Ulster poets: OVER THE BRIDGE by James Ellis

I crossed a bridge and thought to shake the dust

From off my feet, but it was not to be;

For though I fled across the Irish sea,

Nursing resentment and profound disgust

That individuals had betrayed their trust

And held the public stage in ignominy,

Events o’ertook the ancient enemy,

And time has mellowed memory, as it must.

Homeward I crawl, a wretched prodigal,

To bide awhile, and then again depart –

To leave once more, once more to feel bereft –

Your picture album in my mental holdall,

The hills of Antrim etched upon my heart,

For truth to tell, I never really left.

An Excerpt from – WE ALL DIE IN THE END

ANDY

There was sleet falling. It fell straight down in the windless, chill air but the boys ignored it. They were standing outside the pub hoping someone would lend them money or bring them out a few beers. Barney Madden ran them out of it but they went back when he took himself home. Like he owned the place, Stevie said, fuck him, all he does is wash the glasses.

            Andy felt the unhappiness grow in his chest again. It was heavy and he fought against it. No, he said to himself. No. He held his arms up and out in front of him and made soft, crooning, engine noises.

            “Definitely getting a bike, so I am, and it won’t be long now. I’m still getting a couple of days on the boat with Dominic Byrne and he says he’ll have more work in the Summer and I’ll start saving then . . . “

            Andy dropped his arms and sat on the wall.

            “What do you say, Stevie Wonder?”

            Stevie threw the butt of his cigarette on the ground and watched it roll into a puddle.

            “I say you’re full of shite, Andy. I wish there was more than tobacco in that fag, that’s what I say . . . God, it’s freezing.”

            They walked up and down, their fingers squeezed into the pockets of their jeans and their shoulders hunched and they thought about riding bikes on the straight, endless roads with the sun hot in the sky and their ipods loud in their ears.

            “We’re never going to have them bikes,” Stevie said.

            He nudged the rolled-up poster tucked under Andy’s arm.

            “That’s as near a bike as we’ll ever get . . .  cost a fuckin’ fortune even if you do have a job – most of them don’t hardly pay more than the dole. And you’ve got Lily and wee Grace. Have we any fags left?”

            Andy lit a cigarette and dragged on it before passing it to Stevie. Stevie had a part-time job delivering newspapers to shops. Great, he said it was, getting up at three in the morning, the streets all dark and no traffic so you could hear the sea, and then the day to yourself. He wanted Andy to come too when the other helper was off, but Lily wouldn’t let him – said she’d be scared on her own at night, even though them birds were in the downstairs flat. She hated them birds; they were always laughing and talking so loud in the hall. Andy couldn’t imagine their lives – he looked at them like they were on television.

            The sleet began to fall thicker and faster. There was no one they knew coming or going and Andy could feel the cold going into his bones.

            “I’m off home,” he said. “It’s too fuckin’ cold to wait. See you later on, Stevie.”

            He pulled the sleeves of his jacket down over his knuckles and curled himself around the poster. One of his runners was letting in and he tried to bend his foot away from the wet spot. He went up the shore road at a half-run and paused as usual to spit into the sea; it was only a habit now; he never waited to see how far it went.

            He stood outside the flat for a minute staring up at the window, trying to guess if Lily and the baby were in or not. He opened the front door and listened. There wasn’t a sound, and then he heard a noise in the downstairs flat and the door swung open. Shite, Andy thought.

            “Hi,” he said, moving towards the stairs, mopping at the wet hair on his forehead.

            The girls stopped at the sight of him. Their faces were bright and their blonde curls bounced on their woolly scarves.

            “Hello! Hi! There’s nobody up there.”

            “We’ll make coffee for you if you like.”

            “We’ll warm you up. You look like a wee icicle.”

            Andy bolted for the stairs.

            “No thanks,” he said. “They’ll be home soon . . . I’ll have to . . . “

            He sniggered quietly to himself at the thought of what Lily might do if she came home and he was in there with them birds . . . they might have cooked him something and they’d have the heating on, probably had a big telly as well. Andy sighed, a long, painful sigh. He went into the kitchen and edged past the table to the kettle, batting the onions out of his way. They were strung from hooks in the ceiling. Lily had seen that once in a movie and insisted on stringing them up although she didn’t eat onions – didn’t cook anyway.

            Water rattled into the kettle and Andy shivered with his hand on the cold tap. Maybe Lily would bring home something from the Chinese – she did that sometimes if her mother gave her some money.            

