Southern Star Review, 23 April 2005.
A ROCK, the latest offering by the award-winning writer and poet, Chuck Kruger,
was launched at the West Cork Arts Cente by the best-selling author Alice
by Bradshaw Books, his fourth book, Between
A Rock is a collection of short stories – many of them prize winners –
which depict life on the island of Cape Clear.
at the launch, which was attended by many of Chuck and Nell’s friends from the
island and other parts of West Cork, Alice Taylor said she though Chuck, a
larger-than-life American, was “wonderful to come to West Cork the way he
twenty-odd years as a lecturer in Zurich, he moved to Cape in 1992 and turned
writer, poet, journalist and broadcaster. And, if Alice Taylor is to be
believed, he has evolved into something of a philosopher.
like Chuck makes us look afresh at what we have,” said Alice, who bravely
admitted that she has never visited the island despite living in nearby
Innishannon, a village that she made famous by her book, To
School Through the Fields.
reading Chuck’s book, and seeing Cape through his eyes, she said she developed
a real sense of the place. “His writing had a two-pronged effect,” she said,
“I felt I was visiting Cape, but I was also going back to the Ireland that I
knew long ago.
Ireland – and that way of life – is probably preserved on the islands,”
said Alice, who very much liked the fact that he did not present a John Hinde
calendar view of Cape.
characters are real people. They are not politically correct. He wrote them just
as they are. They are from a farming community and have a good sense of what is
important in life.
one story, for example, where they rescued a bull from the cliff face, the
farmers were not exactly great friends, but that didn’t matter, what was
important was the bull.
loved that theme, which appears throughout the book, and the story where Chuck
describes scything. Chuck, of course, hadn’t been raised with scythes as a
part of his life, so the whole rhythm of it fascinated him.
I read it, I thought he could have been describing a ballet,” said Alice, who
admitted that she too has always had a fascination for the activity because
there is a kind of precision, a timing, and a balance to it.
last time I saw it was when the farmers used to come in to clear the graveyard
in Innishannon. I remember watching them,” said Alice, who got more than a
giggle with the grim image that “you could cut the legs off yourself with a
scythe if you didn’t know what you were doing.”
description of the practice impressed her and that acclimation from a writer –
who is known as a chronicler of a time that is fast fading from our memory –
to another carries weight.
story that impressed Alice was the one about the American photographer, who
decides to take a series of photographs of farmers loading cattle on to a boat,
even though she can sense their reserve.
is an outsider and she is aware of it,” said Alice. “Chuck tells the story
through her eyes and as she’s clicking, clicking, clicking, he describes what
is captured with each click.
each paragraph,” she said, “a picture is told, and it goes on to the next
and to the next. At the end of it, one of the farmers comes to her and says,
‘You are not to use those’. Perhaps he doesn’t want to see himself in
print, and, in saying that, the reader comes to understand both sides of the
A Rock also captures a sense of the young on the island. Alice said you can
feel their restlessness and how they are still held by the roots of their
grandparents. Quoting Chuck, she says that in order to appreciate the ordinary
you have to go away from it.
think that, as well as being a writer, Chuck is a bit of a philosopher
really,” said Alice, who recommends the book saying, “There is a whole study
of life here.”
Review of Between A Rock,
Kruger loves Cape Clear Island, one of Carbery’s hundred isles off the coast
of Baltimore in west Cork.
is a place where the sea can change from flat calm to storm in a matter of
minutes. It is, as he says himself, “a metaphor by which I confirm my very
being.” It is a place he calls home after years of living elsewhere.
is well known both as a contributor to radio and newspapers, as an award-winning
writer and as a former organizer of the International Storytelling Festival in
roots of his writing lie in the very reason he developed the festival, a desire
to communicate and tell stories to those who will listen. In this book he
continues with the short stories that first appeared in Flotsam and Jetsam
(Bradshaw Books 2000).
is Cape Clear which has inspired his stories – North Harbour where the daily
ferry disgorges its souls and transports cattle to the mainland, and the more
exposed South Harbour.
Click, Click we meet an American photographer, Molly Chisom, who is seeking out
the authentic rather than the picture postcard. This is also at the heart of
what Kruger is looking for in his writing – a portrayal of a community which
lives a hard but fulfilling life, where a sense of humour tempers the hardship
of daily life.
sea is a constant metaphor in his work. The sea around the Fastnet Lighthouse
had “a way of breathing, of lifting them up and up as if to the knoll of a
hill and then of lowering them down and down as if into a lonely valley from
which nothing could be seen save wave and sky.”
sea is a person, to be treated with respect, an animal that cannot be tamed. In
his short story To Be there is a terrifying description of the Fastnet Race of
Fastnet Lighthouse is a talisman. It is always present, whether for the
fishermen in King Conger, where they felt safer under the rock than around
Cape’s jagged shoreline, to the men building the lighthouse in Hard Place.
the short story To Be the Fastnet Rock is elemental. The struggle is between
human life and the Hard Place. Between a rock and a hard place.
by Des Breen
Kruger’s collection of short stories, Between a Rock, recently published by
Bradshaw Books of Cork, was launched last night in Tigh Filí. Chuck, who lives
on Cape Clear, writes superbly atmospheric stories which smell of the sea and
are full of rugged island characters. Review next week.
Echo, Saturday, 14 May 2005
KRUGER’S collection of 15 stories deserves to be read by a wide audience as he
is a writer of considerable talent.
just take my word for it – in 2003 he won first prize at Listowel Writers Week
for his story Hard Place, in 2002
he was awarded first place for Calling
in The Dubliner short story
contest, and in both 2000 and 1998, he won the Cork Literary Review
competitions. The good news is that all his award-winning stories are included
in Between a Rock.
can be a mistake to draw comparison between authors, but Kruger’s work has an
atmosphere reminiscent of Alistair MacLeod, not just because of the island
setting, but because Kruger’s ability to invoke place and character in a few
words is every bit as strong as the Canadian master’s.
meaning a blockbuster rating)
Pope is teaching us how to die, and I think Chuck is teaching us how to live.”
Taylor, in an interview with the press, 6.4.05.
Cuddy’d heard how the vertical joints were weeping, how the bolts were wasted, dripping rust like blood. But he’d never seen the actual Fastnet Lighthouse until now. With less than a rutted mile to go before reaching the mainland site called Rock Island, he stuck his head out the window, called the carriage to a halt. There, southeast of Spanish Point, rose the tower. Eight miles out to sea, a ring of pulsing white around its craggy base, the principal lighthouse off Ireland’s southwest coast stood serene. Yet he sensed not peace but challenge.
Suddenly a thought crossed his mind like an arrow: he was about to experience what it’s like to become an adult orphan. “Out there,” it zinged, “you’re cut off from all you’ve ever known.”
While trying to extract its barb, he read the message the arrow carried: “Out there, the natural mothering and fathering rhythms of life are absent utterly; out there, you’re imprisoned, though, for a change, on a reliable salary.”
“Right so!” he called to the driver.
Whip snapped against flank. Carriage jolted. Ridge of bracken, gorse, and old red sandstone blocked seascape.
Arriving at Rock Island pier and stopping under the gantry, Cuddy may not yet have known a Beaufort 11 from a zephyr, a rogue wave from a confidence man, but he knew granite, that most durable of building-stones: how to set it, fit it, mix the mightiest mortar, achieve the sturdiest of joins. He could tell at a glance that from Cornwall, Devon, Dublin, Peterhead; knew not only how to grout, but when. First strength; later, looks.
Toward the slipway pier powered four men, an oar each. Cuddy dropped the loop of tossed bow rope around a designated bollard.
“’Tis the calm before the storm, lads. In with ye,” called the man in the stern, “’cause we’ve to take you in and hie ourselves back to Crook ’fore dark. ’Twouldn’t want no Big Wind the likes of ’39 to turn us into no kite. All aboard.”
Next Cuddy knew, perched on the bow thwart, his three workmen astern, he became aware that, even without wind, the sea had a way of breathing, of lifting them up and up as if to the knoll of a hill, and then of lowering them down and down, as if into a lonely valley from which nothing could be seen save wave and sky.
“My barometer, she’s dropped from the ‘a’ in fair to the ‘t’ in storm as of noon,” said the oarsman closest to Cuddy. “No crisis. But worrying. The sooner we make this crossing, and the return – nigh on sixteen miles – the sooner Mr. MacMahon declares bankruptcy.”
“Our local undertaker.”
“Oh,” laughed Cuddy.
The swells, some sixty feet wide from trough to trough, may have been old and lazy, but they communicated to Cuddy a relaxed power that––
“Wave coming! Turn starboard fifteen degrees! Straight into her so.”
The shout brought him back. The sudden veering of the boat. The scramble in the stern.
As they rose, he surveyed his human matchstick lack of worth. And they rose and rose until he felt as if they were in the air, gliding like a gull. And then they were descending, diving, sliding-skidding down the back of the wave, a bow wave exploding beside him.
The stern oarsman, who’d changed the position of his blade so that it now jutted out like a rudder from a notch in the transom, had both arms wrapped about his oar.
And they were back on course, the Fastnet dead ahead.
As they closed the final hundred-yard stretch, Cuddy became aware of a steady roar from the southeastern swells washing around the foot of the Rock. The tower loomed. It seemed as if that the world had been condensed into surrounding sea, tower, Rock.
The workers on the Rock prepared the landing crane, swinging it out over the middle of the eighty-foot-wide inlet to the northeast of the island. A rope basket depended from a cable.
“We hold the St. Ciarán in the middle of this cove,” explained the skipper, “and you lads scramble aboard the basket. We’ll toss you your luggage and reach you your toolboxes once you’ve nested. Yes, they’ll direct the basket alongside, careful that it don’t snag on no oars or spurs. And look out for them waves so. What gave us a push out there wasn’t but a sprat. Here you need be on your lookout for sharks. Cheers, lads. Good keeping. God bless!”
With the St. Ciarán rising and falling, on average, some nine feet in the swells, every time its gunwale reached the circumference level of the basket, one of the men leapt into it, then prepared to assure the safety of the next. Cuddy, at thirty-three the oldest of the masons, went first, Robert last. Shortly Cuddy and Dineen lay down in the net, shoulders at the edge, and snatched their belongings from the skipper over the next five ascents.
“Clockwork,” cried the skipper, as he saluted the gantry operator, the signal to swing the men onto the Rock.
“Safe home,” shouted Cuddy, as he felt the basket start its swoop.
In less than a minute they were lowered onto the landing ledge. Cuddy disentangled himself from the net. When he looked up, the foreman of the entire workforce, which now numbered twelve, stood beside him. They shook hands. “Welcome,” Wayne smiled somewhat formally. “Welcome to the last place God made. You’re Cuddy? Good man. Michael here will show you your quarters. It’s military, three to a bed these Boer War days. But lying spoonways makes it easier. Why, as a boy my parents once put me down to lie between two cows – no better warmth, they said.”
