Conversation Killer

Midnight.

“I saw Gill Evans today.”
“Mmm?” Ali is drifting off and only half listening.
“At the rehearsal. Gill Evans was there too.”
“Yeah?…Gill…Haven’tseenher…forages…Howishe?”
“Well. Really well.”
“Uhuh…”
“Good night then…”
“Good night.”

Mid-morning

“Bill’s tied up with his am dram, and I’m left holding the baby, literally. She’s teething right now, so will she let me put her down? All bloody night.”
“Tell me about it. Freddie grizzled from six till twelve last night.”
“Look at them now though, they’ll sleep all day if we let them.”
“At least we can enjoy coffee.”
“True. Here’s to coffee.” They clink cups and laugh.

Lunchtime

“Ali! How lovely to see you!”
“How are you doing  Gill?”
“Is this Melissa? God she’s beautiful.”
“Isn’t she?”
“I want one.”
“There are strings attached…”
“So I’m told, but when they’re asleep like this. They’re just gorgeous.”
“True. So what are you up to these days?”
“Work, work, work. You know me…”
“Yeah.”
“I’ve joined the Crawley Players though. Give me something else to do. Nice to see your Bill there.”
“That’s right, he did mention it. What part are you playing?”
“Cleopatra.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Didn’t he say?”

Midnight.

“I bumped into Gill Evans today.”
“Hmm?” Bill is half asleep.
“She said she was playing Cleopatra.”
“So?”
“Aren’t you Antony?”
Bill says nothing for a moment and then says, “Did I tell you that Jim’s just been made redundant?”

There’s nothing kills a conversation more than a non-sequitur.

Golden Girl

for RB

Breathe and stride…Breathe and stride…Breathe and stride…

The wind is ruffling the leaves on the trees as I begin to gather pace. It feels so good, after the months of darkness, to be out in the open. To smell Spring,  freshly mown grass and apple blossom, as I run. My legs are stiff from months of dis-use, but now as I turn down the familiar path that leads to the river, I can feel them lengthen and stretch. They were made for this. I was made for this. For this moment  when body, muscle, mind, lungs flow into one, so there is no effort, no thought, just a unity with the ground, water and sky. This is what I am,  this is what I do, this is what counts.

Breathe and…

I was twelve the year I learnt to run, or rather that running was my thing, surprising myself by coming first in every race on Sports Day. As the morning wore on, everyone got behind me Jill-ee-an, Jill-ee-an.  I’d never been so popular. Even though Mum and Dad missed it, as usual, telling them later was nearly as good. I pestered them till they let me join the athletics club. They thought it was a fad, and perhaps it would have been. But that was a miserable winter.  Running in rain, wind and even snow, was preferable to nights sitting on the sofa in between their silent enmity. I trained, and trained, and trained. Weekends were full of early starts and long drives to muddy cross country races. My parents never watched, never saw me come 500th, 200th, 50th, and at last my crowning glory, 5th. But Alan Forster did.

…stride and…

Kindly Alan Forster -all smiley eyes and crinkly hair – the coach we all wanted. The one who got girls into the national squad, whose proteges went to World Championships and even, once, to the Olympics. He saw what I could do, and promised I would do more. You’ll be another Kelly, he said, our very own golden girl. And I believed him. Right around the time Dad left, I started a strict diet of protein and carbs, and Alan’s special supplements. I went out every day at 5am, and abandoned the idea of a social life. Mum cried a lot, but I didn’t miss Dad much.  Alan Forster was much nicer anyway. Besides, I had races to win.

…breathe and…

I reached the local championships. The regionals. The nationals. I won, I won, I won. The local paper called me “Golden Jill”. Olympic qualification beckoned. And then I hit a slump. A bad cold meant I lost the only race Dad ever watched. A miscalculation next time saw me come in third. I trained harder, but my times got worse. The season began to slip away till one day Alan came up with a solution. Every champion needs a pick me up, he said. It’s not illegal, it’ll just tide you through. Whatever it was, it did the trick. I made the squad. Mum was so proud she let Dad come round to celebrate.They drank champagne and got all giggly. I had to be up early, so I left them to it.