A Review: The Three Fat Women of Antibes by Somerset Maugham

Does anyone read Somerset Maugham any more? I don’t think so; my own young ‘uns don’t for sure. Two of his novels are terrific – Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge, both made into successful movies. But his short stories are even better, wonderfully exotic, full of heat and colour, and cocktails – a combination of narrative drive with great dialogue and characters. I should add to my series on “writers no one reads any more” and begin with him. Or Graham Greene anyone? Maurice Walsh? Do young people read War and Peace? David Copperfield?

Anyway . . .

From the opening paragraph of this story the reader is grabbed and held in fascination. Here we have our three fat ladies, three friends who have melded into a tight unit over many years, each one balancing what is missing in the other. They are kind to each other, making allowances and being supportive. Arrow was the youngest, an American twice divorced; Beatrice Richman was a widow and Frances, who was known as Frank, had never married. Maugham explores what happens when an outsider joins this group, how the dynamics are altered and distorted.

“They were great friends, Miss Hickson, Mrs Richman, and Arrow Sutcliffe. It was their fat that had brought them together and bridge that had cemented their alliance.”

The ladies are grossly overweight and every year they go to Carlsbad in Western Bohemia – the Czech Republic now – for a “cure”. They take the waters, follow the strict regime and attend the same doctor. If one of them falls behind with weight loss:

” . . . the culprit went to bed for twenty-four hours and nothing passed her lips but the doctor’s famous vegetable soup which tasted like hot water in which a cabbage had been well rinsed.”

And every year they return, fatter still. This year, Frank decides that they should take a house in Antibes to continue the “cure” on their own for a month or two and Arrow and Beatrice happily agree. They would have their own cook who would continue to feed them boiled eggs and raw tomatoes. But there was one problem – where would they find a fourth for bridge?

“They were fierce, enthusiastic players . . .  they had long arguments over the rival systems. They bombarded one another with Culbertson and Sims.”

However, it so happened that a cousin of Frank’s was newly widowed and making her way to the Riviera. Frank invited Lena Thorne to join them.  She was a bridge player so they would be independent of outsiders and able to continue with their restricted diet.

Lena arrives. Lena is not fat. They sit down to dinner the first evening and Lena immediately asks for a cocktail. Frank, aware of her friends sensibilities says:

“We find alcohol isn’t very good in all this heat.”

But Lena says the heat doesn’t affect her and when dinner arrives – a poached sole, all  alone on a plate – she asks for, and receives, potatoes with plenty of butter. But worse was to follow – Lena asks for fresh bread.

“The grossest indecency would not have fallen on the ears of those three women  with such a shock. Not one of them had eaten bread for ten years.”

And when Beatrice intimates that she will get fat Lena laughs and says that nothing ever makes her fat and she can eat whatever she likes without worry.

“The stony silence that followed this speech was only broken by the entrance of the butler.”

And then of course, Lena was a terrific bridge player, playing with glorious abandon and imagination, ignoring systems and rules. The friends begin to bicker, accusing each other of being vulgar, of sneaking food, and of never losing any weight. Tears and recriminations, but they make up and hug each other and decide that Lena, being a new widow, should have whatever she liked to eat.

“But human nature is weak.”

Beatrice grew “limp and forlorn”; Arrow’s “tender blue eyes acquired a steely glint”, and Frank’s voice “grew raucous.”.

Lena guzzled macaroni and cheese and paté de fois gras with peas swimming in cream; she drank burgundy and champagne. The bridge sessions became bitter and silent, often ending in tears.

“They began to hate one another.”

But Lena’s stay in Antibes came to an end and Lena went on her way, claiming she had had a wonderful holiday. Frank left her to the train, holding herself together, remaining polite until she waved goodbye. But on the way home:

“‘Ouf!” she roared at intervals. “Ouf!'”

Beatrice was the first to give in. Frank found her in a restaurant eating croissants with jam and butter; a jug of cream stood by the coffee pot. Frank hesitated, but only for a second before sinking into a chair. And then Arrow came along. She pretended horror and disgust before seizing a chair herself and calling for the waiter. Course followed course:

“They ate with solemn, ecstatic fervour.”

And Frank said:

“You can say what you like, but the truth is she played a damned rotten game of bridge, really.”

