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A Long Way

Pearl sat between me and Moone in the cabin of my van. Moone was driving because Moone insisted on driving. I didn’t argue. We sailed through the Jack Lynch tunnel and struck north on the N20. We were headed to Moone’s aunt’s mansion in Tipperary to pick up some paintings and antiques and a grandfather clock. We might even kidnap a peacock Moone roared. Moone roared and the engine roared. Pearl screamed above everything, Pearl, an incredible ball of cosmic, physical and psychic energy, a meteorite scorching through space ready to devour all before it.

From the start she had attacked with a deadly onslaught of questions, to which I responded in a voice too low, you speak too low, she roared, speak up. Then turning to Moone she said; He speaks too low. It was a fair assessment, though more accurate would have been that I did not want to speak at all.

The engine throbbed and rattled as Moone declared that the sacred pint alone shall unbind the tongue of Dedalus.

What, said Pearl?

When she eased off on me and turned her attention back to Moone, I slid into the upholstery and dreams from the passing hills, ancient castles and the Golden Vale, where below the floating clouds the ever-changing colours of the landscape spread  through the many centuries of its history, in Pagan and Christian times.

The purpose of my trip was to cleanse my mind of troubling memories from the house near a copper mine where I had laboured for thirty years, the chunk and wedge in each day, the beam beyond the dreeping hedges and funereal greyness of an early morning Winter sky, the diseased pallor of the street down to a disused railway station, the sepulchral squalor of the mine buildings themselves, each portion of the tedious day announced and ended by shrill, sharp blasts of an electronic beeper that zipped through the copper filled air.

Pearl was expounding about some trip she had taken with Mr. Bell in the train to Dublin once, three hours in a railway carriage alone with that man, he was going to Dublin to visit his sister, she had an appointment with a consultant urologist. She showed him her operation wound which had become infected. They passed old overgrown castles draped with lichen and ivy, they saw towers over rivers, such a beautiful country, she said, it was a day just like this.

Do you know Mr. Bell, Pearl shrieked at me?

Certainly, I said.

There was a woman in the house. Towards the end of my time there I recall arriving from the mine to hear her tapping her head against the pane of a front bay window, a most dreadful sound. Then she ran through the rooms scratching at the glass in the windows with a screwdriver, scraping along the radiators, a racket to wake the dead and alert the neighbours to her imprisonment, only there were no neighbours. She attacked the timber of the front door leaving scrapes all over, eventually managed to climb out a back window and fell into a rose garden from which she bounced full of psychotic energy, her legs were strong, her heart was a mountain.

Pearl described how her brother, when he came to visit, wore sunglasses indoors and as an explanation whispered something about his cataracts. She said it was the first she heard about his cataracts. He said that he had a cataract operation, a new lens was inserted and now the bright lights of her house were too strong for him.

When she got hungry sometime after mid-day Pearl began to talk about food and stopping for lunch somewhere.

Do you eat fish, she said to me?

Fish, I said?

Yes, she said, fish, do you eat it?

In the evenings when the woman was quiet, I walked in the grounds where I came upon herds of deer and long tree lined avenues and unpolluted streams full of fish. I saw swans and herons and coots skidding comically through the reeds. One evening I came upon a group of village boys who were shouting obscenities at a poor wandering madman weighed down by his galar runach, that is a terrible secret he would have to keep until his death, but the burden of the secret weighed so heavily on him that he went into the woods and confided in a tree, a willow; The King has donkey’s ears. The tree of course was turned into a harp and its tune before the king and his court was The King has Donkey’s ears.

Do you remember Mrs. Bell said Pearl, I’ll never forget just before her fifth child, she had an enormous bump, it was that fool Pointy, he came out with a gigantic head and heavy bones, the poor woman.

I know Pointy well said Moone, you are right, he is some fool that fellow.

A tree lined avenue led to a lake where an empty boat floated and beside which I found myself listening to the hoot of an owl or the lonely mating call of a corncrake and staring at the reeds that marked the spot where in another version of the legend about the King with donkey’s ears, a madman drowned, and the same reeds were made into a pipe that played the tune; The King has donkey’s ears.

The dusty avenue back to the house. I paused when within hearing distance for any sound that might disturb the peace of the night. The air was still. There was nothing but the rumble of a rhyme she taught me concerning her little dog, if it is not me he’ll bark and he’ll rail but if it is me he will wag his little tail.

I’m terrified of being alone, Pearl said. Behind all this bluster I’m very fragile and sentimental, loneliness is my greatest horror, worse than any disease, to end up without a message from anyone, my heart would burst and turn to stone.

The silence was overwhelming as I approached the house. I decided to skirt around to the back and sit beside the lily pond where the evening water lapped against an ornate stone wall. I sat on the wall reading a poet. Silence is as beyond me as non-being, I read, a menacing turbulence in my blood, goldfish sucking at bubbles on the greeny surface of the pond. Inside in the house I sensed her heart bouncing around between the walls. I had little understanding of the mechanism gone awry inside her brain as I tried to concentrate on the words of the poet, but the words skipped out of focus and the elusive meaning did not register though I felt there was enough in the rhythm to keep me going, to help me apply my own interpretation. I may be imagining things. It’s not beyond reason. I may be imagining the intensity of her gaze as she read every thought in my head and studied every move I made. She was a multiple of people, inside her the women from every stage of her life battled as she clung on with desperation to the last vestiges of reason in her punctured mind.

Moone had a little tale of travelling with his father, who refused to give up his portable ashtray before entering the metal detector at the airport. He had his head in a soft hat and wore a fifty-year-old suit, so he felt entitled to hold onto his metal ashtray.

The king has donkey’s ears, I thought, as we approached the Rock of Cashel. I was done for but where better to be done for, than in the heartland of ancient Munster, the land itself awash with kings, fairies, bards, beautiful princesses who would break your heart.

Pearl looked at me as if I myself had donkey’s ears. Where did you get this fella, Pearl said to Moone? I can’t understand a word he’s saying. Moone laughed and roared and pushed the old van to the limit.

He’s alright, said Moone. He’s a bit touched. He believes in the transmigration of souls. He believes he has lived multiple lives and one of them was in my aunt’s house where we’re going. Be careful though because I also think he’s telepathic.

After dark I found myself back inside the house, all silent except for the creaking timbers of polished floors. I sensed her presence ready to erupt, the strength of an ox, the heart of a rhinoceros, feel that grip, the polished timber floors, the family portraits, the coat of arms, the armour, the air was mouldy, satyrs ran free in the gardens.

Before we reached the town beyond which the old house lay, Pearl once more went fishing with her words, she cast and reeled and tried to haul me in, but I am only a tiny, weeny trout, gasping at her toes, so throw me back please, she obliged of course and I returned to my element of no risk, snaky as the boatman’s oar reflected in the lake, the element beyond chance and the gambler’s instinct, we’ve been through all of that, don’t laugh, this frantic carry on, the element of risk, I said, I prefer caution, you’ll find me in the stagnant water, the backwater under the white water cress.

The window blinds were drawn open. There was a face at the window, a spectral, tortured face at the window.

Edward Mc Whinney of Cork, Ireland, is a regular contributor to Contrary. Read our anniversary interview with him.