In the countryside the winter is long and desolate, tamed only by a few days of joyous sunsets and crisp-white fields. Mostly though, the farm buildings huff and hunker in the endless rain.
“You’re just a city softie.” Fionnuala was curled up on the sofa with a hot water bottle and Lemsip. “This is all to make the spring, when it springs, all the sweeter.”
I envied my wife and her cold. I was like a blue-arsed fly sorting out wee ones, washing, doing dinner and dessert; but thank God I didn’t have to go back outside. The storm the night before was still howling and no-one should be out in that. I planned to light the fire and let a big Aussie Shiraz breathe on the mantlepiece.
“Fabien?” Fionnuala was reading her WhatsApps. “Could you do a wee favour?” I didn’t like the use of the word “wee”.
“Uncle Brian needs a couple of men to hold up a fence that’s down so he can nail it back up.”
“Some of your brothers or cousins can sort him this time. I’m only an outlaw, as he keeps reminding me.”
“Many hands make light work. They’ll be going too. It’ll show you’re a good sport.”
I drove off, the car buffeting about like a fish on a line. The rain smacked off the windscreen and it occurred to me that I might not be wearing the right gear. I had my DM shoes on, jeans, a sweatshirt and my light puffer jacket. At least I have my Spurs bobble hat, I thought.
When I pulled up at Genghis’s there wasn’t a vehicle in sight. I could just about open my car door – the wind drove at it like a front row prop – and when I finally freed myself, a barrage of rapid-fire raindrops sliced at my face. I blundered into the house, my eyes stinging, where Genghis was standing with a cup of tea, a cigarette and a scowl.
I watched as Genghis McCann marched out of the shed with a hammer in one hand and a bag of nails in the other, a gun-slinger in the face of the gale
“What are you crying at? It’s only a skiff of rain.”
“It’s bloody wicked out there. It’s like being on a yacht in a mid-Atlantic storm.”
“Far from yachts you were raised.” He flicked the fag into the sink and walked to the door. “C’mon. This fence won’t fix itself.”
I tried to stop him. “There’s no point going out there without the other lads. It’ll be a complete waste of time. For God’s sake.”
But Genghis McCann was gone, and as I saw him march out of the shed with a hammer in one hand and a bag of nails in the other – a gun-slinger in the face of the gale – I knew I had to go too.
The fence that had blown over was down a short lane behind his house and as I struggled to hold it up, I wondered how the cavalry would know where we were. You couldn’t see it from his house. The rain was biting like a snake at my ears, the wind like needles, and the long, buckled fence acted like a sail and was impossible to hold.
I slipped at one stage and slid in the muck down an embankment, covering myself in dreadful wet clay. Genghis reached out his rough fingers and pulled me back up. He was like a steel robot.
“Where are the others?” I yelled. “Lift that end up... Up! Now hold firm,” he shouted back. He hammered stoically, solid and relentless, never hitting anything but the nail, and bit by bit the fence went up. Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage!
Back in the house he made tea and gave me a clean(ish) towel and told me to wash up in the scullery. He never said thanks but he gave me a Fig Roll and there was a little feeling of brotherhood. As I drove home I thought of Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall: “Good fences make good neighbours.”
“You got a big thank you on the WhatsApp,” Fionnuala revealed as I warmed my backside at the fire. “Really appreciate the good deed today. Thank you so much.”
I laughed out loud. “Ha! Genghis is human after all!”
“Oh, this isn’t from Uncle Brian. It’s from Mrs Davison. His neighbour. Whose fence you and him fixed today.”