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Authors: Joseph O'Connor

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BOOK: Ghost Light
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Every second Tuesday morning, quietly as a rumour, she leaves the small apartment, which is on 8th Street and First, and hobbles over to Christopher Street, to the premises of her doctor, whom she calls ‘my alchemist’ or ‘Ludwig’. His name is not Ludwig, nor is he even German, but she has convinced herself, wrongly, that he looks like Beethoven. She is the kind of woman who persists in the face of hard evidence. It has caused her much grief, this trait.
Quarter after nine. Correct your watch by her, gents! The bell of St Mark’s-in-the-Bowery gives its single leaden clong – and here she comes crossing by Second Avenue and 10th, accompanied by old Moody, her dresser. Moody is ancient and slow, a skeletal piece of work, has on spectacles of bottle-black glass, which make her appear like a blind woman. There is no doubt who is the employer and who the servant, even when Moody walks in advance, as she usually does, for Miss O’Neill has been trained to communicate with the body as well as with words. One might think she is an old woman but she is not yet forty. Some years ago, back in Ireland, her fiancé died. Their love affair was difficult, secretive.
An incident last winter, in which Miss O’Neill’s ankle was broken, is responsible for her laborious gait. Slowly, unsteadily, as though burdened, she shambles, disregarding the streetcars and the bawls of the newsboys, the clank of shutters opening, the lines of singing schoolchildren, her pale, unblinking gaze indomitably fixed on the shifting horizons of downtown. Past
the fruiterer’s, the grocer’s, the entrances to the dives, the little five-and-dimes, the ironmongers and hobos. Her skirts so unfashionably long that the passers-by do not perceive that she is wearing a man’s carpet slippers, unmatched.
Miss O’Neill dresses in her finery for this fortnightly appointment, in her Strass Paste jewels and feathered chapeau, in a threadbare velvet cape she wore eleven years ago in a production of
Wuthering Heights
at Philadelphia. Her gloves – ebon-black, the lace long sundered – are made of the skin of a fish. A first-night gift from the poet William Yeats who had admired her in one of his plays. She is carefully made up, black lines around her eyes and a dusting of glitter in her curled, greying hair, and pan-stick, white, with the
faintest
hint of blue, for a slight touch of blue conceals wrinkles.
The storekeepers know this curious duo of old and often trade bantering rumours about them. They are sisters, or cousins. One of them was jilted at the altar. The tenement room they share contains only one bed. Moody is ‘the man’, it is whispered. They are wildly rich. They are abysmally poor. Miss O’Neill was once the mistress of a famous theatre critic in Germany, or in Prague or Vienna or London. And Moody, some say, is the oldest woman in New York. She murdered a wicked priest in Louisiana. The shimmers of whispers, the storekeepers nodding or raising their hats, and this morning it is so hot, a steaming Manhattan July, and the men are sweaty and red. Look at them. Dear Jesus. The sufferings of their wives. Imagine them naked. Sweet Mary.
Dr Millstein, a Muscovite, has the old-school courtliness of a country physician in a play. He is bearded, well turned out – his late wife was English – and he moves among his bell jars and stethoscopes sombrely, as though they radiate religious significance. He offers tea and small cakes. He is proud of his samovar, the only object he brought with him when he fled the extremists, he says sadly. They talk for a while about nothing and everything: the news, or young people today. His profession, like Miss
O’Neill’s, is a matter of appearances, fidelities as well as great knowledge. He considers himself a sort of artist, and who is
not
an artist in that city of immense verticalities? These little rites fulfilled, he rinses his hands carefully and injects his only Irish patient with the elixir that brings tranquillity – he pronounces the word
trankvilidy
.
Millstein is famously, forbiddingly expensive, attending all the least tranquil of Manhattan’s numerous actors, and other ladies and gentlemen whose sensitivities are onerous, but it is years since the question of the root of all evil was last raised between Miss O’Neill and himself. Perhaps he does it as a charity. Perhaps her tranquillity is payment enough. Or perhaps there is something in the picture we need not be told plainly, for every female member of her profession has on occasion been asked for the nothing about which there is much ado.
