Sebastian Barry, On Canaan’s Side (2011) - Extract.

[Source: Faber website - online; accessed 18.08.2011.]

Part One

The First Day Without Bill

 Bill is gone.
 What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking? It might not be much more than silence, and certainly a small slight sound.
 When I was four I owned a porcelain doll given me by a strange agency. My mother’s sister, who lived down in Wicklow, had kept it from her own childhood and that of her sister, and gave it to me as a sort of keepsake of my mother. At four such a doll may be precious for other reasons, not least her beauty. I can still see the painted face, calm and oriental, and the blue silk dress she wore. My father much to my puzzlement was worried by such a gift. It troubled him in a way I had no means to understand. He said it was too much for a little girl, even though the same little girl he himself loved with a complete worship.
 One Sunday about a year after I was first given it, I insisted on bringing it to mass with me, despite the long and detailed protestations of my father, who was religious in the sense he hoped there was an afterlife. He bet all his heart on that. Somehow a doll was not a fitting mass-goer in his estimation.
 As I carried her in stubbornly to the pro-cathedral in Marlborough Street, by some accident, possibly the great atmosphere there of seriousness, she started to fall from my arms. To this day I am not certain, not entirely, that I didn’t let her go on some peculiar impulse. But if I did, I immediately regretted it. The ground of the cathedral was flagged and hard. Her beautiful dress could not save her, and her perfect face hit the stone and smashed worse than an egg. My heart broke for her in the same instance, so that the sound of her destruction became in my childish memory the sound of my heart breaking. And even though it was a babyish fancy, I do wonder now if it might not be a sound like that an eighty-nine-year-old heart makes, coming asunder from grief - a small, slight sound.
 But the feeling of it is like a landscape engulfed in floodwater in the pitch darkness, and everything, hearth and byre, animal and human, terrified and threatened. It is as if someone, some great agency, some CIA of the heavens, knew well the little mechanism that I am, and how it is wrapped and fixed, and has the booklet or manual to undo me, and cog by cog and wire by wire is doing so, with no intention ever to put me back together again, and indifferent to the fact that all my pieces are being thrown down and lost. I am so terrified by grief that there is solace in nothing. I carry in my skull a sort of molten sphere instead of a brain, and I am burning there, with horror, and misery[,] immediately regretted it. [3] The ground of the cathedral was flagged and hard. Her beautiful dress could not save her, and her perfect face hit the stone and smashed worse than an egg. My heart broke for her in the same instance, so that the sound of her destruction became in my childish memory the sound of my heart breaking. And even though it was a babyish fancy, I do wonder now if it might not be a sound like that an eighty-nine-year-old heart makes, coming asunder from grief - a small, slight sound. But the feeling of it is like a landscape engulfed in floodwater in the pitch darkness, and everything, hearth and byre, animal and human, terrified and threatened. It is as if someone, some great agency, some CIA of the heavens, knew well the little mechanism that I am, and how it is wrapped and fixed, and has the booklet or manual to undo me, and cog by cog and wire by wire is doing so, with no intention ever to put me back together again, and indifferent to the fact that all my pieces are being thrown down and lost. I am so terrified by grief that there is solace in nothing. I carry in my skull a sort of molten sphere instead of a brain, and I am burning there, with horror, and misery.

 God forgive me. God help me. I must settle myself. I must. Please, God, help me. Do You see me? I am sitting here at my kitchen table, with its red Formica. The kitchen is gleaming. I have made tea. I scalded the pot, even in my distraction. One spoon for me and one for the pot. I let it brew, as always, waited, as always, the yellow light in the window facing the sea as solid-looking as an old bronze shield. In my grey dress of heavy linen, that I regretted buying the moment I paid out the money for it in Main Street [4] years ago, and still regret, though it is warm in this struggling weather. I will drink the tea. I will drink the tea.
  Bill is gone [5]

The legend of my mother was that she died in giving birth to me. I broke free, my father said, like a pheasant from cover, noisily. His own father had been steward of Humewood estate in Wicklow, so he knew what a pheasant looked like, breaking from cover. My mother died just as the need for candlelight failed, at the first instance of the dawn. It was in Dalkey village, not far from the sea.
  For many years that was just a story to me. But when I was pregnant with my own child, it suddenly became vivid, and as if it was present time. I sensed her in that cramped delivery room in Cleveland as I strained to get him out. I never had any true thought of my mother till then, and yet in those moments I do not think any human being was ever closer to another. When the baby was laid on my breast at last, me panting like an animal, and that matchless happiness surged through me, I cried for her, and the worth and weight of those tears was more to me than a kingdom.

 When I was shown the Catholic catechism at four, in the little infants’ school attached to the Castle, and the very first question was posed, Who made the World?, I knew in my heart that the teacher Mrs O’Toole erred in providing the answer God. She stood before us and read out the question and answer in her wren-sized voice. And I might have been inclined to believe her, because she was impressive to me at four in her skirt as grey as a seal in Dublin Zoo, and she had been very kind to me as I came in, and had given [5] me an apple. But the world, as I thought she ought to have known, was made by my father, James Patrick Dunne, not quite at that time, but later to be, chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police.

The legend of my father was that he had led the charge against Larkin’s men in Sackville Street. When Larkin came over O’Connell Bridge in a fake beard and moustache, and walked up through the marble corridors of the Imperial Hotel, and out onto a balcony, and began to give a speech to the hundreds of workers gathered below, which had been forbidden by edict, my father and the other officers ordered the waiting constables forward, with batons drawn.
 When I first was told this story as a child, on the very evening it happened, I misunderstood, and thought my father had done something heroic. I added in my imagination a white horse, upon which he rode with ceremonial sword drawn. I saw him rush forward like in a proper cavalry charge. I gasped at his chivalry and courage.
 It was only years later I understood that he had advanced on foot, and that three of the working men had been killed.

