Friday, 16 April 2010

The Island 2

Tabulae mundi mihi, The Island

The Island 2

Nexis Pas
(c) 2010 by the author

Between the ages of two and seven, when we moved to Munfrees, I lived with Aunt Alyce and my mother in a flat on Bell Street in Dublin. Until I returned as a university student, the row of shops between the building in which we lived and the primary school I attended was what came to my mind whenever that city was mentioned. Every storefront was a distinct colour—the chemist’s was red, the baker’s a light blue. I suppose the shops may have had names, but they were always referred to in generic terms—the grocer’s, the butcher’s, the chipper—there was only one of each and no further distinction was necessary within the neighbourhood.

That section of the street was always in motion. In the early morning, deliverymen bringing supplies to the shops shouted at one another and at passing schoolboys to get out the way. Later, in the afternoon, it was crowded with shoppers, some of them moving purposefully, other dawdling to look in shop windows or stopping to talk with friends. For the small boy that I was, both the deliverymen and the shoppers were props in a game whose purpose was to move as quickly as possible around them without running into anyone or anything.

The morning trip provided more of interest. I could almost predict what we would have for our evening meal by examining the greengrocer’s long, narrow cart. Most mornings it was parked outside his shop, laden with boxes and baskets of pale green cabbages, darker kale, and white turnips, along with the burlap sacks exuding the earthy smell of potatoes and the sharper scent of onions, waiting to be carried into the store. Carrots often provided the only bright colour.

Usually the offerings on display were the same monotonous dozen or so items. Many fruits and vegetables that we now take for granted were rare treats then, to be had for only a few weeks each year. Whenever oranges were available, the shopkeeper would make a pyramid of them in the window to announce that fact. Every time I saw that, the hope would grow that Aunt Alyce had bought us one for our tea, and that when I arrived home, an orange would be sitting on a plate in the centre of the table. One orange was enough to perfume our small flat. When the time came, Alyce would peel it carefully, her long fingers becoming stained white. She would set the orange back on the plate while she carried the peel away and washed her hands. Then would come the magic moment when she divided it into segments and placed them on our plates. A gift of sunshine, she once called them. She and my mother wove a tale of a grove of orange trees in Portugal and its keeper, an old man who gathered sunlight and put it inside the fruit until each one became radiant with colour, and of a speedy ship, its sails taut with wind and its hold filled with chests of glowing light, that brought the fruit across the sea to Dublin.

Left to my own devices, I was fonder of gore. My favourite morning sight was the unloading of carcasses at the butcher’s. I wasn’t supposed to tarry on the way to school, but I always found an excuse for stopping to watch—a shoe that needed retying or a search through my satchel to make sure that I hadn’t forgotten a pencil. The delivery van stood open while the butcher examined the bodies of pigs and sheep and the sides of beef hanging from hooks fixed to the roof of the van. The butcher and the driver would argue over prices, while the butcher’s boy in his blood-stained smock waited stoically for the moment his boss would motion him forward to carry one of the bloody slabs of meat into the shop. I loved the fluid motion with which the man detached one of the carcasses from the hooks and shouldered it even as he hopped down from the van to the street, his face barely registering his exertions. I hoped one day to be able to duplicate that impressive feat of strength. Later, the head of the pig or the sheep would appear on a tray in the centre of the shop window, surrounded by a ring of sausages. On the few occasions I entered the butcher’s, I didn’t like it, however. The shop oozed a sour, acidic smell.

The walk home was quite different. All the shops were open and their goods spilled out onto the pavement on makeshift shelves and stacks of boxes. But, in contrast to the morning, the goods had become tamed--everyday commodities beyond my reach rather than exotics encountered unexpectedly and offered for free to my view. I had no money and seemingly no hope of ever having any, but I liked to look and to contemplate buying. I picked my imaginary purchases carefully. No one got more value for a pence than I.

My memories of the school are much more indistinct. I remember the excitement of learning to read, but I recall little of the classroom in which I first discovered that the marks on the pages of books could be deciphered and then combined to make other words. The teacher is now only a blur in my mind. She has neither personality nor a name in my memory.

I have stronger memories of our flat on Bell Street. It consisted of two rooms. A toilet and bathroom across the hall were shared with the other flat on the same floor. The front room overlooked the street. It functioned as our sitting room, kitchen, and my bedroom. A gas ring, a sink, and a cupboard in one corner were the kitchen. There was a large circular table in the middle of the room. My mother and Aunt Alyce wrote their books at it, composing and revising the drafts on tablets of paper and then typing the final versions to be sent to the publishers. Later in the day, it would become the table at which they prepared our meal, and still later, the table at which we ate. I did my schoolwork there in the evening, while my mother and aunt read or wrote or talked. A couch beside the window overlooking the street became my bed at night. Blankets and a pillow would be taken from a wardrobe and unfolded. A curtain hung from a rope was pulled across that section of the room when I went to bed. I went to sleep each night listening to the sound of pages being turned in books or to the scratching of pens on paper or the occasional murmured comment. Often noises on the street would wake me in the middle of the night. I would noiselessly raise myself from my makeshift bed and pull back the curtains and watch the neighbourhood.

The inner room was my mother and aunt’s bedroom. I seldom went into it. I don’t recall that there was a specific prohibition against entering it, but the door to it was usually closed. It was always closed at night.

My mother was named Kathryn Brennan. I had been christened Patrick Ross Stephen Michael Brennan and was always called Patrick. Aunt Alyce was Alyce Collins, my mother’s older sister. As far as I knew at the time, I had no other family. My mother was twenty-eight and my aunt thirty-one when we left Dublin for Munfrees.

