A Gaelic Island Wake
Many thanks to M for allowing this publication.
Peace and Hope
I opened my eyes, and felt the strange sensation of swinging side to side in time with a percussive beat. Looking to my left the wide railway yard of Galway station crept into view. I have always liked railway yards, their emptiness and promise of travel, of change and my own personal anonymity have comforted me over the years as I click clacked my way across one continent after another. I was forced to spend time in these wide expanses of cracked quiet concrete, nature always in the process of reclaiming them, little green buds forcing their way through from below. The clouds were grey, low and brooding almost claustrophobic in their presence. I watched mothers and daughters, old men and business men awkwardly move from beneath the restrictive confines of the carriage tables, banging their knees and catching their fingers on the overhead rack as they reached for their luggage. By the time I heard the hiss and felt the sudden shunting stop of the train, I was almost awake. That strange metallic taste in the mouth that always accompanies me when I sleep when I travel, was another invisible companion reassuring me that I was no longer on home ground.
We waited until most of the passengers had alighted the carriage. M had gathered some of her luggage and that of her daughter L's as well. I picked up the slack and pulled the remaining rucksack onto my back, and hefted my own two laptop bags, one stuffed with clothes onto my shoulder, shook my head and stepped into the sharp diesel air of the platform.
We had some time to kill before we met her family, all of them. For me this would be the first encounter with any of them. Meeting them all at once seemed like a good way to say hello and melt into the background, at least as far into the background as a six foot four skinhead can. Dumping our bags in a Hostel in Ayers Square we had two hours to kill, these we spent picking up some supplies for L, who is four, getting some food, flowers and purchasing bus and ferry tickets to the island. The rain was unforgiving, and undecided, stopping and starting at will, never letting us settle into a pattern with which we could be sure that we would not have to put on, or take off raincoats at a moments notice.
We walked to the funeral home, to meet the dead man we would be spending some days with, W, M's uncle. We had been given vague directions, it took us some time to find the home and the mocking drum roll of the rain followed us all the way there. Tensions built as L became restless and all of us became wet. The funeral home turned out to be at the town’s hinterland, hidden behind the mist and rain of a sodden park, the home was a yellow one-story, pockmarked building, I could smell the dead in it.
We were early.
It turned out that we had been given instructions by one of M's brothers to turn up at three. We huddled under an awning at the edge of the building and a fat man with grey curly hair met us at the door and informed us, that M's uncle would not be on display for the family until four. It was three, and sheet plastic and unused coffins still littered the display room of the funeral home. What else could we do, we turned to leave and set off into the rain again, walking past the truck that had blocked us on our way in, which was now open, and two hulking bald men were in the process of unceremoniously unloading another coffin. I was unused to this, it seemed an undignified way to treat the family of a man who had just died, it seemed plain, pedestrian and insensitive. I think M felt it too, the weather, funeral director, and our own incompetence in finding the location of the home was having a cumulative effect. We had made our world darker than it was, and faced a frustrating search for a place to dry our clothes and warm our spirits.
Warmth was some time off yet, on the way out M's mother and her sisters under the same misinformation had also arrived to view W's body. I stood back and let M rush forward to join her family in a grief that seemed resplendent in its purity. I pulled my hat further down my brow and watched the embraces and the stifled tears, and the lilting brook like babble of the Gaelic language which even in sorrow, spoke of love, memory and history.
The enormity of what I had impetuously involved myself in fell from the sky and landed like a dead weight in the black pool at the bottom of my stomach. When the silence that the dead imposed upon the living had fallen for the first time, and all that was left was rain and tearful eyes, I stepped into the gap, introducing myself, I gripped the hand of M's Mother and Aunt and expressed my sorrow and sympathy for their loss. They smiled and said hello, in English.
We walked back to the awning. Our numbers persuaded the fat funeral director that he should, despite any reservations about the scheduled time for the viewing, proceed and do it now. He shuffled off into a back room and we walked slowly into a concrete room that had the rank smell of death and embalming fluid. More family arrived, brief introductions were made in English to me, then grief, love and support filled the room in a language that reached back to a time before the fires of industry and the bark of gunshot, back to a time of legends and the eternal struggle for survival with the land and the sea.
W had not been claimed by war, or the sea or the weather, which here seemed like an entity in itself. W had died of natural causes, one by one his bodily functions had sent their resignation to his brain, overworked, overtired and desirous of the final rest. W had spent his life on the island, a simple loving man who had profoundly changed the lives of his family and those of the Islanders. He had the love of a saint or a savant it seemed from what I had been told. In this moment, on the thin red carpet in this cold concrete bunker, the sadness had taken on a physical dimension and had changed the air pressure that resided within.
The Body was brought out, in a pale wood coffin, wrapped in what looked like yellow silk, which reached up to the corpses waist. W's hands were folded across his midriff, I pictured the funeral director moving his fingers into interlocking positions as the family waited outside. His face had the yellow pallor that corpses have, a yellow that either comes from death or the chemicals of death. His face was peaceful, and had lost all of the physical effects of a lifetime’s affliction. The family gathered around the gurney on which the coffin was placed in silence. Now and again someone would reach forward and gently touch W's hands, as if to say "It's all right, the hard part is over, and the journey has just begun." L came forward with the brazenness of the child she is, and after touching W's hand, her natural curiosity got the better of her, and she touched his lips, trying unsuccessfully to reach inside the corpses mouth. A relative stopped her. M mentioned to me that I had not taken my hat off, it was then my stomach filled with that black bile of fear, the situation was quickly remedied.
The silence was broken by the low rise of a holy mantra, a prayer which like a virus spread by the Word jumped from mouth to mouth rising and falling as new tongues joined the farewell spell. A low musical chant the emotional resonance of which I knew, though I could not translate the words. It was unlike anything I have ever experienced before, it was a spell, though those present would deny it, Catholicism being so deeply imbedded into the people of Ireland that even to think that some traditions may come from another source, would be a sin, and another step on the pain and guilt ridden road toward Hell. To me though it could not be denied and could not be anything other than a spell. It reminded me of the early Greek Choruses that predated and gave birth to Theatre, homages to the dead hero's and the gods that were to welcome them to the Elysian Fields and the Western Lands. The prayers, currency to speed the spirit on its way to Heaven, only this time in Irish and accompanied by the almost inaudible click clack of prayer beads been shifted against each other, one by one, toward the cross that dangled at the bottom of the cord. Time twisted and fell back against itself, almost suspended, potentially reversed, somewhere I could almost believe that they would raise the corpse from its slumber with the power of their grief and their holy mantra. Family members fell away, and more joined, the prayer went on until there was none left to carry it, and all sat on the chairs that were provided in the room, surrounded by Orchids and funereal flowers in silence, save for the spatter of grey rain on concrete that continued oblivious to the mortal concerns of those it fell on.
It was time to continue our journey to the island. We were given a lift through the grey wet streets of Galway by a cheerful young male relative who lived in parts beyond, he brought us to the bus that took us through the crags and undergrowth of Connemara past the Girlhood school of M, that still elicited shivers from her. Tales of playing truant, of hiding in the lush green woods, of sports and childhood friends, of Isolation and release, of a two year incubation before she was shot into the world beyond, which glowed in the brutal flashing lights of raves and pounded with the drums and drugs of pan. We had to drive for a good forty five minutes through Connemara to arrive at an area I actually recognized as the Connemara of memory, green and lush, an area that had not been colonised by the endless grey desert of semi-detached houses, estates, Spar and Centra shops. It seems the homogeny and banality of modern Western living has infected even parts as far afield as Connemara. I felt like a Massai watching the last tortured breath of the last of his cattle rattle out from beneath thin skin stretched over skinny bones, nothing left but dust and desert. But there was, to my relief, far more of the Connemara of my childhood memory than I realized, and when we reached it, I again could feel the warping of time, backwards to a simpler and more human existence. This feeling grew stronger, as did the wind, rain and darkness.
