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Authors: Joseph O'Connor

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BOOK: Ghost Light
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‘How very pretty you are, Miss Allgood. Do you always wear spectacles?’
‘No, ma’am, only for reading. I was reading on the train.’
‘I see. Do you intend to read now?’
And there are remarks as a maid accepts your macintosh and hat, about the warmth of the weather recently but the coolness of the evenings, a feverishness that is going about, much worsened by exposure to the pollen of wildflowers, the regatta at Kingstown, the pleasantness of train travel, and the elegance of an eighteenth-century pier glass that badly wants silvering, the only conversation piece in the hallway. Seeing yourself reflected in it beside the mother of your lover, shockingly, suddenly real.
And we’re going into a drawing room, which is smaller than you’d imagined, and less opulently carpeted and furnished. A bay window embrasure gives out on to a sun-dazzled garden, which a walnut tree consoles with shade. The floorboards creak slightly as you move towards the centre of the room. The fire has been carefully set but isn’t lit. A portrait of a stern-looking man in preacher’s drabs above the inglenook; in the background a rocky field and an expanse of grey sea and overgrowth in a ruined grey garden. An uncle, he murmurs, when he observes you looking at it. He is smoking again, cupping his hand for the ash, and you wonder why he isn’t availing of the hearth or an ashtray, and you notice that he hasn’t shaved today. A key on a looped string around his neck like a medal. His britches are too loose, full of patches, ancient mud-stains. It doesn’t matter how he dresses now. He is too sick to care. His face is a death mask waiting to be moulded. Appearances are losing importance.
‘Is that Scotland, John?’
‘Where?’
‘The place in the picture?’
‘It is Inishmaan, one of the Aran Islands. He was a minister there. He is remembered by the people with great fondness.’
He half turns towards his mother, controlling a wince as he does so, fingers moving to the wound in his neck.
‘I was saying that to you, Mother. About Uncle Alec and the islanders.’
‘Were you, Johnnie? Oh yes. I suppose you must have been.’
She is examining the cruet suspiciously. Her pince-nez is tortoiseshell and her hair is so beautifully white.
‘Yes,’ he continues. ‘They loved him. It’s rather touching. On one occasion, Molly, I was summering on the island and a local type approached me from the under-pier. Been mending his old trawl-nets or something of that sort. They do wizardries with a needle. The old men, especially. Oh yes. You look surprised. But their handiwork is quite remarkable. Anyhow he happened to notice me wandering by with my violin case and camera. He said “God bless us, sor, you are a Synge, or I know nothing of the world.” Do you know, it had been forty years or more since he had laid eyes on my uncle. But he perceived the familial resemblance immediately. Remarkable.’
And you wonder what to say to this. It is obviously significant to him. The old woman is silent but has a way of colouring her silences. Something about the table evidently displeases her; she keeps approaching and coming away from it, peering intently at the condiments as though they, like the islanders, are about to be photographed for posterity.
‘Now Mother, don’t be a fusspot. It is only a cup of tea. There is no need to use the table; we can be more comfortable in the armchairs. For pity’s sake, let the cutlery alone.’
And you sitting in to your places and he strikes a small Chineselooking gong and his stare touring around the room as it clangs. Almost instantly, as though the listener has been waiting outside the door, the tea is trayed in by a small, slightly stooped young woman who says nothing at all as she places it on the table but glances at you assessingly in a way that is not quite resentful, being faintly cross-hatched with glee.
Someone’s footsteps upstairs are distinctly audible. And the old one shaking a napkin and spreading it on her lap.
‘Miss Allgood, would you care for a cake or perhaps a cucumber sandwich?’
‘I am not very hungry, ma’am, thank you.’
‘It would be a pity to waste food. When there are people in want.’
‘One of the cakes, then, ma’am. If you please.’
Droplets of steam on the cover of a water-pot. When the old one begins to eat it is in a suspicious and deliberative manner, like a taster in a medieval court.
‘Your teeth are so straight, Miss Allgood.’
Is it a compliment?
‘Thank you, ma’am.’
‘I always think it agreeable to see teeth so very clean. One sees it too seldom nowadays. Particularly in Glasthule.’
‘I’m sorry, ma’am?’
‘The dental imperfection of the villagers is one of Mother’s rather ongoing preoccupations, Molly.’
‘I should hardly term it a preoccupation to wish they would act sensibly.’
‘What a darling old fusspot you are. I wonder they ever smile at you.’
‘It is too often asserted that the eyes are the window on the soul, a grotesque sentimentalism and not even true in my experience; but the teeth are most certainly an indicator of the condition of health generally. This has been solidly established. There are reliable authorities. One wishes they would take it to heart.’
‘Who, ma’am?’ you say.
Her pausing a moment, apparently in the belief that an insect has invaded the room and is hovering over the table. ‘People generally, I expect.’
‘Particularly natives of Glasthule,’ he says coolly.
What class of game are they playing? Is it your presence that is permitting them to play it?
‘I happen, Miss Allgood, to hold to the view that cleanliness is next to godliness and that both are to be desired. Ireland, unfortunately, has a long road to travel. One reads of the poorer orders and despairs. The Gorbals, I am told, is if anything slightly better. The Gorbals is a place in Glasgow.’
‘Yes, ma’am.’
‘My son Samuel is a missionary in China, as Johnnie has no doubt mentioned from time to time. It has often struck me as an irony while reading his letters that the basest pagans in the world at least know a little of common hygiene. Would that we could say the same of some who are nearer. The Dublin slum is a very Calcutta, I am told.’
