This story first appeared, in slightly different form, in The Sunday Business Post Magazine on 21st December, 2014.
Johnny Moynihan – yes, that Johnny Moynihan, formerly a banker (the banker, in certain circles), latterly a pariah – now stood in winter darkness in the car park of his daughter’s school, dusting snow from the lapels of his overcoat, and wondering why he had left the house at all. Three years after he had raised a glass of 2004 Moët at the AGM of Atlas-Merritt Bank and, quoting the French statesman Guizot, instructed his shareholders to “Enrichessez-vous!” Two years after the arrest at the airport. Six months after he had found himself in the walnut-panelled dock of the Criminal Court, charged with multiple violations of the Companies Act. Small wonder if he wasn’t in the mood. But Moira, his wife, had insisted. Claire was performing in the school’s Christmas carol service and her father would be there to see it: no argument. What could Johnny say? He loitered by the car, eyeing with the gravest misgiving the other parents as they strolled happily past, bundled in their winter woollens. A nest of vipers. Glumly he counted his woes. His shoes, the old Cordovan loafers, were already soaked through with meltwater, and his head ached. The old strength – people had called it charisma – seemed finally to have deserted him. His trial had used up the last of it, he supposed. The effort of sitting calmly in the dock for thirty-seven days, disclosing nothing of the turbulence within. The verdict had been Not Guilty, but the public punishment, it seemed, was destined to continue. Well. Perhaps people had stopped caring. Perhaps he was no longer obliged to play the part of Ireland’s Most Hated Man.
The snowfall had begun in earnest three days before, in the middle of a Monday afternoon. Rapidly the dense white flurries occluded the neighbouring houses, those stout old homesteads with their storybook gables and turrets. Looking out, watching the flakes, Johnny recalled his mother, now dead, mixing Christmas pudding in a blue delft bowl. Sieving flour across the dark oaky stuff beneath, the chopped dates, the candied oranges and lemons, the cherries with their filmy glaze. The snow fell like the flour, covering everything. Soon the neighbourhood was thoroughly floured over.
“Could be dangerous,” Johnny said to Moira, who was going through the year-end accounts of her dry cleaning business, wearing the half-moon spectacles that made her look like a schoolteacher. “Especially if it freezes.”
“Mm,” she said.
“I mean for the neighbours,” Johnny said. He jingled the loose change in his pockets.
“Mm,” Moira said again.
Johnny looked back out at the blizzard, formulating an idea.
The next morning the neighbours were woken at 7a.m. by a vigorous knocking at their doors. They answered to find Johnny, beaming out at them from the recesses of his parka’s furry hood.
“Sorry to wake you so early,” he said. “I dug out the shovel and gave your driveway the once-over. I may as well throw down a bit of salt while I’m at it. I had some in the shed going abegging.”
Most of the neighbours said No, no thank you, that won’t be necessary. But there were some who refused to answer the door at all. Johnny saw them passing behind the frosted glass of their big front doors, moving through the gloom of their own domestic lives like fish in shallow pools. In each case – a firm No or a pointed silence – Johnny smiled and trekked down to the flatbed truck he had parked outside his own gates. There he hefted down a bag of gritting salt and began shovelling it across the iced-over portions of his neighbours’ driveways, covering the worst parts, doing a thorough job. It took him most of the morning. When he reached the house on the corner of the old main road he set up his bag and began to throw the last of the salt, and stopped only when he saw his neighbour, Sean Reynolds, underdressed for the weather in a pair of maroon-and-grey pyjamas, striding down the driveway towards him.
“You fuck off,” Sean Reynolds said.
“It’s the last of it,” Johnny said, gesturing towards the salt. “I might as well.”
“I don’t need you to salt my fucking driveway,” Reynolds said.
“Better safe than sorry,” Johnny said.
“You can get the fuck off my property.”
Reynolds was starting to shiver. Johnny’s impulse, in spite of everything, was to offer the man his parka, or at least to tell him where he could buy one just like it.
“I’m only doing you a favour,” Johnny said.
“You’re a fucking crook,” Sean Reynolds said, “and you’re not welcome here. You fucked this country. You and your gang of shysters. If I want anything from you, I’ll ask, alright? Now fuck off out of it.”
“I have to say I think you’re being very undignified,” Johnny said.
He saw the movement prepare itself in Sean Reynolds’s eyes: the raised arm, the clenched fist. But Johnny Moynihan was still a big man, and Johnny Moynihan was still holding his gardener’s shovel, and the going underfoot was still treacherous for a man wearing – Johnny glanced down at Reynolds’s feet – nothing but a pair of stained brown Hush Puppies.
With a deliberate motion Johnny raised his shovel and scattered the last remaining handful of salt across the melting ice of Sean Reynolds’s driveway.
It was not quite noon but already the day seemed about to turn, the crows rattling on the overhead wires, the light brightening and beginning to fade with the earliest whispers of the evening wind.
Johnny went home and mixed a strong gin and tonic. He found that his hands were shaking, and also that he was fighting off the urge to cry.
