‘You think that’s the tip of a Mayo mountain ... That thing floating is a dead cow’

Summer fiction: End of the Line by Michael J Farrell

The seating arrangement is four in a cluster, two facing two, a plastic table between them. Awesome transport, says a voice in Bill’s head. A thousand years ago, a donkey would have to do. And a million years before that, back in Noah’s time, there were no such things as destinations. Where you were was all there was.

He finds an empty table. Dina follows, hair dyed black with a light green stripe. Bill is a pot-bellied, post middle-aged man. Hair thinning but the remainder clinging. A herringbone jacket such as professors wear. He grasps a newspaper, already read, but he wouldn’t be without one: a first draft of history, he has been told someone said, and he, as it happens, teaches history in the city.

“There’s a sidebar about the weather,” he says to her. “It’s surprisingly cheerful.” Dina nods blankly amid the hubbub.

... mind the gap ... Kinnegad ... Are you going all the way? ... Oh, sure; while there’s still time ...


A fellow comes by. He has a laptop and an iPhone and slender cables out his ears. There are still two vacant seats, but he passes. Just as well: all that electronic firepower would insist on being heard. A student – what else could he be? Abreast of everything from Taylor Swift to La Liga, but I bet he never heard of Charlemagne or – what was the name of that British b***h with the handbag?

... Maynooth ... Mind the gap ...

Some disembark and others replace them. A mother and her daughter take the two remaining seats. The mother smiles, and the alert child smiles too. This is better than before, when you kept your eyes averted because a smile could lead to conversations no one wanted to risk.

“Are you going all the way?” Bill says to the mother. Dina glances up from her glossy magazine at Bill still flirting with history; or rather, as he now calls it, eschatology.

“Yes, we are,” the stranger says. “While there’s still time.”

“I remember when there were trains all day long – do you remember?”

“Oh, it’s not so long ago.’”

She extracts a smartphone from somewhere. Bill resorts to the newspaper, then decides not to bother. She may prattle in the same old way, but the same old prattle will be different from now on.

The woman, though, snaps shut her electronic device.

“In the classical era,” she leans forward, ”in Homer’s time, for example, one’s reputation was more important than life itself. Isn’t it curious how our values got turned upside down?”

“Je ne regrette rien,” the daughter, in a coy little burst of spontaneity, cuts in.

“Wow, that’s amazing,” Bill says to the child. “What’s your name?”

“Annabel.” She laughs a self-satisfied laugh, teeth flashing in his face.

“I try to teach her a few things,” the mother explains quasi-apologetically to Dina. “Things worth remembering, you know? Things….”

“So how old are you, Annabel?” Bill asks.

“You never ask a girl her age.” And she giggles again, in her yellow coat, with her couple of honey-blonde ringlets. Dina observes her lovingly. Dina and Bill have no children of their own.

“Do you think, was there ever a time when the weather was actually as good as we remember it?” The mother is leaning forward, urgent, as if she’d be prepared to let go of everything else if only she could find a few insights to anchor her. There is more than ordinary noise in Coach C. Phones flaunting their signals. People shouting across the aisle. They are laughing surprisingly freely. Bill glances at Dina. They know this is not real laughter, not real talk. They know everyone knows. This is today’s only train and it is going, strictly speaking, nowhere.

“I don’t know at all,” Bill says back to the mother. “I no longer know the things I thought I knew. Before that impostor in America.”

“What impostor?” the girl asks.

“Oh now, it’s a long story.” Bill turns all his attention on her. “There used to be the North Pole and the South Pole.”

“And the Equator,” she interrupts him.

“Exactly! Until the North Pole started moving south. And vice versa the other pole. Both of them heading for the Equator from different directions.”

The doting mother beams, pleased her daughter is having a grown-up chat.

Outside is the landscape, the sun shifting its attention from one field to the next. There are toy hills. When the ancestors invented trains, they went to great pains to smooth what otherwise would be roller-coaster travel. While meanwhile trees grew, don’t forget flora and fauna. Occasionally the trees may be seen in ancient circles. Because there were Druids and kings thinking and plotting. There was always someone mightier giving orders, ever since the race sorted itself unevenly out. Bill is never happier than thinking on a train.

