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Authors: Joseph O'Connor

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BOOK: Ghost Light
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To have someone to share the room with. A few words of an evening. Someone to make a pot of tea when you’re sick. Lately you have caught yourself grumbling to the walls, to the turrets of broken-spined paperbacks that stand sentry about the floorboards, to the lamp with its ripped shade, its dishevelled aplomb, the pegs on the coatless hatstand. The night-thoughts are the hardest. You cannot talk to the night. If you do, it might start talking back.
He is a good man, your son-in-law. Didn’t mean what he said. Every family has these little disagreements, when harsh words are spoken. You are his children’s only living grandparent, the mother of his wife. If you wrote and said you’re sorry and you’d give anything to see the twins. It’s been eight long months. If you promised.
Wind shrieks in the chimney as you open your tobacco tin and extract the makings of a poor cigarette. Little flimsies of paper, like torn pages of a bible, and fag-ends picked up in the street. But we mustn’t complain. Haven’t we health at the least, and the hurting comfort of smoke? My throat is a chimney breast, these lips a venting smokestack. Always he pleaded for you to quit the filthy practice, yet
he
never quitted, the great hypocritical
flue
, with his burblings and his
belchings
and his clouds of condemnation and his sermonising ridiculous smugness.
It is different for a man. You know that very well. Wilde said a gentleman
must always have an occupation. It would be a nice pancake entirely if he didn’t.
Papers strewn everywhere, blown around the room like old leaves, for one evening last week you forced open the jammed window, forgetting the storm that was billowing across London. The season’s weather has been violent, as though in overture to the hurricane, which struck last night as the street lights came on, with the bulb in the hermit’s ruin across the Terrace. You lay awake in Mr Holland’s bed listening to the wildness of the world, the racketing clatter; smashing roof slates. The bells of distant fire engines came borne on the storm. The house groaned like a ship in a cyclone. Around four in the morning there was a sudden brief lull and you realised that the public telephone on the street below was ringing. Who could it be? Would anyone answer? Should you yourself hurry down? Preposterous, dangerous. An insane notion came to you that it was Mr Duglacz in his bookshop, frightened among his Torahs and autographs and folios. Out of what junkshop of the heart do such yearnings arise? It rang almost twenty minutes. You let it.
On the table is a letter from a postdoctoral student, a young Californian woman who intends visiting London ‘in late January or February’ and would like to conduct an interview. It would touch, naturally enough, on your recollections and impressions, your friendships and associations in the Ireland of those years, your time in America, especially on Broadway, your memories of your sister, her notable career in motion pictures, and of course on the question of Synge. The interview would be conducted with tact and sensitivity, as perhaps, if I may say so, without wishing to appear presumptuous or intrusive, only a woman could conduct it. Few of us, after all – I hope I do not trespass into the personal realm – have never been disappointed by a man.
—Ignore it, Changeling. It is a ruse, nothing more. Tell them nothing
about us. Do not even reply. We are too precious to be displayed before the rabble.
I could offer a small sum as remuneration for your time. Would an amount of, say, $50 be acceptable? Alternatively I should be happy to send you anything you require to that value, since I know certain goods and foodstuffs are still quite scarce in England. There is another financial question I would like to broach, Miss O’Neill, and I hope I shall do so without offense. I understand that some years ago you sold to his surviving family all your letters of an intimate nature from Synge. My institution has authorized me to say, should other manuscripts having to do with JMS and his circle remain in your possession (scripts, revisions, juvenilia, notebooks, drafts, fragments, abandoned works, et cetera) we would be honored to acquire them for our archive. Our library has considerable funding for acquisitions.
[‘Considerable’ is typed in red, Molly. That’s the Yanks for you now. Subtlety is no Californian trait.]
American scholars take an avid interest in Ireland, as you know: her literature and history, her revolution and liberation, the lives of her great men of letters. Our collection is being developed and extended all the time. We like to think that there is little we are missing. I should have to see and appraise personally any material, of course. But we believe the proposal to be of mutual benefit.
