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Authors: Joseph O'Connor

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BOOK: Ghost Light
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‘Alice – oh my dear Alice – I’m so sorry you have been distressed. Please won’t you sit down a moment? Would you take a small sherry with me, perhaps?’
‘I’d rather not do that, sir; I’ve the girls in the kitchen to think about.’
‘If we stepped into the library a moment, I don’t think anarchy would result.’
‘All the same, sir, I’d prefer not. But will you go and talk to her, Mister John? We’re all frighted half to death. She’s been so good to us down the years. If there’s anything we can do, sir.
Anything at all. I’ve the girls offering the rosary for her this night.’
‘She’s a game old bird, Alice. She’ll see us all down. Come on now, there’s the good scout, buck up.’
‘You don’t understand me, sir – begging your pardon, sir – but what it is I’m trying to tell you …’
‘Dear, kind Alice … Oh no … Please don’t cry.’
‘Lawyer Morgan is after being here, sir. He was sent to Dublin for, yesterday. He was in with her an hour and another man along. Bridget was asked for paper, sir, and a bottle of ink. When the tea was brought in beyond, they were talking of your mother’s Will, sir. It’s my opinion it’s come to that, sir … I don’t know what to do …’
‘I see. Well, don’t be upset. The girls need your example. And we mustn’t put the worst complexion on matters we don’t understand.’
‘Don’t be letting on to herself that I told you, sir. Sure you won’t?’
‘Of course not. Thank you, Alice. Your discretion does you credit. We are so fortunate to have you. You are not to worry about anything. Now, tell Bridget I’ll be ready presently. And assist my mother to the dining table if you would.’
He washes in his bedroom, looking out at the trees, the walls of the neighbours’ gardens, the conservatories. To be away from people now. In some quaking, black bog. To raise one’s face to a rainstorm.
‘Good evening, Mother. Have you been well?’
She does not reply. The dining room is cold as a November orchard.
‘I am sorry my return was delayed. I was down in Wicklow, walking. The weather was that charming I took a room at the inn in Rathnew. I asked a local type to send a telegram for me but I gather from Alice it didn’t arrive.’
‘Do you wish to kill me, John? Has this family not suffered enough?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Have I not been wounded and cut at sufficiently to placate the wicked selfishness you appear to regard as a devoted parent’s due?’
‘I can see that you have upset yourself, Mother. Now what is the matter?’
‘Teasy Ryan was able to tell me that you had been seen at Greystones. Swimming.’
‘What of it?’
‘With some female. Is this allegation true?’
‘Is it an offence against the by-laws to bathe on a hot day? I shall take care not to commit it again if so.’
‘With a female? Can you be serious? Is this disingenuousness or stupidity? Have you the scantest regard for propriety? You are not in Paris now!’
‘She is a friend. It was sunny. We went bathing at the public strand. She is a colleague at the theatre. Afterwards we had ices. Now you have the entire penny-dreadful.’
‘I knew it. Your so-called theatre. Some little typist who sells tickets. I imagine she must be good and proud of herself to have ensnared you quite so readily. One need not speculate as to how.’
‘She is not a typist, Mother. You may as well know she is an actress.’
Her frightened, beautiful face seems to lose all its colour, and a quiver briefly distends her mouth. ‘So it is true, then. The worst is true. Do you hate me so much? The woman who gave you life?’
‘Mother –’
‘What have I done to you?’ Tears come staining her cheeks. ‘Have I not loved you enough? Protected you? Supported you? It is commanded of us that we honour our father and mother and yet this beautiful injunction, on which all decent society is predicated, is to be trampled with its nine companions. To imagine that you would invite an individual of that sort to an
inn
, as you call it. You are aware, I think, that we are known throughout Wicklow? Have the words “shame” and “scandal” been expunged from your vocabulary? That is to say nothing of the girl’s reputation, if she has one.’
‘She is a person of faultless integrity and she quite obviously did not stay with me at the inn, which is incidentally a perfectly respectable establishment. She came down on the train one morning and returned to Dublin in the evening. We had a day outing; that is all. I stayed there alone. I felt one of my fevers coming on and thought the mountain air would do me good.’
