Nothing can dislodge
the house with my first tooth
noosed in a knot to the doorknob.
The human mind is a mass of associations—associations more poetic than actual… Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of ‘What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?’—*and that is the heart’s ground. *
I’m in Burnfort Bar, County Cork. It’s 1977. Taking The Eagles, Greatest Hits, 1971-1975 cassette out of its blue case. I insert it into the white plastic tape recorder and press the chunky cube of the play button. ‘Hotel California’ fills the air with its dark glamour, summoning up a shadowy highway in the desert—a faster-moving moody world. The wind flies through someone’s hair and there is a warm smell of ‘coolitas’. A mission bell sounds, ‘This could be heaven or this could be hell’. My own world stands still to allow it in.
When I say Burnfort Bar, I mean the whole building, not just the bar but the grocery shop and the rooms where we live. I am in the room we call the dining room but it’s really a living room, although we hardly have time to sit there. The sitting room is upstairs and even less used. Its door is marked with an ivory plate which reads 114. Burnfort Bar was originally owned by a scrap merchant called Dan Kirk—reminders of his salvage are everywhere, like the railway tracks which support the kitchen ceiling. Daddy stores nails and rusty screws and bits of string in the high ledge formed by the tracks near the ceiling. Daddy is also a fervent believer in salvage and doesn’t like to part with anything, especially his old clothes, to which he is pathologically attached.
A massive marble fireplace with black and white tiles illustrated with Grecian figures commands the dining room, and an even larger fireplace—a complicated mahogany contraption with shelves and drawers—takes up one wall of the sitting room. When I was seven, I stood on a chair to get my colour pencils from one of those drawers and the fireplace moved at my touch. Terrified, I withdrew my hand immediately, but with a great sigh like a judgement, the entire edifice shifted further away from the damp wall. My older sister helped me to hold it up as we screamed for help. I was sick with the fear of getting into trouble and full of shame when someone found the stale buttered cream crackers which I’d stored in the drawer with my colour pencils. I can’t remember what happened after that—the rest of the incident has disappeared along with the fireplace. Memories are full of holes, it’s hard to find the thread that connects.
The upstairs floor of the house is lined with dark pine panelling. There are five doors with ivory doorknobs and each door has an ivory plate with a number, starting with Room 110, ending with 114. They say that they came from a hotel, although later someone else says that they are from a luxury ocean liner that crashed off the coast of East Cork. A hotel floating on the sea.
Many-roomed houses or hotels, further extensions of Burnfort Bar, have always dominated my dreams. They segue with certain books and films until I can’t separate between them: Thornton Manor from Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, The Majestic from Troubles, Bly from The Turn of the Screw, the castle in The Pit and the Pendulum and especially Twin Peaks’ Great Northern Hotel. I often dream of shops too, versions of our grocery shop have begun to merge with the Twin Peaks’ convenience store. The convenience store has gasoline pumps in front, like Burnfort Bar with its yellow and green BP pump in our front yard. There is a tall BP sign too, swinging on a chain, creaking in the wind. In my dreams, Burnfort Bar is the entry to other worlds, in the same way that Twin Peaks’ convenience store is the portal to an alternative world. Towards the end of Season Three, Gordon Cole says, ‘We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives inside the dream, but who is the dreamer?’ My dreams have become so entangled with The Great Northern Hotel and the convenience store that sometimes I wonder if David Lynch is dreaming me or if I’m dreaming him.
Like the maze, the house is often seen as a representation of the psyche, with its locked doors, dead ends. It usually contains some version of the minotaur, like The Shining’s Jack Torrance with its unforgettable image of Jack Nicholson’s lowered bull-like head. When we grow up we forget about the minotaurs but children know all about them. Smaller than everyone else, at the mercy of grown-ups—they know that fears kept in locked rooms by day spring out twice as deranged by night.
Back in 1977, I am singing along to ‘Hotel California’, loving but not understanding its ambiguous lyrics: ‘You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.’ Forty years later, the lines are eerily appropriate seeing as I physically checked out of Burnfort Bar many years ago.
