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Authors: Joseph O'Connor

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BOOK: Ghost Light
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‘Are you – asking me a question, Mr Grennan?’
‘More … natural. If you get me, sir. Lord, what is the phrase?
Truer to life
I suppose is my meaning, sir. Like the country people themselves. Down to earth. Not too fancy. The audience do get a great kick out of a thing being true to life.’
‘Do they?’
‘Oh they do, sir. You can tell. And you up on the stage playing. There’s a silence does come over them, or a certain class of laughter, and you’d nearly hear them nudging one another and saying
That’s you
That’s the mother
. Do you get what I’m driving at, sir? It’s a lovely thing when it happens. There’s a nice sort of an innocence in the room like.’
‘Might I use your Christian name, Mr Grennan? One finds surnames so formal.’
Yeats glanced about himself suspiciously, as though suspecting a practical joke of some sort. Lady Gregory appeared vaguely in need of the smelling salts. She now seated herself wordlessly, as though a performance were about to commence, and when Lady Gregory sat down, especially when she did so wordlessly, it was almost as worrying as when she stood up.
‘God of course, sir,’ murmured the understudy, himself a little discomfited. ‘Blaze away. Sure we’re all on the same ticket here.’
‘I was born in Ireland, Willie. I have walked a good deal in Ireland. Have a decent enough smattering of the old Gaelic too. Know a bit of it yourself, I expect?’
‘Not really, sir, no … Not as such like.’
‘Ah. Pity. That may well be the difficulty. Anyhow I must reassure you and set your mind at ease, there is not a line in the piece that I myself have not heard spoken, in Aran or Wicklow or the proper Irish places where an artificially imported way of talking has not taken root among the peasantry. Perhaps you need to clear out your ears, my good Willie Grennan. Perhaps Dublin has polluted you. Eh? But I will consider most carefully your point of view on the question and I am supernally grateful for your admirable frankness.’
The smiles from the players were watery, uncertain. He had clapped the understudy on the back in an overly familiar way, as a master might buck up a recalcitrant manservant whose request for a holiday is impossible. And then he had slunk back to the bookshelf in the corner, leaning against it lightly, his eyes closed fast; his ring-covered fingers propping his chin like the Thinker’s as he waited for the rehearsal to resume. It was itself a performance and she apprehended this. She sensed he was frightened behind the front.
Later that evening, as she made her way homeward through the city, she stopped before the windows of a musical instrument shop on Capel Street. Dusk reddened the panes. A slum
child was calling for alms. It was ludicrous, utter folly, the differences between them – his age, his class, his accent, his crippling wistfulness, his way of eying the walls when he spoke to her, or about her. It could never happen. She wouldn’t want it to happen. Probably he wouldn’t either. This wasn’t a play.
Their affair is a year old. He has been hurt in love previously, has long been introspective, harrowed by depressions. Social life in Dublin he finds a crucifixion. He loathes the vulgarity, the backslappery and falseness: ‘the cheap commonplace merriment’ of it all. He tells her she should be ‘steadily polite’ to her fellow actors but must always wear a mask, must never trust outsiders. By ‘outsiders’ he means everyone except himself. Above all, their engagement is to remain a secret. There could be whisperings in the theatre. People would have views. Yeats and Lady Gregory do not think it quite correct for a co-director and a mere actress to be so familiar. There is also the problem of Mother, of course. The news will have to be broken very gradually to Mother.
They slog around Bray, back to Loughlinstown, or Shankill, trudging weedy rutted laneways, puddled boreens, like a schoolboy and his first sweetheart on a glum little tryst with no money to go in someplace out of the rain. The things he finds fascinating, she can’t understand them. Rocks. Bushes. Moths. Deserted nests. A squirrel – look! – falling out of a tree! (‘Holy Moses,’ yelps the playwright: his favourite profanity.) This dreamer is a man who gazes into a hedgerow like a debutante contemplating a jeweller’s window.
She does not like all this walking, becomes tired very quickly. Unlike her Old Tramp – this is how he styles himself – she has to work ceaselessly hard, no matter how she feels. There are no housemaids, no servants in the place she calls home. Her wages are thirty shillings a week. She rehearses all day, is on the stage most nights. She has not yet fully learned the breathing techniques
of an actor, that acting is about the body as much as the instincts, and the director, Mr Fay, is pushing her hard. Her accent is too common, too Dublin, not artistic.
You must not say ‘draymin’. The word is ‘dreaming’, Miss O’Neill. You are playing a druidical princess, not a fishwife.
The work is exhausting. She has to help the seamstresses. The wigs are louse-infested and heavy. So she sees walking as primarily a means of getting to some destination, whereas her storyteller appears to regard it as an end in itself. Occasionally she suspects he feels the same way about courtship. An agreeable hobby, leading to nothing but literature.
The embarrassing son, the pretender to beggary, the tramp in Savile Row boots inherited from his father, whom he does not remember and does not resemble and whose feet were a larger size. But his mother never discarded them, and anyway they were his father’s, and if every man must walk in his father’s boots, one may as well do so literally, he smiles.
And he walks and he walks in the chafing old boots, and she walks alongside him, through the heat and the rain. They are so often beside one another, hardly ever face-to-face, and their footprints on a strand form graciously pleasing parallels that only occasionally merge.