We All Die in the End – a review by Jean M Roberts

The Plot in brief: This short book is a collection of scenes, nineteen in all, set in and around a small Irish town. Each scene centers on one or more of the inhabitants, but the scenes are interconnected through family,  friend and neighborhood relationships. 

The Characters: I admire writers of short stories who can flesh out a character with a few strokes of the pen. They remind me of the artist who can draw, lightning fast, and within minutes deliver a charcoal drawing that is spot on. Of course not every writer is skilled enough to bring people to life in a brief few lines. Elizabeth Merry’s characters leap from the page, fully formed. Within a few paragraphs, I can visualize them in my mind. Whether, fat or thin, young or old, angry or frightened, she makes them come alive. 

The stories offer us glimpses behind the curtains of the house and the soul. We get to peer into our neighbors hearts and homes and see what they would rather keep hidden. Some are self-aware, some oblivious, some entitled, some enslaved. It’s a voyeuristic peek into our neighbors lives, we can laugh, mock or draw back in horror at what they get up to when they think no ones watching. Even the simplest of people are more complicated than you’d imagine. 

The Writing: The stories are told either in third or first person. The pace is fast and the stories zip along. I love, love, loved the dialogue, both internal and between characters. As an American reader, I really enjoyed, what for me was, the Irish dialect. It reminds me of my Grandparents who left Ireland in the 1950s and never shed their accent. The book is well edited and the prose is perfect. 

Overall: I really enjoyed reading this short book. The setting was great, again, as an American, it was a glimpse into another country on an intimate level. The author doesn’t shy away from the brutality of human life, clothed in normality, they go about their business. But she watches as they shed their skin and peel away the niceties, exposing all their flaws to the reader. I’d like to have a drink in the pub with Elizabeth Merry and have her tell me her neighbors secrets but then again I’d be afraid of what she’s see behind my curtains!

I rate this book 5 stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

A poem for “My Girl”

The music filled the room

We pushed the table back

Stacked the chairs and

Formed a ring to watch

My daughter dance

Spangled eyes alight

With joy of movement

She whirled, birled

Arms and legs abandoned

And while she whirled she changed

Grew, evolved, emerged

A stranger unconnected

All her own self, on her own

Future firing headlong

Detached from my detaining hands

The beat drummed louder

Finished and the stranger sank

Triumphant, flushed and

Laughing, enjoying our applause

Turned to me for confirmation

My girl again

But never quite the same.

From “Man and Wife”

Jim coughed again, a hard, tight bark from the top of his chest. His head jerked forward when Connie’s big hand landed on his back and he gulped for breath, waving her hand away. Connie grinned and hit him again anyway. His chest hurt; his eyes watered and tears sat in the long creases in his cheeks.

            The beer tasted sweet going down and he took a long suck, wondering if Connie would let him have another one. He looked at her glass and measured the last of her pint. Connie gave him one of her half-smiles and he knew she knew he wanted another drink. He set down his glass as if he didn’t care and glanced with pretended interest around the bar.

            The usual trio sat on stools, their heads together, Eugene Curran and the Brothers Grimm, and Jim thought that if Connie wasn’t with him he might walk over and say hello, what are you having boys? He tried to imagine that . . . they would talk to him about sport and ask his opinion.

            A shout from the corner drew his attention. He thought there was a fight starting but it was only a crowd of young fellows, a whole gang of them, shouting and laughing, and pushing and shoving at a slight, fair-haired one in the middle. He looked like he couldn’t stand up for himself and Jim’s heart beat sore for him.

            “Birthday party,” Connie said in his ear.

            Jim looked again and saw the huge gold key on the table. The fair-haired boy wasn`t being bullied; his friends were teasing him and Jim could see that he was full of drink. The hair was stuck to his head and his face bloomed in the dark corner.

            “That boy’s not twenty-one.”

            “Eighteen.”

            “You have to be twenty-one to get the key.”

            “No you don’t. That was years ago, it’s eighteen now. You know nothing.”

            “He’s not old enough. Look at him.”

            “Time!” Charlie roared, rattling a spoon against a glass.  “Come on now.”

            Barney Madden started picking up glasses. He’d lift it from under your nose, finished or not. Jim held his on his knee. 

            The crowd in the corner stood up and pulled the birthday boy to his feet, shouting at him to make a speech and he began to talk, leaning on the back of a chair. He seemed to be nearly crying and he shook everybody’s hand over and over.

