“Mind your language.”

“Never mind my language. Out with it!”

Sophia hesitated. “There was a phone-call. A person called Josephine…she was looking for you.”

“Are you suggesting I’m having an affair!”

“Who is she?”

“You fucking eejit. She’s my boss. What a suspicious mind you’ve got.”

Gabriel burst into his trademark laugh, but this time he was not too amused by it.

“Well why is she calling you after work?” Sophia persisted.

“That’s none of your fucking business.” Gabriel stalled, then quickly added: “There’s a problem with one of the machines… she’s worried about production quotas for tomorrow. But why the hell am I telling you this? … you wouldn’t have a bloody clue.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“I don’t give a fuck what you believe. Where’s my dinner?”

“In the oven. Get it yourself.”

Sophia jumped up, staggered backwards, and ran to the stairs. Gabriel felt an urge to run after her, grab her by the scruff of the neck and haul her back to do his bidding. Instead, he watched in dismay as she disappeared up a stairs. His eyes bored, like twin power drills of fury, into a deserted table, the smell of an appetizing dinner growing stronger in his nostrils. Should he get it from the oven and serve himself? Not bloody likely, he growled. His empty stomach said yes, but his injured pride no. It wasn’t his job, it was hers, the bitch.

After a minute staring at the oven, he suddenly jumped out of his chair. “Fuck this,” he said in a barely audible voice. And looking upward: “And fuck you too!”

Gabriel grabbed his coat from the back of the chair, and slipped it on clumsily. As he headed for the door, he caught sight of their wedding photograph on the wall above the living room mantelpiece. If he had a brick he’d smash it. He swung the door open, and shut it behind him with a bang that seemed to shake the foundations of a semi-detached house a mere stone’s throw from an undisturbed green countryside.

Thirty minutes later he was in Flanagan’s pub perched across the Shannon River, discussing everything with everybody, except the increasingly perilous state of his marriage, or, for that matter the mild flirtation he’d had with Josephine Carey, head of the Human Resources department. It had not gone beyond a caress and a kiss in her office, he reassured himself, even though he knew that Josephine, in her unhappily married state, would have probably taken it further.

Now that she had so stupidly phoned the house on the pretext of factory matters, and aroused Sophia’s suspicions, he would back off. His own marriage might be falling apart, but he wouldn’t be crucified for infidelity.

“No fucking way,” he vowed. “I’ve got enough problems, and more important things to think about than getting involved with another woman.”

It was well after midnight when Gabriel staggered from Flanagan’s, the laughter from his boozing buddies echoing hollow in his ears, the laughter of his imaginary robot still deriding him for the mess he had made of his life. He head felt full, his stomach empty, and he contemplated diverting to Broad Street for a Chinese take-out. But up the road stood a Garda station.

“Fuck that!” he said, as he crawled the car through bumpy back roads, the rain, dripping from tomb-like skies, his thoughts burning like shrapnel on some mythical battlefield. Someday he would douse those fucking flames, he swore – and escape. By God he would!

For now, however, it was back to his side of a very miserable marital bed. And another dawn rising in praise of Willow Wire Weavers Limited.

Chapter Two

Gabriel had just turned twenty-one when he jumped feet first into marriage, and quickly discovered after the fact he wasn’t the settling down type. Why had he done so, to be trapped like an animal in captivity for the rest of his life? At first he couldn’t figure it. And then it dawned on him. Sex. Damn sex. Fully licensed. And convenient. Shaw was right: marriage was popular because it combined the maximum of pleasure with the maximum of opportunity. Better than roaming the streets after dark like a frustrated predator.

But most swept sexual consequences under the mat while seeking to perfect otherness, with love the label on the package. All, however, paid the price – an existence of servitude between the dissipating romance of a woman, and the growing love of children. Like his fellow predators, he too had been ambushed by the lure of the flesh, and blinded by sexual need to the responsibilities that lay directly behind them in more rational forms of hot pursuit, like domestic expenditures, utility bills, mortgages and debt.