We reached the harbour. Cold Atlantic winds cut the darkness and the rain tattooed my face, I heaved the bags over my shoulders and out, allowing M's mum to go before me. When my feet touched the cold stone of the pier, we set to walking for a time before the Island ferry came into view. Wiry men with oilskins and woolen hats struggled across a treacherously thin and slick metal gangplank, desperately clinging to the coffin, hoisting it above their heads and wresting it from the wind, saving it from the water. The coffin made it into the ferry's metal bowels. M spoke briefly to the seaman/ticket taker, we boarded and stowed our bags without having to pay the fare of passage.
The sub sonic vibrational roar of the propellers kicked in when I was making my way back to the aft of the ship, a huge white tumult was spat to the surface by the propellers, sending spray into the cold night air, smoke on the water. The crossing takes an hour and a half on a good day. An hour and a half of black water, whose depth I cannot fathom, convulsing under a blacker sky, the only light this night is from the cabin, razor sharp shafts of it, cutting across the spray from the engines. Engines which you cannot even hear as they have been shouted down by the scream of the wind, as it barrels across thousands of miles of Atlantic ocean before shouldering into your stomach and taking the breath from you. I spend most of the voyage aft, staring at what I can make out of the horizon, gripping a steel pole. Inside islanders read, and visitors to the island allow the nauseating swell to suck the contents of their stomach out into bags, onto the floor, and into toilets. I stay outside and stare at the horizon, it calms the stomach. If it's a choice between cold and nausea, I choose cold. Men smoke and laugh, some drink beer. Little L runs out, eager to explore the boundaries of the ship, despite any obstacles the weather may put in front of her, brave innocent idiocy. M runs out behind her, to ensure that the child is not swept to sea. The wind and rain bite at her, a pained expression spreads across her face. I offer to stay outside and look after L, who proves extremely resilient, and wants to know why the white horses are given such a name "horses don't swim do they?". L lasts an amazing amount of time, until finally, the Atlantic breaks her, and she wants to return inside. I bring her back in, quickly exiting again, before the swell forces me to my knees and the contents of my stomach onto the deck.
When we dock, I cannot even see the harbour until we are almost on top of it. It comes out of the night and the rain like some kind of monster grey whale. Deck hands pull hoods onto heads, and barehanded grip the thick sodden rope, preparing for the grind of metal on stone...of fender on pier. The ship rises and falls with deadly intent. Black shapes crowd hooded around the harbour bollards, offers of help being swept away by the unforgiving wind. Ropes are heaved into the savage air, by some miracle caught by those on shore and the ship is brought bucking into the harbours embrace.
A gangplank is extended to the shore, shapes of men tie ropes to either end of it, and then to the pier and the ship, to ensure it is fast. The ship still rises and falls like a bull trying to break its fetters. We are going to have to walk this treacherous passage. They are going to have to heave the coffin, through this murderous weather and unforgiving darkness to shore. Again I gather the bags. My cowboy boots worry me, they are not designed for seafaring, and not designed for gangplanks. I can picture my body, weighted by rucksacks, computer and clothes, being wrested from the plank by the wind, sucked downward and swallowed by the black cold sea. Gone in a flurry of foam, into the freezing belly of the beast with empty eyes of terror.
I walk forward anyway.
On shore it seems that the whole population of the island has gathered, there is a wall that rises from the pier, taller than any man there, and protects them from the worst of the gale, for by now, that is exactly what it is. Relatives that have long been separated embrace in the wind, partly for welcome, and to me it seems, partly to keep them anchored to the ground. Shouts of Irish being swept off into the darkness. Futile umbrellas sucked inside out like dead birds flap obscenely in the islander’s hands. M and L have gone ashore ahead of me, I lagged behind deliberately. I have no clear idea why, idiot thoughts of being able to save them easier should they chance to fall, nothing that relates to the reality of our situation. The coffin has to be put ashore. Burly Island men, bend to their task, their faces obscured by the brute gale. I hear nothing but the wind, no shouts or grunts. I stand silent and watch the cumbrous weight, made light by love and grief, move in staggered lurches through the bestial wind toward the safety of shore.
The chatter of Irish becomes audible, as a flatbed SUV is backed down the pier, parked, and the coffin lifted onto it. The body leaves us to our discussions about who might provide the lift to M's home on the island. An aunt saves the day, and we climb into a car, the make of which I cannot make out because of the unforgiving night. When we clamber into the car, it is like entering a decompression chamber, the wind and the rain are still audible, though it is like listening to sounds underwater, the storm is distant and unthreatening. I am in a foreign country now, all I hear is Irish, and as we pull away from the pier, I see a home carved whale dangling from the rear view mirror. It is the whale that finally drives home that I am in the embrace of an alien culture, it saddens me that this is one of the last outposts of an almost pre-industrial Ireland left.
M's house is in itself alien and unfamiliar. It is a large monolithic structure, though dimensionally designed like a house you might see in a childs drawing - here's the roof, the windows the door. The structure and utility of it is pragmatic, though pragmatic in a way that neither my family nor I ever had to consider. We enter through the front door, M having gone around back unlatches it for us. The smell is unfamiliar, old cigarettes and something else. I drop the bags in the hallway, and am led into the living room, which is tiny, the house at this point seems like the tardis in reverse. Huge and imposing on the outside and small and claustrophobic inside. All rooms save for the kitchen are cell like in their size, and there are many, small bedrooms for the kids, and medium sized ones for the students that arrive for their gaeltach education. Like an overpopulated dolls house. I sit by the fire for a moment and gather my wits. In one or two minutes, I have adjusted enough to hear the storm still raging outside.
M comes in with tea, and warns me that her sister C is in the house. C was lost to the island of madness just after her teenage years, and has changed the world and its people to dark threatening shadows. She has retreated to her room, her endless chain smoking and her fantasies of persecution. For the next few days, every time I meet her, she first avoids my glance and then flees the room, this she does with everyone. This glass cage she has built for herself cannot be broken by anyone but its architect and builder. Madness is like that, we are left helpless in its grip.
Myself M and L have little time to change and dry off before venturing into the storm again. I retire to a bathroom where I shave my head and chin, change my clothes and sit for a moment, preparing for what is to come. Though, I have through the years had extensive experience of death, especially this year, I have not experienced a wake. Being raised protestant, I have rushed through the ministrations of death. Die, Church Service, burial, and flee to the bar. Over and over again, leaving no time for thought, nor how the absence of the person will effect our lives. Get pissed at the bar, fall into the laudanum like trance of a drunken sleep, and get to work the next day with a hangover. Places to see people to do and all that. This will take four days, from beginning to end, and I will be in the company of Irish speakers most of the time, and in the company of a corpse for more. How will this allow me to get to know the dead man, will I at all? or will I just get a twisted image an echo of what was once vibrant and alive, no more than a grainy image on a greasy mirror? I stare at my storm assaulted bloodshot eyes in the bathroom mirror, and decide for the first visit to the dead mans home, I will have to be stoned, reduce the culture shock, allow me to empathise more with the bereaved, all the good things you never hear about marijuana in the press. I roll a joint. We smoke it on the way to the ghost house.
It's amazing that the spliff remains alight, the storm has not abated, in fact its ferocity seems to have increased. L is tired from the Herculean journey and is about to begin crying, I bend down and lift her to my shoulders, M hands her a torch and she guides our way though the black hole night. I can barely breathe with the strength of the wind and rain, L however seems happy high above me gripping the torch and being buffeted hither and thither by the wind. I can make out little or nothing of the island at this point. I have come to that juncture that one comes to occasionally out in the wild, where your surroundings matter little, what matters is the next footfall, the next corner, tunnel vision, and mine is focused on the little pool of white light that bobs forward and backward on the pitted tarmacaddam road in front of me.
Shapes is all I see, blunt grey shapes, the howl of wind, the bite of the rain, and this fucking hill, this cursed, fucking diseased cunt of a hill. Not long now I hear every few breaths, M making an effort to shout the words, shortly before the Ghost house I lower L to the ground, she can make the final few meters with her hands clasped in ours, and she does.
The Ghost house conforms to the standard shape of all the Island houses that I have seen in the murky darkness so far, a picture book house, illustrated by Tim Burton. We have to climb invisible stairs, my guess work as to where they are is lucky, I make it to the seaward wall of the house without shattering an ankle. We move around to the side, and the ground turns to what feels like gravel, except gravel made of flint and each piece of it the size of a foot. Finally that welcome shaft of light from the back door comes into view, like some kind of lighthouse, I rush for it eager to get out of the wind and the rain, this desire completely obliterating the fact that inside are twenty grieving, Irish
speaking relatives, and a corpse.
