Published in the Sunday Tribune, April 2010.
That day. The day I stopped being a child.
It was August, or late July at any rate. The grass was scorched yellow, the soil a sandy brown, and the sky was almost completely blue. That day my father was taken away in an ambulance. It was morning, I think, or early afternoon at the latest when the siren was heard and the transparent blue light appeared above the overgrown hedges along the lane that led to our ramshackle house. When the vehicle parked in the back yard and those uniformed men stepped down from it, I was struck by how casually they left the engine running, the blue light flashing, while they went about their work.
It is true that everything was much slower in those days, but thinking back I marvel at how ponderously they addressed the emergency. Languid words were exchanged as they opened the rear doors and arranged the trolley and the various paraphernalia of their antiseptic trade. I stood by and watched, afraid to speak, unnoticed by these men in uniform. They looked like soldiers, malevolent I thought, and certainly not offering help or hope as I had been assured they would by my older sister, Brigid. They took my father from his bed as if he were a criminal, ignoring the entreaties of my mother and the vital details of how his illness broke that my older siblings tried to impart to them. These people were not concerned with that. They were not soldiers, no, nor saviours, they were merely couriers making a collection. My father was nothing more than a package, a consignment, and they were taking him away, and with him everything I took for granted up to then.
My mother clambered onto the vehicle uninvited, but at the same time not impeded by the men, and we were left in the care of a neighbour, Mrs. Canning. She was a sour skinny woman who had lately lost her alcoholic husband to cancer. For this reason we were instructed to have pity on her, to show her a little kindness, but not too much.
“Come on you lot, back inside now!”
She shooed us like chickens, her hands swinging by her side, a fag resting in the corner of her mouth.
“But Mrs. Canning…”
“Don’t be cheeky, back inside. There’s nothing more to do for him now.”
I sobbed. Brigid squeezed my hand, and led me to the door.
“Don’t mind that oul bitch, he’ll be all right, you’ll see,” she whispered.
The older boys ignored her altogether and wandered off towards the road.
Her kind would not have been allowed to see the inside of our house as a rule, but there she was, beady eyes moving in her crow-like head, drawn by the arrival of the ambulance and the prospect of carrion, the only adult present on that chaotic day. My mother had neither the time nor the presence of mind to pause and consider how Mrs. Canning might utilise this rare opportunity to see the way our family lived. My parents valued privacy above all other things and fostered independence in us, their children: a phoney kind of independence, it must be said, one that ensured we only ever needed them and no one else. And no one had been needed up to then, no neighbours ever called or visited beyond the hall door or scullery, apart of course from the religious, those alien but familiar shadows: priests, nuns, brothers.
That day Mrs. Canning found little to set her tongue wagging, but it wasn’t for the want of trying. She opened drawers and cupboards quietly and read through correspondence hastily in search of secret knowledge, but to no avail. Instead she found only an ordinary and untidy house, a house that was peopled by too many children, a house that defeated my mother every day. But Mrs. Canning did not let the house defeat her. She simply ignored it, and us. Disappointed in her quest for scandal, she sat by the range in the kitchen smoking her cigarettes, reading a trashy magazine, oblivious to the fact that all around her everything was changing.
Later the priest came from the village, to pray with us, he said. But not before he accepted a glass of brandy which Mrs. Canning offered him. She felt it was only polite that she should take one too. He was a tall handsome man with a flushed face and grey oiled hair combed back from his unblemished forehead.
“No creases on his brow – did you see that? A sign of a life without worry!” Mrs. Canning informed us later. “They’re like prisoners of Christ, all their needs met by the Church.”
Later he knelt gingerly on a cushion on the worn tiled floor of the kitchen underneath the picture of the Sacred Heart, shut his eyes briefly, and bowed his head before he began the first decade of the Rosary. The Sorrowful Mystery – it must have been a Tuesday, or a Friday. Mrs. Canning stole outside silently, but I could hear her at the scullery door, her rasping cough vainly trying to break through the barrier of years of accumulated phlegm. My older brothers were missing, gone to the town, or perhaps simply hiding, not wanting to pray with the priest.
All day they had remained aloof, whispering among themselves, not speaking to the younger ones. The rest of us knelt on the hard floor, bent over chairs or along a bench by the table with hands clasped in prayer. We mumbled our prayers and swapped solemn glances, all sure that he must be dying if not already dead by now.