            The trio at the bar pocketed their change and went out, leaving the doors to swing behind them, letting in great gusts of cold air.

            “Come on now, Connie,” Barney said. “Get that into you. Jim, can you do nothing with that wife of yours? Take her away home to bed.”

            He laughed when he said that and clattered glasses onto the counter.

            One by one the young men got up. With the fair one in the middle carrying the huge gold key they pushed through the swing doors and then they were gone.

            “Now, Barney,” Connie said, and handed over her glass.

            Jim nodded and said goodnight and waited for Connie to button up her new brown duffle-coat. It is a man’s coat, he thought again, looking at the long sleeves of it and the breadth across the shoulders. Whatever she says, it is a man’s coat. I’ll say it to her later, get her going. His own grey tweed was threadbare but he was attached to it. Connie wouldn’t let him have a new one anyway. She belted the door open and Jim ducked as it swung towards his face. Barney winked at him and locked the door behind them. They wriggled deeper into their coats, turning their faces from the wind, and then Jim pointed:

            “Oh, look!”

            The fair-haired boy was crouching at the corner, his arms hugged over his thin chest, and him bare as a baby. He turned when Jim and Connie came out and moved towards them with his knees close together.

            “The b-b-b-bastards left me.”

            He sniffed hugely and wiped his face.

            “I thought they were going to throw me in the sea! I’m fuckin’ freezin’ . . . give us a jacket for God’s sake, will you?”

            Jim looked at Connie. She was laughing, her eyes going up and down the pale, shivering figure.

            “Is it your birthday?” she asked. “Where did they go, your friends? God you’re a hoot, isn’t he Jim?”

            “I’ll get my fuckin’ death out of this, an’ me ma’ll be waiting and I’ve no phone.”

            The boy’s voice went up and up.

            “Oh Jesus God I’ll kill the poxy bastards. Give us something to put on for fuck sake!”

            He began to dance around like a boxer, swinging his arms, and then he remembered to cover himself. Connie turned to Jim and he backed away from her, shaking his head. His chest hurt in the cold air and he coughed. She can’t make me, he thought. I’m not going to. For a moment the three of them stood there, until bolts were shot in the door behind them.

            “Quick,” Connie said. “Charlie’s still around, cleaning and that. Go on, knock the door.”

            And then she turned and knocked it herself.

            “What’s your name, boy?” she said.

            “Frank.”

            “Frankie Pankie,” Connie laughed. “Isn’t that right, Jim? Frankie Pankie! God, he’s a hoot . . . Charlie!” she roared, banging on the door.   

            “There’s a bare-assed bird out here. Let him in. Come on, we know you’re there, we know you’re not gone yet.”

            There was no sound from behind the door and then the lights went out. The wind rose with a cruel nip; the sea rolled black and oily beyond the wall and the first drops of rain were blown over Frank. He ran against the stout door of the pub and shouted for somebody to fucking well open up, and then he ran up and down the street listening for a car, for his friends to come back. Connie watched him and Jim stood well behind her, his coat clutched tight.

            “Poxy bastards! Frank screamed into the wind.

            “Make your man let me in,” he said to Jim and Connie. “Yous know him better than me. He must have heard us knocking – they’ll have put him up to it, the fuckers. How am I to get home? Lend us the taxi-fare will yous?”

            Jim felt the rain on the back of his neck and turned up his collar. Poor bugger, he thought. He looked at the boy’s thin legs, white as milk in the dark night, and his arms like strings wrapped around his chest. Jim was cold himself; he wanted to go home to his quiet bed and lie against the warm bulk of Connie’s back.

            And then he saw Connie taking off her own coat and his breath puffed out in a snigger. What was she at now? She threw it around Frank’s shoulders and he seemed to sink under it, bending his knees, trying to get his feet into it too.

            “Come on now.” Connie marched him quickly away.

            “You come home with us, boy. We’ll mind you, won’t we, Jim? Sure you’re only a little chicken. Are you sure you’re eighteen?”

            She belted Jim’s ear and he staggered.

“Some husband you are,” she said.