The old dining room is a thoroughfare, a crossroads which links our private space with the public space of the bar and the shop. Of its three doors, one leads to the shop, one to the kitchen and the other to the hall and stairs. The table is always heaped with books and papers, a bowl of plastic fruit, messages that have been put away for customers. Mrs Callaghan from Knuttery’s three sliced pans sit on the table every Saturday night, waiting for her arrival after Second Mass on Sunday. I rush to give them to her because I love Mrs Callaghan. ‘Aren’t you great!’ she says with such kindness that I believe it. I desperately want to be told that I am great. Growing up ‘in the public eye’, as Mammy calls it, can be hard.
The tablecloth is soft and dark and velvety. It softens the clatter of the silver cash box where all the money is put at the end of the night. A couple of times a week, Mammy takes the lodgement to the Bank of Ireland in Mallow. She can turn the car around on her own these days but when I was younger, my sister and I dreaded the moment we had to walk up to strangers on Main Street, saying, ‘Excuse me, my mother’s just learnt to drive. Could you turn the car and face it for home, please?’ My sister blames the school bus-driver Jimmy Nyhan, who urges Mammy with the passionate intensity he put into everything he did: ‘Never be afraid, Mrs Cotter, to ask a man for help!’
There’s no one around now. It’s hard to be unobserved here but I feel confident enough to sing along for a moment. I have no idea what coolitas are, but I love the sound of them the way I love the sound of Kool Aid when I come across it in American books. I think Kool Aid is some kind of cooling medicine until I realise that the characters are just quenching their thirst—something that happens a lot in Burnfort Bar.
All kinds of bottles line the shelves in the bar and the shop and the Bottle Shed where Daddy and I often raise big heavy flagons to our lips—Daddy drinking Bulmer’s Woodpecker cider and me drinking Cidona. These forbidden apples are irresistible. There is also Tanora, Fanta Orange, Fanta Lemon and Clockhouse Red Lemonade, Taylor Keith, Miwadi and more. The ads for these drinks convince me that somewhere else people are living the life. Especially the Coke ads, which make me yearn heavily. But Kool Aid is a mystery. It can take years to find out what something means.
The Spanish word ‘coolitas’ is generally believed to refer to the pine-smelling cannabis buds of California. Back in 1977, I know nothing about drugs. Maybe coolitas refers to Coca Cola, which I love. Mammy abhors ‘soft drinks’ above everything else. ‘The citric acid!’ She doesn’t allow us to eat sweets either but we can have as much fruit as we want. There isn’t much of a selection though—just oranges, bananas and those golden delicious apples which should be crisp but rarely are.
Despite the distinct lack of coolitas in my world, I’m often told that I’m ‘like someone drugged’ and berated for going around in a dream, my head in a book. I am the youngest of ten children and everyone is older, siblings and customers. By 1977 I’ve been drinking black coffee for seven years—ever since I gave up milk and sugar for Lent. A family meeting—the only one I ever remember—is held on the subject of my coffee drinking. What galls one brother is the way I don’t even use a spoon, just shake the jar of Maxwell House instant granules into my mug with a flick of my wrist. This brother is known to come home drunk but this isn’t for me to say. That would be ‘trying to be smart’. That would be ‘not funny’. It’s better that I keep quiet, transport myself to alternate worlds, ‘check out’ with books or music.
When ultra-intense Agent Cooper turns up in the town of Twin Peaks in 1990, shamelessly obsessed with coffee, cherry pie and dreams, champion of all those isolated slightly-crazed women, sensitive yet with no fear whatsoever of being smart, how could I not love him? And who doesn’t love a murder mystery?
We are all detectives in a way, following some thread through a maze. When I was younger, I’d hoped to find a secret passage behind the upstairs panelling and spent many hours tapping and measuring but of course there was nothing behind the salvaged façade. There is a real secret passage in The Great Northern Hotel, where Audrey Horne peers through a hole at her ‘wicked’ father. My splintered memories seem a little like that now—fragments glimpsed through a hole in the wall.
In the final season of Twin Peaks, Audrey is still tragically trapped in her past and her eyes in the mirror scene remind me of Barbara Steele’s helpless eyes peering from the Iron Maiden in Roger Corman’s *The Pit and the Pendulum *which I saw in the Savoy Cinema, Cork in 1968. Those eyes stared out of the pine-panelling in my bedroom for years—it might have been a trick of the pale light cast from the electric green and white Major cigarette sign outside my window but most probably it was from my own imagination. Horror experts like Henry James and Hitchcock have always known how to exploit their readers/viewers by leaving plenty of holes for the readers to fill with their own particular hells.
