‘Gold Watch’ by John McGahern

“It was happiness such as I’d never known,” proclaims the narrator during this stunning story’s airy opening. He and an old girlfriend (unnamed throughout; “beautiful as ever”) have been reunited on a “lazy Saturday morning” in Dublin. The pair soon move into a flat. The narrator buys “fruit or wine or a bowl and, once, a copper pan”. They marry quietly – “two vergers as witnesses” – in a Franciscan church down by the quay. But romantic love – all bliss and ease and freedom – is very much a counterpoint here, a foil to the story’s real centre of gravity – the dismal, grinding pull of the narrator’s family home.

“‘And yet you keep going back to the old place?’
’That’s true. I have to face that now. That way I don’t feel guilty. I don’t feel anything.’
I knew myself too well. There was more caution than any love or charity in my habitual going home.”

The meetings between father, son, and stepmother Rose, in the “old place” re-enact age-old psychological battles (this unhappy domestic triangle make strained appearances in other stories too). McGahern portrays – with a touch at once light and grave – each stage of the internecine struggle: the vituperative aggressions, the “false heartiness” of the truces, the doleful silent retreats. And the story’s final, remarkable scene – hinging upon the gift of a gold watch – sees the terrible, eerie transubstantiation of the father’s cruelty into both physical and symbolic form.  

First published in The New Yorker, 17 March 1980, and collected in High Ground and Other Stories, Faber & Faber, 1985, and Collected Stories, Faber & Faber, 2014

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