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Authors: Joseph O'Connor

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BOOK: Ghost Light
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‘Quite. Neither do I. Be assured.’
You halt before a portrait of a kindly looking magistrate in the wig of a Pepysian character. He is red-faced, gouty, but his eyes shine with mildness, and his ruff is as yellow as a cornerboy’s teeth, which gives him the faintest little touch of the disreputable rogue, a thing you have always liked in a man. Sir Richard Persse-Leigh. How are
you
, sir? Quite well? You are looking fierce handsome; quite the mickey dazzler. May I remain with you a moment? I will not detain you long. The truth is, I am a little unsteady on my feet
this cold morning. The spirituous liquors, alas. But if you will permit me a tiny minute in the balm of your company the steadiness I seek will return. I have been thinking, you see, of events in the past, and they cannot be changed so are better forgotten – but this morning, for some reason, they are at me like dogs, so I need a gallant friend like yourself, sir.
Does it frighten you at night, sir, the quietness of this place? Can you hear the infernal motor cars as they cross Trafalgar Square? In the war, used you awaken to the drone of the bombers? I did, myself. Did you weep? Do you natter to one another when the gallery is empty? Are you courting the Duchess of Blandford, perhaps? Are there great chivalrous dances when you slip from your frames, and gavottes in the halls when the night porter sleeps? I’d say you know what’s what when it comes to a woman. You have the look of a right pleasure-man, I’m thinking. Oh now, oh now, don’t deny it, you old scallywag.
He’s the boogie-woogie bugle boy/Sir Richard Persse-Leigh
.
Would you take me to the Four Hundred or the Milroy some time? Those are nightclubs, sir. I used to go when I was younger. After a first night, perhaps. We would wait for the reviews. All the smart, young poets would be arguing in the alcoves, the air thick with rhymes, and tuxedos on the chair-backs, and oh the champagne and oh the flirtations and the elations of exhausted Soho suppers. Lobster Newberg in Croustades, Crown Roast of Lamb, Potatoes with Parsley Butter, Peas with Mint Cream. An admirer once offered twenty guineas for one of my garters. Can you imagine the impertinence? Do you know what I told him?
Free to those who can afford it, expensive to everyone else
. He whispered that if I would permit him to take me to his bed I could decide into which category he should be placed. Well, I went to his rooms, sir, in Handel Street, Bloomsbury, for I was bold once or twice, there’s no point in denials, and he soon stopped me chatting, sir, I will give him that for nothing. He was patient, ruthlessly expert, said little. In the morning we talked. He was not long down from Oxford. Did you ever eat a snail, sir? We
should go to L’Escargot. My name is Molly O’Neill, sir. I was once in love myself. It was a long time before the nightclubs and the slippers of vermouth. There are portraits of the man I loved. Not here, though.
He comes to you again as you look at the picture. Always so persistent, so jealous. That day not long after Dalkey Island when you were leaving on tour to England. He had some errands to do in Dublin and you arranged to meet him in a café. He was scrawling in his notebook as you entered slightly late and he gestured to you as you approached the table, rolling his eyes in mock impatience, unable to leave off from his work. Slowly twirling a carpenter’s pencil in the fingers of his right hand, his gaze on the ceiling as though trying to see an insect, and his gloved left hand held up to you like a policeman’s halting traffic, for fear you might speak and break his spell.
‘John?’
‘Please. Don’t say anything at all. Would you mind very terribly? I am losing my train. Don’t move.’
Seven minutes you waited, by the clock on the wall.
‘Sorry about that, old thing. Just a scene. How are you?’
‘Grand. I am looking forward to the tour.’
‘You’ll be missed,’ he said quietly.
‘Tis fierce romantic you are, altogether.’
‘I mean it,’ he said, perhaps more abruptly than he meant to. Lately his habitual brusqueness had been perplexing you slightly more. You had come to wonder if it was not in fact, like all habitual modes, the result of careful manufacture over time.
You regarded him. ‘Come with me, so.’
His laugh by then was harsh, something probably not his fault; an effect of repeated surgery on the glands of his throat, but the guttural hack of his amusement was a difficult thing to hear. He hated hearing it himself, you knew.
‘I can’t go with you to London, my silly little monkey.’ His long musician’s fingers now engaged in the making of a cigarette, butterfly paper, cheap, coarse-cut tobacco, like a workingman’s,
tucking and rolling with the efficiency of long habit but no fluency.
‘Why not?’
‘You will be busy. You will be working. I don’t want to be in your way.’
‘Oh yes. My way. Who’d want to be in that?’