One-armed Mike describes The Great Northern Hotel as ‘A large house, made of wood, surrounded by trees. The house is filled with many rooms, each alike, but occupied by different souls, night after night.’ This reminds me of the large stand of fir trees at the end of the field behind Burnfort Bar. When I was a child I thought it was the forest.
Burnfort Bar’s heavily wooded upstairs corridor feels separate from the rest of the house—like it could float off, like an ocean liner, from what’s happening below—men drinking night after night, talking and singing. I longed for them to sing because when they all joined in, the bedroom filled with their voices and I was no longer afraid. The sing-songs are happening less and less in 1977. What Mammy calls ‘Singing Lounges’ have begun to spring up around the countryside—big barn-like places rather like The Roadhouse in Twin Peaks. The most talked about is The Ranch in Mallow six miles away. You just can’t get away from Hollywood or cowboy films or country music, which is very popular now.
Even Burnfort Bar has saloon doors by 1977. Installed by a crooning unreliable builder, they make an awful clatter when anyone enters, so no one can slip in quietly to the toilets as I imagine they would like to do. I swagger in and out of them myself when there is no one around, demonically twirling my imaginary pistols like Lee Marvin.
The singing lounges have bands and attract large crowds. Mammy thinks they are dens of iniquity. They attract ‘low types’ and ‘cheap Jacks’, preying on the innocent fools who wander in ‘trying to be with it.’ I have never been inside one so I will never know now what they were really like. I have never been to a dancehall either. ‘Desperate-looking,’ Mammy groans when we drive past a large purpose-built concrete building with a flat roof, half way up a mountain.
The singing lounges seem to have gagged the occasional singers of Burnfort. Or maybe the singers had been attracted away like moths. Some evenings in the bar, it is so quiet our faithful customer Tom Twomey can be heard swallowing his Guinness. ‘People don’t sing any more,’ Mammy says sadly. She’s always looking backwards, in fact most of my family are looking in that direction. Everyone has a different story and so much happened before I was even born. We are the poor relations, the large family blown off course who sold ‘a beautiful big farm’ for no reason that anyone can agree on, and lost ‘everything’ in Australia. Someone must be at fault and the debate rages on even if no one can really be sure what happened and most of us weren’t even born when the decision was taken.
My parents started their married life in Patrickswell, County Limerick, on a big farm which was believed to be haunted and unlucky. In 1950 they sold the farm and emigrated to Australia with five children. By the time they returned in 1960, they had nine children. I was born in 1961, one year after they arrived in Burnfort Bar with no experience of running any kind of business and no knowledge of pubs. Mammy was forty-two and Daddy was fifty-nine when they were thrust into this new world ‘in the public eye.’
My parents are blow-ins—another source of isolation—both eccentric in their own way. Daddy feeds cornflakes to our pet cow Rose as local men nearly pass out laughing. He claims that Fifi the dog speaks to him occasionally, when we’re not around. Mammy can’t stop ‘opening up’ as she calls it. She wants to be reserved, urging herself and everyone else, ‘For God’s sake, don’t be telling your life story, letting everyone know your business!’ But she can’t help it. Yet it works both ways because people open up to her too, or so she says with great satisfaction, distracted for a while from her own worries.
Mammy is always talking, telling stories. She has a fine sense of humour but can’t take a joke. She can be perceptive and edgy but most of the time she’s racked with worry and anxiety. ‘When? When will it end?’ she asks, or ‘What does it all mean?’ and we double up with laughter. But really, she must be exhausted. She is sentimental sometimes but not very often—that corner is monopolised by the heavy drinkers at the counter. And she is always dramatic in the true sense, meaning that every story she tells can be acted out. Like Dickens, who stood in front of the mirror pulling faces to make sure he got his descriptions right, she strikes poses in the dark sideboard mirror in the dining room. Dickens also liked to mix all the styles in his writing—he called it Streaky Bacon. Twin Peaks, with its mixture of horror, humour, melodrama, poetry and metaphysics, is Streaky Bacon too.
The County Limerick humour seems blacker, harder than the Cork humour, but maybe it is just my family. When I first began to publish poems in 1989, I wanted to use my mother’s maiden name, O’Shaughnessy, but someone said it would not work. ‘Too stage-Irish!’ he said. To this day I’m convinced that Martina O’Shaughnessy would have had a completely different literary career, a different life. She stays there in the eighties, stillborn, forever on the fork of a road long passed. Doppelgangers and doubles, alternate worlds, the stuff of Twin Peaks.
