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Authors: Joseph O'Connor

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BOOK: Ghost Light
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Away. Put it away. It is not worth recalling. He is not with you now, as you turn down Marine Street. Perhaps he is back in the room. Well, it is important to show gratitude. Thankfulness, always. It is not easy for an actress once she has passed a certain age to secure a role commensurate with her training. The parts are too few. It is that simple and inescapable. Not in Shakespeare, not in Ibsen, not in Shaw, nor in Chekhov. She wonders, recrossing Queensway, if any of the blockheads had mothers. Did they never once glance up from their inks and their parchments, their grubby little fingerprints besmirching the margins, seagulls of their own inadequacy flitting madly in the rafters, and notice there was an elderly woman moving about in the room, probably preparing their lunch? An old male actor will always find something: a laird, a kindly king, the decrepit twit of the village, a blacksmith with an announcement, a butler in Wilde, the priest brought by night to marry ill-starred lovers whose families would keep them apart. But for a woman, once she has offended by outliving the age of childbirth, the roles disappear as honeybees in winter. A jealous auld hag. An irrepressible washerwoman. Some bitch to be bested in a pantomime.
Past the tobacconist’s, the haberdashery, the ironmonger, the fruiterer’s, the door to the staircase leading up to the abortionist’s, past the Christian Science reading room, the Maison Lyons Café, and the launderette with the sign in its window:
CLEAN ROOM TO RENT
SUIT COUPLE (MARRIEDS ONLY)
NO BLACKS
NO IRISH
NO DOGS
And she comes to the World Turned Upside Down, an ‘early house’ for the Portobello stallholders. Truly, what a beautiful name for a pub, like the title of a morality play or a ballad. Poetry seeds itself everywhere. One has only to notice it. London’s pub names often recall for her the reel tunes of her girlhood. The Mason’s Apron. The Rights of Man. The Skylark. The Jolly Ploughboy. Carters are hefting kegs through a grille-hatch in the pavement and a boy stares up from the cellar as he receives them.
The fug of maleness and cigarette smoke, wet overcoats drying, belched beer, gin spilled over sawdust. Over there, behind the bar, leans the long-time proprietor. There is rather a lot of him but you couldn’t call him fat. He is engrossed in a horse-racing newspaper, marking chances with a pencil whose end he intermittently gnaws. His cigarette is burning itself out in an over-full ashtray so spiked with discarded butts that it calls to mind a porcupine. In the browned mirror over the optics and the shelves of pale ales she observes that he has a bald patch, which she has never noticed before, and she finds herself wondering if it upsets him. He is surely not yet fifty. But perhaps he doesn’t mind. It is like a monk’s tonsure. You’d want to give it a little kiss. She has seen him at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, affably heckling the Trotskyites. It is rumoured in the neighbourhood that he has a fancy-woman in the Edgware Road. He has been witnessed buying carnations for no reason.
‘Good morning, Mr Ballantine.’
‘Lumme, Miss O’Neill. Didn’t half give me a start.’ He knuckles his left eye, which seems to be irritated by something. ‘How’s my best sweetheart today? Keeping well?’
‘In the pink, Mr Ballantine. And yourself and your lovely wife?’
‘Awake half the night with the wind in the willows, as it goes. You’d want to see my loft; half the blessed slates come down. Holes in the roof you wouldn’t fit in your hat. But say not the struggle naught availeth. What can I do you for, my precious?’
‘I’ll tell you what it is, Mr Ballantine. A little mission of mercy. Some of us had a little party at the theatre the other evening. It was a last-night affair. Rather flamboyant in its way. All the critics were there, the Department of Broken Dreams as I call them, and some glamorous young adulteresses from the newspapers. Anyhow, I took the liberty of gathering up some of the empties afterwards. Seems rather a shame to waste the deposits when they could be put to good use. Would you mind awfully, Mr Ballantine? I should be most obliged to your kindness. Thing is, we always send the monies to a little charitable fund for India. Waste not, want not, and so on.’
‘Many you got, then?’
She opens her jaded carpetbag and places them carefully on the counter. The count comes eventually to seven.
‘I have rinsed them,’ she assures him. ‘They are something of an assortment of oddities. Rather like the critics in that way.’
‘Quite the knees-up,’ he says coolly, assessing the parade.
‘Oh well. It
was
a last night.’
‘You theatricals do seem to be fond of a shindig,’ he says. ‘Seems to be a hooley
every
night, as it goes.’
