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Authors: Joseph O'Connor

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BOOK: Ghost Light
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You have a rudimentary wash at the sink – the lavatory on the upper landing cannot be faced in the mornings – and dress quickly, fumblingly, blaspheming the cold, in your old black blouse and chestnut lambswool twin-set, and run a brush nine times through your hair. How he drowned in my ringlets. His mouth in my curls. Gone to spiderweb now. Old scuttler. The blouse is a little shiny but it is a pre-war Worth; good couture will always last, and proper tailoring. Taking your ancient box of numbered powders, you apply pan-stick and face pack in the little cracked shaving-mirror you inherited with the room: 2j with 3, a fingertip of 13, and yellow for an Italian warmth. After powdering, you dust your temples and cheekbones with terracotta dry rouge, a touch on the end of the chin, carmine lips for youthfulness. As you work, it is your fancy to imagine scenes the mirror has observed. Can it remember the man who first bought it, used it? Perhaps poor Mr Holland, the scaffolder’s mate from Belfast who died in the rusting single bed you lie awake in. You sometimes wear his stiffened boots. You inhale him in dust. For months after you took the room, men would call to visit him, and it fell to you to tell them of his passing. Yes indeed, very sad. No, I myself did not know him. I am afraid I have no address for the family. I believe there is a brother, a priest in Chicago. No, I did
not find any hammer. He borrowed it, you say? I am sorry, sir, I cannot assist you.
You had tried to give it dignity, your role as breaker of sad tidings. And you were good at it: poised, neither melodramatic nor too blunt. And it was better than having no role at all. It was how you had first realised you had somehow become old, for nobody is as skilled in the imparting of bad news as an elderly woman from Ireland. Once or twice you had gone so far as to proffer tea or a consoling glass of something – ‘I rarely myself drink, sir, but I happen to have a bottle in beyond at the moment, which I was saving as a gift for a gentleman colleague’ – but the offer had never been accepted. Perhaps it was improper. Some of them had looked frightened as they left.
No need to make your face but to do so is a rite, an act you have long believed brings luck with the doing, and like many of your profession you are unalterably superstitious. And what is
need
anyhow? We cannot live by mere need. The basest beggars are in the poorest thing superfluous. King Lear. Yes. There must always be more than need. Steam when you exhale. Ice on the windowpane, on the handles of the cupboard, the tap. Winter is closing on London and you have nothing to burn. Well, perhaps, on your walk, you will see something you could pick up. Broken twigs in the park, a lump or two of anthracite. Maybe try the coke merchant in the alley off Westbourne Grove. Wander into the yard where the navvies shovel the coal. But you would have to be careful not to be noticed, approached. There was unpleasantness the last time. Unwise to try again so soon. You are no beggarwoman, after all, but an artist.
Is it Joan Fontaine someone once told me I was the spit of? That part in the picture they made of the Daphne du Maurier novel, what’s this was the name of it now? Jesus God, Molly. Laurence Olivier was in it. About the woman and the chap and the house and the drowned wife and the dreaming you went to Manderley again. You pout haughtily in the mirror. Fiercely narrow your eyes. ‘
I
am Mrs de Winter now,’ you murmur.
Today you shall walk. That is the plan. There must always be a
plan
, girl; otherwise we pull into ourselves like snails, and the devil conjures thoughts for the untidy mind and you can lose thirty years in such a withdrawal. This is how time unfolds when you are old and susceptible. Wander into its spiralled shell and it is hard to escape. The glisten that looks inviting to age-bleared eyes has a way of suddenly liquefying and then coagulating around your heart, and the womb in which you find yourself so numbingly cocooned is too enveloping to allow you to resurface. You will walk from your room to Broadcasting House, through the grey, busy streets of a late October London, perhaps digressing through Hyde Park, for there is no need to hurry; the rehearsal is not until five o’clock. It will clear your jumbled thoughts to be away from this room. A change is as bracing as a rest. You might even kill an hour in the National Portrait Gallery, where it is always warm in wintertime and the porters are courteous, or perhaps light a candle for the poor in St Martin-in-the-Fields, a church whose strange name you love saying. It only costs a penny and sometimes there is music, the choristers practising Bach, or an organist at rehearsal. The great, fat pipes of the sonorous organ like giant bottles lined up on a bar. And the ground-bass rumbling through you, to the meats of your teeth. It is not too long to Advent. There might even be Handel. Better to light one flame than be cursing the darkness. And the store windows on Jermyn Street will be beautiful.
