Monday, 17 May 2010

The Island 3

Tabulae mundi mihi, The Island

The Island 3

Nexis Pas

© 2010 by the author

When we arrived in Munfrees in May 1951, the village was home to perhaps a hundred people. The many empty houses testified that the population had once been larger. When a family moved away or the last member died, a relative might claim a vacant house if it were better than his current one, but most of the empty houses were left to decay. A house known to be abandoned was considered to belong to the village, and, after a ‘decent’ interval of a few weeks, the other residents stripped it of useable materials. The walls of an abandoned house usually lasted long after the roof had gone, the plaster gradually falling off to reveal the stones beneath. In time, even the walls disappeared as the stones were scavenged for other uses. When we moved to Munfrees, only some thirty houses were inhabited.

Most of the houses had two stories. The ground floor was usually divided into two rooms, a larger room that was a combination kitchen and living area and a smaller room used as a bedroom or a sitting room. A flight of steep stairs led upward into a sleeping area under a steeply pitched roof, again usually divided into two rooms. The front and back doors were squarely in the middle of the ground floor, with one window to each side of the doors on the ground floor. Some houses had a row of windows on the first floor as well. The houses were heated only by the fireplace in the kitchen. In the early 1950s all the inhabited houses were whitewashed.

It would be another seven years before electricity arrived in Munfrees. Until that time the only lighting was provided by candles or lanterns or the kitchen fires. There was no running water, and we relied on the water in the streams flowing down from the hills, rainwater collected in barrels, and wells.

The inhabitants of Munfrees were poor. Oddly enough, however, the people I met in the 1950s were better off than their parents and grandparents had been. So many people had left the village that those who remained benefited. The size of the pot remained the same, but there were fewer people living off it. Sheep and wool were the principal products of the farmers in the village. Everyone had a small garden plot to grow potatoes and sometimes vegetables—cabbage, kale, turnips, onions, and carrots.

There was a pub run by one of the Aherns. It was a small, one-room building. As was common at that time in rural Ireland, only men patronised it. Most evenings probably ninety percent of the adult males in the village stopped into the pub, if only for a few minutes.

The only other ‘business’ in Munfrees was Feelihy’s shop. Feelihy’s was an emporium. It sold groceries—sugar, tea, flour, canned goods—and supplies—the white gas we used for our lanterns, matches, caps, top boots, cloth, kettles, string, paper. If Feelihy’s didn’t have what you needed, it wasn’t to be had in Munfrees. If Mrs Feelihy, who ran the shop, bought a carton of tinned pears, we ate pears until all the tins had been sold and she ordered a new box of tinned fruit. If she bought a bolt of blue-and-white-striped cloth, all new clothes were sewn with blue-and-white-striped cloth until the bolt had been finished and she purchased a new bolt. An amazing variety of goods was packed into the store. It might take Mrs Feelihy a few minutes to find what you wanted, but she often had it. If she didn’t, then you had to wait until you or someone willing to buy what you needed for you went to Killybegs. Mrs Feelihy was also the post mistress, as well as the main conduit of information in the village. A stop at Feelihy’s was as much a visit to exchange news as it was a matter of purchasing goods.

Feelihy’s sold nothing that was perishable. We either grew our own vegetables or purchased them from our neighbours. A farmer who decided to butcher a lamb or a sheep might be willing to sell some of the meat to others. More often, it was simply traded against a future promise to return a like amount of meat when you yourself slaughtered an animal. Most households had chickens for eggs and eventually the pot. The butcher’s cart stopped in Munfrees on Tuesdays. He sold mostly bacon and sausages. Occasionally he might have beef or pork, but few of the villagers could indulge in those luxuries. The injunction against eating meat on Friday and other fast days was largely meaningless in Munfrees. Meat was not part of the daily diet for most people.

Munfrees was then part of the Gaeltacht, the area in which the main language in everyday use is Irish. Both my mother and my aunt spoke some Irish, enough to get by. My primary schooling coincided with one of the government’s unsuccessful attempts to teach Irish in the schools, and I had been exposed to it. I quickly picked up what I needed. Many of the older people spoke no English or knew only a few words. Most of the conversations I report in this work took place in Irish.

Like many rural Irish settlements, the houses extended along both sides of the road in what is now called a ‘linear village’. The house that my mother and aunt had inherited was at one end slightly separated from the nearest house by several vacant lots and decayed buildings. It followed the general pattern of having two rooms on the ground floor and two on the floor above. My mother and aunt each took one of the rooms on the upper floor. To my delight, I had a room for myself, the second one on the ground floor. That was the first time I had a room of my own.

The house was dark. There were only three windows on the ground floor, two at the front facing the street, and a third one in the kitchen in the back. For economy we lit the gas lantern only at night. I did my schoolwork sitting next to the window in my bedroom, and my aunt and mother similarly worked at a table drawn up next to one of the windows in the kitchen. I was allowed to read outside during the day if the weather was good.

The property had one feature that intrigued me. My explorations on the day after we arrived soon led to a discovery.

‘What is that building?’

My mother crossed to the window where I was standing and looked out. ‘It’s a cow shed. Uncle kept a cow.’

‘Where is the cow?’

‘Mr Thomas Ahern has been taking care of it since Uncle died. We told him to keep it, and in turn he has agreed to supply us the milk that we need.’

‘But it’s our cow. We must get it back.’