‘Liberation’ is good, you think to yourself now. Liberation, my arse in parsley.
The letter arrived almost four months ago, among the reams of final demands and sundry threats of disconnection. (‘Eviction is a recourse our client does not wish to pursue, but he shall have no alternative if the arrears remain unpaid.’) You did not know what should be done with it, whether to throw it in the trash. Similar effronteries have come before, nearly always from America; you have ignored them, discarded them, forgotten them. And yet, might it be redemptive, after all this time – not pleasant, but healing, a settling of the ghosts – to allow yourself to speak of those years? But what is there to say? He lived. He died.
We wanted one another. He was afraid. A poor play it would make, with no hero or heroine, and all of its best lines offstage. And if it ever had a chronology – which it must have, it
must
have – the scenes are no longer in the right order.
‘Mercia’ she is called. The author of the letter. A name holy water was never poured on. You imagine her – Dr Mercia Vinson – a startlingly vivid picture. A capable piece of work with full lips and plum-sleek hair, who was almost pretty as a girl but too foostery, too nervous, and was always outshone by the louder, gayer classmates who liked her in a pitying way. (‘Poor Mercia’s teeth. Poor Mercia’s
clothes
.’) But men want her all the same. They court her with ironies. There is a certain type of man who admires intelligence in a woman, a windmill against which he can pit himself, a quality he can punish, a reason for a woman to have to apologise frequently, which is what men find most arousing in women. Ah Molly, that’s not fair. Not all men are like that. Now Mercia sits in a library in hot California writing presumptuous, intrusive letters. But as suddenly as she forms, she vanishes into the odours of the room, for you have apprehended, in one of those moments of piercing clarity that can punctuate a hangover, that the young woman you are imagining is yourself.
You cross slowly to the scarred sideboard, kneel before it, knees creaking, and open the loose-hinged door. It falls out of its frame. The cat gives a start; approaches the interior’s blackness cautiously, like a child encountering a waxwork of itself. A reek of mildewed newspapers and mothballs and old wood. Paper bags of ancient birthday cards, a sad-eyed dog in a deerstalker hat, cancelled ration-books, expired passports, redundant lengths of tinfoil. Because you have to save tinfoil, although you cannot remember why – a habit acquired in the war. The mice have been exploring; there are pellets in a broken souvenir ashtray someone brought you from a pilgrimage to Lourdes. You hear them scrabble late at night, especially now with winter coming, in the walls, beneath the floorboards, in the cupboard over the cooker. The
cat makes occasional attempts, with infrequent successes. It sometimes seems to have grown frightened of its prey.
Empty jars. Divorced slippers. Long-abandoned attempts at knitting. A shoebox of yellowing reviews. The cat slopes lithely into the sideboard, purring, eyes glimmered, and scrobs at a stack of faded place-mats. You touch its scrawny tail, which makes to tendril round your knuckles.
Go way, you auld flirt
, you mutter. They used to rain the shredded foil from the Spitfires by the hundredweight. Wasn’t that it? To bamboozle the German radar. Terrible what was done to those people in Dresden. They say that only the cathedral survived.
A chocolate-box of old postcards, none of them written. An Apache, Niagara Falls, the Opera House at San Francisco, Lake Pontchartrain, Boston Common, Times Square. At one point you had in mind to collect a postcard from every American town you played in, but after an eighth tour, or maybe the tenth, your resolve somehow evaporated. Yes. In New Orleans that time. Christ, what year would that have been? It came to you in the French Quarter, as you walked following rehearsal, through the windless heat of the sweltering noon and your own rattled thoughts and the aromas of strange food and the clouds of fly-filled pollen. What is the point? What does any of it matter? Just as well, you think now. You silly old mummer. Bundles of them in laddered stockings or tied up in lengths of twine. And who will ever want them? Nobody.
