Shergar..A novel in draft. Ch 1.

1.

MY GRANDFATHER died on a Sunday, the worst day to die. Priests are busy and undertakers have the day off.

RIP John F McGann. The F was for Fiachra, by the way. He was seventy-three years old and I bet you think this is going to be a story about him and what a great person he really was. How he always said wise things and gave me great advice about what to do about my life and stuck up for me when my dad was being an absolute bastard, which he sometimes is, by the way. That’s what grandfathers are mean to do, right? Protect. Take our hand and guide us across the street. Make the pain go away.

Well, here’s the truth. I didn’t know John Fiachra McGann for very long. Just a year, in fact. One day he wasn’t around and the next, there he was, back home after spending the last twenty years in Spain. I thought he was dead. I mean, I didn’t know this for a fact. I just assumed because no-one told me otherwise.

My other grandfather, Grandpa Danny, lives in Glasgow with his wife, Grace, who isn’t really my grandmother (that’s another family saga for another day). But that was it for me in the grandparent department until I came home from school one day to find my mother sitting across the kitchen table from older gentleman with thick grey hair. He had on a creamy shirt and a pair of dark green braces.

They must have heard me coming through the back gate and up the garden path because they were already looking towards the door when I walked in.

“You’re home,’’ my mother said, getting out of her seat. “Come in, there’s someone I want you to meet.”

John F McGann stood up and stepped towards me. His trousers rode high on the waist. The turn-ups floated around his ankles, showing off his polished black boots. He looked solid, in control and confident. He could have been one of those politicians you see in old photographs — straight-backed men in church clothes lecturing from the back of a hay cart, telling the audience how it was possible to make Ireland a better place.

He smiled at me like a saint. “Hello.”

My hand felt tiny in his big white paw.

“This is John McGann,’’ my mother said, and then: “My father.”

She must have thought this didn’t sound right because she corrected herself. “My dad. Your grandad.”

And that was it. No big drama. No beating around the mulberry bush or anything daft like that. Your grandad. My grandad, who turned out not to be dead after all.

I thought about my brother Ciaran, who was away at university in American and wouldn’t be home for another six months. He’s a runner — he ran the 800 meters for Ireland at the last European Junior Championships, if you must know — and is smarter than me. He would have had questions, plenty of them, instead of standing there gormlessly shaking this stranger’s hand.

“Pleased to meet you…,”

I didn’t know what to call him. He noted my hesitation.

“Call me grandad.”

I did what I was told. “Grandad.” The word tasted bitter, like a green apple.

We sat down talked for a while and I asked him about Spain and where he lived.

“Valencia,’’ he said.

My mother agreed. “Valencia,’’ she said, trying the word out for size.

We talked about my school (St Eunan’s College) and how I was doing (pretty good, though I bet that’s not what my parents would say). He asked me about my friends and what sports I liked. Basketball and soccer.

“Gaelic football?”

I shook my head. “A great game,’’ he said.

I do fine for friends, by the way. I’m not the most popular and I’m not one of the people at school who everyone ignores, the dweebs. I right there in the middle, staying out of the way of bullies and the headmaster.

I was glad when my mother looked at her watch and said it was probably time for him to go if he wanted to catch his bus. I talk too much and don’t listen enough, she always says, but my brain was exhausted trying to think of things to keep the conversation going.

John F McGann stood up and lifted his jacket from the back of the seat all in one move.

“Let’s be friends,’’ he said.

My mother spoke before I had the chance. “Of course he will, won’t you Declan.”

I nodded because I didn’t have a choice ( Not to get too grammatical and all, but that Won’t you Declan should have had a question at the end but didn’t.)

“Of course we will,” my new-found grandad said.

I didn’t see him that much after that, three times in total, including once with Jonathan, which I’ll tell you about later.

He lived in Dublin, seventy miles away. He didn’t have a car and neither do I. Obviously. But there was there another reason I didn’t see him much, in my opinion. My dad didn’t like John F McGann. Not that he told me this. But when you live in a house the size of our house you hear things, through the walls and just before you walk into a room and the people don’t realise you are just outside the door and might be listening, even if you don’t want to.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not into spying. I’m not a sneak. But there was one time I heard my mother tell my father she had invited John to come for Sunday dinner and my father telling her, “You can if you want but don’t expect me to be here”. And the way he said — really sarcastic — was weird because my dad never talks to anyone like, especially not my mother. He’s the deputy headmaster at St Eunan’s, my dad, and that’s the kind of job where you don’t get to be sarcastic,

My mother didn’t reply because that’s what when I walked in. Silence dropped the way it does right after a heavy book falls on the floor. She asked me if I had washed my hands and that was the end of the conversation.

They sorted it out between themselves later on when I wasn’t around. My dad got his way because the following Sunday my mother went off to Dublin and he made the Sunday dinner. Burned chicken, sprouts and potatoes as hard as stones. If there’s a worse cook in the world than my dad I’d truly like to meet that person and offer them my condolences.

The funeral happened ten days later, on a Wednesday. I don’t want to get into all that what’s the meaning of life kind of stuff but, honestly, it’s crazy when you think of it. One minute a person is walking around, breathing in air and wondering what to watch on TV that night and the next they’re gone. Dead.

No-one mentioned anything about me going to the funeral for a few days, which was a relief. We go to church every Sunday as a family and I don’t mind telling you it is absolutely the worst hour of the week. And that’s without all the weeping and and paper hankies and grieving you get at a funeral. It would have been my first one. I imagined myself carrying the coffin out of the church, my knees buckling as I dropped it before we reached the hearse. I’m not exactly Mr Universe in the muscle department, if you must know. So it was probably for the best when my dad announced at the breakfast table I was a no-go on the funeral front. I would be staying at home and hanging around with Jonathan.

I pretended I was disappointed but Jonathan knew the truth. He nudged my foot under the table and grinned a little, just enough so I was the only one who spotted it.

“Please, no,’’ he told my dad. “Not on my account. I know how much Declan wants to pay his last respects. Anyway, I don’t need a babysitter.”

My dad shook his head. “No, that’s true. You don’t,’’ he said, “but Declan does.”

That made everyone laugh, except me and my dad of course. Me, because I’m fourteen years old and can look after myself, thank you very much. And my dad because — well, he’s not exactly the world laughing champion.