Sophia Bianconi, with her well-cut Italian figure, and voluptuous Latin-esque smile that flashed perfect glistening teeth, and a sensual tongue that explored the titillating corners of his willing mouth, was the bait he had bitten. But how could he, with Italian heritage on his father’s side, resist such charms? Four dark-eyed delightful children had brought them joy, but Gabriel knew now that freedom was the cost of membership in emotion’s greatest realm, while Holy Catholic Ireland demanded that as long as they slept together they must increase and multiply together.

Forbidden rubber ensured otherwise.

It wasn’t long before disillusionment began taking a toll on sexual desire, however. Gabriel began seeing it as a definitive source of entrapment, not pleasure, and certainly not happiness. When it did come knocking on the bedroom door, it was often violent and aggressive, as if one partner exacted retribution on the other. Afterwards, it was anti-climax, and nothing else.

And since he was stymied by the painful awareness that his own flesh and blood kept him and Sophia bound by sacred oath in a pact to the death …against his will, maybe hers too, he spent little time with its delightful by-products. He knew that was a mistake, but he couldn’t help but remain aloof from the children he professed to love.

Unlike Sophia who went to Mass each Sunday, and dragged them with her, Gabriel had had long forsaken that obligatory requirement, since the vows of the church reminded him that for rich or for poor, in sickness or in health, you stayed together – till death. What that spawned was a life sentence where the condemned parties stayed dutifully above ground, until they were shovelled into it!

“Not for this chicken,” he muttered, as he checked the quota list on one of the machines, ticked the pad and placed it back on the hook. “Penal servitude might be my lot, but it sure as hell ain’t my forte.”

But his hatred of the church was mirrored by his hatred of the job because the supervisory position he now held was sealing his fate against his will. A father might have brimmed with pride on a son’s meteoric rise through the ranks of respected orthodoxy, admirably equipped with educational honor, but to Gabriel it was the establishment telling him how he should live a life dedicated to nuts and bolts. How outrageous. How soul destroying. No one had the right to play God with destiny. Only God.

And he no longer believed in Him.

As he walked on checking production targets on machine after machine, ensuring targets were met, Gabriel silently cursed the presumption of a life mapped out to retirement by the gods and gurus of industry. Next stop the grave and premature burial. With a rueful smile, he imagined his epitaph: Here lies the body of a man who never died – because he never lived!

How could they all be so robotically contented slaving for their wives and families, he wondered, while he was miserable doing the same thing? All he could come up with was: “I’m just not the settling type,” a phrase that chanted a mantra of pre-packaged doom delivered daily to his early-morning doorstep.

At first, Sophia had tried to rein him, asking him what was wrong, but never getting answers, only a dismissive elongated laugh which as time went on had become more and more intolerable since it was filled with the whiff of alcohol, and late arrivals home. After her initial outburst, when she threw calmly expressed tolerance to the winds, she decided she was having no more of it and across battle lines demanded he come straight home from work – sober -- and spend more time with her and the children.

Gabriel’s response was to spend less time at home, and more time behind a pint glass. Trapped in an alone-together marriage, Sophia sought solace in the company of a younger sister, and a shoulder to cry on, taking Brendan and Paul with her to the other side of town. Often she hadn’t returned by the time Gabriel arrived home tanked with liquor. But he was just as well pleased. In an empty house he had peace, and a break from her nagging. And sure weren’t there plenty of pubs down the road.

And then the bombshell: Gabriel was made redundant. Six machinists under his supervision were placed on the casualty list. The official reason given was “cut backs” due to loss of export orders. Did his long-time disillusionment have anything to do with a noticeable decrease in production over so many months, he wondered? Probably. But he couldn’t care less about the job. It was, after all, a prison, and now he was being released from it. There was, however, the question of money and the company car he would now have to surrender.

As he drove home, he thought: “Maybe now I can sprout wings and fly away, say goodbye to the woman I am pledged to stay with until carted down the old bog road. But how can I leave the children?” he pondered. It was the fly in the ointment. He loved them, despite his failure to spend time with them. They knew it, and he knew they knew it. “Trapped,” he moaned as he made a right turn onto O’Connell Street “between love and hate. Up a fucking down pipe, ha! ha!”