Like the fella said: it’s the little things that trip you up.
Take his daughter. Earlier that year Claire had undergone some kind of religious experience and become a Presbyterian. She had joined a Bible group at school and was now attending mass, or whatever Presbyterians called it, every Sunday morning in a church in Donnybrook. Well, Johnny thought, once Claire had told her parents what she was up to. I’m not going near that one. But he couldn’t let it drop. He orated at Moira, following her around the house as she ironed, as she ordered groceries online.
“When I was a teenager you rebelled by going out and getting pissed and copping a feel,” he said, gesticulating like one of the barristers at his trial. “The God-botherers were the ones you laughed at.”
“I seem to remember the sodality was where all the good-looking boys were to be found,” Moira said.
“So you think this so-called religious experience is walking around out there in his leather jacket, combing the girls out of his hair?”
“My official policy is to have no policy,” Moira said. “If your point is that you’d rather she was out there getting pregnant or smoking dope, I have to say I prefer the Bible group option.”
“It isn’t the Bible group I have a problem with,” Johnny said. “It’s the… literalism of the whole thing. You’re not meant to take the Bible literally, for Christ’s sake.”
“I think Christ might differ with you there,” Moira said.
“Well of course he would,” Johnny said. “But my daughter shouldn’t. I raised her to be a lapsed Catholic like a normal Irish person. And now here she is, telling me the prophet Isaiah was a real man who really heard the voice of God.”
“You need to let this run its course,” Moira said. “Be patient.”
“I’ve run out of patience,” Johnny said.
And maybe this was so. Two years of public execration consumed the human energies at an abnormal rate. What remained felt thinner, less robust. There were also all the words he had not spoken during his season of notoriety – all the words he not been permitted to marshal in his own defense. Now he brimmed over with arguments and justifications. Exhaustively, for Claire and Moira’s benefit, he rehearsed his innocence. Fruitless, of course, now that he was a free man, publicly vindicated. A waste of energy. But he had to make sure they knew: Nothing he had done had been illegal. What choice had the women in his life but to listen and agree? He talked, he paced, he had it out for the millionth time, the dates, the times, the hibernated loans, the flights to Amsterdam, the accounts in Turks and Caicos. And every single detail, he was at pains to make clear, completely above board and Bristol-fashion. Violating the Companies Act? Johnny Moynihan had practically written the fucking Companies Act! How dare they? The gall! The rank hypocrisy!
“But they found you innocent,” Claire pointed out. “That’s, like, official proof that you did nothing wrong.”
Johnny’s agitations had brought him to his daughter’s bedroom. Claire perched on the bed, tuning her guitar. She wore boys’ clothes: chequered shirts and Converse sneakers. Like her mother, she had endearingly small feet.
“People made up their minds,” Johnny said. “They don’t like to be proven wrong.”
On the dressing table was a book called Talking to God. Johnny picked it up and scanned the blurb. Personal prayers, it said. For times of joy, struggle, sadness and celebration. Who read books like this? What the hell was happening to his only child?
Johnny cleared his throat. Emotion always made him hoarse. “It must have been hard for you,” he said. “In school.”
Without looking at him Claire said, “I knew you hadn’t done anything wrong. So, you know. I don’t care what people think.”
You’re seventeen, Johnny did not say. Of course you care what people think. I mean, look at me. I’m fifty-four, and sometimes I think that’s all I care about.
About her “religious experience” Claire had said little. It had happened on a school bonding hike – one of the extracurricular luxuries for which Johnny (or, he supposed now, Moira) was shelling out three grand a year in fees. Up there in the Wicklow Mountains, on a gusty spring afternoon, Claire had found God. “I suppose He had to be somewhere,” Johnny cracked, before he noticed the expression on Claire’s face. She was always so earnest. And always, as a small child, so keen to do good: to help the old lady fill her tartan trolley at the checkout, to wrap Christmas presents for those she called “the less fortunate.” Perhaps it was this charitable impulse that had led her to the Bible group, the Sunday services. Or perhaps (and here Johnny quelled a bilious upsurge of resentment and regret) Claire had turned to God because of all the horrible things that her family had been through, the arrests, the bankruptcy hearings, the vitriol of former friends. In which case, the ultimate responsibility for whatever was happening to Claire – whatever sad calculations underlay her decision to embrace all this religious nonsense – rested with Johnny, and Johnny alone.
Johnny had never mentioned this possibility to Moira. And Moira, to her credit, had never mentioned it to him. But it sat between them nonetheless, disagreeably, like an unconfessed affair.
Claire herself gave nothing away. She attended her Bible group and she hung out after service on Sundays, rapping with her kindly pastor over tea and scones, as if she had been doing this kind of stuff all her life.
Only once had she opened up to him unprompted. The memory of it nagged at Johnny still. This was a month or so after the trial had ended. Claire had come downstairs at one o’clock in the morning for a glass of water. Johnny, the perennial insomniac, was sitting at the kitchen table with his tumbler of Glenmorangie and his historical novel.