The idea of owning our own cow appealed greatly to me. My knowledge of cows was limited to the friendly brown and white creatures smiling from the pages of books. I knew that they mooed and wore bells around their necks, and I knew that they ‘gave’ us milk. I had no idea of the process involved, but the notion that cows made us a present of milk was firmly entrenched in my vision of the animal. How could one not want to own such an animal, especially since we had a building specifically designated as a home for it? To me it seemed irrefutable that a cow shed required a cow. We had the one, and we had been, I became convinced, dispossessed of the other by a hasty and injudicious, not to say foolish, decision of my mother and aunt.

‘We do not have land on which it can graze, nor any way of getting food for it. And neither your aunt nor I wish to milk a cow. It would provide far more milk than we could use, even if we made butter and cheese. It is much easier to let Mr Ahern deal with it and get what milk we need from him.’

‘I could take care of it. Mr Ahern could show me what to do.’

‘You have your studies and other work to do.’ My mother smiled at my aunt over my head.

I found these excuses paltry, although I did not say so aloud. Once I had finished my assigned task of unpacking my few belongings and putting my clothes in the old press and my school supplies on the table in my bedroom, I put on my coat and pulled on my topboots (as we called wellies then). I wandered out the back door and casually inspected the area behind the house. A stone wall about three feet high enclosed an area of fifteen by thirty feet. Most of this eventually became our vegetable garden. A rough stone path led to the outdoor bog in the far left-hand corner. The cowshed was in the other corner. It was a dilapidated stone structure open on one side, walled off from the rest of the yard. A wooden gate in the back wall opened onto a small field beyond.

I took care not to appear to be in haste to inspect the cow shed lest I attract my mother’s or aunt’s attention. It took me a good quarter hour to reach that part of the yard, and any observer would have thought me far more interested in the stone wall. Even when I reached the cow shed and looked in, my gaze was perfunctory. The cow shed had been in use until our great-uncle had died a few months earlier. Clearly it was still functional. I knew that cows ate grass, and the field on the other side of the gate had grass. I concluded that all that prevented us from having a cow was my mother’s and my aunt’s misguided assumption that I was incapable of handling ‘our’ cow.

I wandered onto the road and looked around. There was no cow in view, but, I reasoned, as our new house demonstrated, cows were kept in sheds behind houses, and it would be necessary to look behind each house. The houses on the other side of the street were on the ocean side of the village and had no fields behind them. These seemed unlikely candidates for the stabling of a cow. A slow, meandering ten-minute walk took me to the other end of the village. I peered between each pair of houses but found no cow. I walked back the way I came. I pondered if I should ask my mother where Mr Thomas Ahern lived. Would that give the game away? I decided that it might.

I re-entered the area behind our house and unfastened the gate that led into the field. The ground sloped gradually upward away from our house. I climbed to the upper end of the field and sat on the stone wall. From that vantage point, I could see the back sides of all the properties on that side of the road. All of them were much like ours. Outbuildings in various states of decay and disrepair, many of them little more than rough piles of stones fashioned haphazardly into walls. I could see chickens and sheep, but no cow. Clearly Mr Thomas Ahern had not only purloined our cow but also hidden it from view in an attempt to prevent its rightful owner from repossessing it. A hot coal of indignation burned in my soul. I spent the rest of the day plotting schemes to find out where the cow was being kept.

A man came down the road toward the village pushing a barrow holding several pails. He stopped in front of our house. I could hear my aunt and the man talking. After a few minutes he continued on. An hour or so later, my mother called me into the house for tea. Those first few days in Munfrees, our meals were rather simple because of a lack of supplies. It would take another week or so for my aunt and mother to get the housekeeping organised. Our tea that evening consisted of potatoes and bread and jam.

The table held one surprise. The cup that my mother set in front of me held milky tea. We hadn’t had milk for our breakfast tea. Somehow during the day by means unbeknownst to me milk had made an appearance in our house. ‘Where did this milk . . . How . . . ?’ My suspicions made me incoherent, all the more so because I had to suppress it lest my schemes be revealed.

‘Uncle Thomas brought it by a while ago. Did you not see him?’ My aunt placidly spread jam on a slice of bread, either unaware of her treachery or dissembling her own part in the plot. She was consorting with the enemy, trafficking in stolen goods. And Mr Thomas Ahern had become Uncle Thomas. The man had suborned the affections of my aunt and mother. (He was in fact a relative of ours. Determining the exact nature of relationships in the village would have challenged the most astute genealogist, however. We settled for calling members of the previous generation ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’; members of the same generation referred to one another as ‘cousin’.)

The recovery of our cow would require more cunning than I had anticipated. But I now knew one fact I hadn’t known before. The Ahern man had approached the village from the road that extended southward along the coast to the main fields. The pails on his cart had held milk, and therefore the cow was not in the village but was being held prisoner somewhere outside it.

I had been awoken at daybreak that morning by men talking as they walked past our house on their way to the fields. I realised that I would not be allowed out that early. My mother would insist that I eat and complete my studies first. I could, however, watch them to make sure that Ahern was among them and then follow them later. The geography of Munfrees worked in my favour. There was no avenue of escape. And besides I had done nothing—yet—to put Ahern on guard. He would have no reason to suspect me.

