Friday, 30 July 2010



© 2010 by the author

I was leafing through the magazines at my dentist’s office, seeing but barely registering the images on the page, when I ran across the ad. Her waiting room is small and windowless and crowded with furniture. I have never seen more than one other person in the waiting room, usually a parent waiting for a child or an adult child waiting for an aged parent, yet there is seating for eight. Even so, it is difficult to sit without one’s legs intruding into the other person’s space. Between the chairs are small tables. None of the chairs or the tables match. The room appears to have been assembled from discarded furniture recycled from tips. Toys spill out of a box in the corner, and dusty arrangements of silk flowers compete with the magazines for space on the tables. The prints on the wall depict happy children displaying even, dazzlingly white teeth at friendly dentists. I am not fooled. The dentists in the pictures may not be holding those scimitars they use to pick at teeth, but they are there.

My general dread of dentists makes the room seem smaller than it is. At such moments, I can understand how a claustrophobic feels. I was entertaining a fantasy of sliding open the frosted glass window behind which the receptionist sits and announcing a suddenly remembered, urgent appointment elsewhere. I could hear her speaking to another patient, arranging a follow-up visit. Shortly, I knew, the door to the inner offices would open and the visitor would emerge and cross quickly to the hallway door that leads to freedom. After another endless minute, the glass would slide open and the receptionist would announce, “Mr Edwards, we’re ready for you in Room 3.”

The man in the ad was not so much nude as unclothed. A strategically positioned bit of cloth partially hid his buttocks. He sat on a padded bench with his back toward the viewer. His arms faced outward and were bent at the elbow so that both hands rested on the top of head, forming two upturned V’s that continued the line of his torso. It was his backbone that reminded me of Benjamin. Well, not his backbone—the bumps of the vertebrae weren’t visible. What caught my eye was the sinuous curve of that groove over the backbone. The image was lit from one side and the centre furrow was deep in shadow.

It was the lighting and the shadow that brought Benjamin to mind. He had sat on the edge of the bed with his back toward me, looking out the window. His body had been lit from the same angle, and his backbone was similarly shadowed.

It was late afternoon, and we were in my bedroom in my parents’ home. We had left the heavier drapes open—no one could have seen in the window without being on a ladder—but the inner curtains were, as always, pulled across the window. They were made of some sheer net-like fabric, and the curtains undulated and parted as they stirred in the faint breeze coming through the open window.

The window itself was shadowed, and the light in the room was grey and blue. The sun blazed on the trees at the end of the back garden, but that may be only a trick of memory, a scene superimposed on the image of Benjamin sitting in front of the window. I do remember piano music coming from a neighbour’s house. It was probably the younger Fowler child practicing—Adriana, I think her name was. Whoever was playing was practicing scales but was better at ascending than at descending. The music would flow upward easily, the two hands playing in unison, but then falter as the player moved down the keyboard, the even rhythm broken and the hands ceasing to work together. Finally the notes would grow slower and more tentative before the upward scales began again.

Both Benjamin and I had returned from university a few days earlier. We had been close friends since childhood. We had shared everything from secrets on the playground to our deepest plans for our lives. We had attended the same schools, always been part of the same group. Our first separation came when we began attending different universities. We had even missed each other during the vacations because our schools had different schedules. We had met briefly just before Christmas but my family’s annual visit to my mother’s parents meant that we saw each other only for an hour. This was in the early 1980s, long before email and texting or mobiles and cheap telephone rates. Early in our first year at university, we had exchanged letters, but that had gradually stopped.

My parents were away for a few days. Benjamin rang to check if I were in and then came over to our house. That was the first time we had been alone together since the preceding summer. At first we talked about our classes and our experiences. We were sitting at the table in the kitchen drinking coffee, Benjamin at one end and me next to him along one side of the table. Both of us were leaning forward, supporting ourselves on our elbows, our heads bent toward each other. There had been some stiffness at first as we felt our way back into our easy relationship, but that soon dissipated and our earlier camaraderie was restored.

At some point our elbows touched, and then one of us made a joke. Benjamin punched me lightly on the upper arm and then his hand came to rest on my shoulder. The casualness of the action answered the question I had silently been asking myself since Benjamin had rang earlier. I covered his hand with mine, and our eyes locked. Neither of us spoke for a moment, and then Benjamin smiled at me and said, “Hi.”

