That Autumn I rented a barge in a secluded pool upstream from the mouth of the harbour, lost in there among the woods. I had an open stove in which I burned timber collected along the neglected ways. The smoke escaped through a small thin, tin chimney and trailed away into the evening. I spent some time in the confines of the barge, stretched on a bunk bed, reading from a high stack of books. I retained little of what I read. It was like my knowledge of the world, entanglement in nothing, tangled up in nothingness. It was about a twenty minute walk along an old railway line to the nearest village. There was a bar with a blue door and a red facade near a bridge. It was called The Admiral Drake. I counted out the small change from two inside pockets, sometimes coming upon notes I had not expected to find, blue five euro notes, red ten euro notes with the image of a portico and once in a blue moon a blue twenty euro note. From the bar I walked up a hill a mile or so to a farm gate overlooking the ocean with a spectacular vantage, the ocean rolling with perpetual motion in and out of the mouth of the harbour. I leaned on the gate. The sky was beautiful. I had no inclination to move for a long time. Then it was back down to the bar where a man of foreign extraction called Savka sat at the counter. The dogs in the yard were howling to beat the band? The barman, Mossy the Muscle, stuck his head out the back door and singled out one of the dogs, Rexy, an alsatian. Shut up Rexy you whore. The usual crew gathered at tea-time to talk nonsense between glimpses at the evening News, all heavyweights with words, words flung out as if carefully chosen which was strange because the only careful thing was not to say something weak. No-one wanted to seem weak, frailty ridiculed by these wordsmiths, these clever craftsmen, which made Savka such a refreshing addition who said he left his homeland because his wife kicked him out, no bravado about scoring with village girls, just how he had become such a lonely man, after thirty years on the railways, two daughters. One day when he came home his wife had gone, leaving him with a teenage daughter, the other was studying medicine in Gdansk. She also dropped from his life, wanted nothing to do with him, failing to reply to even one of his letters. The second daughter left with a train driver. She wrote to him once before vanishing. He felt like the loneliest man in the world, couldn’t stick it in that house. Using his state pension he began to travel, almost paralysed with a broken heart, at times atrophied in hotel rooms, glued to the bed, unable to move. For many days this loneliness overwhelmed him, hanging over him like a darkness. For many days. He would have to take off, go somewhere where nothing was familiar. Almost dead. Nothing to contribute to humanity. He went to Paris, a flaneur for a while, an invisible man, walking around the city without a map, into the Metro, directionless, descending and ascending at random, across the bridges, gazed down into the Seine. He took the train to Roscof and the car ferry to Ringaskiddy, here he was in the Admiral Drake, an upstairs room, writing paper, some books, matches, cigarettes, a knife. An unstamped bundle of letters to his daughter, the younger one; Dear Celestine. He listened to Polish folk music before coming down to the bar in the afternoon. The evening he told me his story I walked back to the barge, lay down and became immobile. The simplest task was beyond me for hours on end. The more I lay there the more off pitch my thoughts became, to the left or the right of the zone I wanted to be in, always off focus, maybe on course but not in perfect pitch. A bird screamed in a tree. The tide lapped against the gunwales. Three stars appeared in the sky. A fox or a dog barked in the woods. I could blame this inertia on the position of the tide, or rather on the fact that I did not know the position of the tide and was too paralysed to get up and work it out. It took a full twelve hours for the tidal action, six hours going out, six hours coming back in. A bee flew by my ear and a ray of divine light sparkled through the trees for an instant. In the morning when the sun came up I heard the hum of traffic on the link road beyond the trees, the drone-like flow to the city. I relived motions that once meant something and saw myself once more driving through town, over the bridges, the petrol station on the Northside where I made the decision to turn back and disappear. I remember seeing a man with one arm at a pedestrian crossing. He scratched his head with his left hand, his coat sleeve hung limp where the right hand should have been. The barge was lit by a stream of yellow sunshine. There was a litre of kerosene on a shelf which I thought about drinking. Not even the closeness of the air, the smells and the claustrophobia could get me moving. As a child I had the hard travelling dream of living in a circus caravan, all about being cosy and protected from the world. The smell of gas and foot sweat did not enter into it. The dust particles that gathered on everything. I had a duster fixed to a fishing pole so that when I lay on the bunk I could dust the place, invisible particles sailing up my nostrils. Late in the afternoon I felt the light touch of a full tide against the gunwales. It was enough. I got up and began to ramble towards the village, shabby moribund. As I went over the bridge a group of children crossed my path. An impertinent type saluted me; hello old man, he said. He was about ten years old. I came upon a seagull’s feather. I put it in my pocket so that I could hold it up against the light from the porthole later, the colour of the yellow in its stalk like the yellow of my skin, fading moribund. When I reached the bar, Savka was inside at his usual perch.
Edward Mc Whinney lives in Cork, Ireland and contributes regularly to Contrary. Read his many stories and excerpts here. “On a Barge” is from a developing collection, “Essays From A Cellar.”