The Visit by Jaki McCarrick
Our Short Story of the Month is ‘The Visit’ by Jaki McCarrick.
Jaki McCarrick is an award-winning writer of plays, poetry and fiction. She won the 2010 Papatango New Writing Prize for her play Leopoldville, and her play Belfast Girls, developed at the National Theatre London, was shortlisted for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the 2014 BBC Tony Doyle Award. Belfast Girls premiered in Chicago in May 2015 to much critical acclaim (Windy City Times Critics’ Pick) and opened this spring in Vancouver.
‘The Visit’ is taken from McCarrick’s Edge Hill-shortlisted short story collection, The Scattering.
April-May 2018 marks twenty years of the Good Friday Agreement, and The Visit takes place against the backdrop of Bill Clinton's visit to the border town of Dundalk in Ireland - a visit that was very much a part of the Peace Process.
It had been a day of weather: snow and wind, sunshine and rain.
Water dripped from the overhanging hedges in the drive and
the path was thick with pine needles. Brendan made a mental
note to sweep them up once Pat had gone. He stopped before
the gates and pulled his trousers up by their creases to check
his shoes and thought that maybe he should’ve worn his boots.
He walked on. Pat would make him forget. Pat could make you
forget all kinds of silly woes. He glanced over at Coogan’s and
noticed the stars and stripes flag, still and wet on the pole.
After McCaughey’s he looked over at Joy Callan’s neat line of
laundry crowning her raised side lawn: a small satin-rimmed
blanket, black stockings, two blue ballroom gowns, a pair of
orange nylon pillowcases. As he approached her house he saw
her in the yard, bright and chic in pink slacks and a tight white
jumper. She was raking up leaves. He watched her part the
dresses then yank the wet leaves into a pile. It made him smile;
she might have hung the gowns out after she’d raked, but Joy
always seemed to do things differently from others. And anyway,
he was glad, because she made the task so mesmerising. He
recalled how after her husband had gone she had kept body and
soul together by moonlighting, rather originally he thought, as
a mushroom picker in Clones. Otherwise, as a relief teacher
she had taught both his children in the Friary, though she had
not been popular. He waved and wondered would she be at
the Square tomorrow. He made a mental note to call in one
of these evenings with the picture of Sean’s wedding in the
Walking on, his thoughts returned to Pat. He looked forward
to seeing him. There would be much talk of the ‘great
adventures’ as Brendan called them, the London times, the days
of the Black Lion where he had been manager for nearly a
decade and where Pat had been its most notorious barfly. He
was proud to think he’d organised some of London’s most
celebrated lock-ins, booked musicians from Dublin and Doolin
and Donegal, and had the likes of David Bailey and Donovan
in attendance. Soon he and Pat would be reminiscing about
those times, about the dog races at Hackney and White City,
the times they’d played poker in Holland Park with Jack Doyle.
He walked up the cobbled lane towards the station. He could
see clearly on the cold day the sprawl of the town towards the
hills. The trees by the church were draped in ropes of white
lights, and a flurry of flags hung from Carroll’s Apartments. He
was amazed to think that here, in this small dot on the face of
the globe, he and Pat would stand together tomorrow evening
and see the President of America.
The big station clock said ten to three. He had a few minutes
yet to gather his thoughts, stare over at the glass wall of the
brewery. He sat outside on the iron seat. The gulls hovered
above him, filling the air with their cries. The sweet wort’s more
pungent today, he thought, as his gaze fixed on the huge copper
kettle glistening through the glass. It had been his first job in
the brewery to wash the kettle out once the sweet wort had been
siphoned off. He would then prepare it for the following
morning’s shipment of hops and grain. He had spent the best
part of five years inside that copper drum, up to his ankles in
the remnants of fresh hops, proteins and sticky clumps of
caramelised sugar. It had given him time to think; to put into
perspective all that had happened in ’74.
There was a rumble on the tracks. He turned and saw the
sleek green body of the Enterprise stack up like a metallic snake
along platform two. He walked over and watched from the
ticket office. The doors of the carriages swung open. Women
with pull-up trolleys, young men in dishevelled suits, Mrs Little
and her daughter, Edel. As the crowds dispersed he saw a ghost,
the tall, hulking frame of Pat Coleman standing stock-still on
the busy platform. The springy hair was all white, the once firm
chest now visibly lax. Brendan watched his friend remove a
cigarette from behind his ear, ask a girl for a light, then take
three or four concentrated puffs before flicking the stub behind
him onto the tracks. Pat’s short-sleeved shirt seemed frowsy
and unironed; the thick brown arms with their blue tattoos
recalled to Brendan Pat’s nickname on the sites: Popeye. Popeye
Pat had had the strength of ten men, and once, in a drunken
rage, Brendan had seen him flatten as many.
He followed Pat’s gaze. Up to the pale, elusive sky of the
North; out to the striking sweep of the white-capped hills, the
green spire of the Protestant church peeping up against them.
