Knock, Market Day, Ireland 1966.
Streaming down the hills from Wicklow with banners and boots and donkeys braying and the smell of burning turf and Guinness for the drinking of,
red faced log like men with waistcoats from their fathers and sharp wet noses like the noses of their black and white and black dogs that drive them like sheep through the emerald fields and over the stone walls and down the twisting snake of a lane that swoops and dives and dips and swerves drunk on its own gay thoughtless joining of the villages of Knock, and Banfe, and Killymiwilly.
The women were singing the day away with songs of the lost kingdoms and Druids with golden staffs, and oh the comely princess with hair the colour of the sun, lips kissed with berries and eyes as dark as the starless night. what is love Mrs. Lynch why it’s ten times hotter than fire Mrs. Finch and I’d have married him then were not a cripple with a withered leg and a sister on the stage
OReilly takes out his watch the half hunter from his pocket and beams the joy of knowing when to start and when to stop. ‘There’ll be horses to catch before night.’ he shouts to the men and the boys, ‘take ropes and sugar and bells, a guinea for the stallion if you please.’
OReilly leaning on Cassidy’s long bar wiping sea fret from his facial hair a better pint there never was me boys an all down and dripping black, the smacking of many lips slapping by god yer roight sur an yes oil have another for t’would be churlish to refuse
and still behind the bar thin Quinn dreams pulling the white tusks the sweepstake and the winning of
speeches to be made and a new brown suit stuffed with crisp notes and a bottle of Jameson in the pocket
while by the fire young Mary McCoy stirs the bleeding sparking embers remembering the fire of dirty Dermot McCray and kisses burning lips
oh I never should for ’tis a sin but not of you don’t put in the tongue, the priest will know and then
seven hail Maries an worth a dozen more if should I let him but I’ll not have me best green cardy ruined even so,
by the bar Ben Brown looks down at her with wolf eyes imagining a dozen Mary’s dancing sturdily the summers green with cymbals and a blind accordion
the dresses bouncing over dimpled knees flashing, flinging, and furious then off running into the long corn field calling the boys you’ll never catch me and if you do I’ll never tell.
Eleven of the clock as me names OReilly and he puts the watch asleep,
the mornings washed away an all washed and waned and spent in idle games then out into the bright tight dazzling sun the road knee deep in promises of other places and spent wishes.
A mile or three to Knock will pass the afternoon away for tis a shame to hurry
OReilly mutters good day to you father to the black crow priest flapping storm warnings from the swinging gate St. Peter and Saint Paul and all along the path between the dead and dusty ancestors
and him Father Murphy staring blind into his dreams hears bells ringing, choirs singing, babies crying, time ticking,
never too late OReilly, forty guilty years since last confession,
please father I did put a mirror under Kelly’s skirt what did you see there boy there were birds and mothballs, bicycles and busses, badgers and the brown bull of Cooley sure god will strike you blind give me here your hand my boy for Jesus will forgive.
And out beyond the town the rolling road OReilly roams whistling the miles away to Knock.
What is your heart today Mr. OReilly sing the women of the market a fine fat pig with a smile on his face or a pair of piebald hens, a sheep’s head freshly skinned eyeballs intact a ox tail shaved, talced and lotioned,
I’ll have a brace of dreams me girls go easy on the spice.
The river running swift and dark and under the town’s grey walls skimmed green moss while silent seated men with rods and nets crouch staring at the upside down world of the other bank and peer into the waters for a glimpse of half forgotten hope, what was it now that slipped away like a thief in the night.
