Seventeenty

by Edward Mc Whinney

I’m almost seventy. When I was seventeen, the other day, I had no idea who I was and the future was so obscure. The people between funerals were a furnace of crazy burning faces rising like sparks, laughing and drunk, and flying through the chaos. Most of them burned like comets or fireworks though there were a few damp squibs, smouldering away into their seventies.

Next to the funeral home is a florists, in the window of which is a sign, perched upon bouquets, Daily Deliveries to your Door. In the Wintertime or in the Summer, it doesn’t matter.

I am on my way to my mother’s house. I pause outside a photography studio situated near the top of Shandon Street, across from The Belphegor Bar. White, the famous photographer, now in his eighties was inside, immersed in his work, in the window the famous, prize winning photo of the City Hall upside down in the river. The lights were on the river, green, blue and emerald.

I went in for a moment to talk. Do you need an assistant, I asked? He didn’t reply. He didn’t raise his head with the long, grey hair to the shoulders, deaf in one ear, a little white hand moving to the ear. If he leapt up and waved me away, it would not have been more effective.

If you ever need an assistant, I said, before slipping back out the door and down Gerald Griffin Street to Cott’s Bar opposite the church in Blackpool. We were in our late teens, early twenties, all set to change the world.

My mother was still up, waiting. I saw her through the window. I opened the door as quietly as possible with the key. I eased it shut behind me and stood in the hallway without breathing. I heard my name; Dinner in the oven.

The dinner. Dried up meat with dried up gravy on potatoes and veg, all more cold than warm. For five minutes I was a horse chomping parsnips. Out of the window, the corrugated roof of Shaw’s Garage. In forty years from now it might be a Pizza Hut.

My head was troubled by the smell of resin as I lay in the dark. The wind turbine was in its stride, the grim reaper with a three bladed scythe. Seventy, I’ve forgotten nothing.

I live upstairs mostly, but I come downstairs and at the bottom of the stairs, a few moments ago, I don’t know, maybe it was a few years ago, I turned and looked back up into the space I had just descended, an autumnal shade of morning arching in from the skylight above the bathroom door, illuminating the now empty space, as if it had never been occupied. I spent some time staring out a window. I stared at the four dimensional rise up towards the sheltering trees, the slant on to the rookeries and on forever into the blue sky.

During breakfast the all-night cough is eased to a normal tempo, sucking a woodbine, drop of port to accompany the foul breakfast soup, thinking of a name that was once regular around my ears, The Clonakilty Wrestler, who wrote; Life’s a Bitch and then you Die on the wall of a urinal, using the stub of a bookmaker’s pencil, having won fifty pounds on the horses and lost two hundred and stole ten pounds from my shoe which was wedged into the stalactites behind the water tank and the woman over there ironing shirts, glanced across the room, blurred by conjunctival tears, gouge away, get a clearer view, I have her now, she for whom I once robbed a live chicken and when I brought it home, she fell in love with me as with an almost alarming sense of city squeamishness, I wrung its country neck in the backyard for her to make a rich, vegetabally, chicken soup that would last all of fifty years.

When I was seventeen I began to buy books. I bought books all the time. Now the place is full of books and I don’t know what to do with them. Its the most stupid thing. Why don’t you take them away and burn them or something? Give them away. What’s more stupid, sitting here looking at them or buying them in the first place?

My mother said to me; Have you any news?

Yes, I said, I applied for a job as assistant to White, the photographer?

Oh, yes, and when will you know?

Soon, I said, but I am very optimistic, I was the only applicant.

Great, and what will you be doing?

I’ll be assisting him.

I had no camera. I knew nothing about photography, furthermore, I tended to go in the opposite direction to where the best shooting opportunities were. When the Tall Ships were in town for example, I took a bus in the opposite direction, as thousands poured along Market Street on their way down the quays for the spectacle, children with gorilla masks and superman suits, to the South Jetties, that beautiful world of sailing boats and cranes, ancient, crumbling mills, warehouses turning green, and constant movement to and fro of trains and lorries, and the lights in the tide, red, blue and emerald.

Photographs, said White, in an interview fifty or so years ago, are a cynosure between history and time, caught in the mill of language and words, the mill of words and phrases, that’s where I work, he said.

Shortly after that, I took to stepping into his studio at the top of Shandon Street asking did he need an assistant?

I’d like to work for you, I said. I know next to nothing about photography but I want to learn. As for salary, well, I’m willing to work for nothing, if it comes to it. I’m willing to take risks, to break the rules. I believe that photographs are a cynosure between history and time.

At last he glanced up. He looked at me for an eternal minute. I don’t employ thieves, he said.

I continued on my way down the hill to Blackpool to my mother’s, as usual, sometimes stopping in Cotts or The Bowlers Rest or Geaneys.

I’m almost seventy. Why am I still doing this? The old bottle of Bushmills. When I was seventeen I had no idea who I was and the future was so obscure…

The room was dark. I heard the cistern gurgling more speedily than normal in the bathroom, oh, no, another leak. Timber-boards creaked. The rotors of the wind turbine turned. The night refused to settle. Then a sudden noise like the postman at the door. It couldn’t be the postman in the middle of the night. It was the wind maybe. Or was it Death? I heard the sea rolling on the beach, the surf crashing on the shingle and I saw the beacon from the lighthouse flashing on the ceiling every other minute. It revolves, the beacon, the rotors of the wind turbine, the red second hand of the clock and the Moon, two thousand miles per hour around us.

Edward Mc Whinney lives in Cork, Ireland and writes for Contrary as often as we can publish him. Read more of his stories here.