I rose early the next morning and sat at the table beside the window. I had a book propped open in front of me, and in the guise of a young scholar I watched for my quarry. Several people passed down the road in the right direction. I discounted the women, since I knew that Ahern was male. One man carried shopping bags and was, I surmised, headed toward the N54 to catch the bus into Killybegs. That left a half-dozen possibles. My aunt and then a bit later my mother came down the stairs and greeted me as they passed the door. I hoped they were pleased to see me at my studies so early. Soon I heard the sounds of our morning meal being prepared, and I was called away from my observation post shortly, without catching sight of Ahern.

There was milk for our breakfast that morning. I asked innocently whether Mr Ahern had made a delivery that morning and was told that it was left over from the previous evening, that he would bring milk only once a day. ‘So cows give milk in the afternoon?’

‘I think they are milked twice a day.’ My mother queried my aunt with a look.

My aunt was uncertain. ‘I believe so.’ She smiled at me. ‘You can ask Uncle Thomas this afternoon.’

The subject had been broached, with little prompting from myself. I had, in my eyes, been given permission to investigate the matter and was emboldened to interrogate them further. ‘Where does Mr Ahern (I refused to admit kinship to the robber) keep our cow?’

‘He has a field somewhere toward the end of the valley.’ My mother inclined her head southward. ‘He is grazing it there.’

Success! I had the information I needed. I helped with the washing up and then did my assigned lessons for the day. Around mid-day, I presented myself to my aunt and mother to be quizzed on that day’s readings. After acquitting myself admirably (the recovery of our cow was not to be risked by failure and an afternoon devoted to review of what I had neglected to learn in the morning), I was given permission to spend the rest of the day outside. I even asked if I could follow the path southward to the end of the valley and was told that I could but not to venture too close to the water.

The road through the village turns eastward a hundred or so yards outside our house and ascends the hill to the outside world. South of the turning, the road degenerates quickly to a path following the shoreline, bordered on the landward side by stone fences and the seaward side by rocky outcroppings. There are many muddy patches where water seeps down from the hills, and I soon learned that I could make faster progress by walking closer to the walls, where the ground was covered with stones.

Many things caught my attention, and I noted them for later investigation. That day I had a mission. I was just tall enough to see over the walls, and I examined each field as I passed it. There were fields filled with plants; there were fields with sheep, some of whom paused in their activities to regard me as closely as I was regarding them; there was even a pig in one field. There were dogs guarding the sheep. There were men engaged in what to me were still inexplicable activities. I was stopped by one of them who asked me if I was Mrs Brennan’s boy. I told him that I was. He nodded and then went back to work, curiosity apparently satisfied.

And finally there was the field with the cow. She (it is a measure of my ignorance that I initially thought of the cow as a he) was standing twenty or so feet away from the fence and eating grass. As I watched, she bent down and tore off a mouthful and then used her pinkish-grey tongue to manoeuvre the grass into her mouth.

My immediate reaction was disgust. The cow bore no resemblance to the sleek animals I had seen in pictures and drawings. Her back sagged between bony shoulders and hipbones. Her flesh drooped, appearing to be only loosely attached to the bones. And she was filthy, her legs covered with mud up to the knee joints, her tail a dirty flail. Then there was the business of the udder hanging forward of her back legs, a curious, quivering appendage with no claim to ascetic value. The cow was, not to put too fine a point on it, ugly. She turned my way and regarded me without interest. I watched her for another quarter hour. She continued to eat. The animal had no sense of the drama, no sense of the potential magic of cowness.

I turned away in disappointment and continued down the path to its end. I found many more rewarding things to occupy my attention. Had an informant been available, I would have pestered him or her with questions about the nature of the things I was encountering. Several hours later, I returned along the path. As I approached the field with the cow, a man pushing a barrow came towards me and opened the gate to the field. He was, I concluded, the elusive Thomas Ahern.

When I came abreast of the field, I stopped and watched him over the fence. He attached a rope halter to the cow’s head and led it toward towards a stake in the ground that I had overlooked before. He tied the other end of the rope to the stake and then took a three-legged stool and several pails from the barrow. At that point he noticed me and waved. ‘Are you the Brennan boy then? I’m your Uncle Thomas. Come in and keep me company while I’m milking.’

I pushed the gate open and walked over to him. There was a smell, a smell that grew stronger the closer I came to the cow. Uncle Thomas sat down next to the cow and placed a pail underneath her udder. He pressed his head against her belly and then began milking. He puts his hands around two of the teats and began pulling on them. With each stroke, a jet of milk squirted into the pail. At first, when the pail was empty, there was a sound of milk hitting metal with a clang. As the pail filled, the sound changed and became liquid hitting liquid. I craned my neck and looked into the pail.

The cow continued to graze, ignoring both of us as Uncle Thomas asked me questions about our life in Dublin. Occasionally the cow would move about, and Uncle Thomas would interrupt himself to coo ‘Cush, cush, stand still, girlie,’ at the cow. When the first pail was full, he handed it to me and asked me to carry it over to the barrow. I took that opportunity to examine the milk. It was foamy and bits and pieces of grass floated on the surface. It also smelled unpleasantly of cow.

When I returned, Uncle Thomas asked me if I would like to try milking the cow. I didn’t really want to, but he seemed to expect me to try. So I sat down and modelled myself on him. I pressed my head against the cow’s belly as I had seen him do. I placed my hands on two of the teats. They were unexpectedly warm and rubbery. I yanked on them. Nothing came out. The cow, however, turned her head around and looked askance at me. As I pulled at the teats again, in another vain attempt to produce a stream of milk, she swatted her tail across my face, leaving a slimy trail of muck on my cheek.

