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Authors: Jennifer Johnston

The Railway Station Man

BOOK: The Railway Station Man
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The Railway Station Man

A Novel

Jennifer Johnston

Isolation.

Such a grandiose word.

Insulation.

There was the connection in the dictionary staring me in the eye.

No place alone or apart; to cause to stand alone; separate, detached, or unconnected with other things or persons; to insulate.

The good old OED puts things straight for you.

At this moment, as I write these words, the sky is huge and quite empty, no blemishes, vapour trails, not even the distant flick of a lark's small body.

They used to eat larks' tongues. A great delicacy I've read somewhere in a book. At least we're spared that now. The larks can sing. They have their own peace in the empty sky.

I am insulated from the sound of their song and other realities by the thin panes of glass that form one wall of this studio that I have had built on the hillside just above my cottage. That also sounds grandiose.

To be accurate, and it is in the interests of accuracy that I am struggling with these words instead of colours, textures, light and shade, visual patterns, Damian thought up the idea, and then set to work to build it for me out of three tumbledown sheds. I wanted the sea imprisoned there for me alone. Spring, summer, autumn, winter, to be able to watch it change. Morning and evening, insulated from its reality. Crack, shatter, scatter angry shards and splinters. Ploughing wind driving furrows through glasslike deep grey waves. I can watch. I know that to watch is my isolation. I have no other function.

I dream sometimes of catastrophes.

I remember occasionally in the daylight the shuddering of the houses when the explosion happened. Windows then, taken by surprise, cracked, some even splintered to the ground and for days the smell of smoke lingered in unexpected places.

But now, here, the glass holds.

Over here it is bare. No one visits. Sometimes the cat startles me as he pads across the floor and rubs himself against my leg. He doesn't much like it here though. He will pad for a few minutes, stare with almost unbearable arrogance at the canvases leaning against the wall. If the sun is shining he may sit in its warmth by the window for a while but sooner or later he will retire to the cottage, the comfort of cushions and the purring machines that keep us both warm and clean and fed.

I have an easel now. I bought it for a lot of money after my first exhibition. I thought perhaps I might then feel more like a real artist, no fly-by-night enthusiast. I don't use it very often. I have become accustomed to crouching, hunkered down on the floor, but I suppose as I get older, less flexible, I will be glad of the easel. Its cross-shape gives a certain class to the studio. Damian approves of it.

The cottage is quite high on the hillside. I look west from the windows across rough fields, scattered stones and squat bushes, over the peaks of the dunes to the wide bay. A bare rocky headland to the south and to the north a long spit of sand. There is no sign from here of the village nor of the little harbour from which the fishing boats set out on tranquil summer mornings. How romantic that sounds. That is when I am impelled to stand by the window and watch, when the half-dozen boats, Enterprise, Cailín Bán, Girl Josie, Queen of the Sea, Mary Lou and Granuaile slide across the early morning sea. The grey days, the buffeting days, I don't bother to watch out for them, then they look ugly and disturbingly vulnerable. The village is much the same as any other village in this part of the North West, the houses and shops clinging to the sides of a blue-black road. You swing into the village past the new Church, vulgar, triumphant and quite out of place in the almost stark landscape. Three or four shops, a couple of pubs, the licensed betting office, a few cottages, the Hotel and at the far end of the village the new estate, two neat rectangles of houses sprouting aerials from every roof. In the summer Sweeney's shop and Doherty's sell buckets and spades and brightly coloured plastic balls, picture postcards in revolving metal frames and both shops have installed machines for making whipped ice cream. In the hollow between the village and the dunes there is a caravan site, which takes a hundred caravans, permanently placed and discreetly hidden from the road. A great source of prosperity.

If you look with care you can see scattered through the surrounding fields the pattern of the village as it used to be a long time ago. Falling gables and piles of rubble are linked by the vestiges of tracks through the rocks and the whin bushes. A few cottages still stand, re-roofed with slates and with glass porches built to keep out the wind. These are, by and large, the homes of holiday people from Dublin and Belfast, England even. Though you cannot see the sea from the village you can smell the salt on the air and the heavy smell also of the seaweed that is washed up on great patches of the sand in the winter storms. On wild days you can hear the crash of the waves and the grinding of the stones as they drag along the beach.

About two miles out of the village on the side of this same hill is the railway station.

Since the closure of the railway in 1940 the square stone house had been uninhabited, the windows had been broken in the signal box and the wooden steps had rotted as had the gates at the level crossing.

Brambles and scutch had grown up on the permanent way and the platforms were covered with thick grass and weeds. That was until the Englishman bought it about three years ago and he and Damian restored and refurbished it until you would never have known that it had suffered nearly forty years' neglect. It is now derelict again and the weeds are beginning to take over once more. The engine shed by the level crossing was almost demolished when the explosion happened, and part of the gable wall of the house itself was badly damaged. No one has bothered to rebuild, or even shift the rubble, nor I suppose, will they ever … The buildings stand there, and will presumably continue to stand there until they fall down, as a derelict memorial to the deaths of four men. Violent, and to use Roger's own word, ‘needless' deaths.

Who is this woman with the cat who lives on the side of a hill and watches the fishing boats on tranquil summer mornings?

I had hoped not to have to explain. Explanations are so tedious for the writer as well as the reader, but having explained the place I feel I should also explain the person; sketch might be a more reasonable word … sketch the person.