“We’re bulls, sir,” said Dineen.
“No bother, son,” Wayne acknowledged with a grin. “Dinner’s at 6:00 sharp. In half an hour,” he said, after pulling a watch out of his fob pocket. “And work begins tomorrow at 5:00. You’ll be wakened.” He tucked tie back under waistcoat.
The next morning, with the lighthouse barometer reassuringly up, Cuddy observed intently as the crew of the Ierne, moored to the northeast by three permanent anchors off the starboard side and two island bollards off the port, secured the hook of the island’s major crane to a carefully wrapped three-ton granite ashlar and pushed the block along rollers to the ship’s side, tumbled it into sea. Once the block had sunk straight down from the extended hoist’s tip, a Rock worker shifted the motorised steam landing-winch into gear and began raising the heaviest block in the fifty-year history of the Fastnet to the surface and, dripping, on up.
Trundled along the short precipitous track over to the site, the ashlar was next lifted and lowered by yet another crane, with a short setting-jib, toward its long-planned position. Cuddy, designating where the stone should be set so that the next stone could dovetail with it, knew that he knew the parameters, but found that he alone had to stand directly beneath the descending stone to oversee – or, as he put it, undersee – its exact journey. This stone, like all coming after it, had to be perfectly aligned; he couldn’t permit a 1/32 of an inch error, else the entire structure could go off its axis. The vertical ellipse line, he knew, started now.
While proud to be so intimately involved, Cuddy also abruptly realised that he alone of all workers was at risk. Were any rope, chain, or cable to break, that block would come down on the father of his children. Squash. No arguing with ashlars.
As he ran his hands along the arrises, he tried to push aside the thought that if he was already in prison, this new realisation relegated him to solitary confinement. He shook his head abruptly in a physical attempt to cast off the recognition. After all, he’d a wet dark bed of Portland cement ready to welcome his potential murderer.
As the block came even with him, he directed it carefully into place, his caressing hands checking every edge and making final adjustments. He nodded his men forward. They removed the ropes, chains, and protective boards, trowelled off the ooze of cement – and waited for the next block, one to be fitted to this one, every block from now on, he interpolated, fitted to every neighbouring block, male and female created He them, this my Eden and me and my caressing hands . . . without my Eve.
Joan, soul mate, bedmate, mother to our four boys and daughter, I vow I’ll write you every day – and eat every apple you send.
But my love, how’d I get to where three-ton blocks dangle overhead? If Fate, then there’s that thread of fate. Cable. Damocles. No, Cuddy, look not up but around: that speck of mainland resplendent in shaft of light, the seas around the Rock washing by on good behaviour, not a wave yet today from half tide on down within ten feet of me – but, yes, always the thought of that wave, that storm, that––
A shiver coursed through his body. His ellipse line teetered. Joan vanished.
He climbed to the tramway where his men were observing the offloading of the Ierne.
“Now, lads, the fun begins. This one’s not only got to have a welcoming wet bed, and side, but welcoming wet joins. That means it’s got to be lowered absolutely level – and our joins, and our grouting, begin in earnest. Let’s get back down there, have everything ready for the next guest.”
“Now you’re talking, boss. He’s all yours.”
Directly under the second ashlar, Cuddy again gave hand signals to the crane operator as the stone was lowered. It not only had to be perfectly level, but exactly parallel with the first stone so that the dovetailing could take place without snapping any edges. Additional guide ropes kept the stone from swinging. When lowered to half an inch higher and to the southeast side of the first stone, Cuddy signalled stop, studied fall lines, reconnoitred. He and his men removed the protective wooden slats from the new stone’s edges. Cuddy signalled for the quarter-inch by quarter-inch final lowering. When the stone had settled snugly into place, he noticed his breaths came no faster than at the start of the operation.
But as he and his men started trowelling, the main landing-derrick cable developed a kink just below the top pulley. The Ierne, informed that it would be unable to offload any more stone that day until a new cable was installed, returned to Rock Island two-thirds full.
Consequently, after an hour spent making certain that the joins had not a discernible bubble left in them before grouting all visible seams and rechecking the foundation bed for the rest of the first course, Cuddy set out to explore the tower.
He climbed up and round and round the spiralling stairs to the lantern. The keeper on duty, John O’Driscoll from Youghal, welcomed him, gave him a tour. After introductions, chat about the weather, worms of the sea, how some people could never learn to spot tidal movement, nor discern right off a frigate on the horizon, Cuddy chanced his questions.
“Have you family?”
“How do you survive without being with them?”
“Ah, when I get my week off, they’re there, right over there, in Crook, in newly-built housing for us keepers.”
“But you can’t make up for all the time away.”
“That’s good, Cuddy. I try to do something special with each offspring every time I’m out. Something with the missus too. And with the whole bunch together. A walk. A meal out in Goleen. A pony ride thanks to my neighbour Bernie. Something with each of them and with all of them I’ve never done before. All seven of us. That more than makes up for this isolation. Sweet Jesus Mary and Joseph but I see more of them in that week off than I would had I been working at a nearby mainland job.”
“‘When you’re not fishing be mending the nets.’ Thanks, Johnny. Gives perspective. But tell me, have you ever been, well, terrorised out here?”
“Ha. Once. Two winters back. December 29th. Me and Matt on day duty, Tim on the eight-hour night shift. I’m asleep, wake to hear the whole structure screaming. And then all quiet, quiet as inside a womb. For twenty seconds or so. Then the scream again. And I mean scream. I’m confused, can’t wait for the bliss, the utter peace, to return. Matt, in the bed beside me, he’s awake too. We daren’t budge. Oh, those moments of quiet, how we cherish ’em. And then, after half an hour of nightmare, half an hour that seems forever, and then some, all’s back to normal. Well, yes, massive waves we hear breaking. But no screaming, no eerie bliss. In the morning Tim gives a detailed blow-by-blow account of what happened. Wave after wave, not just crest after crest, went over the tower. The scream was the wave coming, the swirling spray in front of it whistling through ropes and cables, and the peace the wave placing the tower under water, placing us back in mum’s womb. Tim couldn’t leave the lantern. Said he froze in place at the horror he saw, most the seas’ tops over the bottoms of his windows, the rest of the tower submerged. But only once, Cuddy, once like that in my eleven years here. Oh, sure, waves every winter break over the tower, but that’s their crests, not their bulk, mere foam and froth and sea spit. Ninety-foot-high waves. Now you know what not to become.”
“You’ve got me wondering.”
“‘The quickest road’s the road your mind’s set on.’ Some people’s senses come and go with the moon. Here you need be steady on, no matter wind or wave or spring tides. What think you?”
“I think I’m not thinking, Johnny, but orienting myself. Something about this place that feels utterly alien, a tower of tears – yet utterly home. I’ve some sorting out to do. My own ellipse line’s off centre.”
“Credit to ye. Most wouldn’t admit what you’ve just said. Sweet Jesus but if we all liked the same thing, wouldn’t we be one boring bunch!”
“Johnny, you’re my mentor. I’m back to the lads.”
“Any time, my friend.”
They shook hands.
When he exited the front door of the tower, Cuddy walked across a flat area, stopped at a railing. Far below, straight beneath him, he noticed a bevy of grey Atlantic seals, some sunning themselves, others simply playing in the jade green water. He felt included, privileged, an adult orphan no more.
Not until the 13th of June did the Fastnet receive more ashlars. On this day Cuddy and his men were able to complete the first course and start the second. By the end of August the partial ring-courses were set, stepped, grouted, and course 14 underway. And as the last of the 73 stones for this course was being lowered, with Cuddy in his usual position, he saw above him, instead of a crane lowering granite, some mythological bird, a prehistoric pelican, and himself about to become but a tidbit in its bill, something to be snatched, chewed, digested, excreted. But aren’t we all in a similar state, he speculated; no matter where we are we’re dependent for our very lives on matters beyond our control. Lightning. War. Falling off a ladder, off a cliff, off a course. Off course. Ellipse line gone. Always, yes, above us – below us – in us – some monster that might gobble us up, snuff out our lives as easily as I make a motion with my trowel. But being so visibly, tangibly near death, is that any different from what all of us are, any time, any place, not just on the Fastnet under a three-ton block that may or may not have our names on it? Death’s always lurking, boy. Back in June, that first monster over me, I felt death’s breath. Now, this monster’s more a curiosity – and the situation makes me more alive, helps me feel an intensification of life. Thank you, bird of death.
Wayne called for a five-minute break.
And Cuddy climbed back to rail, this time saw not seals but a motionless grey heron, which suddenly, from its low perch on a rock, stabbed a fish, swallowed it down with head thrown back. Cuddy blinked at this way of life on the Fastnet, this intensity of connection to a minute world. Perhaps that which he’d perceived as a threat of death was but a quickener, a force that when properly absorbed gave him more life, more sense of life. Joan, I’m ready.
Yes – he saw as if the Fastnet light itself were focused on a dangerous rock, warning off all passing ships – the assurance of death makes life worth living. If no death, life – even Joan – would lose all value. You wouldn’t need a Fastnet; wouldn’t need a stronger tower, a brighter light. What could be more boring than a flower forever in bloom? Well, except for gorse, you eejit.
Wayne called out. Work resumed. Cuddy finished guiding granite into place.
On the 2nd of September Cuddy and crew completed their best work of the season, setting twenty-two stones in one day. By the end of the month they’d set a summer total of 268 blocks before the weather broke and it was time to return to the mainland.
But by then, looking 360 degrees around him, Cuddy knew as surely as he knew his own callused hands – hands that had felt every inch of every sharp arris of every block laid to date – what he wanted to do with the rest of his working life. And where. Joan was for it, and for moving to Crook. And Johnny’d agreed to write his reference.
Bulls, and Brendans
Boundaries confuse me. Don’t know where I begin any more than where I’ll end. How many generations back need I go to establish bona fide roots? Two? Five? Five thousand? Date of birth, of death, one thing, genes another, influence of inherited island environment yet another. What happens when being a would-be dutiful but won’t-be subservient wife, or a mother at any hour of need or no-need, or a helpful but not-to-be-run-over neighbour, or a voracious but not sweetly vegetarian reader, or a frankly female farmer, conflicts with being ruddy me? Why, I don’t even know where my farm –my country, so to speak – begins and ends. Physically, yes, I can walk the walls, read the ordnance survey map, agree categorically with the coastline. But morally? What responsibility do I bear for toxic weeds – let alone the Sellafields – that spread from my townland to a neighbour’s? How can I justify owning a hundred and twenty acres with house and sheds when dispossessed children by the millions haven’t a bed to cuddle up in, let alone a mother to hug? Slow down, girl, or you’ll go over the cliff like your Uncle Jimmy, who was simply out gaily collecting gulls’ eggs for breakfast when he met his match.