The back door opens into a kitchen, before I have even got my coat and hat off, I am offered soup, in English. Word travels fast around here. Initially I refuse, but then my brain gets some of the blood back into it that it lost in the storm and I realize that I am in the heart of an alien culture, and the last thing I should do is offend the aliens by refusing their hospitality. A second later I turn around and gratefully accept, thanking them for their kindness on this hard night. With the soup in hand, I follow M dutifully into the sitting room.
It is only now that I realize where I am. All the accounts of Wakes that I have heard about or read, involve the drinking of heroic amounts of alcohol, and the celebration of the dead mans life there with him stretched out on the kitchen table in front of the family. I expected, tears, fights, perhaps even songs. The reality, is as always, joltingly different from my hackneyed expectations. In the smallish living room, only a little bigger than that of Denby sit in silence ten or twelve relatives, some faces I recognize from the boat, some are unfamiliar, all briefly stare at me as I enter. There are the young ones from Birmingham, second generation Islanders with no Irish and a great sense of humour. Then there are the sisters, one of whom stands up and offers me a seat, which soup in hand I take advantage of. Directly across from me is a roaring stove, above that stove, the first hints of decay and death in the house, a tongue of age yellowed wallpaper has broken free of its bond and lolls there hanging above an old mans head like a corpse. I see people eating sandwiches, a selection of which I am offered the second it looks like I am finished the soup, this time I accept without question.
The room is empty of noise apart from a strange whispering in the next room. The old men occasionally glance at this room, and continue eating their sandwiches. No alcohol here, it puzzles me, it is at odds with all the stories that I have heard about wakes. Later I ask M why this might be, and she whispers to me that there was a previous wake, possibly her fathers, where there was alcohol, this drove the mourners to become revelers, and in the company of a corpse, she considered discourteous, this I can understand. The murmuring continues, I have not seen M or L for a while. A question overwhelms the sputter of the fire, "So how was the crossing?" I am still engrossed in my soup, it is asked again "The crossing, how was it". I realize that one of the old women is talking to me, I raise my head from the bowl, "not as bad as it could have been thank god" silence falls again, the social duty done. I decide to look for M, I move toward the murmuring in the next room.
The next room is smaller than the living room, possibly a bedroom, though I cannot be sure. If it was the bed was removed to make way for the coffin. I have heard tell that in some wakes the deceased is placed in their own bed, and the mourners gather around them there. Not so in this case, the coffin was placed on a table, the lid removed and a garland of flowers placed above the dead mans head, his name spelt out in flowers. Inside, around the edge of the room were about six women, no men, and a spare chair. I sat down. M was across the room from me, with L on the chair next to her. L was, like all children are, not at all concerned about the atmosphere in the place, her instinct was just to learn as much about this strange custom she was witnessing for the first time as possible. Questions were asked, at first in a whisper and then, as confidence was gained, in a normal speaking voice. The whispered questions were answered, the speaking voice questions were hushed, but mostly it was silence. Occasionally a prayer would start, then silence would fall for a time, then one of the sisters would ask another in lilting Gaelic a question that I could not understand. So I imagined them, reminiscences of storms, of childhood adventures, of annoyances and pleasures, of how the missing piece that lay cold before them had effected the jigsaws of their lives. Those that were in the room, made no attempt to speak to me, or to speak in English, this I expected, and accepted. I sat in that room with the corpse and the grieving sisters and nieces and grandniece in solidarity, and what was communicated was exo-language, above language, beyond language. After a while, I returned back into the living room, and waited for M to return as L was getting tired and had entered into the stage of hyperactivity four year olds devolve into when their energy levels are running low.
Thankfully on the way back, we got a lift from a silent blonde haired island woman, and did not have to battle the elements. Still, we fall victim to the rain again during the short sprint from the car back inside M's house. I was shown to my room, a small one on the ground floor, two beds and a bedside table cum closet. M's mother is quite a traditional Catholic and as a result of this I had been billeted in a separate room from M and L. This I quite understood, and remained silent about, as I intended for the remainder of the weekend to disguise as much of myself as I could in politeness, consideration and etiquette, the end result of which, I hoped was that I would leave the Island with very little been known about me, save for some pleasantries. Those of you who know me, and my history will understand why I considered this expedient. In my view it is best not to concern people with things that they can neither understand nor change, let them build their own picture of me, which may not be who I am, but is who I can be. So it was the single bed for me, at least for three nights. L did not understand this though, as she is used to me having "sleepovers" with M, and decided that even if her mamau had decided that I should sleep downstairs, she had decided that I should stay with M and L. For a second or so I actually considered sending L to speak with her mamau to present her case, which in the logic of children, was inarguable. Still in some situations, it is best to do what one is told. It took about an hour to get L back to bed, and M and I had promised to return to the ghost house after she had succumbed to sleep. It was considered proper at this time by both M and myself to fortify our resolve with another joint, it made both the violence of the weather and the soft numbing grief easier to deal with.
The walk back was still hard though. If it were possible the wind seemed to have sharpened itself further on the Island rocks. It still beggars my belief that an Island with such a climate could, during the winter, be habitable. With weather conditions that have not been heard of outside of the plagues and sufferance’s of the old testament sweeping across thousands of miles of Atlantic, and up over the shores of this island, the fact that anything lives on this rock is remarkable. This island, which has land that is so unforgiving, it refuses to let trees take root. The rocks on the Island, have for generations been dug out of the ground by the blood sweat and tears of the Islanders, by their bare hands and used to fashion walls of the type that you see in postcards of Ye ole Eire, those walls form some small protection against the wind that roars in over the smooth marble beaches that form part of its coastline, and function as boundaries for the fields. There are no cliffs, no strange topographical idiosyncrasies that might provide some shelter from the roaring of Poseidon.
We did not stay long in the Ghost House this time, just enough to participate in the vigil. I joined M in the room with the dead man and his relatives. Silence was the greatest respect I could give. There was nothing for me to say, I only knew him through his niece, and the little that had been said in my presence about him in English. The most sympathy and support that I was able to give was through my eyes, not my mouth. I remained in the room with W and M for a time. I had emptied my head of all thoughts, silenced the inner dialog in order to fully comprehend what I could of my surroundings, and not filter any of its meaning through the abstraction of words when I was caught unawares. One of the old men had raised himself from an armchair in the living room, and moved to the edge of the doorframe. I was sitting by that door when he dropped suddenly to his knees and started to pray a melancholic Gaelic prayer, which he seemed to repeat. The sound of the man falling to his knees startled me, but the sight of this most humbling gesture of love, respect and loss moved me so I dropped my head in empathy with him. When he rose and left the room, I felt as if I was trespassing on something that was very intimate, very secret and filled with loss. It was not my place to remain, who was I, some Dublin blow in, some man with no connection with the Island, or its people, someone who was, in however an indirect way, keeping M from her people, and her people knew, especially at this time, that we all only have a very limited time on earth. I retreated to the living room, and waited for M to emerge and for us to start the long walk back to her home and then exhausted, fall into the welcome of my single bed, which I wouldn’t have exchanged for a Sharifs palace at that moment.
A new day dawns.
The sun rose, and I was not there to see it. In fact I was not to see it for at least five hours after it graced the Island with its rays. When I finally awoke and drew back the curtains, my face wore the expression of disorientation that you see on Patrick McGoohans in the opening sequence of The Prisoner. Suddenly I was 13 again, and back in the Gaeltacht. Falling down toward the shore was a vein like lattice of coarse limestone walls, each rock placed there by hand, the walls enclosing small fields, most of which were empty, save for the occasional cow, or goat. An odd house peppered the horizon. When I looked upward, I seemed to be encased in an azure blue dome, so unspoilt by cloud was the sky.