A stretch into the sideboard’s deepest recess and you find the hidden thing you seek. A child’s Sunday School bible, the ribbon frayed and tangled, the threads of its binding unravelled. Folded into Ecclesiastes is the only letter you saved. The first time he had ever written your name. Wrong to have secretly kept it when his family had wanted everything, but on the morning when they came to take away all the proof of your existence you had been unable to surrender the last you had of him. Here it is now, the only thing you have ever stolen. You open out the withered notepaper, its creases greyed by age, its inkblots like a mapped
archipelago. It has not seen daylight in seventeen years. There were nights you hoped the mice would devour it.
Glendalough House
Glenageary
Kingstown
County Dublin
Thursday midnight
Dear Miss O’Neill: I hope that you will excuse the animated tone of my words to you earlier this evening at rehearsal. It was bloody of me and I am sorry. I allowed myself to become upset.
Permit me to add that I have had, since the moment I first observed them, the most earnest regard for your abilities. Moreover, I should like to state that I believe my respect to be shared by Mr Yeats and Lady Gregory. The thing not uttered may yet be felt. I should not like you to think of me as an enemy.
You must permit the words to lead you to the heart words come from. You requested of me advice. That is it.
In the hope that we have cleared the air and with apologies, again, I remain, very sincerely,
John Synge
His decorous handwriting, its elaborated loops, like the cursive of a Victorian governess so repeatedly jilted that she had time to perfect womanly accomplishments. Even to write a letter was a performance for him, poor owl – as though he felt, during its composition, that someone was observing from behind his shoulder, that from the fireplace in his study or the wardrobe in his bedroom some demon of disapproval might roar. The eyes of ancestral portraits gazing down on him as he wrote. That is not ink. It is our blood.
—What a prig I was, Changeling. For Jaysus’ sake, burn it.
And you know, reading it now, that this is the last time. There is guilt. Yes. You had resolved always to keep it, to bequeath it to your daughter, whom you have not seen in a while but who is named for the heroine in the play that made him famous and is as fierily magnetic to men as her mother once was. But today, in the October of 1952, your pledge to yourself will end. One must eat, after all. It is not a matter of choice. You place the sentenced letter in the pocket of your only coat, a hooded cloak nobody wanted at the end of a pantomime’s run; it had been worn by an ugly sister. Mr Duglacz will pay a fair price. You will not weep – no. It is what he would have wanted. And Pegeen will understand. I cannot bear the hunger any more.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. Vicious old hatchet of a housekeeper was in it. What’s this was her name? Mrs Danvers. Yes. And the poor, brave bride and the sea and the shadows and the ghosts in the windblown curtains.
It seems important, suddenly, to clean and order the room. These illusions still arise occasionally.
Our home is our mind
– oh for Jesus’ sake, stop it. But perhaps at least the scrags of tinfoil could be discarded. You screw them into a globe, stuff it tightly into the gas mask, whose eyes are grown so dusty that the wearer would be blind. A spider scuttles crablike from a gash in the windpipe, evicted from its rubberised world. A cracked snowglobe of the Matterhorn – what sophisticate gave me
that
? – and a dismasted ship-in-a-bottle
‘From Ellis Island: Gateway to New York’
. You pour the last of the gin into the dregs of the tea.
Adultery
comes the whisper of the chimney.
‘Up your sanctified Kingstown hole,’ you say quietly, raising the chipped delft cup to what you imagine to be his presence, or at least, the opposite of his absence.
—I see there is no hope for you at all, Miss O’Neill. One is supposed to raise one’s little finger while sipping.
The leaden bell of St Mary Magdalene. So loud it hurts your teeth. Fleets of ferries cross the billows from the station on Ellis Island, breasting for the Manhattan of your mind. Your eyes meet the window. Across the street, his light is out. The curtain, predictably, is drawn.