Granddad, say, what effect had he on me, who I am now? I can see him still, sitting slumped on that last bollard before the foot of the pier, eyes staring blankly out to sea, him telling me in that deep gravelly voice that our beloved little island’s all but dead. And not so long ago, at least as the crow flies. Just thirty years back, me all of eighteen and an innocent happily married expectant mum. “Why, Granddad?” I asked, putting my arm over his shoulders. And he answered frankly, faintly, as if from inside one of those seal-den caves below “our” cliffs, “I’ve just seen bottles of milk come in, girl. Bottles of milk in to Cape. Now we’re no different from the mainland. We’ve lost our independence, our self-reliance, and we’re losing our very way of life. Come spring, I bet you don’t be no more belting feather ticks with barrel staves.” He winked.
Near the end, his clothing looked as though it had been thrown on him with a hayfork, or what he called a pike. A bottle of pasturised milk could depress him. But no wonder, part of me says. The 1970s, they were a time of drastic change, and not just in his physique, but in his switch from scything hay and building reeks to puttering. It was as if in three spaces of time we crashed into the twentieth century – not to mention the twenty-first – whole hog. Got free installation of electricity, or at least those of us did who didn’t think it a work of the devil. Got running water island wide. Loos and sinks – and the shrubbery near the pubs lost its stink. Bought used tractors and widened our lanes, turned ’em into thoroughfares, and tarred ’em. Bought second-hand Volkswagen beetles. Gone donkeys and drags. Gone ponies and ploughs. Gone one and two-room thatched stone houses with earthen, straw-covered floors, houses packed like hogsheads with salted pilchard, ten to twenty souls to a household. Gone the family sow. Gone the family boat. Gone the button-button-who’s-got-the-button battery-powered wireless. Here imported ham, the state (read EU) subsidised ferry, the TV. Gone the stories in front of the fire. Here the soaps. Gone the dancing at the crossroads. Here tourists looking for B&Bs. Got and gone. Got and gone. I could go on and on.
Granddad died in ’85. Grandmother died two years before him – and twice a week for those last years he’d meticulously weed her grave, no matter wind or rain, cold or fog.
Now I’m the one’s got to learn to make adjustments, maintain appropriate boundaries, physical, cultural, moral, take care of the gardens, inner and outer.
I mean, weeds, serious weeds: I’m in trouble with my neighbour, if I must confess. And I no longer confess to the priest. In fact, there isn’t a resident priest here any more, not enough to go around. This neighbour, I’ve enough of him, his egotism, his rationalisations, his cruelty. He’s like a bullying country. And I’ve enough of having enough, too. He cares feck all about farming, only about how to finagle grants, subsidies, headage. Days, he studies the bureaucratic ins and outs of the fine print issuing from the Department of Agriculture, nights he scribbles letters as Gaeilge to the requisite ministers and Teágasc, homing in on the intricacies of government hand-outs. He’s discovered that considerably more money’s issued to organic farmers than to the little likes of me and mine.
I confess I wince at the thought of Brendan M. classified as organic. He just knows how to be organic on unrecycled paper. He’s as green as the grunge on the half-acre of black plastic that covers his heaps of ragwort-rich silage.
Me, I don’t have the time to take courses to qualify for grants, what with one teenager left in the nest, six goats, a saddleback sow (the only pig on the island, Mildred is), the milking of seven cows, the garden, and my ritual book a week. Johnny, he does the 70 dry cattle, the barley and oats, the planting and fertilising, the spraying and ploughing, the walls and the lobsters. But the neighbour, oh, this Brendan, he just lets the cattle go, journeys out to the mainland for a 3-day REPS programme, comes back qualified. Thank you very much. Easy as puddin’ pie. Qualified. A certificate in organic bullshit. Next year his farm’ll be yellow in August, a contagious crop of ragwort. I’ve seen the rosettes. And on our farm too, our main infestation near mutual dry-stone walls. Boundaries. Boundaries be good for bounding over.
Why, in the last year B’s lost 17 cattle out of sixty-seven. Talk to him of timing the shift to aftergrass, of developing a field rotation plan, of erecting mains electric fencing along the cliffs, of pulling ragwort, old buachalán buide, and he stares as though I’m from Mars. Ops, I mean Venus – even if he doesn’t know the difference. And not just because I’m a female farmer. He simply won’t – or can’t – adjust his ways. And I don’t seem able to adjust to him and his bully tactics.
Last week, to move a little closer to the point – and his farm’s got plenty of them – Brendan’s pedigreed Friesian bull, Ciarán, went missing, last seen moseying about his Cape Clear kingdom with the rest of the herd in tow that wintry Thursday afternoon. By Friday morning Brendan has to admit the king has vanished. Late that afternoon he again scours pastures, bogland, peers over cliffs, gives his pride and joy up as a goner. Ciarán’s slipped over the edge, been washed out to sea. An accidental abdication.
But on the Sunday, so the story goes – and around here stories go fast and far – Johnny Pat glances across his acreage, which borders Brendan’s on the far side, and he by chance looks on over to an inlet, a little Cuas – Granddad would know its name – and from his angle spots a whitish stone where he’d never noticed one before, and the stone moves. Johnny Pat fetches his binoculars and sure enough, there’s Ciarán, haunches hollow, balancing precariously on a ledge 35 feet down a vertical cliff face with another ten-foot drop to high water. Johnny Pat telephones Brendan, provides details.
Brendan drives to Mass, waits in the vestibule for me to emerge – he knows I hurt for any animal in difficulty. I listen. I hem and I haw. I see through him. I’m not doing his dirty work again. I dither and I blather. He’s all but down on bended knee.
“Are we neighbours?” he asks.
“That’s not the point.”
“Am I connected to our fellow islanders the way you are?”
“Well.” I drag out the syllable and look away, away across Roaring Water Bay, see clouds nestled around its long dimpled peak.
“There. You see. Please.”
I decide here’s maybe my chance to turn the other cheek, put in motion a plan to stop despising him and his ways. No, I’m not that good. To heck with Brendan: That bloody bull needs saving. In another way, maybe this’ll open a healthy gate between our farms.
I contact various Islanders, including my farmer-fisherman husband, my brother, and Pasty the publican. In an hour-and-a-half I’ve patched together a rescue team, which includes a skipper from Baltimore, who agrees to deliver the digger driver within an hour since our ferry wouldn’t depart the mainland until after dark. And I suspect, if I didn’t live here on Cape, I’d make one well-underpaid efficiency manager for some low-tech mainland firm. Nervous breakdown, here I come. Imagine working for a mainland Brendan. Betsy, naughty naughty.
When the driver arrives, my Johnny and my once big brother Séamus are in the vanguard to the cliff edge, their tractor boxes carrying inch-and-a-half-thick ropes, slings, the thick nets by which cars are hoisted on and off the ferry. Next comes the digger, cautiously halting three yards from the edge. Johnny, Séamus and Paddy Sean of the Glebe, promptly lower themselves down one of the ropes until level with his nibs, the once and maybe future king.
I’m scared. I mean, Mother of God what have I helped put into motion. The risks. I’d known but hadn’t known. I can’t not open my eyes, but turn away when Johnny-boy steps onto the ledge into the presence of Ciarán.
Husband and brother begin draping bull with net and straps.
Two men I love and a wounded bull on a narrow ledge above the sea. A simple swing of hips, or head, and some poor soul’ll go galley-west into wintry depths.
Paddy Sean, positioned above the critical ledge and clinging to the cliff, keeps the ropes sorted, assists with lowering supplementary food nuggets to restore the bull and distract his attention from the activity around him.
Drawn to the edge myself, I watch the digger’s silhouetted bucket, watch mesmerised as its extending and retracting arm operates as if from another sphere.
Dusk falling fast, Ciarán trussed, Steve leaps into the digger bucket and, suspended out over the cliff, some 50 feet up, adjusts straps.
I feel as though I’m on the edge of a different world. Remember the summer I turned sixteen being confined to my bed for two hours every afternoon because of a bad heart and, instead of napping, reading half a book a day, every foxed classic I could get my hands on in the school library, and seeing all around the western world from my little Cape Clear coign of vantage above Roaring Water Bay. Such a change, going through cultural, or psychological, frontiers and meeting Homer and Socrates, Sophocles and Euripides, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. My chums thought – think – me weird. But I can’t help it. Reading’s become as necessary as a sense of community. In fact a good book helps to create a sense of another community, one on this little island of an earth. So about a book a week ever since that heart flutter, no matter family down with the flu, no matter hurricane winds ripping off slates, no matter the electrics down and out. I know how to pump a tilly lamp as good as Granddad. And right now I recall studying Greek tragedy in preparation for my Leaving Cert and especially remember the gesticulating master harping on Deus ex machina. And here he is. At the critical moment. In a bucket. Saving my hubby, my big brother. Dionysus at work. Through the boundaries of reality. No, of what we take for reality.
Ciarán levitates. I’m standing, spellbound, mouth open, hands out in front of me, palms up, fingers splayed. The bull’s head and burly neck snag under an outcropping. The lads lower him two feet. Ropes and net slip toward forelegs. He dangles, looks as though he’s being strangled.
A hodgepodge of us, farmers, housewives, fishermen, lean over the uncertain edge. Two teenage lads dart from beside the digger to a cliff face on the far side of the inlet. Even Brendan has made his way to the scene, staying well back, determined, I suspect, not to get caught up in the drama. He surveys the action. I bet he’s taking mental note of who’s working.
What if someone dies? I’m partly to blame.
My childhood bedtime prayer rises up unbidden: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” My beseeching hands fuse, heels of palms press hard against stomach. And I have to admit, however ridiculous it may seem, that I’m frightened not only for my loved ones but for the bull, for all concerned, for Brendan. Brendan, ha! Look at him standing back there, a gentleman farmer, a landlord. Him and his Big House. Me and my fantasies. They know no end. Deus ex machina my foot.
Focusing on a single rope depending from the bucket down to the Greek stage, I realise a slipped knot in it could have consequence, could—. “No,” I mutter aloud to no-one. Emphatic. Yet pleading.
Ciarán straightens out, gains horizontal balance. The cliff against which he slides up becomes grassy. Someone, Julia, whispers, “Hey girl, here’s what it was like centuries back, our ancestors tugging up survivors from a wreck breaking into matchwood against these very cliffs.” Millennia back.