…stride and…

Now I ran three times a day. I ate constantly but the hunger never left. I slept early, rose early, my muscles sore. I looked at the other girls’ times and I need to do more. I didn’t care about running, it was winning that counted, the crowd calling my name – Jill-ee-an, Jill-ee-an. I pushed and pushed myself, but my times stayed static. I did fartlek, Kenyan hills, speed trials. Nothing helped. Try this, said Alan, It will do you good. The devil has a familiar face and sups with a long spoon – THG mixed with modafinil. I supped with him. I took what he offered because I wanted to win. When he told me I couldn’t be caught, I believed him. I hit my personal best again, and again, and again.

…breathe and…

A few drops of urine. The difference between triumph and disgrace. Sponsors queuing up and rapidly dropping you. The crowd shouting your name and the changing room blanking you. The minute the news broke, Alan left, but I had nowhere to run. After the press, and loss of friendship, all there was was a room at Mum’s. Dad came back to a  house  no longer silent, but full of whispered concern. I sat in my room, looking at the wall. They took me to the doctor. Depression, she said, as she prescribed the cures of the modern age –  therapy and Citalopram. I sat silently through the first, and the second made my head fuzzy. My body sagged,  my legs became flabby with disuse.

…stride and…

It was a cold winter. The snow no longer beckoned me. I couldn’t imagine running in the rain. Spring came slowly, blue skies, chilly air, an occasional bud. Still, my room seemed the safest place to be.  Until this morning when  I turned on the TV to see the crowds at Greenwich queuing for their moment to run. The camera panned over bodies throwing themselves into motion, faces strained with effort, legs stampeding. A memory stirred. I can do this. I went to the cupboard and got out my kit.

…breathe

The sun sparkles on the water. A swan glides by. I was born for this. My body was made for this.

There is nothing to do but run

Sunday Story – Easter Rising

 

Easter Rising

And what if excess of love
bewildered them till they died?

WB Yeats “Easter, 1916”

“I’ll sing you a song of a row in the town”

The boys are in fine form tonight, he thought, as he drained the last drops of his pint. The tap being dry, he was drinking English beer, instead of his usual Guiness. It was rancid as communion wine. He looked at his watch, time to be getting back; but the bar was warm, and the song took him back to his childhood,

“And they played the best game played in Erin go Bragh.”

Ah, go on, I’ve time for another, he thought, though he knew he’d regret the head in the morning. He rose from the table and made his way to the bar; a small round man, whose face was too flushed to be healthy, with skin too lined for someone not yet sixty. Every table was full, the standing customers were packed from the wooden walls to the dark brown bar. The room was a fog of cigarette smoke. It smelt of sweaty bodies, and the sourness of spilt beer.

“Same again?” said Tom, the barman.

“Just a half,” he said, fiddling for the right coins. He was getting old, three years since decimalisation and he still missed the feel of a crisp ten shilling note. He took the beer, and made his way back through the carousing crowd.

“God rest gallant Pearse and his comrades who died,
Tom Clarke, MacDonagh, MacDermott, McBride” they sang with enthusiasm, several of them losing the tune. He smiled, his Daddy used to sing this to the three of them at bedtime: Sean, Thomas and Pat, all named for the heroes of 1916. Well that was a long time ago. Who’d have thought he’d end up here on the other side of the water? The singing died down and the pub buzzed with argument and laughter. He drank his beer, his mind wandering back to those days on the farm.

“Knockanure!” shouted someone, “Let’s have Knockanure”. He hummed along with the singers, though it wasn’t his favourite. The bar was as warm as his mother’s kitchen. He let his arms rest on the table, his eyes drooping slightly. It would be easy just to rest here, wrapped in the comfort of strangers in the pub, and not go home tonight. But his duty lay in ambush on the edge of the song: he couldn’t afford to stay much longer. As if answering his thoughts, the tune changed again,

“But the angelus bell o’er the Liffey’s swell

Rang out through the foggy dew”

If that wasn’t a sign he should go, he didn’t know what was. He sighed, gulped the remainder of his beer, adjusted his dog collar and pulled on his black overcoat: no longer Pat at the bar, but Father Pat Geary returning home. The April evening was cool, and there was a hint of jasmine in the air. It was a long walk, but he preferred it that way. In these dark times, when even his accent was suspect, it wouldn’t do to be seen drinking in a republican bar. He walked away from the warmth of the revellers, every
reluctant step taking him towards the unfinished sermon and the longest week of his year. Time was when Holy Week was everything to him. From the dramatic entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the darkness of Good Friday, to the resurrection of Easter, he was the chief actor, the inspiration for his people. Now the ritual was all that was left; words said by rote that he wasn’t quite sure he believed.