‘Toothbrushes are no doubt what is required,’ he says. ‘Mother is getting up a fund with some of the other dowagers of Kingstown to provide them to the poor of the Liberties.’
‘You may mock,’ the old one responds. ‘But it would be at least a way to show willing.’
‘For us, or for them?’
‘For both, if it comes to it. There is nothing wrong with encouraging individual responsibility rather than an expectation of continuous charity, which can only weaken character. Indeed,’ she adds loadedly, ‘this is a lesson many of us might profit from.’
He takes a sandwich apart awkwardly and examines its contents, touches his fingertips to his sweat-sodden, limp moustache as though suddenly remembering it’s there. An elephant-foot umbrella stand in a corner looking dismal. Inside it, a golf club but no umbrellas. Close to the opened window, a stack of old newspapers in a stream of dusty gold light. Nothing is said. Cups plink on their saucers. You are frightened by the wordlessness, the strange heaviness of the teaspoons, the rustle of your skirt as you shift.
From the garden, the clipping of shears, rhythmic, diligent; from the distance, the whistle of a train. The clock placks solidly, adjusting its ratchets. You look at him quickly. You look at his mother. The subtle transmission of family bondedness. It is
something more, and something less, than similarity of gesture, sameness of accent, physical resemblance. It is that they seem versions of one another, differently aged simulacra, or some multi-headed animal escaped from a myth; people who do not have to speak to one another more than once or twice a week to know exactly what the other is thinking. And you can see, in that moment, that to love him will be even more complicated than you thought, for it will be to love
all
of them, not only the old woman, but to find unity and common ground or at least contiguity with everyone who sits around that delft-loaded table and everyone who ever did. It makes you terribly afraid, for to love him alone is so demanding. But you can see that they, too, are trapped by their need for you, that only by your being with him can the family that loves him be saved from its own irrelevance. The trawler is in the water but they are not in the wheelhouse any more. They are out in the waves. Does the old woman sense it? Wisdom is reputed to come with great age. Is she wise enough to see she needs rescue?
‘Are your parents living, Miss Allgood?’ It is asked with the coldness of perfect courtesy.
‘My mother, ma’am, yes. My father died andI a child.’
‘That was a hard burden. For your mother and for you.’
‘It was, ma’am.’
‘The children’s father passed many years ago. Time does not mend. We are commanded to acceptance. And we must abide, of course. But I may tell you, Miss Allgood, that I feel his absence every day. As a wounded person might feel an amputation.’
‘God be good to him, ma’am. I am sorry for your trouble.’
And do you remember what happened then? The tears in her eyes. And you forgave her for everything. She was old and so frightened. She hadn’t meant to hurt you; it was only that she was afraid. Her face pale and wrinkled as parchment.
‘What a dear child you are. Thank you for saying that.’
You thought about the little trawler breasting bravely through the breakers, steaming out beyond the Muglins towards the
herring-banks of Howth. How wonderful to be on it, cold and alive. To be anywhere far from this room.
‘I imagine it must be difficult to have lines by heart, Miss Allgood. It is hard enough knowing what to say when one is saying it oneself, let alone to memorise and repeat the words of another.’
‘It can be difficult, ma’am, yes. It is a matter of training.’
‘Training?’
‘Well, practice. Repetition. It becomes a matter of habit. If you say a thing over and over it goes into your brain.’
‘Somewhat like scriptural texts, if you like,’ he says. ‘Indeed, one often thinks of the Bible as a collection of stories. Rather remarkable hero, at that.’
No reply for a while from the old one, who stares hard at her plate, and when she speaks again her smile is beautiful as a ghost’s.
‘Johnnie says these things to hurt me, Miss Allgood. As a way of seeking attention.’
‘Mother – I did not mean any – I was merely –’
‘The Bible is the word of the eternal and terrible God. It is the foundation of what little is decent in the sordid history of our species. And when the gaudy illusions we idolise are dust in the wind, its truths will be all that remain.’ Her voice is frighteningly steady, modulated in its tones. His face has turned the colour of violets.
‘Forgive me, Mother, truly. I was speaking without thinking.’
‘Yes. That is your principal talent.’
You are aware that you are trembling. She turns to you stonily. ‘I am afraid I was brought up with certain views about the theatre. No doubt they would be considered old-fashioned by younger people today. But we are what we are. Is that not so, Miss Allgood?’
‘Yes, ma’am.’
‘Yes. And we always shall be. There it is. Now I wonder if you would forgive me, Miss Allgood, but I am a little tired on a sudden. I assume you shall see Miss Allgood to the station, Johnnie, will you? Forgive my son’s manners in not rising as his
mother makes to leave the room, Miss Allgood. But perhaps you are accustomed to his forgetfulness.’
‘I …’
‘It was most interesting to meet you, Miss Allgood. I wish you a pleasant journey home. Perhaps your family would like the remaining cakes? Please take them if you wish.’
‘I hope we meet again, ma’am.’
‘Goodbye.’
A blear of rain suddenly, and a bitter, earthy smell. Schoolboys in sky-blue blazers and indigo shorts, as though their uniform was designed by a colour-blind pederast. Past a line of London plane trees, some with branches half wrenched from their trunks like amputations hideously botched. Beggarwomen are watching a council workman with a saw. He rends at the shoulder of a thick, fallen bough, rips the shockingly white sinews with his heavy-gloved hands. Buses and a coal truck inch through the sleet. Hailstones drum on the hood of a perambulator. You see the museum, austerely Greek, as you cross by the post office, and you are thinking of Mr Duglacz, his mild, lined face. How pleasant it will be to have his company again.
BOOK: Ghost Light
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