I jumped up, tipping the stool over and falling backward onto the ground. Uncle Thomas guffawed and helped me up. I stepped away, out of the reach of the cow’s tail. I pulled my handkerchief from my pocket and anxiously scrubbed at my face. I thought I would never be clean again. The handkerchief quickly became soiled, and I threw it away in disgust.

‘That’s just a love tap, lad. Nothing to worry about. Now, try again.’ Uncle Thomas picked the stool up and sat it back in place. ‘Here. Let me show you.’

He put a hand on my shoulder and pushed me back beside the cow. He knelt down and showed me how to form a circle with my thumb and other fingers and then slide them gently down the teat. This time my efforts were rewarded. I soon mastered the particular rhythm of milking. I wasn’t quite as fast as Uncle Thomas, but I did manage to fill a pail.

On the way back, an older man joined us in walking back to the village. Uncle Thomas related my experience. The man laughed and told a story about his first attempt to milk a cow. He had been kicked for his troubles. His story turned my experience into a common happening. I was part of a band of fellow sufferers. The beasts were not to be trusted. They inflicted similar insults on everyone. When we reached our house, Uncle Thomas gave my mother the pail of milk I had produced and told her that I had the makings of a fine cowman in me. As soon as the door closed and Uncle Thomas moved off, my mother gave me a basin of water, a bar of soap, and a cloth and ordered me to scrub myself clean.

That evening when we sat down to tea, my aunt lifted the pitcher and began filling the cups halfway with milk. I told her that I would henceforth take my tea without milk. The knowledge of where milk came from—it was hardly the gift I had imagined—had turned it into poison for me. I was told not to be silly. A growing boy needed milk. I let the tea get cold in the hope that I would be able to dump it out later when no one was looking. I finally drank it under duress.

It is a wonder that any of us survived. Life in Munfrees was unsanitary. Dirt, and the germs that went with it, was ubiquitous. It soon ceased to bother me, and my mother even allowed me to have a grimy face and hands on occasion. I don’t recall having more than the usual run of childhood diseases. Perhaps my memories are not accurate.

But, then, memories such as these are composed of equal parts of remembrance and forgetting. My stories of Munfrees, polished over countless retellings, are romances in the original sense of that term. The dirt and the smells, the stultifying poverty, the wresting of a livelihood from the recalcitrant soil—those disappear in my stories. One forgets, I forget, the worse aspects of that life.

Certainly the child that I was then did not express himself, did not even think, in the vocabulary and concepts that I use to tell these stories. But are these stories any less valid because they are fictional, because they are told with an adult’s sensibilities? Are imagined recollections less real than true ones? All these memories are what I am, they are part of what I have become. I am a teller of tales, and fiction is a way of truthsaying.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010


The Island, Tabulae mundi mihi


(c) 2010

The night that Danny died I arrived home very late from a dinner party. I had enjoyed the evening. Consequently I stayed longer than I usually do at parties, and it was well after midnight when I and the other stragglers left. We even extended the evening a bit by chatting as we waited for taxis. As often happens when I overindulge, I began deflating as soon as I got in the cab. I nodded off within a minute or two and awoke only when the taxi driver reached my street and asked where to let me off. I was still half-asleep when I stumbled into my house, but before I could go to bed, I had to check my email. My father was in hospital at the time. My sister was with him, and she sent an update on his condition every evening after visiting him. So I logged onto the internet and opened the browser, and there in the headlines on the home page was ‘Danny found dead in London flat’.

I felt as if I had been clubbed. I couldn’t bring myself to click on the link and read the report. The details had no importance next to the stark fact of his death. I sat there staring at the screen and crying, all need for sleep gone.

It is a measure of his fame that no surname was needed. Just Danny. I became so used to thinking of him by his first name alone that I had to make an effort to recall his last name. It wasn’t until later, when I read the obituaries, that I learned his full name, as well as a great many other facts about him, for the first time. But then our friendship hadn’t depend on knowing the particulars of each other’s life.

His death occasioned the usual display of grief. Statements of ‘our great loss’ poured forth from his colleagues and others in the public sphere, with the usual exaggerations of the deceased’s talents and qualities. Many of those commenting on his death knew him well; others were simply taking advantage of his death to appear on television or in the papers. The church was crowded for the funeral mass, and mourners lined the route of the funeral cort├Ęge ten deep.

Danny would have been gratified, I think, that his last appearance played to standing-room-only crowds. He loved performing. You can see that in every videotaped record. On stage, Danny became an exaltation of larks. He was always in motion, making eye contact with the crowds, involving them, making the performance a communal celebration. He told me once that the adulation and the applause were the only drugs he needed, but that he had become addicted to them.

I suppose others found our friendship inexplicable. I’m not sure that I understand it myself. He was already famous when we met, but he and I lived in such different worlds that I didn’t recognise his name when Lynne Megorie introduced us. Both of us were guests at a party at her house in Golders Green. A couple had approached me, introduced themselves, and began talking about one of my books. I was only half-attending to what they were saying, making polite murmurs of response as my eyes roamed the other guests looking for someone interesting.

Lynne came up to our group and interrupted them. She asked them to excuse us and then led me away. ‘There’s someone here who wants to meet you. I think you will like him.’