From “We All Die in the end” – Now with three 5 star reviews on Goodreads

amazon.com/author/elizabethmerry

Time Out

Small windows, deep-set

In a whitewashed wall

Cobbled, dung-splashed

Yard, fiery red-topped

Roosters

Pecked unwary legs

Crusty, griddled bread

Thick with yellow butter

Our towny tongues unsure

Of still-warm milk

Cool, beaten earthen floor

Rough on shoe-soft feet

At night the whisper

Wheeze of bellows

Turf smoke burning eyes

Murmured prayers before

The lamps, blood-red and

Phosphorescent blue

My mother’s mother nodded

Black-robed in the corner

Her father sang us songs

Threaded laces in his boots

And shooed us, lit by candles

To the quilted, feather bed.

Ulster Poems – An Easter Sequence by W.R.Rodgers 1909 – 1969

It is always the women who are the Watchers

And Keepers of life, they guard our exits

And our entrances. They are both tomb and womb,

End and beginning. Bitterly they bring forth

And bitterly take back the light they gave.

The last to leave and still the first to come.

They circle us like sleep or like the grave.

Earth is their element, and in it lies

The seed and silence of the lighted skies,

The seasons with their fall and slow uprise,

Man with his sight and militant surmise.

It is always the women who are the Watchers

And Wakeners . . .

A Review: The Woman who Rode Away by D.H.Lawrence

This is quite a long, short story but it should be read at one sitting; it is strongly rhythmic, repetitive, bearing you along in a trance that Lawrence has made for you. It tells of a woman, married with two children, who lives in a remote area of Mexico.

I don’t love this story; I’m not even sure I like it but I couldn’t forget about it. Right from the beginning it is about death and the desire for death. In the fourth paragraph:

” . . . she saw a dead dog lying between the meat stalls and the vegetable array . . . Deadness within deadness.”

The lady in question is:

” . . . not thirty-three, a large, blue-eyed, dazed woman, beginning to grow stout.”

After ten years of living in isolation near a worn-out silver mine the woman wakes from her daze; she becomes aware and restless and when she overhears two men speak of the Indians who live in the far-off mountains, she feels in her heart that she has to find these secret places and the strange people who live in them. A day comes when she packs food and water and rides off alone. The journey takes a long, weary time, plodding on and on, following a narrow trail up into the mountains, making camp where she can, trying to sleep:

“She was not sure that she had not heard, during the night, a great crash at the centre of herself, which was the crash of her own death.”

She gradually becomes aware that the Indians are near, watching her. They come closer, strongly-built dark men in dark clothes with “glittering” black eyes and “rivers” of long, black hair. They take her on another, longer journey yet. The night passes:

“A long, long night, icy and eternal, and she was aware that she had died.”

They arrive in a village, deep in a hidden valley where the woman is unceremoniously stripped and given a new tunic to wear. She is given a soporific drink which makes her vomit, then leaves her with a drugged feeling. For many months she is kept apart from village life, fed and drugged until:

” . . . the languor filled her heavy limbs, her senses seemed to float in the air, listening, hearing . . .  as if she were diffusing out deliciously into the harmony of things.”

She sees that the men are not aware of her as a woman:

“Only that intense, yet remote, inhuman glitter which was terrible to her.”

Counterpoint all the time between the large, dazed, white, blue-eyed woman and the strong, dark men; the words death and drugged and river and glitter repeated throughout.

A young Indian who speaks English, explains to her that the white man has stolen the sun and the white woman has stolen the moon. And that she, the white woman, must be given to the sun so that the Indians will be full of power again.

One day then, she is taken from her chamber, drugged afresh and given new clothes; she is taken up in a litter and to the sound of drums, the villagers form two lines to dance:

“And across the flat cradle of snow-bed wound the long thread of the dance, shaking slowly and sumptuously . . . their black  eyes watching her with a glittering eagerness, awe and craving.”

It is impossible to convey in a short review, the way this story lulls you until you are almost as dazed as the woman herself, ready to lie down and accept your own fate!

The last line of the story says:

“The mastery that man must hold, and that passes from race to race.”

It almost seems as if it was tacked on. And it’s ambiguous. Does Lawrence mean that urge which permeates all cultures that ever were, the urge to control an uncontrollable world by placating the Gods, by touching wood or saluting magpies? Or does he mean man’s need to control women?

Jeremiah

Grey church humped in dusk

We huddle, linked

Wispy rain-curled fringes

Cold fingers

Avoid the avid glances

Of the neighbours

Here is the hearse

The priest in white, hand aloft

Accustomed to the rites

Calls him Gerard – but

His name was Jeremiah

Strange cousins

Twice and thrice removed

Clamour to shake hands

And kiss

Anticipating whiskey

He’d have hated this.