Then over Tanker’s Bridge and into Cork Lane and the knocking of the green door opened
Clara Clara would you ever be looking at yerself for me eyes are starved of yer light and I hear only yer voice in my dreams And into Clara’s parlor eyes dancing hands aflutter small white teeth parted oh Clara sure I’d kill for a smile
And the arms around him and the coolness of her cheek and the smell of summer on her breath spinning spinning until they fall giddy with the wanting and the needing and the remembering
Taking her face in his hands and diving into the dark pools of her eyes cool and warm and cool again her hands busy peeling, shelling, stripping until nothing’s left but the white smooth surface of a place unexplored
Now she says now and all is lost except the being and the doing as the earth rolls away and leaves them lost in a darkness full of flickering lightning, and the moaning like the wind in the chimney on a winter’s night, and the breath like thunder in their ears, Now, and the hands like claws gripping now, now, and then the crying like the hurt, Clara oh Clara, Mr. OReilly now, now, now
And down the days tumbling through the bright white place into warm seas to rest pillowed on the ocean the sounds slip back birds sing, voices, the sound of the river in stillness and the beating of the hearts among the clouds.
O’Reilly stepping high across and back across the Liffey by the Tankers his hand on Clara for the kindness that’s in it and off to Brady’s by the quays
A full meat house stuffed and smelling cigarettes and sweat and smoke and stout and burning turf, and heads a turning as the door swings shut no ladies here shouts Aemon from behind the bar
Sweet times and looking each the eyes knowing unsaid words and remembering will you stop with me tonight Ah Clara I have horses to catch and men to find and tales to tell
when will you come to me again
I’ll come when the gorse blooms on Slieve Leag, and when the salmon leap for joy, I’ll come in silence if you listen hard me boots on cobbles in the night by the haunting of the sickle moon I’ll come
keep warmth for me between the sheets
Standing outside Brady’s last goodbyes and him away across the darkened town with lights in windows and the crying of the bairnes driven to their beds on bread and dripping, hot milk and Horlicks, Dads sitting by the fire reading the Echo while the women elbow deep in soap whisper to the listening night
And out into the country and the road to Balfe O’Reilly strides under a pair of moons lighting the pale road to the distant hills and dreaming as he goes where is Brian O’Sullivan who could play the fiddle and Johnny Byrne who ran away to Blackrock and other foreign parts where are the chieftains of childhood and the terror gangs of the back lanes and the girls who ran screaming home to mothers with red elbows and bleeding hands.
The night surrounds him whispering the voices of old behind the shriveled oak under silent rocks breathless in the grasses
The road a silver belt around the earth that he could walk forever careless of time and the passing of mute friends
Will I see you again sweet Clara, will the spells of your eyes and your lips draw me back,
oh aye, I’ll come in the spring when the weather is kind and the sky is sprinkled with larks when the you hear the music of Dagda’s harp and the wind is stilled and the ashes cold in the hearth, I’ll come my love when the gorse blooms gold on Slieve Leag.
Then Balfes dark roofs in the valley below the smell of the turf burning while the town sleeps drowned in dreams OReilly’s boots on cobbled roads the horses are in the stables and the cats stalk shadows in the streets.
I live in Montmartre because it is on a hill, and being on a hill I have the impression that when I make my way home at night I rise up out of the dross, the flotsam, pyrotechnic human zoo that is Pigalle and Clichy. My room is in an alley off the Place des Abbesses called the Passage des Abbesses. No abbesses or even abbots have been seen around here in living memory, but it gives it a touch of class otherwise unmerited. My room is on the ground floor with a low window looking out onto the street, there are no curtains but a folding metal shutter serves to keep the place reasonably dark until I wake up usually about twelve or one. I have little in the way of furniture, in fact I have none. A foam mattress on the floor with one sheet makes a bed, and I also have a black plastic inflatable armchair that someone gave me. The thing has a slow leak and gradually subsides into a sad formless mass in the corner of the room over a couple of days. I feel it has a slightly manacing aspect when part deflated and in the semi-darkness of the room at night we study each other with distrust. The tiny kitchen is equipped with a camping gas, an enamel pan, two mugs of different designs, one metal teaspoon, and two plates of different designs. There are several piles of books dotted in various positions, and a couple of posters tacked on the walls.
It might be imagined that this less than palatial abode would not tempt any young lady to share its modest amenities, but it did. And a couple of days after we met up on the Metro she moved in, life was never the same again.
