George woke up suddenly. A glow around the edges of the shutters signalled it was light…. morning, day, afternoon, whatever. Usually early morning, because George nearly always woke prematurely, tormented out of sleep by his troubled thoughts. But this time he woke blank. Pure consciousness, without a history or a name; as it was in the beginning, consciousness waste and void. Am without an I. Blank Is-ness dumb. Being without Identity. A lens admitting no image, nothing but light.
‘My God,’ he eventually said aloud, ‘who am I and where am I?’ He recognised the voice. It was his own, he knew now, but he still couldn’t remember the name for that particular segment of reality. Then it came to him that his particular patch of existence wasn’t a very happy allotment. Misery was perhaps its name, the word came to him and he spoke it. ‘Misery. Pure fucking misery.’ The sensation that the voice he heard came from his own mouth was reassuring, so he repeated the words over and over. ‘Misery. Misery. Pure fucking misery.’ An Irish accent: he must be Irish. And there was some connection, elusive, hard to pin down, between misery and being Irish. Irish Misery. Sounds like the name of a horse. Or was it Irish Mist? No, that is the name of a drink. Early Mist was the name of the horse… When the lemmings were finally given their freedom, they voted to do what they had always done by instinct; destroy themselves. Now that was a subtle kind of thought. Where did it come from? And where has it gone now? ‘Little thoughtie woughtie, come back here,’ he crooned.
By this time it had become common knowledge that his name was George. A subtle thing, like tradition; there was no identifiable exact time at which the name had been established. It was simply taken for granted now, like the fact that there was an unfinished bottle of whiskey on the locker beside the bed. From which he took a deep slug.
Silence in the room was to be expected, of course, but it was not altogether welcome. There was a touch of absence about it. On the other hand, it was good to be in control, to be the sole arbiter of what noise was to be made and when. Like now: Lousy bitch. Spoken slowly, lowly, with venom.
When you’re not entirely in control of the sounds in a room, some of them can be unpleasant, things that you don’t want to hear, such as I couldn’t sleep last night because you were snoring like a pig. This pig image doesn’t sit well with a man’s self-esteem. Yes, I am free, said Sartre, but my freedom is a kind of death. Where did that come from? Same as Donne the other day, only Donne’s woman hadn’t walked out on him; she was carried out in a coffin. Not like that harridan going off and leaving me here alone, on this of all the days of the year.
Nobody had said a word about it, but it was Christmas Day. It just was. So: things are coming together. But the shape they are taking is not pleasant, and calls for more whiskey. I must have missed the Three Spirits last night, otherwise I’d be up dancing around the yard like a bi-polar on the turn, telling the landlord I’d be upping his rent as a Christmas present, smearing the very walls with meat as recommended by St Francis, so that even inert matter could partake of the feast as a fit celebration of this holy and glorious day. The Franciscans are the lads for uncommon recipes: Baste well, then rub against the walls.
Christmas Day. To be spent alone, in the arsehole of rural Italy. Such a large chunk of reality to arrive in one go. Couldn’t be swallowed, not without some whiskey to wash it down.
His eyes had grown accustomed to the dimness. He was sitting up in a large double bed, the sole occupant. He was sitting there surrounded by double bed, surrounded by wardrobe, chest of drawers and two small bedside cabinets, one on each side of him; surrounded by absence. On the marble top of the cabinet to his right there was a lamp; likewise on the cabinet to his left. On the cabinet to his right there was also a glass containing his false teeth, and the whiskey bottle which he now held in his hand had spent the night there, beside the false teeth. Outside the bedroom were the empty bathroom, the empty small bedroom, the empty living room. No one was out at the cooker, graciously brewing taken-for-granted coffee, being gracious about brewing coffee and about being taken for granted, in a saffron dressing gown.
And outside that again, on the third and all the other circles of hell, were Italy, Europe, the World, the Solar System, the Milky Way Galaxy, the Universe. The greatest pain was in the first circle, of course, the circle of the bedroom, the desecrated refuge of deepest intimacy. Desecration had not been alluded to until now, but although the word was unspecific, it was suddenly quite certain that there had been a desecration of considerable magnitude, and there was a lingering trace of vomit attached to the vagueness of the sacrilegious act.
Better to drag oneself out of the bedroom, at least, into the less resounding emptiness of the living room. He brought out his clothes and dressed hurriedly: subconsciously, the idea was that the more ‘external’ he looked, the less painful it would all be. Looking out the window as he buttoned his shirt, he had mixed feelings about the soft sunshine. On the one hand, he could walk himself to exhaustion, and outwit the suicidal theme that was already announcing itself discreetly in the jangled symphony of his desolation; on the other hand, the sweetness of the weather threatened to hone a sharper edge on his loneliness. But there was really no choice here: one last swig of whiskey and Via! – away with him before the devil caught up.
A Year's Midnight, Ciaran O'Driscoll, Pighog Press, 2012
For titles of my poetry collections and chapbooks click ABOUT
Anthony, my first brother, knew that a puppet show was a puppet show no matter who pulled the strings: be it my father or Stalin, or the short little solicitor by the precise clack-clack of whose heels every morning down the wide pavement you could time your watch, or de Valera, or the Devil himself. My first brother knew that the puppet show was the whole world, that the whole world was a puppet show, that big puppets pulled the strings of smaller puppets all the way down to us cooped up after dinner in the back yard, where we pulled one another’s strings, in descending order, until the only one left with no string to pull was the youngest. My first brother may not have known it in so many words, but he knew all the same and he wanted to cut the strings right from the start.
