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Authors: Joseph O'Connor

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BOOK: Ghost Light
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Ghost light. An ancient superstition among people of the stage. One lamp must always be left burning when the theatre is dark, so the ghosts can perform their own plays.
You stoke the fire and kneel before it, pull the blanket round your shoulders. It is almost midnight now. What a long, strange day. But a day full of blessings. To be alive – even this. To be sent home in a beautiful taxi from the BBC in London and the cost not even to be mentioned. The British
people
paid your fare. When they have nothing, nothing. And you stepping out of its blackness like the Queen of the Faeries. O did you ever think it, Molly, and you streeling around Mary Street knowing nothing of the truths of the world? A slight little brown-eyes; pretty thing you were. Your head full of nonsense and boys and old furniture and bits of songs you didn’t understand. And the driver opening the door for you and handing you your carpetbag. And if only some of the neighbours had witnessed your arrival. But that is only vanity. You prideful vixen!
Cold night now. The wind in the rafters. Sacred Heart of Jesus, help the tramps and the drifters and the sleepers in the doorways of London. A long, strange day. You’ll remember it. Yes. Sure, the day you didn’t make a friend is a waste, so it is. From out on the street, the shrilling of the roughnecks. Oh you’re not gone yet, girl. Not by a ways. There’s a crack of the whip left in Molly Allgood.
Look closer at the fire, girl. Another little drink. Aberdeen for Christmas – your daughter, her twins. And on Boxing Night you might slip across to Fusco’s and treat the children to a fish supper. Not be letting on your plan; just say you’re away to the chapel, but come home with the cod and the sausages and the ray and the newspapers all sodden with vinegar. And Pegeen will be such a scold,
not be wasting your money
, but secretly she’ll be delighted, and the children might sing. Bitter night now. Sit you in to the hearth. Oh, the warmth on your face, the red sheen on your glass – even on your fingernails, your skin. Lady Gregory is in the flames with white-haired Yeats. They look gentler than you remember them, so mild, so at peace. As though some layer of their earthliness had been washed away by time. All that tenderness they hid by giving imitations of themselves for so long – now visible in the shining coals. Augusta and William. Won’t you call us by name? There is an old friend we would like you to meet.
The cover of the
London Daily Echo
one morning next week will have a headline about the murder of a police officer, Sidney Miles. Two cosh-boys, Bentley and Craig, will be charged with the crime. Christopher Craig is sixteen; Derek Bentley will hang. The sort of terror that garners outrage and questions in Parliament; men will write plays about it one day. In the late edition, a small article appears on page eleven. Nobody will ever write a play about this.
WOMAN UNCONSCIOUS
Last Tuesday, constables and firemen broke into a boarding-house room in Brickfields Terrace, London W2. A severely burnt elderly woman was found unconscious on the floor, having collapsed into the fireplace where she had evidently been burning books, having no other fuel at hand. Foul play is not suspected. A number of empty bottles were in evidence. Residents of the house did not know her name. It is thought that she was originally from Ireland and may
have worked for a time in the theatre. She had been intemperate in her habits and was known to have approached passers-by for assistance. Anyone with information is asked to contact Maida Vale Police Station. It is believed that she was either widowed or unmarried.
PARK PRUETT MENTAL HOSPITAL HAMPSHIRE, ENGLAND
November 1952
… Streetcar named Desire. Beautiful name for a play.
American
title if ever there was. Everything in America is blared, vivid: yes their scenery, the way they feel, their sousaphones and skyscrapers, their steak so steaky, their apples the size of grapefruits, the iron-jawed chatter of their factories and taxi-men. Only an American would write a play called
A Streetcar Named Desire
. An Englishman would entitle it
A Bus Called Passing Interest
.