“You okay there, Clairebear?” he said.
She leaned against the countertop and sipped her water. Her expression was speculative.
“You know,” she said, “after all the horrible things that happened to Job, all the suffering and all the illnesses and every member of his family dying. After all the suffering, God made Job rich. He had seven new sons and three new daughters, and his daughters were the most beautiful girls in the world. And he lived to be really old. So he was right not to renounce God, because God rewarded him in the end.”
Johnny felt a tremor of dismay. Then he rallied. If it was his fault that she had succumbed to this gibberish, then surely it was his job to talk her out of it.
He cleared his throat and said, “You can’t actually believe this stuff, Clairebear.”
Beyond the windows, the darkness was absolute. The darkness was pressing against the glass, and all you had to do to let it in was flick a switch.
Claire sipped her water. “You’ll be okay, dad,” she said.
She went back to bed, and Johnny sat there, alone among the ruins of yet another bright idea gone awry.
The school from its low rise looked out across the silvered city. Moira stood by the car, fussing with her handbag, looking like a dowager duchess in her dark fur stole. She was stalling. They both were. Johnny set his jaw in an expression of resolve. The car park was lined with snowy birches, black-barked, terse as Japanese poems. Icicles hung from the branches in uneven rows. Snap one off: a riverine twiglet. Arctic weather, the radio said. Scandinavian birds, lured south, were settling in Irish gardens: pied wagtails, speckled thrushes. This according to the nature programmes Moira listened to religiously. Yes, everybody was displaced, nobody was where he should be. The climate changed and suddenly you were a thousand miles off course, looking for the right way home.
They were the last parents left in the car park. Tacitly they had agreed to wait until the choir was singing before they took their seats. Neither of them wanted to stand around beforehand, being ignored or abused. “Shall we?” Johnny said, proffering his arm. Moira with a small smile linked him and they walked through the school’s deserted Reception as if arriving for a night at the opera. Johnny was wearing one of his more subtly ostentatious ties, a shot-silk number in mauve and green. Rise above, his mother would have said. Living well is the best revenge.
The doors of the auditorium were closed. Recklessly Johnny tugged them open, producing a shriek of hinges that caused everyone in the big dark room beyond to turn and watch as they took their seats. Ah, being the cynosure of all eyes: who wouldn’t cherish it? They found two vacant chairs in the very last row. The couple beside them leaned away as Moira divested herself of her stole. The room had the ineradicable school smells: deodorant, old trainers, sweat.
Up on the stage a blonde girl was plucking at a harp. She played with daunting flair. But then, of course she did. The school was famous for its intellectual austerity, its liberal values. Students went to pony camp, debate club, Model UN. They played obscure instruments to concert standard. This was the atmosphere in which Claire had cast off her skepticism and rationality. The more Johnny thought about it, the more perverse it seemed.
Perhaps there was something he could say or do that would make her reconsider all this God stuff. Perhaps he could say: I know it’s been hard, Clairebear. I know it’s been endless. But it’s important to try to emerge from it all with our values intact.
Or perhaps he could say: Whatever you need, you won’t find it in a Presbyterian church. You’ll find it in your family. That’s what we’re here for.
But now Claire was taking the stage with her guitar. She sat on a high stool and began to play a complicated arpeggio. Beside her stood a boy, Claire’s age, holding a trumpet. On his slender chin was a sparse goatee. Aha! Johnny thought. Mr. Religious Experience himself! Claire began to sing and Johnny recognised the tune, that old Greg Lake number about how Christmas was a fraud and Santa Claus would give us only what we deserved. During the interludes, when Claire wasn’t singing, the goateed boy parped away on his trumpet, doing the Prokofiev bit.
Johnny turned to Moira with a smile of pride. But Moira was looking down at the fur stole wrapped around her hands, and her hooded eyes were dark. She had withdrawn into herself.
Disconcerted, Johnny looked back at the stage. And there he noticed for the first time the expression on his daughter’s face. How long had it been since he had looked at Claire – really looked at her? He had spent hours pacing up and down before her, unburdening himself of all his old complaints. But how long since he had really seen her? How long since she had met his eyes?
Claire, as she sang, was wincing, as if in pain. And Johnny saw what he had been too selfish to see before. His daughter thought he was guilty. She thought he was guilty of the crimes he had been tried for. And she had turned to God, not for solace, but for forgiveness. Forgiveness for him.
The song was over and the audience were politely applauding. Johnny stood and, taking advantage of the noise, wrenched open the auditorium doors. He walked through Reception and out into the car park, with its imperial cold and its fringe of snowcapped trees like fossilised coral reefs. He walked over to the car and stopped, arrested.
It was snowing again. Gently this time, a slow descent, like an emigration from the heavens. Johnny stood by the car, neither thinking nor moving, aware for the first time in his life that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that he could do to change anything that had happened or anything that ever would.
The snow fell, silently. All those hundred thousand flakes, falling together towards the muffled world. Piling up in gorgeous banks. Showing you what was there and what wasn’t. Under a sky so bright, it seemed like day.