With Steve as high in the sky as the bucket can safely go, the boom and stick fully extended, he shouts, “Take in the slack. No, the tractor ropes, you bollocks.” Actor or stagehand? or both?
I cringe as he’s again lowered, boom and stick swinging through the ever darker sky. “Deus ex machina Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” I pray.
The crowd, the audience, we all strain to watch Steve and the bull. We shudder as a group as Steve stands up from his crouch, takes in slack while climbing around the outside of the arm. “All clear!” he yells from his precarious perch.
The digger returns to raising the bull, me to my attempts at prayer.
Inch by inch Ciarán rises. At times he looks unconscious. Or dead. But then an eye flickers, a leg twitches. Once he snatches a tuft of grass. His bulk slides over the edge. He lies limp on his right side. We all huddle around. A tremor passes through his body. Through mine. The men circumspectly loosen the truss. Johnny ties a length of rope through his nose ring and, with a bowline, secures the other end to the rear of his tractor. Séamus pushes both fists into flank, lets loose, leans all his might into ribcage, releases, and I suss out that he’s trying to administer artificial respiration on a Greek god.
I stand by the hindquarters, accidentally step on limp tail.
Fifteen minutes later, the last of daylight gone, Ciarán shudders. Séamus jumps away. My old young god in Ciarán guise surges awake, pulls his legs under him, stands, takes a few directionless tottering steps. Everyone scatters, me behind another tractor. Ciarán limps, something wrong with his right foreleg. But he’s up, laps fresh water from a bucket, and in the sudden glare of a tractor headlight vomits a yellowy paste of nuts.
Johnny pulls the slack in the rope out, tests whether the bull will come toward him as he increases tension. Ciarán, for once, obeys. Johnny unties the bowline. A dozen loops of rope dangle from his hand.
With tractor headlights behind us, and a gang on either side of him, I help Johnny lead the stumbling bull the quarter-mile to an outbuilding where he hunkers down, can stay warm through the night. And then, noting how bushed people look, I discreetly ask Brendan if he’d invite everyone in for tea.
“An opportunity. The least you could do after what they’ve done,” I whisper.
“The least.” How could I have let that out? I’m rude as a fart beside a coffin. “A gesture of thanks,” I stutter.
“They enjoyed it. A social experience. And I’m paying the digger driver overtime by the hour, a small fortune.”
“They risked their lives.”
“They didn’t have to.”
“They’re neighbours, aren’t they?”
“You ask ’em in, Betsy. I’ll tell herself to shake a leg.”
As soon as he disappears, I issue the invitation. The men look at each other in the light of torches. A few shrug. I persist. “Come on, Steve, give ’im a chance to show his thanks.”
“I didn’t do it for him but for the bull.”
“Come on. This once.”
“If it’d been him down there, I’d of let ’im rot.”
“For you, not for him.”
I herd them through the back door. Most have never been inside this house before.
In the parlour some flop in chairs as if they’ve been up all night. While issuing mugs, I notice my Johnny grinning into space. Across my mind come the words, “The king must not die.”
And then begins the conversation I’ve been dreading as much as an accident on the cliffs.
“Why’d he go over in the first place?” one of the teenagers asks in a voice that hasn’t yet changed, a voice that rises above the general conversation the way a flute soars over an orchestra. The room falls silent.
“Well now, Éamon,” says Iggy, at eighty the oldest present, “if you didn’t get enough to eat at home, wouldn’t you visit Mikey’s house next door?”
But before Éamon can answer, Brendan cuts in. “What do you mean by that, neighbour?”
“Easy, ” says Johnny, taking Brendan’s arm.
But Brendan shakes off the hand, walks over to where the old man sits. “You saying I don’t feed my cattle?”
Iggy looks toward the range, replies carefully, “What I saw over yonder was short grass trampled on the cliff edge, and cow pats as close to the verge as my elbow to my hand. All outside the ditch.”
“And what I saw was a man old enough to mind his own business,” snaps Brendan. “And not jump to false conclusions.”
“You call bones sticking out of cattle false conclusions?” asks Paddy Sean, standing.
“Lads, I’m thankful for your having rescued Ciarán. But that don’t entitle you—”
“Stop, stop all this,” I cry, coming between Paddy Sean and Brendan. “Ciarán’s safe, we’re all safe, neighbours, we’re—”
“Don’t be after interrupting me, young lady,” growls Brendan. “Now” – he stands in the middle of the room, surveys his guests – “may I ask you to leave?”
Rising, Séamus says, “Could you tell us, please, so there aren’t the usual rumours flying, how many cattle ya lost in November?”
“Four. Four out of fifty-four. And,” Brendan adds, as if to preclude further questions, “not from malnourishment but from some inorganic poison. Could’ve happened to your herd too.”
“Poison, is it?” I couldn’t contain myself. “You with ragwort rampant? You making silage with ragwort in it? You call that ‘some inorganic poison’? Why won’t you wake up to the fact that seven pounds ingested kills the liver of a cow? You should be ashamed to be a farmer.” I can’t control myself. I’m a red-hot wire shorting out. And all too glad to send sparks flying.
“Out, you bunch of begrudgers, get out,” shouts Brendan, gesturing towards the door.
Straight-back chairs scrape against flags. Curses sail. I stamp my foot. Noisy neighbours depart into night. When I reach the road, I blurt out to Johnny, “He knows no shame, no shame.”
“He’ll know my effin’ fist—”
“No, that’s not what I mean. I mean, if he knows no shame, or if I know no shame, or you know no shame, why—”
“I’ll murder the––”
“Then we do wrong.” I feel as if I’m in the bucket balancing over nowhere. If I slip, I’m done for. Out of the darkness around us I catch a pulse of the Fastnet Lighthouse beam and I say, “One way we learn right from wrong’s by knowing shame, experiencing shame.”
We stand there motionless beside the tractor.
“I’ll murder ’im if he ever uses you again.”
“He can’t not, Johnny. The poor poor man.” Again the Fastnet blinks, and as its swath of light swings over the landscape way east I add, “Without a sense of shame, we’ve nothing, he’s nothing. I know it’s not for me to say and I’m saying it.”
“And you can say it again. He’s nothing, sweetheart, worse than nothing. Shame be hung. He’s no different to a bull without a pizzle.”
“Maybe shame helps one step into another’s shoes. Where empathy begins.”
“Empathy, hempathy. You and your words,” he snaps. “He needs a rope around his neck. And remember, little woman, you can’t hang a man with a hawser.”
We climb onto Johnny’s tractor. Tears starting to stream, tears without catharsis, I perch, as habit has it, on the top of the flat wheel well, grip the back of Johnny’s springy seat, wonder where Johnny’s sharpness toward me and my words is coming from. Despite the darkness and the narrow road, he takes off in third gear. For some reason I’m feeling sidelined, me and my words, me and my tears, and it comes to me like the pulse of the Fastnet through a sea of darkness that I’ve never even tried to drive a tractor.
The following day I answer the telephone. It’s Brendan M., out on the mainland. The vet, he says, reports that Ciarán’s in fine fettle, all considered. “Why,” B adds, “a month-long holiday with harem in tow on some lowland island isn’t necessary, but is highly recommended. Goodbye. And thanks for all your help, neighbour.”
He makes a joke. To me. The previous night hasn’t happened.
Clueless as to how to deal with this man, I step outside, look across Roaring Water Bay. There’s next to no swell. No wonder Johnny said he was going fishing. Not just because of last night. As I take a big relaxing breath, I spot his tractor behind the shed, walk over to it, walk around it, study it, tentatively climb up, settle myself in the seat for my first time ever. Next I know I’m pushing in the clutch, experimenting with the gears, feeling how they slip into place. Here’s low low. Here’s first. I decide to start with them. I turn the key. The tractor roars into life. I let out the clutch and she powers forward at a crawl. I pull down the rusty throttle on the steering wheel and she goes just that bit faster, louder, but still slow as a snail. Such power. A snail-paced leviathan. I push in the clutch, hit both brakes at once, shift out of low low and into second gear, let out the clutch. And I’m off.
At my slow speed, I realise I can look at every house I pass, every bordering field, and probably as if from a fresh perspective, but I’m too excited to look. My attention level’s at fever pitch, encompassing the gears and levers, the switches and pedals, the road immediately before me. Paddy Sean approaches in his banger with the flapping fertiliser bags as replacements for his rear seat side windows. He swings into a lay-by, and when he sees it’s me, jumps out of his car, stands as if at attention, and bows as I drive by. And he’s laughing. Two hundred yards further along there’s another lay-by, into which I pull and stop, let her idle as I peer about from my throne. The sea looks like glass, but as the lazy swells approach the Bullig, they rear up and up and cascade down before they wash over the rocky point altogether.
Yes, I’m learning something from having watched over the cliff yesterday, from having wept my bouncy way home: If I hate someone outside myself, then I hate someone inside myself, and I’ve had enough of both. Outside, inside, that’s the way boundaries work: they don’t so much separate us into peace as propel us into war. Look at that break in the townland wall there. Biddy says Jack’s cattle demolished it, and Jack says Biddy’s did the deed. Thirty years ago it was.
I start up again, turn right at Dinni’s old shop, go past Ciarán Danny Mike’s pub, don’t even need to touch the brakes as I wind along the Blanan road to the Priest’s House and on to the Youth Hostel. Brazen, sitting in a man’s seat, I drive out the length of the pier, something I never did in a car, as it’s too bumpy, for me and my exhaust systems anyway, and I turn around at the very head of the pier, in front of the breakwater, and stop again, soak in the view of the Old Telegraph House and the Adventure Centre, what Granddad always called the Coast Guard Station. On a day like today – and it’s top of the tide right now – it’s hard to imagine that waves sometimes shoot over its roof. On a day like today it’s hard to imagine any kind of storm, even a Force 12 Brendan with waves breaking over my head.
I start off again, at the foot of the pier shift into first and turn right up the steep Glen Road. No trouble. The steepest section of road on the island. Duck soup. I don’t even need to pull the throttle down. By the time I’m opposite the Poet’s House I shift back into second and shortly I’m up to the lighthouse. Second gear’s great if you’re in no hurry, and hurry’s a work of the devil. I turn around just below the lighthouse. Reverse is simple. I can turn on a dime, however big that is. I stop, lean forward on the steering wheel, look around me out to the Fastnet and then up to the watchtower just behind me. Here’s another troubled area. Court case after court case. A public amenity, this national monument, or a piece of private property?