It was midnight when he arrived home. He let himself into the narrow hallway, nearly tripping over Father Andretti’s size thirteen boots. Damn him, only here a week, and the curate was already a nuisance. Father Geary’s head was beer-fogged and the temptation to leave the sermon overwhelming, so he took himself off to bed. As he lay down, his eyes were drawn to a bare hook on the white wall. In the days when prayer had meant something, there had been a crucifix on that hook. It had been put in a drawer long ago; now the priest went to sleep unblessed.

When he awoke, it was with a dry mouth and a thumping head. He padded barefoot along the cold grey lino to the bathroom. As he arrived, Father Andretti emerged with a breezy ,“Good morning, Father.” Father Geary grunted in response, a man could be too cheerful in the morning. The passage was narrow, and Father Andretti, large. They squeezed past each other, and the Italian went downstairs humming to himself.

Was there ever such an oaf as Father Andretti? Father Geary thought later, during Palm Sunday Mass. In the middle of Father Geary’s hypocritical sermon, he dropped a hymn book. When they rose at communion, he collided with an altar server. As the two priests came out of church, he nearly fell over the step. It was enough to drive a saint mad, and Father Geary was no saint at all. The performance brought much amusement to the congregation: Dr Hewitt’s comment was typical,
“Morning Father Geary. I see you and Father Andretti are modelling yourselves on Laurel and Hardy. Perhaps you should hire a choreographer to avoid further collisions.”

He guffawed at his own witticism, and Father Geary reddened. He was unequal to such jokes; after ten years he could never tell whether the laughter behind them was affectionate or cruel. Hewitt moved on, and was soon engaged in a long discussion with Father Andretti. Other people shook Father Geary’s hand, but his attention was drawn to the lively debate between Hewitt and the Italian. How was it that the parishioners were always more welcoming to his curates? Why were they never so easy and relaxed with him? Suddenly, he’d had enough and went inside to tidy up, his head ringing with Hewitt’s sneering laugh. They were all like that these snotty English, mocking him and acting as if he hid terrorists under the bed. What in Heaven’s name was he doing here? This was not what God called him for, all those years ago. This was not how he was supposed to live.

It was the day the mountain collapsed, that he heard the voice of God, or so he thought. Then again, he was young at the time, dreamy and quiet, and he thought a lot of daft things. He was living with his mother and brothers on the family farm. Their Daddy had just died, and Tom and Sean were helping Mammy farm the land. Pat Geary was still a schoolboy then, doing his evening chores, checking on the sheep in the far field. There’d been heavy rain at the weekend. People said afterwards that it loosened the trees further up the mountainside. The first he noticed was a slight rumble, like thunder. He looked up to see where it was coming from, and for a moment stood still, his mouth gaping. The whole hillside was sliding forwards: trees somersaulting over themselves, mud and rocks cascading down in a torrent. Then he realised his legs could move after all, and he had the presence of mind to throw himself over the stone wall. He cowered behind it as the boulders and earth rampaged past him. The roaring earth sprayed gravel and sharp stones that whipped his body.

In the height of the tumult, he thought he felt a hand on his shoulder and voice saying “Do not be afraid”. In the midst of his terror and despair he felt a calmness descend on him and he stopped trembling. When at last the landslide halted, he rose, choking with dust; blood streaking his eyes; his limbs were raw from the battering of the stones. The sheep he had been tending were buried under several feet of boulders and dirt: only one small lamb had escaped to his side of the wall. It was blackened with the earth, and one of its’ eyes was bleeding; it bleated piteously for the mother that would never return. Looking down the hill, he saw that the earth had beaten a path to the edge of the farmyard, destroying several fields on the way. The crops were all gone; the cows, like the sheep, were smothered by the rubble. He picked the bleating lamb up in his arms, and made his way down to the small, white farm house, now flecked in dirt and mud.

