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.

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