“Hi,” I replied, and then I started laughing. Benjamin joined in and we rushed upstairs to my bedroom, both laughing until we fell on to the bed. We were in such a hurry that I didn’t even lock the doors to the house. Benjamin ended up on top of me, and he kissed me fiercely. “I have missed you so much.” The hunger in his voice was new. In later years, in one of my many, frequent reviews of the events of the day, I came to realise that was the first indication that something had changed, that this was no longer adolescent play.

Benjamin and I began experimenting with sex the summer we were both thirteen. At first, it was only simultaneous masturbation. Benjamin had two beds in his room, and I would lie on one and he on the other with our trousers and pants pushed down to our ankles while we competed to see who would be the first to cum, then who could hold out the longest, who could produce the most, who could shoot the furthest. We would excite ourselves by looking at pictures of women in the tabloid papers. Our games were spiced by the knowledge that his mother and grandmother were downstairs watching the telly or working in the kitchen. The sounds of a suburban afternoon were the only cover for our stifled groans and giggles and the squeaking of the bedsprings.

Then one afternoon the two of us were sitting next to each other on a bed making what we thought were clever, adult comments on the page 3 lovely of the day. Benjamin took my cock in his hand and after some hesitation I held his. I was surprised by the feeling of his hand on my cock. The sensation was concentrated in my cock rather than being shared between my hand and my cock. Somehow that made the feeling all the more intense. When he started to stroke me, I came almost immediately. I was so shocked that I shouted out, and Benjamin’s mother called up the stairs asking if anything was wrong. We jerked our pants and trousers on, and Benjamin yelled that we were fine, that I had just stubbed a toe. We sat there swallowing our laughter.

Thereafter our play expanded. We gradually began to do more, all the while looking at pictures of women. We soon acquired a secret stock of photos, and we would rush home after school every day to indulge ourselves. At least for me, the knowledge that we used pictures of women papered over the homosexual aspects of our actions. As long as we were stimulating ourselves visually with women, what our bodies were doing together didn’t matter. We weren’t “gay” or, worse, “queer.” What Benjamin and I were doing was, I told myself, simply a temporary expedient, nothing more.

“I have missed you so much.” Benjamin and I were stretched out lengthwise on the bed, his body half covering mine and one arm pressing down on my chest. He slid his other arm under my back and held me closely as he kissed me on the neck. “I have missed talking with you, and being with you.” And then Benjamin began making love to me. We weren’t just having sex. By turns gentle, wondrous, whimsical, humorous, Benjamin showed me the difference between love and sex.

I was hesitant at first but Benjamin’s passion soon drove everything but the moment from my mind. When it was over, I lay with my head pressed into his shoulder and one of his arms around me pulling me close to his body. His skin felt dry and cool against my face, and softer—as if my lips could melt into that flesh. He was lying on his back, with one of my hands on his stomach. His breathing was ragged and deep at first but then calmed and smoothed out. My hand rose and fell as he breathed in and out. The motion calmed me and drew me into sleep. It was as if the shared slumber was simply an extension of our joint life.

Some time later, I became half aware that Benjamin was carefully easing himself out from beneath my body. He was trying not to wake me. I was still spent and drained, and I allowed my hand to slip off his body. He moved to the edge of the bed and sat there. My eyes were closed, but I knew that he was looking at me. After a few minutes, he turned away.

I had pretended to be asleep while he was looking at me, but I think he knew that I was awake. I did not want to risk meeting his eyes, and all that might ensue from an open, defenceless, accepting gaze into Benjamin’s eyes. ‘We are here, together. We can look into each other’s eyes because we are a unity whose parts need not hide from each other.’ So much would have been engendered by that look, and I was not ready to hazard that.

When Benjamin turned away, I opened my eyes enough to be able to see him but I remained ready to close them should he begin to look back towards me. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, staring out the window. I don’t know if he was looking at anything in particular. I felt that he was thinking about what had just happened. A deep shadow arched down his back, marking the furrow over his spine.

