The Absurdity of Us
Crossing the Slieve Mish Mountains to the west coast in early morning bickering again, we never saw another vehicle, so I stopped by a two-inch deep sruthan to bathe. Come on, I said. Its bed pebbled, we lay on our backs, soaped our skin, then turned over for an icy fresh start. Towelling briskly, we scanned for other travellers but the stark loveliness was ours alone. Back in our clapped-out car, warm, we laughed gloriously, constructing memory traces to be gleaned.
Earlier, against her sensible judgement, we stopped for an old wet hitchhiker, Yeats’ tattered coat upon a stick. His brogue musical as he settled in the back, the key snapped turning the ignition. Another travellers’ hitch, I might have punned to mask disappointment, precipitating another vexed eye roll from her, his bedraggled self clambering back outside in the, er, precipitation. I still had plans for that lush greenery, light caressed by rain: Yeats’ tower, his longed-for love hiding its face in a crowd of stars, Sean-nos in Connemara, the Blarney Stone.
Earlier still, on the ferry from Fishguard, thoughts popping with leprechauns, craic in pubs, the Abbey Theatre, how a small population produced heartfelt literature from suffering and joy, I was glad to leave British battleground austerity that seemed to erode her initial enthusiasm like the brass rubbing we made in a Norman church revealing, like the odour of ancient limestone, the past’s cruel echoes.
Even earlier than this, she took me to the farm beyond where trees thin, Australia’s arid hinterland, to display her prize, a mature-age student, a footloose, left-wing dreamer who loved art. Arse-tistic, sneered the unschooled man of the land, a former drover not much older than me, while the drover’s wife, sun-wrinkled, crashed pots and pans to an un-orchestral crescendo. My thought then of flight, avoidance, I reasoned how dodgy I must seem, couldn’t blame their daughter, deferring as usual.
He caught a ferry, night train
Hungry, he huddles in a sepulchral corner that smells of damp and animals, dreams for minutes at a time, twitching awake repeatedly in partial moonlight. Keeping to the dank shadows, he shivers waiting for her. Together, they walked to this place once, climbed the hill, weak sunlight on their faces, a fresh breeze, talking radical politics.
He remembers posters for a rock concert, and boxing, the tingle holding her hand. It had been gutted by fire long ago, infrastructure rebuilt. Part of it appeared to be a museum, the view from this elevation extensive. Now it looks different at night, deserted. Pacing, feet, ears, numb, muttering, he trawls his plan, the city twinkling distantly.
The clarity of the Post Office Tower’s lights imprinting on memory, he hears the car below. Engine, headlights, cut, she gets out. He hears her door’s soft click, just able to make her out standing alone near the car holding an overnight bag as if uncertain, as if here in wavering faith. She stares up but he knows it would be impossible to see him yet.
A wraith traversing night scents; grass, earth, freedom, he zigzags down the steep embankment, heart pumping. Softly, he calls her name, no longer cold. I knew it was you by the way you move, she says, trembling. They kiss, cling to each other, to the unimaginable future. These shall be their last minutes together.
The first television was transmitted up there, these images’ future, like the war that loomed, unimaginable, too. My freedom denied at an early age, betrayed, I couldn’t take imprisonment again, so disappeared, moving, always moving. Hated by liars who believe me dead now, my thoughts return like a mantra to her fragrant breath, these recollections an excoriation of self-harm, reminders of the tact of endings, prices we pay.
My brain clunks to a stop trying to recall the name, Strasbourg. It gets stuck on Salzburg. I know where Salzburg is, know these cities, miles apart yet both near the German border. Not stupid, just recent memory forgetful, I use my alphabet system, short-cutting, starting with S – many proper nouns own this initial – think Sa, Sc, etc., uneasy about Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s, Ammons, Austria. It was reading Ammons that led to the reference to Salzburg. My mind clicked in with Mozart, of course, but then slid to a time in that other city, its name veiled. There, I bought a soapstone vase in a carpark shadowed by the cathedral, ornate - the vase, not the cathedral, all cathedrals being ornate - Swahili, I now think. If I stretch, I can touch it.
Since we met, this vase that leaks, from a loved period in life, has lived through several upheavals with me, including backpack days, and when happiness itself seemed to leak. Charming black hustlers flogged it after I honestly claimed to be near broke when they corralled me, unwittingly setting them up to challenge me to name a price. I suggested, smile acquiescent, a figure I believed to be insulting. A triumph of teeth, they accepted, leaving me with an untoward vase on my battered car’s roof, even slightly less money, and my somewhat slipped smile.
How inexpensive my curvaceous vase, this not the first time it has modelled for me? I could search Google, like anybody else. Instead, I pull open a bottom drawer heavy with maps of nomadic days, all ended. The wonderful odour of books rises. Smell seduces our nostalgia worms to wriggle even more than old music’s effect. I find Strasbourg easily, linger there, Strasbourg where I bought an impractical but gorgeous vase with my last francs when I never forgot anything.