‘A Roman Catholic, one assumes?’
‘For pity’s sake, Mother –’
‘Where are your loyalties? Is allegiance so unknown to you?’
‘My friend – she is called Miss Allgood – is of a mixed marriage, as it happens. Her late father, if it matters, was a Presbyterian, I am told. And you are being – if I may say so – well, I would rather not use the word.’
‘I am reliably informed she was born in a rag-and-bone shop. Is this so?’
‘I think you will find, when you meet Miss Allgood –’
‘When I
what
, sir?’
‘I had hoped, in the fullness of time, to have the honour of introducing her. She is a person of the most warm-hearted and gentle, courageous kindness.’
‘Never! Do you understand me?
Never, John
. Do not ask it. Should you be deluded enough to assume that I shall legitimise whatever infantile flouting this represents, you will find that you are gravely mistaken.’
‘Very well, I shall not ask. But I shall live by my own lights. If that inflames your petty bigotries, for that is what they are, I wash my hands entirely of blame and wish you happiness.’
‘May I remind you, sir –’
‘Do not call me “sir”, Mother. It is demeaning in the extreme.’
‘May I remind you,
sir
, that every farthing in your idle pocket is supplied by myself through the providence of your late father? No natural respect or affection you have for his widow – this I know too well – again and
again
you have made it quite clear – but one would have imagined you might have some regard for what people say.’
‘They may say what they wish. I do not give two damns what they
say.

‘Do not blaspheme in my presence, John, I warn you –
I warn you.

‘Teasy Ryan, a woman who enters this house to collect laundry once a week, is now to be public arbiter and informant as to morality?’
‘She has been loyal to this family always. How dare you presume to speak of her in that manner?’
‘Is one to care about the prattle of tinkers and peasants?’
‘You seem fond enough of tinkers, from what I am informed of the female.’
‘Withdraw that remark.’
‘I shan’t.’

Withdraw it, Mother. Immediately. Or I shall leave this table without delay.

‘You must do as you will.
My response shall be the same:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image
—’
‘I have heard it before –
I have heard it all my life …

‘Or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
The theatre is the liar’s house. It is
itself
a lie. And any woman who would solicit remuneration by exhibiting herself publicly merits a word I shall not utter but you know.’
‘Say the word, Mother. You are burning to do so.’
‘Listen to how you are speaking to me.
Listen
to the hatred in your voice. The woman who
bore
you. The widow of your father.
I am broken with their whorish heart, which hath departed from me, and with their eyes, which go a whoring after their idols
.’
‘Is this your Christian charity? Do they comfort, such sanctities?’
‘I shall speak my conscience freely at the table I supply.
You will obey my orders, John. And that is an end to it.
While you reside beneath my roof, you will comport yourself in a manner I deem to be appropriate. Your standards shall be
mine
, not those of the supposedly aesthetic louts with whom you have chosen to surround yourself.’
‘I am thirty-seven, Mother.’

And you would do well to reflect on it
.’
‘I am to be a prisoner, then? Is that what you wish?’
‘The door of this house opens. You may use it at any time. It also closes. And it locks. And the prison you inhabit, if inhabit one you do, is guarded by the magistrate in your heart. He will
always
be there, John. You will face him at the close. You shall stand before the Mercy Seat one terrible day. “He shall come to be glorified in His saints”.’
‘Mother –’
‘Only know that when you leave, you shall never be welcomed again. You shall sail under your own steam, I shall make plain certain of that. I should have done it long ago but of course I was weak. You shall earn your own bread, sir, as the good God intended for a man. If that is indeed what you are.’
‘Then I shall leave as soon as is practicable. I shall find a boarding-house room in the city. Since that is quite evidently what you would prefer.’
‘In some alley of the slums, no doubt. Good and close to your whore.’
‘Correct, Mother, yes. I shall live among whores.’
‘Yes, run.
Run.
Like the faithless coward you always were.
You make me sick that ever I saw you
.’
The maidservant enters with the soup. The conversation is extinguished.
‘You’re welcome back to us, Mister John,’ murmurs the serving girl apprehensively. ‘You had good walking down beyond, I hope.’