For the first time in a long time, I thought I smelt ozone. I could hear movement in the house, I checked my watch. I was in the Gaeltact, I had overslept, and I was sure that I had missed breakfast, which meant that I was probably late for the morning Irish lesson. Not only that but I discovered that I had total brain lock and could no longer remember any of the Irish I had been developing over the previous few weeks. Then I truly woke up and realized my mistake, I had been regressive, delusional, but most of what I had thought was true, save for the fact that I no longer had any Gaelige, nor indeed an Irish class to attend and was not required to speak it. The ban an Ti would not be angry with me for sleeping in, for I was the least of her worries.
I rose and showered, a power shower, that had little trouble with the volume of water that was delivered per second, but did have a rather nostalgic habit of radically changing from scalding hot to bone shatteringly cold for no goddamn reason at all in the space of half a second. It had been a while. I emerged from the shower to find that, in the end, I had not in fact missed breakfast. I joined the Birmingham cousins and the school master brother in the dining room. The company was all male. M had risen and was getting breakfast for herself as well, though did not join us for a few minutes. This I could understand, as M is a vegan and a vegetarian, and if I was in her position I would not want to witness four men savaging sausages, rashers, black and white pudding and any other meat that could be found in the kitchen freezer. I think that I speak for all of us men, when I say that the primitive hunter gatherer instinct took over, and if we could have done so in the present company we would have abandoned our knives, forks and plates and just grunted and torn the meat apart with our fingers. If I was a vegan, or in fact a civilized and polite member of society, I would have remained in the kitchen for as long as possible as well.
So after gorging myself, I retired to the living room where we discussed the planned walk for the day, prior to the funeral, which was slated for five, it was already one.
M, L and I stepped out into the crisp October air, my footfalls crunched downward on small rocks and shattered the silent picture postcard illusion that had greeted my sleep stained eyes through the bedroom window. This was indeed real, and the Island itself hunched itself under my feet, preparing for the next gales assault. The sun was wondrous, but deceptive, I felt that after the previous days attempt by God to wipe me and the island off the face of creation, the sun may have been pulling a fast one. We took advantage of what turned out to be a temporary ceasefire by the Atlantic weather that allowed us to go for a walk, and others to move their wounded away from the frontline. Moving downhill flanked on either side by the ever-present stone walls we wound our way past docile cattle and curtain shakers. Rounding a corner two parallel modern behemoths loomed into view, huge concrete structures which looked like they had been helecoptered in from an industrial estate in Dublin, totally out of place, and as alien as I was to the landscape. I asked M what they were, and was told that originally these two huge concrete bunkers were intended to be the beginnings of a factory that would specialize in the Islands most well known product. This was many years ago however, and because of the ill winds on the high seas of international finance the project had crumbled, and the structures had been left idle for a few years. Thankfully before they became just another set of follies from Irelands falsely promised eternal economic recovery, they were taken over. One of the buildings is a cinema and a community space, the other is now an art gallery and has an artist in residence. There is an eight-year waiting list for this post, I can see why, even at a distance I am envious of any individual who is given an apartment for a year on the island, and paid by the government to empty themselves of the creative energy the island infects the individual with. The same energy that has caused me to write this piece. Still the structures presence I felt most everywhere I went on the Island, possibly the only constant reminder that when on the island, we are indeed still within the confines of the twenty first century.
Moving beyond and around and down, past old cottages, and newer bigger buildings made of concrete, painted in mock wooden American style with nicknames like "South Fork", the result of Islanders that moved to America, and then returned with their pockets full of dollars and their sense of taste and propriety removed. Once past these Island Neo-Homes we are brought to the coast. The familiar words of the sea whisper in my ear, flowing and ebbing, whispering of wrecks and heroics, of becalments and fishermen’s victories. The salt water engaged in an endless war with the porous limestone of the islands coast. There is no beach at this point, but rather a slowly descending plateau of limestone worn into sheets by the wind, smooth like alabaster, like a distant planets continent, until finally they meet the cold water of the Atlantic ocean. The ocean is no longer black and threatening in the sunshine, but translucent green, as if in the tropics. But do not be deceived, the water is as cold and unforgiving as last night, it just takes on a different aspect, like a beautiful woman, calm after mythic raging. When the rock and the sea meet, the rock takes on a coral like intricacy, as the waves eternally beat against the shore, they work their way into the tiny tunnels and crannies in the limestone that has ceded the fight. Little geysers erupt between your feet, the white water surrounds you as wave after wave crashes on the white stone. Eventually I think, the whole Island will be worn away, and be nothing more than a legend. Like the lost city of El Dorado, or Atlantis. I stand for a while and just listen, letting the roar of the water wash my mind clear of all thoughts, so I just exist humbled and open before the mighty Kraken like power of the ocean. I turn and M and L have moved farther up the lunar landscape, and are beckoning me. M's hair being whipped landward by the wind, gesturing, her mouth moving, but no sound reaches me. I move toward her. When I reach her she gestures to her right, and my eyes follow the line of her arm. Beyond lies a beach, I cannot understand the geological complexities that would cause the limestone to give way to a finely sanded beach, not even small rocks, but sand so fine that would be impossible to strain with a prospectors pan. Before we leave the rock though, I find a cluster, which has been benevolent to man, and has shaped itself to the form of a chair pointing out to sea. I take L on my knee and sit, feeling not a little like king Canute. We decide to move before the tide moves in any further, I do not want to have to repeat that mythical kings mistakes.
Stopping at each of the three limestone benches that buffer the road with the rock, and giggling like schoolchildren at the huge limestone "erection" that looms outside of the pub we moved a couple of hundred meters westward and sank into the yielding sand of the beach. We walk for about a hundred meters, past the upturned fishing boats and that grass that you see on beaches, which I suspect is so resilient that it would survive a nuclear war. We sit and smoke a joint a little past the huge yellow warning sign that indicates a big ol' thick undersea power cable that snakes across the bottom of the Atlantic to the island, and is the source of all its power. Not a good place to fuck around with a bucket and spade.
The dope does its work and I return to that Zen place, a place where again no words are spoken, it seems that the sea has made itself a participant in the wordless exchange between M and myself. I look at the wooden fishing boats, those boats that are no longer made, as there is no one alive who still knows the craft of creating them. The house that used to be home to the master craftsman now stands empty. Centuries of Island knowledge and skill have perished with this man, and only a few of the upturned boats on the beach still speak of his skill, save for illustrations in picture books. The boats are made of fiberglass now. Time was pressing on, and we had to move toward the Ghost House.
W still lay in state surrounded by his loved ones, except by this time, it had been decided that it would be appropriate to supply alcohol to the mourners. On this visit I had initially declined to visit the room where W lay. Preferring to stay in the living room, and let his loved ones continue their vigil. I was offered, and accepted a whisky of fine quality, and watched the old men sit in the room, the silence only occasionally punctuated by the murmur of Gaelic. Time seemed to stop in this house, it seemed to have, in sympathy with W's passing slowed down to the point where we still moved but the rest of the world was frozen like the strange colourful shapes inside Phoenician glass. The whisky gave me a little courage, and I joined M and L with W. L had spent the day exploring the Island with me, and still wanting to play, was removing my gloves, in the hope that the "claw" would be released. A four year old was too young to know that this was neither the time nor the place for the "claw". She could not be placated and I took her into the kitchen with me, so she did not upset the remaining people in the house. This is where we remained until M came and gently touched me on the shoulder indicating that we were to move on back to Mamau's house. Whispered goodbyes were spoken and we began that walk again. The sun was setting and the wind was beginning to get its back up.
I did not attend the procession that carried W to the Church in preparation for the following days funeral, nor the small service that must have counted as the equivalent of a removal. M wanted to attend, and asked me to mind L which I could not refuse, as, some would have it said, that I would be more at home with a four year old that any selection of adults you might care to name. So M departed for the heavy burden of removal. I remained in her Mamau's home with an etch a sketch and a four year old that had warmed to me in the last couple of days, most likely because anytime she talked to me in English I had given her my full attention. L reminded me of myself when my uncle Willie died, I was six or seven, and had never encountered death outside of the pulp fiction I was then fond of reading. I went into the primary school I was attending with my cousin at the time, and started talking about how my Uncle (actually my Grand Uncle) had died and how excited that I was, as I had been given the day of the funeral off school. Scott my cousin, who was actually a couple of weeks younger than me, castigated me for having such a flippant and disrespectful attitude to Willie's passing. It confused me. I saw a similar wonderment and lack of understanding in L's eyes. To her she was just having a fun few days with unusual happenings on the Island. The fact that she was never to see W again, as he was "sleeping" just did not enter into her reality. So we drew pictures, and watched cartoons by the fire, until M returned, looking pale.
