Interview of Ellen Green, Employed at Grant’s Hotel, Wicklow, 1940–94, Head Housekeeper, 1967–94. Interviewed at her home in Rathnew, Co. Wicklow, 14 October 2015.
Mrs Green was 89 years old when I spoke with her. She was a tall, thin woman, still very active and alert. She was minding a neighbour’s child, a girl of about five or six, during the interview. The child sat on the floor playing with a collection of small plush toys in lurid pinks and yellows and purples. The toys were vaguely human in shape—they had stubby legs and arms and fat, oversized heads with long hair directly attached to the torsos—and she moved them about, apparently in response to a story in her mind. Initially I worried that she might interrupt us and demand so much of Mrs Green’s attention that I would be unable to conduct the interview. But she was entranced by her game and played contentedly with only an occasional word from Mrs Green when she strayed beyond the space allotted her on the carpet. The boundaries of that space were not apparent to me, but they were rigid in Mrs Green’s mind.
David Alberts, the general manager of Grant’s, arranged the meeting. Mrs Green was the only member of the staff known to him who was still alive and had worked at the hotel in 1941, when my parents stopped there for three days following their wedding.
I had brought printouts of the scans I had made of the photographs taken during my parents’ stay. Several of them are images of the façade of the hotel or the back terrace. An excursion into the Wicklow countryside resulted in seven photographs, a walk on the beach two more. The photograph that particularly interests me shows my parents seated on a stone bench. It is the only one in which both of them appear. My parents must otherwise have divided the task of taking the pictures, since each appears alone in roughly half of them.
I had found the photograph among my mother’s things after she died. It had been torn into several pieces and then taped back together up the back. I scanned it and tried to eliminate evidence of the tear by manipulating the image. My efforts were less than completely successful.
Mr Alberts quickly identified the bench as one that had stood on the back terrace of the hotel since its founding in 1896. When he showed it to me, it was instantly clear that it was the same bench as the one in the photograph. The bushes behind my parents in the photograph are no longer there. There is a low stone wall behind the bench now. Mr Alberts did not know if it was part of the original construction or had been added later. Beyond the wall, the ground slopes gently down to the sea. The bench faces inward, however, towards the terrace and the back entrance to the hotel, rather than towards the sea. In the 1930s, the bushes would have blocked the seaward view.
My intent in visiting the hotel was to gather background information for a story based on my parents’ marriage. Grant’s has been modernised. It has always, I gather, been a luxe hotel, although it must now be considered rather small. It has only sixty rooms, but it seems busy as a conference centre and a site for wedding parties. During the three days I was there, the dining room was crowded at lunchtime with business people, as was the lounge bar during the late afternoon and early evening. Luckily Mr Alberts is interested in the history of the hotel. The photos intrigued him so much that he made time to guide me to the various spots from which they had been taken so that we could compare then and now. He asked for copies to post on the Grant’s website, and I later emailed him the files of the scans I had made.
Without any great hope of an affirmative answer, I asked if there were anyone who would remember the hotel in the early 1940s. Mr Alberts immediately mentioned Mrs Green. He pulled his mobile from the inside pocket of his coat and, without prompting from me, rang her to arrange a meeting. The warmth of his conversation with her surprised me. Despite what had to be several decades’ difference in age, she was obviously a great favourite. After several minutes of enquiries about her health and her family, he said, ‘Ellen, there’s a gentleman here from Dublin who wants to talk about Grant’s in the old days.’ And then after a pause, ‘The 1940s. His parents honeymooned here. He has several photographs to show you. He’s looking for information on what the hotel was like then.’ He continued talking for several minutes, breaking off only to ask me if 2:00 in the afternoon the next day would be acceptable to me. When Alberts rang off, he said, ‘Ah, she’s a grand woman. You’ll love Ellen. Everyone does.’
Ellen Green lived in a small house in Rathnew that fronted directly on the street. It fell roughly in the middle of a row of attached houses. There was no parking on the narrow street, and I had to leave my car on the second cross-street and back walk to the house. The door from the street opened into a short hallway. To the right a steep staircase led up to the first floor. To the left was the door into the lounge. At the other end of the hallway, perhaps four metres distant, was the kitchen. The lounge held two chairs on either side of a small fireplace with an electric log and a sofa under the window that opened on to the street. All three were upholstered in a dark fabric, with the type of smooth satiny finish that can make it difficult to maintain a good grip on the seat. The sofa faced a television set against the opposite wall. Over the fireplace was a large, brightly coloured print, done in an Impressionistic style, of a Mediterranean hillside of houses with red-tiled roofs and white walls overlooking a blue sea. That was the only decoration in the room. On the low table in front of the sofa was a teapot under a knit cosy, a plate of biscuits covered with a pink cloth napkin, two cups and saucers, three small plates, three more pink cloth napkins folded into neat rectangles, and a bowl with sugar cubes and tongs, and a small pot of cream. The napkins looked (and were) heavily starched and ironed into faultlessly unwrinkled rectitude. The room was not unlike the sitting area of my room at Grant’s. Everything was aligned. There was no dust, no extraneous object.
Ellen Green was much like the lounge of her house. She was wearing a grey twin set and dark blue trousers. She wore no makeup and no jewellery. The trousers had an unwavering knife-edge crease. Her hair was white and cut short in what I imagine is regarded as an easy-to-care-for style, parted on the right and falling in straight lines over the top half of her ears. Mrs Green was as neat and as starched as the napkins on the table. She treated me as if I were a guest enquiring after details of housekeeping procedures.
She indicated that I should take one of the chairs. She sat in the middle of the sofa. Her back was still straight and unbent.
‘May I have a biscuit now, Mrs Green?’
‘In a minute, dear. Would you like a cup of tea, Mr Rósgleann?’
The ritual of pouring the tea and supplying me with a cup and a napkin, and one of the small plates took a minute. ‘Offer Mr Rósgleann a biscuit, Jean, and then you may take one for yourself.’
The child carefully held out the plate with the biscuits towards me and watched with apprehension while I considered the selection. I felt that I had to take one biscuit but that two would be considered gluttony in this house. When I passed over the chocolate creams in favour of a plain shortbread, Jean approved. She smiled at me for the first time. She set the plate back on the table, took a saucer and a napkin for herself, and then carefully inspected the remaining biscuits before selecting one of the chocolate creams.
After some chat about the weather and how much I was enjoying Wicklow, I explained the reasons for my visit. ‘What I am after is background information on the hotel in the 1940s. My parents were married in 1941, in Dublin, and they stayed at Grant’s for three days. I suppose now we would call it a honeymoon.’
Mrs Green smiled to herself. ‘We called it a honeymoon in the 1940s too. Although now people in Dublin wouldn’t consider three days at Grant’s in Wicklow much of a honeymoon. But then—well, everyone was poorer and we didn’t have the planes to take us to Spain or Greece.’
I showed Mrs Green the photographs. They triggered her memories of the hotel during the 1940s. As she picked each of them up, she would point out things that had changed, things that had survived into the present. The visual reminders of the past seemed to please her, and she warmed towards the subject of the conversation.
‘When did you start working at Grant’s?’
‘In June 1940, just after school ended. I was fourteen. One of my aunts worked there and she recommended me when there was an opening. I was too young, but I was tall for my age. We told them I was sixteen. There were seven of us at home. I was the oldest. My parents had a farm in County Carlow, near Hacketstown. I sent most of my wages home. We didn’t earn much, at least it wouldn’t seem much now. But it meant one less person to feed, and my aunt was there to watch over me. In those days the maids lived in the hotel. We all slept in a room in the basement, next to the kitchens. There was a row of cots, with a small cupboard for each of us and a box to put under the bed for our things. The hotel gave us our uniforms. Since I was the newest maid, I did all the jobs none of the others wanted to do. I cleaned out the grates and scrubbed the washrooms and washed the dishes.’
‘It must have been hard.’
‘Oh, yes, it was hard. We worked long hours without much rest. There was no Health and Safety Authority back then. If there were labour codes, Mr Grant hadn’t heard of them. Most mornings I was up at 5:30 to start the fire in the kitchen and to heat the water in the boilers for the guests and kept at it until the supper dishes were washed and put away. But I was used to the work, and I thought Grant’s was heaven. I’d never seen such luxury before. And the food—it was what was left over from the buffets and the table d’hôte, but I had never knew food like that before. There was so much meat. I didn’t worry about my weight then, but the work kept me thin. I ate so much that I would have grown fat without the work. And I could go to the cinema on my afternoon off. I had Wednesday afternoons off, and I always saw the new film at the Odeon. I loved that. It’s gone now. They tore it down forty years ago, but it was like a palace inside. The cheapest seats for the afternoon matinee cost four pence in the old currency. I had never seen a motion picture before I came to Wicklow. I was a country girl, and for me Wicklow was the big city. So I found it exciting.’
‘Who stayed there? What were the guests like?’
‘During the week, most of the clients were businessmen. Weekends and summers we had visitors—sightseers, people taking a holiday at the beach, honeymooners like your parents. Most of them came down from Dublin. It wasn’t far away but it was different. We were always busy. The best people stayed at Grant’s. Well, it’s always been expensive. But the people who stayed at Grant’s in those days looked like they were the best people, not like now when you can’t tell. They dressed up more in those days. The men always wore suits. None of these jeans or shorts and soft shirts and trainers that men wear now. And the women always wore dresses, and most of them changed for tea and the evening meal. They put on hats when they left their room. I wasn’t supposed to stare at the guests, but I watched them when I could.’
‘These are my parents. They stayed at Grant’s in August 1941.’ I handed the picture to her.
‘Oh, I remember them.’
‘You remember them?’
‘Yes, I took this picture. It was the first picture I ever took, and the man—your father is it?—showed me how to aim the camera and take the picture. So I remember it and them. It took me a long time to take the photograph. I was so nervous that I would do something wrong, and your father was so handsome, like a movie star, I thought. I knew they were on their honeymoon. I wanted it to be right for them. Your mother was wearing a hat made of thin linen gauze. I remember she had red hair, and you could see it under the gauze. That’s a cloche hat. That’s what we called them. They were very popular then. We all had one, but I never saw one like the one your mother was wearing.’
‘I’m amazed that you remember them. How did my father come to ask you to take a photograph of them together?’
‘In those days during the summer we served breakfast on the terrace when it wasn’t raining. There were round iron tables and chairs painted white. It was my job to make sure that the terrace was swept clean before the guests came down and to wipe the tables and chairs dry if it had rained or if there had been a heavy dew. I found your parents sitting there one morning when I went out to get the tables ready. It must have been around six o’clock in the morning. Breakfast service started at 7:30, and I was supposed to have everything ready long before that and to disappear before any guests could see me. I was surprised to see them anyone up and out on the terrace. I excused myself for interrupting them, and your mother said that it was all right, that they had awoken early and gone out for a walk along the beach. You can see that your father had taken his coat off. It was already a hot day. He would have put it back on before eating breakfast. Mr Grant was very particular about that. The gentlemen were supposed to be dressed and wearing ties when they ate. Your father asked if I would mind taking a picture of them together. They were so polite. Most guests never spoke to me except to give me orders. Are they still alive?’
‘My mother died earlier last year, in January. She was 96. My father died in 2011.’
‘So they were married seventy years. I’ve known couples like that. It’s grand to still be in love after all those years. My husband died twelve years ago.’ Mrs Green’s eyes shifted elsewhere, and her lips quivered, more with anger than regret I think. Her posture relaxed for a moment as she thought about her own marriage. Then she visibly pulled herself together and straightened her back, dismissing the discussion of her own private life with a stranger. ‘So they were Mr and Mrs Rósgleann. I never knew their names.’