His mother and brothers had taken refuge in the cellar. They emerged as he arrived, pale and shaking. For a moment, none of them could speak, and then Mammy said,“Will you look at yourself, Patrick. How in heaven’s name did you get yourself so mucky just tending the sheep?”

At this, they fell upon each other laughing and crying all at once, as the lamb wriggled out of Pat’s arms and ran off to the barn. They knew what the moment meant, but they went inside to celebrate anyway,

“After all,” said Mammy, “We’re together safe, and that’s what counts.”

So they raised a glass to new life. Soon after his mother went to live with her sister, Sean and Tom were off to America, and Pat was free to enter the seminary. Convinced that God had saved him for a purpose, he saw himself out in the missions: a modern St Paul, bringing salvation to the world.

“And look where it got me,” Father Geary almost shook his fists at the cross, “ministering to a bunch of stuck up English people. I wanted to go to Africa, and serve people who really needed me. But, instead, I ended up here in this damned backwater. What good do I do here?”

The figure on the cross was silent, as always. Presently, the priest finished his tasks, locked the church and went next door to the presbytery. Father Andretti loomed at him from the lounge, “I am sorry, Father Geary, for being in your way today. I was born, as I think they say in this country, with two left feet.”

Father Geary looked at the younger man. The blue eyes usually bright with laughter, looked troubled; the mouth normally creased in a smile, was solemn. Even the dark curly hair seemed to have lost its buoyancy. He was ashamed of himself, didn’t Mammy always tell him to be kind to others, and they would be kind to you?

“Ah don’t mind me Father, I’m just getting old: too used to my own ways. “ He resolved to make more of an effort. After all, he couldn’t blame the other man for his disappointments. It was his cross – for him alone to bear.

As Holy Week progressed, through a conveyor belt of ceremonies – benediction, confession, daily mass – he was glad of this resolve. Father Andretti might be clumsy, but he had the strength of a pack horse and proved an able assistant. Even so, by the time Good Friday arrived, Father Geary was so exhausted that the simple task of putting on his vestments took his breath away. When he spoke the opening words of the Mass, they seemed to come from somewhere far away. The church was hot and stuffy, every seat was taken; the latecomers filled the side aisles and overflowed into the porch at the back. He forced himself to concentrate on the rhythms of the service, but his mouth was dry as dust, and the prayers seemed to have no meaning. By the time they arrived at the enactment of the Passion of Christ, he was shaking from head to toe. He held onto the lectern to read the part of Jesus, steadying his voice, till he reached the final words,

“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” .

His voice cracked, he was conscious of the congregation looking at him from the end of a dark tunnel; a voice in his ear calling his name. He had the vague awareness of someone helping him off the altar into the sacristy, and helping him lie across two chairs. Somewhere in the distance, he could hear Father Andretti continuing with service. He drifted off. It was pleasant to lie there, peaceful even.

After a while, the dizziness passed. He was able to sit up and look about him. Dr Hewitt was sitting opposite, and now Mass had ended, Father Andretti was disrobing.

“I thought you were a bit peaky Father, let me have a look at you.”said the doctor, “Hmm. I don’t think there’s anything seriously wrong, but your blood pressure’s a little high and your heart rate too. You’ve probably been overdoing it a bit. You work far too hard you know. You must let Father Andretti lighten your load a bit. Have a bit of rest now, and book a time to see your GP will you?”

With that he bustled off, leaving Father Geary open mouthed, only too willing to be led off to bed.

When he woke at seven, he felt more refreshed. As he came down the stairs, he could smell fish frying in the kitchen. Father Andretti was at the stove.

“How are you feeling Father Geary? I thought you should eat.”

“Better, thank you. And this is too kind: more than I deserve.”

“ We have to take care of each other, we men of God. For who else is there? Now I am making you some fish in olive oil. Just like we make it in Tuscany, and in honour of our Lord. As you know, he liked a bit of fish.”

Father Geary laughed. Here was a man, after all, who might be worth getting to know. He began to talk freely, and soon they were discussing Irish history.