Taking down the old photo album and blowing the dust off. Worn brown cover made from pre war cardboard fraying at the corners into brown dust. The smell of Grandpa’s house, damp, tobacco, old wood, and the sound of a ticking clock. Winter nights by the fire with the wind moaning in the chimney. The quietness of the old things, comfortable things, sleeping in corners, not waiting anymore.
Turning the pages and travelling back into summer on the beach, at the pool, walking the promenade.
Wiping the dust off and slipping it back on the high shelf, the memories quietly singing, then silent.
The Dead Monk.
“There’s always the urge to see somebody dead that isn’t you.” Stephen King.
To encounter death, to see and accept it, to treat it as a part of life, to look at it without fear or revulsion is an ability largely absent from western societies. Close the eyes, cover the body, draw the curtains, dig out the dark suit and the black tie, talk in hushed tones, hide it in a well sealed coffin then bury it or burn it, get rid of the evidence.
Even the church who claimed inside knowledge of the happening seemed to want to dispose of the physical remains as quickly as possible, emphasising the departure of the soul from the body, the rejection of the physical man in favour of the spiritual. I never thought or questioned this until a day came when I was to find and study death, without fear or revulsion, quietly and gently. It was the first day of the north east monsoon.
Early morning and I was seated on the terrace of my house drinking coffee and wondering when the rain would come. Although only seven o’ clock the heat lay over the house and garden like a heavy suffocating blanket and I could feel the sweat running down my face and chest.
Nan, the Burmese house girl appeared in the doorway, she was dressed in what constituted for her the ‘Sunday Best’ that is to say immaculate white t-shirt and pink shorts, with pink plastic flip-flops on her small brown feet with pink painted nails.
‘Nan go temple now, go see Buddha man. OK Papa?’
‘OK Nan, go temple, but tell Mama you go.’
Nan grinned ‘Mama say OK. No problem.’ “No problem” was the latest phrase she had picked up to supplement the other dozen or so words in English she had learnt in the month since she came to us. Nan was sixteen and had never been able to attend school in Burma, before fleeing to Thailand. Arrested by the police she was luckily spotted by my landlord, the local chief of police, who was looking for a house-girl for our home.
We were quite used to her slipping off to visit the temple. It seemed there was always a reason for a visit, not just the day of the week but maybe a special date, an auspicious planetary conjunction, a birthday, a wedding, a blessing, and usually a couple of visits a week were required and Nan seemed to enjoy her trips out.
It was half hours walk into the village, the first kilometre through the jungle before the road emerged into the rubber plantations, and I hoped the rain would hold off until her return. I stood up and walked to the edge of the veranda to look up at the mountaintops to the east. They were cloaked in darkness, the peaks hidden in dense churning black clouds and as I watched I saw a brief flicker of lightning.
‘Nan!’ I called after her, ’Wait, it looks like rain, I’d better drive you.’
Nan turned, looking up at the sky her head on one side. ‘No problem Papa, Nan walk quick.’
I went into the house and grabbed the car keys, shouting to Catherine that I was taking Nan to town.
I parked in front of the Temple busy with villagers bringing offerings for the monks and let Nan out. It seemed dark for the hour, the sun invisible behind the clouds massed over the mountains, and inside the temple hundreds of candles cast wavering shadows over the gilt and gaudy walls. I waited in the doorway as Nan knelt in front of the Buddha statue and made obeisance, kneeling and touching her head three times to the ground before placing burning incense sticks before the golden icon.
‘Ah! Papa! I am so happy to see you.’ A voice from behind me made me turn. Ae was a young monk I knew and who took every chance he could to practise his English. He was 27 and had been a monk since he was 14, he lived in a tiny cell and his sole possessions were 2 robes, a brass begging bowl, and a portable phone. He was quite the happiest person I had even met. ‘I too am glad to see you Khun Ae, you must tell me why there are so many people her today.’
