‘If you look at Ireland long enough,’ Turlough says, ‘you’ll notice she’s moving. About an inch, I’d say, every million years.’
‘She’s slow surely.’ Dinny, deep in middle age, wrapped in an orange plastic coat, is mild and introspective.
‘Look at that steeple. Look at the oak and ash and our acre of sky above. This country is nothing if not unique.’ Turlough is big and bombastic.
Not enough attention is paid to the common crossroads. Not only individual wayfarers, not only dribs and drabs: entire civilisations traversed this random intersection. Here are echoes of thousands of years of nods and greetings, of hand signals and flashing lights, of indecision or relief: the sailor home from the sea or the drunkard home from the pub. Here linger memories of dances danced, fights fought, car crashes. Life on earth would be nowhere without crossroads.
When one finds, then, an assortment of County Council workers, never less than two, gathered at a country intersection, it is only natural to pay heed. Whether propped up by a shovel or arse against a wall, these men and occasional women are quintessential Ireland. Boy bands, electric car drivers, women boxers and other elites have been much in the spotlight, but the County Council more than any of them has its ear to the ground.
At eleven the two congregate in Dinny’s van for the elevenses. Turlough has a cheese sandwich and Dinny has ham and both have flasks of tea. Neighbours drive by, walk by, cycle by. There are the usual taunts and greetings because this is a friendly country.
‘The grass is growing under our feet,’ Turlough soon begins. ‘We’ll have to instigate, I don’t know, or inaugurate, we definitely need to do something.’
This is the aftermath of all the centenaries: 1916, the Treaty, the reprisals, the high hopes. Ireland had been preparing for the various commemorations ever since the day the last of the heroes was shot. But now what? There is an emptiness.
For Turlough the answer is obvious. 2116 is already less than a hundred years away. And time is passing. One aspect of modern Ireland inherited from ancient Ireland is an inclination not to rush things. The talk before had been about competitions and commissions, but no one got around to actually chiselling a statue. There are still rumours about plays, musical breakthroughs, documentaries, anthologies. These, though, are always under the radar. Only a fool would be in a rush to unveil a good idea that a rival could steal.
Neither words nor music is a match for traditional monuments, as Turlough explains: ‘The written word is grand, but only while you’re reading it. And no matter how lively the music, it disappears when the lad puts the tin whistle back in his pocket. But a monument is always there, it’s solid. From round towers to follies, from obelisks to sculptures, from bronze to shiny steel, from Cuchulainn to Yeats to Molly Malone and back to Yeats, you can’t beat a statue.’ The sandwiches have been consumed, several cigarettes have been smoked, the windows have remained closed because it’s cold outside, so that an intense fog fills the van and this in turn facilitates deep thinking.
‘One more bloody monument and the bloody island will sink into the bloody sea,’ Dinny complains in a rare outburst.
‘Don’t say that.’ Turlough opens a window to let the blasphemy out. ‘Here’s the way of it. You had creation at the start. Next you had Jesus dying on the cross. And then you had 1916. There’s your history in a nutshell.’
The noise in the background is a strimmer. The one strimming is Olympia. She spent a year in Trinity College. Then she spent a night with the drummer of a local showband. To provide for the resulting baby boy, she went to work for the County Council. She has not forgotten what she learned at school, and still plans a variety of futures.
The noise stops and she joins the others in the van. They like her in the way most men like a woman who does the work and thus allows them time for talking.
‘Good girl,’ Dinny says.
‘Well, lads.’ She has an orange and a banana in a brown paper bag.
‘It needn’t be the Eiffel Tower,’ Turlough is still in an extravagant mood, ‘but I wouldn’t countenance anything second-class either. We have a hundred years to get the next schedule right.’
When Olympia has finished the orange she drops her bombshell: ‘What about a hole?’
This is followed by a silence. Olympia, long the subject of ribald jokes and well-intentioned ridicule, seldom has anything important or even unimportant to say. Yet here she is, a whirling dervish of verbosity, and just when Turlough is on the cusp of some inspired solution that might, with luck, do justice to the dead heroes.
‘A hole? Where?’
‘In the ground.’
‘And why would you do that?’
‘Why would you do a statue?’
‘Is it joking you are?’
‘You could put the whole two hundred years into it.’
‘And then what?’
‘Begod,’ says Dinny. With a tone (Turlough thinks) of approval. Thus a sour note enters the proceedings. The rumours about Dinny may be true after all. About him being old money that fell on hard times. About him being aristocracy back during the famine and before that the penal years, Dinny might go back to Cromwell’s crowd, and back beyond that to Strongbow. The three of them sit squeezed in the front of the van. Turlough turns and takes his first ever sustained look at Dinny. And sees, for the first time, traces of breeding that years of hardship and biting country winds have all but eradicated. And to think the hoor never mentioned it (Turlough is thinking), never hinted at any such pedigree. This monument has its work cut out.
‘What kind of hole?’