Mrs. Canning reappeared as we finished. The older boys finally returned from wherever they had been; surly and red-eyed, they went straight to bed without stopping to talk to the priest. I followed them soon after, much later than my usual bedtime, completely worn out by the waiting and the silence. The tiny transistor radio that my eldest brother, Jimmy, kept under his pillow was silent for once; my brothers pretended to sleep for my sake, but I knew they were wakeful. Five of us lay in two double beds in the dark, ten eyes searching the blackness for some outline of form that did not exist, exhausted yet sleepless.
One month exactly after that day, Eamon De Valera died. All schools remained closed as a mark of respect the day they buried him in Glasnevin. Ironic that my mother never trusted him, considered him American, or worse. When did she tell me that? Not back then certainly – later, much later no doubt. Under my father’s stewardship the family mirrored De Valera’s fledgling state in microcosm; neutral, Catholic, isolated, hopelessly aspiring to self-sufficiency, yearning for respectability.
My father had a way of making his opinion clear with just a look. Often the mere threat of his being told of a transgression was enough to keep us in line. Even the older boys bowed to his will every time. I could see that they wanted to be away from the place, but what could they do? Not a thing, until they started to earn for themselves.
They made themselves scarce more and more after that day. I couldn’t understand it at first. I was only a child. Most of the time I was happy that the fields and the lanes around the house were the limits of my world. I wanted nothing more than that for a long time. Then there was school; the town two miles away and all it brought with it. I was neither bullied by my peers nor beaten by my teachers, but I was not happy there. I was afraid. I began to lose myself. I heard myself say things I wouldn’t have said at home. I learned to spit and swear. I learned to split myself in two, to play a part, but after a while I could no longer separate my authentic words and actions from the fictions of my simulacrum.
When in school, I longed to be at home again, with my brothers and sisters, in that ramshackle house beside the railway tracks, in that world that was delineated by two lanes: one to the east, leading past the old quarry and into farmland, and the other to the west, leading down to the estuary, to the local municipal dump. I knew each patch of ground, each stream and hillock, and every time I passed those sacred sites I felt blessed by the ever-changing permanence of nature. In spring I watched the Moorhens chivvy their young among the marshy grasses of the quarry; in summer I saw the swallows come and go all day, marvelling at their speed and control, the solid beauty of their perfect nest in the eave of the old outhouse. In autumn I walked across John Martin’s wet field, silent lapwings frozen on the ground, the call of curlews in the distance; in winter I looked up from childish play and saw wild geese, trailing an imperfect V towards the sea. Beyond that there could be no good. Beyond that there were things unknown, things that were only to be feared.
How was I to know that he would live? In my mind I had already buried him. Taking advantage of a rare moment alone in my room, in front of the mirror, the day after they took him away, I practised the face I would wear at the graveside. I thought of my classmates and how they would look at me differently; the respect I would gain, the sudden elevation among my peers on account of my loss. But he lived, and the opportunity his sudden death seemed to promise was gone before I knew it.
Instead he came back to us, a yellow, shrunken version of the man he had been. For months he sat around, getting in my mother’s way, creating clutter, discarding newspapers and half-eaten meals on trays beside the new coloured television, which he now watched at all hours of the day. De Valera was barely cold in the grave and already his final refuge was being overrun.
I had no place to go when I came home from school that winter. The only rooms with any heat in them were permanently occupied. If I chose the kitchen, my mother would soon have me carrying out some mundane task. The living room was worse however, confined as I would be with him, unable to ignore the stink of his illness, his frailty, and worse, the ever-present possibility of conversation. I’d stand in the open doorway, attracted by the telly, repulsed by his presence on the sofa.
“Will ya come in or come out! There’s a draft there would kill a man!” And he’d pull his blanket around his shoulders like an old woman with a shawl.
My father had always been a taciturn man. Perhaps fearful and bored by turns by his illness and the silence, he changed. He needed the noise of the telly when on his own and when in company now he became gregarious. I saw it as a failing in him. For years he had stood like a rock, immutable amid the tide of change that soon would wash over all of us, and now he pottered in the garden and gossiped on the lane with neighbours where once he would have coldly passed them by.
I withdrew and watched the years roll past; my older brothers and sisters finding the wherewithal to leave one after the other, the house growing quieter but for the incessant noise of the television.
That day was like a knife that nicked the golden seam that held my childhood world and faith together. All gods departed after that, leaving me, restless, killing time, waiting for my chance to follow.