‘Yes! It is true, many people. They come to see Holy Man, do you want to see too?’
‘Maybe I will, why is he special this Holy Man?’
Ae laughed, ‘Oh! He is special, very special, he is dead.’ I was both baffled and intrigued as to why anyone would want to look at a dead monk. ‘But why is he not cremated, I thought that had to be done very quickly when a monk died?’
Ae took a more serious tone. ‘This monk very good man. Live very holy life, long time very holy and become very pure. So, when this man die he so pure no need to burn him. He stay same same all time.’
‘You mean he doesn’t decay, decompose, you know what I mean?’
‘Yes. No rot, no smell, nothing. Stay same all time. So now he live in glass box, people can see, see how holy and pure this man is.’
Ae led the way through the crowd to a small open sided building next to the temple. On a dais inside was indeed a glass coffin like object containing the form of a robed monk.
His robes covered most of his body leaving only his face and hands visible, and I realised with a shock that I recognised him. I had often seen him walking in the Temple grounds, his head bowed over a book.
I moved closer to the glass and looked down at his face. In the failing light of the approaching storm his face seemed to merge with the robe, the folds and creases of the cloth echoed in the lines and wrinkles around his mouth and eyes, the soft colours of the robes echoing the tones of his face. He could have been asleep save for a slight dullness to his brown skin and the total stillness of his features. A stillness that seemed to create an aural around him, deadening the sounds of the people in the temple, the voices becoming distant, and colours muted.
And I felt his presence still, the feeling that he had not left, this was not his now empty shell. For sure he would no longer walk in the gardens, chant sutras in the evening service, talk with his fellow monks, for he had changed, evolved, but he had not gone.
A sudden breeze stirred the leaves of the tamarind trees and making the candles dance and flicker, giving the ghost of a movement to his face. He seemed so right laying there, so much a part of that world. This unchanging body was no miracle I realised, this was the normal course of his life. He fitted perfectly into the picture, the temple with its monks and worshipers, gods and demons, the spirits and ghosts of the forest, the mountains cloaked in their mysterious jungle and crowned with the monsoon laden clouds.
Nan appeared silently beside me, then knelt and made obeisance. She too seemed part of it now, a fragment of life next to death. She stood up and tried to see the monks face, but she was too small, and even on tiptoe her eyes were just level with the base of the coffin. She turned and smiled at me and said something in Burmese. I looked from her to the monk, the one face smooth and smiling, the fragile impermanent perfection of youth, that seemed to glow in the darkness, fed by the hopes and joys of a young world, and the other carved as if from teak, imprinted with the passing of the years, seasoned like the bark of a tree, the imperceptible changing. Life and death wedded together in harmony, the one merging seamlessly into the other in the mysterious cycle of being.
There was a sudden patter of rain on the roof and I heard the deep distant thunder rolling down from the mountains. Nan tugged gently at my sleeve. ’Papa go home now? Nan make coffee, bekfast?
I returned many times over the next two years to talk with Ae and visit the monk in his glass case. I could detect no change in the appearance of the holy man, save perhaps a slight hollowing of his cheeks. On my last visit I found Ae sitting next to the coffin reading aloud from a newspaper. He was reading from the sports page, the English football results.
‘Oh! He like Man. U. so much, I always tell him when they have match.’ He said simply when I inquired what he was doing. ‘ Man U. three, Chelsea one. He is very happy to hear that I think!’
Talang, a two street village stranded between green mountain and sapphire sea,
Under a cobalt dome two dirty roads with broken pavements and leaning electric poles,
A junction without significance,
Save for me, my home.
At the crossroads the solitary policeman conducts the gentle chaos
Wearing white gloves and dark glasses his arms a semaphore,
With imperious piercing whistle telling all to stop, to go, to turn.
And by the crossroads the temple stands, shaded by Tamarind trees
Bright and light with gaudy golden Buddhas, Chinese deities, and Indian gods.
