My hands kneading dough
become your hands in cloudy
puffs of wheaten flour.
My hands kneading dough
become your hands in cloudy
puffs of wheaten flour.
Four Aprils old
His heart knows
Proud and brave
He stands up straight
My girl intent
Upon his lunchbox
Balancing . . .
Her eyelids not quite dry
I look at her
She looks at him
He waves at me
We spin in a ring of love
And recognise the day
Being, like Woody Allen, too hostile to drive, I left my son to the airport bus. He was twenty, the first child to cross the sea in any direction, and he was going to America for a year to work in a holiday camp for children. To the Catskill mountains he was going, near New York. I stood on the road until I couldn’t see the bus any more and then I went into town as though it was any old Saturday. At three o’clock, when I knew he’d be taking off, I sat down; I had discovered a new pain in a new place.
Later, I went into his room and looked at the empty bed. I changed the sheets and tidied and cleaned. And then I washed all his clothes and hung them out and took them in and aired and ironed them, and folded them, oh so neat.
Long days later he phoned. He wanted tea-bags, nothing else, just tea-bags, and would I send them? He was having a great time, he said, meeting people from all over the world and he loved the heat and the craic was great but he wanted tea-bags. He said the night he arrived he stood at a balcony window and looked out at New York and he couldn’t stop smiling to himself because he was really there. And the picture of his there, leaning out with hands on the railings and him smiling is still in my head like a lost photograph.
So I got the tea-bags and packed them up and sent them and waited to hear they had arrived. His siblings said it was great; they never had to answer the phone when he was away because I’d have broken bones trying to get there first.
The parcel arrived. He’d be happy now, I thought, and I pictured him in the camp, up in the Catskill mountains with a crowd of children all different colours like in a holy picture, and them all sitting round in a circle drinking tea.
One day in town I looked at a mannequin in a window, and whatever way the head of it was turned or the way I looked at it I got such a sharp, terrible pain. My feet didn’t know where they were and I put a hand to the wall to steady myself.
The months passed and the day came for his return. oh, such cleanings and washings – I had everybody working, and at last, at last, the car arrived and out he got – a stranger, older, tanned, dressed in shorts and sandals – in a place where even on the hottest of hot days the boys sweltered in jeans and runners. He looked like a visitor and for a short while seemed like one.
That was years ago and they have all left and returned many times. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but I’m not.
Broadcast on Radio Ulster 2006.
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.
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.”
“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:
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.
“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
Small windows, deep-set
In a whitewashed wall
Yard, fiery red-topped
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
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.
Grey church humped in dusk
We huddle, linked
Wispy rain-curled fringes
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
Twice and thrice removed
Clamour to shake hands
He’d have hated this.
A rattle of keys at the back door
We waited – wary
His face shut tight against us
Like a fist
Toed-in, he crouched over furtive whiskeys
Over chin and cigarette
And we ghosted from the room
With nervous grins
But once he showed me Dickens
And Maurice Walsh
And he was The Small Dark Man
Alone in a house of women
Cut off by his country voice
From the town
From an old melodeon
Sometimes – surprised
His face would lift with love
And fall again
Now I surprise myself
Toed-in, crouched over flagrant whiskeys
Fingers curled over chin and cigarette
And I have to leave the room.
The kitchen was too warm, and it was quiet except for Sarah’s occasional tobacco cough and the rustling of thin white pages. Sarah read quickly, stopping sometimes to laugh silently, her shoulders shaking. A bluebottle buzzed in the heat and flew to the pile of dirt in the corner. Tea-leaves, eggshells, bits of porridge – Sarah no longer noticed them, no more than she noticed the thick oily grime on the shelves and window-sills, or the matted clumps of dust on the floor. Her thin hand stretched from the sticky sleeve of a black cardigan as she read and her skirt, once a pale grey, was patterned with dribbles of tea and porridge.
The sudden, small noise in the hall made her look up. She waited, listening for her brother’s key, frowning, her eyes searching the floor and the walls and then she rose from the chair. Barney’s pipe lay on the mantle-piece; she stuffed it with tobacco and lit it with the long matches he always used, and after puffing and coughing she opened the door and peered out into the hall.
The postcard was bright against the dark linoleum. It looked new and neat and strange beside the pile of old newspapers. Sarah’s breathing filled the hall as she smoked faster. She bent awkwardly and picked it up, a picture of mountains and a lake. Her fingers trembled over the address. It was addressed to them all. To Barney and Martin and herself.
Sarah kept her eye on the door, listening for Barney but the only sound was the bluebottle buzzing in the corner. She sighed deeply, looked to the door, and then read the card but the words made no sense to her. She read them out in a loud whisper.
“Hello my dear cousins. Just a quick word to say I’ll be back from overseas in a few days and I`d like to call and see you all on the 20th – I`ll be bringing my new wife!! I`ll keep all the news until I see you. Love and hugs, Richard.”
“Bringing new wife . . . Richard,” Sarah read again. “Oh, what does it mean?”
And then the front door opened and closed and Sarah subsided into her chair. Barney came in rubbing his hands together, bringing with him a taste of salty air and a whiff of beer and whiskey from the pub.
“Well then, Sarah,” he said. “Is the porridge ready? What a morning we had, a crowd from the city, you should have seen them, down for some party or other. I never saw people so nice about themselves, looking at the chairs before they sat down, looking at the tables. What do they expect in a public house – polish and perfume? I don’t know what the city pubs must be like. And Charlie hounding me to dry the glasses and bring up crates of beer, more beer every ten minutes.”