Authors: John McGahern
Tags: #Fiction, #General
To Wil Albrecht
I watched the sun cross and recross the carriages as the train came in between the pillars, lighting the grey roofs; and then hands began to draw down windows, doors flew open, and the first figures met the platform with a jolt, and started to run.
By the time the carriages themselves had jolted to a stop the platform was already black. When eventually I saw his small round figure far down the platform, childishly looking around, the raincoat over his arm, “A wise man always carries his coat on a good day”, I turned back to the bookstall one side of the gate, and started to spin the paperback stand. He had need of all his own space, without interference from my eyes, as he came up the long platform. He was the last of the passengers to come through the gate. As he did, I went forward and offered to take his coat.
“It’s no weight,” he said as we shook hands.
“You decided not to take the car?”
“Why should I take the car—when you can sit back and the train’ll take you. Then the other fella has to do the driving.”
“Which would you prefer—to go straight to the hospital or have something to eat first?”
“Maybe we might be as well to have something to eat,” there was suddenly unease and apprehension in the eyes as they searched mine.
We had beef sandwiches with a bottle of stout in a bar across the road from the station. We sat at a table just inside the door, out of range of the television high in the corner which was showing horses being led round a parade ring before the start of some race.
“Well,” he cleared his throat. “How is the patient?” in a voice that would have been equally suited to asking me if I thought the Great Wall of China was likely to be around for long more.
“She’s not getting any better. She’s not well.”
“Well, when do you think there might be a change for the better?”
“I don’t know if there’ll be a change for the better.”
He took a sip of the stout, but this time he hurried his words, the voice shaking, “You mean that the writing could be more or less on the wall?”
“I’m afraid that’s what it more or less is.”
We sat in silence, drank and ate in silence. On the small screen a jockey in blue and yellow silks, a whip tucked under his arm, crossed to the centre of the ring and smartly touched his cap to a man in a top-hat, binoculars on his chest.
“Jim must be head beetler at the mill today,” I changed. As a boy Jim had come to work for him at the saw mill. He still looked on him as a boy, though only careful scrutiny could tell which of them was the older man now. They’d grown to look like one another, to take on the same grey, ageless look, into which neither happiness nor unhappiness entered—just a calm and even going about their narrow and strong lives.
“You should have heard him,” he brightened and began to chuckle, easy again back in the familiar corridor. “You’d think the sky was about to fall because he had to be on his own for the one day. And all that has to be sawn is a few scrubs of beeches. And they’re left ready.”
“Is there any sign of Cyril coming up?” I asked about my aunt’s husband, his brother-in-law.
“He didn’t say. He’s good for nothing anyhow.”
“What’s he up to now?”
“They say he’s foolin’ round with other women. He’s drinking lots.”
“Maybe it’s just as well he doesn’t come up.” I remembered
her agitation the one time he did come. Her medical card had been clipped to the foot of the bed and it had her age written on it. Torn between terror of her husband discovering her true age and the doctors checking the card on their rounds, she tried to alter the figures but had only succeeded in drawing attention to the poor attempt. In the end, she had to unclip the card and hide it in the bed during his visit. Probably sometime late at night she had hung it back in its place. I winced as I thought of her lying there waiting to put the card back. It was the only time he’d come to visit her through the long illness.
“What do you think we should bring her out?” my uncle asked.
“Whatever you’d like.”
“I know but you’d be better than me at knowing those sort of things.”
“Bring her brandy then.”
“She was never one for anything but a sip of altar wine or a sherry or two at a wedding, and then only if she had to,” there was alarm in his eyes. The drink was one of the great greasers of the slope we’d slide down anyhow.
“I bring her brandy all the time. It seems she mistrusts the medicines and pills. She drinks brandy to kill the pain.”
“How much will we bring?”
“We’ll bring her a bottle each. That way she’ll be all right for a few days.”
The sun was so brutal after coming out of the dark of the bar that we stood on the pavement a moment blinded, the bottles parcelled in brown paper in our hands, the glass of cars glittering as they passed.
“We’ll get a taxi. There’s no use fooling with the buses at this hour,” I said.