‘What time is the sailing?’
‘In three hours. We’d have to hurry.’
‘I can’t. I have unbreakable appointments at the theatre.’
‘A woman of my charms is practically throwing herself at him for a flit across the water and he can’t. Dear God, ladies and gentlemen. What’s the world coming to at all?’
‘I said I can’t, Molly. Now let the matter rest if you would.’
Again it came assertively and you felt the mirth in your expression melt. The waiter brought your orders, placed the plates and water glasses.
‘You are very hard sometimes, John.’
‘I am sorry. I am tired.’
‘You would give a girl the feeling that you are ashamed of her company.’
‘I could never be ashamed of my changeling. And you are correct to scold me, Molly. It’s this pig of a beastly play. It is sending your ungrateful wretch daft. We shall have a nice little outing the very day you come home. And I shall write to you every night you are gone. You’ll see. I shall dream of sitting in the box and cheering you along. And of cursing the rest of the company for clodhoppers.’
He flourished a smile and you returned it. But something between you had curdled. In some ways, it was easier to be together now the feeling was less intimate; your talk came freely, of things that didn’t matter, and if he began to look wearier you put it down to the oppressive heat of the café, the noise of nearby conversations, the comings and goings. As in all eating establishments in Dublin, the tables were too close together. You could smell your neighbour’s food.
‘Then I had better be going, John. There can be crowds at the weekend.’
He paid and you went out to Sackville Street but there were no hackneys on the stand. He waited with you, and you wanted to kiss him but were afraid to do so in public. He slipped his hand into yours without meeting your eyes. The air was sharp and cold, cleansed by the rain. You imagined being with him in London, the crowded noisy streets, an image of the two of you walking across Trafalgar Square towards the gallery, through the beggars and the mournful balladeers. Or simply being on the ship with him, in a windowless cabin, low-raftered, with a lamp, and the creaking of the boards. The sharing of conspiratorial laughter, like disobedient schoolchildren putting a spontaneous mischief into action. The cabin would be warm, so narrow that the bunk would touch two of the walls. You’d eat hungrily, often chuckling as you glanced at one another. The sailing would be atrocious; navvies would be drunk. A small, bright adventure to share.
He gave the jarvey-man five shillings and told him you were in a hurry. You remember it all. Every detail of that day. But the young woman from America would never want to know such a thing. She would think it all irrelevant. Understandably.
A REHEARSAL AT THE ABBEY THEATRE, DUBLIN
‘Miss O’Neill, the manner in which you spoke the line is not quite correct.’
‘Mr Synge, I am after speaking it the way it is written.’
‘An entirely understandable mistake. Please do not admonish yourself too severely. One’s intention was for it to be spoken as though your character did not quite fully mean it.’
‘There is no direction saying that, so I read it the way it appears.’
‘Again, Miss O’Neill, your error is almost entirely forgivable. I would only contend that you will see, if you give consideration to the previous five lines, and indeed to the general tenor and thrust of the scene, and to the numerous previous conversations we have had in the rehearsal room on the question, that undoubtedly she does not mean what she is saying. We have gone over the ground a hundred times. It must surely be clear.’
‘That is not clear to me at all.’
‘Then perhaps, Miss O’Neill, you should read the soliloquy again.’
‘And perhaps, Mr Synge, you should have written it different.’
Yeats looked up slowly from his place in the stalls, as though awoken by a mysterious bell. He took from his waistcoat pocket and wiped thoughtfully on his lapel an object that proved to be a monocle. He was not smiling, exactly, at his colleague, the playwright, but his mouth was perhaps curling, perhaps amiably.
He breathed delicately on the monocle and held it up to the light like a jeweller examining a nugget of lapis lazuli.
‘Perhaps indeed,’ Synge said, ‘but I did not write it different. Or “differently”, as I think you must mean. And when I require a lesson in dramaturgy I shall fly to you, Miss O’Neill, for we all value the treasures of wisdom you contribute so ceaselessly on the subject. In the meantime, perhaps you would condescend to speak the actual text as it appears on the page rather than the superior one which appears to exist in your head.’
‘If it doesn’t exist in my head, Mr Synge, then it doesn’t exist at all.’
‘I see we have a philosopher as well as a playwright.’
‘And I see you’d prefer a parrot.’
‘Miss O’Neill, I have appealed to you and now I give you fair warning. You are a professional who is remunerated on the basis of compliance –’
‘If you think, Mr Synge, that you are going to lord it over me in that manner, then let me tell you –
You have your porridge
.’