‘Oh, Rósgleann is the pen name I use when writing. My family name is Ross. My father was Bram Ross. He was in the government in the 1960s and 1970s. I was a reporter for The Irish Times then and I didn’t want people to think I was taking advantage of my father’s reputation.’
Suddenly the child broke in. ‘Bramross, Bramross.’ She held up one of the toys and showed it to both of us. ‘That’s his name now. Bramross. It’s funny.’
Mrs Green looked embarrassed. ‘Jean, that’s not polite.’ And then to me, ‘I’m so sorry.’
Jean flushed and turned away, studiously ignoring both of us. She returned to her play. I noticed that Bramross was given a leading role.
‘It’s all right.’
‘I’m afraid I don’t remember him.’
‘The sixties and seventies are ancient history now. No one remembers them.’ We both spared a sad smile for the passing of the days. ‘Well, I have taken too much of your time.’ I rose to go.
She had a final comment. ‘They were so happy. I remember that, too. I hope they had a happy life.’
‘As happy as anyone ever does, I suppose. It’s hard to know with one’s parents, isn’t it? Especially that generation. Parents felt they had to hide things from the children.’
I must have spoken more sharply than I intended. She looked at me speculatively and then almost said something. Instead, she took one final look at the photograph before handing it back to me. ‘There must have been a scratch on the lens. There’s a line through the middle.’
‘No, it was torn when I found it. Someone had taped the pieces back together, but you could still see the tear. I tried to eliminate it on the computer after I had scanned it, but I'm not skilled at that. I couldn't get rid of all the traces.’
You were so quiet after that trip. I’ve always wondered what happened.
Finally a unifying thread is beginning to emerge.
There was one other picture showing my parents together in the first days of their marriage among the photographs Niamh and I discovered in my mother’s house after her death. It was taken just after they were married. The carved ornamental wooden screen behind them gives away the location—it still stands before the door to the sacristy of my mother’s parish church. The photographer posed them next to each other. My mother wears a long dress with a veil on her head covering her hair. She holds a bouquet of white flowers—lilies mostly—by the stems in her left hand so that it rests across her right forearm. My father is dressed in a business suit. It is a formal picture. Both stand very straight and rigid and are smiling in that slightly strained way that appears on our faces when we are asked to hold an emotion for the camera. Someone has arranged the skirt of my mother’s dress to drape symmetrically, far more symmetrically than it would naturally, and her left hand is turned so that the wedding ring is displayed. In a less ceremonial picture, the natural pose of the hand would have rendered the ring invisible. The formality of the picture distinguishes it from the snapshot of the two of them in the back garden of Grant’s Hotel in Wicklow. As is true of many formal photographs, my parents are posed to conform to a type-role: the happy newly married couple.
Neither my father’s nor my mother’s family had the habit of taking ‘snapshots’. My parents obviously took a camera with them on their honeymoon, but I suspect it may have been borrowed for the occasion. There are no other photographs that argue for the existence of a camera. All the other photographs of my parents show each of them separately and are studio portraits. The same is true of the photographs of other relatives. There are not many of those and they reveal little personality. One exception is the photograph of my father’s parents on their wedding day. The photographer captured my grandfather with a worried look on his face, biting his lower lip, as if the step he had just taken is troubling him. All the other surviving pictures of members of my father’s family look like passport photos or are shots against elaborate painted backdrops of classical scenes with the people leaning against pillars or seated on ornate chairs.
There are more pictures of my mother’s family. Their photographic record begins in the late nineteenth century. My grandparents had photos taken of my mother and her two brothers every year or so of their childhoods. My mother was the oldest child. Her two brothers were born two and four years after her. Until my mother is fifteen, the three of them are posed in a gradually aging group. The older of the two brothers died when he was thirteen of a weak heart, one of the after-effects of a severe case of scarlet fever when he was a baby. Thereafter my mother and her younger brother are paired in the pictures. The second brother died at age twenty-three of spinal meningitis. My mother seldom spoke of them, other than to mention their deaths. All that remains of them are a few photographs. Any living memory of them died with my mother.
My mother continued this record with Niamh and myself. We made annual visits to Chalmers Studio in Drogheda. As was the style in the 1940s and 1950s, those shots are more casual—the painted backdrops and the ponderous furniture have disappeared in favour of a draped grey cloth. We still dressed up for the occasion and posed stiffly, however.
More candid photographs begin to appear during our childhoods. Someone took pictures of us in the garden of my mother’s house. There is one picture of us playing in the sand at the beach. Both Niamh and I went to schools that commissioned class photos, and my mother had copies of all of these. She also had several photographs of me with the other members of the sports teams. Despite the best efforts of the photographers and the priests and brothers who ran these schools, there is always one person who is not looking at the camera or whose face was caught in an inappropriate expression. Much later my mother’s cousin Aoife took pictures of my mother during their holidays.
Still, we have never been a family given to taking pictures. We favour formal photographs of ourselves in which personality and individuality has been stripped away, leaving only a commemorative adherence to the photographic conventions of the day, mounted in dark cardboard frames that have become damp and soft and crumbling with time. We are actors dressed in period costumes auditioning for a part in a play by a forgotten author. Whatever narratives the pictures illustrate have long been lost or never existed in the first place.
For the dust jacket of my first novel, the publisher arranged for a photograph. I wore a business suit and tie. The photographer shot me from the side so that I appear in profile against a black background. It is dramatic and what would have been considered a ‘literary’ portrait of a ‘serious’ author at the time. The American publisher requested a more ‘Irish’-looking picture, a request that prompted much amused speculation at my publishers in Dublin. The photographer sent them three shots. In the first, I am posed on the O’Donovan Rossa Bridge leaning against the parapet with the Four Courts in the background. This the publisher in New York rejected as too generic and not ‘identifiably Irish’ for an American audience. For the second photograph we ventured into the countryside and found a decrepit stone farmhouse surrounded by a muddy yard. For that occasion I wore a shapeless tweed coat, a cloth cap, and wellies. There is a pipe dangling from my mouth. I don’t smoke. The pipe and the clothes were as much props as the farmhouse.
The third picture was intended as a joke. The staff of my publisher in Dublin were enlisted to help set the scene. We are in a pub. They are arrayed behind me slouching in drunken postures, leaning against the bar or drooped over tables, all of them smoking and wearing soft tweed caps, including the women. I am seated at a table in the foreground. There is a half-drunk pint glass of beer before me, as well as three empty pint glasses on the table. I hold a lit cigarette in my left hand. My hair twists in wild spirals, my tie is pulled loose from my neck. Before me on the table is a notebook and I am writing in it impatiently as if trying to capture the words before they fade from my soused mind. The very picture of a boozing ‘Oyerish awt’er’. Guess which picture appeared on the dust jacket.
Lewis loves that picture. He has several copies of it, one of which is prominently displayed on his desk at college. ‘Ah yes, Pat in his wild youth,’ he explains. ‘You’d never guess it from his behaviour today, but it’s been my lifelong struggle to save him from the drink.’ He is so in love with the story he tells about that picture that I think he half-believes it himself.
Unlike my family, Lewis and his relatives have over the years documented their lives in great detail with cameras, home movie cameras, video recorders, digital cameras, and now mobile phones. A nearly continuous stream of images of family members circulates by phone and email and is posted on photo-sharing websites and services. Every member of the family has a printer for photographs as well as a scanner for making files of newspaper articles and published pictures. I have no pictures of my family on my desk. Lewis’s various rooms are cluttered with dozens of images, some in frames, others stuck under the edges of frames or propped up on mantelpieces. He even has a picture of me on his dresser in each of our bedrooms. He changes it every few months for a more recent picture so that I do not have to confront younger images of myself.
Lewis’s mother started a photo album for each of her children at birth and assiduously mounted each of the many pictures of them and labelled them fully with date, location, and circumstance. The first summer Lewis and I were together at his family’s holiday home on Cape Ann, he brought five albums of photographs of himself to show me, covering the period from his first days of life up until that year. One rainy morning he sat beside me on the sofa and began showing them to me. The albums were large, longer horizontally than vertically. Lewis was seated on my right, and he opened each album in turn so that the left half fell across my lap. He leaned into me and began showing me each page and talking about the photographs. As he turned each page, he would hand it off to me to put in place on my side of the album, involving me in the action of looking. The albums were bulky, but they were surprisingly light. I suppose because the thick fluffy paper weighed little. I remember the feeling of Lewis pressed against the right side of my body from my shoulder down to my knee, and the stiffness of the album cover on my lap and thighs. The sky was dark outside, and Lewis had turned on the lamps at either end of the sofa, making a sort of island of light around us. The rain beat against the roof of the porch at the front of the cottage.
My feelings about seeing these photographs were mixed. I felt trapped. Lewis hadn’t asked if I wanted to look at them. He simply brought them out and placed them on the table in front of the sofa, sat down beside me, and began showing them to me. It was obvious to me that I was not going to escape this ordeal, and ordeal is how I viewed it. The weather prevented us from going out. The cottage was small. I had nowhere to run.
Then, too, I was not at all sure that I wanted to see proof of Lewis’s earlier life. I knew that Lewis had existed for many years before we met, but I preferred to know that in an intellectual way and not be confronted by evidence that he had survived, indeed prospered, without me. The Lewis he was proposing to show me was a foreigner, a stranger, and I was still too insecure about our relationship to want to be confronted by a Lewis different from the one I knew. There were moments when I resented his thrusting of his previous life into our present one. I wanted his life to begin with me.
There was—is—however, something so touchingly trusting about his action. To show another person pictures of yourself on your second birthday with a silly hat on your head and chocolate cake smeared over your face or splashing about in a plastic wading pool or dressed in clothes you are outgrowing or the Halloween costume you wore at age eight or your role in a school play takes trust. If not a lover, to whom else would you reveal yourself so defencelessly? Lewis was sharing his life with me because he expected to continue to share it with me. He was backdating our relationship to the beginning of his life.
So many of the photographs had stories attached to them, and he told me all of them. I learned about his grandparents, his aunts and uncles, his friends, his pets. I saw him in school, at play, at innumerable dinners with his family, on outings, before scenery, even sleeping. Hundreds of pictures. I was envious and not a little jealous. Other than the bare identities of the sitters, my family’s photographs told no stories.
He turned a page midway through the final album without comment. It was the last page with photographs in the book. His mother had pasted three pictures of Lewis and myself together on that page. It came without warning, and my throat constricted. My eyes began watering and it was only with difficulty that I prevented myself from crying. It was as if I were now officially part of Lewis’s life, the next stage in it. The album suddenly felt heavy on my lap. Lewis closed the back cover and lifted it off my lap and placed it on the table. ‘We will add more later.’ That’s all he said. He picked the albums up and walked away. I sat there stunned and unable to move for several minutes. I felt fragile and on the verge of shattering.
Lewis returned the albums to his mother. She continued to add photographs until the end of her life. Lewis’s sister has the albums now and keeps them up. I know because she occasionally sends me an email asking about the particulars behind a recent photograph Lewis has sent to her. She wants a story to go with the picture.
There are by now many pictures of Lewis and myself together. Oddly they are all informal rather than studio shots. Perhaps that is not so odd after all. The occasions when two men are photographed together in formal poses by a professional photographer are few. A father and his son, two brothers—the list is limited. Unlike other couples, Lewis and I have no wedding photos. We do not stand proudly behind our children. I think I will propose that we commission a photographer to make a studio portrait of us together when we do get married. I should at least continue my family’s tradition of bland, characterless photography.