Foregoing his usual diversion, he decided to go straight home. The sooner he got this thing off his chest the better. Seeing him arrive home early Sophia brightened. She thought he was finally heeding her words. But when, with grave expression and unequivocal delivery he spat out the news she became hysterical: “Blast you,” she yelled. “You’re to blame for this. You lost interest in that job a long time ago - a bloody good job. Damn you to hell!”

Gabriel absorbed her fury, and stared into her fiery eyes as the word “irresponsible” flew from angry lips like a dagger straight to his heart. He was not the man she married, she railed. He was a “piss tank, nothing else.” She started to sob uncontrollably. Gabriel turned his gaze from her, seeing a defence of his position as a waste of time. Perhaps there was nothing to defend. Her tears, far from engendering pity, disgusted him. Women always switched on the waterworks when they wanted their own way, didn’t they? It was their gender advantage, but it never worked with him. She could bawl her eyes into a waterfall for all he cared.

He stormed out, and slammed the door behind him. Minutes later he was walking a country road sniffing the night air, fresh, clean and natural. A faint moon sailed swiftly through a wisp of white clouds as he hurried along with a sense of urgency that suggested he was going somewhere new, even if no destination was mapped out in his mind, only an indefinable sense of freedom racing through the nerve centres of his being. All was silent, but for the irritating ringing in his ears, not of Sophia’s sobs, caused by Willow Wire Weavers, and its infernal machines. He was glad to be seeing the back of it. Maybe her too? He cast his eyes upward, searching for answers in the stars.

One would come down, sooner than he had expected. But it was not one he hoped for.

And its conduit was Rocco, Gabriel’s eldest brother, a gourmet chef who had worked in hotels throughout the country, and in France. He had just branched out on his own, setting up a company selling sauces to supermarkets and other retail outlets. He lived on the south side of town, in a semi-detached house, bought before the rocketing of real estate prices, and his dream was to build a better life for his wife and three children. He was determined to achieve it, through hard graft, and bank loans. To advance his dream, Rocco urgently required someone with managerial experience as back up, someone good at figures, and it so happened that Gabriel fitted the bill perfectly. What better than to have a brother, with a good track record, on board? When he heard that his brother would soon be out of a job he approached him with confidence.

But Gabriel, though initially tempted, decided to decline the offer. He had no desire to be drawn back onto a treadmill from which he had just escaped, to grind out a daily routine behind factory walls again, even if this arrangement would be more of a personal nature, much smaller in operation and, he suspected, allow him greater flexibility. But pressure from Sophia, who quickly found out about the offer even though he had not told her about it, forced him to change his mind.

“Welcome on board brother,” a delighted Rocco enthused, giving him a hearty handshake. “You’ll do well here. I’m sure of it.”

Really?” responded Gabriel with his trademark laugh, a laugh that masked the disgust he felt in having so quickly returned to a lifestyle he despised, in this case sucked into the ad hoc role of quality control clerk, cum sales assistant, cum accountant, all rolled into one.

Arriving home after his capitulation, he feigned no enthusiasm in front of Sophia who, greatly relieved, greeted him warmly as she prepared dinner. Her thoughts were firmly fixed on what she considered to be new and perhaps exciting possibilities for their future, matched by the relief she felt about the prospects of saving their crumbling marriage. But Gabriel immediately brushed her aside.

“This is just a temporary arrangement,” he said, bitterly, with one eye fixed on the far horizon. “It won’t last. So don’t get your hopes up.”

A puzzled Sophia turned away in tears.