He injects her, dabs the pinprick with a bundling of gauze, then measures the pulse in her stick-like wrist, making note of its count in a small leather notebook he keeps by a bust of Mozart. Oh, a great man entirely for the notes is ould Ludwig and a maniac for the Wolfgang Amadeus. All this is done quietly, his eyes on the grandfather clock, his brows moving curiously as though counterpointing its plack, and Moody like a gargoyle in the corner. ‘There was pain, Miss O’Neill?’ He always asks if there was pain, and always she answers that there was none, although in fact there always is. Sometimes he bends low as he gauges her blood pressure, the strap around her arm, the egg of his bald skull, and he mumbles almost silently, in Russian. His nurse, a beautiful black woman, comes in and out with documents, which he signs with barely a glance. ‘You are feeling well, Miss O’Neill? The quietness is coming now?’ She can hear the rattle of streetcars, the calls of the newsboys, the whining of a violin from the apartment above the surgery – the neighbourhood is not what it was. His syringe is carefully placed in a small silver box. He touches his fingertips, briefly bows. His politesse.
‘Lyubimaya. Do svidaniya.’
Goodbye, my beloved.
Thus becalmed, assuaged, she returns to her apartment, which is noisy in the daytime in a way that used to bother her; but we accustom to anything, as she often says to Moody, who looks at her almost violently, the old viper. In the street below the window, the people come and go and often there is the explosive ruckus of a cockfight. Miss O’Neill is put to bed, for the injection makes her weak, and sometimes even weepy, though less so lately – and she finds, on those afternoons of opiate dreams, that a presence comes out from backstage.
The smell of his tweeds, of a French tobacco he used to favour. The sea is here too, its ammoniac headiness, and the crunch of his boots breaking mussel-shells. A wave sucks lustily on the pale brown stones. There is spray in his beard and his hair.
I see him walking near the lead mine, pointing to its chimney. I am climbing its spiral in the wrench of a hurricane, wet leaves flapping around me, and his murmurings, coaxings. The distant hoots and whistles of the tugs on the East River. I am turning into the city, my body a map, its capillaries laneways, my heart is Times Square. Last night I dreamed I was a storybook with my pages still uncut. A poor yoke nobody opened.
I am dressing, with the assistance of Moody, who has prepared hot tea and lemon, for soon it will be time to go. The walk will be arduous. The director can be difficult. It would not do to keep him waiting.
Moody has marked up a script, underscored the lines of dialogue. The part is that of Gertrude in
Hamlet
. It is a role I never understood but such a confession cannot be made at any audition for you’d be shown the fucking door in a moment. Moody warns me to be good, on best behaviour. The role represents a last chance.
The afternoon is sunny, so painfully sunny, and the walk to 42nd Street takes time. On the corner of 30th and Fifth, a streetcar accident has attracted a crowd, and out of the huddle steps an elderly policeman who could only be from one country on earth.
—Excuse me, Miss? Begging your pardon. But is it yourself? Who I think?
—I am Maire O’Neill. Do I know you, Officer?
A look of preposterous satisfaction illuminates his face, which is round and pleasant and sore-looking around the chin, as though he shaved himself too closely or once had an illness that chronically afflicts the skin. He salutes and offers his hand, but then, as an afterthought, wipes it bleakly on his lapel, before holding it out to you again.
—I’ve seen you many times, Miss. You’re the finest actress in America. There’s none could hold a candle to you so there isn’t.
You will spin this out, for it will irritate Moody enormously. And the best way to prolong it is to say nothing at all, for if you remain silent he will have to keep talking.
—I seen you Adam’s years ago in that play about the ploughboy killed his da. What’s this is the name of it? You were mighty in that play. Myself and the wife nearly died laughing so we did. Hand to God I nearly bust myself laughing.
—You are gracious. Thank you, Officer. You are an Irishman, I think.
—From Mayo. Michael Mulvey. I had the pleasure of meeting you before.
—Oh yes?
—You were in Wicklow one time. When the world was only made. On your holidays, you were. In a cottage by Glencree. I was stationed down in Annamoe and didn’t I meet you on the roads. A cup of tea you gave me and we chattering like the wrens. You were the most beautiful girl I ever seen.
—We are late, Moody mutters.
—Don’t rush me, bitch.
—We are late.
—I am dealing with my public!