‘Thank you, Bridget, yes … But it is agreeable to be home … Ah … Mulligatawny … My favourite.’
Soup spoons observe him. Portraits scrutinise him. Everything in the house has eyes.
RETURNING TO MISS O’NEILL IN LONDON ON THE DAY WE FIRST MET HER
THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
11.32 a.m.
Heavens to Betsy, what an ugly old trout. Face like a bag of rusted spanners. Imagine, someone paid good money for that glower to be painted. More beauty in the door of a jakes, that’s the God’s honest truth. My Jesus Almighty, but there’s hope for us all, Molls. ‘The Duchess of Blandford.’ Looks like Mussolini in a wig.
Il Duce
with udders. God help us.
But it is good for the soul, being exposed to art. Just can take a little while to feel the benefit. Like dumb-bells. Or going to seances. Or voting Conservative. And what harm, when you think of it, ever came from a picture? Isn’t it only little stains on a scrap of old canvas? Nobody was ever murdered by a painting.
And maybe she
was
a beauty, the Duchess of Blandford, before marriage to the Duke and the rest of the Blandfords and having to produce the heir and spares. Perhaps he had a mistress and it broke her frettish heart. Because you know what it’s like with the aristocracy, Molly. Up and down with their drawers like a funicular railway and they rutting like rabbits, every half chance they get. And I know they don’t
look
like that when you see them in portraits. But then again, neither do rabbits.
Poor ghastly face. But you’re no beauty yourself any more. Be honest – the years aren’t kind. And you feel that you have submerged into fretfulness with age, hear yourself murmuring of your anxieties with the troubled watchfulness of a child in an
unfathomable world. And your old woman’s
voice—
how did that happen? Your wheezing, brittle croakiness, distracted, muted, and you gossiping to the teacups for company. There was a day many years ago, in Connemara or Kerry, when you happened upon an old rowboat that had been dumped in a bog. Cross-bench crushed and buckled, rotting tiller wrenched askew, it had sunk to its oarlocks in the oozing, black peat. Often, of late, when you become aware of your voice, the image has appeared in your thoughts.
And getting up earlier. Another symptom, that. What young person ever got up at dawn out of choice? And talking to the wireless. And talking to the rain. And talking to dogs and to flowers in people’s gardens. And talking to clothes that don’t fit you any more and to dishes that need washing but haven’t been washed, and to Sean the moan O
’Casey
, who you never truly liked, though the imaginary version at least doesn’t answer. And to Shakespeare and the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, and whoever invented brassieres, and Mozart, and Stalin, and the Beverley Sisters, and Franco, and the Holy Child of Prague, and the Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy of Company ‘B’, and whoever put the zips in the
back
of women’s dresses, a presumption, if ever there was one, that every woman is married, and whole
conversations
with your
self
.
—They must have family still over beyond in Jamaica. Wouldn’t you think they’d miss them, Molly?
—Oh, you would.
—A wife maybe. Or little ones. And they without a father in life. It’s sad when you think of it. God love them all the same. —They’re terribly nice people, I’ve found.
—I mean plenty of our own had to go, I’m not saying they didn’t. In the Famine times and later. Jesus help them, they’d no choice. Wicklow was hit terrible. Whole townlands died in Wicklow. Little weanlings left to starve on the side of the road. And that bitch Queen Victoria giving five pounds to the relief fund. Same as you’d give a dogs’ home. Imagine.
—Is that true?
—Even in my own day. I was all for going myself. I was often sorry I didn’t. Boston I’d have liked. They’ve great lives for themselves altogether over in Boston, I believe. But himself never wanted to. And he wouldn’t be contradicted. So I suppose we can’t be giving out and the boot on the other foot.
—Oh, no.
—That’s right. The world does be turning. That’s all.
Ah, the better day now. When we’re out, we’re out. And it’s soothing in here, like a church. And the gas thing about brandy, it isn’t like gin. Brandy’s a nice wooziness, like you’re warm and in Jersey, and the heat grinning up through the soles of your sandals, but gin is a rancidness that will always taste of London, doesn’t matter a damn where in the world you’re drinking it. Took Pegeen to Jersey one time. Twelve she was, maybe. Most beautiful child at the carnival that day, and the blue calico frock and the ribbons on the bonnet, and the carousels turning behind her.