BRICKFIELDS TERRACE
9.05 a.m.
She hauls closed the heavy door behind her and descends the steps to the pavement, moving cautiously for the puddles are iced over. It is blowy, bitter; the air smells of smuts. The freeze moistens her eyes, makes her shiver. But the exhilaration of new morning in the glistered, busy city seems to shine from the whitened windowpanes. In the telephone box a man is shouting about someone being late. She places on her spectacles, lenses misting in the cold. A robin on the lamp of a chained-up bicycle regards her as she takes them off again to clean them.
‘Hail fellow well met,’ she says to it, smiling. ‘You are dapperness itself today.’
Out of memory flows an old ballad, as a wavelet on a strand. It fizzes amid the stones of her mind. She drifts into it as she shuffles forth, for a song can be a companion, the helpmeet of a solitary journey. You can confide in it, hold its hand, wish it well, learn its secrets. A friend shortens the voyage, as her mother used to say. Would be a lonesome old sail without a song.
Go fetch to me a pint o’ wine,
An’ fill it in a silver tassie,
That I may drink, before I go,
A service to my bonnie lassie.
The boat rocks at the pier o’ Leith,
Fu’ loud the wind blaws frae the Ferry,
The ship rides by the Berwick-law,
And I maun leave my bonnie Mary …
Snakes alive, look at the street, thick with leaves and strewn rubbish. The dustbins all toppled, rotting contents disgorged. Lord, have people no shame? Do they not see their own filth? This socialism codswallop has taken root among the young. Someone else will sweep your leavings from cradle to coffin. And the things they discard, when there are Indians famishing. That heel of bread for instance, in its soggy paper wrap. Look at it. Idly tossed there. Profligacy at every turn. She wonders if anyone would see.
But a policeman is looking at her from the bombed-out schoolhouse down the way. She continues towards Porchester Road. His boots scrunch boldly on the shards of mossy glass in the playground. He turns and peers up at the façade. Cornerboys assemble in the wrecked outhouse after dark, among the shattered, ghostly blackboards, the charred skeletons of desks. She has heard them fighting and howling, seen them weltering senselessly through the rubble. One night, she watched three of them capering like fops down the Terrace while their fellows clapped and shrieked and smashed bottles in some sort of contest. A shouting match had ensued between the roisterers and someone far above her in the house, a Connaughtman to judge from his accent. The vile taunts and competing threats had had for her a strange compulsiveness. She had imagined herself an eavesdropper at a door. Five constables had arrived and beaten the youths almost unconscious before dragging them into a Black Maria.
‘Morning, ma’am.’
‘Constable.’
‘Everything quite all right?’
‘Yes, thank you. That’s a chilly one we’re having.’
‘Least the blow died down, eh? Believe the park took a pounding. I’m told one of the royal oaks was uprooted. Been there four hundred years.’
His eyes are glimmering with the particular excitement of men who have survived extreme weather. And she wonders, as she looks at him, if it would be cruel to point out that the storm of last night doesn’t matter.
‘Local are you, ma’am?’
‘I reside here, yes.’
Give him your genteel accent, Molly. It could do with a rehearsal.
‘May I ask your name, ma’am?’
‘Mrs de Winter. Rebecca.’
He advances her a look of collaborative candour, gesturing with his truncheon in the direction of something that must be clear to him. ‘We’ve had reports,’ he confides, ‘of nocturnal goings-on. Neighbours being disturbed. If you get my drift.’
‘I cannot say that I myself have noticed any ruffianism. Are you quite certain, Constable? This is a most respectable street.’
The proposition unnerves him. It is often thus with policemen. When dealing with them, she has learned, one has only two options: adamantine firmness or tear-smitten frailty. There is no room for anything in between.
‘You are aware that number 41 was once the town house of Lady Bloxham?’
‘I – wasn’t aware of that, no, ma’am.’