My hand that had lain on his stomach stretched across the bed to within inches of his back. It would have taken only a slight twisting of my body for me to touch him, to draw him back to me, to acknowledge a possibility of more, to ask him to accept the gift of myself.

The inches separating us felt impossibly heavy to me. That first year at university I had had sex with one of the women in my college. I don’t know what it meant to her. Frankly I hadn’t been concerned about her feelings except as they allowed me an entry to her body. But I had enjoyed it, and I wanted more. I thought about that, and I thought about all the joking, superior remarks about ‘queers’ that I had heard, that I had made. I didn’t want that sniggering disdain. My vision for my life included a wife and children in a suburban home, not a half-concealed love between ‘good’ friends. There were so many possibilities, so many things I thought I wanted, that a simple gesture would have closed. I wasn’t ready to make that gesture, to open myself to another future, and I drew my arm back and bent it around my body.

Benjamin sat there for ten-fifteen minutes, and I continued to pretend to sleep. Then he stood up and quietly pulled his clothes on. He closed the door to my bedroom when he left. A moment later, I heard the faint sound of the front door opening and closing and then the louder sound of a car starting in the street.

I ran into him on the high street a week later. We were polite to each other and made vague statements about ‘getting together sometime’. I never saw him again.

All of us have moments we would like to relive. A chance to put things right, to act or perhaps not to act. Not the grand evils—we seldom, if ever, encounter those—but the ceaseless surrenders to the temptations of pettiness and the failures of courage that lead to the sins of omission, the small actions we should do but don’t. I should like to think that experience has taught me how to handle awkward moments better. Maybe not. One could easily conflate the mastery of social skills with achieving a better outcome, when all it does is paper over the rude, undesired result with the patina of smoothness, the glossy paint covering the dry rot beneath.

“Mr Edwards. Mr Edwards?” I was dragged back to the dentist’s waiting room by the repetition of my name. The receptionist was holding the door to the inner offices open and looking at me expectantly.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I was wool-gathering. It happens when you get older.” I tossed the magazine back onto a table and then stood up and walked through the door.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

The Murphy

Tabulae mundi mihi, The Island

The Murphy

© by the author 2010

The summer dawns come very early in Munfrees. Soon after our arrival, I fell into the habit of rising and walking about for an hour or two before breakfast. I dressed quietly and slipped out of the house, pulling the door shut noiselessly so as not to disturb my mother or my aunt. Even so, I was never the first person up and about. The eastern sky barely showed a suggestion of light when Mr Cusack headed out to sea. The slow chugging of his boat’s motor was our alarm clock and the signal for the village’s day to begin. Within minutes, dark smoke drifting out of chimneys revealed fires being stoked and rekindled from the previous day’s embers. Shortly thereafter came the quiet conversations of the men greeting each other in the street as they headed out to their fields to check on their animals. In those days before electricity came to Munfrees and our life became entwined with the clock and the radio and then the television schedules, village routines were timed to the rising of the sun, earlier in the summer and later in the winter.

Unlike the other early morning people in Munfrees, my road led upwards. Their paths were set by work, mine by the desire for observation. I quickly discovered that no one used the road leading away from the village and over the hills at that time of day. I was alone in climbing up to the line of stone walls that marked the upper end of the fields. I found a stable seat on a wall near the road, and most mornings found me sitting there watching. I remained until smoke rising from our chimney signalled that Aunt Alyce had risen. Then I ran quickly down the hill to share with her what I had seen that morning as I set the table for our breakfast.

‘The cat was almost as big as a sheep.’

‘Almost as big as a sheep? Then it was indeed a large cat. And what was this large cat doing?’ Aunt Alyce peered into the pot of oatmeal she was making for our breakfast and stirred it several times.

‘It was hunting. It was creeping through the grass. Barely moving. It would lift one leg at a time and then set it down carefully.’ I mimed the movements of the cat. ‘It didn’t even bend the grasses. Just the tip of its tail was moving. And then it leaped. It was like a flash of lightning. But the mouse was faster. Can we have a cat? It could catch our mice.’

‘Mrs Garrighty’s cat catches our mice. I don’t think he would like competition.’