‘Miss O’Neill, would you take a grip of yourself –’
‘You have your porridge, my buckshee!’
‘The girl is only giving an opinion, sir,’ intervened an electrician named Dossie Wright who was occasionally put in a loincloth and told he was a warrior when a crowd scene needed bulking out. He was a skirt-chaser who would risk dismissal and consequent beggary if he thought a grope might be attainable as reward. It was said admiringly among the scene-painters that he would ride a scabby duck and once or twice there had been backstage incidents involving angry fathers or husbands, for Mr Wright had played Mr Right to many. ‘It’s not that any of us would want to be acting the maggot,’ he continued, in his slow-witted-but-well-meaning-prison-officer’s voice. ‘But it’s ourselves has to do the playing. And that’s a different sausage from the writing. And if Miss O’Neill wants the thing explained, I think it poor order it wouldn’t be. That’s Dossie Wright’s point of view on the matter.’ He blazed on her a look of almost
violent affability as he fumbled with the yard of cable he was holding.
‘If one may be of assistance,’ began Yeats, with priestly quietness. ‘What Mr Synge has in mind –’
‘What one has in
mind
is an actress passably capable of committing to memory the text one has written, and then speaking it without the emission of saliva over the front stalls. Is this asking too much? Or merely too much of your good self, Miss O’Neill? Might you do me the enormous and doubtless undeserved courtesy of looking at me when I address you, do you think?’
‘Perhaps, Mr Shakespeare, you would illustrate your meaning.’
‘I am sorry? Are you now
smoking
? Would you extinguish that cigarette, please?’
‘I will extinguish it when I am good and ready, my little man cut short. And since you are the world’s blessed expert on my never-ending faults, you would be doing me a great obligement entirely to mosey up here onto the stage and give us out the line in the way that suits you best for I am sure all of us in the company would get a chuckle out of it anyhow. Wouldn’t we, ladies and gentlemen?’
‘No no, Miss O’Neill, I have a better idea. Why don’t
you
come down here and I shall give you a pen and you can rewrite the entire piece to your liking.’
‘You know where you can stick your pen.’
‘I shall fetch Lady Gregory,’ he warned.
‘I was talking, Your Majesty, about your inkwell.’
Yeats arose slowly and splayed his fingers on the seat-back before him, like a senator about to commence a funeral oration. His sharp Roman features were sternly arranged and he wore his sense of the moment like a mantle. The monocle had been set in the place that ophthalmology intended. It was going to be a difficult few minutes.
‘If one may, Synge?’ he murmured.
The playwright nodded back morosely.
‘That will be enough out of you, Miss O’Neill,’ said the poet.
‘I’m only saying,’ she said, ‘and I amn’t being listened to. And playwrights screeching away at me like a zoo full of chimps.’

That will do you now
,
Miss
,’ Yeats snapped.
He waited for utter silence to descend on the gathering, like a man expecting a train he knows for certain is coming but might take a little time to arrive. One glove he unbuttoned and unhurriedly removed. Then, blinking like a cow, he regarded her. She was interested to see exactly how he would rise to the occasion, for by now she had noticed a sort of poignancy about Yeats: that there was in him, as in most men, no matter their class, a small, bright unease about relative position, that his envy of Synge’s inheritance, the air of tattered lordliness, the fluency in old languages, the savoir-faire, the rumoured trustfund, had taken a form she would often see again, that of wanting to be the nobleman’s cornerboy. It was a kind of love, perhaps, but it was other things too. She ground out her cigarette in a goblet.
‘We appear to be experiencing a difficulty,’ he said reedily. ‘A difficulty of recognition. A difficulty of blindness. Well, no matter. It is to be expected. This can occur when our instincts are underdeveloped. We become mired in capriciousness, the false belief that we have earned importance. This man’ – he pointed the monocle at Synge – ‘is a genius. Do you understand me?’
‘Yes, Mr Yeats,’ mumbled two of the actors.
‘What is he? All of you!’

A genius, Mr Yeats.’
‘Yes. That is correct. He is our Aeschylus. Our Ibsen. He is one of the very magi, belittling himself in our stable. We are the swine, the
kine
, the cud-chewers at the apotheosis. We are the excrement in the straw.
What are we
?’
‘Excrement, Mr Yeats,’ replied one of the walk-ons obediently. Nobody turned to look at him.
‘Yes. We are ordure. We are expellable.
Vileness.