Burnfort Bar is located at Burnfort Cross and crossroads represent fate. American convenience store stores are traditionally placed on crossroads too, bringing to mind those old photos of African-Americans singing the blues, playing banjo and guitar, dancing on the boards—where Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil. Places of magic and danger, sacred to Hermes, crossroads represent liminality, a place where two worlds meet.
My family is haunted by the story of their exile. Mammy speaks dolefully of the shame and sorrow of being an emigrant while Daddy smiles to himself and imitates the call of the Kookaburra—the laughing jackass. ‘I never thought I’d get out of it,’ Mammy says. Back then, emigrating to Australia was like going to another world, almost like the life sentence it once was when people were transported to Van Diemen’s Land.
Sister Martina, a cousin of Daddy’s, emigrated to Australia in 1912 when she was fourteen years old. Her father didn’t want her to go but she couldn’t be stopped. Her older sister—only sixteen—agreed to join the order too so that she could go along to take care of her. One of my brothers, also an exile, told me the story of Sister Martina’s dream. Every night she dreamt that she was walking up the path to her old family home in County Limerick, but as soon as she put her finger on the latch of the door, she woke up. My brother struggled to finish the story but when he got to the part when she put her finger on the latch, he was choked with tears. I’ve never seen him cry before or since. Now I can’t tell the story, can’t get past the part where she puts her finger on the latch without getting a lump in my throat. Who is the dreamer? Are our minds like hotels where guests can come and go? Is this what one-armed Mike meant when he spoke of the house made of wood being ‘occupied by different souls, night after night’?
The forest is another maze—like the house or hotel, another expression of the human psyche with its locked doors and dark corners. Burnfort Cross is a T-junction with roads leading North, South and East. If it were a true cross, there would have been a road through my childhood ‘forest’, that stand of fir trees behind the house where I played as a child when I was young enough not to be called back to work. Sometimes I really scared myself down there—I felt an unseen presence watching me, and it wasn’t the ubiquitous god from my green catechism. I imagined the lurid devil from my prayer book, illustrated in black and red with his angry arrow tail.
When Sheriff Truman talks about the woods in Twin Peaks, he says, ‘There’s a sort of evil out there. Something very, very strange in these old woods. Call it what you want. A darkness, a presence. It takes many forms but… it’s been out there for as long as anyone can remember.’ Sheriff Truman is a stock character, a parody of the traditional white-hat hero, yet his clichéd description of the woods becomes truly terrifying if you take these woods as a metaphor for the human mind.
These days my dreams of Burnfort merge with Twin Peaks’ formidable convenience store and I think again of Dan Kirk and all the curiosities he added to Burnfort Bar. Our minds are masters of salvage, constantly selecting and rearranging the furniture of our dreams at night. For me, David Lynch is the supreme scrap merchant. Taking the archetypes of forests, hunting, Bluebeard, rings, riddles, numbers, the maze and the minotaur and mixing them with The Book of Revelation, Old Hollywood and many popular references, he makes something fresh and new, yet uncannily familiar, as if he really is the dreamer of our dreams.
I still associate horror films with upstairs in Burnfort Bar because of the terror I experienced at night haunted by The Pit and the Pendulum and the first sixty pages of The Exorcist. Upstairs in the Twin Peaks‘ convenience store, supernatural spirits gather around a green formica table that bears plates of the creamed corn or ‘Garmonbozia’, which is the pain and suffering these spirits need to survive. Is this one of reasons we watch horror? Do we need to digest pain and suffering too? Can this be linked to memory? The past can be seductive, terrifying too.
Crossroads represent fate, which Rilke described as a condensation of childhood. Perhaps that is the terror—the idea that in our beginning is our end and free will really is an illusion. Who can forget Laura Palmer’s scream of terror when she finally recognised her childhood home after Agent Cooper ‘rescued’ her from an alternative reality in Odessa, Texas? Or maybe we fear that there is no end, nothing but alternative worlds spinning out into eternity. It is ironic then that our only escape might be the transportation to other worlds in art, literature, music and film. Some of us try to make art ourselves but it’s when we’re asleep that our minds become really confident hunters—sorting through scrapyards, creating new and startling combinations from all the old things.