Chapter Three

Two weeks later, resigned to what seemed like a fate worse than death, this time in new guise, Gabriel walked to the little building on the edge of an industrial estate which housed his brother’s business dreams, having exited himself from Willow Wire Weavers Ltd. without as much as a good luck or goodbye ringing in his ears. His head measuring the uneven pavement beneath his feet as he trudged wearily along, he pondered a future that offered no appeal, and tried to console himself in the knowledge that he still had an income. But where it would lead him? He hadn’t a clue. Perhaps to some place where the sun shined? This surprising, out-of-the-blue brotherly offer surely had to be just a stopgap to something more meaningful, he guessed, or even hoped. Maybe the damn thing would fail, and he’d be finally set free. Fat chance. The rain that came down in buckets, beating hard against the umbrella he held above his head, didn’t help him in his half-hearted quest to get on the bright side of his mind, or, for that matter, keep in the good graces of a brother as a vital cog in the wheel of his new enterprise. Nor did the cross winds that threatened to wrench it from his grasp.

As he turned the key and entered building, he forced himself to look interested in the tasks awaiting him. Bookkeeping mostly, and clerical work, which he was good at. Top marks in his Leaving Certificate examination, especially in mathematics, had given him confidence with figures, and he knew that he had no choice but to apply that aptitude to his brother’s business, and help make it a success. Fully expecting to be greeted with open arms by a grateful brother on this his first morning on the job, he was surprised to see that Rocco wasn’t there. He was already out delivering orders, already in the pipeline. A note on the storeroom counter confirmed this. “Such a diligent brother,” mused Gabriel as he whipped off his dripping coat, hung it on a hook and began organizing filing cabinets, preparing ledgers, setting up accounts and invoicing systems.

Perversely, and going against the grain of his inner intentions, he found himself enjoying the work, and his enthusiasm would generate an efficiency that saw Rocco’s enterprise get off to flying start, with hundreds of dozens of sauces being sold to retail customers within the first weeks of the operation. Gabriel, with a sense of familial duty, applied himself meticulously to costings, advised on packaging and dutifully handled phone inquiries. He also transacted orders while Rocco continued making deliveries to delicatessens, small shops and the occasional supermarket.

It was a good start, and all seemed well. But as time slipped imperceptibly by, a low profit margin of 10 percent on retail sales, plus excess packaging costs, began seeing initial profits gradually wane. Gabriel noted that orders being filled weren’t making enough to cover running costs, and that bridging loans from the bank were keeping the company afloat. The situation remained volatile as Rocco, confident of a bigger mark-up, worked round the clock to expand orders, and meet his creditors, while company debt steadily climbed upward toward six figures.

Gabriel’s embittered remark to Sophia, made in a fit of despair upon accepting the job, and born out of the prospect of being hog-tied once more, now seemed prophetic. But in a combined effort to stop the decline, he earnestly did his bit. Truth was, he didn’t want to see his brother’s ambitious enterprise fail, even if this might set him free again. He buckled down to the books, and hoped that his brother knew what he was doing. He also stayed away from the bar. He had no choice since the salary Rocco paid him (with the promised of a raise when things got better) barely met his running costs, and in that sense Sophia, by default, had won.

But it was a pyrrhic victory for Gabriel’s increased presence at home, rather than enhancing family life or improving marital relations, made matters worse. He became morose and moody and spent most of his free time watching silly game shows on TV, or going for walks alone in the country. Occasionally, he helped Michelle and Siobhan with mathematical assignments, and sometimes took Paul and Brendan to a nearby playground.

Rarely did he engage with Sophia, except in sleep. Sex no longer interested him. Scorned, Sophia stepped up her visits to her sister’s house, and often returned late. Gabriel didn’t care. Peace with children was more preferable to acrimony - or tension - with a wife. In that atmosphere of tension, storm clouds gathered. And they hit hurricane force on rainy evening when Sophia began complaining about the money she was getting to run a family of four, considerably less than he had earned at Willow Wire Weavers Limited.

“We can’t manage on this pittance,” she complained, as Gabriel entered the house, having walked home soaked from the rain after a punishing day’s work, physically and mentally exhausted. Because of a worsening debt crisis, Rocco had pushed him to the limit in his quest for more and more orders, promising to increase his salary further once the crisis had lifted. But it hadn’t happened. Now this rant from her, the last thing his weary ears wished to hear.