Dorset. Cumbria. Coniston Water. The moorlands of Yorkshire. The Medway towns. King’s speech on the wireless. Muddling through. Brown soup. Watered beer. A bunk-up in a doorway. Little helpful hypocrisies that keep everything going. Snobbism deep in those who have nothing. Kindliness. Bravery. Hyde Park in a mist. Dirt under fingernails. Shakespeare’s face on pub signs. Wordsworth. Cider. Sandbags. Contraceptives. Notting Hill Gate. Broadgate. Billingsgate. ‘Ham’ in the town names. Toffee-apples. Pleasantness. Brown paper and vinegar. Sadness. Fog. Best people in the world. English and Americans. Tragedy and Comedy. Twins.
Peaceful. Yes. The sisters come and go. Hear them mumbling I’m here a week. Don’t know if I am. And they giving me injections sometimes. Think that’s what they’re doing. And the pain all swallowed up in an eiderdown of drowse and the clock on the wall does be ticking.
Night-time now. Pretty Jamaican nurse comes on at midnight.
Hear her singing quiet as a wren as she’s coming and going. Isn’t a man in the whole world but wouldn’t fall for her if he heard it.
Ah do do Kitch, don make mi cry,
Ya know I love yuh
Yuh playin shy.
Sweet Pegeen the other evening. Or maybe it was dawn. But I couldn’t speak couldn’t move. Felt sad and she gone. Coming back tomorrow. So like Sara, her eyes. You’ll be all right Mam, you’ll be all right Mam, and a drawing from the twins of three galleons on the sea, the
Nina
and the
Pinta
and the
Santa Maria
and Columbus with a feather in his cap. Had frightened her. My appearance. Well she hadn’t been warned. Molly girl, a nice pancake you’re after getting into now. No beauty beforehand. But Jesus help you now, girl. Can’t feel my face for the bandages. Like a mummy.
Mr Ballantine come this morning. Nice, soft man. O the flowers and the chocolates and a
True Romance
and a card. Well he wasn’t to know I’ve no use for them now. Asked him:
Ted, why are we here?
He goes
I’m not a religious man, Moll
. I said
No, love, what I meant was why are we in fucking Basingstoke?
And he laughing into his hands. Nice, soft man. Told me I was brung here from St Mary’s up above for there’s the best man here for the burns. You’ll be right as the mail, Moll. More lovely than ever. We’ll throw a knees-up at the World. My Ellie’s home from Canada. You remember my daughter Ellie? Got a baby on the way. Couldn’t really see him. Recognised his voice. Heard him and he leaving and he whispering to the matron.
—How long has she got, love?
—A few days perhaps.
—Let me know. About the arrangements. I’d like to see to things proper.
—You’re a relative?
—No, love. We was friends.
Woman in the bed across from me does be coughing, spewking.
Hard to close my eyes. Lids burnt. Ointment on my arms, my legs, my breasts. Can barely put a sheet over me. Three screens around the bed. Pictures like a film. Make a little story of them, pass the night hours. Won’t show me a mirror. Matron knows best. At noon on an April morning before Adam was a boy, here’s this doxy leaving a cheap hotel, the Prince Regent in San Francisco, and she walking the eleven long blocks through the leafed-out streets to the grand old Grand Central Station. Well, let’s see; what’s on her mind? And she trudging and thinking. Her husband and her sister and the other actors are waiting.
Let them wait
, the rip thinks.
Good enough for them to wait
. Holy Moses the cheeky mare. Thinks she’s Cleopatra so she does. High Queen of Mary Street. God love her.
So what can she see, Moll? What does it all feel like? Give her a scene worth playing, why don’t you? Well, there’s this flat heavy heat after descending on the hilly city. So tiring to walk in the beautiful scarlet shoes and God between us but she’s a bit hung-over. Yes, Molls, she is hung-over, no point in saying she isn’t. Apple blossom drifting on the hot air of 3rd Street through clouds of fly-filled pollen. And you’d clutch it in your hand like confetti so you would. And its powder on the silk of your glove. Then the darkness of the station so cooling, soothing. The players drinking iced coffee in the concourse café. Can you see them? There they are! They’re beckoning.
