God’s breath is here
On the valley’s rim
Where I stand poised
On the edge of an ocean
Of bleached air.
I could sail over the
And you who come
After me, you will feel
The same, looking on
These painted fields
Yellow, brown, green
Fading to lavender upon
The sleepy hills.
The distant bleat and
Caw like ancient bells
Calling you to prayer
In the perfumed grass
God’s breath is here.
© D. McCabe
Please don’t wear red tonight
Listen what I said tonight
Red is the colour that my baby wore
She was not my baby, but she did wear red and I danced with everyone except her. I was cool; we were all cool, small town cool. I danced with everyone except her. Only looked when she was not looking. Only glimpsed her hair, her back, her ankle as we danced and laughed and sang. There was not a moment when I did not know where she was in that room. Each time we passed close, I could smell her perfume, can smell it now, can see the sheen on her black hair.
It was her party, her house. The dress is what I remember best. Flaming red, tight with a row of buttons in front from low-cut top to hem. A girl in a woman’s dress, exquisitely awkward.
I could be happy with you by my side
I could be happy and Oh I tried
She blushed when she proffered the tray of neat sandwiches.
‘No thank you,’ I said. She passed on and did not insist or ask a second time. Ask me again I thought, please ask me again. Too late. I was cool then, real cool.
I instantly recognised Jean’s brother amongst the throng of summer holiday home-comers. We both hesitated, poised between a simple passing nod of recognition and stopping to talk.
‘Peter,’ he said and held out his hand as he approached. He still looked like her, even after so many years; those dark eyes, that dimpled smile.
‘You haven’t changed,’ I said. He grasped my hand warmly.
‘Nor you. God, how many years has it been? Fifteen, twenty?’ he was shaking
his head from side to side, smiling that smile, her smile. I wanted to run, wanted to say, ‘I’m sorry, I must go, let’s meet later,’ anything to escape. But I could not speak. In that unguarded moment, twenty years of forgetting were obliterated and I felt the ache of longing as raw and urgent as on that warm Summer night so long ago.
The exhausted dancers sat in happy disarray and sang along with Scott Walker.
Joanna, I can’t forget the one they call Joanna
We owned that Summer hand in hand Joanna
I love you but nothing in this world could make you mine
But still in time, Joanna you may remember me and change your mind.
We weaved our own anxieties and imagined heartaches into the music that drifted out and away on the warm night breeze. I imagined that, somehow, she would know that the words had a special meaning, that she would know that that was how I was feeling about her.
‘Peter, are you alright?’ He was looking urgently at me and shaking me by the shoulder.
‘Yes, yes I’m so sorry, just a bit distracted, work you know.’
‘Oh, no need to tell me. The world’s gone mad.’
‘Too true,’ I said.
‘You’re going out on this flight,’ he stated the obvious.
‘Yes, heading home for a few days. The mother’s on her own now.’
‘Same here,’ he said, ‘visiting home I mean. Both mam and dad are gone, but Jean stayed on in the old place. You remember Jean?’
‘Jean. Yes of course. How is she?’ I tried to be offhand, amazed that even this casual mention of her could precipitate such internal turmoil. I felt like a schoolboy.
Passengers for flight EI906 occupying seats 1 to 16 please commence boarding.
‘That’s me. Listen,’ he said, ‘in case we miss each other at the other end, don’t forget to drop in on us. Jean would love to see one of the old gang. Don’t forget, we’ll expect you. Oh do you have a lift from Dublin Airport? Jean is collecting me and if you…’
‘No! no, thank you Brian, a friend’s collecting me. Good luck.’ Still terrified at this age. Christ does it never end.
I was also terrified that night, twenty years ago. I could hardly breath when she sat down next to me on the sheepskin rug. Though we were facing in different directions, chatting and laughing with those all around us, every atom of my body was conscious of her presence and still I feigned indifference. Why? She leaned back casually and brushed against the sleeve of my shirt. Was that on purpose? Was it simply me, reading all kinds of hidden messages into her every move and gesture. I still don’t know. I wanted to touch her, to say something clever, but all I could do was speak out loud so that she could hear me. ‘I love that song,’ I said hoping that she would know the words of the song revealed what I was so abysmally incapable of saying.
I don’t remember the flight home to Dublin or the bus journey home. I can’t remember how I greeted my mother, but at breakfast on the first morning after my return she said,
‘You’re not yourself. Working too hard I’ll bet.’ I felt guilty and selfish. I was home to see my mother, to cheer her up and here I was moping like a love-sick teenager.
‘Mam I’ll be fine after a day here with you. I am so happy to be home and to see you looking so well. Has Mick Dutton proposed to you yet?’
‘Go on with yourself. Your father was the only man I ever wanted.’ She gave me a gentle tap on the back of the head with the knuckles of her left hand. We both laughed.
‘Mick Dutton, how are you, that aul divil should be saying his prayers and doing penance if he wants to stay out of hell. God forgive me.’