“The children need new clothing and shoes, and school supplies. I can’t afford to buy them on the lousy money you’re giving me. You’re going to have to do something about it!”

Gabriel whipped off his wet overcoat, grabbed a towel from a nearby closet, slumped into his TV – watching chair and began drying his hair. “What am I supposed to do?” he responded, looking askance. “There’s no other work out there. And my brother can’t afford to pay me more money. You know damn well his business is struggling.”

“What about my struggles?” she rebuked. “Don’t they mean anything!” She stalled to catch her breath. “You could work part-time in a bar, you know. You have enough experience of them.”

Gabriel jumped up, turned and faced her. There was a malevolent glare in his eyes. If looks could kill she might have dropped dead on the spot. Bad enough not being able to afford the price of a pint. Worse still to have to work on the wrong side of a bar. “Fucking typical,” he exclaimed, gritting his teeth. “ From dawn till dusk, I do a hard day’s work in that fucking factory, and you now expect me to work evenings – behind the counter of a bloody pub! Forget it. You must think I’m a fucking robot.”

“Look who’s swearing in front of the children now.”

Michelle and Siobhan stirred uneasily at the kitchen table, and prepared for another getaway to their bedroom. Brendan and Paul watched Bugs Bunny on TV, waiting for the order that might come any moment to “switch that bloody thing off!”

“Go and fuck yourself.”

“Well do something…or we’ll all starve.”

“Oh how you women love to exaggerate.”

“Fuck you!” Sophia grabbed her coat and stormed out in a tit-for-tat slamming-door exercise. “Yeah, go and cry on your sister’s shoulder,” Gabriel screamed after her fading back, his mind wincing at the venom of her curse. “Fuck you too!” He brushed past his daughters, snatched his dinner from the oven, and buried himself behind a newspaper. Michelle and Siobhan continued doing their homework, but five minutes later they closed their books and went upstairs without saying a word. Gabriel knew he had overstepped the mark and wanted to go after them and apologize for his language. But instead he continued eating, and browsing the headlines. Sated on roast chicken, cabbage and potatoes, with ample amount of succulent dark brown gravy, he slipped into his armchair and fell asleep. When he awoke an hour later rubbing his eyes he heard Paul and Brendan asking him to play snakes and ladders. Better than playing husband and wife, his befuddled thoughts told him.

“Okay boys, but by 9.30 I want you in bed, okay?”

“Okay Dad.”

Later, having tucked them in, he poked his head in the door of his daughters’ bedroom and whispered “goodnight girls!” But he got no response. “Aw, to hell with you too,” he muttered, as he made his way to the marital bedroom. “Women are women, no matter what age they are,” he cursed under his breath, as he undressed quickly, and slipped beneath covers. He laid his head on pillows by the bed’s edge, and tried to blot out the ugliness that assailed his thoughts and anxiously sought sleep. But Sophia’s biting words kept seeping into his consciousness, and kept him awake. He would never admit it to her, but he knew she was right. The money was lousy, so bad he couldn’t even buy a pint, only the monthly six-pack of Smithwicks, which he kept in the fridge for weekends. He would have to do something about it. And then, like a lightening bolt, a sudden thought struck him. “There are more ways to skin a cat than one,” he muttered as his exhausted body finally found sleep.

The next morning Gabriel worked at his tasks with a renewed sense of urgency. With Rocco out making deliveries, he began the usual routine of placing orders with customers

over the phone. But with one difference – he didn’t record all of them in the transactions book. He also arranged pick-up times to coincide with Rocco’s absence, and when selected customers arrived at the factory he insisted on cash payments - and pocketed them. He justified this on the basis that the money he stole was the bank’s, not Rocco’s! Moreover, he handed most of it to Sophia, and did so on the pretext of having negotiated a temporary raise, an explanation she readily accepted. He siphoned off a few pounds for drink.