Was it stitched into a tapestry primer?
Bloom Where You Are Planted
. Because Sara was at the sewing of it all that summer I left school. Wasn’t it Georgie had it framed and it hanging in Muddy’s bedroom between the crucifix and the daguerreotype of Avoca. ‘Jesus, come down and give me a rest.’ Muddy’s joke when she was wearied by a long day in the shop. Does he be looking and you naked, Mam? Sally red with laughter. Would he bother, child of God, he’d have better to be looking at. And the way she rubbed your back when you were poorly that time, and her legends of King Arthur and Cuchulainn. Poor Muddy, God rest her and
the faithful departed. But don’t be straying yourself into the glooms.
And so life abounds with blessings. It is only a matter of noticing them. You are grateful to have an engagement, a reason to leave the hungry room, an interlude of parole from the cat’s grave stare, its reminder that man is not the Supreme Being. You will say to yourself, traversing the cold, great thoroughfares:
I am walking through London because I am busy, a professional. I have an appointment with people who need me.
Every role has its importance. London is full of actors.
But
I
have been chosen today
. And you will speak your few lines properly, with the austerity they demand, no bogus mellifluousness, no hamming or shamming, and the broadcast will be transmitted around the world like a wind, to India, Australia, Canada, South Africa, what a miracle, truly, when you think what man has done: airstreams of consolation engirdling the globe from a bunker in wintry London. And who can know what opportunities might result from today’s performance? An impresario could be listening, a casting agent; a director. A little playhouse in the provinces or in Ireland someplace. Well, it is possible; it is
possible
. Stranger things have happened. Everyone has a slow year. It is the nature of the profession. Bad 1952 has not all that long to live. Maybe the better times are coming in. On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures. People have braved the Atlantic for less of a chance. All you must brave is London.
The producer, an elderly Dubliner, has remembered you at the last moment, has somehow dug up your address, when he could have chosen others, and to be remembered, for any actor, is a mercy. Such a cultured, benign man. Handsome as Ariel in a cardigan. You know what they say about him, Molly. Well, what business of theirs? Blessed Jesus, couldn’t we do with more love in the world, not less. And if men wish the companionship and the beauty of one another, didn’t God in His gentleness make us all? The pay is not good – it never is at the BBC – and they
always
pay late, but
you have grown skilled at economising, as has everyone since the years of war. You will be able to make the two guineas last a fortnight, maybe more. Roll the pastry good and thin and you’ll never grow fat, and hunger is the best sauce anyhow. And you could salt away a shilling or two for a Christmas gift for your grandchildren. A little comic-book, maybe; a bag of sherbet lemons. Perhaps you might even be able to redeem some of your costume jewellery from the pawn. (‘Ain’t so much of a market in second-hand eternity rings, love. Stands to reason when you reckon. The girls think it bad luck, see. I’ll have a shufti if you like. But I couldn’t give you much.’) It will be a blessing simply to work, to see people again. Sometimes the younger actors are kind. They sense your fate to be the one awaiting most of them in the end. You have become for the young an example of What Could Happen. We should be merciful to those embodying our dreads, for the season of our own denouement will come, when we may embody the dreads of others.
I know
That my
Redeemer
Liveth
Your daughter lives in Aberdeen with her children and husband, an organiser for the Furnacemen’s Union. Your twin grandsons are aged seven: James-Larkin and Emmet. You might go to them for the Christmas if you can somehow scrape the fare. Please God, some little job at the start of December. He is a good man, your son-in-law. But strict. Doesn’t drink. Pegeen is a most fortunate wife.
She writes to you monthly, of schoolyard adventures, of head lice and hand-me-downs, second-hand furniture. They don’t have much. Is her chattiness hiding something? Her handwriting is almost identical to yours.
To kiss the twins, smuggle them a sweet. So far away, Aberdeen. Five hundred miles from London, might as well be a thousand, for the night train is slow as a miser’s compassion and it’s rare
you can afford the express. And the months tend to drift, and then tumble into seasons, and sure next thing you know it’s gone a year since you’ve seen them. Now don’t exaggerate, Molly. It is only eight months. And it shocked you, the last time, when she was waiting for you at the station, and hurrying towards your carriage with a smile would melt snow. It was like looking at your sister. For a moment, you couldn’t speak. The twins tugging your coat, leaping around you like terriers, and the thunderstorm of family resemblance.