The theatre is cool, pleasantly dark, like a church. The stage is in half-light, almost bare. Carpenters and their lads sawing
quietly in the aisles. A girl distributing sandwiches and coffee. Gilded stuccoes and velvet seats and the sheen of the chandelier. Up in one of the boxes two scrubwomen are working, dusting at the cretonnes of the drapery. And from the gods unseen, at the very top of the house, comes the warble of a man singing a ballad self-mockingly, his mellow, faltering tenor far better than he pretends, and the dull, flat jeers of his fellows.
Brave manly hearts confer my doom
That gentler ones may tell
Howe’er forgot, unknown my tomb,
I like a Soldier fell!
You ascend the steps to the stage, test the angle of the rake. The auditorium is cavernously large and deep. It will be important to project but your training has prepared you: throw the voice like a ball; aim to hit the back wall. In backstage you glimpse a prompter repeating lines from a soliloquy in a monotonous burr to his assistant. A stagehand is unwrapping rapiers; a boy polishes their blades. A woman who must be the costumemistress is measuring an enormously fat man, her tape around his waist while he puffs on a cigar and natters of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
—Molly, how have you been? I wasn’t expecting –
—Good afternoon, Christopher, it is agreeable to be working with you again. I am sorry we are a little late. I was detained on the way. Fellow who’d seen me in a production – you know what they’re like. Sign this and sign that and the dear knows what. It happens every time I leave the house.
—Molly –
—But to business. To business. I have never understood Gertrude. You shall have to advise me very closely. The text I find confusing. The rhythms, the metres. She is not one of Shakespeare’s best women. But we shall find the truth of course. We always do.
—Gertrude has been offered. I’m sorry, Molly. I auditioned someone else Monday.
Moody is staring. Nothing is said. The director peers bleakly at his hands.
—I need a servant for Act Three. I can pay the union rate.
—I do not play servants, Christopher. I think perhaps there is a confusion –
Faces turn to look at you. A carpenter pauses. Backstage, the soliloquy ceases.
—Molly, I’m going to have to ask you to lower your voice.
—I shall sue. Do you understand me? I will finish you in this city.
—Don’t speak to me like that, Molly.
Who in hell do you think you are?
—I am an artist trained by
the Fays
at the Abbey Theatre of Dublin, the greatest national theatre
in the world
, sir. The first of its sort ever to have existed. It was born before my country took her place among the nations and its birth helped light her way to whatever measure of freedom she now enjoys.
I knew
John Synge. I knew
Augusta Gregory.
William
Yeats
gave me praise as he accepted the Nobel Prize. Is it a scrubwoman I am to be? A walk on and off? I have filled this auditorium more times than you have filled your disgusting face.
Am I now to be insulted in this manner
?
—You’re drunk, Molly. Go home. Don’t let people remember you like this.
—You odious little leech, do you slander Maire O’Neill? That will cost you dearly, sir. I have witnesses. Witnesses! Perhaps your own mediocrity causes you to assume that everyone else is grubbing in the sewer with you?
—Here’s ten bucks, get off my stage before I call the police. And never come back. You hear me? Get out. You washed-up fucking drunk!
You are standing in the train corridor, light-headed with hunger, looking out at the lights of Chicago.
Molly
he whispers, behind you.
My changeling?
He is swaying at the forefront of a ragged silent fellowship of the boys and men who loved you. They are white-faced,
wordless, every man jack of them, hatless, ghostly, in dumb show. Little Patrick Counihan, the scene-painter’s apprentice. Hutton, the coal-heaver. Blackmore, the plumber. Willie Pearse, the actor, and he riddled with bullets. Johnny Howlett, his fierce beauty, his arsenal of mimicries; the strut of him down Francis Street like a prince’s through his kingdom, a confetti of compliments swirling around his face and he blowing them out of his path with a pout. Died at the Somme when the poisoned gas swallowed him. Black bunting draped from the tenements. Mair the critic, and Sinclair the actor: both have the lustrous sadness of archangels. And then – so strange – those you don’t recognise at all. Here comes one in a beautiful suit, a portly man but muscular, like a one-time varsity oarsman who later became a barrister. He gazes at you shyly, beads of tears in his eyes. Was he someone in the audience, who came night after night? And a poor boy of the slums, who looks fourteen or fifteen, offering you – what is it? – an apple core? His hands cup it delicately, as though it is a precious jewel of Araby or the flame of his own lost life.
BOOK: Ghost Light
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