What bothers me most about the photograph of my parents in the hotel garden at Wicklow is the absence of a story, not only the story of what they felt as it was being taken but also the story of how it came to be torn apart later. That is what Lewis has taught me to expect from a photograph—stories. I am sure that there was a story behind this picture, but neither of my parents ever revealed it. They look so happy and content together in the photograph. I never saw them that way. By the time I have memories of them, they had already fallen away from each other. And they were so reticent about their relationship that no one except themselves would ever have known the story behind the destruction of the photograph. Perhaps, since I found the photograph among my mother’s things, she was the one who tore it. She may never have told my father, but she would have had some reason for keeping the pieces. Or perhaps my father ripped it and sent the pieces to my mother. He was capable of such acts. If so, why did my mother keep it?
Your version of why I showed you those albums of pictures of me is probably correct. I doubt if I consciously thought about my reasons. It’s more likely that I assumed that you were interested in my life by that point. Showing you the albums probably struck me as an efficient way of telling you about myself.
I may also have hoped that by talking about my past, I would prompt similar disclosures from you. You were very close-mouthed about your prior history. You still are. You never volunteer information about yourself. If I want to know something about you, I have to ask—often several times—before you, very reluctantly, open up and tell me what I want to know. People will ask me about you, and I often have to confess that I do not know the answers to their questions. Quite often they are asking for an innocuous bit of information and go away surprised that I don’t know it.
A few months ago I encountered a glaring example of this. I’ve been waiting for a good time to bring it up. Kevin MacElderry—I don’t know if you’ve ever met him. He’s a fellow at King’s who specializes in Celtic languages—congratulated me on the “cleverness” of your pen name. I had to ask what he meant. I learned—for the first time—that Rósgleann is the Irish equivalent of Rosenthal. How could you not tell me that? You’ve been using that name since the late 1960s and never once did you think fit to tell me? Would you have ever told me? Why do I have to find out such things secondhand?
Once you were reading the autobiography of some woman novelist. I don’t remember her name, but when you finished, you remarked that she managed to keep all her secrets. I got the impression that you respected her for that.
Pat, sometimes you make it damned difficult to love you.
Love (I still do anyway),
Dear Lewis—When I invented my pen name, I thought I was being clever. I was about to explain it to you after the story about Mary appeared, but it suddenly struck me as foolish. I was still unsure of us and I did not want to explain a name that was sheer presumption on my part. Later, the opportunity for an explanation had passed, and explaining the meaning of Rósgleann would admit to a failure of openness on my part to disclose something I should have explained to you at the beginning. Once I started publishing under that name, I had to continue. None of this excuses what I did, and I am sorry. I know that my habits of reticence and secretiveness have often hindered our relationship, and I am sorry that I have hurt you. I am sorry that you had to find out from a colleague. Love, Pat
PS. I am glad that you still love me despite my failings.
Of course, I still love you, you eedjit (or however that’s spelled). Sorry, if I was a bit rough with you. Now that I’ve had time to digest it, I am flattered—a bit. And a bit worried about what else I am going to learn about you in the upcoming installments of your life.
It occurred to me last night that your mother kept a record of your and your sister’s lives. It was in all those boxes you found after your mother’s death. Those were not unlike the photo albums my mother compiled.
Lewis—good point about the boxes. There is a resemblance. There is no evidence that my mother ever looked at the items in the boxes again, however. The older ones had not been opened in years. I always had the impression that your mother and other family members occasionally looked at her photo albums. Mother’s collections impress me more as her idea of the fulfilment of a duty than an activity she enjoyed. To her, it would have seemed like something a mother was supposed to do. She was more obsessed with collecting items than interested in their contents. Perhaps there was more to it than that, but since she never mentioned that she kept these items or discussed her activities with us, there is no way to know why she did it. Pat
Lots of opportunities for pictures here. Do you have copies of all the “Irish” dust jacket photos? The earlier sections are beginning to make more sense to me know. I like where this is going.
Michelle—Your firm commissioned the photographs. There should be copies in your files. I do not remember the name of the photographer. The pictures were taken in the 1970s—around 1977 or 1978. The man who took the pictures was in his fifties or sixties, and he is surely dead by now. If he was at all like the other dust-jacket photographers I have worked with, he retained the copyright in the photos and his heirs must now control the rights to them. Again that information would be in your files. Patrick
Six years into our relationship, I was living in Manhattan and working as a reporter for The Irish Times. Lewis was still teaching at Harvard. We were together several days each month, not as often as we would have liked but enough to find a measure of satisfaction. This was the early 1970s, long before email, not to mention texting or Skype. Long-distance phone calls were relatively expensive. Our budgets forced us to ration ourselves to one or two calls each week. So our communications were limited.
My work brought me into contact with other journalists, and I developed friendships with several. During the spring of 1972 the wife of one colleague died of cancer after several years of illness. Carl took to drink. He avoided bars but not his friends and acquaintances. He visited a different person each night. My turn came up every two weeks or so. My doorbell would buzz and he would be downstairs waiting to be let in. He always brought a pint bottle of whiskey for himself and a six-pack of beer for me. He was careful to bring the host’s beverage of choice. I do not know what he did if no one answered his ring. We were not given a choice or advance warning of his arrival. He just showed up, smiling uncertainly and lifting the brown paper bag with the drink in it as if that explained and excused his presence. Over the course of two or three hours, he would finish the pint of whiskey and then stumble off. I might have two bottles of beer during that period.
I tolerated his visits at first—all of us did—because I felt sorry for him. The visits were not pleasant, and they grew worse over time. His initial sorrow over his wife’s death became drunken ramblings about his miseries. I began hearing rumours of arguments leading to broken friendships or of wives’ barring the door to Carl. It was almost enough for me to wish for a wife.
One night when Carl showed up, I was expecting Lewis. Carl noticed that I had made an effort to straighten the usual clutter that habitually surrounds me. When I explained that I was expecting a visitor, he assumed a woman was about to show up. He ribbed me about my ‘lady friend’ and promised to leave after one drink. In the event, it was a very large drink and Lewis arrived before Carl left. A single man arriving with an overnight bag and a briefcase to visit another single man who has only a small, one-bedroom flat—it did not take Carl long to come to the correct conclusion about the relationship between Lewis and myself. He stayed for only a few minutes after Lewis’s arrival and then left. He wished Lewis a ‘pleasant’ stay and smirked at the two of us briefly as he swayed in the hall doorway.
I did not see Carl for another two months. I had begun to feel cautious relief that his visits had ended. I did not want to rejoice too openly lest the gods punish me by further inflicting Carl on me. I heard gossip that he was deteriorating and drinking even more. When he showed up again, he was drunk (that was new; previously he had begun drinking only after he arrived). This time the brown paper bag contained a half-drunk fifth of whiskey and he hadn’t brought any booze for me. I refused his offer of some of the whiskey. He sprawled on my one easy chair. His suit needed to be cleaned and pressed, and his tie was stained with greasy discoloured blobs. I think he may have been unsure of his welcome. He was defensive and obstreperous, as if challenging me to a row or a fight.
‘This friend of yours, this Lewis,’ he said, ‘what is he? Your boyfriend? Never figured you for a queer.’ He looked satisfied with himself, as if discovering this about me was a major accomplishment, a ‘scoop’. ‘Which one of you is the wife?’
‘It isn’t like that.’ By that point, I just wanted Carl out of my life and I was tired of pretending to be something I was not. I was also suddenly and completely wanted Lewis.
Carl sneered at me and said, ‘I think I know who’s the wife.’ He took another swig from the bottle and eyed me maliciously. ‘Yeah, I know. And I’m going to tell everyone. “You know that big mick Ross—you think he’s a real man, but he’s a pansy. A real fruity fruit. Keeps a Jew boyfriend up in Boston.” ’ He spoke to an imagined audience and then swished his wrist and giggled.
I threw him out—one advantage of being a big mick is that I can do that. I literally picked him up by the lapels of his jacket, pulled open the door, dragged him to the elevator and then pushed him into it when it came. I never saw him again.
His visit was unsettling, but even more unsettling was his question. I had never thought of myself and Lewis in terms of which of us was the ‘husband’ and which the ‘wife’. I still do not, but the question brought home to me the related question of how others viewed our relationship. Did Lewis’s parents worry that he was my wife? Or did they view him as the husband? It is, I have noticed over the years, an issue for our friends and relatives. Most are satisfied with hinting at the question, but not infrequently people do ask ‘What is it that you do exactly?’ If I know the person well, I usually say, ‘It isn’t something we think about. The bits and pieces come together naturally.’ In moments of drunken deviltry, I have referred others to the Internet for a crash course in just exactly what it is that gay people do. To one of my nephews who was visibly agitated about the issue, I said, ‘We make love. We use our bodies to express what we feel for each other, just as you and your wife do.’
Carl and the others who have asked me that question suppose that in gay relationships one person is the top and the other the bottom and imply that Lewis and I play separate sexual roles. It is how many outsiders—and many gays for that matter—view gay sex. But there has never been much difference between Lewis and myself in terms of our preferred sexual roles. Both of us are ‘versatile’.
‘Versatile’—an expressive word that. From one of the Latin words meaning ‘turn’, ‘change’. We turn about each other, we change for each other. We revolve and metamorphose. We learn and then apply what we learn. Is there any joy like unto the joy of making someone you love moan with pleasure? To give, and receive. To be allowed to give another person pleasure, to allow that person to give you pleasure. For a time we become something together, something more that our separate selves.
Lewis and I came together physically with a fierce hunger. I had had only two experiences, both furtive and fumbling and quick, before I met Lewis. What was different with Lewis was that I knew him before we first made love and I knew that I wanted him—I wanted not sex with him but sex because of him, through him. And we made love, which is much more than having sex. Suddenly, without much thought or much discussion, I was enmeshed with this hard demanding body, demanding that I give myself up to its demands and demanding that I accept without reservation its ability to satisfy my body’s demands. My body echoed his body’s demands. The bits and pieces did what the bits and pieces usually do. They connected and we connected through them.
One thing that surprises me in looking back is how quickly we developed a repertoire of activities to fit our different moods—from gentle to vigorous, from quiet to exuberant, from sedate to athletic. Since there were then no guides to gay sex and this was long before the Internet provided ample illustration, we stumbled about until we found an activity that brought pleasure. In part that added to the joy. We experimented with each other’s body and celebrated our discoveries.
What we discovered about each other was our shared secret, the stuff of endless daydreams. I would be sitting in a public library in a town in Massachusetts reading old diaries and letters of Irish immigrants and then those sensitive spots beneath Lewis’s ears where his neck slopes into the shoulder would come to mind. The page in front of me would disappear, and I would be nuzzling Lewis’s neck and listening to his murmurs of happiness.
The fierceness and the hunger remained part of our relationship for many years. They were always there, ready to be released. It took very little to strike a spark between us. A look, a touch in passing, a particular form of smile and we would be kissing and stroking each other’s body. The clothes would fly off, and we would be tearing at each other, trying to overcome our bodies’ artificial boundaries, trying to find the impossible union.
As we have grown older, the hunger for sex has lessened but not the fierceness. We still tear at each other, trying to overcome the bodies’ boundaries. The grip may not be as strong as it was, but it is still a grip. In the early days of the Internet, Lewis’s niece Emily came for a visit. She was using my computer to send an email to her family. Connections, which then used telephone land lines, were sluggish and unreliable, and she reported back to me that the connection ‘was, like, you know, kinda sorta working’. That about sums up my plumbing these days—it kinda sorta works. But even if it ceased to work, there would still be fierceness.
Along with the fierceness there has always been an offering of comfort as well, that peace and safety that overtakes one during sex and after, the moments when the world contracts to two radiances. Lewis’s body, unlike mine, becomes hypersensitive immediately after he has an orgasm. He cannot stand to be touched or to move for a minute or so afterwards. It is an agony for him and being touched is for him genuinely painful. And so I have learned to remain still and to surround him with a zone of stillness until he is again ready for the world to intrude upon him. I love him so much during those moments, both because I have given him a pleasure so intense that it consumes him and because I can protect him at a moment when he is vulnerable.