She guided me to a relatively empty spot in the room and then beckoned toward a cluster of people. A young man detached himself from that group and walked toward us. I knew that I had seen the face before. It wasn’t someone I had met, but someone who was familiar from the papers or the television. ‘Ross, this is Danny Ahern. He asked me especially to introduce the two of you.’

I shook hands with Danny. Again the name was familiar, and I felt that this was someone I should be able to identify, but nothing came to me. My face must have betrayed my bewilderment, because Lynne laughed and said, ‘You’ll have to forgive Ross, Danny. He doesn’t follow popular music. Now if you sang opera, he would know all about you.’

Then I remembered why I knew the name and the face. Lynne’s mention of popular music provided the key.

‘Even I in my cloistered cell have heard of Mr Ahern, Lynne.’ And then I said something rude. ‘I’m just astonished that he has heard of me.’ I hope that Danny took that remark as an attempt at modesty on my part. In truth, I was betraying my assumption that a rock star, which is how I thought of him, was incapable of reading or, if he were by some fluke literate, would read my works. I was certain of the superiority of my education, my background, my artistry, my taste. If Danny understood what I was really saying, he had the self-confidence and self-control not to reveal that he did.

‘I’ve read all your works, including your recent series on Munfrees. My ma has been cutting them from the Times [he was referring to the Irish Times] and sending them to me. She knows that I’m interested in Munfrees. My grandparents, my father’s parents, come from Munfrees. In fact, my grandmother was born there.’

‘Oh, you’re one of those Aherns. I hadn’t realised. We must be related in a dozen ways.’

‘A dozen ways?’ Lynne has very expressive eyebrows. They arched in amusement. ‘It sounds almost incestuous.’

Before I could answer her, Danny said, ‘It is a very small village in an unpopulated area. Everyone is related to everyone else. In fact, everyone is usually his own second cousin on his mother’s side and his first cousin once removed on his father’s side.’ He spoke very softly but with a great deal of resonance. The accent was pure Dublin, but I found his vocabulary and phrasing unexpectedly educated. My reaction was instinctive. His way of speaking as well as his family’s origins in Munfrees made me think more highly of him.

‘Have you ever been there?’

‘No. I’ve just heard my gran telling stories about it. I gave a concert in Sligo once, and I thought about taking a few hours to drive up to see it, but in the end, I decided . . . ,’ he paused as if searching for the exact words to express his feelings. ‘I guess I was worried that it wouldn’t be what I expected. My gran’s family left when she was eight or nine to go to Dublin—that would have been in the late 1930s—and she remembers Munfrees as this marvellous place full of light and wonderful things. She’s always telling stories about how miserable Dublin is in comparison.’

‘Has she ever gone back?’

At that point, Lynne decided that she had fulfilled her duties as hostess. She stopped a passing waiter and provided us with full glasses of wine and then moved on to talk with another knot of guests.

‘No. She went on a pilgrimage to Knock a few years ago with some friends, and she tried to persuade them to drive to Munfrees, but they weren’t having any of that.’

‘She probably wouldn’t recognise it as the place she left. It’s much more prosperous now, but still in comparison to life here it’s primitive. But when we went there in the early 1950s, it was hideously poor and remote. In the 1930s it must have been even worse. I’ve always wondered if life in Munfrees changed between the middle ages and the early 1900s.’

He nodded. ‘May I ask a question?’ His posture became diffident. My impression was that he wanted to broach a subject but was unsure of my reaction to it.

‘Of course. Please.’ I was growing to have a better opinion of him. As you undoubtedly know from pictures, he was an attractive man. The music videos hint at the force of his personality. Still, he was performing when those were made, and his stage persona is on display there. A better clue to his character can be found in interviews. He was immensely likeable and that comes across in his chat show appearances. He was funny and quick, filled with good will and bonhomie. Charm, he had charm. It was the rare interview that didn’t end with everyone laughing. In private, he was less expansive, less con brio, but more introspective and less concerned about being entertaining. He had a talent for making others feel relaxed and at ease. I think it was because he was so accepting of others. He saw similarities where others might see differences, and what differences he did find intrigued rather than alarmed or repelled him.

‘In all your reminiscences of people in Munfrees, they always tell stories. Please don’t be offended, but I’m curious. Is that realistic? Or do you put that in to make them interesting?’

‘No. That was the one thing they had in abundance. Stories. Perhaps the stories made up for what they didn’t have. They were the ones—well, they and my mother and aunt—who taught me how to tell a story. Really, I suppose they were the ones who made storytelling seem a natural part of life.’

‘My gran tells stories like that.’

‘Now you have intrigued me. Does she have any about Munfrees? Or was she too young to remember it when she left?’

‘She has several. There’s one that I think that’s her favourite.’

‘I’d like to hear it. Can you tell it to me?’

Danny motioned toward a vacant window seat. The space was a bit too narrow for two full-grown men, but we both used our legs to hold the curtains aside.

‘She was walking by the shore one day picking up driftwood for the fire. Is the beach there sandy?’

‘Most of it is rocks—layers of tilted shale slabs running down into the ocean. But there are a few small coves that have sand.’