That book I found in the school library, and then used to read aloud to our kids, The Once and Future King, it’s coming back. Mr. T. H. White, he wrote about boundaries, about belligerent ants who claim their boundaries, and then the pacific geese who don’t want any. And all those birds we see on Cape, those puffins, razorbills, guillemots and kittiwakes, they all live peacefully, he says, and preserve their own kinds of community without infighting or war because they have no territories, claim no boundaries. Share that, Betsy girl, with the Israelis and the Palestinians. With the Brendans of Belfast. Whether Brendan pulls his ragwort, or feeds his cattle properly, or builds his fences, or apologises. Or not. And accept the territorial black-backs, girl, and don’t you be after driving off the king of fishers, that grey heron to whom our South Harbour clearly belongs. I’m Ahab on the quarter-deck; I’m Penelope unknitting; I’m Stephen Dedalus and Molly Bloom hitherandthithering.
I shift into second, head down toward South Harbour, drive by the school, turn right at the cross. When I eventually reach the slipway at the eastern end, I bet I’ve waved to thirty people and thirty have waved back. And about half are laughing at me sitting here, or laughing with me. No matter. I’m a queen; I’m a nobody. I’m crossing new boundaries, new borders, new frontiers, breaking unwritten masculine law. I’m hearing Emily herself:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you –– nobody –– too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
tell! They’d advertise –– you know!
How dreary –– to be –– somebody!
How public –– like a frog ––
To tell your name –– the livelong day ––
an admiring bog!
What a bunch we are. With bogs galore. Deus ex machina atop the cliff has introduced me to more than what bulls and boundaries and Brendans are all about. You’ve got to love yourself first. That’s not a selfish act, girl. That’s what I’m doing right now, right here, atop this once-upon-a-time tractor.
pull into the Telephone Exchange’s driveway mouth to let a car pass and let
the lighthouse thought pulse through me a few more times. Below’s a boulder
burial. I’m crying. I’m looking through my tears across to Sherkin Island
and along the south coast all the way to Galley Head – and even with the
tractor roar I hear and see that you can only love others if you start with
yourself. That’s the way to establish boundaries, girl; that’s the way to
achieve a start at an ordnance survey of yourself. Now hum up, girl, dry those
eyes, and head for the north coast, the petrol pump, and home.
Practice manoeuvers over – the jibing, the swish of boom as it rocketed overhead like an enemy shell, the tricky triple reefing of mainsail, the sudden rush of spinnaker as it billowed out before them, all completed to the skipper’s satisfaction – Mark perched on the pulpit while the rest of the crew gathered in the cockpit to enjoy a sun-over-the-yardarm sip before berthing in Cowes Harbour. He didn’t mean to be anti-social – he enjoyed the occasional drink, even more the stories that accompanied it – but he needed to collect himself after the hectic last two hours.
With one hand on forestay, legs dangling out front, his feet one to three metres above the waves, he watched his breathing slow, began to sense rhythm rather than recklessness. The sound of curling bow wave, the change in speed as The Gannet surfed down the front of a lazy swell, the privileged intimacy he felt with the sea, what he sometimes thought of as his Great Green Mother, all came together. And he could sense he was smiling not from ear to ear but from full face down deep into chest. Maybe, he thought, here’s my Celtic power point, here’s what yoga’s all about – or prayer. He wasn’t altogether certain that there was – or should be – a difference.
Just three weeks earlier, he recalled, when he’d learned he’d been accepted as a volunteer crew member of The Gannet, to assist with all sail changes, and be particularly responsible for the jibs, especially for the hoisting, putting out, and half the trimming of the double-sheeted spinnaker – the big boy, the blooper – he’d reorganized his summer holidays.
As head lifeguard and swimming instructor for July and August at the Rosscarbery Hotel in West Cork, he met formally with his staff of three other university students and gave himself, with his employer’s blessing, two weeks off for the early August biennial Fastnet Race. His boss, Robbie Kinsella, a thirty-three-year-old physical education instructor from Kinsale, knew of the race, asked Mark for geographic details one early morning while sitting beside the empty pool. He remembered how he’d quickly briefed Robbie with bare geographic facts: “605 miles long. Starting at Cowes, on the Isle of Wight. Crossing the Western Approaches. Running parallel to our south coast. Going round the Fastnet. Crossing the finish line at the mouth of Plymouth Harbour.”
“How many yachts?”
“This year, around three-hundred. Some twenty-seven hundred sailors.”
“And you’re now one of them.”
“On the lowest rung.”
“Good man. Save a life or two from there!”
With that, his boss had left for the hotel’s gym.
Legs dangling in the pool a bit the way they now dangled over the sea, his eyes following closely the splashing antics of three young teenage girls who’d just arrived rather than the curling waves below, Mark remembered how he’d immediately fantasized: Why, if I can carry my weight – and then some, and not no drogue – throughout this race, why, maybe next race I’ll find myself a berth on a Class I, maybe even in a Zero, and prove myself aboard a 70-footer, not a mere 31-footer like this Class V Gannet.
That night, over dinner, when he shared his long-awaited news and fantasy with his parents and grandfather, a recently retired professor of philosophy at UCC, he hadn’t been ready for the response. He could still hear his grandfather saying, “Mark, are you sure you’re not mistaking quantity for quality? Remember that book I told you about by Erich Fromm, To Have or To Be?”
“About man’s estrangement from himself?”
“The very one. Estrangement, don’t forget, in an industrialized society.”
“Aren’t you falling into the modern trap of wanting more of something rather than being fully who you could be?”
“To long to be on a bigger, better yacht I’m being untrue to myself, untrue to being?”
“You might put it that way.”
“Give me a break, granddad! What’s wrong with wanting more experience?”
“Would you not get as much experience on a little boat like The Gannet?”
“I will get it, and then, if all goes well, in two years, for the next Fastnet race I’ll be on a bigger boat – and get even more experience.”
“More? Will you get to know yourself better, or the experience of the ocean better, if you’re on a bigger yacht?”
“In that case, my boy, just think now and then of the title itself, To Have or To Be. OK?”
“Shall do. For you, granddad.”
“For you, my boy. A Zen koan.”
Three weeks later, pulpit perched, feeling as though in the middle of a prayer, even in the middle of someone else’s prayer, he admitted he was playing with his grandfather’s belief that to be a philosopher, one had to be capable of imagining oneself a character in someone else’s dream.
A shout from skipper Ger Cotter, owner of Cork’s ship chandlery as well as the yacht, brought him back.
“Mark, wake up call! ‘Mackerel scales, furl your sails.’ No, seriously, toss out bow fenders. We’re berthing in five. Wakey wakey, lad. Lower all sails. Engine going on.”
Ronnie, Ger’s son and second in command, and with whom Mark shared digs at UCD as well as in the minuscule stern cabin on the port side, joined him at the mast foot as they released the halyards, the yacht already pointing into the northwesterly Force 3. The sound of luffing mainsail and jenny quickly disappeared as the crew lowered and furled the mainsail, finally stuffing the genoa into waiting sack. Mark opened the bow booby hatch and, feet hooked on the base of a starboard stanchion, wormed his trunk belowdecks and stowed the bag from his upside-down position.
The next morning, Saturday, 11 August, after a staggered breakfast, and a solid five hours before the race start, Ger called all hands on deck. Kieran D’Arcy and Owen Prendergast, stockbrokers in their mid-forties, and neighbours of Ger’s in Sunday’s Well, were in charge of the foredeck and all mainsail changes – and first joined Ger in the cockpit. Next came Jimmy Galvin, insurance agent, jack-of-all-trades sailor, who also delighted in being cook. Last, Ronnie and Mark.
Ger had no special news other than that the weather looked good, winds moderate, Force 3 to 4, and that there were going to be six starts between 1:30 and 2:30 P.M., one every ten minutes, Class 5 entries first. By consensus they decided on two nighttime watches, Ger, Kieran, Owen to handle 11:00 P.M. to 3:00 A.M.; and Ronnie, Jimmy, Mark to take care of 3:00 to 7:00 A.M. The rest they’d play by ear, weather permitting, with Ger and Ronnie to serve as floaters, if need be, when it wasn’t their watch.
They upped anchor, motored sail-less and slow out the crowded harbour, their wake barely rocking anyone, then hoisted mainsail and number 1 jib to prowl the north side of the Isle of Wight before entering the crowded starting area.
Lunch over at 1:00 P.M. precisely. Time to jockey for position. Fifty-eight Class V’ers approached the starting line, some hugging it, some trying to position themselves so that they could cross at full speed, Ger growing so worried about a collision, a sideswipe, that he ordered starboard and port fenders out. Wristwatches were coordinated by the starter’s horn and flag. The countdown began. Thinking that most Class V would compete to stay upwind of each other, contrarian Ger decided to navigate as far downwind as possible, believing that that way there’d be less chance of accident and more enjoyable space. When The Royal Yacht Squadron fired its first cannon, Ger, at the helm, estimated that they were tenth in crossing the line. And the first two yachts had to turn back to cross the line again, as they’d gone over seconds in advance of the signal.
With a light southerly blowing over the Isle of Wight, Ger also determined to stay as far from the island as possible so that shifts in wind direction effected by the island’s topography wouldn’t affect them as much as those who sailed close to her shore. They wouldn’t have to be constantly adjusting their sheets for the ever-shifting optimum trims.
The strategy worked. By the time the cannon boomed for the sixth and last time, at exactly 2:30 for the fourteen Class 0 entrants, The Gannet was amongst the first five yachts of the 303, though well aware that the larger boats, now about 5 miles behind them, would go proportionally faster if the wind increased. “In light winds,” Ger called out, “small yachts like ours cruise as fast as those seventy-footers. So, lads, here’s to zephyrs!”
Down the Devon and Cornish coasts they went for the first two easy days, though on Sunday evening they had to watch the radar closely, as a fog decreased visibility to five hundred yards – or, as Owen said, “We’re in a bag altogether.” But they ate well, slept well, kept up a light bantering that seemed to agree with the breeze. Mark spent most of his time on the windward side of the yacht – except during the infrequent tacks.
On Monday morning the sky cleared and a northeasterly filled in after a two-hour calm. They entered the Western Approaches. The breeze, as the 6:25 A.M. BBC shipping bulletin had told them it would, backed to the southwest, increased to a Force 5. The 1:55 P.M. bulletin reported: “south-westerly, Force 4 or 5, increasing 6 or 7 for a time, veering westerly later. Occasional rain or showers.”
Mark could feel his excitement intensify as he listened to the broadcast litany. A 7 meant they’d be whipping along, probably best a storm jib, no more big boy. And whip along they did. Now they wore their oilskins, both pants and coats, and the stinging spray regularly reminded him of friendly slaps. For him, often hanging out with a grip on the windward mainstay, their seven knots an hour gave an enjoyable buzz, especially on those rare occasions when he could see the keel below him sluicing through the turquoise sea.