And Christmas will bring trials, for your son-in-law is not only teetotal but branch secretary of the East Aberdeen Labour Party. Oh, a fiend for the red flag and what’s mine is yours, comrade, but not a thimbleful of port, nor a swallow of amontillado, nor a flame’s worth of whiskey for the pudding. Treasurer of the Working Men’s Temperance Society. Sherry trifle for the afters – without the sherry. Still, the twins, lovely monkeys, and Pegeen in her apron, and all of us together in the flat. And it’s his roof you’ll be under, so it’s himself makes the rules, and don’t you go stirring up trouble again, Molls. It isn’t fair to ask a woman to side against her husband. And he can’t be all bad, when he’s father to those children. Their wild laughter when he lofts them in his arms.
Now look at that man and he gawping at me sternish, like the seam of his bollocks is hand-stitched. Well, shame be damned, you old bull without a pizzle. And haven’t I the
right
to be here, just the same as yourself? Put your eyeballs back in your head, pet. Give your face a little holiday. Was it cold in the ground this morning?
Smouldering Hell to the lot of them. Devil the bit of harm I’m doing. I’ve a son gave his life for this country, my buck, and if I can’t look at its pictures same as any other covey in the kingdom, then my name isn’t Molly Allgood, it’s Sam. So turn the other cheek if you don’t like the look of me, and kiss my arse like it owes you the rent.
‘Good morning, Reverend.’
‘Good morning, madam.’
‘I hope it keeps fine for you.’ Give a smile. It confuses them. And fuck them all bar Nelson. But why not Nelson too? Because Nelson’s fucked already, Molly. That’s why.
You roam the quiet rooms, moving deeper into the building, past the faces of the famous and forgotten. A schoolteacher is trying to quieten a restless flock of girls who have no more interest in what the guide is telling them about the techniques of impasto than a monkey would have in a bicycle. You pass beneath a skylight and the hailstones surge so sharply that everyone looks up at the glass. The attendant, who is Polish, gives you a complaisant smile, as though the weather is a charmingly naughty child who must be endured. A soldier and his girl are canoodling in an alcove. God love them. So hard for the young. Hope the porters let them alone and not be moving them along. Won’t we all be a long time dead?
Sepulchral, the silence of the long, empty halls. In your mind arise the place names of rural north Wicklow, as snowflakes blowing about a hiker.
Knocksink. Carrickgollogan. Crone Wood
.
Deep Dargle.
Your mother’s voice pronouncing them. And then Sean O’Casey’s. And a voice you haven’t heard in a long time but have often remembered: Edwardian, proper, mellifluously Anglo-Irish, shy, precise, slightly afraid. The intonation of a man who died many years ago. It pronounces your love-place
Wickleau
.
And if you were to hold on to his letter until the woman from America comes? Perhaps she might be willing to pay more? But maybe she’ll never come. Plans can change, after all. Anyhow, giving it to some stranger simply wouldn’t feel right – not like
giving it to nice Mr Duglacz. She will have to be content, if you agree to see her at all, with whatever scraps of stories you can unearth. But you don’t have many of those, only pictures, torn fragments. How you envy those many of your profession who are able to deploy anecdotes like spivs passing out stolen stockings.
But now – sit down, Molly, take a rest on the bench – close your eyes for a moment. No one minds. A quarter-moon behind the obelisk on the summit of Killiney Hill and the jingle of the buckles on the jarvey’s undercarriage. The driver clicking his tongue to chirk along the horse and the road begins a winding descent. A few miles in the distance must be the mountains of Wicklow but it is too dark to see them now. You imagine being on the Sugarloaf – gorse in mist, the smell of goats – and as if to incarnate your thoughts, the gardens of the mansions sprout boulders and crag-heaps, walls of broken undercliff, outcrops and buttes of schist. A great singer lives in that villa; there are often young people by its gates like the famished awaiting scraps in a hymn. Past a ruined Martello tower, an ivy-swathed gate-lodge, a manse, a converted rectory, a retirement home, a castle. The ghosts of the people who lived in them once: their maidservants, stable-grooms, butlers, wrecked sons, scholars turned native, dowagers. The rain summons presences as you nod beneath the skylights.