He began to feel unfamiliar pangs of pride for the town, as if
through Pat’s languorous impression, he, too, was glimpsing
it for the first time. The town was his wife’s town, and he had
always found it hard to appreciate its people with their
wariness, their industrious, practical approach to things. His
wife had been right; he had put up a resistance. She had
accused him often of hiding away in the brewery kettle like a
genie. But the friendships he had formed here had been
without the closeness of his London bonds. The men he knew
from the town were nothing like that famous man on platform
He watched Pat follow the crowds as they exited the platform
via the wooden ramp. He’d forgotten about Pat’s hip. The two
of them would seem a right pair with their battered bodies, their
war wounds, struggling up the road to the house. They’d have
to get a taxi.
At first Pat walked right past him, then doubled back,
grabbed his hand with a warm, heavy shake and twirled him
round in the air, both feet dangling. The familiar horseplay
made Brendan feel warm and young inside. He suggested they
take a taxi but Pat said he wanted to walk.
‘What d’you think?’ Brendan said, turning onto the
‘Looks good,’ Pat replied in his reedy voice, the rapid
Limerick lilt fully intact.
‘You know you’re to stay as long as you like.’
‘Well, I’ll see. It’d be something to hear Clinton. After that,
I’ve a whole load to see in Kilkenny and Limerick.’
Pat’s sallow, tight face spoke of his abstinence. No beads of
sweat across the brow or lip, no dank odour. Gone were the
umber circles and the frantic eyes. If you don’t stop drinking
you’ll die, Brendan had said quietly into Pat’s ear on his last visit
to Guy’s. Pat had often said it was those words together with
his friend’s insistence he could quit that had saved his life.
Past the Texaco garage, Pat stopped to watch Nick O’Hare
sort through a trailer of wicker goods. ‘That’s Nick,’ said
Brendan. ‘Used to be a coach with the town’s football team, now
runs a type of yoga place in that house.’ Pat seemed enthralled
by Nick’s wares. There were fusions of weave and dried flowers,
shopping baskets with long handles, knee-high linen boxes
stained in a dark cinnabar, as well as a small Lloyd Loom-style
chair. Bowls of felt sunflowers, papier-mâché apples and grapes
littered the tarmac drive. Pat went up to the brass sign on the
pillar and mouthed the words engraved on it: Vipassana Centre.
‘How are ya?’ Pat shouted over to Nick, who was down on
his hunkers editing strands of grass from the baskets.
‘Well, Brendan,’ Nick replied, thinking it had been Brendan
who had hollered. ‘I’m making these for the President. I’ll bring
one up to you.’
‘Do,’ Brendan replied, waving, and carried on hurriedly,
hoping Pat would take the hint and move on with him.
‘D’you ever go in there?’ Pat asked.
‘Jesus, no.’ Brendan replied.
‘I’d love one of those baskets for Fidelma.’
‘Haven’t I a dozen in the garage?’ Brendan said.
Walking on, he tried to turn the conversation towards
London and the Black Lion. He asked Pat if he’d heard
anything from the old gang, from Mocky Joe in particular.
Mocky Joe’s success at cards had enabled him to live in London
for over a decade without working. One night, weeks before
Brendan had left London, the flame-haired Mocky Joe had
been picked up under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and
held. Of all the men he and Pat had known that had been
stopped under the Sus laws or questioned under the PTA
Mocky Joe was the only one the police had ever charged. He’d
served twelve years. At first Pat seemed to have no recollection
of him, but eventually put a face to the nickname. ‘The poor
fucker,’ Pat said, ‘I went to see him and he didn’t know me at
all.’ Then Brendan thought of the time of his own arrest, the
long night of questioning in Harrow Road police station, and
of the lie he had told there.
Pat stopped to look over the bridge. ‘The kids used to walk
all the way along that one time, trying to catch frogs,’ Brendan
said, realising he had never himself walked the banks of the
narrow river. The sedge rustled below where they looked and
an ochre-coloured frog leaped out, springing from one clump
to the next along the shallow rim of the water. He saw that Pat
was bewitched by the frog, its golden skin pulsating like a loud
gold watch; it seemed alien, larger than the small green
specimens the kids had once brought from the banks. They
watched the bright interloper go on with the river, thinning out
towards Toberona and Castletown.Though it seemed hard for
him to get the memories out of Pat, Brendan looked forward
to the chats they were yet to have about all the great adventures.
Closer to home, Pat wanted to stop off at Cheever’s.
Brendan reluctantly followed Pat into the store, which was
festooned on the outside with green and white bunting. A flag
with WELCOME BILL stencilled on it protruded from the
‘That’s a bitter day, Brendan,’ Mrs Cheever said as she sorted
through the newspapers. Brendan nodded then guided Pat
towards the freezer at the back of the shop.
‘But you have it lovely and warm in here, missus,’ Pat shouted
over to the stout woman. Brendan saw Mrs Cheever look up at
them and move a fallen strand of hair away from her face, her
fingers black with newsprint.
‘I’m with him. Over from London for the visit,’ Pat said.
‘Very pleased to meet you,’ Mrs Cheever replied, in her
singsong voice. She walked over and put a copy of The
Democrat under Brendan’s arm.