There were some puppets who were pulled by more than one set of strings. My father pulled my mother’s strings, but another set attached to her was pulled by the customers in our shop with their mounting uncleared accounts: Six sliced pans, said Sadie Kenneally, two pound of rashers, four pound of sausages, eight pan rustics, a pound of tea, three pound of butter, two stone of spuds, three heads of cabbage, a two pound pot of raspberry jam and half a pound of bull’s eyes isn’t it a grand day entirely Mam and how is the Master?
Oh, but the advent of the sliced pan! It must have been around this time that the saying began to circulate: the greatest thing since the sliced pan. And to me at the time, the sliced pan really was the greatest thing. It wasn’t the labour-saving aspect admired by housewives and the ravenously hungry which attracted me. It was the taste. Of the first sliced pan I ever tasted, that came from Waterford. Called Gold Crust. Now I know that its unique taste probably came from additives, flavour enhancers. The local baker couldn’t compete with it: everything else was right, the coloured wrapping, the even slices, the price, but the taste was not right. Gold Crust was triumphant; after it, eating the local sliced pans was a bit like eating paper.
So what was the taste of Gold Crust? Something new at a time of life when the taste of food was everything, at the age of seven or eight. Something impossible to describe: particular in the intransitive sense, as Wittgenstein would have expressed it. Intransitive, intransigent to description, the taste-memory is a kind of transparent curtain behind which other memories act out the dumb-show of my childhood.
Gold Crust came from Waterford with hopes of a changing world. The invention of the sliced pan was followed by the launching of the Sputnik into space. I was staying at my maternal grandmother’s at the time; she needed company, and I, the eldest of the children, was providing it. A twenty minute walk took me from our shop in the centre of town to her cottage on the hem of the countryside. This duty lasted for about two years. The first year was before I progressed into the higher classes which my father taught, and it must have been during this year that the radiant photograph was taken. Not only did I not provoke his anger by my apparent stupidity in class but I wasn’t annoying him at home like the others, who would sneak down in their vests in the early morning to steal sweets from the shop or fight after dinner in the back yard or need to be walked for hours before going to sleep. For a while, the curly-headed stranger was held in high regard.
The taste of Gold Crust is the taste of hope. At this time my father still had hope. The Amateur Photographer had published his photograph of the Christmas crib in the friary chapel; he was gradually building up a portfolio of published photographs. He had opened ‘The Quality Photographic Studios’ (the parlour was his one and part-time studio), and some locals had even gone to him to have their photographs taken. He photographed donkeys with their churn-laden carts tied to telegraph poles outside bars, outside the stores of the Co-operative Agricultural and Dairy Society.
Except for the painter who later became famous, with whom he sometimes had long conversations on the street, my father was probably the only person in the town to see the wonder and potential of those everyday street scenes. The people of my home town were locked into the everyday as into a prison. For them, there was no epiphany in the sight of a donkey and cart tethered to a telegraph pole, nothing about the bowed head of the donkey, the sad depths of the one eye in profile that, in the words of Roland Barthes, could pierce.
But in that town nothing pierced or could pierce; nothing could pierce the petty status hierarchy (the clack-clack of the solicitor’s shoes) or the dumb purgatorial otherworldly faith which enveloped the bright potential of life here below like a grey perpetual mist (we must all suffer, but some must suffer more than others, so that the others may suffer less). Nothing could pierce the cynicism of a neglected town or the definition of the town coined by one of its many wits in a parody of the Catechism’s definition of Purgatory: a place or state of punishment where some souls suffer for a time before they get the money to go to England.
The ‘working classes’ seldom had work in the town of my childhood. It was situated in a geographical and political no-man’s-land, overlooked by whatever few development initiatives were on offer at the time. What was on offer, in the absence of enough money to go to England? The Great Sliced Pan in the Sky, the Sputnik Gold Crust circling the earth out of reach of present needs and dreams. That and the parish’s Party for Poor Children, announced off the altar the Sunday after Christmas, with a curious addendum to the effect that children are requested to bring their own cup, plate, knife, fork and spoon.
It was mainly working-class people who shopped with us. We still kept credit notebooks for our customers at a time when the practice was going out of fashion with other shopkeepers. The bulk of our customers came from a council estate that had recently been added to the town. The estate was officially named after a patriot, people originally called it the New Houses, and it was later nicknamed the Burma Road (after the war film of the same name). I remember it as an area always strewn with broken glass. My father, another outsider of the caste system, though for a different reason, had a kind of sympathy with my mother’s customers; he often talked and joked with them, he appreciated the cutting edge of their wit. Indeed if there was anything in the town of my childhood that could pierce to the heart of things, it was the cutting humour of its working class, as evidenced by that Catechism-parody definition of the place itself. I imagine one of the current wits of the town looking at my father’s photograph of a donkey tethered to a pole outside the Co-operative Stores, and saying to me: ‘Begod now, Ciaran, you’d want to airbrush the hape of shite out from under the ass’s hindquarters before you put that photograph on exhibition.’
Sadie Kenneally, with her six heads of cabbage, two stone of spuds, and part-payment of her ever-increasing bill, would banter with my father in a salacious way, and he loved it. ‘Go way, ya ould divil ya!’ she’d say, and he laughed till the tears came down his cheeks.
‘And six sliced pans, Mam. Gold Crust, if you have them.’
For titles of my poetry collections and chapbooks click ABOUT