Bussing through the Irish midlands on a dull midweek day is a funereal experience, reminding me never to live too far from the sea. Many of the squared-off fields we ride past are cornered with roofless, overgrown ruins that once housed starvelings and pigs. I think of the ruins as death markers for the passing of the woods cleared long ago to make way for the fields. Only defeated files of bushes and trees marking ditches remain. Like labour camp prisoners, they are spared for their utility alone.
I see the odd standout tree in the middle of an otherwise cleared field, gnarled and leafless and lightning-tormented, and wonder what stroke of luck or superstition has kept it from chainsaw and axe.
All the life and the song and the frolic torn up with the woods, all gone. Cultivation is a slaughter from day one.
And not a sinner on the streets of the settlements. No one about in Kildare, Abbeyleix, Durrow. The shops are open, the drapers and two euro stores and chippers that are the height of commerce in our small towns. But there are no customers at 3 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon. Being a small shopkeeper now is a penance spent on a rack of time, waiting the doom that is eventually almost certain, and that is happening to someone all of the time–the sheriff and the banker come to damn you to the open road.
Empty skies, empty fields, empty ruins, empty streets, empty businesses. Everyone is somewhere else; the people, the birds, the trees, the spirits. Everything speaks to me of death and absence and grief. Perhaps a vast funeral is taking place and that is where they are all gone.
It seems like a good day for a vast funeral, a funeral for a nation, and for everything in it, including its stories and myths, murdered by misuse, mockery, and disbelief.
Things change in Mitchelstown. The sky brightens and Margaret gets on. She asks me if it is okay to sit beside me. I nod, assuring her she must sit where she pleases. She smells of cigarettes and booze. Not just of today’s, but decades of them, decades of devil-may-care and of craic, deeply ingrained in her clothes and her skin. She also has a plastic bag full of greenery picked from Mitchelstown’s lively Thursday market. She wears a dusty beige suede coat with its fluffy sleeves and collar well thinned out at this stage. Large and showy silver earrings are making a carnival out of her ears. I can’t decide if the earrings remind me of peacocks or bunches of grapes. They are magnificent either way. You could make both music and magic out of them.
Her hair is several shades of sand, fading towards white at the root and her face has wrinkles in it like tidal grooves. Her face is like an ocean coastline that has been arranged and rearranged over ages by all kinds of weather.
Her face is the face of survival, which is also the face of wisdom, for there is no other wisdom but survival in this world.
I speak first:
–I’ve been travelling all day and looking out this window at the grey that turns everything grey. It feels like the whole country has gone to its own funeral. But it’s brightening now anyway. I’m happy for that. The country is gorgeous under the sun. The hillsides and the rivers especially.
–It is brightening, says she, but there’ll be more rain later. A lot more. A storm of it in fact.
–How do you know that girl?
–I can tell by the sky boy. I can tell the weather a good few hours in advance just by looking up at it, at the shade above me and the shade it is in the distance.
–I love travelling around looking out the window, like you do. I do a lot of travelling.
–Where do you go
–All over. Killarney to Belfast. Wherever I please. Wherever the craic is.
–Where is your favourite place so?
–The islands I suppose. Cape Clear anyway. I love travelling out there on the ferry. I love the Aran Islands too.
–Were you ever on Sherkin? Sherkin is one of my favourite places. Venus is as bright as the moon over Sherkin.
–Ha! I was in Sherkin but I have no memory of it. Twas on a drinking session. I must go back there.
–And were you abroad much?
–All over. I was in Africa.
–Kilimanjaro. I started at the peaks! And I was in the US. I love music and the States is a great place for music.
–Of course. I went to Memphis.
–I love Elvis too. 50s Elvis, and 70s Elvis. Don’t think much of the 60s musicals now.
–The 70s was great. Suspicious Minds.
–We can’t go on together.
–That’s it boy! I was in New Orleans too. New Orleans is amazing.
–Before the hurricane?
–Just before it. We were on the last bus out of it.
–Do you know, you remind me of one of my sons. I have five of them and you remind me of one.
–Five sons? I hope they are looking after you.
–I look after myself boy. I do my own thing. Anyway the fellow you remind me of, he was very intelligent. He wanted to be an accountant.
–Yes, but thank God he is still alive.
And so we went on yapping and buzzing away off each other for the hour it took to Patrick’s Quay in Cork. It was one of the quickest and happiest hours of my life, like riding along on a fast little raft on a river, feeling totally part of the flow.
Before we parted on the quay, Margaret turned to me and said, ‘You know I love chatting with people when I’m travelling on the bus, but most people turn away from me and won’t talk back. You didn’t and fair play to you for it.’
She winked at me once and walked off trailing smoke, with her earrings playing slow, slinky New Orleans jazz, flagrant cabbage leafs trumpeting over the rim of the plastic bag.
I felt that I had passed some sort of spiritual test, but really it was more of a gift.
I was heading to the Cork Spring Poetry Festival and I had been given a way of thinking about the poetry encountered there and after. Would it be able to go heart-to-heart with a magical rambler like Margaret? Or would it turn and look the other way in fatal snobbery, out through the window, into the nothingness, into the funeral of the world?