At 5:50 P.M., all gathered round the radio, they heard the relevant bulletin: “Mainly southerly 4 locally 6, increasing 6 locally to gale 8, becoming mainly north-westerly later.”
“What say, Ger,” called Mark from the bow, with safety harness clipped to jackwire, “shall we put up number 4 now? Be safe?”
“Have it ready. Leave on the reaching jib. All in God’s own time, lads. Let’s eat supper, you youngsters get some early sleep, and by morning we’ll reconnoitre, know where we are. While most the top three classes have now passed us, we’re near the top in our league. I wager, lads, we’ll round the Fastnet late tomorrow morning. And then, if that northwesterly continues, we’ll have a broad reach to the finish line, and you know how well this baby surfs your groundswells. And if we can fly a spinnaker on the homeward leg, we’ll be in like Flynn in an English race so!”
At 8:00 the younger three curled into their sleeping bags, dropped off.
Around 10:00 the older watch felt the wind increase dramatically. A tap on the galley barometer revealed a drop from the H in change to the R in storm. Kieran and Owen tied a first reef into the mainsail, doused the reaching jib, replaced it with a number 3. But since even that didn’t give them a safe heel, they lowered the mainsail that bit more and tied a second reef.
At 10:32, without warning, the three in the cockpit were rolled to leeward, a wave momentarily submerging the deck and filling the cockpit. The yacht swung forty-five degrees off her close reach before Ger could get back to the helm. The next wave, filled with power but not as high, hit them broadside, dumped the sleepers out of their bunks.
Abruptly awake to a different world from that of two hours before, they donned their foul-weather gear, tugging on suspendered yellow pants, which covered them from insteps to armpits, and, at Mark’s suggestion, added new security with solid-grip wellies, life-jackets and safety harnesses – and, splashing through water swirling down the four steps into the galley from the cockpit, up they went to discover their companions drenched, shivering, Owen acting scared. The radio, in preparation for the 10:45 P.M. bulletin, Ger had blaring. They all listened hard as the sturdy quiet voice carefully worded the warning: “Fastnet: southwest severe gale Force 9 increasing 10 imminent.”
“Some warning. After the storm’s hit. Shite.”
“How far from the Rock now,” Mark shouted to Ger.
“About seventy miles. We’re just crossing the Labadie Bank. Probably why these mad seas’re rising. A shelving bottom creates steep waves.”
“I’ve never sailed in a Force 10,” said Kieran.
“Nor I,” Jimmy chimed in.
“Nor any of us,” said Ger, trying to see their faces in the dark. “Not something to sail in but to get out of. My father often quoted the rhyme, ‘Force 10 is to Force 8 what heart attack is to tummy ache’. A 10’s twenty knots faster than an 8 – and the waves grow to twice the height, the suckers 30 to 40 feet high. Could be here already, given what’s hit us in the last fifteen minutes. The real danger’s not in their height but their shape.”
“With such severe slamming, shouldn’t we lower sail, motor to Crosshaven?” asked Owen.
“Give up?” said Mark.
“Maybe save our lives,” Owen added. “Ger, what do you think?”
“The anemometer reads thirty-five mph,” cautioned Jimmy.
“To your stations – which means right around here for now. Safety harnesses clipped to jackwires. Safety before victory. Ronnie, insert the washboards in the companionway hatch to prevent the water that floods the cockpit from going below. Hang on. Wall of blackness coming. You youngsters––“
The Gannet almost broached, the cockpit a swimming pool. Ger realized that he had to give his utmost concentration to steering – and not to anything else. He’d never before felt the helm push him about.
Over the next four hours Ger frequently had to brace his body against the helm. With right hand at three o’clock, he could usually wrench the wheel clockwise to keep The Gannet from rounding up when waves struck amidships and she heeled severely. Then when the waves slid under her transom and they surfed off course, he’d battle to turn the wheel counterclockwise to bring her up and keep her from being beam to breaking seas.
A little after 4:00 A.M. the illuminated anemometer registered a gust of forty-three miles an hour. Five minutes later, of fifty-four. Again the waves seemed to double in size. Ger knew he had to keep up some speed, otherwise The Gannet would become a matchstick for waves mountainous – and could be buried.
Suddenly the boat heeled over, the tip of the mast catching in a heavy sea. The water ripped off the weather-vane. “Set triple reef,” Ger called to Mark. “You’re the tallest. Stand on the boom and pass the free reefing line through the leech cringle. Read me? Over.”
“Yes sir,” Mark shouted back, as he unhooked harness, slid to leeward along the safety line, and, for balance, grabbed an end of a spare jib sheet. He walked forward with the end along the starboard deck, leaning 35 degrees to port to stay upright and bracing himself against the boom with his left hand. Halfway there he bent down and snapped the harness hook onto a jackwire. Up to his shins in water gushing over the starboard rail, he passed the sheet through a block, tied the end to a cleat at the foot of the mast. Then he lowered the main halyard six feet – mainsail luffing so loudly it was as if packets of firecrackers were exploding – climbed up onto the foot of the boom as Ronnie and Jimmy wrestled the snapping sail down against the power of the wind and secured a ring sewn in its luff under a stainless-steel hook on the boom. Then Mark climbed down, helped Ronnie crank the halyard up taut on the winch. So strenuous the activity, they had to take turns at winching in the reefing line that ran from leech into boom. With the reef tied in and the mainsail’s area decreased to a third of its full size, The Gannet straightened up.
But not for long. By 5:30 A.M. and first light the waves seriously began to cross each other, coming from the southwest and the northwest. The men hunkered down in the cockpit, safety harnesses attached, all watching the approaching waves. Suddenly Mark felt his stomach rise into his mouth: The Gannet literally fell off a wave much the way a lumberjack might lose his footing on a log that rolls out from under him. He remembered reading in a physics class that when waves encounter contrary currents, they increase in size by large factors, wave height often doubling.
Mark peered into the lightening darkness, out of which crumbling black cliffs came at them from one angle, and, at the same time, from another angle, and then there was what he imagined ought to be a no-man’s land where the two met, their top edges flaring with spume before avalanching down upon them. He sensed The Gannet irregularly rise fifty feet, then sink fifty feet, deep into a gorge into which all cliffs crumbled.
With the troughs deeper than the ship was long, and always the possibility of another yacht in the area, there was sometimes nothing that could be done, as when the rudder came out of the water. Occasionally Ger could trailblaze their way through the mountains by finding a wee valley between them and ducking through it, thus avoiding an avalanche. Or two. But not for long.
Shrieks of wind blasted through the rigging. The bow wave roared. Immediately behind the transom the wake sometimes shot up into the air as if a geyser. A sound like thunder surrounded them.
“Here’s comes a monster,” screamed Owen. “Hold her on station!”
“No, no worry,” Ger shouted back. “I can cope with–– Look at that cross-wave! We surf down this mother and another’s coming toward us. We could play submarine. Or, heaven help us, pitchpole.”
“Pitchpole?” shouted Mark. “No way!”
“End over end, man, stern over stem.”
Waves broke over The Gannet from both sides at once. It was as if the sea had exploded and they were thrown up in the middle of the blast. Everywhere swirling water, foam, pandemonium. The boat emerged up into the air again and all, clinging to wires, stanchions, halyards, were safely aboard. And the clear light of dawn let them see the chaos around them.
“Crosshaven it is, lads. Forestay’s snapped. We’re jib-less. Mayday. I’m switching on the engine. Race over. Douse mainsail. Bag a couple jibs, throw ’em out to stern as a drogue so that we don’t pick up such speeds when surfing. Ronnie, report a mayday into the VHF.”
“Wind gauge registering seventy-six mph gust. We’re in a hurricane!” shouted Jimmy.
“We don’t need an anemometer to tell us that, you eejit!”
“Hang on!” screamed Ger. “From opposite directions.”
Up and up they rose, up and up, teetered on edge of a Himalayan crest. As the black cliff started to break, they tipped almost vertical, began to dive down the way a knife goes into water. But a dark green wave coming toward them blocked the way forward so that the boat stayed vertical, went deeper and deeper into the water, bow first. The mast disappeared into the sea. For a moment, with bow to mast submerged, The Gannet seemed to have become perilously stuck, stopped half way through her agony of pitch-poling dive. The tons of water pushing against her deck from one direction and against her hull from another warred for her possession. And then it was that another wave came from a third direction and broke, shoving The Gannet back to a horizontal position, but heeled over on her starboard side. In all the turmoil, she rolled over, keel into spume-filled air. After several minutes of rising and falling while upside down, two heads bobbing on either side of her, she finished her roll – thanks to her structure, the weight of the keel, the smaller waves.
Tugging hand over hand on his harness wire, Mark pulled himself to the submerged ship, climbed aboard, felt the boat powerless, engine off, mast and sails, sheets and stays, dragging alongside, electronic equipment smashed, cockpit and hold flooded, helm twisted at right angles, deck nothing but a wide plank floating about six inches above the sea, The Gannet her own jetsam.
Ever with an eye on the waves, Mark peered about for his colleagues. A splash clued him in to Kieran. While the jackwires were in the water, the wire railing’s stanchions all down, the wires remained connected to the boat, and Mark was able to pull in Kieran’s wire tether and give him a hand as, gasping, he crawled aboard. Ronnie’s head suddenly appeared over the bow and he pulled himself aboard, carefully crawled through swirling water to the stern. A wave washed the length of the boat, the men ready and holding on to various cleated rope handles on the protruding galley roof.
When the wave had passed, Ronnie spotted his father’s tether. Together, Ronnie and Mark tugged Ger aboard. His head dangled backwards down his spine, his neck slit almost in two by a wire. The little that remained of his heart’s blood quickly coloured the water in the cockpit red. Kieran helped a weeping Ronnie lash his father’s body to what was left of the rudderless helm while Mark scoured the area for signs of Owen and Jimmy. He found nothing.
Wave after wave rolled by them, through them, slowly lifting the water-filled boat. It was as if the boat itself had become a drogue, a kind of dead dragging weight in the sea rather than, as before, a toy in some mad young god’s bathtub.
A muffled shout brought their attention back to their missing mates. Jimmy pointed into the galley and Mark, agreeing, and seeing that the washboards across the hatch had disappeared, removed his life jacket, tied it onto the bent steering column, dove into the water-filled cabin, saw the legs of Owen or Jimmy slightly treading water, and surfaced to where the man’s head was in a small, six-inch pocket of air.
“Jimmy, you’re alive,” said Mark.
“I think so,” Jimmy gasped. “But I don’t feel anything. Don’t know which end’s up anymore.”
“I think you’d be safer with Ronnie, Kieran, and me outside in the real air.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Can you dive, swim over the steps and come up in the cockpit?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, look, try it, and I’ll swim alongside you until you get to the door, then through with you and I’ll follow, and push if necessary. OK?”