‘Yes, it’s scandalous, isn’t it? We in the profession and our inveterate pleasure-seeking. But I know our naughty secret is safe with your good self, Mr Ballantine.’
‘Well now, that’s as may be, you’ll need to be good to me. Let’s see; it’s thruppence the piece is a bob and a tanner and sixpence on the large is two bob.’
‘Is it so much? I had not counted. Well, that is excellent news. Father Fagin at the Fund will be delighted.’
‘Don’t mind the wages of sin, eh? They’re all the same, clergy. Push comes to shove, they’ll take a cheque.’
‘Mr Ballantine, please. Father Fagin is a most reputable person.’
He fumbles in his cash drawer, which she has never seen closed. ‘Oh, I ain’t saying he ain’t, love. Just pulling your leg. You be sure and have him say a rosary for us poor lugs as has to work. Coin of the realm. Cross your palm, my duck. That’s true as Ripon rowels.’
One of the draymen trudges in now, bearing a docket to be signed, and Mr Ballantine banters with him suggestively for a moment or two about how tired he looks this morning, and the young man’s recent marriage, and the tardiness of fellow-melads new to matrimony.
Been bringing you the bacon? I bet she has and all.
The carter is a puckish Scotsman, sallow, with bushy eyebrows, and he chuckles in such a sweet-natured and boyishly mortified way that Miss O’Neill experiences a throb of visceral protectiveness, which she assures herself is motherly solicitude of a most respectable kind, although actually it is mild jealousy towards his wife. Some entity calling itself ‘The Spurs’, a football team, apparently, is subjected to salvoes of baaing derision by Mr Ballantine, the better to be jovially defended by the chortling hauler, whose rolled r’s the older man starts to mimic. And it is heart-warming, once again, to see how easily men talk to one another, about things that could not matter less.
Such fluencies they have. What wouldn’t one give for them? These ways of asserting fellowship, a shared concurrence in the world, its verities acknowledged, its hard rains shrugged away, and to see two men conversing like Mr Ballantine and the carter is to be reassured that nothing will ever change. The young Hotspur lopes towards the door, still aspersing and hooting, and on a sudden she remembers an amusing phenomenon of New York theatrical life, whereby audience members wishing for taxis leave their seats at the very moment the play ends, applauding their way down the aisle, occasionally glancing back at the stage, but beetling like the furies for the lobby and the street: ‘the walking ovation,’ a colleague once termed it. If Manhattan catharsis occurs – and she was not always certain it did, for
Americans, unlike the Irish, do not like to be made gloomy by a night out – the tears are shed in motor cars crossing bridges for New Jersey, the true home of pity and terror.
‘He wants learning, that boy. He don’t half rabbit. He’s come in here last Monday and no word of a lie if it ain’t taken me an hour to get shut of him. That’s your jock for you, of course. Talk the paint off the walls. May I offer you a libation, Miss O’Neill? As a guest of the house?’
‘Oh. Well, I usually don’t partake, as you know, Mr Ballantine. Not during the daylight hours anyhow.’
‘Little nip to warm the cockles. You’ll be glad of it afterwards. That’s a day I wouldn’t send a beggar’s bitch out and there’s snow expected later.’
‘Well, then, thank you, Mr Ballantine, so as not to give offence.’
‘Take the weight off over there and I’ll bring you a drop of Madeira and a pickle. The missus has a nice loaf inside if you’d have a cut off that?’
‘Oh, but it is too much trouble. You have clientele to attend to.’
‘No trouble for my secret sweetheart. Beauty’s always welcome here, love. Take a pew over yonder; those are the ladies’ seats as you know. Not that there’s many of
that
species at large in London any more. Still, a little of what we fancy does us good, eh?’