America is not her country – she was born in Mary Street, Dublin, when the dinosaurs roamed Phoenix Park and the groves of Chapelizod, and they lumbering the Atlantical forest connecting Inishmaan and Manhattan and their eyes as gentle as giraffes’. Lived a few years in London, now and again in New York. Lower East Side mainly: cheap the rents there. Life of a strolling player, wouldn’t know where you’d awaken. But a professional engagement is after taking her to this Pacific city where she has played many times, oh many times. Her husband is a good actor and he’s not a good husband. There he is, foostering around among the younger women of the company, flirting with her sister, with the costume-girls, the
waitresses, and he pulling dimes from their curls and scarves of laughter from their lips and every inch of him the jolly roving ploughboy.
The country is not at war but there’s a rake of kitbagged soldiers and their neatly dressed sweethearts all pretty as a parcel. O you wouldn’t be up to the lipstick and the rouge and the powderclouds and the scent and the bonnets. And a Stars and Stripes flag the size of a tennis court draped on the gable over the gates to the platforms. Silk enough in it for fifty dresses for the beautiful sweethearts, and a star on the bosom of each.
And up comes a recruiting sergeant and he approaching her sister for an autograph. Always the same: oh modesty personified. Who, me? Oh how kaind. One can eaunly do one’s best.
Sign the fucking thing, bitch. Don’t be blushing and fanning yourself and trying to string everything out.
And here’s Moody out of the crowd and the stony old kisser like a president auditioning for Mount Rushmore. Moody is her dresser for this tour; a curious profession. She tramps around America with actresses and dancers, works cheap, is often hired, says little. She’s after being along to Meeting for it’s Ash Wednesday morning, and although Moody was born in Connemara in the same year as Moses, was a Catholic in her girlhood and she kissing the beads, she now holds to a vigorous breed of shout-aloud Methodism long popular in the American south. There’s nobody knows her age. Four hundred and seven. Lived in Louisiana one time, the voodoo queen Moody, and more lines on her face than on the map of Auld Ireland; she’s like a fingerprint with eyes and a gob.
So let’s see. Them’s your characters. And what happens next? Where are we going, Molly? Something needs to happen. And if only the pretty nurse would come in with the injection. Jesus, my soul for a drink. Well, they board the long train, Moody hefting the luggage – and she coming and going, going and coming – and seeing Madame into the
First Class compartment
, if you don’t
mind, where cooled white towels have been provided in stacks, and the arms of the purple, calfskin seats all edged with the trims of grubby lace.
‘New York
City
,’ calls the neat conductor. (Did any of this
happen
, Molly? Aren’t the dates incorrect? Sure it’s only a story. What matter?) Let’s call him a tall, grey man, nice and spruce in his bearing, like a steward on one of them liners, the Cunard or something, and the pleats of his sky-blue uniform pants pressed so sharp they’d cut you if you mocked him. His hair white and short, in these soft snowy curls, and the buttons on his coat glittered so golden with the polish you’d swear they was the eyes of the saints themselves and he whistling Thomas Moore through his beautiful white teeth it would be a pleasure and a privilege to be bitten by.
Believe me if all those endearing young charms
Which I gaze on so fondly today …
Well, into the compartment slowly, with a proprietor’s air, or maybe like the curator of some queer auld museum nobody’d be bothered to visit any more. And he switching on the reading lamp with this bamboozled expression, as though he’s not sure how it got there or what exactly it does. Then he turning to Madame and Moody with this forbidding auld face that seems at odds with the hospitality of his words.
‘You ladies are welcome this morning. You got everything you want?’
‘What is your name, my handsome fellow?’ Miss O’Neill asks abruptly.
‘Virgil, ma’am.’
‘Thank you, goodly Virgil, you are a stout-heart and a hero. Now fetch me a fearsome Bloody Mary and see that I am otherwise undisturbed. Oh, and Moody will take a cordial of some innocuous description, devoid of the spirituous essences. She becomes violent when drunk. There have been unfortunate incidents.’
