… the blue, forked torch of a flower down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness down the way Persephone goes, just now, in first-frosted September to the sightless realm where darkness is married to dark…
19 Ballydaheen, Mallow September 1st-September 28th 1920
I was in a weakness. I couldn’t stand up. I leant back against the wall like a drunkard. Was that Himself I’d seen on the back of a Crossley tender on Main Street? The truck lurched down the hill and out of the back appeared a pair of eyes. They pinned me, bored me. It was an outrage. A small Tan or maybe an Auxie, lounging in the back against the canvas with a bayonet pointed at my waist. The head off Himself in a cracked leather coat with goggles hanging round his neck. After twelve years. Could he have clambered out of the other side of O’Sullivan’s Quay that night in Cork and run away with his bowler under his arm? We never found the hat although Eileen Murphy and myself searched high and low, tearing at the damp walls, our hands bright green from the moss.
Eileen Murphy was tough out and I should have listened to her that night when she said to shove his head down in the water with my boot. We were wrapped in fog by the brimming brown water, the Lee overflowing after the deluge. I wanted him to be taken by God with no hand in it at all myself but of course that was a Sin of Omission so I was a black sinner too. We should have called the constabulary the minute he slithered in. They say a drunkard has more lives than a cat. Lurching up the road every night, steamed to the gills taking the two sides of Blarney Street—horses and carts the whole lot and not a hair of his head damaged. His white collar shining in the greenish gaslight. How many times did he fall down and rise again like an Indian rubber ball? And what was there to stop him rising again? The body wasn’t found. No one saw Jesus rise on Easter Sunday either. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said he would. Come and see the place where he lay and that is the Gospel according to Matthew. But Himself was no Jesus and he had plenty reason to run after what he’d done. The fog was thick and heavy as a wet wool overcoat that night, soaked us so we left drips all over the concrete kitchen floor when we came home. Eileen only fifteen but she’d already had a taste of his antics too. We bent over Flora, lying in the sheets I had embroidered with cherries and leaves, to see if she was still sleeping and she was. Now we can talk openly about men, I said, and now I wonder if I should have said anything, maybe it was Myself as well as Himself that turned Eileen hard as an armoured van, sent her out to join Cumann na mBan.
It was the Thursday I thought I saw Himself that the simmering madness got into me. My brain wouldn’t run straight in its track anymore, only started lurching and shooting electric sparks up the right side of my face. We’d had a doing from the Tans in June the night of the attack on Eileen but this was worse. Because staring hurts worst of all. This fellow was morning-sober not like the Tans that night who couldn’t see straight with the drink. One fellow had to hold himself up with his rifle, using it like a walking stick to stop himself from falling down. Trying to look a big man in front of Flora. The fellow in charge leant up against the wall for balance and left a green smear after him. I was scrubbing for days. But you never knew what way they’d turn. One minute a Tan might be sticking his head under the hood of a baby’s pram, what’s ‘er name, blue-eyed little dohling, next he would be trying to—what they called—click with a girl, then you could turn a corner and a gang of them were stamping on an old man’s fingers. Every day of the week, people ran like the chickens before them. Savage drivers but expert—the tenders, like motorised brooms, pushing carts and people and animals into the ditches— pirate patches over their greasy eyes, the hooks of their hands slashing the air, scraping walls and gathering leaves off the trees as they passed. Dark faces and stained fingers—people said they’d come from hell and that you could still smell the singe off them. I couldn’t smell the singe only engine oil because they loved driving motors and couldn’t stop even for themselves. They got tangled up with Hounds of Duhallow out beyond Burnfort on the Island Road and then, even the great Britisher, Mrs Pound said she was angry with Lloyd George for sending them because the language out of them you wouldn’t hear it out of Turks and how lucky we were to have 17th Lancers, The Duke of Cambridge’s Own, between us and the Cockney scum.
The darting pain ran up the right side of my face. If I could turn the clock back to Thursday the first, I’d have got off my chair faster. That was the cause. Getting frozen in a draft before the curfew, standing on my old green painting chair, pinning the vermilion blankets over the window for the blackout with Scissors No. 1 in my hand for protection. A pure perishing mist rose up from under the bridge while I stood there foolishly too long, clenching the scissors. The two rivers twining and separating in my mind like a pair of snakes—the Lee and the Blackwater—had I left my husband underwater in Cork only for him to resurrect himself in Mallow?