My name is Helen. Not the name I would have called myself if I had had the choice, but I have learnt to live with it. Two rows of wrinkles circle my wrists. My body is still smooth and pale, spotted quite nicely here and there with brown moles; in spite of that I don't get much joy from catching sight of myself in the glass, just too much flesh and pride.

I was born on a Sunday in 1930. The day of the week always seemed important to me. The child that is born on the Sabbath day, is bonny and blithe and good and gay. I at least had that over most of my friends.

My life was filled with safety.

We heard about the war on the wireless. The names in that distant game stuck in our heads, El Alamein, Monte Cassino, Dunkirk, Leningrad, Arnhem, Hiroshima, Ypres, the Somme, Balaclava, Waterloo, Culloden, Agincourt, Crécy. Nearer to home Drogheda, the Boyne, Wexford, more names. Words in books, newspapers, on the air, once more into the breach dear friends, we shall fight on the beaches, and gentlemen in England now abed have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. Just words. We received small wooden chests of tea from America at regular intervals and delicious pounds of yellow butter from friends in the country and there were no more banana sandwiches at parties. These were realities.

I drew and painted. That's really all I can remember positively about my education. My attitude to the whole process of learning was one of passive resistance. Something inside me didn't want what they were offering me. I didn't make any fuss about it. I didn't break their rules, I merely slept most of the way through more than ten years of education. My lethargy tired them out and in the end they just left me to sit in the back row and draw. My pockets were always full of pencils, finely sharpened leads, that snapped if you pressed too hard on the paper, and stubby rounded soft leads, almost grey on the page and soft enough to smear when you rubbed the lines with a warm finger. The art teacher didn't like me doing that. She liked perspectives, neat lines, colours that matched and stayed inside confining lines. Her greatest aspiration for us seemed to be that we should be able to draw perfectly a cardboard box. ‘Just so,' she used to say as her pencil flicked across the paper, straight lines, angles, height and depth. I slept again.

I had great expectations when I finally persuaded my parents to let me study at the College of Art, expectations that revelations might occur, both artistic and spiritual. I needed a revelation of some sort at that moment. Of course no such thing happened. I didn't have the gumption nor the energy to realise that we have to create our own miracles. It was like being back at school. I retreated into my sleep once more. I left the College of Art with a dismal record and a confused dislike of art in any form. I remember quite clearly one summer night about a week after my final term had ended, when I carried all my sketch books, my canvases, the framed pictures that I had hanging on the walls of my room, down to the bottom of the garden, beyond the tennis court, and burnt them. I had to make several journeys through the house, up to my room and down the stairs, across the hall and out the side door. The raked gravel crunched under my feet. The sun was only just visible over the high escallonia hedge that protected us from our neighbours. I neatly stacked the whole damn paraphernalia of my life into a pyramid and lit it with pink-tipped Friendly Matches. As the papers curled down into ashes the smoke curled white up past the top of the hedge and disappeared. The sky shone, a deep blue, as if it had been enamelled by some old Italian master. Three gardens away they were playing tennis. I could hear their voices and the plocking of the ball. I stood by the fire until nothing remained but a pile of shifting ashes, the heart dying. The sun flashed in the western windows as I walked back to the house. My mother was standing in the drawing-room door.

‘What were you doing down there?' she asked. ‘Your face is all covered with smuts.'

‘Burning things.'

‘What things? I hope you didn't damage the grass.'

‘Just a whole lot of rubbish. Stuff I didn't need any more.'

‘Not clothes, I hope. I always like to send clothes to the jumble sale.'

‘Not clothes.'

Soon after that I got engaged to Daniel Cuffe.

I remember no rapture. Perhaps, though, that is because of the passing of time, rather than the fact that it didn't exist. The snapshots I have of him are like pictures of some past acquaintance, I am not stirred in any way by seeing him sitting on a beach, or standing by a flower bed in my parents' garden, his eyes screwed up slightly in the evening sun.

When I first married him he was a teacher of mathematics at Kingstown Grammar School. I see from the snaps that he was quite a nice-looking man, with large eyes and a friendly smile. If he were still alive he would have run a bit to fat, in the way that men who have been athletic in their younger days do as their lives become more sedentary. He would probably have lost quite a lot of his hair by now, and he might have had the usual Irish trouble with his teeth. He had a good singing voice.

‘Did you not see my lady, go down the garden singing.' I remember that, his
pièce de résistance.
‘Did you not see my lady out in the garden there, rivalling the glittering sunshine with her glory of golden hair.' Somewhat complacently I used to think he was singing about me, my glory of golden hair, but I don't think he had that gallantry in him.

We rented a small flat on the ground floor of a Victorian house down behind Blackrock. From the front windows you looked out across a low wall and the deep railway cutting to the sweep of Dublin bay. It was all urban landscape, but beautiful none the less, always changing with the light and wind, blue, grey, green, and evening, smokey purple and the squat houses lighting up, chains of light rimming the dark sea. At night the sky above the heart of the city glowed and lighthouse signals flashed. The Bailey light, the North wall, the South wall, Dun Laoghaire and through the misty summer nights the fog horns moaned to each other. Distant painful music. There were seldom strongly defined lines, for the most part roofs merged into the sky, walls seemed to grow from the earth; the sea, the sky, the hill of Howth all seemed to be part of each other, shading and shadow, no hard edges. A few days each year were so clear, bright that then you could see the realities of granite, slate and glass, the distant sea walls became three-dimensional, Howth moved closer affirming its solidity. On these days people would look at the sky in amazement, shake their heads and say, ‘It's going to rain.'

BOOK: The Railway Station Man
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