Old matters. And not much to do with the grief of the present except it gives me my bearings. Now I’ll draw breath and start properly.

When I came back in from the funeral my friend Mr Dillinger had come into the hallway while I was out and left flowers but not waited for me. They were very costly flowers, and he had put a little note against them, and written, [6] ‘To my dear friend Mrs Bere, in the time of her great loss.’ It touched me, truly. I am sure if Mr Nolan was still alive he also would have crept in. But it would not have been welcome. Maybe if I didn’t know what I know now, maybe if Mr Nolan’s death had not occurred when it did, I might have gone on imagining him my closest friend in life. It is so strange that his death and the death of my grandson Bill have happened so close together in time. All things come in threes, no doubt this is true. The third death will be my own. I am eighty-nine years old and will end my life very shortly. How can I live without Bill?
 I cannot do such a terrible thing without explanation. But who do I explain to? Mr Dillinger? Mrs Wolohan? Myself? I cannot depart without some effort to account for this despair. I am not generally despairing, and I hope I have exhibited little enough of it as a living, breathing woman. It has not been my style at all. So I will not entertain it for long now. I feel it, so deeply I fear it troubles my very pancreas, that strange blue organ that has killed Mr Nolan, but I do not intend to feel it much longer. As long as it takes to speak into the shadows of the past, into the blue ether of the future, so long will it be, I hope and pray. Then I will find some quiet method to dispatch myself.
 I have not been immune to all the lovely sights of this world that I have been granted, whether some corner of Dublin as a child, some little unprized courtyard in the castle that seemed to me like a dusty paradise, or in these later times those long-limbed creaturely fogs that walk in against the Hamptons like armies, whether attacking or defeated, whether going out or returning home is hard to say.
 I hope and pray Mr Nolan wends the long downward [7] road to hell, with the fields beginning to burn about him, and the sunlight to take on a worrying, ragged hue, the vistas to alter and seem strange to him - not the wide tobacco fields and blithe, wooded hills of home after all, for he was born and raised in Tennessee, despite his Irish name, and, like every dying son of a place, he may have imagined himself wending homeward naturally in death. And though in essence I loved him while he was alive, and for many many years we were friends, it will only be just and right now that the devil takes his hand and leads him in among the smoking meadows.
 The devil, I am beginning to suspect, and great grief it is causing me, has a greater sense of justice than the other man.

 ‘Only the unfaithful can be truly faithful, only the losers can truly win’ - this was said to me once by my grandson Bill, with his usual sparkle, before he went to the desert war. He had already been divorced, aged nineteen, and already believed himself to have lost in life. Or Life, with a capital L, as he called it. The war took the last sparkle out of him. He returned from the burning desert like a man that had seen one of the devil’s miracles. Some mere weeks later he was out with his friends, maybe doing a little of that drinking he liked. Next day he was found by a cleaner lady in the toilets of his old high school, of all places. He had climbed in there on some impulse known only to himself. He had killed himself on a Saturday night, for the reason I am sure that only the janitor would discover him on Sunday, and not the great tide of children on Monday. He had hanged himself on his tie from the door hook. [8]
 Why am I alive when he is dead? Why did Death take him?

 Nothing else on earth would have set me to writing. I hate writing, I hate pens and paper and all that fussiness. I have done well enough without it too, I think. Oh, I am lying to myself. I have feared writing, being scarcely able to write my name until I was eight. The nuns in North Great George’s Street were not kind about that. But books have saved me sometimes, that is the truth - my Samaritans. Cookery books when I was learning my trade, oh, years ago, though in these later years I sometimes still find myself dipping back into my tattered White House Cook Book, right enough, to remind myself of some elusive detail. There is no good cook that has not found errors even in their favourite cookbook, and marked them in the margins, like an old book maybe in the lost library of Alexandria. I will read the paper on Sunday sometimes, in a certain mood, from stem to stern. Burn through it like a growing flame. I quite like the Bible in a rarer mood. The Bible is like a particular music, you cannot always catch the tune of it. My grandson Bill also liked the Bible, he specialised in unpicking the book of Revelation. He said that was what it was like, the desert, Kuwait, burning burning, like the lake of fire. He who is not written in the book of life will be cast into the lake of fire.
  I like stories that other people will tell you, straight from the mouth - or the gob as we used to say in Ireland. Easygoing tales, off the cuff, humorous. Not the heavy-hearted tales of history.
 And I have had enough history for a lifetime from my [9] own life itself, not to mention the life of my employer, Mrs Wolohan.
  That is an Irish name of course, but as there is no W in the Irish language I must suppose the letter was added in America, many years ago, in another generation. Because one thing I have noticed about words in America, they don’t stay still. Like the people themselves. Only the birds of America seem to stick, birds whose natures and colours so intrigued and confused me when first I came. Hereabouts, these days, the seaside sparrow, the clapper rail, the grackle, and the piping plover, and the thirteen species of warbler that grace these shores. I myself have been about a bit, all told. The first town I hit was New Haven, a thousand thousand moons ago, as one might say. With my beloved Tadg. Oh, that was a wild story enough. But I will try and write about it tomorrow. I am cold, even though the heat of early summer is adequate. I am cold because I cannot find my heart. [10]

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