He feels strongly that she should learn, should improve her mind. It is time for her to stop reading ‘dressmaker’s trash’. He gives her novels he has selected, volumes of verse. Soon she will be ‘the best-educated actress in Europe’, he says. The phrase strikes her as odd. It would look queer on a poster. He wants her to take pride in what he insists on terming her progress. She is to keep notebooks of her reading, as he does of his own, listing works for which she cares and the reasons why. He has ‘wheelbarrow-loads’ of such jotters at home in Glenageary. He has been keeping them since his schooldays. She should acquire this practice. There is a touch of Pygmalion and the Statue in what is happening between them, but there are times when she wonders which of them is which.
‘Come down and learn to love and be alive.’ In the version by
William Morris, whose work he admires, such is the plea of unhappy Pygmalion to the cold marble effigy he so agonisingly loves. She wonders if her playwright, her lover of stones, has ever given thought to this supplication, how he would respond if he found himself its recipient.
He drifts, this tweedy tramp, dusty gentleman of the roads. Kilmacanogue. Enniskerry. The dolmens of Ballybrack. The backwoods and cart tracks of the Dublin-Wicklow borderlands. He has no map, no compass, no plan except to keep walking. Over the crest of the next hummock there will always be another. Around lakes. Into grottoes. Through forests. Across streams. Jesus, can he walk. He must be the healthiest invalid in Ireland. No holy well or hermitage is allowed to remain unpoked-at. They traipse up and down the Sugarloaf until she can tell all the sheep apart. A pity love is not measured in worn-out soles; if it were, she would be a married woman by now.
The subject of setting a date drifts into the conversation. Always he finds a reason to talk about something else. As a student, a capable violinist, he gave up the ambition of professional musicianship because the petrifaction of stage fright was too much for him to face. He is still frozen in the wings, she sometimes thinks, afraid to step out into the scene that is begging for him.
Probably some of this is Mother’s doing. His childhood was one of ‘well-meant but extraordinary cruelty’. She gruelled him on the Bible, on the castigations of Hell. He has been slowly roasted on the flames of her widowhood. He could never be a father, he resolved while still a child; parents bequeath us only their susceptibilities. ‘I will never create beings to suffer as I am suffering.’ She has an image of a terrified newborn, croup-racked, asthmatic, flailing at the banshees that swoop at his cot.
He doesn’t belong. Doesn’t want to belong. Wanting not to belong is exhausting. ‘I am always a kind of outsider,’ he claims, yet he never stops fretting about what people will think. Life is unendingly dreary in the bourgeois suburbs: ‘Kingstown, the heat, and the frowsy women.’ But it is to here he returns at the close
of the day, when the rambles are over and the house lights fade up. His changeling is left to rehearse unspoken lines on a train to a room in the city.
When they see one another at rehearsal in the theatre during the week, he does not like them to converse privately. People might be eavesdropping. ‘You must not mind,’ he writes to her, ‘if I seem a little distant. We can have our talk on green hills that are better than all the greenrooms in the world.’ Her sister and the priest in Confession advise great caution: when a man is not willing to be seen in public with a girl, there is something deeply the matter, or his word is not true. And never to have a child? How could any woman agree? It’s a diversion he’s after, an escapade with a wild native colleen, before marrying a filly of his own inbred sort, some Henrietta with her eyes just a tad too close together, webbed toes and a dowry of diamond mines. But she won’t be counselled: they don’t understand. She is not yet nineteen; she knows this is love. What matter if he’s a little odd? Writers often are.
There are weeks when he disappears, journeying alone into Wicklow, where he roams the hills and glens like a hermit. Few know where he lodges, when he plans to return, how his mountain days are filled, if they are permitted to be empty. If she has a rival, it is Wicklow, the motherland of his solitudes; he vanishes when she calls to him, roves her byways, craves her emptiness – yet avoids her in the everyday and unimportant conversations, as a husband deflecting attention from an infidelity. There will always be Wicklow. It must be accepted in silence. Some men bring a lost love, no matter where.
In the ladies’ lavatories at the theatre, one rainy Friday morning, as she approaches the sink to bathe her face after a nosebleed, she sees words traced in the condensation that has fogged the splintered mirror. JMS HAS SIFILIS.
‘Mister John, you are welcome home, sir,’ the elderly housekeeper says quietly. ‘Will I help you off with your coat and the haversack?’
‘Thank you, Alice. I am bushed. Supper almost ready?’
‘It is, sir. I’ll tell the girls. You had good walking down beyond?’
‘What? Oh yes. All shipshape here? Holy Moses, look at the muck on these boots.’
‘Your mother is … not in the best, sir. She’s been out of sorts while you were gone. Above in the room half the day and barely the pick itself of food. I thought I should tell you, sir. I hope I amn’t speaking out of turn.’
‘No no. Thank you, Alice. Been particularly bad, has it?’
‘Dr Haughton was up to us the Tuesday, and again yesterday morning. She swore me not to tell you, sir, I don’t rightly know why. But I felt, in all conscience …’
‘Quite. You acted correctly. You appear worried, Alice. Not yourself.’
With dread, he now sees that the housekeeper is weeping. The woman turns away briefly, the back of her neck reddening. ‘Mister John,’ she begins, but then pauses, dabbing her eyes with her apron, and when she speaks again her voice is controlled. ‘I don’t know, Mister John, if she’ll be with us long more. That’s the God’s living truth, sir. Thank God you’re come home. There’s a light after going out of her, sir, I seen it happen before, when your father Lord have mercy on him was taken.’
BOOK: Ghost Light
5.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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