“I’m not much of a swimmer. You first. I’ll follow. But is it really any safer out there? Here’s like a womb.”
“Safer? Hm. If we roll again, which I imagine we will, you’ll be swamped in here, and maybe this pocket of air won’t last. Outside, we’re safe as long as we can hold on. I think that’s the safer of the two places, Jimmy. But God knows. No guarantees.”
“First let me help you remove your life jacket. I’ll come back for it, don’t worry, tie a rope to it, pull it through.”
Once again Mark dove, headed through the companionway, surfaced. And watched for Jimmy to follow. When he saw hands flailing about near the door, he dove again, pulled Jimmy through. Spluttering, they surfaced together.
“Hang on here,” Mark shouted, and, just in time, they grabbed one of the wooden handholds above the companionway.
When the wave had passed, Jimmy, seeing Ger’s dead body and Kieran and Ronnie nearby, asked Mark where Owen was.
“Don’t know. No sign of him. Hang on.”
Another wave lifted the boat but didn’t submerge the men. Except for the risk of hypothermia, they felt safer now than when in the buoyant, air-filled craft.
With a coiled sheet Mark went for Jimmy’s lifejacket, returned, pulled it through the companionway from where it floated inside, helped Jimmy struggle into the vest.
And then they heard the distant roar of a helicopter. Mark read his waterproof Casio: 7:22 A.M.
Next they knew a wet-suited man dangled on a wire just above and sometimes beside them. Since it was critical to keep his straps from snagging on anything connected to the boat, he had them launch their life raft, something they hadn’t wanted to do earlier because they knew that statistically, unless a ship was clearly sinking, they were safer aboard the yacht than on the raft. Another man could be seen leaning out the open door of the hovering helicopter, instructing the pilot how much to raise or lower the craft to keep the distance from the sea as steady as possible.
Once aboard the inflated raft, however, they had trouble keeping clear of The Gannet. The oars were of no use in the 60-knot wind and thirty-foot waves, the sea as confused as colliding whirlpools.
In desperation the pilot tilted his craft in such a way that the downdraft from the blade kept the life raft a sufficient distance from the yacht to effect the rescue. At the same time the Sea King struggled to stay just high enough so that the swirling salt spray off the waves’ crests didn’t clog its turbines.
twenty minutes, one man at a time, the four were winched safely aboard the Sea
King. In another twenty minutes, shivering, teeth chattering, some appendages
blue, all well wrapped in blankets, they landed on Baltimore’s North Pier and
were immediately removed to Bushes Pub, which had turned its restaurant rooms
and upstairs into a make-shift hospital.
A week later, Ger and Owen’s coffin-less funerals over, The Gannet amongst the five missing yachts, Mark returned to work. He shortly found himself, early morning, sitting with Robbie again beside the empty pool.
“You made it.”
“Don’t know if I made it, but I’m here. I survived. In addition to Ger and Owen, I heard just this morning that it’s now official, fifteen sailors lost their lives.”
“If you don’t mind my asking,” said the impetuous Robbie, “what was it like to be in one of the most vicious summer gales of the century – in the midst of the worst disaster in the hundred year history of ocean-yacht racing?”
“Don’t know. I mean, I felt as if the whole world was disintegrating, as if we were the only people alive. Talk about being in an isolation ward.”
“Would you rather not talk about it?”
“At least a storm’s not contagious. And talking, well, maybe it’ll help me get back to living with others. Ronnie cried for two days – and two long nights.”
“A close call.”
“A father dead.”
“I’ve read it was the largest rescue effort in these waters since the evacuation of Dunkirk.”
“Yes. Statistics. 136 sailors rescued. 77 yachts rolled over. A quarter of the fleet capsized. And I am here to tell of it. Robbie, what’s it all about? Why me one of the lucky ones?”
“That’s the kind of question we luckily can’t answer. But I’m glad you made it.” Robbie stood, patted Mark on the back, walked away.
Mark stared into the water, wiggled his toes, imagined Ger’s head one day washing ashore onto a strand where children were building sandcastles.
That night after dinner, Mark’s parents motioning that he stay seated and talk with his grandfather while they did the dishes, his granddad started a new conversation by quoting one of his favourite proverbs, “‘The sea drives truth into a man like salt.’ I’m so sorry for the sting you must be feeling, Mark.”
“I’ve been thinking, granddad. I wouldn’t ’ve been as close to death in a 70-footer, but I also wouldn’t ’ve had the experience of my life. Literally. And figuratively. And now I know size does matter, but not the way I’d thought before. Thirteen of the Class 0 – those big fellas – made it to the finish line out of 14 entrants. One out of our 58 Class V made it. I guess I’ve learned what it would’ve been like to be part of the Spanish Armada. Now I know what it’s like to be alive.
“You mean, to be.”
“To be, granddad, aye, aye sir, to be. Not as in Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ bit. I can’t call those waves and winds slings and arrows, though the fortune for Owen and Ger was outrageous. Yes, I choose to be.”
His granddad leaned forward, whispered, “Will you ever race again, now that you’ve seen death face to face?”
Mark leaned toward his grandfather. “Ronnie’s already made the decision to buy a yacht in memory of his father – something I agree with – and he’s asked me to be his mate. And I’ve said yes. He doesn’t know what size yet. And granddad, I don’t care. To be with a friend, and on the elemental sea, that’s enough.”
Without speaking, they looked into each other’s eyes, slowly nodded their heads.
“And how’s Ronnie taking the loss?”
“The next boat’s to be named Gannet II.”
“That’s action. ‘The great business of life is to be, to do, to do without, and to depart.’”
“Ah, granddad, you’re the wind puts life into my sails,” said Mark. And he started to sob.
“Good man, Mark. I can tell you’re not letting your soul fall out of you. ‘Tears shed may be bitter, but not so bitter as tears unshed’.”
They stood, hugged a hug Mark felt as a lifeline to being.
Returning from mid-morning walk out to farm’s point, Percy slowly became conscious of conflicting sounds, the island pulse: urgent mooing of distant cattle, signifying some herd in need of shifting to pastures fresh, as grass too short, or calves and mums experiencing first day of weaning, or vet inoculating through the bars of some cramped cattle crush; sporadic roar of banger departing, either his father’s or the postman’s; steady reassuring wash of sea along harbour foreshore.
He entered family cottage. Sure enough, that banger that’d reverberated down drive before he came over crest of hill had been the postman’s, for there, on edge of kitchen table, beside the biddy lamp, lay a pile of letters and advertisements. And on kitchen flags, telltale muddy vestiges. Percy sorted through the post, found the missive he’d been expecting for the last two weeks – and carefully, hesitantly, opened what might prove fate.
With back to only window in room, he read aloud the opening paragraph: “You have been accepted at Trinity College, Dublin, to study medicine, beginning this term. Please notify us of your decision on this matter within ten days of the above date.” His first choice.
Bless appendicitis. Four days in hospital three years back had given him glimpse of new world, a world where most went all out to help others. He imagined the Regional, with doctors, nurses and staff, anaesthetists and radiographers, helping build hay stacks on neighbours’ farms, meitheal after meitheal. He loved the Irish word for a working party, or a party of people hard at work; hoped it would one day enter the English language. And it was that time of summer when he’d best keep an eye on Johnny’s lower field.
He sat on the settle. The nagging questions he’d kept at bay, like keeping hens from coming in back door, suddenly forced their entry, pecked at bare feet. Should he go at all? Did he really want to go? If he were to go, would he ever live on the family farm again? Would he not prefer being farmer or fisherman, or both, on this little island of his birth, building reeks (what the American cousins in Iowa called hay stacks), working with a pike, to being in a city, removing tumours, working with a scalpel? What was Dublin but traffic jam, Stephen’s Green but specious blip of breather for those on fast track, the Mater Hospital but a flophouse?
So that his parents, when they returned from mainland mid-afternoon – for they and car were gone, had said they might go to the creamery – would know it OK to read his mail, he placed the letter front and centre on the clevy, pulled on a wool gansey his Granny had knitted him, headed for what she still called the out-office –what his parents called the calf-house, he the shed.
Just inside the door, blade neatly tucked behind a collection of shovel handles, two five-foot crowbars, and an adze, the wooden scythe his grandfather had taught him how to use awaited him. A giant scalpel. The worn whet stone he removed from basin, stuck wooden handle toward the sky in back pocket, grabbed the scythe between blade and right-hand grip, and set out for the sloped pasture – its grade too steep for John Deere – way west, the hanging field the family called it, as it was hard to approximate size given slant. He was determined to try to bring this area, which he personally reckoned an acre even, back to life by cutting all the carcinogenic bracken at height of season three years running. And here it was, the third year, the bracken thinner, shorter, seemingly slower to reach maturity, but still rambunctious, ready to multiply. Next year would tell. Always next year.
When Percy reached foot of the hanging field, he stopped, gazed across the harbour below, checking for basking shark slicing dorsal and swinging caudal, seal heads, anything unusual, then scanned far side of island. Not a farmer in sight, not a movement anywhere except for fluttering laundry behind Mary Paudie’s house and the cows and wash he’d been hearing before – plus noise of tractor far side of Sleive Ard: Johnny Fineen, he assumed, or Gerry, or both, hard at it as ever, probably hauling cocks.
Placing left-hand grip of scythe on ground, blade at eye-level, he lay left arm along back of the blade, pressed down, gripped it tight between thumb and forefinger, and started sharpening razor-edge with his right. The bit of rust disappeared in seconds, and rhythmic sound of whet-stone, with lighter pitch on run toward tip, and darker, heavier grinding note on movement back, became his foreground world.
In no time he found himself in rhythm as good as that of any dance, but one in which his partner had more to do with his inner self than any swaying sweetheart from school, even Miriam, whose left breast throbbed as the softest smoothest flesh he had yet touched, and whose mind reached as deep as the well below, with water as pure. She’d already been informed she was in at University College Dublin. As he stepped forward with left leg, knees bending that little bit, and body – but neither head nor from knees down – turning toward the left, he launched away from Miriam into cutting swing, a swing he finished at the very moment when left foot had received all forward-moving weight. And as he stepped forward with right, he returned scythe to starting position. With right foot again on ground, the power of the cutting swing would begin there. Again. And again. And again. Here and there he made allowances for change in slope, a stone, a hump; here and there he failed to finish stroke as scythe stuck in unseen briar and he’d have to start swing over, this time with much more oomph; and every five minutes or so, he’d stop, re-sharpen the blade, the pause in physical activity an integral part of overall rhythm.