‘But he’s not a nice cat. He never lets me pet him.’ I stood at the back window looking for the cat I had seen. ‘The cat I saw this morning could live with us and he would chase Mrs Garrighty’s cat away and eat all the mice. We have mice. I’ve seen them.’ I thought that an unanswerable argument.

‘That was The Murphy. The cat you saw this morning is The Murphy, and he already lives with us. And we have no mice. He keeps them out of this house.’ My mother spoke as she came down the stairs and into the kitchen. She bent over me and kissed the top of my head and then ruffled my hair. She tapped Aunt Alyce lightly on the shoulder and then began the sequence of actions that were her daily contribution to our meals. She took the teapot from the mantel, poured hot water into it from the black cast-iron kettle sitting on the shelf inside the fireplace, and swirled the water around to heat the pot. When the pot had been warmed, she emptied the water back into the kettle.

The green-enamelled tea caddy also sat on the mantel. Painted on the sides of the caddy were fanciful scenes of China. The can had two lids. The top one was square and fit the tin tightly, so tightly that it had to be eased off carefully or it would stick, one side higher than the other, and refuse to budge. Beneath this a round inner lid of shiny metal rested. In the centre of this lid was a small wooden knob painted the same green as the outside of the caddy. Mother measured out six spoonfuls of tea into the pot—‘five spoonfuls for our tea and one for the pot’—and then resealed the tea caddy and placed it back on the mantel. She wrapped a towel around the handle of the kettle and slowly poured hot water into the pot.

‘We don’t have a cat named Murphy.’

‘It is a ghost cat. And its name is The Murphy. He is the head of his clan, and hence he is The Murphy. He is no ordinary Murphy. Did you sleep well, Alyce?’ My mother pointedly turned to my aunt, pretending to ignore me. ‘I thought I heard you up once during the night. Or perhaps that was just Patrick leaving us early.’ She set the kettle back on its shelf in the fireplace and covered the teapot with the cosy.

‘I slept well, Kathryn. Thank you. It must have been Patrick you heard. I had forgotten about The Murphy. Is he still with us?’ Aunt Alyce turned to me. ‘The Murphy was our cat when we were your age. After he died, he came back as a ghost. Or, at least, that is what your mother claimed. She is the only one who can see him.’

‘What does he look like? Why can’t I see him?’

‘Tell me about the cat you saw this morning.’ Mother pulled out a chair and sat at the table.

‘He was big and yellow with a white nose and chest.’

‘That is The Murphy. Now you can see him too.’

‘Why haven’t I seen him before?’

‘You will have to ask him that.’ My mother cautiously poured a bit of tea into a cup and examined it to see if it was ready yet. ‘Now, for your lessons today, I thought we would . . .’

Every morning thereafter The Murphy joined me on my rambles. He rarely came inside the house, preferring to stay outdoors even in the worst weather. Indeed, I usually offered the need to accompany The Murphy as a pretext for going out in bad weather. ‘But The Murphy doesn’t like to walk alone. He wants me with him.’ Outside a cold summer storm drilled rain into every object exposed to its reach.

Inexplicably—from my viewpoint—my mother and aunt valued my health over The Murphy’s desires. Aunt Alyce always resorted to the rational argument. ‘Patrick, you will soaked to the skin in a moment if you go out in that. You’ll catch your death of cold.’

Mother preferred to use her superior knowledge of The Murphy, gleaned from her longer association with him. ‘Murphy has a water-repellent coat. It is far better than your mac. He will emerge unscathed from this storm. But you would not. In this wind you would have to use both hands to keep your hat on. Murphy will use his tail to hold his umbrella over his head.’

A glance outside showed that mother was correct. The Murphy was well protected against the storm.

The Murphy was the discoverer of the cove in the hills overlooking the valley. He was quite proud of that. One day, after I had finished my lessons, he was waiting for me outside the door of our cottage. When I turned to walk through the village, he meowed at me and pranced off in the opposite direction. He waited for me to join him, looking back over his shoulder, his tail held high and the tip twitching. He led the way into the hills and showed me the path to what would become our secret spot. When we arrived, he brushed against my legs and then disappeared to hunt for the gigantic rats that infested those hills. He reappeared when I stood up to leave.


The Murphy became quite real to me and, through my stories about him, to the villagers as well.