‘You’re a hard woman, mam.’
‘Not half hard enough. Now me bucko, are you just going to mope around here all day or are you going to clear out of my way. I’ve work to do.’
‘OK I can take a hint. I’m gone’.
The town seemed smaller than I had remembered. It was simply a place where my mother lived but, more importantly, I must admit, it was the place where Jean lived. It was her presence in this ordinary small town that made it special. I could not banish the sense of her presence, could not dismiss the recurring questions and imaginings of what she was doing at any odd moment of the day. I did not belong in that town anymore, but I also knew that I could not simply leave and not see her.
The days drifted relentlessly by and still I hesitated.
‘Peter, Peter you’re miles away love.’
‘Sorry mam, what were you saying?’
‘Ah nothing much son, but you look troubled. Is it that you’re leaving in the morning? Sure you’re not that far away and you can come back any time.’
‘Don’t mind me at all, mam. I’ve had a great time here and sure, as you say, I’m not that far away. It’ll be no time ’til I’m back again. Mam … would you mind if I stroll out for a while, I know it’s the last evening and …’
‘Go on, go on, and don’t be such an aul cod.’
It was a beautiful placid evening of stars as I strolled through the People’s Park. Her house looked exactly as it had twenty years ago.When I approached, I could hear music filtering out from the open sashes of the windows. I stood just out of range of the soft lighting from those same windows and tried to quell the turmoil within. Just be casual I thought. She might not even recognise me.
The front door opened. It was her. I moved quickly into the shade of the big chestnut tree that had always stood directly in front of her house. Though I could not see her properly, I knew, even from that limited view, that she had not changed. She lit a cigarette and stood there, partially illuminated by the light from the doorway. She was talking to someone from within the house. Her voice was still like a young girl’s. She laughed out loud, throwing he head back and running her free hand through that dark hair.
I stepped out from the shadows. She turned her head slowly in my direction and, though it would have been impossible for her to see my face at that distance, I sensed from the curious tilt of her head that she knew I was no stranger. She began to walk slowly towards me. I could hardly breathe.
‘Peter?’ That soft velvety voice that had haunted me for twenty years made me gasp with pleasure.
‘Jean,’ I said.
‘What are you doing here?’ I felt foolish. If she only knew that this moment was the fulcrum of my life and yet, and yet somewhere deep inside a voice was saying, ‘she does know, she knows. Don’t falter. I reached out and took her hand. She did not resist.
‘I had to come,’ I said, struggling with each single word.
She stopped smiling. I felt that everything in my life, every achievement, every triumph was toppling down into the dust around me and there was nothing left of me. Slowly she reached out her other hand and took mine.
‘Peter.’ There was a lifetime’s regret in her voice. As I looked into those soft dark eyes I knew that she had not forgotten and my heart soared.
It was only when she cried, Mama, did either of us notice the small dark girl standing halfway between the open hall door and where we stood. Then she turned and ran back towards the house ‘Dada, dada, there is a man with Mama.’ Moments later, a man’s voice,
‘Jean, Jean love who is it.’ I was already walking away.
‘Jean ?’ the voice called a little more urgently.
‘It was only a stranger … he was lost,’ she said.
ON BIG SUGAR LOAF
On a sky hill
Lies a green diamond field
Where the wind sings soft
Through sweet grass
And ancient voices steal
Inside my head
Till I am dizzy with desire
For the clayey secret
Of its green diamond fire
The Dargle River
I did not live in country places
Where God hides in trees and bushes;
I looked for all my answers
In small streets of grey houses.
I saw mysteries in pavement cracks,
And dusty orphaned leaves of grass
In unswept corners and crevices,
Defying brick and mortar to the last.
I remember standing knee high
In the flood of a small town river,
A baptism of unforgettable joy
I raised my face to heaven,
Where dock and nettle swarmed
And wagtails danced by singing water
That tumbled riotously through rusty spokes
Of an old wheel long discarded.
‘There is too much turmoil in this fucking world,’ Jem Naylor said and put down his knife and fork on the table. He rose with studied politeness, walked out of the kitchen, leaving the bawling twins and his eldest son punching Asumpta, who was screaming in protest. Molly Naylor picked a well chewed dummy off the floor and plunged it into the yowling gob of one of the twins.
‘That’s it,’ she yelled, ‘off to the pub when things get difficult. Leave it all to me. It’s not as if you brought a happersworth into this …’ Jem slammed the front door so hard that the whole house shook. Absolute silence settled on the kitchen for a split second but the blessed moment passed and Jem could hear the racket resume more lustily than ever as he walked down the street..
He tilted his trilby slightly over his right eye. Humphry Bogart did something similar, not that Jem wanted to copy Humphry Bogart. No, Jem was better looking than Bogie any day of the week.
The saucy Mrs Byrne was leaning on the jamb of her halldoor, enjoying a smoke after tea.