In re-reading this, it strikes me that I have been talking around the issue. I have avoided the physical details because they are not relevant. In reading novels, I usually page impatiently past the descriptions of sex. They strike me as so much filler—hmmm, it’s been sixty-five pages since the hero last got his rocks off. Time to send him to bed again. Another blonde? Or perhaps a redhead this time? I have yet to read one such passage that even begins to approach the glory of physically being with someone you love. What none of them captures is the overwhelming joy—mindless, inarticulate, consuming joy. And Lewis has given me so much of that. I do not have the words to describe Lewis’s gift to me. I suspect that they may not exist. Or perhaps I do not want them to exist. If they did, they would inevitably construct a limit on what we are to each other, and I do not want such limits.
So sex has been part of our relationship. I am not saying it has not. One feels close to anyone who brings such pleasures. It is apparently enough for a certain form of relationship. I have known couples bound only by sex. It is sufficient to hold two people together for a time. I have one friend who has been a ‘serial monogamist’ for thirty years. Each bond is intense and lasts for two or three months. But it inevitably ends with him remarking, ‘The sex was fine. The sex was great in fact. It’s that we had nothing in common. And he was so stupid. I couldn’t talk with him.’ Sex played a role in strengthening my interest in Lewis, but it was part of large mix of causes.
I think the ability to talk to each other made a difference for Lewis and myself. We could talk. We did talk endlessly. And we listened. It was not so much that our interests overlapped—they still do not—as that suddenly there was this other person whose interests became important to me and who wanted me to understand why they were important to him and who wanted to understand why my interests were important to me.
Another reason was that we could be silly when we were alone together. In a society that expected gays to do the ‘decent’ thing and be closeted, the opportunities to be publicly demonstrative and starry-eyed did not exist. Both of us had lived through puberty and our teenage years and into our twenties without being able to express the giddiness that surrounds youthful love. When we came together, we made up for all those lost opportunities. Being silly was a luxury and an indulgence that we permitted ourselves.
There was also a feeling of ‘us against the world’. There were times when we felt bound together because what we were doing was so right. If other people disagreed, then we just had to be better for each other. We did not have anyone else. The prejudice forced us closer together.
None of this would have mattered or would not have mattered for long, however, if we had not liked each other. We were friends as well as lovers. I still regard Lewis as my best friend, my only ‘true’ friend in fact. He is the only person I can even contemplate sharing my life with. I hope he feels the same about me. That, I think, is the most important factor in our being together for fifty years. When we are together, we are comfortable with ourselves and with each other. Of course, this begs the question of why we are friends.
In the mid-1970s, I met and became a casual acquaintance of a reporter employed by a newspaper in Mexico City. Eugenio was very open about his feelings. He was often flamboyantly emotional. His body was in constant motion with extravagant gestures. Eugenio did not just shake hands. He grasped your outstretched hand in both of his and then pulled you close and embraced you. He never smiled at a joke. He roared with laughter. Everything he did was grandiose. The slightest success became a magnificent victory, unprecedented in the history of the world. A minor run-in with a surly cabby was transformed in his telling to a major skirmish in an on-going war. A setback was a defeat previously unknown to tragedy. Last night’s date was the love of his life—until he met the next person.
He did not think much of me—our personalities were too different for us to be friends—but he tolerated me. We got along as professional colleagues and, if we bumped into each other, we usually had a drink together and traded a half-hour’s worth of gossip about our work. One evening he ran into me and Lewis at a party. Eugenio liked Lewis immediately. Whenever Lewis came to New York, Eugenio insisted on having drinks with us or going out to dinner. He even threw parties for Lewis. He suddenly started ringing me during the week as a means of tracking when Lewis would be visiting. He grew miffed that Lewis stayed with me after meeting him. I heard from others that he often wondered aloud what Lewis saw in me. Eventually Eugenio became verbally aggressive towards us. He would tell Lewis in a stridently hissing, disingenuously confidential manner, ‘When you get tired of this one,’ pointing towards me, ‘give me a call.’ He grew more and more belligerent the more it became apparent that Lewis had no interest in him.
At another party, he manoeuvred Lewis into a corner and accosted him. Eugenio spoke loudly enough that everyone would hear him, including me. His tone was jesting, but the undercurrent of anger and jealousy was apparent. ‘Why do you stay with him? He is so cold. Are all Irishmen like that? He is so repressed. He has no emotion.’ All conversation in the room halted.
And Lewis said into that silence, ‘You’re wrong. Patrick is very emotional. He just expresses himself in small ways. You don’t see them because you think emotions have to be dramatic. But he says more with a twitch of an eyebrow that you say all day with all your thrashing about.’
Everyone in the room suddenly spoke up to cover up the fact that they had been listening and relishing the encounter and to paper over any hint of discord. Lewis and I were the only ones who were silent. We stared at each other across the twenty or so feet that separated us. The sudden shard of happiness in my chest was physical in its wrenching impact. My heart was beating loudly, and I had to fight back tears. I enjoyed the revenge for all of Eugenio’s obnoxious behaviour. Lewis’s public declaration of support and his defence of me were satisfying. I do not deny those feelings, but they were not the reason for the happiness. The happiness arose from being understood and for being accepted unconditionally.
In terms of our daily roles, Lewis and I are versatile as well. Each of us has strengths and talents the other lacks. Lewis understands machinery and how it works, almost intuitively. I do not. So Lewis deals with repairmen and mechanics. I have a love of gardening that he does not share, and I can cheerfully spend an afternoon weeding and trimming and pruning while he occasionally wanders to a window and observes me at work. We do not think of Lewis as the dominant partner because he has a ‘male’ understanding of machines or alternatively of me as the ‘male’ because I am ready to get my hands dirty and Lewis is not. That is not how it works.
Of course we have arguments and grievances. Sometimes we are just being peevish. Something has ticked us off and we are in an angry mood and the other person is the most readily available target. The bad humour is a form of trust. Occasionally and under tacitly understood conditions, I can be irritable with Lewis (and he with me) because I know that he loves me and is not going to go away. Each of us has a way of indicating to the other that we are not really angry at him or that we are nearing the end of our patience and enough is enough.
Like all long-time couples, we have familiar arguments—the temperature inside the house being the most common. There is a certain cosiness in such arguments. They are in themselves a sign of the relationship, their very familiarity a means of reinforcing the relationship. I know of one married couple who argue almost constantly. They enjoy it enormously and relish their encounters. Arguments are not always a sign of a troubled relationship.
We have had major rows, especially when we first really began living together permanently as opposed to staying together for limited spans of time. Most of these were disputes over personal habits. Lewis is neat. I am not. He could tolerate my discarded clothes on a bedroom floor when the floor in question was mine. When we acquired a floor that was ours, he soon found an occasion to lecture me on the proper uses of hangers and a dirty clothes basket. I took umbrage at what I felt was hectoring and a superior tone, and the argument escalated into a wide-ranging shouting match over housekeeping and our different approaches to that. But we both knew that this was not a potentially relationship-breaking argument. The fact that we were trying to work out the rules for living together day-to-day meant that we were focussed on living together. We were not going to break up because of my frequently errant aim when tossing dirty laundry towards the hamper. I knew, moreover, that we were going to be perhaps not happier but at least less irritated with each other if my aim improved. We had to compromise on our differences if we were to live together amicably, and both of us wanted that. The other common causes of rows—money and children—did not affect us much. Neither of us is particularly greedy for possessions and we have enough money for our needs. We did not have children, not even pets, to disagree over.
Another aspect of our relationship has, I think, made it easier for us to be together. One advantage enjoyed by many dual-career couples, gay or straight, is that each partner has a life apart from the other. The greater amount of independence, the separateness of lives and careers, gives each a personal sphere of value and action. Lewis and I are lucky in that both of us have been successful in our careers. Nor are we in competition. I do not begin to understand Lewis’s professional life—the type of mathematics he pursues is far beyond my ken. If Lewis ever harboured a desire to write fiction or journalistic essays, he has never told me about it. Neither of us feels he has a need or a right to intrude on the other’s separate life. We concentrate on our shared life, but we are not threatened because the other has a separate life. Our time apart, even when it is no more than each of us sitting in his study, which are next door to each other, makes our time together even better.
So gratitude, giving, pleasure, comfort, security, friendship, respect, passion—that ought to be enough for any relationship.
It had taken me much longer than is normal for me to write the few thousand words in this section. I have been struggling to define the relationship between Lewis and myself. I find that I can offer only anecdotes and random memories and impressions. An idle, desultory essay on an association of fifty years that presents no answers, only questions.
I probably shouldn’t tell you this because it will encourage you in bad habits, but once when I was at the Brighton house and you were away, I was getting the laundry ready. When I pulled the sheets off the bed, I saw a pair of your socks on the floor. It looked like you had kicked them there and forgotten them. To my surprise I wasn’t angry or upset with you for your slovenliness. It was like finding a piece of you in our bedroom. I sat down on the bed and held them for several minutes rejoicing in my chance discovery of this reminder of you and your habits. (I know you will see the hand of fate in this. To forestall you, I will point out that you frequently kick your clothes under the bed and leave them there. I always check under the bed for stray bits and pieces of you.)
Haven’t thought of Eugenio in years. He was an awful man, always pawing at me when he thought no one was looking. Do you remember that Mexican restaurant he took us to once—it was somewhere in the Village. He asked the waitress to put us in a booth. He made sure that he sat next to me on one of the benches and that you were left by yourself opposite us. He spent the entire meal trying to use his left hand to eat because his right hand was busy feeling me up. I finally reached over and pinched his balls. I was scared stiff that you would find out and think there was something going on between us. When you went to the bathroom, I told him to stop and made it clear I wasn’t interested. He just smirked at me. That was a week or two before the party you describe. So I guess I have my secrets from you as well.
Lewis—I remember the café and the meal. It was called Rosa’s. I was so oblivious that it never occurred to me that he would play with your private parts under the table, sub rosa as it were. Love, Pat
After reading this, I went back and read several of the earlier sections. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but it seems to me that there are inconsistencies in the way that you portray the relationship with Lewis. On one hand, you extol the virtues of “strategic silences” in relationships and imply that there are matters left undiscussed between the two of you. On the other hand, you claim that you two have the ability to discuss anything. As an editor, I try to be the most exacting reader an author ever has in order to forestall complaints from readers who have paid money to buy the book. Your relationship with Lewis is an area in which you need to present a consistent account. Also, since I am mentioning problems, once you have decided on the final arrangement of the segments, you need to go back over this with an eye for repetitions. To state the obvious, you should explain things the first time they are mentioned and thereafter assume that readers know what you are talking about. Don’t repeat the explanation.
Michelle—both good points. I have noted the repetitiousness and will eliminate it in the final version. About the relationship between Lewis and myself, we are still working it out. Even after fifty years, we are discovering new things about each other. But I take your point. I doubt that I will be able to present a coherent, consistent account of our relationship, but I will implicitly acknowledge the inconsistencies and try to make sense of them. The problem is that this is not fiction. I am trying to describe a relationship in all its messiness. I cannot reduce Lewis or myself or any of the other people I discuss here to a simple, consistent human being because none of us is a fictional character who can be contained within words and has to live up to people’s conceptions that they and others are consistent and unified personalities. Patrick
PS. I hope I did not write ‘strategic silences’. That should be ‘tactical silences’.