‘Well, she says that she was standing on a sandy beach. She saw a round box floating in the water fifteen–twenty feet out. Each wave pushed it closer to the shore. Finally it was close enough that she could step into the water and retrieve it. It was very light in weight, and there was a cord across the top whose ends were attached to the box. She picked it up by the cord and carried it up on the beach. The box was covered with brightly printed paper. She says that it was like wallpaper, but that she didn’t know that at the time. She first saw wallpaper after they went to Dublin. The paper covering was badly stained by seawater, and it fell off when the box dried out. There was a lid and she lifted that off. Inside was a hat. A broad-brimmed woman’s hat swathed in pink gauze, with a red velvet ribbon around the base of the crown. In the front there was a dark red silk rose surrounded by feathers.’

‘How odd. It must have come from some ship, but no passenger liner would have been that far north. I can’t imagine the box would have lasted long in the water.’

‘It’s made of very thin wood. And the hat weighs almost nothing. As long as the seas were calm, it would have floated.’

‘You mean they still exist?’

‘Yes. My gran still has them.’

‘And the hat?’

‘It’s very old now and fragile. She’s kept it all these years. It’s the one thing from her childhood that she still owns.’

‘It must have seemed unreal to everyone at the time.’

Danny looked around. The party had reached the stage when drink had loosened tongues, and people were laughing and conversing loudly. ‘As unreal as this would have seemed to me ten years ago. I never imagined I would be asked to parties like this. I dreamed about it. I thought that it was one sign of success, but I didn’t ever expect to be asked to one. But at least I knew that there were parties like this. For my gran, the hat was an alien artefact. It came from another world. She never suspected that such things might exist. I think that’s why she kept it—it was a reminder of what was out there to be had and what she hadn’t had when she was young. She showed it to everyone in Munfrees and asked what it was. It was explained to her that rich ladies wore such hats. When she said that then she wanted to be a rich lady and wear a hat like that, everyone laughed and told her not to be foolish.’

‘And does she wear hats like that?’

‘She usually wears scarves, but she’s always had two or three “fancy” hats. That’s her one treat. When I got my first royalty check, I bought her the biggest, frothiest, maddest hat I could find, and I had the shop put it in the brightest hat box they had and took it to her. She laughed when she opened it and said I was foolish to spend money on such things. But she was happy that I had done so. I don’t think she’s ever worn it outside the house, but she shows it to her friends sometimes.’

He paused. I think his mind was far away at that point, and for him the crowd around us had disappeared. I took advantage of his inattention to examine him. Seen up close, it was apparent that money and thought had gone into his grooming. He had a good tailor, and his hair had that artful disarray that only a good hairdresser can achieve. Whatever his equivalent of a ‘rich lady’s hat’ might be, it was obviously now within his means. I suppose the same can be said of me.

When he became aware of my scrutiny, he turned back toward me and met my gaze with an equally frank appraisal. ‘Would you like to see the hat? If we’re both in Dublin at the same time, I’ll get it from my gran and show it to you.’

‘I’d like that very much.’ I gave him my card with my Dublin address and phone number. When he handed me his card in exchange, other people took that as a signal that our conversation had ended and moved in to claim our attention. I did not speak with him further that night.

The story stuck with me, however. I couldn’t use it verbatim since it wasn’t really mine, but in altered versions the random intrusion of a strange object into a character’s life figures in two of my works. A life-changing meeting with something, some object that is trivial in itself, from outside the character’s normal world is a useful plot device. I even have in mind a story about a character who finds such an object and remains unchanged.

I didn’t expect Danny to contact me. Our exchange of cards had seemed one of those polite rituals. Two weeks later, however, I received a call from him. He was in Dublin and had the hatbox to show me. Could he drop by? I invited him to lunch. As soon as I rang off, my publisher called. Four pages from my latest manuscript were missing. Would I email my editor a file with the missing pages? Since the page numbers on my screen didn’t match those in the manuscript copy, I had to spend some time finding the passage in question and saving a copy to a new file. I should have stopped at that point and emailed the file to my editor, but I decided to check for errors. I found several things that needed rewriting, and I had to compare several of the changes against what I could recall having said before and after the insertions to make sure that I wasn’t introducing inconsistencies. I quickly became engrossed in revising.

When the doorbell rang, I cursed the interruption. I stomped down the stairs, not in the best of moods. It wasn’t until I pulled the door open ready to be irritated and saw Danny that I remembered that I had invited him to lunch. With one hand, he held a large cardboard box, with the top flaps folded down, against his body. In the other hand was a bottle of wine. He handed the bottle to me and said, ‘I didn’t know what you were planning for lunch, but I brought a bottle of Mosel. If it doesn’t suit, just save it for later.’ He was clearly very happy about something, almost festive, and in a mood for celebrating.

‘It will be too good for what I’m making. It’s such a wet day, and since Munfrees is the cause of this meeting, I thought I would make a staple of the village—potato soup.’ I gave myself credit for quick thinking. My original thought had been to buy takeaway at the market, but there wasn’t time for that now. ‘Come in. Come in. Sit the box anywhere. Let me take your coat.’ As I closed the door, I saw one of the neighbourhood teenagers standing on the pavement peeking out from under her umbrella. Her mouth was agape, and her lips silently formed the word ‘Danny’.

‘Oh, that will be perfect. It’s one of my favourites.’

I led him through to the kitchen and sat him at one end of the work table and poured us both a glass of his wine. I took some bacon from the fridge and set an onion and some potatoes on the table. I sliced the bacon I needed and chopped the onion and put them in water to boil. When I turned around from the stove, I found Danny peeling the potatoes.

