If for days on end…

by Edward Mc Whinney

Two swans in flight

Photo by Niklas Sjöblom via flickr

February.

All night a storm raged like World War Three. Thunder and lightning rent the heavens.

Wind shook the foundations and rain flooded the chutes. At first light, tankers, trawlers and freighters were still bouncing on harbour waters. Then, slowly, it subsided, shadows of cloud drifting over sea and earth. The clearance after a storm brings the birth of a blue sky, easing through a break in the cloudbank, to roll in over coast and city. The tide was out and a white mass of gulls had come to rest on the mudflats like a constellation fallen to earth for the day. A great flock of dark-winged geese or duck flew from one side of the bay to the other, making fabulous patterns, dipping and rising as though orchestrated by remote control, each goose or duck an essential part of the rhythm of the unit, each one its own part to play, not a dissident soul amongst them. The garden exhaled a moist breath onto the air already thick with vapour. Birds had deserted soaked nests and branches to dry feathers on wire and fence while discovering the hopeful tune that announced the coming of Spring.

I stood in the bay window of the second floor living room, a moment I could dissolve into, leaving all material concerns. It is still possible to live poetically on this earth, despite the stock brokers, gold mines and oil merchants. It is possible to dream of being rescued by a God, lifted above the bungling of humans to commune with higher spirits, fairies and leprechauns. If for days on end I did not go out at all, living modestly on a diet of potatoes and fish, if for days on end I was not present at all, the uniform undisturbed on the hallstand downstairs, if for days on end—but just then doorbell sounded its shrill challenge through the house. I would have ignored it but its persistence made me go down. There was a travelling salesman with a black suitcase. He was in the front room before I could think, Mungo sniffing at the turned up pleats on his trousers. He had a set of tools in the suitcase; drills, spanners, pliers, screwdrivers and wrenches. These implements, all with padded, red rubber handles looked so shiny and pristine that it seemed a shame to think of them one day, twisted and rusty and dripping with burnt oil. The sun shone brightly in the window as he laid his wares out on a blue velvet cloth. I’m not much good at D.I.Y., I said, though my grandfather was a boiler maker. He paid no heed, talking nine to the dozen like a man suffering from hyper tension. His clothes reeked of cigarettes. I stood in the sunlight and admired the array of technical equipment. If only I could use them, I thought. There was much that needed repairing in the house. Well, said the travelling salesman? It’s just that I’m not very good with my hands, I said. There’s more than one way to skin a rabbit, he said, leaving me at a loss to see the connection but already he was placing his tools back in the case with an air of resignation. Can I offer you a cup of tea, I said? No, no, not at all he said, have to keep on the move, thanks very much. Once, I said, I considered acupuncture to make me more skillful. The travelling salesman looked at me with a strange grimace on his harried face. I’ll tell you what, he said, I’ll give you a free sample and he placed a beautiful screwdriver with the trademark red handle on the piano. He looked at me sadly. His right eye was bloodshot. Lovely place you have here he said, it’s just that I know these old houses always need things done.

I stepped past the uniform on the hallstand, back up to the second floor living room where I failed to recapture the mood of earlier, no, my head began to rock again as though the storm was being replayed on giant screens, in HD, in there. I looked around at the ramshackle disorder in the room; desk and table, a mahogany wardrobe, a divan, my grandmother’s armchair with the elbow rest where she played Patience and an armoire in which family heirlooms like birth certs and death certs, photo albums, bundles of postcards held together by elastic bands, medals and stamp collections lay gathering dust. If for days on end— here we go again. I stepped to the wardrobe and pulled out my grandfather’s fawn suit and decided after all to take a turn around town, to loosen the limbs and steady the nerves. The old suit seemed cut for me, even my posture fell with that of it’s original owner.