‘Heirs to the monarchy have dined on this street. Great love affairs have been conducted. Continents redrawn. The steam engine was invented at number 76. We often feel we are living in a sort of museum. Rather stirs the imagination, does it not?’
The constable’s imagination, if stirred, throbs so deeply within him that no public manifestation ensues.
‘Your carpetbag looks heavy, ma’am. May I fetch it for you a little way? My beat takes me in the direction of Bayswater Tube.’
—Tell him Bayswater is Sodom. Go on. I dare you.
‘Oh. No thank you, Constable, you are chivalry personified, but I can manage quite nicely. I do not have all that far to go.’
—The Whore of Babylon, 23B Bayswater Road. Next door to the Antichrist. I dare you.
The cast of his eyes makes him appear apprehensive but his buff-coloured moustache is neat. You’d nearly want to lift him up by it. Dangle him in the air. Is he married? It seems likely. To a big-breasted woman. Amplitude would be important to him, somehow. She has noticed him lately, often early in the mornings, sidling along the Terrace in an underhand way, sometimes examining the parked motor cars or scrawling frenziedly in his notebook,
tucking
at himself now and again, as a man in second-hand underwear, always making time to clamber into the bombed-out schoolhouse whose fireplaces and chimney breast and staircases and blackened joists are obscenely bared to the elements. A signboard announces that the building and its immediate neighbour are CONDEMNED and must be avoided on pain of a fine. She has wondered what it is he is looking for. It occurs to her now to ask him, but to do so would betray that she had been observing his investigations and perhaps he would resent her curiosity. You don’t want to make them resent you. You want to make them go away. Few situations are improved by the presence of a policeman, and many are made much worse.
‘You’ve had no difficulties with – you know – the lodging house, ma’am?’
‘I’m sorry?’
He comes closer, sucking his upper lip in a portentous manner. ‘Lot of Irish, so I’m told. We’ve had numerous complaints. Apparently there’s some female there too, old tramp sort of thing. Down on her luck I shouldn’t wonder. Been seen begging now and again, bothering passers-by for pennies. Makes a nuisance of herself when she’s drunk.’
Wind blows a newspaper slowly across the Terrace. A seagull alights on a hydrant and stares into her eyes for a long, unnerving moment. The shame feels like the beating of a huge wave against a hull. She fears she may vomit from disgrace.
‘Gracious me,’ she says, shaken, ‘I have seen no person fitting that description. Perhaps you have been misinformed.’
‘Never seen her myself. Told she stands out, poor old mare.
Spins a yarn she used to be an actress, needs a bob for the gas. You look out for her, ma’am, and don’t be taken in by her nonsense. I’ll let you trundle along. Don’t listen if you see her. Better box on, myself. Good morning.’
‘And the same to you, Constable, with my gratitude.’
The empty bottles clank in her carpetbag as she walks. Ice on the pavement, on the gratings and architraves, the street like a wedding cake in a dream. In one of the houses a pipe must have burst, for water is trickling down the steps and into the servants’ area at the front and three hapless men with mops are looking at it. But touches of weak sun redeem the council-grown shrubberies and the trees in the tiny triangle of park. It is a day with a plan and any such day is a good one. And if the morning is cold it is also bracing, in its way. It is only the breeze that is raising tears.
The trumpets sound, the banners fly,
The glittering spears are rankèd ready;
The shouts o’ war are heard afar,
The battle closes thick and bloody;
It’s not the roar o’ sea or shore
Wad make me langer wish to tarry.
Nor shout o’ war that’s heard afar –
It’s leaving thee, my bonnie Mary …
If the young woman from America visited – if you permitted her to come – with her pryings and her lipstick and the jangle of bangles on her wrists and her notebook and her overly attentive eyes? Where would you meet her? What could be said of those years? Is there some way of ordering them as one would tidy a messy room, or would the clutter that has amassed merely be shifted about in conversation so as to create an illusion of neatness?