‘So your sheep are safe because The Murphy killed the wolf.’ I concluded my story of The Murphy’s prowess with great satisfaction.

‘Did he now? Well, thank The Murphy for us. But did he have no help from the dogs?’ Uncle Thomas and his brother Michael leaned against the stone fence of their sheep pasture, engaged in the process of filling their pipes and lighting them as they waited for me to finish my story. I had encountered them on our way back home after gathering mussels and sea lettuce for our evening meal. Although the Aherns couldn’t see The Murphy, the cat was perched on the wall beside them, sunning himself and cleaning his paws.

On the other side of the wall, the two sheep dogs lay with their front legs outstretched and their jaws resting flat on the ground. They appeared to be asleep. I regarded them with charity. It was hardly their fault that their abilities were limited, at least as compared with those of The Murphy. I knew, however, that the farmers valued their dogs and it would not do to insult them or imply that they came up short in wolf-disposal abilities. ‘They saw the wolf come over the wall and started barking and chasing him.’ I pointed to the upper end of the field. ‘The Murphy heard them and he came. The wolf got scared because the three of them were attacking him, and so he jumped back over the wall. The dogs couldn’t get over the wall, but The Murphy could, and so he was the one who fought the wolf.’

‘And was The Murphy not bitten by the wolf? A wolf has very sharp teeth, or so I have heard.’ Uncle Thomas was quite convincing in his concern for The Murphy’s welfare.

‘No, not even a scratch. The Murphy is too fast for a wolf.’

‘Well, Thomas, I would say it was a lucky day for Munfrees when the Brennans and The Murphy arrived.’ Michael rubbed the mouthpiece of his pipe against his lips before taking a puff. Neither man so much as hinted by a smile or a raised eyebrow that there was anything unbelievable in my story.

The Murphy also became famous among the villagers not only as a relentless exterminator of vermin, which otherwise would have overrun Munfrees, but as an accurate weather forecaster. My entry into Feehily’s store might prompt Mrs Garrighty to turn aside from the group of three or four women that was always there and ask, ‘And what does The Murphy say the weather will be like tomorrow? I want to do the washing.’

I would consult The Murphy and then relay his opinion. ‘The Murphy says it will rain late at night but clear before morning and it will be sunny all day.’

‘Thank the good lad for me. He’s a right knowing cat. What would we do without him?’ The ladies would nod in agreement and continue their gossip as I handed Mrs Feehily Aunt Alyce’s list.


I still rise early to join The Murphy in walking the hills around Munfrees. I haven’t spoken of him for years, and he has become dissociated from my name. The Murphy remains part of Munfrees folklore, however. One night last year I heard Conor Garrighty telling a story about Munfrees’ infallible weather cat to the tourists at the Munfrees Hotel Bar. The Murphy is but one of the pantheon of unseen beings that share our life in Munfrees.

Elsewhere The Murphy might have been dismissed as the product of a child’s overactive imagination and the child punished to prevent recurrences of such fanciful excursions. But in Munfrees a good story is prized, and imagination trumps reality. A cat who can predict the weather and keeps the village free of gigantic rats and other predators is a pearl of great value.

My mother’s tea caddy still sits on the mantel above the fireplace, along with her teapot. I still use both daily, following the same ritual that my mother used. There is nothing special about the teapot. It is one of thousands of heavily glazed reddish brown ceramic pots with a mottled strip of brown and tan along the upper third of the body. Its only peculiarity is that it has never been washed. That was one of my mother’s rules—never wash the teapot. It is simply rinsed out with hot water and left to dry with the lid off.

I have never seen another tea caddy like my mother’s. It must be at least seventy-eighty years old by now. The colours are no longer as bright as they once were, but the outer lid still fits as tightly. When my mother grew old, it became too difficult for her to open it and she took to storing her tea in a jar with a screw-off lid. After she died, I opened the caddy and discovered it half-filled with tea. The leaves still made good tea.

There will come a time when my hands grow too arthritic to open the tea caddy. I will place it on the mantel and let it sit there. The caddy and the teapot are my pasts, my memories. After I die, someone will find it. Perhaps they will open it and use it to make tea in my mother’s teapot and start a new cycle of memories.