I felt like a seagull floating in from the lighthouse cliff to have a look at these bipeds in their extraordinary habitat. I saw a chef with an exceedingly tall, white hat smoking outside a bar. I saw a young boy chasing a girl and when he caught her, he held her from behind, placing his left hand on her left wrist and his right hand on the hem of her mini-skirt while she shrieked with joy. She was wearing red high-heeled shoes and white ankle socks. I saw a chubby, little girl with a tennis racquet tapping a green ball against the footpath. She was wearing a pink coat and a black cap on her yellow curls. She had short arms and a disproportionately large head. A man wearing green scrubs like a surgeon crossed my path carrying a large timber plank. A tall, elegant lady passed in a long black coat. She was talking to herself and gesturing with her right hand as if to someone nearby. I noticed that her fingers were particularly long and slender. I leaned against a doorway for a minute and heard the sound of someone practising a violin, not very well. It came from overhead. Then the music stopped and I heard a loud slap followed by the wail of a child. My head felt dizzy, every whisper so meaningful and yet everything so meaningless. I saw the people passing as I’d never seen them before, like they were swimming in blood and around each one a penumbra made up of ghosts, a vortex of spirits like an invisible halo determining their movements. I would have begun to run but I could hardly walk. I took a short cut through an alleyway, skirting around broken glass. Steam poured up out of a cellar grating. I crossed back onto our street and stowed safely once more in the second floor living room, tried to rediscover the earlier mood. If for days on end…I don’t know for how long I sat there. Does anything really exist? The storm seemed real enough. The birds on the wire, the leftover piece of fried cod stuck to the pan, the travelling salesman, now there I had to pause, maybe I had imagined him. The screwdriver was where he’d left it though, as real as any weapon to be used in the night against intruders, the rubber handle, its undeniable weight, the elongated shaft of steel. At that moment another shrill blast of the doorbell ripped through the house. This time it was a neighbour collecting for the renovation of the church steeple. She reminded me of someone I couldn’t place just then. I noted that she had prominent teeth that looked like they could chew through the black, iron bars on the gates of the church and work their way around to the railings. Are you off work, she asked and a kind of panic clutched at my heart, when it came to me that she had the face of a whore I’d seen on a trip to Rome? I had seen her very briefly looking in at me through the window of a pizzeria but it was long enough to leave a lasting impression, a mad face and horse’s teeth. The previous day I’d had my pocket picked on a tram while on my way to the Estadio Olimpico for a Serie A match between Lazio and Verona, victim of the oldest trick in the book, the crowded tram, the wallet stuffed full like a little hay stack, the stepping down onto the street, the realisation. It was as inevitable as having missed it, the score in the match should be Lazio 5, Verona 3. As I stood on the street with my hands to my head, a beautiful woman appeared before me and said in English; Are you Albright? Albright, I said? No, I said are you all right. Is anything the matter? My wallet was stolen on the tram. Was your passport in the wallet? What about credit cards? Luckily, I said, they were in the safe in my hotel room, just cash. The Police, she said ? She began to open her purse. No, no, I said and began to wander off across Largo di Torre Argentina, in the general direction of my hotel which I didn’t reach until some hours later when it was already evening. It was across the road from the Temple of Minerva a few corners from Termini Station. I noted the whores as always, circling these seedy streets and the pimps in leather jackets with daggers for eyes, hanging around ill-lit corners. The gentleman at the desk, elegantly clad in a perfectly cut suit which reminded me of my own uniform, stiff with rigour mortis on the hallstand back home, smiled as he handed me the key to the room. From one side of the little elevator you could see out on a dimly lit, deserted street, cars parked at all angles. The hotel room was spacious with a great double bed. To get the electricity on you had to shove a card into a special slot inside the door. The little fridge didn’t work. I lay in the dark with the hotel sign flashing on and off outside the window and suddenly before me I saw the face of the pick-pocket. I smiled at him as I leant across to click my ticket in the machine. I saw a thin, tense face with twitching nervous eyes, wholly focused on his work. I turned on the tv and watched the many highlights of the match I had missed and then fell into a sleep full of screams and terrors. Rome. Roma. The eyeless statues of Roman Emperors frowned on me from every vantage. They stand on bleak, white marble slabs with huge heads made of white clay, enormous holes for nostrils.