More relatives were arriving. Brother G came from far abroad with a past that he was not willing to discuss, but a great sense of humour, and a look of culture shock in his eyes that could not be disguised as he had not set foot on Island soil for three years. "Funerals and Weddings" he said "Funerals and Weddings". Soon after he walked into the house, his mother told him he was fat, and that he should loose some weight, Funerals and Weddings, was it any wonder. The house fills up, girls I do not recognize trail by with black rings around their eyes, a combination of the stress of traveling and the lack of sleep. Twitchy the sister turns up with her Gluten free bread and her husband in that order...C retreats to her bedroom, and for a while I consider doing the same thing. It all builds to a point where the houses' social areas i.e. the kitchen and the small living room can no longer contain the amount of relatives bustling about, so some of the new arrivals do the only sensible thing, and make a break for the Island hotel bar. In fact so many of those present do, that myself M and L are left in the house alone bar her schoolteacher brother T, and he himself says that he is going to head off soon. L gets put to bed and we retire to the living room and watch a repeat of Ahnulds "Predator" - the only movie I know of that boasts two US Governors in its cast - Ahnuld himself and Jesse "the body" Ventura current Governor of Minnesota and ex professional wrestler. If we are to go to the pub, someone (hopefully M's mother) will have to return and take over babysitting duties, so in the hope of invoking some Pan like activity, I retire outside to smoke another joint.
Mamau returns, we take a torch, coats, hats, and at eleven pm with a total disregard for our own personal safety we step out into the End of the World. Outside bushes bent low, trying to escape the scourge of wind and rain that trawled every inch of the island. All I could hear was the scream of the howling bombardment and all I could feel was the bullet hits of the raindrops. I could no longer open my eyes, and had to grip M's arm as I, sodden after the first few steps into the elements, was guided through the maze of now precarious looking walls of stone deeper into the deluge. I tried to speak, or shout but my words were carried away across the Atlantic. That night, men who had spent their childhoods on the Island got lost in the darkness of that deluvian ruction. The streets turned into rivers, we lost all sight and had to negotiate by touch. What seemed like hours were likely only minutes, but we eventually made it to the Island Hotel. Stepping through the door was like dying and suddenly waking up in heaven, except with draft beer. A Guinness and a chaser was the only thing for it.
The Hotel bar was a grand affair, about a hundred and fifty meters long and fifty meters wide, coming to an end with a marker of unspoilt green felt stretched across a pool table. The only windows were either side of the doorway through which we arrived. Number plates from across the globe formed a train that stretched above the length of the bar itself, plates from as far afield as Holland and the States. My first impression was an amazement that people would bring plates to the bar on their holidays. Through the haze of alcohol I soon realized that this was foolish, and decided a more likely explanation was that an islander had left Ireland and traveled far abroad, country to country, killing natives as he went, and sending the plates of their cars of his victims back home to his favorite bar as trophies of his killing spree. The truth turned out to be a little less entertaining, people sent them to the bar from abroad, islanders and tourists alike. I still suspect that this was a cover story for the Islander serial killer still at large, somewhere in the Flanders. By the time we arrived the bar was well on its way to full, the wake it seemed had enjoyed a memetic effect on the populace of the island, and all had come to this Hotel, to enjoy life before the sad duties of the morrow. To the left of the bar were the toilets, and here, in front of the short narrow corridor that led to the respective toilets, a crowd of men had gathered, later I was told by M that it was a traditional spot, an opportunity to jokingly and drunkenly slag the men, and grab the young ladies, the whole carnival of humanity of the bar had to pass them at one time or another. Nothing was said of my passing when I eventually went to relieve myself. The night wares on, I almost forget the war of the gods that rages outside, warm conversation and too cold Guinness. Drunken tomfoolery, I hang with Mt, the tallest man in the bar "he still hasn't got himself a wife" says M's mum, Mt and I have a laugh. The England cousins banter back and forth. On my fourth drink the cumulative effect of the alcohol takes effect. M is tired from the day’s activities anyway, and we decide to return home. I fear what the weather may be doing outside.
I needn't have, the rain has abated, and the wind, for once is only a whisper. The moon is a blind eye reflected in the roadway puddles, and we walk, chatting softly through the cool night air, arm in arm, while a gentle warmth permeates our hearts. As we round one of the last limestone guarded corners on the way back to the house, poo bear says hello. Lying on his back near a puddle in at two o'clock in the morning he stares up at us from the road. The look on his face is one of having escaped from Christopher Robin and too late realizing that it was a terrible mistake. I bend down and pick him up, one of the local children fleeing from the rapidly changing weather must have dropped him during their flight home, he keeps us company for the remaining short walk. A long warm embrace and kiss, and I am again in my single bed, headphones disrespectfully in my ear, Tom Waits escorting me to my final chaperone of the evening, Morpheous.
When I wake there is the bustle of movement all over the house, the smells of cooking and the banging of doors. I emerge with sleep stained eyes and run for the shower, the door is locked, nothing to be surprised about really considering the house is filled to the brim with relatives and concerned friends, men looking for ties and cufflinks, women bustling, cooking, preening. I return to my room until I hear the door of the shower nearest me open, I run, quickly learning what it means to be part of a large family. I make it and bolt the door, and confront my old nemesis, which has as many surprises for me today as it had yesterday. I dance naked, in and out of the scalding/freezing jets. When I emerge I am a patchwork of alabaster and rouge, but at least there is a dry towel there for me. I dress, and walk out to the kitchen, G leans against the archway that leads from the kitchen to the breakfast room, stone faced, dressed in a suit that was born thousands of miles away. Sisters bustle, the room fills with family, I back out and run into M as I do. Breakfast is offered, this time I refuse, it is half eleven, we have to be at the church by 12, its a four minute walk. L is awake, fed and washed. I follow some of the men of the family out through the yellow paned front door, a sickly light falling in the narrow hall, and wait for M and L. Everyone bar T has left and begun walking to the church by the time M emerges, silent and grey faced, the revelry of the previous night scoured away as if by kitchen cleaner. M looks beautiful in black, though in the way of a widow, her eyes have the quality of the thousand yard stare to them, like that of soldiers whose photos, taken after their return from the Somme I once saw. For a moment I feel that I am insubstantial, a ghost, like it is my funeral she attends, until she grips my hand, and silently we begin walking, with each step I feel more real. My arm slides around her waist as we follow her mourning family in the gathering breeze.
The church comes into view. A small whitewashed building of stone, a courtyard and a separate bell tower, also whitewashed, the bell pull swinging in the Atlantic breeze. It is so much like the churches I saw in Mexico, almost painful to watch in the unrelenting sun. But this one is cold, and the villagers pale, from grief and environment. The fear rises in my stomach, what use am I in these situations, there is nothing to say, and yet there is so much to do, my instinct is to stop the flow of blood like grief from a wound that I cannot see, I grip M harder and look into her eyes, gently taking L's satchel out of her hands. A crowd has begun to gather outside the walls of the church, eyes searching to make contact with the family, with the people that they have known for years, to send a telepathic signal of support, of love, in this awful time, the language of Irish being as useless as English for saying anything of value now, all that is left is prayer, spell and magic. All I hear is the shuffle of feet and the occasional staccato cough. I remove my hat. We move inside.