‘Oh, you shouldn’t be doing that.’

‘I like doing it. I used to do it at home. There were so many of us that we had to help. I often did the cooking after school.’

I took a sip of the wine. ‘This is good. Are you celebrating something?’

‘I could say that I am celebrating being in your home and peeling your potatoes, but in truth I just received word this morning that my latest single is number 1 on the UK and Ireland charts.’

‘I must buy a copy.’

‘Don’t do that. I’ll sing it for you.’ He picked up another potato. ‘Now you’ll have to imagine a keyboard, two guitars, and a set of drums in the background.’

He sang in his high clear voice, occasionally miming the playing of the various instruments. All the while he continued to peel the potatoes. Both of us were laughing when he finished.

‘Considering what you must usually be paid to perform, those must be the most expensive potato peels in history.’

One good feature of my kitchen is the number of windows. I’ve allowed the shrubberies to grow so that they cover most of the glass. The light is filtered and rather green, but the kitchen is bright but not glaring.

‘I like this room,’ he said in response. ‘It’s very comfortable.’ He gathered the peelings. ‘Where’s the bin?’

That afternoon was the start of our friendship. We ate the soup sitting at the kitchen table and talked about our work. His explanation of how he wrote a song struck a chord with me. There were many similarities between his methods and my writing habits. We ended with a discussion of the serendipitous nature of inspiration and the unlikely places it surfaces.

It was late afternoon before we remembered the cause of the visit. He went out into the hallway and brought back the box and set it on the kitchen table. He folded back the flaps. ‘The hatbox is so fragile now that I don’t want to lift it out. I’ll just take the lid off.’

Inside the box was a dusty hat. It looked delicate, as if a breath would cause it to crumble. Even in its decayed shape it was easy to see that it must once have been beautiful.

‘I asked my grandmother what she thought the first time she saw it. She said she thought it was magic. Everyone in Munfrees believed in magic, she said, even the priest, and to her this was just another magic event. Not magic like stage magic tricks, but real magic. I mean . . .’

‘You don’t have to explain. I have lived with Munfrees’ magic all my life. I think of it as grace. An unexpected irruption of wonders and marvels and kindness into the everyday.’

We left it at that. He closed the box, and we walked into the hall. As he was putting on his coat, he asked. ‘May I come again?’

I nodded and smiled in delight. ‘I hope you will.’

When I held the door open for him, we discovered a crowd waiting at the bottom of the steps. Every young person in the neighbourhood appeared to be there. There was a collective intake of breath. Danny let out a whoop of pleasure and bounded down the stairs. ‘Mind the box. Just let me put it in my car first and then we can talk.’ He was suddenly ten years younger than the person who had been sitting in my kitchen for the past three hours.

That was one of the things that has impressed me about all the posthumous comments. Everyone seems to have known a slightly different Danny. Certain qualities remained constant. Everyone liked him and treasured his friendship. Even those who met him only briefly, like the teenagers standing outside my house that day, were impressed by his kindness. But he could adapt effortlessly to the company surrounding him. With me he was a serious craftsman, concerned about the quality of his work. With his fans, he was gregarious and open and available.

That was the first of many meetings we had during the decade I knew him. Perhaps five or six times a year, we would meet. We would share a meal and talk. Between those meetings, we might exchange emails. We never spoke of anything important, never solved the world’s problems, never did anything but enjoy our time together. We were simply friends. Grace is the unexpected gift, the magic of the ordinary.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

The Cloud Gardener

Tabulae mundi mihi, The Island

The Cloud Gardener

(c) 2010

I first saw the Cloud Gardener in the late autumn hills above Munfrees. I had climbed to my perch high above the valley to survey my kingdom. The sun was warm that day, but an occasional tendril of chilly air hinted at approaching cold. Far out at sea a dark cloud bank sat on the horizon.

Below me, the Ahern brothers were clearing a field that had lain fallow that summer. One of them was wielding a scythe, both hands grasping the handles attached to the long wooden pole, his body flowing with the rhythm of the work. From my vantage point, the work was a sequence of colours. The sun reflected off the blade, and it looked as if a flash of curved light were cleaving the grass. The plants had begun to wither with the swift shortening of the daylight hours. Standing, the tops of the plants were yellow in the sunlight, but when they fell to the ground the colour shifted to brown. It was as if the light drained from them as they were cut. The exposed stubble was still green. The other brother followed a few feet behind and used a long-handled wooden rake to roll the cut grass into mounds. The Aherns’ progress through the field was marked by a growing arc of what from a distance looked like a newly mown lawn striped with rows of faded grass.

The scythe hissed as it sliced through the grass. Occasionally it would hit an exposed stone with a clang. Once the brother with the scythe paused to sharpen it, and the scraping sound of the hone against the blade carried clear over the distance. From time to time, they paused to smoke. Then they would rest their weight on their tools and talk in low voices, emphasizing whatever points they were making by pointing to the sea or toward the remaining uncut grasses. I think they saw the cloud bank out at sea and were worried that the approaching front might bring rain that would make it impossible for them to finish that day.

One of them stopped and walked over to the wall surrounding the field. He unbuttoned his flies and pissed against the wall. The arc of his water glistened in the light. When he finished, he shook himself and buttoned up again. When he rejoined his brother, he made some remark and both men laughed.