The British actor Russell Tovey is quoted as saying in a 2009 interview, ‘The only thing I can give to young gay people is that when I was growing up there were no role models that were blokey, that were men. Everybody was flamboyant and camp, and I remember going, “That's not me, so even though I think I am gay, I don't think I fit into this world.” ’
Tovey was born in 1981 and says that he realised he was gay at around fifteen or sixteen. So he is speaking of the mid- to late 1990s. In the late 1950s, when I realised that I was gay, the situation was much the same. The stereotypical gay of comedy routines was portrayed as feminine, someone who wanted to be a woman (not just a woman, but an outrageously over-the-top woman) and dressed and acted like one in public. Film and plays often suggested that the villains or the victims who richly deserved their death were not ‘real’ blokes, but the references were so coded that they were beyond my ability to decipher. It was only much later, after I had become familiar with gay life, that I was able to understand them. The ‘gays’ we were exposed to were grotesques and therefore comic or evil or both.
Like Tovey, I could not identify with them. I felt that not only did I not belong in the ‘normal’ world but I also was not part of the world of people who like me were attracted to men. I was not normal. I was not gay since I was not feminine. I could only be a freak. And I felt guilty. Everyone and everything around me told me that being a homosexual was evil. There are still many who feel that acknowledging one’s guilt and one’s sinfulness is a minimum requirement for being gay.
It did not help that I grew up in Ireland at a time when sex of any sort was considered a sin except under very restricted conditions. Public references to sex were rare and confined to bland statements. Laws (many of them still on the books but now unenforced) make most depictions or discussions of sex illegal. Until 1988, published or broadcast references to homosexuality in Ireland had to be unfavourable. Favourable mentions of divorce, abortion, adultery, and contraception and criticisms of religion (meaning, of Catholicism) were routinely excised from imported books, magazines, newspapers, films, videos, television shows. There were long lists of banned publications.
There was no support for being gay, at least none that I was aware of. Everything I knew and my few experiences suggested that my future would be secretive and false. One reason I was so eager for the fellowship at Harvard was that I thought life would be freer in the United States. To some extent it was. At least the existence of sex was acknowledged, although my puritanical upbringing frequently came out unconsciously and I would find myself appalled by the openness with which sex was treated, or rather could be treated. Public images were relentlessly heterosexual and largely of women. Gay people were still invisible.
Lewis and I floundered about for our first few years. Both of us are blokes, and we had no idea how we were supposed to act. Publicly we were ‘good friends’. We gradually came to know other couples, especially after I moved to New York, where the gay community was much larger and more visible. We were there in the years following Stonewall, and we benefited from the greater openness. However, that openness did not extend to our work lives or ordinary social interactions with the larger society. We were openly gay only under certain limited conditions. It would have damaged our careers to be known to be gay, and so we kept quiet about it. The other gay couples we knew were in much the same position as we were—unable to be openly and fully gay in all aspects of their lives.
Lewis’s parents learned that he was gay when Lewis was in high school. His parents noticed that, although he was popular, he was not dating and resisted all attempts to set him up with girls. I do not know if a particular incident made them suspicious. Lewis’s father once told me that they had felt isolated. There was no one they could talk to about this. ‘We could hardly ask our rabbi or our friends for advice,’ he told me. ‘It would have been an admission of failure to admit that we had a son who was “like that”.’ Finally Mr and Mrs Rosenthal had a talk with Lewis. They began by stressing that he was their son and that they loved him but that they were concerned about his behaviour and wanted him to speak with him about a ‘problem’ to see if a way to deal with it could be found before it became serious. They thought it would be best for Lewis to see a psychiatrist. Lewis broke down and began crying. ‘I thought they were telling me that they were sending me to a mental institution to be cured. All I could think about were frontal lobotomies and electro-shock treatments.’ When they pressed him, he confessed (I am choosing the words carefully to illustrate the thinking of those involved) that he was attracted to men rather than to women. They extracted a promise that he would not have sex with anyone until he was legally an adult and that he would live his life ‘honourably’ and that he would try to overcome this affliction. He paid weekly visits to a psychologist for almost two years. At the end, the doctor invited his parents to a conference and told them that healing Lewis would take more than psychotherapy. He recommended against more drastic interventions such as aversion therapies as likely to do more harm than good to Lewis and advised that Lewis and his parents simply accept the fact that Lewis was gay. Luckily the Rosenthals chose to follow the doctor’s advice.
Lewis’s mother told me some ten years after Lewis and I had come together that they had been so relieved when they met me that I was ‘normal’ and not a ‘crazy’ outrageous queen. ‘No one suspected’ is how she put it. It was considered essential that we not embarrass the family and that we remain in the closet and act with circumspection. It was not until many years later that Lewis’s family felt comfortable in openly acknowledging the relationship between us.
I never discussed my relationship with Lewis with either of my parents. My mother realised what had happened and she was polite to Lewis and eventually, I think, felt affection for him and even had long discussions with him about me and her concerns. She was scrupulous about asking Lewis to join me on my visits to her house but she never spoke of us as anything but ‘friends’. She always introduced Lewis or sought to explain his presence in my life as ‘Patrick’s visitor from America, Lewis’. It was as if Lewis were someone I had met in the United States and was now showing around Ireland.
My father was quite a different matter. He refused to listen to any mention of Lewis and never met him. The only acknowledgement he ever made of my homosexuality was to express his relief that both my journalism and my fictions were published under a pseudonym and that I was publicly known under the surname Rósgleann rather than Ross. ‘At least you have spared your mother the shame of having the neighbours read that her son is a poof.’ I suspect that the only thing that kept him from disowning me was that he might have to explain why to his colleagues.
So until the 1990s we were under a lot of pressure, both socially and personally, to remain in the closet. We ‘behaved’ in public. In private, we made a life for ourselves that included a great amount of affection and closeness. Lewis had in his parents a better example of how a couple behaved towards each other. His parents had a good marriage, a partnership, and that is what he wanted with me and what he sought to reproduce. My own parents provided more a negative than a positive model. Publicly they were a married couple; privately they ignored each other as much as possible. Each set of parents provided a model of emotional behaviour—one to be emulated, the other to be avoided.
What neither provided was a model of how to live together daily and do all the shared activities that couples do. Lewis’s parents, and mine when they were together, divided the daily tasks into those the wife did and those the husband did. Lewis’s parents were very much a middle-class 1950s American couple—the husband went out to work and earn a living; the wife kept house. There was a clear sexual division of labour around the house. The husband focussed on the outdoors activities—mowing the lawn, for example, or barbecuing (man cook with fire, woman with electricity)—or household repairs. The wife did the indoor cooking (and the preparation for the outdoor cooking), she kept the house clean, did the laundry, washed dishes, shopped for groceries, supervised the children. My parents had similar notions that there existed proper differences between men’s and women’s work, although the day-to-day activities were not the same (my father never cooked, indoors or out). But none of this applied to Lewis and my situation. Who cooked? Who did the grocery shopping? What did we do together? What did we do separately? Eventually we worked out a division of labour based on our skills and interests, but it was a very private matter. We never felt free to discuss it with others.
When I look back on my life, I feel that large parts of it were hijacked by others and their notions of what I and others like me were and how we ought to behave and how we would behave if left to our own devices. To some extent that happens to everyone. All of us inherit roles and attitudes and are educated into them and away from ‘abnormal’ behaviour. We think we are being independent and setting our own course, but much of what we are and what we do reflect the invisible (to ourselves) influences of parents, teachers, society. What sets minorities apart, I think, is the notion of members of the majority that something that could be labelled a minority life-style is illegitimate and therefore needs to be discouraged. The problems begin when we internalise those attitudes or adopt the life-style because that is how we are expected to behave.
And it is here that a lack of exposure to a variety of role models and the constant depiction of homosexuals as hysterical and sex-crazed damages young homosexuals. The message this sends—this is how ‘queers’ behave and that behaviour is wrong—is quite real. Russell Tovey is right. We need more blokes who are open about how they live and how they live together. Blokishness is far more common among gays than most outsiders think. I’m not talking about the hyper-masculine dominant aggressive tops, the male queens, but the ordinary blokes who go about living without fuss.
Perhaps this will improve now that many gay people are open in their lives and will improve even more once gay marriage becomes common. Younger people have more models and examples on which to pattern themselves. For gay teens in Ireland today, it must be encouraging that we have openly gay public figures such as David Norris (who was for a time in 2011 the candidate favoured to win the presidency of Ireland). Or that Mark Feehily, a blokey bloke and easily the most rugged-looking member of the ex-boy band Westlife, is gay. Feehily has a rugby player’s build, his clothes sense is minimal and he cannot dance—he does not fit the stereotype. He comes across as a genuinely nice man who is comfortable with himself and does not let others define him or limit him because he is gay. May his tribe increase.
Well put. I would dread becoming a role model, however. More responsibility than I am willing to assume.
Come to think of it, it would be awful.
Again, this reads like a lecture. Anecdotes will save it. Try to personalise it.
Lewis is set to retire completely at the end of the current term (note to myself—update verb tenses in this section later to reflect the date at publication). During the years he has been at Cambridge, he has spent most weekdays there when the university was in session and lived in his rooms at college. I seldom stopped overnight in Cambridge. If I was in Brighton, he travelled down for the weekend or I met him elsewhere in England. We have several favourite places to stay, mostly along the Norfolk or Lincolnshire coasts. Between terms we spent most of our time in Brighton or in Dublin. Lewis is willing to spend the occasional day or two with me at Errarooey, but he regards that as my retreat, the place that provides me with the solitude and lack of interruptions I need while I am writing. In any case my house there is far too cold and lacking in comforts for his taste.
Before I quit my job at The Irish Times, we were together perhaps a quarter, at most a third, of the time. For the past several years we have spent perhaps half of the year together. (Now that he is retiring, we will be together most of the time.) After my work ceased to be tied to a specific location, I could have joined Lewis in Cambridge. We talked over the question of where to buy a house in England at great length. I assumed that Lewis would want a place near Cambridge but he surprised me. ‘I want to get away from the college and the university’ was the only explanation he gave me. ‘And I want to live beside the sea and I don’t want to be close enough to Cambridge that my colleagues will feel free to visit.’
Lewis is a subtle person. He thinks about what he will say and is cautious about proposing options. I suspect his statement that we make a home for ourselves in England somewhere other than Cambridge may have arisen from a feeling that I would be overshadowed by him if we were to live near the university. Many of his colleagues do treat me as the junior and far less importance partner in the relationship. ‘This is Lewis’s partner, Patrick Rósgleann.’ Then they add disdainfully and with condescending politeness, ‘He’s a journalist, and a writer? Novels, is it, Rósgleann?’ They seldom wait for an answer before changing the subject. Lewis’s university colleagues in maths and the sciences, both hard and soft, often view my chosen life’s work as beneath notice. There is another group, however, both faculty and students, who make too much of my writing. There are those who feel obliged to let me know that my works do not rise to their standards of literature. Still others want me to read their manuscripts and help them find a publisher. Cambridge is not a comfortable place for me. I am not alone in this. The same is true for many spouses and partners of academics. Lewis knows this, but rather than say it and place the onus on me, he expressed his desire to live elsewhere as a preference that he was imposing on us.
Then, too, I am never sure how comfortable Lewis is at Cambridge. Lewis likes teaching and he likes being at Cambridge, but many of his Cambridge associates would be surprised to learn that he accepted the post there only so that we could be closer. To them, that would seem an insufficient regard for the honour extended to him. Then, too, there is some anti-Americanism at Cambridge, and I know that a few members of the university community treat him as a foreigner from some benighted backwater and express surprise that he can speak something approaching English. Also, academics are as driven by jealousy and pettiness as any group of human beings. Many of his colleagues and students are quite brilliant, and like brilliant people everywhere they tend to view themselves are more likely than not to be in the right. Mild disagreements often accelerate quickly to major rows, which distress Lewis. He participates joyfully in noisy, boisterous discussions, but always underneath there has to be a basic goodwill and a readiness to listen. He grows uncomfortable when discussions turn nasty and vicious. As do many Americans, he regards irony not as a type of wit but as a form of rudeness. Since the arch, ironical comment is a species of sport at Cambridge, he frequently finds himself appalled. He instinctively regards irony as spiteful. (Contrary to the frequent British assertion, Americans do understand irony. Educated Americans in particular see it as a form of bad manners, however, and view its appearance as an admission of a need to reassure oneself of one’s superiority to others by making a comment they are not expected to understand and hence will not treat as a reason for violence.)