“That makes sense,” he echoed. He’d put himself completely in my hands and shambled by my side towards the taxi rank outside the station, the raincoat over his arm, hand gripping the brandy bottle. Only once did he speak on the way to the
hospital, to remark on the stink of the Liffey as we crossed Butt Bridge. “The city would sometimes make you want to throw up,” he said.
There was a long corridor from the lift down to the ward but we were in her eyes immediately we got out of the lift. She must have watched that small space outside the lift with the excitement of a hunter ever since the train had got in. I saw her lean towards her locker as we came up the corridor, frantically checking her hair and features in a small mirror. It would have been easier to walk down that corridor if we hadn’t to pretend that we didn’t know she’d seen us yet, imprisoned and awkward in the enforced deceit, as sometimes it is difficult to do some simple thing while being watched, and I was thinking we’d be better walking backwards down the ward when suddenly she waved to us and smiled, her theatricality betraying that she’d been already all too aware of our arrival. Now that we found ourselves in this switched-on light we began to grin and nod with equal grotesqueness.
“We brought you this,” my uncle betrayed his nervousness by putting the bottle down at once, and it alarmed her.
“What is this?”
“It’s not flowers anyhow,” I tried to joke. “It’s far better. And I brought another. It’s brandy.”
“I don’t know what on earth yous want bringing the two bottles for. You’d think it was Sticks McCabe yous were coming in to see.”
“Poor Sticks, be Jesus,” my uncle chuckled automatically, but before she’d time to light on him I said, “Nobody thinks you’re Sticks. I’ve already told how you take a little against the pain.”
“It’s a good job there’s somebody to tell him something.”
“It’s you that’s touchy,” I said.
“Nobody meant a thing,” my uncle said cautiously, and she was mollified.
“I just take it for the pain. I don’t trust those pills they give you. They’re hardly gone down when you can feel them spreading the cold in you as well.”
With that, my uncle began to slowly clear his throat, filling the hospital ward with the rude health of a tree of crows, and pitching his voice on to the firm security of high ground said, “By the way, Cyril sent you his best. He said he’s terrible busy but he’ll be up as soon as he’s ever able.”
“Poor Cyril,” she said dreamily, going inward and protective, all criticism gone. “I know he’s run off his feet. You must tell him that no matter what comes he mustn’t worry. That I’ll be all right,” and I saw my uncle turn his face away to hide any true feelings that might show.
The visit was as predictably on its way as a train or plane journey that had begun. My uncle had looked to it with apprehension. I who had made the journey often in the past months and knew it would go this way could not have said to him, “It’ll be all right. Nothing will happen. It’ll be the same as everything. We’ll get through it.”
Now that it was taking place it amounted to the nothing that was the rest of our life when it too was taking place. It would become part of our life again in the memory. In both the apprehension and the memory it was doomed to live far more vividly than in the taking place. Nature had ordered things well in that we hardly lived our lives at all. Our last conscious moment was the moment when our passing nonexistence and our final one would marry. It seemed felicitous that our going out of life should be as similarly arranged as our coming in. And I was ashamed of the violence of the reflections my own emotional idleness during the visit had brought on: the dead of heart can afford to be violent.
“You were great to come up,” my aunt was saying to my uncle now that the visit was ending.
“It was great to see you,” he shook hands. “I’ll be able to tell them all that you’ll be home in no time.”
“And you? Won’t you be in soon?” she asked me anxiously.
“I’ll be in the day after tomorrow.”
“God bless you both,” I heard her say.
He was diminished and silent as he came out, the raincoat over his arm, and as soon as we got a little way down the tarmacadam from the hospital he put his huge fists to his face and turned away. When I saw the body convulse with sobbing I moved across the road out of way of the traffic and started to move a white lawnblock about on the grass with my shoe as I waited.
She used to abuse him for trailing sawdust into the house on his boots. I could see him sitting at the head of the table, close to the black-leaded Stanley, hungry, while she carried over a plate of fried eggs and bacon and sausage.