In the morning I took a shower. The nozzle crackled and sputtered. I walked along until I came to a long underpass. This is what it was like stepping out of imagination into reality, this place of legend. A group of men followed me into the underpass. I glanced back a little nervously. I crossed a piazza into the student district of San Lorenzo, cobbled streets that twisted and turned in all directions. Tubercular beggars, some of them blind, encroached on the path. I wondered when they’d eaten or what they’d eaten. I had my little wad of money for that day’s spending safely stuck down my sock. I wandered around until lunch-time, then stepped into a pizzeria. It was rough and ready with timber tables covered in red and white check cloths and fat candles with lava like overflow of wax stuck in crude, ceramic candle holders on every table. The busy waiters ran enormous pizzas from the open oven to the tables. I squeezed into a seat near a window. The waiter brought me a mug of birra that tasted good enough to lower four with one of those enormous pizzas. He told me that his name was Ismael and that the chef, his uncle, was Pepe. That was when I saw the face of the whore in the window, horse’s teeth, wasted, yellow skin, black, sunken eyes gazing at me as I raised my head out of the cheesy pizza. And though they floated there no more than a moment her features were strong enough to leave an everlasting imprint on my imagination.

If, for days on end— I wrote, for the hundreth time that day, then nothing else, my head rumbling with unfinished sentences, incoherent thoughts as I wandered the house, hollow now and falling apart, silent passageways and corridors, rooms populated by the dead who sometimes come back to life without warning. In a disused back room, for example, I came upon my grandfather, the boiler-maker and boat builder and I was forced deep into the recesses of memory to find a valid connection, something in him that is continued in my blood. It is dusk. His feet are firmly planted on the rug that is filled with burn holes, sparks from the fire and ash from his cigarette. He is so still that I think he is asleep but when I look I see that his eyes are open and he is staring at the patch of sky visible through the window. He liked to tell us that his father had been executed by the British. They accused him of writing seditious pamphlets though in truth he was taken from his home at random. If he had written anything at all my grandfather said, it was nothing more than some melancholy love poems. He also liked to relate a Celtic myth in which a bird thrusts itself on a thorn in order to sing its most beautiful song. I now noticed that, his wife, my grandmother was standing in the bay window, a lady with a pale, oval face gazing out at time falling rapidly like rain into the tide. Two swans flew by, a spectacular sight. With her, I felt in communion with them, out over the water on heavy wings, half here, half somewhere unknown, something from the heavens calling, voices from outer space playing tricks on us.

I retreated to the bedroom where I began to doze in my vest and t-shirt and woollen pullover, under two duvets, the moon like a yellow lamp held aloft by human hand, shining in the window and they executed me again before dawn. The sky was dark above the church steeple. We were marched to a piece of waste ground outside the town and stood before an embankment lit up by enormous kerosene lanterns. There were eight soldiers in the firing squad. They were in full Winter uniform with sabres hanging from heavy military coats. They wore tall, black hats and on their backs, knapsacks for the march that looked like pillows strapped to their coats, holding provisions or extra ammunition. Already they had executed at least three of my comrades and there were others in line, some looking on with horrified expressions on ghastly pale faces, others covering their eyes with their hands. There was a Franciscan Monk in a green cassock spilling holy water on the corpse at my feet from which a stream of blood flowed. I was next in line, wearing a white shirt, open at the neck and yellow trousers, not given time to dress properly before being dragged from my home. I fell to my knees, arms spread in a spectacular motion of appeal and a look of horror in my little dark eyes as my head strained towards the weapons as a moth is drawn to the flame, eight bayoneted rifles no more than three feet away.

 

~

Edward Mc Whinney lives in Cork, Ireland. Find more of his stories here.