And when you, and you – and especially
you –
are deservedly long forgotten and part of the dust, the works of this Homer shall be glorified. He shall
ride our wingèd horse into the sunbursts of Olympus whilst your …
bicycles
rust in the pawnshop. We are none of us worthy –
I say none of us, mind
– to fasten the very lacing of his brogue. And when you are old and full of weariness, the best any of you will have to recollect of your miserable,
futile
huckstering existences is that once you were in the presence of a Titan. You will fetch down the very script you now besmirch by your egregious dribblings, from the shelf upon which it will have rested for years – perhaps decades – and the ancient hearth of our muse shall scald you for shame that you did not kneel when you had the opportunity of genuflection.’
‘I say Yeats, old man, I think you’re being a little too –’
‘Be quiet, Synge!’
He turned again to the actors, a sneer of derision making him appear taller, and pushed a hand through the flop of his hair. ‘You pitiable, counter-jumping ingrates,’ he continued grimly. ‘You boils on the thigh of a peasant.’
‘Ah, here,’ said Dossie Wright.
‘You are an irrelevance, Wright. A vacuum. A
hole
. You are all of you
a surplus population
. Whoreson zeds. Unnecessary letters. Sans the work of this genius you are … umlauts!’ He said the last word lavishly, pretending not to enjoy it. There were mystified glances. Someone released an unfortunately audible belch.
It was only at this point that Yeats vacated his place, striding heavily, sombrely, towards the lip of the stage, and slowing even more markedly the closer he got to it, like a battleship approaching a mutinous colony. The tone he was aiming at was more-sorrowful-than-angry but it came out as disdain mixed with rage suppressed, which was so remarkably similar to his customary mode, for everything from reciting a lyric to ordering a mop-lady where to mop, that it was difficult to know if he was being completely serious or was giving a comically deprecating imitation of himself in an effort to explode the tension. It was only when the cape was flung desultorily over the stiffened left shoulder in the manner of a toreador about to pose for a portraitist that it became clear he wasn’t playing for laughs.
‘God’s Wounds,’ he said quietly, seeming to peer at his hands. A stupid onlooker might have formed the notion he was talking to his fingers. In fact, it was his way of letting you know that you weren’t worth the exertion of looking at. ‘Can you face yourselves? Truly? Have you the audacity to exist? Is there no crevice, no nook, for you to slither into and expire? You bits of
sucked sugar-stick
. You abattoir’s
effluvia
. You would make of the Holy Grail
a spittoon
.’ Here he raised his furious eyes, his ancient, glittering eyes, and they had nothing in the way of gaiety. ‘You wastrels of the precious. You squanderers. You
bawds
. You stains left on a pew. You vague …
dampnesses
. I weep when I think on the riches you have wasted. Alone, in my rooms, I weep. You will enunciate these pearls of our art as Mr Synge intended or you may streel yourselves back to the …
cabbage-patches
you belong in. Do I render myself comprehensible to you?’
‘Yes, Mr Yeats.’
‘Good. That is good. I shall now resume my seat. And you shall recommence from scene three. And you shall speak the lines accurately. And if there is another solitary
twitter
of insurgency out of yourself, Miss O’Neill, I shall personally take a stick to you before flinging myself upon the mercy of the court. The tuppenceha’penny fine I should receive for doing what your mother should have done would be a farthing too severe, in my view.’
‘You have your porridge, Mr Yeats, if you think you’re talking to Molly O’Neill like that …’
‘No! You have
your
porridge! Now eat it!’
Sunday is their day; she takes the quarter-to-eleven from the city. It is a standing arrangement, but he reminds her of it by letter. They roam the furzy slopes of Killiney Hill or lie among its alpines looking down at the bay. The setting has the dual advantage of being Wordsworthian and discreet. Here they can be alone, almost certain of privacy. They feed one another the
wild berries that grow near the obelisk:
fraughans
in the vernacular, but she calls them ‘purple grapes’. It becomes one of their euphemisms, a love phrase charged with intimate meaning. The fairy-woman and the vagabond, their transgressive liaison. It is like a scene from a folk tale, the seed of one of his plays. But who is emancipating whom?
Sometimes he recites the lyrics he has written for her: his gifts. ‘I wrote another poem on you last night,’ he confides, as though he had somehow imprinted it on her flesh. But these verses are rarely sensual, are often oblique. Only seldom does he tell her, shyly, like a boy, how much he likes to see her ‘in light summer clothes’. At such moments, strangely, she has a powerful sense of his brokenness, of how difficult he finds it just being alive. There are days when he looks at an oak and sees only the makings of a coffin. He has no memory of his father, who died when he was a baby.
BOOK: Ghost Light
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