Saffron robed monks sit silently watching the shadows creep across the courtyard
Freshly swept by boys with shaven heads
While from the neighbouring school, two rooms with open windows
Buzz with children’s chatter, and the chanting of the lessons.
A scatter of simple cafes line the streets,
Plastic topped tables and unsteady chairs
Smells of fried rice, Pad Thai, Massaman Gai,
Cold Thai beer in tall brown bottles frosted with moisture.
Fat smiling women stir mysterious multiple pots
Shouting to each other across the stream of passers by,
As woks explode in flames with smells of spice, garlic, chilly,
And ladles frantically flip and whip in a blue aromatic haze.
Dark under a low wide roof the busy market lies
Cloaked with a miasma of over ripe fruit, spices, strange fish on beds of ice,
Meat from unknown monsters, chicken bits in buckets.
Stinking durian, green coconuts, purple magosteen, yellow papaya, and crimson rambutan.
On the edge of the village as darkness falls the karaoke bars awake,
Ribbons of coloured bulbs guide solitary men to dim rooms and comfortable chairs,
Doe eyed, almond eyed, nubile teens from distant villages across the plane smile the smile,
Hold your hand, pour your beer, look longingly into your eyes:
One more beer what your name love you my darling no money no honey.
While by the bus stop on the Chalong Road a solitary street lamp surrounded by a golden cloud of moths illuminates
Two wrinkled monks with rolled umbrellas,
An old lady with a cage of birds, a teenage girl chewing gum,
A woman with a suitcase tied with string a baby at her breast,
Waiting patiently for the midnight bus to Bangkok or somewhere else.
Fourteen hours away.
Like them I left
Like leaving a lover
Bitter regrets and sweet memories.
Sometimes, in the dog hours before dawn
I hear the voices clear again
I walk the dusty streets again
I smell the scents and taste the dust
And sit an unsteady chair in a simple café
Monsoon rain’s grey curtain
Hides the steaming green mountains.
Frogs sprout like magic.
I come from a country poor from war
Uniforms and gas masks gathering dust in the attic
Ten hidden clips of brass bullets I unwisely took a hammer to,
The Glorious Gloucesters, Dien Bien Phu,and all the military magic.
Trains that smoked and rattled full of uniformed men smoking Woodbines,
All stations to Crewe and anywhere else.
Oil on the beach from long drowned ships.
My shirts made from parachute silk were fine
But Oh! those home knitted swim trunks
Why did she make me wear them?
We lived around the radio or ‘wireless’
A thing containing mysterious glass bulbs that glowed
But rewarded experimental dial turning with;
Radio Moscow, Hilversham, Cairo, Delhi, and Forces Favourites,
Wilfred Pickles with Mabel at the table-
’Give him the money Barney!’
Workers Playtime, Mrs. Dales Diary and the Housewives Choice.
How long was the week between episodes of
‘Journey into Space’ and ‘Dick Barton (Special Agent)’
I come from a safer place… maybe ,
We picked up hitchhikers, mostly military men,
And brought them home sometimes for bread and jam,
What wonderful illnesses I enjoyed;
Scarlet fever 3 weeks off at home
Old doctor Drake reclining on my bed
And showing me how to hypnotise
And after taking sherry with my Mum.
I come from a family of numbers now long gone;
Gentle Aunt Jenny who worked an Ack-Ack gun
And loved my father’s brother a sky pilot
Till he died in his plane in the grey north sea- but loved him still,
Uncle Emlyn giant Geordie policeman from the Tyne
He liked a beer or two and following the horses,
Aunt Marion a teacher, kind and keen with knowledge,
Uncle Seth the Grenadier with bearskin and medals,
A scar on his head from the Normandy beaches
Who then became a postman Bishop Auckland,
Uncle Stan, not a real uncle but with a big car,
Who sent us a ten shilling note every Christmas.
And Verner and Eva our two German friends
Who lived in our house, I never knew why,
But told me that actually
Being a Jew was OK.