‘How many kinds are there?’ Olympia stuffs the banana skin into her paper bag. ‘A big hole. As deep as you like.’ She learned more in a year in Trinity College than most people learn in a lifetime and has been turning that education around in her head, kneading and expanding it, it has been waiting for a chance to exert itself, to make a difference. ‘We could start there in the field.’
And indeed there is a fine field beside the crossroads, with sheep in it, and another field with rushes and a few whins flaming yellow, and a field planted with what looks like winter wheat. Out one road are oak and ash as mentioned. Out another are new houses from the boom years and a few from the drab days of de Valera. And beyond that, heaps of scattered stones that were actual houses back when Pearse and Connolly died to give the occupants a country of their own. Olympia has been dreaming this scenario for years.
‘It will take planning,’ Dinny is keen. ‘If you go too deep you’ll run into tectonic plates and that. And if you manage to get below the tectonic plates you need to be careful not to come out the other side. Does no one remember Dante’s hole down into hell?’
‘You’re out of your mind.’ Turlough has been kicking himself all his life that he hadn’t the good fortune to fight in the GPO in 1916 and die a martyr while he still had the appetite for it.
‘The whole century can rest in peace down there and leave the land above for graveyards and factories and things.’ Olympia, when one overlooks the lack of glamour, has rosy cheeks and a dimple and her share of winsomeness. Had she survived Trinity she could have gone on to greatness and might now be the envy of many women her age. ‘There won’t be any great wars to celebrate, I admit, not like the epic days of the Wild Geese, the Flight of the Earls, Brian Boru. But we could slip in Sean South and Bobby Sands beside Thomas MacDonagh, and did I mention Joe Plunkett? Aye, and throw in the Belfast Agreement with the decommissioned guns. And not forgetting all the things that haven’t even happened yet.’
‘Brains,’ Dinny butts in. ‘I’d like to see intelligence get its due.’
‘Not many geniuses, I’ll grant you. But think of all the rugby and hurling. Think of the skittles and hunting the wren. Think of those who killed the pig and drank the porter. Think of the cattle castrated, the turf cut, the ploughing championships, the parish missions, the strikes and go-slows, we had a rich culture.’
‘The Emergency,’ Dinny lights another cigarette. ‘With the ration books.’
‘An Tóstal!’ Turlough is still far from sold on this hare-brained idea, but some memories refuse to be denied.
‘I remember my uncle cutting his toe nails with a razor blade,’ Olympia says. ‘I remember my father drunk from Sunday to Sunday. There has to be a monument to the failures as well. Some relic to give Dad’s smelly old ghost, I don’t know, a pat on the back, I suppose: a reminder to everyone that he once walked the earth. But not a statue for birds to shite on. He wouldn’t take up much room in that hole. He’d settle for a few feet down low behind Michael Collins or Christy Ring, while keeping his distance from Bertie Ahern and that crowd.’
‘I remember him,’ Dinny says, looking straight ahead like a stoic. ‘Your father. One day, standing down there on the cliff. Standing for hours looking at the horizon, I thought he was going to do himself in. I pretended to be looking for a sheep, and I asked him to yell if he saw a stray animal passing. It’s Olympia, he then said, reading my mind. I want her to be a meteor, that was his word, a meteor streaking across the sky. She’s pure beautiful already, so she’s half-way there. I know she’ll be whatever she wants to be. And then he just went back to looking out at the ocean, your father.’ There is silence in the van for a while. No one needs to know whether the story is true, but there will be room for it in the fabulous hole in the ground to which people will travel from afar, from abroad, even from down the road, to remember what we made of life after the dead heroes handed us over to ourselves.
‘It would be an eyesore,’ Turlough insists on being obstinate. ‘Holes are notoriously untidy. People have been falling into them since time began.’
‘We could build a wall around it,’ Olympia counters. ‘And a sign: Beware of Hole.’
‘The thing is to leave nothing out,’ Dinny forges ahead. ‘Not only wakes and weddings and bacon and cabbage but sadness, for example, or kindness where appropriate, or bad thoughts, we had them too. Has anyone thought of wings?’
‘What about them?’
‘I don’t know, but you can’t leave out wings. Or the crib. Or the lad a man eventually, he’d be the type to frequent the crossroads and him saying to anyone who would listen how people are a sight entirely.’
‘Don’t forget the big snow of ’86,’ Turlough’s resistance is crumbling.
‘Good man,’ Dinny encourages.
‘You remember Katie. She was the bee’s knees. She was late for her own wedding, and me waiting there embarrassed in my new pin-striped suit, the only pin-striped suit I ever owned. I remember, later, the snow falling on her pine box. Landing and soon melting. Like life, you’d say. We’ll dig that hole even if we have to do it ourselves.’ Turlough pauses to realign his life. ‘Then every Sunday I’ll climb down the ladder to where she’ll be.’ Pause. ‘Never mind a hundred, in a million years we’ll be down there mixing with some of the happiest memories ever walked the earth.’