The church is simple, as white on the inside as out, washed clean by the blood of the lamb, and all the flock that have been redeemed beneath its roof. Simple wooden benches and above on the walls, Christ again goes through his crucifixion, through his stations, through his pain, and their redemption. Like another Island church on Rathlin Island, the main arch like windows that overlook the pulpit at the rear of the church are filled not with stained glass depicting another of Gods great wonders, but plain transparent glass that lets a whole sky of light in to fill every cranny of this small church. Beams of brightness stream down and fall on W's coffin which has been placed in front of the alter, glowing ethereally. The only sounds in the church are our footfalls as we move up the aisle, M and L in front, stopping at a row of pews half way up. I move into the row and settle beside G, making only brief eye contact before allowing him to retreat to his own private grief, buried deep in the thick silence of the church. I wrap my arm around M's shoulder and squeeze tight, no words come, no words needed. She seems frail for such a physically strong woman, almost too weak to consider controlling L. L, thankfully is quite relaxed and quiet, only occasionally asking questions about the choir stationed above us and behind our heads, and commenting on how loud a baby across from us is being. The church fills, the family side is full, the other side is filling. Footsteps echo, that same church echo found all around the world. We kneel as the angelic voices rise in Gaelic, almost seeming to lift the spirit of W to that Christian heaven it is said that he believed in. If there is such a place, his own golden nature, and the constant ministrations of his family got him there soon after he died. We stand, kneel, I listen to prayers and Hymns, ministrations and gestures of peace, veneration of Jesus, and his God. All in Gaelic save for the grateful acknowledgement of the cousins from England. Again I do not understand the literal meaning of the words, but the substance is clear, you need only look at the eyes of anyone under the rafters of that small church. Communion is given, which I did not expect, though transubstantiation upon further thought is appropriate, the transformation of wine into blood, bread into flesh, and for W flesh into spirit. I hope everyone takes a big slug of the communion wine, its a muscle relaxant, and probably helps people deal with all this sorrow and grief.
The service ends, six men, clothed in dark suits, position themselves under the coffin and heave, it rises and in slow half steps moves down the aisle toward the doorway of the church. Brothers and sisters rise and slowly walk, aging with each step, past me, single file, heads bent and dressed in black. They neither look left or right, for this moment their world has narrowed to the thin wake of the coffin in front of them. Never taking my hand from M, we follow, even L seems to understand there is something dreadfully final about this journey, and falls silent. We emerge to the cold sunshine of the new day.
Outside, leaning on walls, and filling the road, squinting into the wind and wrapped in scarves, hats, coats, it seems the whole island has gathered. They have filled the breath of the road and their numbers have pushed them back, further up, dividing them at the fork. They too are silent. The flatbed from the first night is parked in the road, waiting to take W to the graveyard, which lies perched on an outcropped hillock further down the island, like a finger pointing out to sea accusingly, you can see it from most anywhere you stand on the Island. I never seem to see the driver of the truck, it arrives and leaves, ghost like, first cloaked by darkness and later under cover of the graveyards gentle hill. The coffin is gently loaded onto the truck, and is almost swallowed by the Islanders who queue and place endless flowers around and on top of the coffin. M leaves hers and L’s on the rear of the truck. It moves off and we, silent and desultory began the reluctant mile toward W's final resting place, in a silence more constricting than any I had known in those few, long days. As we walked I turned occasionally to witness the long and winding train of grief stricken refugees from death follow behind us. Slowly the raised crosses and angels grew in stature as we wound our way left to right, in slow curves toward the Graveyard. L gets tired and I raise her to my shoulders to make her journey easier.
The road turns to a dirt path, almost chalky in its dryness, and becomes steeper, then an iron gate, grass and the unsettling site of an ancient church lying in a grave of its own. The church was dug at least fifteen feet into the soft sand of the Graveyard, protected from the constant wind and rain that batters this small rock in an endless sea, built of Island stone, the roof long gone, with only a rickety rotten staircase to reach it.
The procession walked around it, leaving the weather ravaged church in its stricken glory. Crosses, gravestones, angels, wings spread, eyes raised to heaven escorted us to the darkened pit. The organic shifting crowd gathered around, prayer beads in shaking hands preceding the slow rising moan of the Gaelic mantra again born from the bottom of the Islanders spirit, the wind fell silent in deference, on and on the prayers repeated. Tearful men, some terribly aged, too old for this sad duty, clambered into the grave, three of them. Others above gripped the coffin with straining hands and shoulders, awkwardly staggering a foot here, a foot there, seeking some kind of hold as W was finally lowered down onto the grasping hands of those within the grave under a yawning sky. The edges of the ossuary sagged and island sand began to fill it, with coffin and white haired men still within. Final grunts as hands gripped the edges and more reached down to pull them from the pit. At last the priest came forward and again in Gaelic, spoke the last words, gently tossing Island sand into the pit, then stepping back, to let the families iterating magical prayer take over and rise from their lips under the soul of the dead man, seemingly bearing his anima, spirit and soul toward the speeding clouds above and into the hands of the savior they had conjured for him by their unshakable belief. I am sure at the end of the tunnel and beyond the white light, he met just the simple heaven that he expected.
The prayer still echoed and traveled around the gathered mourners, in whispers and strongly spoken words. As this supplication continued its route three shovels were taken up, and G, T and another relative bent to their final task, sinews strained and teeth gritted, they began to fill the grave, on and on they shoveled, sweat staining their suits, the hollow thud of the island sand on the grave, the piles of sand on either side of the grave slowly diminished. Bend, shovel, bend, shovel, bend, shovel in time with the prayers, bend, shovel, bend shovel. When these men have been pushed to the end of their endurance, others notice, and step in to fill the gap. Bend, shovel, bend, shovel, bend shovel. The spades get passed around, the prayer itself becomes a mournful work song, not unlike the work song of the American Negro. Calloused hands pass the spades to calloused hands, long used to hard work, to lifting stones from fields, to rowing boats, raising lobster pots, and building their own shelter. Some not so, the cousins from Birmingham join in. I feel the need to offer a hand, seeing as I am male and able bodied, but resist, this is an intensely private ritual, these men are blood, I am not, I stay to the rear and out of sight as it goes on.
Ten minutes and more, L begins to get restless and wants to play, the prayers and the digging continue. M asks me if I could take L away from the group so as not to disturb this furiously private ritual. I take L's tiny four-year-old hand and lead her away from the grave, past the sepulchers and crosses, back toward the church, built by the brother of the well-known Wicklow murderer St.Kevin. L shows me a set of stone steps that lead down to the church that had escaped my notice on first passing. We walk downward, into the silence, like someone suddenly switched off the wind. I almost have to drop to my knees to get through the entrance, a tiny stone arch, L finds this amusing, and then she has to crawl to get to a back room, I almost have to fall to my belly. The carvings in the walls are old, fifth century ad, when refuge was taken from the tribal wars of Ireland, and bodies were piled high upon pyres, this must have allowed for some refuge. Here we stay for about quarter of an hour until I decide that enough time has been spent to allow the last shovel of dirt to be laid upon W's grave. We leave using the same stone staircase as we came down on, emerging to see M waking over the hill, seeing her daughter for the first time since her thoughts were swallowed whole by the burial, death and new life of W, the wheel keeps turning. I hoist L back on my shoulders and we return to the Hotel bar, to sandwiches, sausages and copious amounts of alcohol.
We stay for an hour or so, drinking and eating, I spend most of my time in a corner with L, playfully delivering the much requested "claw", a weird mutated space creature that attacks her when I remove my gloves. M moves around, relative to relative, saying goodbyes to those that are leaving and having longer conversations with those who are not. Only once or twice am I cornered by some well wisher who sees me sitting alone with L, stilted small talk, the like of which I have never been much good at. M eventually comes up to me, and suggests that we go for a walk, I agree, we leave, joking for a minute with the smokers that are gathered outside the door of the pub, in a plywood shack that has been attacked to the main door, so that the pubs smoking customers do not die of a weather related illness. We make for the beach, leaving the heavy drinkers to get on with their work.