“Ah but they were men,” Father Geary said “Pearse, Clarke, Connolly, Macdermott and Plunket . Pearse, there was someone who understood the meaning of the cross. He sacrificed his blood for the love of his country, knowing it would only be understood long after his death. That’s a kind of man I could believe in. That’s the kind of man I wanted to be.”

“He was indeed, and they did a fine thing to free Ireland.” said Father Andretti. “But these modern day bombers, I am not so sure of them.”

“A terrible beauty is born”

“Sorry?”

“Yeats said it in a poem. I think he meant they were right to give their lives, but what it might lead to who knows?”

“Ah yes, I remember, ‘Easter, 1916’.”

They thought for a moment, and then Father Andretti said,“So what brought you to England? Did you not wish to stay among your own people?”

“I wanted to be a Missionary in Africa, but my superiors had other ideas. They thought me too proud and full of ego. Ah, but I was young then, so, perhaps I was. Anyway, they sent me here to learn my place; to know the will of God.”

“And do you? Know the will of God?”

“Well now, I can’t say I do. I live with these cold English, never allowed to be a missionary. All I do is say Mass and give the sacraments, and that with very little grace. And now there is so much change. The Vatican Council did away with everything I knew, and I am too old for new ways.“

“You know I think we dwell on authority sometimes too much in this Church of ours. I wonder what Jesus would make of us if he came back now. Would he be pleased with us, or would he run through our churches overturning tables do you think?”

Fr Geary laughed, “Perhaps he would be after pulling the Bishop’s palaces down now?”

“You should see inside the Vatican my friend. Still I think you’ve had some hard blows, Father Geary, the church has not been kind to you, and yet you remain here.”

“Yes but for what? What good am I?”

“Haven’t you said it yourself? You give people the sacraments, care for them when they are sick, pray with them when they are dying”

“But I have lost the habit of kindness. I shame myself.”

“You are too hard on yourself! I think you are a man who has lived an excess of love, though bewildered by the people around him. Yet, I see what you do in this parish – and I think, you have been a faithful servant.”

Father Geary fell silent at this, and then changed to a lighter subject. They talked late into the night. At bedtime, when Father Geary looked at the bare hook on the wall, it seemed to him that something was missing. He opened his sock drawer, and took out the crucifix. He marvelled at it for a moment, before placing it in its rightful place. He went to sleep light in heart and spirit.

It was with a strange elation that he prepared for the Easter Vigil Mass the next day. For the first time in years, he enjoyed dressing in the gold and white vestments. As the two priests lit the fire to start the familiar ceremony, Father Geary was possessed with an awe he had not felt for a long time. He held the Easter Candle in the flame and watched the spark light the wick. The altar servers lit their tapers and the fire was passed among the candles of the congregation. As they entered the dark church, Father Geary raised the Easter Candle high above his head. The two priests sang with confidence,

“Christ our light.”

Behind them small flames were doubling and tripling, illuminating the shadows. The smell of incense filled the air; smoke rose like steam from his mother’s kitchen.

The priests reached the altar and smiled at each other. An altar server switched on the church lights. Dark night was banished; Easter had begun.

Copyright c Virginia Moffatt 2008

#fridayflash The Stationmaster.

The mourners followed the pall-bearers to the grave. They watched as the coffin was laid on slats of wood, the undertakers holding the rope taut whilst their chief removed each plank from underneath the brown box. Then inch, by inch, they lowered it in the grave. The deceased’s daughter let out a long moan. His wife began to dab her eyes. The mourners followed suit. Hankies were brought to watery red eyes, hats were doffed in respect. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. He returned to the earth from which he came.Little spots of rain began to fall, then larger ones, umbrellas were raised and the funeral party scattered for cover.

Later, at the wake, his wife sat, straight-backed and pale-faced, in her black crape gown. She greeted her damp guests with an air of slight indifference, that was put down to shock. A young woman joined the queue. She was slim, dressed in Charles Worth,  carrying an elegant black parasol.The wife shook her hand, wondered for a moment who she was, then turned to the next person. The woman wandered through the crowd, greeting no-one. She nibbled on a cucumber sandwich, wiping the crumbs from her mouth with a tiny lace handkerchief. A little girl ran up. She was dressed in black velvet, yellow curls tumbled down her back.