The plan worked, with nothing untoward being noticed as the company slid deeper into the red. Then, late one afternoon, Rocco stormed into the storeroom over-laden with packages, and the angry look on his face told Gabriel that something was wrong. Had he found out about his “fiddle? Confirmation of his fears was swift. Moving in a straight line toward him, Rocco, without warning, dropped the packages son the counter, rammed him up against the adjacent wall, and uttered just one word: “Explanation!”

At first, Gabriel thought of protesting his innocence, but he was well aware of his brother’s temper from teenage days. He had once beaten him up in their parents’ living room simply for deriding a bodybuilding physique egged on with muscle-flexing braggadocio, a beating that provoked mortifying “skinny,” and “bag of bones” insults. He knew that lying his way out of the truth spelt nothing but danger, and Rocco’s fuming breath, bulging eyes, and a right hand gripping his shirt collar, told him in no uncertain terms he was but a whisker away from violent retribution. Nothing for it, but to confess all.

A shiver raced up his spine as he blurted out an admission of “fiddling the books, ” before quickly adding: “I’m really sorry Rocco. I really am. The amount pilfered was insignificant. It will never happen again. I give you my solemn oath on that.”

“How much?” Rocco demanded, tightening his grip on Gabriel’s neck. “Out with it, or I’ll smash your face in.”

“Fifty Pounds in total. God’s gospel.”

“Is that it?”

“Yes. I swear it.”

“It’s coming out of your next pay packet!”

“Don’t do that Rocco. I’ll be fucked.” Rocco released his grip and stepped back. He stared into Gabriel’s terror-stricken eyes. “What the hell do you mean?”

Gabriel rubbed the pain from his neck, and gulped in an effort to clear his throat.” Sophia,’ he coughed. “She’s being putting terrible pressure on me… over money… keeps saying the salary you’re paying me isn’t enough. She’s crying out for more money to buy school supplies for the children, clothes, even food. I was desperate Rocco.” He forced a defensive laugh. “Desperate men do desperate things.”

“And why the fuck didn’t you tell me that, instead of cheating behind my back, you little bastard?” Rocco shoved a cigarette into his mouth, lit it, and inhaled. “Why the fuck didn’t you tell me?”

“I knew you couldn’t afford it.”

The bank can.” Rocco grimaced. His eyes measured the ground as he drew on the cigarette. After an awkward silence, he trained them on Gabriel again. “Okay brother, I’ll overlook what you’ve done this time… and you can count your lucky stars I didn’t lay you out.” He pointed an accusing finger, knife-like, at him and raised his voice sharply. “ Just keep your filthy paws out of my till from now on. Otherwise I’ll knock the crap out of you – or worse! Do you read me?”

“Loud and clear Rocco. You have my word.”

Okay. Transact these orders. Honestly!” He handed Gabriel a pile of dockets and walked out. As he watched his brother go, Gabriel thought: “How the hell am I ever going to continue working in this place now? He’ll never let me forget what I have done.” At the same time, he felt a huge sense of gratitude rising up inside of him. His brother had magnanimously forgiven him, and allowed him a chance to redeem himself. He vowed he would do so, and make restitution, but wondered how he’d explain the shortfall in salary to Sophia, without exposing his lies, or theft.

When Gabriel opened his pay packet that Friday afternoon he couldn’t believe his eyes. Instead of looking ruefully at an anticipated shortfall, he found himself gaping at an extra ten pounds. It was the raise Rocco could not afford, given, no doubt, as an incentive to offset further finger dipping, but also as a restoration of faith in the brother who had cheated him, if under extenuating circumstances. Gabriel was deeply touched. This was fait accompli, with Sophia none the wiser. He felt chuffed, almost vindicated. It was as if the moral high ground had won, despite his ignoble act.

But something had gone missing from operations. On the Monday that followed an uneventful weekend, in which Gabriel spent much of his time watching television or going for walks in the country while Sophia visited her sister’s house with their two youngest children, and the older two spent much of their time with friends in between homework assignment, an unusual coolness permeated factory walls.