I am only making guesses about Lewis’s reasons but the upshot was that we agreed to find a place at some distance from Cambridge. When we began looking for a house, both of us liked Cornwall and Devonshire, but that meant a long commute for Lewis. In the early 1980s, we also found the south-west a less than accepting atmosphere for our life. So we settled on Brighton. Another element in our decision was that we wanted to be nearer London.
Even when separated, Lewis and I email several times daily and we speak on the phone two or three times each week. Anyone reading our messages or listening to our conversations might be surprised at how unaffectionate our language is. We do not sound like lovers. We seldom speak about anything but trivial matters. We discuss what we did, who we met, what we ate, the weather. But the affection lies not in the words we use but in the speaking of small matters. We are telling each other ‘You are the only person who cares what I ate for breakfast.’ ‘You are the only person I care to tell about my conversation with X.’ ‘You are the only person who loves me enough to put up with a boring recital about the boring meeting I had to sit through today.’ ‘And I know that you are that person because you accept me as that person for you.’ It also helps that we are so familiar with each other’s ways that such trifles as information on our daily activities arrive with clear images attached to them.
When I spoke with Lewis an hour ago, he mentioned that he had been reading when I called. A mental picture of him stretched out on a sofa immediately came to mind. Lewis is a prone reader. No matter what he is reading—a newspaper, a student’s essay, a professional journal, a manuscript, a book, his Kindle—his preference is to kick off his shoes and lie down on a sofa with his head propped up on a cushion. Next to the end of the sofa where his head is, is always a good reading lamp, so shaped and constructed that the light falls most strongly on the area where he usually positions what he is reading. This is roughly on his stomach. He holds the book or other reading material with both hands. About ten years ago, he began to need reading glasses. He wears the half-moon kind, so that when he lies down, he can peer through the lenses, but still glance up and see other objects in the room or look out the window.
In Brighton, his favourite reading spot is an overstuffed sofa covered in brown leather. It is so soft and yielding that it is almost impossible to sit on it comfortably. When one attempts to sit on it, the cushion deflates with a loud sigh of escaping air. Standing up becomes a struggle to free oneself from its grip. Once when I complained about its intractability, Lewis said, ‘Ah, that’s because you’re trying to sit on it. It’s not meant for sitting. It’s for lying down.’
When we furnished the house in Brighton, Lewis left most of the decisions to me. He often delegates shopping to others. He has little patience for it and even less interest. The one exception was the purchase of a sofa for him to use while reading. While I shopped for such things as a bed, a dining room table, wardrobes, chairs, and other such insignificant items, Lewis wandered around the sofa section. The clerk who was waiting on him was visibly worried that Lewis would dirty the furniture as he lay down on each likely looking candidate, put his feet up, and manoeuvred the cushion into place behind his neck. Once he got himself into position, he would support an imaginary book on his stomach with both hands and pretend to read. The big brown sofa was the first to gain his approval, and when he found it he stopped shopping. There are similar sofas in our house in Dublin, in Lewis’s rooms at Cambridge, and even in Errarooey.
Near each of them is an easy chair for me to use when I am reading. I chose them with as much care as Lewis did his sofas. Next to all of them is a strong light for reading and a table to hold my omnipresent cup of coffee or tea. It is my habit to read several books at once. As I write this, I am currently in Errarooey. Beside my reading chair is the final volume of Proust. I began reading the entire sequence at New Year’s and have a hundred pages to go before I finish. I also have a copy of Macbeth there. I recently purchased a copy of third series of the Arden edition of that play. So far I have read only the editor’s introduction (excellent) and the essays at the back. I also have a copy of the Crystals’ glossary of Shakespeare as well as a copy of The Imitation of Christ. There is a similar stack of books beside each of my reading chairs. When I leave Errarooey, I may leave the books I am currently reading. When I return several months from now, I will continue reading them. It is how I read.
I have tried reading lying down, either on a sofa or a bed. I do not find it comfortable, and I tend to fall asleep, waking up as the book slides off me and onto the floor. For me reading requires an upright posture. Nor am I bothered by interrupting my reading of one book and picking up another. Sometimes a book will sit half-read beside my chair for months before I resume reading it.
I like reading in the same room as Lewis. It is a very companionable activity. I like to glance up and see him stretched out, the newspaper folded into a manageable rectangle, or a sheaf of papers in his hands, each sheet being transferred to the back of the sheaf as he finishes, a pencil in his hand underlining passages or writing comments in the margins. The only sounds the scrape of a page against his shirt as he turns a page, the click of my cup against the saucer.
I trust that if I were to tell Lewis that I had been reading when he called, that a mental picture of me sitting in my reading chair, books and drink near to hand, pops into his mind. There are similar mental images of all of Lewis’s daily routines in my mind. They help sustain me when we are apart.
I know that our living arrangements and our frequent separations have both puzzled and amused others. When I tell them we are always at home together, they raise their eyebrows. But home is not a place but a relationship. Lewis and I may be in different places, but we are joined in other ways. I think of my parents and their ability to be apart while they were sitting in the same room or riding in the same automobile. They were separate even when they were together.
You are right. I was reading on the sofa when you called. We are so predictable. God, don’t I bore you?
Yes. But in the nicest possible way.
‘And all the harm that e’er I’ve done / Alas it was to none but me.’ If only that were true.
The stories we tell about ourselves are arguments with ourselves.
Some of them are about the person we are or, rather, the person we think we are. We can never be sure if we are that person, but we think that person worth the effort of the telling. The story may be meant to be amusing, but even so it says this is who I am. I can stand apart from myself and see myself as others see me. I am not afraid to admit that I am this person, and really, after all, your opinion of me is less important than my opinion about me.
Some of them are about the person we want to be, the person we wish we were. We know we are not the person, but telling the story makes us feel like that person. It opens the possibility of becoming that person.
Some of them are about the person we want others to see us as. We may think we are revealing our true selves to them, but what we really want is confirmation. If our auditors accept the story as true, then it must be true. Our vision of ourselves is validated by others.
But most of them are about the person we fear we are not.
All these stories overlap—the story about the person I am is also a story about the person I fear I am not. When I try to convince you that I am this person, I am also trying to convince myself that I am that person. But all these stories share a primary audience—myself.
And we have different sets of stories, for different audiences, for different visions of ourselves. Most of us are one person at work and quite another at home. The concept of code-switching in linguistics captures the way we speak one language when we are with family and friends, another language with strangers, another language at work, and the way we write in one register to friends, another to our work colleagues, another for public consumption.
We like to think that all these different stories and languages coalesce in our true selves, that there is within us a core identity that unites all these selves. But we are more like migrants, from self to self. There is the story we received—from our family, from our teachers, from our culture. This is the story that others impose on us, the story that defines what our time and place decree is the permissible limits of our story. Then there is the story we try to write on top of this story, the story that says, “This is me. The real me. Not that me that you are trying to make me be. I’m not like everyone else.” A silent scream, especially for those belonging to a minority—in terms of race, origin, sex, class, or, as in my case, sexual. We are often told that our stories are invalid; we have to struggle to make those stories heard and then to be accepted as possible stories.
We are like immigrants who are forced to speak another language, to perform other cultures’ habits, to exist differently. I grew up in Ireland at a time when gay people did not exist. We were literally erased from the record. We could not be mentioned in print except in terms of disdain and opprobrium. It was an illegal identity, both formally in terms of the law and informally in social practice. During my teenage years and early twenties, I did not know what I was. I lived a lie because there were no truths to live. So I pretended because I suspected that any true story about myself that I could devise would be a threat. And I did not know I had a true story to tell.
After I graduated university in 1966, I went to Harvard University on a two-year post-doctoral fellowship. Ireland in the 1960s had few opportunities. I was one of thousands who immigrated that year. I was not forced to speak a different language in my new location—although at times it felt as if I was hearing a strange language. But I did learn a new language.
Because I met Lewis.
Lewis and I often have lived in different time zones—literally because our jobs have separated us; figuratively because our pasts impose perceptions on us as individuals that divide us as a couple. Yet even when are apart, we inhabit the same space, if only in our imaginations. I know that when Lewis reads this, he will be stretched out on a sofa, with the pages resting on his chest.
I have one final story to tell in this book. It is the second story I wrote about my father’s death. Earlier in this book, I present my first attempt at a story about my father following his death. I could not finish that story. I was more successful with the second story. It was published in 2012 in a review published in Edinburgh that specialises in literary fiction. I was not prepared for the attention it received. It is a fiction that many read as a truth. There were calls for my father’s death to be investigated. Even after it was revealed that the circumstances of my father’s death did not match those given in the story, many people continued to believe that I killed my father.
They are right. I did. My literary destruction of my father is a form of murder, although not one the law recognises or punishes. Like most murderers, however, I have found that murder does not eliminate the person one kills from one’s life. Murder is an admission that your victim is important to you and will continue to haunt you. I may have intended this as the last word in the joint story of my father and myself. Like all wishful thinking, that proved to be a delusion.
I take it from the comment about one more story to tell that this is the penultimate section. We have much to discuss. This is not a book—a publishable book—yet. There are many good things in this but it does not as yet cohere into a readable narrative. Believe me, I want this to work, but you have months of revisions ahead of you.
With best wishes, Michelle
The hospice nurse sat at the kitchen table in my father’s house in Dublin. She was there, she explained to my sister and me, to assist us as much as our father. ‘Our concern now is to make his last days as comfortable as possible and to help you understand what he is undergoing and how you can help him.’
Two days earlier, the consultant at St Bridget’s had outlined the options for my father. His kidneys had almost ceased functioning. Further treatment would have no effect. At most he had two or three weeks to live. His choices were a bed in a ward at an extended care centre or enrolment in the hospice programme, which would provide supplemental nursing and other services in his home as long as family members undertook the bulk of his care. My father did not hesitate. He summoned my sister and me to take him home and care for him.
My sister Saoirse, who lives in Dublin, had handled the immediate arrangements. She had been at his house when the hospice delivered the supplies we would need to take care of him: a hospital bed, an oxygen tank, a wheelchair, a special foam mattress pad for the bed, a box of adult diapers, a blood pressure monitor, among other things. The deliverymen pushed the furniture in his lounge to one side and assembled the bed in the middle. ‘They were very efficient,’ she told me later. ‘They had everything in place within half an hour.’ They need not have bothered. When the hospice transport van delivered my father an hour later, he rejected the hospital bed and demanded that it, along with all the other equipment, be removed immediately. He grew angry when my sister protested that it would be easier to care for him in the hospital bed. He would sleep in his own bed. He could take care of himself. He didn’t need anyone. ‘Stop treating me as if I were a damn invalid.’
When I arrived a few hours later, the bed had been removed and all other visible signs of a sickroom taken away. Without telling our father, my sister had sequestered everything but the bed out of his sight on the second floor of his house. My father was seated triumphantly in a chair by the fireplace in the lounge, a cup of tea on the table by his side. He did not bother to greet me. ‘You need not have come,’ he growled. ‘If you would get a mobile phone like everyone else, I could have called you and told you to go home. It’s so late now that you’d better stay the night and leave in the morning.’
‘Da, you cannot take care of yourself,’ my sister shouted from the kitchen. A loud thump of a cupboard door being slammed and an angry rattle of pots punctuated her remarks.
‘I don’t need you and Kevin. That’s just something I told the doctor so that he would send me home. I don’t know why the two of you are here.’