“Hello,” she said.
“Hello.”
“My grandfather died.”
“I know.”
“My mother is very sad.”
“He was a good man.”
“He used to tell me stories.”
“Me, too.”
“Was he your grandfather too?”
“No. He was just a friend.”
“Oh,” the little girl paused for a moment, contemplating the idea that friendship existed among adults. It was too much. “There’s cake. Would you like some?”
“I’d like it very much.”

The lady in grey allowed herself to be led to the table. She ate a sliver of fruit cake, made her excuses and left. No-one ever saw her again.

*********

“It’s just too sad,” said the neighbour.
“It is,” her friend nodded.
“A mother shouldn’t see her child in the ground first.”
“No.”
“They say she ran back to the house to get the baby’s toy. If she’d only stayed in the shelter…”
“It’s too bad.”

The neighbours watched the grieving mother follow the coffin out of the church. She walked with a ram-rod back, her face invisible under her black veiled hat. Her husband walked behind her, staring ahead with expressionless eyes. There was to be no formal wake. The couple said it was because they had to get back to the baby, and everyone understood. But in truth, they couldn’t bear the throng of sympathetic handshakes. The graveside was dealt with as quickly as was decent. Water, earth, ashes, to ashes. She returned to the ground from which she came and it was time to go home. The little girl was napping, their friend said. They thanked her and saw her out.

The father poured out two glasses of sherry.

“I think, in the circumstances…”

She nodded, took off her hat, and let down her hair.  Blond curls, greying in places, cascaded down the back of her black rayon suit. She looked out of the window as spots of rain fell on the pane. They sat in silence for a while, sipping their drinks. A cry came from the child’s bedroom, her old room. The mother sighed, she knew the routine. She put her drink down and walked upstairs to offer the necessary comfort.

*********

“…I have a mental image of her now, standing on the front step in her dressing gown,  shaking her fist at the house as if it were to blame for locking her out.” The mourners laughed, there were many such moments to remember. The deceased’s daughter continued, “What I loved about her, was she could laugh at herself too. She knew her own little foibles. It was a great gift, and for that and so many others, we’ll miss her.” She stepped down, and returned to her seat. Her husband raised an arm in comfort. Her brothers and cousins stood up to lift the coffin. Under the watchful eye of the undertaker, they carried it out to the funeral car and then arranged the convoy to the cemetry.

It was a colourful parade by the graveside, in keeping with the deceased’s wishes. No black, I hate bloody black, you’ve got that? They got it, and in respect wore turquoises, purples, reds, oranges. The daughter who’d given the eulogy wore a bright yellow dress, a sun-hat and strapless sandals. The grandaughter was sporting a blue miniskirt and pink halter-neck top. Only the second cousin made the mistake of dressing according to tradition, and they forgave her that on the account of the effort she’d made, coming all the way from Newfoundland.  But the sunshine and brightness couldn’t disguise the inevitability of the thud of the coffin as it reached the base of the grave. The sprinkling of water, the clods of earth. Ashes, to ashes, dust to dust, she returned to the earth from which she came.

Afterwards, in the pub, the grandaughter approached her mother who was sitting alone with a glass of wine in her hand.

“I’ve got something for you.” It was a photograph album.
“Darling, how sweet. Where did you get these?”
“Grandma liked to tell me the old stories. She had all these old photos. She said I could keep them.”
Her mother flicked through the pages, “Oh look, that’s  my poor grandmother who died in the war. And her parents, who raised my mother. She always said it was harder for them than for her.”
 She carried on turning the pages, “My goodness there’s my great, great grandfather.”
“He was a station-master wasn’t he?”
“Very straitlaced apparently, though Mum always hinted at a disreputable past.”
“Wasn’t there some strange woman at his funeral?”
“So Mum said. They never did find out who she was.”
“Perhaps she was his first wife?”
“His mistress?”
“His daughter?”
“He looks very respectable though. Maybe she was just a regular passenger on the line come to pay her respects.” She closed the album and  put it on the table. “This was very thoughtful of you sweetheart. Now go and mingle.”

She sipped a mouthful of her drink. “What do you think Mum?” she said.