Rocco, normally boisterous, and talkative, had become noticeably circumspect, going about his business with an air of insularity about him. Gabriel knew he had done wrong, but thought he had been forgiven. The unexpected raise suggested it. So why suddenly an apparent change of heart. Perhaps his other half had worked on him over the weekend. Never under-estimate the power of a woman. That was it, Gabriel surmised. His wife had gotten to him. Throw the rotten bugger out. Typical.

Gabriel now felt increasingly awkward. He desperately wanted to repair the damage he had done, but the residues of his wrongdoing were not going away quietly. Or perhaps they were, and that was the problem, an uneasy silence between brothers as business expediency ruled. He, the younger brother, would remain in his older brother’s employ, but only out of necessity, for a trust had been betrayed.

All Gabriel wanted now was to be as far away from his brother’s business as possible. But even so, tried to make amends. He began taking greater interest in his role, utilizing his quality control, costing and marketing expertise to the full while, at the same time, urging Rocco from across the barriers of real communication to alter his strategy. He should stop, or dramatically reduce retails orders, which, because of packaging, were costing a small fortune, and instead switch to selling in bulk to wholesalers, since such a change would generate a 90 per cent profit margin, as against the current 10 per cent.

“You are right,” Rocco conceded matter-of-factly, his eyes measuring the ground as he pulled nervously on a cigarette. “And I will take your advice. But first I must fill an order for 500 dozen sauces to be delivered to Kingsworth Supermarket. It’s very important.”

Convinced that his brother was making yet another huge miscalculation, Gabriel advised him against it. “Forgo it Rocco, it will cost you too much,” he pleaded. “Start concentrating on bulk wholesaling for a much lower production and delivery capital outlay. Begin doing that now. It’s your only chance.”

“After I deliver this order.”

Gabriel felt gagged. It was not possible to change his brother’s mind once it was made up. But he hadn’t expected to, even if he knew he had to give it his best effort.

Exactly one month later, the bank pulled the plug, and Gabriel felt anything but vindicated. Rocco was now in the red for more than one hundred grand. And the bank was not prepared to loan another cent to prop him up. Exotic Sauces Limited had suddenly gone bust. It was the end of a business dream.

When they parted company, without a handshake, another uncertain dawn awaited both. There was no bitterness evident in their parting, but nor was there any love lost between brothers. It might not have been there to begin with. A business arrangement had bitten the dust. That was all. It was time to move on. Don’t look back.

Rocco did so with rock-hard realism. He bit the bullet, buried his dream in bankruptcy, and returned to doing what he did best – working as a freelance chef in hotels all over the country. Gabriel could pursue no such similar option. He was once more out of a job, this time with little or nothing to show for it by way of hard cash, apart from a final week’s salary, And, unlike Rocco, he had no clear-cut trade or profession that might hurl him into another position, or allow him to contract out his services.

All he could see in front of him now, or perhaps more appropriately hear, was the call of the wild ringing in his ears once. He also heard Sophia’s cries. And they were louder than ever. On being told the bad news, she, as he had predicted, shouted down his every protest, blaming him for the catastrophe that had unfolded. They had four children, and hungry mouths needed feeding. The money might stop, but the bills kept coming. He had to find something else, and find it quickly.

The question was what. There were few opportunities available in a low-growth economy that depended on emigration to the other island, only low-paid shit jobs, and he was not prepared to take one. Dole was now the only option, even though he knew he wouldn’t get enough money from government to meet his, her, or the children’s needs. The small redundancy payment from Willow Wire Weavers Limited had long been swallowed up in domestic expenditures. There was nothing left in the kitty.

A lot of good you’re bloody education has done you now,” she sobbed, s he sought to keep out of her range of fire. “You and your stupid six honours in the Leaving Cert.” Then, as the children ran upstairs, she suddenly threw down the gauntlet: “If you can’t get anything here, you can bugger off to England. And….” hesitating… “don’t ever come back. But send the money home.”

After which she burst into tears, and bee-lined to the bathroom.

