Going Home – Part 2
Strathalbyn, South Australia
Continued from yesterday …
He drew from his backpack the flask the kindly night porter had pressed upon him, advising him that wandering among the Connemara Bens at five in the morning was only for goats and for those who had whiskey in their coffee. He was grateful for the draught, his blood tingling as the hot coffee and Jameson collaborated to draw the early morning chill from his bones.
As he turned down the hill to make the trek back to claim his breakfast, a wisp of white turf smoke snaked skyward from a solitary mountain cottage. The sweet peaty smell of it drifted evocatively to assail his nostrils. Again he was transported, feeling the warmth of his father’s hand in his as he tried to match his stride on the bog road leading to their bank of turf.
His mother followed in the cart with the sleán and nestling in the wicker basket under her seat was their day’s sustenance, the generous tea towel wrapped sandwiches of fresh-baked bread, lathered with butter and mustard and stuffed with left-over ribbons from the Sunday cut of ham. Sean, his baby brother, denied the status of walking with the men, sulked in the corner of the cart nursing the quart jar of fresh milk, sloppily stoppered with a wad of butcher’s paper. He was charged with keeping it intact, for its purpose was to slake the thirst of the men and to wash the feast down.
Singly and in groups, the people he knew like family joined them on the winding road and the company swelled and grew loud with the banter of the men and the laughter of the women. Now he was darting and dodging in and out among them, jostling with Tommy Brennan; wrestling one or other of Pat Burke’s six children; racing like a hare to dent the fleet-of-foot reputation of Colum McMahon or throwing cow’s eyes at Patricia McCabe, the beguiling raven-headed beauty he was destined to admire only from afar. Exhilarated, he looked round for the company he had imagined only to be enveloped by the silence that stole its ice-cold fingers round his heart and gripped it, engendering a feeling of chilling desolation.
Shaken, he sat on the top step of a stile leading to a field where one cow grazed among the reeds, standing deep in the mud of a poorly drained plot. He took a deep swig of fortified coffee from his flask. How hard life was then, he thought. It was a wonder anyone could raise a smile let alone a family in those days of grinding toil: but they did, for everyone was in the same boat.
An old Irish proverb came to his mind – Ní neart go cur le chéile – there is no strength without unity. Like a blanket round a new-born babe, their collegial plight bound them tight and secure against the harshness of the times.
The struggles of the people notwithstanding, it was a time in his life when he felt vital and sure-footed, filled with a confidence in his own abilities and in the unshakable strength of his family and his community. His impulsive journey back to his roots was the reawakening of a dormant yearning to regain his place in the scheme of things.
Many changes had already drenched his expectations in disappointment. The sprawling market town, a close-knit village when he left, had been riven, the people separated, not by war or pestilence or deep social divisions, but by a highway, a horizontal Jerusalem wall that had killed the heart of the place and sucked its soul dry. His long absence had thinned the community he remembered as drills of potatoes are thinned, except with the people there was no reinvigoration of the surviving crop: they had withered and mostly died and he was chasing phantoms.
In the days since his return, he had called on the few cherished friends he had managed to trace. Their welcome was warm: they looked as world worn as he felt and the talk floated old memories to the surface of their conversations. The laughs and the tears of shared joys and woes, the tales of sporting battles won and lost, the gossip of marriages made and broken, were aired and exchanged like snuff at a wake.
Common remembrances spent, the talk stalled and the laughter, emptied of its ease, rang hollow. The discourse of the day to day that springs from the constant incremental sharing of the familiar was achingly absent: there were too many gaps in the narrative for words or the imagination to fill.
Andrew realised his friends had grown as their town had grown and he had not grown with them. They were comfortable with him as a product of history, a ghost of times past. His return was an unwelcome resurrection: it confounded their perspective, muddied their memory.
Without a reference point he was floundering: a destination, without the anticipation of old friendships renewed at journey’s end, is merely another place to go, another place to be. Thomas Wolfe, he thought, knew the truth of it: you can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the aether of memory.
The languid night porter had long gone when he returned the flask to the alert young girl at the front desk. His breakfast waiter was a slow man with lots of years round his shoulders and his accent prompted Andrew to enquire as to his origins. ‘Poland, Germany, then Canada; a cruise liner for a while: now, here. No place special anymore. My people, everyone I knew in Poland, they’re all dead. If I went back, I would find a graveyard.’ As the waiter retreated with his order, Andrew gazed as a fine drizzle specked the dining room window, darkening the day.
Returning to seek a world that no longer existed was, he mused, a hopeless pursuit: some things are better left in the backroom of memory. Yet, he had found much more than a graveyard here among the ruins of his expectations. Weaving mythologies, his father had lifted his sights above the drudgery of the times and woven for him a rainbow coat of possibilities. It had gifted him the imagination, the courage and the confidence to feel he could achieve anything he wanted to achieve. He still wore that coat: always snug around him, it had shielded him against the vicissitudes of life.
Despite the changes in people and places, the beauty of Connemara had remained true to his memory. The dawn had appeared on cue and the mountain altar where he and his father had worshipped its god prevailed. He was enjoying the fruits of the seeds his father had sown. All in all, he was content.
Bio: Anthony likes to call this piece a collection of memories from afar of an Irish childhood.