You are riding a night train through western America. You watch yourself calmly, like some member of an audience watching a story that is only a diversion. And it’s a story about actors. It would make a good play. They’re bound for New York City, a journey that will take five days. Because the Express is not running, and nobody seems to know why. But Miss O’Neill, yes that’s her name, or Miss Allgood, that’s another, suspects it’s a gallon of hogwash about the Express not running, that the producer wishes to scrimp and is too devious to admit it. He’d dynamite the walls of Jerusalem for two bucks and a beer, piss in the bottle and sell it back to you for champagne. And so the days will be gruelling, wearying, hungry. And the nights, too,
will be far from easy, although night travel on a train through the unrolling American unseen is not without its moments of glum awe. Even claustrophobia can give way to a sense of gloomy redemption when it is experienced while on the move. The necessary makings-do and compromised privacies, the little improvisations and overheard rinsings are sanctified by the drumming of tracks in the night and the whoop of a whistle through the blackness. Such treks have been endured by Moody many times – Moody is the dresser, this is her eighth tour attending Madame, who can be a handful when sober and is a vixen when not – but Moody’s views on the expedition, as on most other matters, have not been invited or offered. She is a part-time theatrical dresser. She does as she is ordered. It is how she gets to eat now and then.
Once arrived at New York City they will rest for two days. Madame will need to see the doctor and there are some items to be redeemed from the pawnbroker’s, and this will all have to be arranged without any of the company knowing, although all of them will know
everything
of course. But knowing and
knowing
are not the same thing, as any good storyteller can tell you. And on Friday they will board the packet boat the
Prince of Denmark
for the seven-day passage back to Cobh.
Let’s see now; let’s see. Where does the scene
go
? So thirsty, oh my mouth. Is it dawn now or dusk? Well, the train is being drawn through a long, uphill tunnel, and the roll of the carriage raises creaks. The tour is after being difficult, too protracted, too arduous, the hotels of Dickensian shabbiness and the rest breaks too few. The police arrived to the theatre on the opening night in Philadelphia and arrested the whole cast for obscenity. Someone is creaming the takings. The food is filthy muck. The play has seen rioting in many American cities and the programme has been changed, with too little time for rehearsal and the wages are not
at all
what she has been used to. She suspects her husband and her sister are being far better paid, although both of them have denied it, have accused her of troublemaking. Everyone in
the company seems to have a protector, but Madame has none any more.
And she has not been well lately, is grown older than her years. So slow in the mornings, too heavy, uneasy, forgetful of matters she wishes she could dredge up and remembering too much that hurts. Her night-thoughts are difficult. She sleeps with a light on. Her drinking could easily become ruinous.
But who in the name of God would want to read any story like that? Depressing auld film it would make. Was it the year after he died? Oh,
open your eyes
, for God’s sake. You’d want to catch a hold of yourself. Look again at the art. Because these things are glories, the treasures of Empire. Generals, expeditionists, writers, Prime Ministers. Isn’t it lucky you’re allowed to lay eyes on them at all, and Africans starving today?
Dr Mercia Vinson. What would you tell her? That many years after his death you would still imagine you saw him? In the street, in a park, in a box at the theatre. At night you had dreams of him. He would come to you silently – watchful as your own reflection in water. You had a sense of being on a stage and of knowing he was in the darkness of the hall, the curious intimation that he was observing you.
You saw him on Second Avenue once, and across Central Park on a Christmas morning, through the windows of a tramcar as it truckled down the Bowery, fleetingly behind you in the browned old mirror of the dressing room in the Empire Theatre, Philadelphia. He would be dressed as he had been on the first evening he took you out. Always he appeared not to have aged. And once, you were certain, you had heard his diffident voice as you waited to go on stage in Washington. You were standing in the darkness, listening intently for the cue, the leather-bound book that was your prop in your hand, when from the scrupulous blackness of the backstage behind, you heard his tentative utterance:
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