She seats herself uncomfortably on the banquette in the window alcove, which commands a pleasant enough view of Queensway. Well, pleasant is not the word. Repellent is the word. But we see what we wish to see, usually. London, for Miss O’Neill, has an unkillable nobleness, even its less picturesque quarters. It is a town with a little dirt under its fingernails, perhaps, but you don’t have to look at its fingers. Every Dubliner feels free here. She has noticed this, often. But perhaps only an immigrant would be able to perceive the broken grace that arises like a pea-soup fog. The arc of that railway bridge – has it not a stark
itself
ness? The chained gates of the derelict foundry are magnificently wrought: austere, crow-black, the massiveness of a portcullis, copper capitals in a trellis arching the arrow-tipped
rails preach FORTITUDE WORKS – how beautiful. And if those workingmen’s cottages are small, they are neat as a row of soldiers, the grey of the sky and the street and the faces making the wet redness of the brickwork lovelier. A pyramid of swept garbage disassembles itself as she looks at it, but the bar is too noisy for the wind to be audible. Hunting prints and regimental emblems alleviate the faded scarlet wallpaper; not the most womanly of decorations, poor dear Mr Ballantine, but an assortment of ladies’ magazines several decades out of date has been arrayed on the table among the beer mats. The women in them look like boxers disguised as society flappers in a picture the Marx Brothers never made.
She leafs through the script, as though anything in it might be surprising. In her youth she played the lead. Today she will play the widow. Hunger flares fiercely, almost as an anger. She swallows it and reads on, but concentration dies, and anyway she knows the role already, its every pause and comma. She could play it in her sleep. She sometimes has. So kindly, Mr Ballantine. A gentle, mellow Englishman. As she thinks of him, the Gaelic word
caomh
unfurls in her consciousness: dear, mild, noble, restful.
Caomhnóir
: a protector, a guardian. Son died at Dunkirk. Never been the same. Sad to think of them all, the brave young boys, and the friends they never made and the girls they didn’t kiss. She glances up and notices him talking quietly to his wife in the doorway that leads to the kitchen. The two of them look at her. Do they know?
Men barrel in and out, with their swearing and gruffness, and their ludicrous skittles and dominoes. (‘Oi, Vernie! Ernie! Bernie McInerney!
Your
shout, you facking tart. Oy Oy!’) Why can they never sit easy, must they always
emit noises
, and must the noises be deafening vowels? Heavens, look at that specimen of jailbird Lothario. Belly the size of the old queen’s bustle and a face like a stevedore’s armpit. To think he has a vote. It is appalling. If one handed him a copy of the
Complete Works of Strindberg
, he would probably wipe his bottom with it, or eat it. And his disciples all
yelping and spitting and backslapping, as though it is midnight in some bierkeller in the Weimar Republic, not ten in the morning in Bayswater. The sawdust is filthy, and as a boy brings a little tray for her, she points out to him discreetly that the steps need to be mopped – over there, leading down to the lavatories. And there are
fingerprints
on the
bread
. What a common establishment, really. Mr Ballantine does his best but his wife hails from Peckham. Still, wiser to say nothing when politeness is offered. A certain class can take offence where none is intended.
All drawn up, Britannia’s sons
Faced the Russian tyrant’s guns,
And bravely dared his shells and bombs
On the bonny heights of Alma.
Oh, a fresh day now. Does a body good to venture out. Blow away the cobwebs, begin again. Too long in that room, girl. Pulled-in. An old turtle. Little wonder there would be sadnesses and night-thoughts and regrets and butterflies of recollection flitting about half the day and the scuttle of the past out of cupboards. Sure if you went to sleep sane in a room such as that, you would wake up mad as a monk. Must eat decorously, not too fast, because people might be watching, and while it is hard to remember propriety while hungry in the extreme, one can make oneself ill if one wolfs like a docker, and it is unladylike to weep even for gratitude. Slow, take your time, it is a beautiful day, a morning that never before dawned on the planet, and the hunger will pass, and there is kindness and fellowship, and frost on the leaves and no cyanide pellets bursting and a script to be performed and old songs to be remembered and a Scotsman to be teased for getting married. The world is not an abattoir. No. It is not. It can turn upside down if you allow it.
She sees herself entering the panelled recording studio in the basement at the BBC, the younger actors half turning and collegially smiling, a pretty secretary distributing annotations. The microphone like a little maypole around which they will
gather in a circle, four minutes before transmission commences. Tongue-twisters quickly whispered to loosen the mouth. Red lorry yellow lorry red lorry yellow lorry. The bootblack bought the black boot back. Oh the exhilaration, the thrilling anxiety of those evaporating seconds. Mr Hartnett will be in his booth; the arc light will be dimmed, someone will whisper a compliment on her appearance.
What a lovely blouse, Molly. Is it a Worth? Ah, I thought so. It is so wonderful to see you again.
Mr Hartnett will shush the studio and remind the newcomers, the ingénues, of the importance of regarding every microphone as live.
BOOK: Ghost Light
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