‘Who will do your shopping and cook for you? Who will help you bathe?’ My sister appeared in the doorway, her hair hanging in damp strands around her face. ‘Hello, Kevin. You …’
‘I can cook for myself.’ My father interrupted. ‘I can certainly make a decent cup of tea, which is more than I can say for you. This is cold.’ He slammed the teacup against the saucer. ‘If you’re so damned anxious to play at being a nurse, you can take it away and bring me a new cup. And make sure it’s hot this time.’
My sister jerked the teacup up. She grabbed for the cup with her other hand and steadied it on the saucer. Some of the liquid sloshed over the side and ran down into the saucer. She shot me an exasperated look. I had last seen her six weeks earlier. Her face had grown greyer and more lined. She looked weary, her usual precise hairdo and make-up neglected. ‘I haven’t had the time to make a bed up or put towels out for you.’
‘Kevin is not staying here. He can go to an hotel for tonight.’
‘Don’t worry. I can do it myself.’
My father and I spoke at the same time.
‘Da, either you have at least one of us here at all times or you go to a care home. Those were your choices. You chose to have us here and we are here and we will remain here. Kevin will stay with you at night.’ My sister was shouting now.
My father made a gesture of disgust and then said to me. ‘Damned women. They can’t wait for the chance to run your life.’ He settled back in his chair and closed his eyes, shutting both of us out.
The nurse arranged the plastic bottles of pills my father was to take on the table as she checked each label against a print-out of his medications. Her fingers were swollen and chapped. She had draped a stethoscope over her left shoulder, almost as if it were a badge of office. A photo ID on a lanyard around her neck proclaimed her to be A. Montrose. When she introduced herself at the door, she had given her name as Athena Montrose. I wondered what quirk had led her parents to burden her with that name. If they had expected name magic to result in a warrior goddess, they must have been disappointed with this tired-looking matron. Even her hair was listless. After checking on my father, who was resting in his bed, she had accepted my sister’s offer of a cup of coffee and sat down with us at the table in the kitchen. Her face briefly registered her relief at taking the weight off her feet before resuming what I assumed to be its usual look of impatient competence confronting lay ignorance. She answered my query about my father with a dismissive ‘as well as can be expected for a man in his condition’ and then proceeded to unpack my father’s pills without saying a further word. It was clear that we were not to disturb her while she was working.
When she put the last bottle down, she shook it briefly to demonstrate that it did indeed contain pills. ‘Don’t worry if your father doesn’t want to take his meds. At this point it won’t make a difference. If you can get him to take them, fine. If not, then don’t fuss at him. His comfort is more important than a few more hours of life. But it’s important that you take his blood pressure and check his pulse rate before giving him his pills. The blood-pressure monitor checks both. If his pulse rate drops below 60, don’t give him any medications. You probably couldn’t in any case. If his pulse rate drops that low, he most likely will be in a coma. Do you know how to use the monitor? Should I show you?’
When my sister said that she did, Mrs Montrose appeared inclined at first to dispute Saoirse’s assertion. Then she shrugged as if to indicate that in the end it did not matter. She opened her bag and removed two more items. ‘Now this is a painkiller.’ She held up a white plastic bottle. ‘If he is in pain, you can give him one of these pills every six hours. It will help him rest. And this is an anti-anxiety medication. People in your father’s situation often become agitated. This will calm him down. It’s a gel. It’s absorbed through the skin. You tear open a packet’—she held one of the packets up for us to look at—‘and then smear the gel onto his skin. The best place is the wrist.’ She turned her left-hand palm up and with the fingers of her right hand mimed the action of smearing the gel on the inside of the wrist. ‘If you can’t reach one of his wrists, the next best place is the back of his neck. Be sure to wear plastic gloves when applying the gel. Otherwise you will be dosing yourself as well as your father.’
‘And this,’ she said as she pulled a small brown bottle from her bag, ‘is liquid morphine. A dosage is two or three drops. The easiest way to administer this is to rub it on his gums or the inside of his lower lip. This is to be used only if the painkillers are clearly not working and he is in extreme pain. Don’t combine it with the other painkiller—wait at least three hours after giving him the other painkiller before using the morphine—and don’t use it if his pulse rate is under sixty. If you have any questions, ring the hospice number. At any hour. Someone is always there.’
One of the brochures the hospice programme gave us outlined the stages of the patient’s reaction to dying. We could, the brochure predicted, expect the initial stage of denial and anger to be followed by a period of withdrawal and finally one of acceptance. The brochure confidently foresaw that the patient would use this time to set his or her life in order and to prepare quietly for death. The authors of the pamphlet had never met my father. His predominant mode was rage. The prospect of dying intensified all his worst character traits. I can scarce recall those days without lapsing again into the anger that radiated outwards from my father and overwhelmed that household.
‘It’s cold in here. Turn up the damned heat. I can afford it. Or are you concerned that there will be less for you to inherit if you keep me warm?’ My father was wearing a heavy sweater and two pairs of heavy wool socks and had a blanket wrapped around his body. The thermostat was set at 26 degrees and all three bars of the electric fire on the floor beside his chair glowed red. I had stripped down to my vest and was still sweating from the heat. For days I had kept the heating vent in the bedroom I was using on the first floor closed. Even so, I had to keep the door shut and a window open so that I could sleep. The rest of my father’s house was sweltering.
I stood up and consulted the thermostat. ‘It’s 28 degrees in here.’
‘I don’t care what that says. I’m cold. Turn the heat up. It should be set at 26 degrees. And turn on another bar of the electric fire.’
‘It is set at 26 degrees, and it’s now 28 degrees in here. The heater won’t turn on until the temperature drops below 26. And all three bars are on.’
‘Why are you lying to me? Don’t tell me it’s 26 degrees when I know damn well it isn’t. And I can see that only one bar of the fire is on.’ He didn’t even bother to look.
‘Da, the thermostat is set at 26 degrees and all the bars of the electric heater are on. I will get you another blanket.’
‘I don’t want another blanket. I want you to turn the heat up. And don’t sigh at me like that. This is my house, and you’ll do what I tell you to do. It’s no use your being stubborn. You got that from me. You learned your stubbornness from me. We’re alike in that.’
‘I am nothing like you.’ That was the worst thing my father could have said to me. I had tried for so many years not to be like him that his assertion that I had inherited even one of his behaviours appalled me. I think even my father was taken aback by my anger. I threw the book I had been reading on the floor, pressed the up button on the thermostat until it read 30 degrees, and walked out. As I was closing the hallway door into the lounge, I glanced back at my father. He was smiling with satisfaction. It was one of his negotiating principles—I had heard him expound on them many times when I was growing up—that you had to goad your adversary into a display of emotion, preferably anger. Once you had done that, you were well on the way to winning. Once again, he had provoked me and driven me off. To his way of thinking, it was another point to him in our on-going struggle.
I sat in a pub for an hour nursing my grievances against him. When I was seventeen, I witnessed my father drinking with some of his cronies. They were seated around a table, and my father was holding court. The drink had lessened what few inhibitions he had. He was bragging about a deal he had just concluded and deriding his opponents’ ‘feeble’ attempts to circumvent his schemes. He was arrogant, argumentative, and condescending, even to his colleagues seated at the table. At that point, I resolved not to be like him. Of course, by then, it was too late. I had already picked up many of his habits and attitudes. It still infuriates me whenever I find myself behaving like him.
My growing coldness and distance initially bewildered my father, a fact that gave me no little satisfaction. When he realized that I held him in contempt, he began to treat me with equal contempt. He routinely ridiculed my choice of a career as a journalist and then a novelist. I made sure that he was the first to learn of each of my successes. When it became known that I am gay, he leaped on that. No occasion passed without a sneering reference to it. He never consented to meet my lover and always referred to him as ‘your “friend” what’s-his-name’ in inverted commas. Our adult relationship has been marked with constant arguments and discord on both sides. Had it not been for my mother, we would long before have given up on each other. As long as she lived, we maintained a resentful truce. Even after she died, we adhered to the modus vivendi we had constructed. It had become a habit, a way of interacting at a minimal level. Both of us still clung, I think, to the idea that we owed each other something and that there ought to be some sort of relationship.
My mood that night was not helped by the guilt I felt. He did feel cold, and it did not matter what the temperature was. He would never feel warm again.
‘Help me dress.’
‘Da, you can wear a towelling robe when they visit. They’ll understand.’
‘I am not going to entertain my friends in a dressing gown. And bring me a tie. The red one. You and Saoirse are so gloomy, I need to do something to keep Monighan’s and Jacob’s spirits up. You would think someone had just died, the way you act.’
My father’s friends were due to arrive at 10:00. He was dressed in a suit and seated in a chair in the lounge impatiently awaiting them by 9:00. His clothes made it apparent how much weight he had lost. He had tied the tie tightly around his neck, but the shirt collar was made for a man with a much bigger neck. The fabric was bunched and puckered around his throat. His suit jacket hung from his shoulders and ballooned over his chest. His belt had to be cinched around his waist to hold his trousers up. Even so they drooped and bagged over his shoes. His knees and hips showed through the trousers as sharp points.
My father asked me the time every five minutes. In between he issued minute instructions on preparing coffee and tea for his friends. In a way, I was glad that they were visiting. I did not care for either of them—they were too much like my father—but most of his acquaintances and former colleagues did little more than ring to enquire how he was doing. If I or my sister asked if they would like to speak to my father, they usually begged off. ‘I don’t want to disturb him’ or ‘Let him rest. I’ll not be bothering him.’ If we protested that my father would welcome an opportunity to speak with someone other than ourselves or the nurse, they would reply, ‘He needs his rest. I’ll ring again,’ and then hurriedly break the connection.
On the few occasions when my father had his hearing aids in and could hear from our conversation that someone was asking after him, he would laboriously heave himself from his chair in the lounge and, using his walker, creep into the hallway, where the phone sat on a table near the front entrance. When the caller rang off before he could reach the phone, my father would ask who had called and then purse his lips in disappointment when we told him. One of the things we did for him that actually won his approval and a rare expression of thanks was to get a long telephone flex and move the phone to the table beside his chair. When Monighan and Jacob had rung separately the previous day, my father successfully cajoled them into a visit. Both of them had been protégés of my father and, up until my father’s retirement four years earlier, had seen him often. That was a further reason for my resentment—they were clearly what my father thought I should have been.
When Monighan arrived, he looked as if he would rather have been anywhere else. He stood on the front pavement, a couple of steps back from the door, running his hands along the brim of his hat. ‘How’s the man doing?’
‘He’s better today. The doctors said he had only a couple of weeks when they sent him home. But it’s now going on for five weeks. He’s that stubborn, you know. He’ll leave when he’s ready and not before. He’s looking forward to your visit. Thank you for coming. Come in. Come in. Here let me take your hat and coat.’
‘No, it’s fine. I’ll not be staying long. I don’t want to tire him.’
I looked over his shoulder into the street. ‘Have you seen Jacob? He said he would arrive around ten as well.’
‘Ah, he rang earlier this morning. He can’t come. Something came up. Last-minute business. I’m to give your father his regards.’ Monighan looked at me out of the corner of his eye to see if I accepted that.
Both of us knew that was a lie. I nodded. Nothing would be gained by discussing it.
‘Kevin, you eejit, don’t keep Brian standing outside. Let him in.’ My father spoke gruffly. His walker was nowhere in sight, and he was gripping the frame of the door into the lounge tightly.
‘Michael, you’re looking grand.’ Monighan swept past me and engulfed my father in his arms. The next second he found himself holding my father up. The few unsupported steps from his chair to the doorway had exhausted my father. His legs gave out, and he dropped towards the floor. Monighan nearly tumbled onto the floor himself as he struggled to keep my father from falling. I leaped forward, and the two of us managed to get my father on his feet again and support him back to his chair.