After a time, I tired of watching them. Their activities were too repetitious to hold my interest for long. I lay back and watched the sky. It was even less varied than the scene below me, but it was a blank canvas for my imagination. Overhead the sky was clear, but to the west there were high streamers, vapours almost too thin and tenuous to be called clouds, mere suggestions of white threads against the sky. They were evenly spaced as if they had been combed or raked. Perhaps the Aherns’ activities gave me that notion.

It was then that I saw the Cloud Gardener. He was almost invisible, nothing more than light of a different weight. He was dressed much like all the other farmers in the valley—an old cloth cap settled easily on his head, shapeless coat and trousers, a grey collarless shirt, heavy stiff shoes. He bent over and examined the clouds, following them westward to the approaching bank of clouds. He lifted the rake from his shoulders and rolled the cloud bank forward toward us. He worked his way down the row of clouds, moving them steadily toward the shore. There was nothing hurried about his movements. He had all the time in the world, he seemed to imply. If not these clouds, there would be more tomorrow or the next day. The sky was liberal with its clouds. The movements were practiced, familiar.

That night, I wrote the original version of my story of the Cloud Gardener. It was the first time I had written on a subject of my own devising instead of to a theme suggested by my mother or Aunt Alyce as part of my lessons. We had finished our tea, the dishes had been washed and put away, and the cloth folded and set atop the dresser. My mother had pumped the white gas lamp and then lit the mantle. The smell of the sulphur match and the burning mantle lingered in the air, as she put the glass globe in place and adjusted the flame so that it didn’t smoke. The lamp hissed. Candles burn silently, but those lamps hissed.

The three of us sat around the table. I remember clearly that my mother was reading, and Aunt Alyce was writing letters. From time to time, my mother would read aloud a sentence or a phrase that she liked, or Aunt Alyce might ask if my mother wanted to add a note to the letter she was writing. Other than that the only sounds were the turning of a page in my mother’s book, the scratching of Alyce’s pen and my pencil against the paper, the occasional creaking of a chair as we shifted our weight, the rain against the roof, and more distantly the waves breaking against the shore. So many of my memories of Munfrees in those days are aural. It was so quiet there and life so unhurried that even slight sounds occupied more of the air than they do now.

I opened my foolscap tablet and began writing. I had seen my mother and my aunt engage in that activity for as long as I had been alive, and the mechanics of it were familiar to me. I wasn’t allowed to use a pen yet. Fountain pens were still the most common means of writing then, and my mother and aunt probably feared (with justification) the results of any close encounter between myself and ink. I sharpened four or five pencils and set them out in a neat row to my right so that once I began, I would not have to stop to deal with a dull pencil or a broken lead. If my mother or Aunt Alyce found my behaviour surprising, they did not comment upon that in my presence.

That is one of the gifts they gave me—the dignity of allowing me to consider writing as something I might choose to do, or not. They might correct my spelling or my grammar or suggest ideas for me to consider, but they never derided my attempts to write. Nor did they praise them extravagantly. Unless they were assignments in the lessons they taught me, they never asked to see what I had written but waited until I felt my work was ready to be shown to them. They never even once remarked on my decision to use my initials rather than my full name when writing. To this day, I do not know why the young Patrick Ross Brennan transformed himself into another person when he became an author.

The Cloud Gardener
P. R. Brennan
October 21, 1951

The Cloud Gardener lives in an old stone bothy on a high mountain. He takes care of all the clouds. Every morning, after he has his breakfast and his tea, he picks up his rake and goes out to the sky fields to work. Some days he goes west and pulls the rain clouds in from the sea. Some days he pushes the clouds away so that the sun can shine. If a little cloud wanders off and gets lost, he goes after it and brings it back. When a bad cloud comes, he hits it with lightning and thunder and chases it off. Most people can’t see him because he’s invisible so they don’t know he is there and he doesn’t have any friends. That makes him very lonely.

One day, the Cloud Gardener was working near Munfrees helping clouds over the gate in the hills. A boy was climbing a hill to his secret place. Mr Garrity’s dog was with him. The boy was throwing a stick for the dog to catch. The dog is barking because he likes chasing sticks. The Cloud Gardener stopped and watched them. He wanted to join the boy and the dog.

He forgot to watch the clouds, and they began to drift about. Soon they covered up the boy and the dog, and they got lost. The boy couldn’t see the dog, and he called for him to come back but the dog was looking for the stick and he couldn’t find it because the clouds were thick and it was dark.

When the Cloud Gardener saw what had happened, he rushed about pushing the clouds back into place. The dog found the stick and he ran back to the boy, his tail wagging. The boy, who had magic eyes, waved to the Cloud Gardener and called out ‘Thank you.’ The dog also had very good eyes, and he wagged his tail and barked ‘thank you’ to the Cloud Gardener. That made the Cloud Gardener very happy, and he wasn’t lonely any more.

The End

I reread what I had written. I had just been introduced to commas and I added them liberally. I was quite satisfied with my effort. Then I closed the cover of my tablet and put it and the pencils away with my other school supplies. I pulled out the book I had been reading and carried it back to the table to join my mother and Aunt Alyce.

It would be another dozen years before I encountered Yeats’ lines

                                       A lonely impulse of delight
                                        Drove to this tumult in the clouds

There are times that poetry resonates immediately within, and those lines rang in me like a bell.