Captain Galway, Auxie, was an ex-officer with some queer ideas about whose side he was on. I didn’t know if he was a gentleman at all and Mr Bloom was hinting the same. I had a fiery letter from Eileen. Someone wrote to her in Dublin. I couldn’t believe how the news had gone, like a shot off a shovel through Royal Mail and Eileen was back down tout suite on top of me by letter. She was boiled up completely about the two of them walking openly in the streets of Mallow—Flora, in her three-quarter-length smashed strawberry coat and the Captain in his mould-green with the empty sleeve pinned to his epaulette. The whole town with their eyes outside their heads, killed from looking at them. Galway, blonde, too handsome. And people were scared of the Auxies too—even more than the Tans—their old eyes in their young faces under their black Glengarry caps, the ribbons fluttering on their necks. They hung off the side of the tenders, as mean as you like, in rifle green. Constable Doon complained to me about Flora cutting her hair. A woman’s crowning glory, he said, avoiding my stern eye, looking down over his long moustache to the rifle tip between the two toes of his boots standing outside Broadview barracks. Well, that’s the youth, I said, walking on with my messages. John Lucy’s lamb chops were dripping out of my basket, he’d given me a free sheep’s head as well, with instructions how to cook the head for a healthy mutton broth, he thought Flora had fallen away. The whole town was telling me that, calling on me to feed Flora after she’d cut her hair.
And had I saved her from Himself, only for Galway to arrive and drag her down? Tarred and feathered, she could be tarred and feathered, the words went round my head in a wreath. And I wasn’t the only one. The Mahoney twins, always smelling of ham and hiding under their mud-green caps made their fingers into scissors and went snip-snap when she walked and the Tans were worse, shouting Dolly, Dolly every time she crossed the street with a message from Sullivan the solicitor. And when Sullivan started to defend Sinn Féin prisoners in court, I thought we would go up in smoke, tarred with one brush or another or both, our beds drenched with petrol some night by a red angry crowd.
On the Saturday He appeared again wearing brown boots laced up to his knees, standing across the road from the house by the Royal red postbox. Halfway through painting the parlour cocoa with cream on the wainscot, I threw open the window for the fumes and saw him staring in with his hand on His Majesty’s Mail. Small as a jockey, like Himself, only sallow. But he could have gone abroad after his escape, fought on the sands of Gallipoli. Would he, could he claim me again and get the priests behind him to let him into my apple-green bed, every bit of silk double-stitched and finished to a high degree? The pain was kneeing into my brain from the night before, as if he’d opened my head like an egg and was spooning it out. If he wasn’t Himself then who was he? He could be after Flora for espionage. And for which side? Didn’t Sinn Féin make the girls spy for them? Eileen Murphy said they all volunteered but girls are easily forced. I pulled my eyes away and cast them down to the tongues of my brown button boots. I brought down the sash like a guillotine and whipped the bottle-green curtains across fast. Mrs Simm’s crimson satin dressing gown was only cut out and I left it thrown across the sewing table, took to my bed with Mr Pym’s linctus. The brown bottle stood in the table beside me, staining the broderie anglaise in the dark. I couldn’t move, hardly breathe, my lungs shrunk to the size of two teaspoons tied around my throat.
I’d only just rocked off with the linctus, when the two of them came back and woke me and I had to get up out of my bed, wrap my sea-green shawl around me, feel for my carmine slippers with my heavy, heavy feet. It was my duty as a mother to go down to say good evening and pretend that I was civilised towards him and his mutilated arm. I didn’t doubt that he had a mutilated brain along with it. None of those fellows came back normal. If Flora had a father, he’d call him in and demand a doctor’s certificate but what could I do? Flora blushed every time she spoke to him in front of me. I wondered if the cause was me. Me, staring with my brown linctus eyes. It’s a hard fact that not one of us can see ourselves from the outside. But something was not right. Yes, he was handsome, no one was in any doubt. Not real gentry but not one of those shrivelled yokes from the East End of London either. One of them outside St Mary’s church on the Sunday, grinning over his bayonet with a monkey face. His bandolier strapped across his wrinkled olive jacket and his thighs no wider than rolling pins inside the black trousers. I couldn’t bear to look at him. The officer class had the shoulders to carry the jackets. A bunched uniform was always an affront to my eyes because I was brought up in tailoring and with the highest respect for the tailoring laws. Captain Galway, he knew how to fill his uniform, apart from the left sleeve and it was the empty sleeve that had lured Flora. Sucked her up like a hungry straw.