“Look at the dirty sawdust all over the floor. You’d think you were still in a field,” I could hear her complain as she put down the plate. “Some people put sawdust down to clean floors,” he’d say half-heartedly, his mouth already full. “O they do, do they, on clean floors! And it’d be fresh sawdust, not soaked in dirt and oil and carried in on boots.” He’d be happy to let the last word go with her in the peaceful sounds of his knife and fork on the plate. These chidings, and his acceptance of them, were but tokens of the total security they felt with one another. Nothing threatened. Everything was known. Within its protective ivy frightening affection must have grown. He must be about two or three years older than she, I was remembering, when I saw him straighten and turn, wiping his hand across his eyes. They’d lived together twenty years before she married. And five years after she had married he was still living with herself and Cyril.
“Would you have a handkerchief on you there?” he asked.
I gave him a white handkerchief. I saw how discoloured the back of his hands were with scars. He moistened the handkerchief as he wiped his face and eyes.
“Is it all right now?” he asked, dabbing at his eyes.
“There’s just a streak there to the side,” I showed him and he wiped it clear. “You’re fine now.”
His tiredness was gone. He looked completely refreshed, even happy.
“Is there anything you’d like to do?” I asked.
“The train goes at six?” He wanted to hear it again.
“That gives you almost three hours. Is there anything you’d like to do before then?”
“What about you? You may have to go about your own business now.”
“I have the day off. Don’t worry about me.”
“I brought these few addresses with me,” he drew a crumpled piece of paper from his breast pocket. “They’re saw factors. There’s a few parts I could do with and there’s no use asking them for anything over the phone,” the voice was suddenly so swollen with the charming self-importance of a child that all I could do was smile.
“We have plenty of time,” I said. “We have so much time that we’re as well to go round the corner and wait for a bus. A bus will take us in at this time almost as quick as any taxi.”
There are many who grow so swollen with the importance of their function that they can hardly stoop to do it, but there was no such danger with my uncle. In him all was one.
The factor’s office was a flat-roofed prefab, out beside the gasworks, islanded by disused arteries and locks of the canal which once joined it with the mouth of the river. We crossed it by a footbridge, water pouring through leaks in the great wooden gates. The smell of rotting waterweed mixed with the pervasive sulphur everywhere. Inside, the office was lit by a naked bulb screwed to the ceiling. A rodent-like little man looked up from behind the high plywood counter.
“We’re lookin’ for spares,” my uncle boomed.
“We only supply the trade here, sir.”
“We are the trade,” my uncle pulled some billheads from his
pocket. “Mr McKenzie knows us well.” Mr McKenzie was the chairman of the company and was certaintly as unaware of my uncle’s existence as he was of his small red-haired clerk behind the counter who was now turning the billheads over in his hands. Suddenly he opened a door to his right and called, “Hi, Jimmy,” and when Jimmy appeared he looked as if he might be a brother of the small man behind the counter. He handed him the billheads and said, “These gentlemen are looking for spares.” When they opened the counter leaf we followed Jimmy into a large warehouse. It was lit by the same naked bulb that lit the office. The floor was soft and earthen but all along the walls the parts were neatly arranged on shelves. The saws and larger parts were stacked in the centre of the floor. It was what I imagined a wine cellar might be or a place where mushrooms might be grown. For a while, with affection as well as some amusement, I watched my uncle flower in the dankness of the warehouse, examining parts, displaying his knowledge, even going so far as to lecture the patient Jimmy; and when I lost interest I hung about in the boredom of childhood until my uncle was through. When he was, Jimmy carried the parts out to the office. He and the clerk made up the bill from a price list in a plastic folder, parcelled the parts, and my uncle paid from an enormous wad of notes he pulled from his trouser pocket. The evening sun seemed as harsh and blinding when we came out as it had been when we’d left the pub to go to see my aunt in the hospital.
“It’s a great ease for me to have those,” he said when I took the parcel to carry. “You can imagine the writing and telephoning you’d have. And do you think you’d have a chance of getting anything? You’d be as well idle. It was there under their noses and they couldn’t see it unless you took them by the hand. You’d often wonder if there’s anybody in this country that knows anything. Is there long before the train goes?” “An hour,” I checked on the watch. “Is there anything you’d like to do before then?” it was his turn to ask now. He was positively expansive.