“Didn’t civilisation do well,” he says to the mother, “when existence, frankly, could have gone either way?” People were always the difference, once they became people. He remembers his father, a failure at progress. He remembers Dina’s mother, who insisted on cremation to dodge the worms. The ashes are now in a little box with gold leaf. People curiously reluctant to let the ashes return to dust. The canal, meanwhile, runs parallel to the tracks, the two of them in a race to wherever they’re going

Mullingar. Mind the gap ...

“Mullingar!” the child echoes, blithe and carefree. “The toilet,” she suggests. The two leave Coach C as unceremoniously as they arrived. Outside on the platform, others are smoking cigarettes befouling the Mullingar air.

“They’ll be back,” Bill reassures Dina.

“She’s an only child, I’d say,” Dina says. “Judging by the narrow backside, the mother’s, though one can never be sure.”

“To think,” Bill says, “she gave birth one day, or night, to this little girl. Always a traumatic event; it surely hurt. She may be seven or eight now. In five years’ time she’ll be the same age Anne Frank was when Anne went into hiding in a hole in the wall in Holland. And three more years until she was swallowed up in Bergen-Belsen.”

“When she first came out,” Dina continues, “the daughter: was she not surely disappointed? Is this all there is? Especially after where she came from. Or she might be pleasantly surprised – amazing! – and maybe clapping her little hands with glee.”

“At her age Anne Frank, with another eight years to go, was making herself the kind of person she would be when the end came. Not necessarily heroic, that would be asking too much, but somewhere between instant gratification and heroism.”

“To be fair, we can’t blame her for being typical. Look around you, and everywhere you see people who could have lived to better effect. This failure used to be called original sin, but now it’s just life.”

A disembodied voice on the sound system admonishes stragglers to get back on board or be left behind. This is the voice of your grandfather, jolly, to belie the seriousness of this journey reminiscent of so many migrations since the days of Noah.

The mother and daughter do not return to their seats.

“That’s odd.”

“Ought we say something?”

They wait for the train to pick up speed but it just crawls along, a ghost of all the trains that sped across continents with a whoosh of self-importance and purpose. The voice on the intercom is an avuncular admonition to seize the moment and appreciate the countryside – look at those piebald horses with their wild manes; look at the plastic-covered hay bales ... Don’t worry about the flooding, it will disappear soon; and have a cup of tea from the trolley this beautiful day.

Dina, her nose to the window, searches for wild horses but sees only a farmer up to his knees in water.

All around, blathering gathers momentum. There must have been a downpour .. Ah it’s nothing. It happens all the time ...

An old fellow mumbles. I’m on the senior pass, by the way. I remember all sorts – I remember killings along the border. I remember the ballrooms and everyone cycling near or far, and the carry-on in hay sheds after the dances, always the risk of getting a girl pregnant, even if you didn’t intend to.

Into this babble comes Annabel’s mother. She is flustered.

“Did you see her?”

Bill and Dina say no in unison. Bill is thinking malfeasance. He fears Dina may cry, Dina who loves children. People never knew much. Before, they supplemented facts with beliefs, and it is into this thicket of beliefs that doubt and suspicion have more recently crawled.

“It won’t be long now,” the loudspeaker drones. The passengers grow giddy with anticipation.

They say it’s worse elsewhere ... mountains sticking up ... and a few hardy souls on them, waiting ...

“Edgeworthstown,” the loudspeaker says. “Take a good look. You will notice there are few locals left.”

“Maria Edgeworth once lived nearby,” Bill says. Annabel’s mother does not hear him. If Annabel were here, she would want to know more. Dina places a hand on the mother’s arm.

“You looked everywhere?” Bill asks. She nods without conviction. Bill and Dina exchange glances. There is, they know, a new thing called inevitability. Not so much a thing, Bill likes to explain, more a state of mind.

On they go. There is the kind of anticipation with which children once regarded trips to Disneyland. The countryside beyond Edgeworthstown is nondescript. There are rushy fields and electric fences and boreens along which generations strove to humanise their small piece of the planet. There are casual animals and occasional cars and along the roads some fine houses built by contemporary hopefuls bettering themselves.

There it is!”

It is the Atlantic Ocean. A few miles outside Edgeworthstown. At first the vista could pass for a mirage, but the crawling train ineluctably bears down on reality.

That water stretches all the way to America, the passengers say breathlessly. It poured in fiercely when backs were turned. It’s a mile away. Now half a mile. It looks so white, they say.