Your sister died two years ago, is buried in Hollywood. You and she had not met in some time. You did not attend the funeral – it was too arduous a journey, you had not been at all well. And money. Always money. The obituaries had been fulsome. Someone helpful had mailed them from Dublin. ‘Greatest Irish actress of her noble generation.’ ‘The peerless heroine.’ ‘Academy Award nomination.’ ‘No character actress of her era would ever rival Sara Allgood. (A sister, Maire O’Neill, also acted.)’
—Envy is unbecoming in a woman who is an artist.
‘Go and blast yourself’ you say, aloud. ‘It’s all I have left me.’
The wind chuckles feebly as it gusts down the Terrace and the rattle of the bin-lids is the rack of his breathing.
You must not make me laugh so, with your scampish impertinence. You know asthma is made more distressing by amusement.
Oh the cemetery is only
beautiful –
so you have been assured – and the funeral was a Cleopatran occasion. A dozen of holy priests and one of them in line for a bishopric and the others all as jealous as schoolgirls. Hitchcock read the lesson. Mario Lanza led the hymns. In a neatly wooded parkland overlooking Culver City. And a vineyard nearby.
Oh the little purple grapes
. Admirers are often witnessed placing lilies on the tombstone, or copies of play-texts, lighted candles. A half-mile of palm trees on an avenue of glittering quartz; a Roman temple of remembrance so impossibly white it would blind you to look at it in sunshine. Mexicans tending the orchids. Hoses spraying the lawns. Negro ladies in pink uniforms polishing the headstones till you’d nearly see your
face in the marble. They give you a map when you visit, indicating all the movie stars’ graves. It is whispered that Bela Lugosi owns a plot. So cool in the chapel on a blazing Los Angeles day. There is always music playing. Bach. Palestrina. A system of taped recordings. Onyx and porphyry.
O, les petits muscats mauves

And if I had emigrated to America. He and I used to speak of it. The brave young country where differences do not weigh and all must create themselves over. They love and respect the outsider. We have fought in their wars, constructed their cathedrals, bridged their savage rivers. A Republic will always treasure the newcomer, the rebel, the player of wild cards, the frontiersman. You and I shall truly feel we are come home at last. There is nothing in this heartbroken Ireland for either of us, Molly. It is a mirrorland of celibates and killers on bicycles, a Lilliput of Reverend Mothers and pittances and fogs and embarrassing stains on the mattress.
Rebecca
. It was called. That picture.
Even after he died, in the rainfall of his mourning, you would imagine your newfound land. Him watching Niagara roar, or in the bird market at Baton Rouge, on the steamboat for Great Falls, Montana. Some go to Paradise, others to Purgatory, but the good to an eternal West. And in the years after his passing, the seasons of your American fame, you thought of him during every bow. To be a citizen of Brooklyn, of tall, stately Chicago. To gaze on Lake Michigan on an Illinois Christmas Eve, the faint smell of lakewater, and Lilliput far away, and the frost bitter-crisp as champagne. But the bags had been packed, the return sailing taken. There had never been a moment when you had decided not to defect. It was something you simply hadn’t got around to.
The clunk of doors closing, of hobnailed boots on the staircase. London is outside in the rain. The house’s barrenness looms at you, each partitioned-off room a stage in a theatre gone dark. Almost all who reside here are workingmen, labourers. No one in the house is married. It is impossible to imagine the laughter of a child ever lightening such corridors, or darkening them, for
laughter can unease. And there would be no reason to imagine it, for it will never happen now. You hear them come and go; old men in their moleskins. Sometimes they pause on the landings conversing briefly of the weather, with the guardedness of men who do not like or trust one another and who have been hurt when they trusted or liked. Then the doors quietly close and someone switches on his wireless and there arises the stink of burnt frying. Pawned tools of a Friday. The pound sent home. The mail-boat on Christmas Eve. In your dreams the house screams with its murdered hungers. Its night-windows redden with lust.
BOOK: Ghost Light
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