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.

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