‘Don’t fuss. I can do this myself.’ My father was embarrassed at displaying his weakness before a friend and he turned his anger on me. He slapped at my hands and pushed me back. ‘You see what happens, Brian. You get old and sick and everyone uses it as an excuse to pretend you can’t do things for yourself. They can’t wait to bury you. That’s where my daughter is—out checking with the priests about the funeral.’
‘Da, you know that’s not true. She has a doctor’s appointment this morning.’ I said the last to Monighan.
‘Don’t tell me what I do and do not know. Make yourself useful. Take Brian’s coat and hat. You would think your mother never taught you any manners. She was always too indulgent with you. Spoiled you, she did. And Brian could use a cup of tea. Or perhaps you’ll be wanting something stronger, Brian.’
‘A bit early in the day for me, Michael.’ And then to me, ‘If the tea’s made, I’ll have a cup. If you have to make it, I’ll be fine. I’ll not be staying long. Don’t want to tire your father out.’ Monighan said this loudly so that my father could hear. He sat down opposite my father. He put his hat on the table but kept his coat on.
‘Kevin, give Brian a cup of tea. You’re sure you’ll not be wanting something stronger? I have a fine whiskey. Join me in having a drop. It may be the last one you’ll ever have off me.’
‘Da, you know you can’t have alcohol. It would interfere with your medications.’ This was an on-going argument with my father. He wanted a drink, and if he could shame Monighan into having one ‘last drink’, he could argue that he should have one as well.
‘The sooner I die, the sooner you can leave. A glass of whisky’d be a quick way to get rid of me. You should be rushing to give me one.’ My father pounded the arm of his chair.
‘It’s fine, Michael. I have a meeting after this with Tobin. I’ll need me wits.’
At this reminder that others still had an active life, my father sat silent for a minute, brooding in his own thoughts. When he didn’t speak, Monighan looked at me for guidance.
‘Are you all right, Da?’
‘Of course, I’m not all right. I’m dying. Why do you ask such stupid questions? Where’s that tea? Brian wants a cup.’
I was glad of an excuse to leave the room. I disregarded Monighan’s protests that he was fine and didn’t want anything to drink. Again he said that he would have to leave shortly. My father ignored him and launched into a story about his own dealings with Tobin. The last time I had heard this story of one of my father’s notable victories, his adversary had had another name. I waited in the kitchen for the kettle to boil. I was quite happy to leave Monighan to entertain my father. Not that my father needed anyone else to entertain him once he was well and truly into one of his stories. He had spent his lifetime honing a few favourites and, once started, he ran on like a clock. Monighan must have heard all of them many times during his association with my father. Undoubtedly my father could have stopped at any point and Monighan could have picked up the thread of the story and finished it.
This time, however, the story was interrupted. I heard my father began to wheeze. Monighan called for me in a panic. I rushed back into the lounge and found my father doubled over, unable to catch his breath. Monighan was on his feet, uncertain what to do. I ran into my father’s bedroom and got the portable oxygen apparatus and brought it back. The tubing had to be secured first under my father’s chin and then looped behind and over his ears and the nose piece brought forwards and positioned under his nostrils. When I tried to place it on my father, he grabbed it from my hands. It took him several attempts to get it into place. When he finally got it strapped on correctly, he slumped backwards in his chair and motioned weakly with his hand for me to turn the air on.
‘I’d better be going. I’ve tired you out. It was good to see you again, Michael. I’ll let myself out, Kevin.’ Monighan said the words in a rush and then fled. He was out of the house within seconds. In the kitchen the whistle on the kettle began to shriek.
When my sister arrived two hours later, my father was still dressed in his suit and tie and sitting in his chair. After an hour or so, he had removed the tubing and turned the oxygen flow off. He refused to answer me when I spoke or even to acknowledge my presence. He simply sat and stared into the distance.
My sister entered the house through the kitchen. She peeked into the lounge and watched my father for a few minutes. I don’t think he registered her presence. She drew me aside and asked, ‘How did it go? Did he have a good visit with Monighan and Jacob?’
As I was explaining what had happened, my father heard us talking. ‘Saoirse, where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you. Come in here! I want to go out. I want you to drive me.’
‘Yes, out. Do you not understand English? I want to go out. I want to see the old places. You’ll see the last of me soon enough. You can do me this one final favour. A favour to your old father.’ He spat the last of the words out as if he regretted having to beg one of his children to provide a service or to acknowledge his dependency on others.
‘I just got in. I haven’t even taken my coat off.’
‘Good. Then you won’t have to put it on again. Help me up. I’ll need my coat, Kevin. Get my good topcoat from the hall closet. And one of my good hats. The black one.’
It took the two of us almost twenty minutes to get him into the car. He resisted and defeated our every attempt to help him. My sister finally abandoned the effort to fasten his seat belt. He wouldn’t hear of my going. He didn’t want me. I know only the rough outline of where they went. My father was too exhausted by the time they got back to say anything. He was so tired that he didn’t protest when I helped him undress and put him to bed.
My sister was furious. After I got my father settled, I found her in the kitchen with a water glass half full of whiskey. She spoke in a whisper to prevent my father from overhearing, not that he could have heard her. ‘All his worst traits are coming out. He had me drive down Nassau and Kildare streets. It took forever. The traffic was impossible. We were stopped for minutes at a time, and every time we stopped he would start shouting at me to move on. He forgot that Grafton Street is closed to cars now, and he blamed me when I couldn’t take him down it. He wouldn’t listen. Every time he saw a pub, he would remember the people he knew who used to drink there thirty–forty years ago. He kept telling me to stop and let him out. He wanted to talk to his old friends and buy them a drink. I was supposed to let him out and go on. He would find his own way back. Each time I had to explain that half of his old friends were dead and the other half weren’t sitting in pubs in Grafton Street. I told him that all he would find was tourists. He even wanted me to stop at Breeker’s. It’s been closed for years and there’s some sort of music club there now. I tried to tell him that, but he just shouted at me to take him to Breeker’s. He had me drive by his office. He didn’t recognise the building when he saw it. That area’s all up-market shops and boutiques now. There’s a posh Italian restaurant on the ground floor of the building. When I finally convinced him that was where his office had been, he started moaning that “they” were changing things and ignoring all that he had done. They were destroying his life’s work, and him not dead yet.’
‘I think that’s what upset him about Monighan’s visit this morning. He realised that the world was going on without him, without even consulting him.’
‘I don’t know how much longer I can put up with this.’ My sister took a large drink of whiskey and refilled her glass. ‘He micro-manages everything. You would think I had never driven before. He kept giving me instructions on what to do. He does that for everything. He tells me how to cook. He tells me how to make a bed. He tells me how to mop the floor. Yesterday he even gave me instructions on how to change a light bulb. Does he really think that I don’t know how to do these things?’
‘No, he’s worried that you do know how to do things. That you don’t need him. That no one needs him. I think he’s been hoping that the world will end when he dies and that he realised today that it won’t. That we will go on. And, at least on my part, without much regret at his passing.’
My sister barely took in what I had said. She shook her head at me for interrupting her with explanations. ‘The worst is that I go home so angry. I lose my temper with James every night now. Everything he does is beginning to annoy me. And I know that he’s not at fault. It’s Da and his beastly behaviour. James’s beginning to grumble. He says that I need some rest, that we should hire someone to take care of Da.’
‘Da wouldn’t tolerate that. He’d make that person’s life hell. We’d be lucky if anyone lasted a day with him. It is tempting, though. I haven’t been able to sleep more than a couple hours at a time since I’ve been here. He wakes up and starts yelling for me. Then he gets angry at me when I come. I keep telling myself that he won’t last much longer. That it will be over soon enough and that I just need to put up with it for a few more days and try to make his remaining time as good as it can be.’
‘You don’t have to lecture me. It’s bad enough when he makes me feel guilty. You don’t have to remind me that we owe him.’ She glared at me.
‘I didn’t mean that. I just meant that we’ll be released soon.’
‘There are times I feel that day can’t come soon enough. Why does this have to be so difficult? I know I should be thankful for every day he lives, but he’s making himself miserable, and he’s making everyone around him miserable. Why can’t he accept the fact that he’s dying?’ She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
‘I’m half-tempted to give him his pills with that glass of whiskey he wants. That hospice nurse said that the important thing now is to make his last days comfortable, and the whiskey would help. We should give him one of the painkillers at the same time. That and the whiskey should end all our pain, yours and mine as well as his.’
I spoke in jest—at least I tell myself that—but my sister looked at me speculatively. ‘I’m glad you mentioned that. I’ve been meaning to bring this up. I think he is in a lot of pain. He’s just not admitting it yet. He can still hide it. But any day now he’ll need the pain pills.’
‘Perhaps. He knows they’re there. If he wants one, he’ll ask for it.’
‘It might help him to have a good night’s sleep and not wake up every hour. You would be able to get some sleep as well.’ She paused and then looked at the wall clock. ‘What time is it? Is it time for his evening pills yet?’
My sister pulled the basket that held my father’s medications towards her. She doled out his evening medications into a small saucer, carefully checking each bottle against the list of dosages and times. When she reached the bottle with the painkillers, she paused and asked, ‘Do you think we should give him one of these? Just as an experiment to see if it helps him sleep. He never looks at the pills. He just takes what I put in front of him. I know he doesn’t want us making decisions for him, but it’s fast reaching the point when we will have to do that. He’ll be more comfortable if he can sleep.’
I stared at the bottle for a moment. It looked no different from the other bottles. Surely one would not hurt. Then I nodded. My sister unscrewed the cap and placed one of the painkillers on the saucer. It was a round green gel capsule, plump and swollen looking. It lay there among the other pills, white, pink, blue, red. There were so many of them, different sizes and shapes, but it was the largest, as if more of it were needed to be effective.
My sister reached a glass down from the shelf and set it on the table in front of me. She nudged the whiskey bottle closer to me. ‘It shouldn’t hurt him to have a bit of whiskey. That will help him sleep as well. And it might improve his mood. I know the doctors said no alcohol. But what could it hurt at this stage? They’re just being cautious.’
There it was. Neither of us spoke. We knew what we were doing. ‘Do you think he will want soda with it?’
‘Let’s put it on the tray. If he wants it, we can add it.’
I retrieved the soda siphon from the lounge and placed it on the metal tray alongside the bowl of pills. I opened the bottle and poured a couple of inches of whiskey into the glass. After a second, I added another inch. ‘We need to take his blood pressure and check his pulse rate. Remember—he’s not to take his medications if his pulse rate is below sixty.’
‘Let’s not bother tonight. He’s tired. He won’t want to sit still long enough for us to check.’
We stood there for several seconds not speaking and then my sister picked up the tray. ‘Come along. You’ll want to wish him a good night.’
Since 2006, the fictitious author John Michael Nabhy (pronounced ‘naw-vee’) has published many works online under various pseudonyms. The originator of these stories likes the double insulation of writing stories under a nom de plume of an imaginary author and the freedom of publishing stories that do not have to be vetted by his employers, who would forbid their appearance should he attempt to publish under his real name.
Like his creator, Nabhy is not a native speaker of English and has lived at different times in England, Ireland, and the United States, the three countries that serve as the locations of his stories. Nabhy’s persona, not to mention his spellings and punctuation, changes to match those of the country he is writing about. Any failures in realism are intentional—the author is firmly of the view that reality is there to be manipulated in fiction and, when necessary, should be adapted to fit the demands of the narrative, and not vice-versa. He does not believe that fidelity to factual accuracy enhances a story.
Two short-story collections by Nabhy are available in Kindle format: Confrontations: Twelve Nexis Pas Stories and Coffee in the Morning: Twenty-two Nexis Pas Stories.