... They say half the country is gone ... It seems the island tilted and then keeled over ... I’ll tell you. It’s about currents gone astray. And snow from the poles ... But there are no poles left ... Sure, there are, it’s just that there’s no snow on them, it turned to water and came flowing down the globe and then took a left-hand turn into Connemara ...

Don’t move until the train stops.” Now it is a hundred metres; now fifty.

“It’s surprisingly calm,” Bill says. “I was expecting breakers like Salthill or Donegal. If that water hit us from the other direction, Dublin would be history.”

The mother stands without ceremony, leaves.

“These things don’t just happen. Cause and effect still count.”

“Did it mean something?” Dina asks. “That je ne regrette thing?”

“It might mean something, but did it make sense?”

“Everyone off,” the loudspeaker says.

... You’d think they ought to say something. Explain, like. How it happened, like ...

There is a screeching of brakes, like iron on iron. The pilgrims are pushing, shoving. Young ones help the elderly out. Into a field. There are two sets of tracks, grassy and weedy stretching away amid loose stones and the water lapping a few feet ahead.

And don’t forget, the earth is round, there is a curvature. But look, pal: you’re looking at the ocean and it’s flat ...

“It’s not looking good for civilisation,” Bill says, helping Dina down.

“Stop it, Bill,” she says. “Forget the cosmic shite.”

The train that looked ordinary in the city looks outlandish and mammoth here.

How could it not be agitated? (It is the old fellow who in his youth had such fun in dance hall and hay shed.) Mighty waves came in from Athenry. But if there was a decent breeze, we’d be under this minute.

The passengers are in ones and twos and groups. Some edge closer, fascinated by such proximity. Several have bottles such as they once used to take to Lourdes. But this is dangerous water inching towards the train.

“It’s the tide coming in,” Bill holds Dina’s hand for mutual support.

“What if it’s the tide going out,” Dina counters, “and still the sea getting closer?”

“And no sign of Annabel.”

... I suppose it’s salty. ... Think of all the contamination, from here to Galway Bay, and all the cow dung in between ... Yes, and on to New York. That is surely dirty water ... That’s if New York is still there. This is happening all over, this thing ...

They are strung out along the lapping water, what in other circumstances would be called the shore. When there is a splash they step briskly back in their wet runners. Gradually, focused, they begin to see shapes real or imagined.

Is that not a body? ... It’s someone ... There are bodies all over, if that’s what they are ... Debris everywhere .. Why wouldn’t there be, from here to America, don’t forget what’s happening ...

“Everyone back on board.” A tidy man descends from the locomotive. A figure of authority now, he has been watching like God lest people lose the run of themselves. The avuncular voice is turned severe.

“Everyone back on the train. Tickets, please.”

“My daughter,” Annabel’s mother says, “is missing.”

“How, missing?”

“I looked around and she was gone.”

“Things like that don’t happen,” the official says. “Sometimes people think things happen, but they don’t. Hurry up, there. The ocean is getting impatient.”

“Please,” the mother says.

“Do you see that thing?” His short arms wave with authority while one eye focuses on the distressed mother. “You think that’s the tip of a Mayo mountain or something scenic like Ben Bulben? That thing floating is a dead cow. Consider yourself lucky it’s not your little girl. If she was actually missing, and if she was alive, we’d find her. And you don’t want to be left behind, so get back to your seat.”

The silver profile of the Sligo train is regal in the countryside, basking in the glow of the setting sun. Ever so slowly it reverses, first by inches, then feet, while, within, the pilgrims take a last look at land that will be land no more.

“She wanted to come.” Annabel’s mother is back at the table of Dina and Bill. Now that whatever has happened has happened, the mother seems at peace or, more likely, Bill thinks, demented. “I tried to tell her things. The bad and good, definitely, but especially the unexpected.” Pause. “I had her for a while. I used to tell her things. You’d think I knew, because I would add: whatever happens, be glad you were here.”

“There’s surely an explanation,” Dina says.

“If only. But sacrifice has to be made to the earth. We bargain, but the earth insists.”

Michael J Farrell is the author of a novel, Papabile, winner of the Thorpe Menn Award in 1999, and two story collections, Life in the Universe (Stinging Fly Press, 2009); and Life Here Below (New Island, 2014).