After the claustrophobia of the bar and the people within, the beach did my breathing for me, long draws in and out of air that had not been touched with the exhaust of a million cars, the grease of a thousand fast food joints or the vomit from smokestacks. The sky spread out over my head like a silk sheet thrown over us to protect us from the vile weather of the last few days. My feet sank into the yielding sands, and when L the consummate beachcomber, found a length of blue plastic rope that had been washed ashore from some ship long at sea. She wrung laughter from our lips and our bellies, laughter that was long waited for and was a greater relief than I could have thought possible, L skipped and ran, tied the rope to her legs and mine as we made our way up the beach toward the next shelf of limestone that stood kissing the sea. Earlier I had rolled a joint and we had decided to smoke it at the point where M swam as a child, a flat outcropping surrounded by clear green water, of a type that I had not seen since the east coast of Africa, Mombassa. Deep and clear, you could easily see why she swam here as a child, you could make out the shape and depth of the few rocks that resided beneath the surface. This was a place that you could swim and dive, even having no familiarity with the water. It was all spelt out to you by a forgiving sea. I crouched on the rock and brought the joint to my lips, inhaling deeply, holding it for a second and letting the exhaled smoke form dragons that danced in front of the racing clouds. We talked of the past, of childhood, of the future, behind us still in view, the rise of the graveyard, I felt sure that inside we were watched warmly by W and all his kin. L, grew focused and began to climb the little inclines of limestone that surrounded us, I left her to it, standing a little behind so that if she slipped all that would happen to her would be a grazed knee, or a cut hand. She postured like Hillary on his ascent of Everest, four-year-old fingers digging into the crevices that presented themselves like presents to her, and made it up to the top without much effort. This gave her renewed confidence, and every sandy dune, every rock, was fair game for her new adventures.
During my time thus far on the Island, I had not the time to explore, and to the West, at the zenith of the islands height, there perched a small castle, castle O’Conner, which some (insert number) hundred years ago had been built by a war like clan, who subjugated the island while fleeing its enemies in Scotland. And now it rose gently ahead of us. We decided to take the risk that L would grow tired, and move towards it. M, though she spends at least a week on the island every few months, had not climbed to the castle for three years, and this, was as good an opportunity as any we surmised.
We had left the beach and been walking for no more than three minutes, when L, tired from her climbing, began to cry with no warning. I bent down and whispered gently in her ear that she could "drive" me up to the top if she wished. She agreed and I put my hands under her arms and lifted her to my shoulders where she sat, and I walked. It was some minutes before I realized that I had grossly misjudged the distance that we had to walk to the castle, easy enough since I had never been there. L though she is four, over a distance, and up hill can gradually become quite heavy. In addition the incline was also much steeper than I expected, and any conversation I was capable of stopped and was replaced by regular breathing within about seven or eight minutes. M talked to L as she realized that I was concentrating on other matters, L seemed content enough, bobbing and talking, bobbing and talking. Even with running four miles three times a week I was sweating, M took my hat off and the walk grew easier. Again I was in that place where the next breath, the next step was all that mattered, dogs could nip and bark at my heels, the rain could fall again, walls could collapse, and all I would hear would be my breath, in, out, in, out, in, out...until finally the castle was reached. Or at least the wall that surrounded it, I raised L over my head and lowered her to the ground. Taking off my coat, and jumper, leaving only a t-shirt, I walked with them, into the castle grounds.
Long lush green grass the product of a million rainstorms brushed my legs. The castle rose majestic above me. We first walked toward the edge of this walled compound, walled in much the same way as the latticework of the rest of the island. A platform at the edge of the world, almost the entire Island was visible from this one spot. When in places of natural beauty, I always make for the highest point, it allows me to see the terrain, and ground myself, let it sink in where I am. The Island was like something out of a Stephenson's Treasure Island I looked westward and eastward, the lush green that spread out below me belied the harsh realities of the life here. A net of stone stretched from one side of the Island to the other, walls intersecting and diverging, rolling down into the sea, seeming to anchor the island into place, preventing it from drifting to America to join all the rest of those that had left. Minutes past, then turning to face the castle again, we walked the short distance to its walls, reaching far above our heads M allowed me to lead, exploring the periphery of this looming stone structure, even though she must have been here a thousand times herself, she followed me on my own voyage of discovery. There was no door on the first side I came across, nor on the second. The rear wall however, sometime in the past had partially collapsed and left stepping stones of rubble that ascended through the broken stories of this medieval skeleton to its highest point of elevation, its defensive ramparts. I climbed some of the way up, alone as M had to look after L, and in any case as a child had developed her restrictive vertigo from playing on its walls. Then L tried to follow saying she was all grown up now, and anything I could do she could, and escaped the protective arms of M. I returned down to a lower level to prevent her ascent. We continued our walk around, finally finding the entrance on the side that faced us when we first came in. Because of the almost constant rain of the last few days, the entrance passage was flooded, and again, only I had the height to leap from dry spot to dry spot and finally explore the innards of the building. I looked up and the stones stretched to the sky, almost as if they were the remains of the tower of Babel, long since fallen to earth. I could feel that savagery and the murder that had happened here as I turned on my heel, the sky spinning. I could see the wars, and the ships, the grief and hear the clash of arms, echoing through time and wind. Behind me was a room of complete darkness, I asked M what lay inside, it was only a small room she told me. I entered the room on my other side, a vaulted ceiling covered in glowing green moss, and a collapsed wall, the same one I had earlier scrambled up. There was something dead and foreboding about this room. I, saying nothing more, quickly left.
L was becoming hungry, and as such was equally tired. It was fiveish and the light was beginning to fail, we had to leave now, or we would be forced to continue back to the pub in darkness, and when darkness came on this island so did the violence of the weather. We had to make speed, L again was hoisted to my shoulders and we made good time back to the pub. When we got there, I realized that I too was running out of energy, despite the provision of sandwiches, soup and sausages earlier. I took up a position by the pubs fire, opposite the bar, and halfway down from the door. I warmed myself and watched M busy herself with flitting from cousin to cousin, and being intercepted by the uncles, I watched men watch her and smiled into my whisky. The din of the Gaelic rose and near broke into song upon occasion. One or two of the islands boys came in, narrowly averting the children, and sashayed down to the pool table, where I would imagine they were to spend much of their youth. One boy moved like a gangster, all low slung baggy pants, memes straight from America, and tracksuit top, from the gutters of Dublin. He moved in such an exaggerated theatrical way, I eventually realized that one of his legs was damaged, lucky cripple hangs like a crip, but no colours, not today, or tomorrow. I had run out of words, run out of small talk and eyes to my drink and to the passing attentions of L managed to avoid offending anyone, as would have happened if my disinterest in conversation was to be made public. Patience is a virtue, and alcohol is its friend, one can sit for a long time with a good drink in a warm bar, just watching the humans interact, now three days since my arrival on this island, I had finally, become the alien. M touched me on the shoulder L was again at the end of her fourth, perhaps fifth wind and it was time to take her home to bed. I remember little of that walk home.
The black alcohol trauma'd clot fades out and memory spits back to life and returns in the kitchen. L's hands in M's she is being taken up to bed, I stand unsteady and weak, uncertain of what to do or who to talk to, there being no one save M and L in the house, I tell M I am going to my room, she will return later she says, she never does, falling into sleep, she is taken beyond my reach, beyond anyone’s, except perhaps for the blonde haired extension of the child that gently breathes next to her.
There is little on my mind save for the Ferry trip back to the coast that leaves at eight thirty am. My heavy limbs drag me down and my sluggish feet make too much noise as they move towards my room, thin wooded door shuts behind me, I reach for my mobile, and set the alarm in a fog of exhaustion, pack some dirty clothes, and the lay out the necessities for the following mornings journey back to Dublin. Then earphones in, my body, heavy and useless falls and is swallowed by the too soft bed. Tom Waits once again beckons me to sleep.
The rising needle like tones of my alarm stab me back to consciousness, louder and louder, they incorporate themselves into my dreamless sleep, I turn, bury my face into the warm pillow and unwillingly wrap the headphones vice like around my throat. My breathing restricted, I start to panic, gasp and choke and reach clasping hands around behind me at an invisible opponent, yanking the wires from around my windpipe, I next scrabble for the phone, it has fallen somewhere out of reach, and I swing my feet across and down to the cold floor, and sit, staring blankly at the wall in the cold and the rising din. Eventually the phone tires of its game and ceases to torment me. Head falling into cupped hands I breath out a long exasperated breath as I realize what time it is, and what the evil grinning day holds in store for my body, and my black rimmed swollen eyes, broken by morning. I rise naked and stiff, why is it in the morning I always feel my 32 years, pull on a pair of jeans, and barefooted and cold, prepare once again to do battle with the unforgiving shower.