At last! Gabriel was listening to the music that had gripped him for so long! Departure! Even if its sweetness was marred by the grieving wails of an embittered wife. But he felt no sympathy for her. She would never be happy, no matter what he did, of that he was convinced. She had always been his greatest critic. Why the hell did she ever decide to marry him only the God he no longer believed in knew?

Nothing for it now but to bail out. Find an escape route, via England first, then, perhaps, Europe, the USA, or even far-flung Australia, anywhere on the globe, which didn’t have a wall round it. Perhaps he could bring her and the family later. Perhaps. Carve out a better, more meaningful life elsewhere, beyond the rain. A new dawn! It would be the right thing to do, but … something else now raced through his mind.

He suddenly realized that he wanted not just out of Ireland, but also out of his marriage. It was a sham. “The only thing left in it was what got me into it,” he moaned. “And even that isn’t enjoyable any more. But how could he leave without hurting his children? How could he abandon them, and his responsibilities to them? Their very welfare?

There must be a way, he agonized. There must be. And he must find it. Somehow he must find it. Before it was too late.

But Gabriel’s conscience delivered its homily – bitingly - telling him he could never initiate marital break-up without enormous guilt. Indeed, if it were to happen, it would have to come from the other side. Sophia would never sink that ship, with four children in it. Of that he was convinced. The Irish housewife, after all, was imbued with a fierce and intense monogamy as taught by the church. It would stick with rigor and devotion, if not slavishness born out of an imposed religious conviction to the kitchen sink. It was the done way; handed down from on high, generation after generation, parent after parent, his own reminding him so pathetically of that fact. Abandoning family was anathema - to him, his mother, father, priest, brother, sister, friends and the social order, indeed by everything he had been brought up to believe in. That placed him, agonizingly, between tantalizing freedom and odious obligation. He had married at 21, and he was now 28, with a house load of children, deep-seated discontent his reward, joblessness the new reality.

“What the fuck am I to do?” It was the refrain that spilled from his silenced lips, as he looked into the black hole of his existence.

And then, with the situation having entered an arena of craziness, where meaningful communication had ground to a halt, where the intimate stranger syndrome between him and the woman he had once loved polarized inside respective heads and hearts, a bolt from the blue. What the fuck am I to do?” suddenly entered an unexpected dimension when, without warning, Sophia told him one morning on his way out for one of his long walks that she no longer loved him, and wanted him to leave, forthwith, not just the house, or the country, but a marriage. He had just been proved wrong.

Not all Irish women are chattels of the kitchen sink, you know,” was her confirmation “… waiting for their husbands to come home with the bacon. This is the eighties! Besides, you don’t even have a job, and you don’t seem to be trying very hard either. Meantime, we live like pigs.”

Like Hedda Gabler, Sophia had shown Gabriel the door he had for so long dreamed of - the way out he had quietly and desperately craved. But now that she had opened it, he wasn’t sure if he should walk through it. She had given him his marching orders, and he didn’t like it one bit because he was being forced out of his own house. “If I go, I go under my own volition, “ was his initial reaction. “I will not be pushed out like a piece of garbage.”

With one masterstroke, however, Sophia had hurled him from perception to reality, and as he pondered the possibilities of another life, he knew now that he was left with no other alternative but to look that reality in the eye.

His time had come.

“If that’s how you feel, then I will leave,” he said, solemnly, already thinking about a flat in town, of perhaps finding a meaningful job, if there was such a thing, and if not, staying on the dole indefinitely. It was the first time he had seriously considered the latter option.

And it wouldn’t be his last.

Chapter Four

With tensions now at unbearable levels, Gabriel went to the unemployment exchange the following morning, and signed on. Instead of returning home or looking for work, he wandered the streets, with no money in his pockets. Down by the docks he watched the big ships sail out of the harbour. He fantasized about jumping onto one, stowing away to his perceived nirvana out there somewhere beyond the storm-tossed waves.

But, as always, his children swept into his escapist imagination. His only reason for going home was to be with them for a while, take an interest in their homework, and indulge the younger ones in their playful fancies. Now that departure looked imminent, he felt a stronger desire to be with them.

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