‘Here. The son’s wedding is in that. Have another for safe-
Pat picked out a pack of Galtee cheese, some rashers, a half-
pound of lard, a sliced white batch-loaf, a copy of Ireland’s Own
and Kimberly biscuits. In the basket they looked like something
from a 1950s tourist brochure, the type of provisions Brendan
himself had bought years ago in Mandy’s inWillesden when he
‘Pat, you’re my guest. You’re to spend nothing.’
‘Always pay my way, you know that,’ Pat insisted.
By Callan’s Brendan heard harp music and stopped. It
sounded loud and sad. He saw Joy seated at the table, staring
stiffly into a hand-mirror. He saw her catch sight of him, then
Pat, who was examining her winter flowers. He wanted to call
out but she dashed from the room. He sensed they had
stumbled upon a private moment, a low. His pace quickened.
When he stopped he heard Pat laughing behind him.
‘Now there’s a woman in need of cheering up.’
‘Can’t tell you the times I’ve wanted to call in to her but never
‘You have to get yourself a reason, man.’
‘She likes dancing, I drag my left leg. All I can think of is
bringing things, flowers maybe.’
‘All good, but it’s not a reason. Ask her to come to Clinton
It had not even occurred to him to ask Joy Callan to go to the
Square with them. One evening in Cheever’s he’d spoken to her
about the President’s visit and had been impressed by her
enthusiasm, by her belief that the visit would act as some kind
of salve for what the town had been through in the last three
‘This is it,’ Brendan said, opening the turquoise gates to the
house. Pat gasped at the long, shrub-filled lawns. Brendan
watched his friend hobble back to the gates, rest his hands on
his hips and look up and down the bunting-covered road. Blue
cigarette smoke swirled around Pat’s head like a halo.
‘How in the name of God do you manage?’ Pat said,
retreating towards him.
‘I have a home-help. Her husband comes up, does the lawn
‘Good job you have such friends and neighbours.’
Brendan stopped. Surely Pat had seen how preoccupied and
standoffish the people here were, and how different he was
from them. Surely Pat had observed this.
‘The people of this town never liked me, Pat. Nor me them.
There’s been no friends for me like the London ones,’ Brendan
‘Could have fooled me,’ Pat replied, darting towards the
woody fuchsia hedge. He broke a piece off, smelled the tiny
buds. Shepherding him into the house, Brendan put Pat’s
assessment of his neighbours and friends aside. After all, what
did Pat know?
Later, Pat suggested they bring their tea out onto the porch.
Brendan followed Pat out with the teapot and an ashtray.The
mauve dusk had begun to blacken. Small birds thronged in the
elder bushes. Occasionally, passers-by saw them from the glow
of the street-lamp and waved. He was determined to get Pat
‘Do you not remember all that carry on in Maida Vale in ’74?’
he said at length. Pat shook his head, hurled the end of his tea
into the grass.
‘You don’t remember the police bulldozing into me, asking
me about you?’
‘Came ramstaming into our digs in the middle of the night,
said they wanted to question me. Took me to Harrow Road
station, said someone the spit of you killed an off-duty soldier
in Maida Vale. I said – well, ya know what I said.That you were
with me up in White City.’
‘I don’t remember much of that time at all, Brendan, tell ya
Pat seemed uneasy. Perhaps he should not have brought the
incident up, but all evening Pat’s memory had been hazy. He’d
wanted to jolt Pat into remembering. Especially since the lie he
had told had cost him so much: a precipitous move from
London to this hardnosed border town, a move he hadn’t
wanted to make, had regretted all the years since.
He brought the cups inside. From the kitchen he could see
Pat glaring meditatively out into the greeny-black of the garden,
his hands cupped. It had been impossible to draw him back to
the days of the Black Lion. Pat had just wanted to look out into
the night and talk about the barely discernable shrubs: the
mahonias, hebes, winter sweet. Surely this white-haired man
with his apparent amnesia and love of plants was not the same
Pat. Popeye Pat, who’d had the strength of a bear and may or
may not have killed a man in a nightclub in Maida Vale. It
dawned on Brendan then, that it had all changed, his London:
the lads, the infamous Black Lion lock-ins, the dramas with the
PTA. At nine, Pat said he was ready for bed, that abstinence
had made a lark out of him.
At around five Brendan thought he heard Pat stir. When he
got up, the blinds had been raised, the curtains pulled.
December glowed in the empty kitchen. He saw a folded note
and a crisp twenty Euro bill under a cup on the table. He picked
up the note. Pat’s heavy spidery scrawl had almost punctured
the page. He scanned it quickly. Something about Pat heading
off to see his wife’s people in Kilkenny, and that he would call
in again next week.The note continued: Once you said I’d die if
I didn’t stop drinking. You said you knew I could do it. You saw the
best in me and it gave me hope to go on. Now, for god’s sake man,
would you ever give that town a chance. And give my regards to
Bill and Hillary.
Brendan opened the door to the backyard. The smell of sweet
wort filled the room. He realised how familiar that smell was,
how he’d smelled it daily now for almost twenty-five years.
Perhaps, whilst he wasn’t looking, he had entered the tapestry
of this place after all. Trembling, he picked up the phone to ask
Joy Callan if she would walk with him later to the Market
Square to see the President.