The day you first permitted an intimacy. Few had touched you there before. Heaven help us, you had hardly touched yourself. There had once been a boy, and there was also a married
man, but you had no feeling other than affection for either of them, in truth. To be touched by one you wanted was shocking. The bliss of it frightened you, his concern that you should be pleasured, the ardency of the obscenities he was gasping as you quaked, how he shook as he hardened in your hand. You had been walking Killiney Hill, near the memorial obelisk for the Famine. Grey light on the sea and the distant arms of Kingstown’s piers. And afterwards, as you waited at Killiney station, there was a raincloud of silence between you. You were wet, still raw. His stubble had rasped your face. You could yet feel his fingertips and tongue. Frail smoke from burning weeds drifted unhurriedly over Dalkey Island. The music of a gypsy’s hurdy-gurdy drifted up from the shore and you wondered why he was playing because there was hardly anyone to listen. The air smelt of seaweed and rotting vegetation. In the swells around the Muglins a green trawler was breasting. Its nets were black. You were eighteen.
‘Is something the matter, Molly?’
You said nothing. Remember?
He approached. You stared at the damp strand.
‘You think very little of me now, I am sure.’
He smiled confusedly. ‘I – How do you mean?’
‘You can have little regard for any girl who would allow herself to behave in such a way.’
‘My dearest own sparrow …’
‘Leave me.’
‘What?’
‘If you ever cared for me, leave me. You can take the later train. Or walk. But let me go. I do not want your company.’
‘But – I cannot leave you standing here alone in a public place. What is – ? Are you upset? What has happened to make you cry?’
Horses cantering on the beach. You watched them a while. Stable-lads and romping dogs in the shallows off White Rock. Ecstasies of dirty yellow sea-spray.
The words of his letter of apology. You learned them by heart.
You silly, smitten schoolgirl, so besotted by womanhood that learning them seemed an act of faith. Would there be any point in confessing such an embarrassment to the young woman from America? Should you admit to her that you slept with that letter in your pillowslip for a year? That you sewed a pocket into your shift so as to carry it close to your breast? That the events for which it apologised, recollected even after a year, could still mist you to smoulders of arousal. A benefit, or maybe a hazard, of an actor’s training, that texts can be memorised by repetition. Once committed to the loam of memory where important words are sown, they are incapable of ever being forgotten, for the part might be offered you again. Would she think it pathetic? His humble soliloquy. Oh my soft, sweet tramp. How I ached for you.
Dearest, most precious, my own most treasured friend.
She crosses by Queensway, where the buses cluster. A throng of Jamaican conductors sipping mugs on the pavement while the passengers comfortably grumble in the shelter. The morning has taken hold; the wind does not sheer quite so sharply as she turns down Pretoria Street, past the butcher’s, the post office. That poor girl is on the corner, even though it is still so early, her dress too short, her face a mask of rouge. Does she have a room somewhere? Heaven help her, little mite. What is it in a man that could find solace in such a resort? Or does he merely pretend to himself that he enjoys it?
… You were upset and preoccupied when we parted today, and the fault is to my own account. I watched you from the Military Road as you paced and came and went and I wanted a dozen times to hasten to you again, to implore you from my secret heart to suffer me a moment or permit me to accompany you home to the city. But then came the train from Greystones and I watched you hurry onto it, and in a moment of smoke and thunder you were gone. It started to rain again. I stared at the sea. Its grey-brown was your eyes and there was smoke in the air, as though some great and
terrible violence had been done to something beautiful, and everything in the world had been changed …
Every word, still. You are a professional rememberer. Dear Jesus, how they touched you: those careful, vigilant sentences masquerading as a flight of the heart. Oh yes. They were cautious; you only came to see it years later. For which man can compose a letter from the flames of his soul in neat, unedited paragraphs and nothing crossed out? True desire, perhaps, but desire redrafted. A thing to which you had to accustom yourself.
BOOK: Ghost Light
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