My mother and Aunt Alyce were writers, mostly of fiction but also of the occasional essay for the papers or magazines. I don’t know if they earned enough then from their writing to support us. We certainly weren’t rich, but there were many far poorer than we were. I would learn later that my mother and aunt received money from their family, and that may have paid for my school fees and other expenses. They also owned a car and knew how to drive it, at a time when it was still uncommon in Ireland for a woman to do so.


“Because your mother needs a place where she can work. There is too much noise here.” Alyce continued packing. When I had arrived home from school, she was filling a suitcase with my clothes. As she picked each piece up, she folded it into a neat square or rectangle before putting it in the suitcase. “We’re leaving tomorrow morning. We now own a house in a village called Munfrees. It belonged to a great-uncle of ours. He died and now it’s ours. Munfrees is in Donegal, along the north-western coast, north of Sligo. I’ll show you where it is on a map as soon as I finish packing. You’ve never been to such a place before. It will be an adventure for you.”

“But school won’t be finished for another month. Why are we leaving now?”

“You have your books. You can read the lessons on your own. If there’s something you don’t understand, your mother and I will teach you.”

“But I don’t want to go. I like it here.”

“Patrick, you must not be selfish. Munfrees will be good for your mother. It will be a much healthier place for all of us, and it will give her the quiet she needs to work.”

“And what about our things? We can’t take the table and our beds in the car.”

“We don’t need them now. We have sold them. A man will be by to pick them up in the morning. We have what we need in Munfrees. Now, gather all your books and paper and put them in that box.”

I had a strong sense of unease that evening. My mother pointed out Munfrees on the map and showed me the route we would take. I had no concept of the distance involved. I had seen a map of Ireland before, of course, but I had spent most of life, at least the years that I could remember, on Bell Street and its environs. We occasionally journeyed to other parts of Dublin, to visit a doctor perhaps, but those trips were rare. I could probably name the counties of Ireland and locate them on a map. We had a globe at school, and I had learned to identify the major countries. I had seen pictures of other parts of Ireland and of the world. But those were things I experienced in books. For me, those things had the same status as the “stories” I read in books. I didn’t distinguish “fact” from “fiction”, indeed wasn’t even aware that there was a distinction to be made.

Of course, as I write this, I am an adult attempting to reconstruct feelings that I had close to sixty years ago. I certainly did not express myself in the vocabulary I am using here, and my thoughts were surely less organized than I am presenting them now. But in 1950, I had never seen television, never seen a film. I had no reason to think that my world would ever be other than the one I knew. Elsewhere and other lives were abstractions I knew from books, not from experience.

The flat on Bell Street was undoubtedly rented, but to me it was my immutable home. The concept that we might leave it and move had never crossed my mind. Similarly, I was unacquainted with the idea that one might dispossess oneself of furniture and acquire other pieces to replace them. The entire enterprise of moving was foreign to me, and I spent a restless night trying to understand it.

Early the next morning, Alyce drove the car around, and mother and she loaded it. While they were doing so, the removal men came for the furniture. Slowly our flat was emptied until only I remained in it, sitting out of the way on the windowsill. Alyce and mother borrowed a broom and a dustpan from the neighbours and swept out. They made one final check to make sure nothing had been left behind. I was left alone in the flat for a moment, while mother and Alyce said good-bye to the neighbours. It was silent. The hooks for the curtain that had cordoned off my bed were the only evidence that we had lived there.

Mother came for me. When I stepped outside, she pulled the door shut and locked it, and then gave the key to the neighbour. We walked down the stairs one final time. When we reached the car, she tilted the front passenger seat forward to allow me to get into the back seat. Then she settled herself in and shut the door. She and Alyce smiled at each other, and then Alyce started the car.

As we drove off, I saw a boy wearing the uniform of the school I attended. I didn’t know him, but seeing him made me aware that I was still wearing my uniform and that I wasn’t headed for school. Alyce had packed all my other clothes, and I literally had nothing but the clothes I had been wearing the previous day. My last memory of our former street was staring at my bony white knees emerging between the grey shorts of my school uniform and the grey knee-length socks. I was wearing the jacket with its school emblem over my heart and the striped cap on my head. The tie was still knotted around my neck. I didn’t know where we were headed, but it seemed clear to me that the tie and cap had become superfluous. I unknotted it and folded it carefully into a neat small bundle and sat it beside me on the seat. I took off my cap. When I looked up again, we were headed down an unfamiliar street.

Today it would take around three hours, more if traffic were heavy, to drive from the area of Bell Street in Dublin to Sligo. The distance is about 220 km, roughly 140 miles. But, of course, now most of the distance is over motorways or dual carriageways. In 1950, the road had only one lane in each direction. It traversed the centre of every town and village rather than skirting them. Especially in the countryside, farm vehicles often slowed traffic to a crawl. We stopped and ate our noon meal in a café, and we did not reach Sligo until mid-afternoon.

Mother gave me a map so that I could trace our journey by ticking off the town names as we passed through them. I tried to keep track of them, but the scenery held too much that was new to me. I had never seen open countryside before, and the expanse of greenery organized by fences and hedgerows into neat parcels astonished me, as did sheep, cows, goats, chickens, ducks, geese. Moreover, I had never eaten in a café before. The idea that I could choose what I would eat was a novelty.

If the journey from Dublin to Sligo was slow, the forty miles from Sligo to Munfrees were even slower. The road was primitive even by the standards of the 1950s. About thirty miles north of Sligo, we turned off the (badly) paved highway for the road to Munfrees. It was gravelled but there were large patches of wet ground that had to be driven slowly. We came over the crest of the hill above Munfrees and began our descent into the village just as the sun was setting. That was my first view of the Atlantic—a red sun disappearing into the ocean. I was so intent on that sight that I didn’t even notice the village until we drove into it and the houses abruptly shut off my view of the ocean.

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