‘I ain’t allowed sell you no liquor, Miss. Not till we’re running. That’s law in the state of California.’
‘Permit me, if you will, to clarify one matter for you, Virgil. I do not give two living damns for the state of California. A Bloody Mary this very minute and don’t stint with the electric juice or I will know. Be off with you to the bar. Run along.’
The conductor eyes Moody, but Moody looks away and she busying herself unpacking a valise. Madame’s fraying nightclothes and other nocturnal requirements she begins arranging on the berth-side table. The conductor, as though not wishing to observe such a dispersal (he was married one time and once was enough) turns heel and quickly leaves the uncomfortably hot compartment, sliding closed the heavy door behind him. Moody continues at her duties, working quietly, methodically. She is accustomed to making the best of intimate spaces; indeed her dependant often says it is her only talent. Outside on the track a beggar boy knocks on the window, a mask of pitiable hopefulness on his doleful face. Moody, without a word, draws the shade on the daylight and his thankfully muffled blasphemies.
‘I suppose my sister has managed to board without being engulfed by her admirers?’
Moody says nothing. It is taken as affirmation.
‘What a relief that the Police Department did not have to hose back the throng. Or beat them down with truncheons, as usual.’
‘Take your medicine this morning?’
‘Balls to my medicine.’
‘Ain’t gonna funnel it down you. You know what the doctor say. Seem to me like you need it but if you wants to be ornery, you fire on ahead and die.’
‘You’d like that.’
‘Yes, I would.’
‘You are the devil’s very handmaid.’
‘Been times I get to thinking that’s true.’
‘Leave me,’ commands Madame. ‘I wish to rest up.’
‘Where in the Hell would you like me to go?’
‘Sit down, then. You’re rocking the boat.’
And as the train jolts away – goodbye, San Francisco – Old Moody is reading Leviticus. You close and rub your eyes but your eyeballs creak. Like a rusty old gate in Mount Jerome. And you raise the crinkled blind to a scene of almost miraculous tedium. The wet brown wheat-fields extend to the horizon, only here and there a barn and after a while, near a town, an enormous black water-tank on stilts. DUBLIN OHIO painted on the cistern. Three farmhands gaping up at it, and they scratching their heads, as though it has only recently landed there and they don’t know what to do, or it sprouted like a gargantuan mushroom. One of them swivels towards the train as it decelerates and passes and you notice he has a rifle in his hands.
You give a pull on the bell-cord but the conductor doesn’t come and you begin to feel anxious, full of darkness. A halfempty tumbler of vodka on the table. It wants ice but you drink it down anyway. The conductor appears in the corridor, rocking fluently on his heels. Virgil, his name. Strange scenes out the window. The stillness of the back lanes around Mary Street, the market. A cartwheel on the wall of a blacksmith’s forge. And walking now. On the Lower East Side. Onward, through the cacophony of Orchard Street New York, past pedlars and stallholders, through clusters of hawkers, past the windows of Schubert’s butcher shop, past the little German beer hall where carters are unloading clanking crates. And the pictures do be blurring like the spokes of a wheel. Where is the nurse? I am thirsty.
Embrittled, scooped-out, you walk as in a dream. Your eyes are weary. You are burning. Strange languages swirl around you like flutters of streamers: tongues of Saxony, Bavaria, Piedmont, Prussia; faraway places and wandering peoples. The smells of strange food. Spices you cannot name. From the embrasure of a
window comes the sound of rabbinical singing, for a boy who loves Jehovah lives in that room. And there, on the corner of Stanton and Essex, stands the little Florentine pedlar, with his ribbons and combs. This city with its hundreds of thousands of immigrants, its parlances, its musics, its impenetrable slangs, its countless deities, its ghettos and rookeries, has nothing to say to your grief. A black woman is selling strawberries: people say she was once a slave. Everyone in this neighbourhood has a story behind them. So does Miss Maire O’Neill.
BOOK: Ghost Light
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