In the kitchen, there is already much movement, sisters and cousins, mother and Aunts bustle and cook, sausages spit and sizzle, porridge is made, kettles are boiled all for the bleary eyed hung over soon to depart. I take a brief step out of the crowded kitchen, and catch sight of M's mother waiting by the shower room, I walk up to her and thank her for her hospitality, again gripping her hand, and say that in case I do not get an opportunity later, I am saddened by her loss, and honored to have been privy to the last few days. Returning to the kitchen I am badgered again to accept food and tea, all in the most generous spirit. I accept the tea, but nothing else, as is my custom in the morning. The relatives are less fortunate, they are badgered and alcohol ridden to the point of uremia, forced to swallow unsweetened porridge and veiny sausages. I cannot help but allow myself the smallest amount of shadenfreude as I watch their hungover faces contort. I sit for a time in the kitchen as I am packed, it is eight o’clock, and a complex dance evolves before my eyes as luggage is shifted back and forth, girls with toothbrushes in their mouths push past brothers with thick winter coats and hats. It seems to me that we are leaving it a little late for the walk down to the Harbour, but I accept the fact that mother knows best.
M still sleeps and Dawn is just breaking when they step outside, thin fingers of reddish light pry their way through the bulbous gray clouds, slowly and painfully pulling them apart. I stand in the hall, door open, God's teeth, the cold sea air sweeps in through the boundaries of the frame like a great wet ghost. I step out in it, closely followed by a straggling gaggle of cousins and aunts. I am nervous that we may miss the boat, it is after all nearly twenty past eight and the ferry looses its ropes at half. My nervousness quickens my stride and before long I am a house's length ahead of M's mother and the rest of the party, it gives me a chance to think. The village is silent, but out on the horizon, I can see darker clouds gathering, the rain will hound me from this place of rock, sand, stone and bush. As I walk I half expect fox, cow, rabbit and dear heads to rise malevolently from behind one of the stone walls, out of the corner of my eye, I swear that I can see a wicker man, I turn and it is gone. But perhaps this island is not so different after all. I pass the concrete art behemoths, the little summer homes, the whitewashed lived in cottages all the time accompanied by the limestone walls letting just enough air through to chill a man to the bone if he was not wearing as heavy a coat as I. A little rain starts to fall, my pace quickens again, hurrying on, ever downhill, wind picking up now, I see the white swell of the black ocean. The stone beneath my feet is slick and dark, the rain now hammers down at an angle of forty five degrees, soft day thank god. I have been given instructions that when I reach the ferry ahead of the others, if it is casting off, to call to the seafarers and get them to stay their hand. It is not necessary, with only my personal bags, I make good time, and the ground falls away. Out there beyond the pier, the seaweed rises and falls in a white tumult that would drive the strongest swimmer into the eternal cold and endless black of the Atlantic. I wait for the others at the pier, there are few that I have to say farewell to, most are accompanying me. M's mother is there she embraces her departing family, off to Galway and beyond, her eyes tighten as her speech clothed in Irish, wavers, some she kisses I see no tears, but the weather is worsening and I am far away so I cannot be sure. I walk to her gently take her hand and kiss one cheek. We board over the same treacherous gangplank, in the same damn boots. The deck hand by the plank asks me for a ticket, I have none, and I ask if I can pay on board. M told me to identify myself as one of her family, to lessen the fare, or even like the journey over, to remove it. I cannot bring myself to do such a thing in earshot of her mother. I steady myself on the rail, the glint of the wet deck does not comfort me, I move gingerly to the lower deck, down the steel ladder, out of sight of those left behind on the pier.
This time I make the choice early, to stand at the aft of the ship, bar stowing my bags and picking them up, I spend little time inside. I stare at the eruption of white blindness beneath my head. I step back as the freezing cloud rises, and sit on a cold iron hatch, shifting my coat to deal with the cold. The boat comes about and M's mum comes into view, waving from the pier, a silent dance within the world. Rounding the harbour we are welcomed by the rolling swell of the ocean waves that collapse as they meet their zenith, turning into raging horses, thundering across the sea. I look up as we draw away from the Island, the graveyard silhouetted against the cold yellow sun, now close to victory in its struggle with the clouds, the only constant is change, and rapid change at that - how true. My view moves down the sweeping hill to the village, all bathed in white light, like some kind of vision, glowing and ethereal, almost unreal in the morning brightness. After a while my view falls to the sea and its endless intricacies, I stand and feel the world move beneath my feet, back and forth, back and forth. The nauseating rise and fall of this roller coaster ride was steadily increasing, but I was immune. I stood and gripped the cold steel pole to my right to steady myself.
Half an hour passed while I measured centuries in the infinite mirror of the sea. Then, a cousin beside me pointing upward, and fumbling with his coat, attempting to reach his camera phone. He tried to indicate and record all at the same time, what I had been so oblivious to. I tore my gaze from the water, and into that again grey sky. Six hundred feet above us, and about a mile behind, like an angry mosquito, a helicopter hung in the air. It was not yet audible as the wind easily overpowered it. It drew closer, and closer still, until its red and white insignia became legible, Coast Guard. For a moment I thought that it might fly over us, inland, on its way back from some rescue further out to sea. Perhaps one of the Islanders was being taken to a hospital inland. This was not the case, it moved forward about a hundred feet from the aft of the ferry, and two up, it increased to a foreboding size, the sound of its rotors tore through he air and hit us hard, warping the world around as if we were concussed and being taken away ourselves, hanging helpless beneath its furious blades.
It hung there over our heads, now more like a whale than a mosquito, the metal it was made of was too heavy, nothing that heavy could possibly stay in the air for any great length of time, but it did. For three minutes its massive bulk just hung there, screaming in the wind. There was movement inside, I could see flashes of orange and white, hurried movements. One of the coastguards had lowered a rope from the flank of the beast. It fell about fifty meters down and was whipped back a little by the wind.
Movement on the boat, by this stage people were behind me, worried chat in Gaelic and English about what this could mean, most people who didn’t leave their seats later told me that they thought that this could be a rescue for someone on board. I had not moved from the aft of the boat so I too thought that this was a distinct possibility, I heard no one deny it.
The rope was pulled back into the helicopter, and then, one of the crew hooked the rope to his belt, and lowered himself of off the edge, out of the copters side door and into the driving wind. Using hand signals, he indicated to the man at the rope, if he wanted to be pulled up or down. The pilot moved him over the aft of the boat. It was raining hard by this time, and the swell had increased to what must have been eight or nine feet, only about three seconds between each big wave. I had to grip that steel pole tight to prevent myself from slipping and being hurled into the ships metal lip and beyond into the sea. The coast guard dropped on the boat about an inch in front of my face, said "howerya", suddenly driven to his knees by the impact and pulled by the trough of a wave downward, about six feet to the left. With his back to me, and about a meter in front, he steadied himself, unhooked the rope from his belt, and signaled for it to be brought back up.
Nothing could be heard in the deafening roar of the ever circling rotors, the helicopters own engines, and the ferry's. Again the rope was lowered, this time with a heavy neon orange stretcher attached, could this be an exercise? The stretcher was lowered at an unnerving speed, should the boat have made any unpredictable movements, it might easily hit one of the passengers. But it too made it to the deck, the noise of its impact was heard over the din that surrounded us. Where was the unfortunate, who was to be rescued? The Coast Guard, unhooked the rope from the stretcher and sent it up again, turning and dropping to his knees he seemed to attach the stretcher to his belt. As if the unfortunate was already attached, it was a drill, the coast guard now waved up to the heavens.
The rope descended, and the coast guard set to his work again, he turned and waved to us, then signaled to the helicopter, and was lifted gently from the boat. He and the stretcher hung peacefully in the screaming silence above our heads, and gently moved off. Slowly the guard and his charge ascended into the morning sky, unaffected by the wind and the rain, the sea or the swell. Back to the sanctuary of the helicopter, which then reared backwards and upwards, at a steep angle, gracefully disappearing into the clouds, then above those too, into the bright morning sunshine.
© Fathercrow 2004