‘Howya Jem. Goin’ down for a few stiffners?’
‘Wouldn’t need them where you’re concerned Jackie.’
‘Maybe not Jem, but you might need St John’s Ambulance afterwards.’
‘Ah let me take you away from all this, Jackie.’ Jem made a theatrical sweep of his arm taking in the small grey street of terraced houses.
‘And where would you take me Jem?’ Jackie drew deeply on her cigarette and leaning back blew a plume of smoke up into the evening air.
‘The city of young lovers, Paris.’
‘Twenty years ago since you were young, Jem Naylor. And as for lover well …’ Jackie scoffed and took another drag on her cigarette.
‘I’ll prove it any time you want Jackie, day or night.’
‘In your dreams, Jem.’ she laughed.
Jem shrugged his shoulders, adjusted the collar of his jacket with deft little lift and pull on his lapels and then tipped the brim of his hat with the forefinger of his right hand.
‘Don’t know what you’re missin’ mam.’
‘Get over yourself, Jem.’
Jem smiled. Smashing bit of stuff, all the same. Wouldn’t mind at all. What she sees in that dozy bollix Danny O’Toole. Not his looks or personality, that’s for sure. He began to whistle China Doll. Hope there’s a bit of a sing-song tonight.
It was a warm evening with a pleasant breeze blowing off the Dargle River and Jem decided he would walk through the park and along the riverside path. He slid his hand into his right hand trouser pocket and felt the crisp little bundle of fivers. Pity I didn’t have a few more bob on. Could’ve cleaned up. Still, twenty five’s not bad. And there was me ready to hand over a full tenner and she spoils it. Well, she can whistle for it now. Still, the nippers need a few bits and bobs. Ah we’ll see.
‘Mr Naylor, Mr Naylor, a minute of your time.’ Jem groaned raised his eyes skywards; then turned smiling to face a pancake faced woman with a scarlet complexion who was shuffling after him as fast as her flat feet would allow.
‘C’mon Trigger.’ She was dragging a pug-faced mongrel behind her. “It’s not on, Mr. Naylor, your Seany has me driven mad with his football banging mornin, noon and night against me wall. I’m going to get guard Murphy’
‘He’ll do sweet feck all Mrs Bailey. I’ll sort Seany out when I get home.’
‘That’s what you said last week, and the week before.’
‘Mrs Bailey, it will be done and dusted before the night is out. You have my word. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve some business to attend to.’ Jem tipped his hat and walked away. Cantankerous aul bitch.
‘Business?’ Mrs Bailey said. ‘Did you ever hear the likes Trigger? Business me arse. The man’s never done a decent days work in his whole life. C’mon, Mick will home for his dinner shortly. Business?’ Mrs Bailey and Trigger waddled towards the park exit.
Meeting Mrs Bailey dampened Jem’s bouyant mood for a while ’til he put his hand in his pocket again and felt the nice little wad of notes. Fuck her, not that anyone would. The only banging she’ll get is Seaney’s football against her precious wall.
As he rounded the Bridge he spotted Gerry Molloy and Francie Martin leaning over the bridge wall, staring intently into the Dargle River below. They were both wearing their poleroid sunglasses.
‘How’s the men. Anything stirrin.’
‘A few runnin alright Jem,’ said Francie.
‘Well I’m good for one lads. Don’t forget me now.’
‘See you in the bookies tomorrow morning,’ Gerry said without diverting his gaze from the river below.
‘Oh bollocks, here’s Sweeney,’ Francie whispered softly from the corner of his mouth and then shouted out, ‘Howya Guard Sweeney.’
‘I’m off lads,’ said Jem. ‘Guard, you want to watch that pair, they’re an awful pair of gangsters.’ Jem tipped his hat and headed up towards the Royal Starlight.
‘Thanks a bunch Jem,’ Francie shouted after him, ‘Thanks a bunch.’
Of King’s Treasuries
“Neither does a great nation send its poor little boys to jail for stealing six walnuts; and allow its bankrupts to steal their hundreds of thousands with a bow, and its bankers, rich with poor men’s savings, to close their doors ‘under circumstances over which they have no control,’ with a ‘by your leave;’ and large landed estates to be bought by men who have made their money by … altering the common highwayman’s demand ‘your money or your life’ into ‘your money and your life.’
Sesame and Lilies
John Ruskin 1864
This extract from a lecture by John Ruskin in Manchester in 1864 has an uncanny resonance with the incredible revelations concerning our own dispicable bankers, specualtors and money men. In his lecture Ruskin was making a case for a nation investing in Libraries, Art Galleries, Museums, Gardens and places of rest. These would be ‘accessible to all clean and orderly persons at all times of the day or evening’ and free of charge.
“… it is…better to build a beautiful human creature than a beautiful dome or steeple,” he concludes.
Do we have a modern day John Ruskin and who is he or she.