As he came to the end of each of his two-hundred-yard swaths, he had to be more than usually circumspect with every swing, otherwise some hidden protuberance from drystone ditch would nick blade. At this juncture he’d insert tip of the blade behind bracken stalk closest to wall, or growing out of wall, and start swing there. Slowly wall came into view. He grinned as he compared himself to an archaeologist excavating an ancient site. What are walls, he thought, if not a critical part of the cultural heritage of Eire; why, your drystone ditches, says Da, they surround 1600 fields on this little island alone; and on the mainland, some are so old they run under peat bogs. Percy enjoyed fantasising on what meitheals had built such walls.
In the middle of field, he suddenly became aware of tractor approaching, its sound blotting out all others; then he heard someone calling. He turned. There, on the drive, Colm, bachelor farmer of neighbouring townland, beckoning. Colm, of shortest temper and longest memory. Colm. Beware.
Laying scythe, along with whet stone, beside stile at foot of the field, he vaulted over, ran down.
“What is it, Colm? Gees, man, are you alright? Your face, it’s almost purple.”
“No bother, lad,” Colm panted. “It’s me cattle. Could ye give me a hand? The vet’s due in an hour and me effing herd’ve broken out of the crush. Hop up onto the wheel well and we’re off. That’s the ticket, lad.”
Colm braked one rear wheel, powered forward with the other, front wheels turned sharply. The tractor all but pivoted around, leaving a rut, Percy noticed, in the dirt drive, and they were off.
“The bastards leapt over my gates.”
“Is your bull – what’s his name – Clancy, is he with them.”
“I’ll give you a pike, don’t worry, and if Clancy comes at you, just jam the end of the handle in the earth and let Clancy take the brunt.”
As they descended the three-hundred yard drive, Percy had to grip the wheel well to keep from bouncing off. Colm concentrated on driving as quickly as he could. When they reached tarred but savagely potholed lane, he swung up hill, quickly shifted into third. Three minutes later Colm turned into his drive and halted tractor at barn, beside which Percy saw the cattle crush with three twelve-foot galvanised gates flat in the muck.
They re-set dripping gates, tied them together with bright yellow baling twine, tied poles onto their vertical edges, ran bare electric wire round the small enclosure at six-, seven-, and eight-foot-high intervals.
In half an hour they’d finished preparing the crush. All that remained was to herd eight head of cattle, including Clancy, in. The narrow area had small sturdy four-foot gates at either end, with one side barn, the other side what they’d repaired and heightened, and electric fencing sparking here and there above the lashed-together gates.
“Lad, off you go, bring the buggers here. I’ll be ready to close this gate and lock ’em in. See, I’ve a bucket of supplemental nuts here, and when I shake it, you know, the noise alone should call ’em to me.”
“Clancy?” Percy’d heard too many stories to pretend he didn’t know the danger.
“Clancy be damned. Just bring ’em in. Here, here’s a switch, this bit of hose. Just swat any reluctant rumps and they’re in like Flynn. Wallop away.”
“And the pike?”
“Inside the shed door. Over there. That’s it. Good man. Now off with ya. We’re almost done.”
Percy’d never examined Clancy up close before. Brown as the soil itself, heavy set, neck as thick as three cows’ necks put together. His eyes glowered. In his every step Percy sensed swagger. Cock of the walk. Bully. Like master. He smiled darkly at comparison.
As Percy approached from around the back side, and Colm started rattling the bucket, the cows headed straight into crush. Except Clancy. His front legs seemed to Percy to paw the earth. And then the bull turned, came at him, head swinging, body lunging.
“The pike, the pike,” Colm shouted. But Percy dropped the pike – which to him had suddenly become a useless toothpick – and hotfooted it to the closest wall, vaulted over, Clancy like a locomotive behind. The wall, four-foot thick and four-foot high, gave way. Clancy shouldered his bucking slow-motion way straight through. Percy jumped far enough to be clear of downed wall, then leapt onto top of remaining wall to ascertain what Clancy would do next. Clancy came straight at him. This time Percy jumped at the last second, but stayed on top of wall and away from previous break. When the new section started to crumble, Clancy seemed stuck for a moment before he powered through. Percy, still atop wall, ran down to nearest corner of field, leapt into next field, hunkered down so that Clancy couldn’t see him as he hightailed it to yet another field.
“The pike, you eejit,” he could hear Colm shouting. “The pike.”
Approaching barn from far side, Percy got close enough to Colm to call out, “I’m here. I’m safe. Do you want me to drive that bloody bull into the crush with your tractor? And you shut the gate once he’s in?”
“I’ll drive him with the tractor. You wait here to open the gate once he’s headed here and close it once he’s in.”
“No, Colm. Sorry. I’m not going to be on the ground in any field with Clancy. Ever again. You open and close the gate over there and I’ll drive in, then you close the gate and be ready here for him. Look at him! He’s snorting, pawing the earth. I’m not certain I’ll even be safe on a tractor.”
“OK, you drive him here. I’ll man the gates.”
In five minutes it was done, Clancy in crush with other cattle. Percy stopped tractor beside crush, shut it off, hopped down beside Colm.
“Whew,” said Percy, “that was easier than I thought. Now you’re all set for the vet.”
“And when are you going to rebuild my ditches?” asked Colm, who now stood before Percy and looked at him with the same kind of glower Percy had seen in Clancy.
Feeling predicament closing in, Percy suddenly heard himself say, “When I see Clancy eating nuts out of your hand in the middle of this field, I’ll rebuild your walls. Then I’ll know he’s safe enough to approach with a pike.”
Colm’s face turned even more purple, his cheeks, his forehead, his ears. His fists tightened. But he said nothing.
“By the way,” added Percy, “when was the last time you approached Clancy in an open field, with or without a pike?”
“Out,” shouted Colm. “Out.”
“You’re welcome. For risking my life.”
Percy turned, walked lane back to family farm, began to breathe huge relaxing breaths as he mounted drive and continued on to stile at foot of hanging field. Soon he was back into rhythm of scything. Soon he could make out sound of wash of sea beneath mooing of cattle.
By dinner time he’d finished the acre, meandered home, replaced the scythe in out-office, learned by phone his parents were spending the night on the mainland, picked himself a mighty salad, à la Miriam, from the kitchen garden, lettuce, peas, tomatoes, chives, radish, broccoli, into which he added some mackerel he’d caught and smoked earlier in the summer. And at ten o’clock, after several hours read of The Perfect Storm, a storm he felt he’d been through that day, he hit the hay, ker-plunk.
morning he took breakfast tea outside and became aware, above swaying masts and
wheeling gulls, of tractor with buckrake depositing haycocks beside rectangular,
stone-bordered foundation. The base had already been spread. A flock of children
playfully trampled steady pikefuls laid flat by their elders’ exertions.
the previous two weeks he’d seen four hayfields mown, then Johnny, day after
long day, labouriously hand-turning, tossing, tedding cut grass. Then he’d
studded his fields with hundreds of grass cocks, later compressed them into some
thirty mother cocks.
hat and Miriam’s ardently vetted bottle of sunblock, in no time Percy was
trampling away with the kids. Bits of hay, bits of banter, he felt, covered them
all. At first imperceptibly, the reek rose. Now and then someone checked the
stack for straightness. Now and then Percy tumbled a kid into the hay, or they
ganged up on him and he pretended.
corner’s a bit proud,” he heard from the sweating artists below.
tramp, tramp. Every step he tried to compress hay without jostling stack. Back
and forth, back and forth. He was in a different rhythm, the rhythm of a beast
of burden trudging monotonously round and round a menial yet essential task.
stack grew too high for the safety of all but the oldest boys. A wooden ladder
materialized against the west gable. The work became more serious, especially
with wet, heavy fog menacing its way across four miles of sea from the Fastnet
Gerry raked the reek. Percy placed his pike along edge of stack, stepped on it.
The barber below, with a long-toothed rake, combed out from the sides loose and
protruding hay. The reek, Percy imagined, became the kind of frequent customer
the reek grew, his trampling slowed. Three men piked up to him and he now spread
and positioned hay as well as packed it. The two boys descended. Incumbent on
him was to make certain the reek had strength. He spread occasional pikefuls
across the middle so that fresh hay interlocked with that from the other side.
the reek started to tower, it also began to jiggle beneath him, feeling more and
more like a mountain of slow-motion jelly. He wondered how many miles as beast
of burden he’d walked already.
if on cue a parade of women rounded the corner by the nearby ruin. With heaping
trays and baskets stuffed, they proceeded to a level patch where they spread
tablecloths. The fog had skinned off north, blanketing Roaringwater Bay.
juicy egg-salad sandwiches oozed between fingers. A kind of salmon spread he
imagined Darina Allen would give her eye-teeth for melted between his canines. A
cool but burning brown liquid coursed down throats. Uisce beatha. Water of life.
In scene reminiscent of his favourite sixteenth century painting by
high-horizoned Brueghel the Elder, introduced to him by his Appreciation of Art
teacher just two months back, he and his neighbours ate, relaxed, told jokes,
curled asleep beside the reek. Johnny tip-toed over, dumped an armful of hay on
Freddy’s face. Wild shouts, gesticulations, laughter. Kids scampering about.
Percy heard one of the seventy-year-olds exclaim, “This is the way it used to
be!” He imagined Breughel chuckling in agreement.
he’d time to eat his hunk of fresh apple pie, the rest were back at work, so
up he went, pie and all, and stuffed in mouthfuls while forkfuls of hay flew his
Reposition. Push the corner out. Coming from below he heard bits of
conversation: Too low to the southeast. Haircut time. Have we enough hay to
finish her off? Is that a drop of rain – or a gull? This cock’s too much wet
in it. Lay it flat, man, not so much at once.
pushed a mug of water up to him on the end of a pike.
shortest of the three men piking up now had it tough. Percy reached his pike
down and snagged each of his efforts, pulled them the rest of the way up. The
top rose to eleven, twelve feet above the ground. Freddy came up and joined
Percy. Two on top, two piking, two hauling cocks from adjacent fields, kids
raking fields to collect last wisps, the wet stuff they’d thrown out earlier
dry enough to be worked in.
subjecting the reek to another haircut and a severe beating, Freddy and Percy,
using pikes like grappling irons, snared an old fish net, folded in half, piked
up to them. Presto, the reek secure, covered tight with bright orange, blue and
black twine. They beat three more humps out, climbed down rickety ladder, tied
stones and heavy pipe along net edges so that winter gales wouldn’t send their
creation to the Scilly Isles.
it was finished, cattle guaranteed hay through winter. They gathered up odds and
ends, made for the house, where yet more food, drink and banter were passed as
they sprawled in the front yard.
returned home, took his only late afternoon nap of the year. When he woke, he
peered out bedroom window. There, across the harbour, she stood, four-square,
straight, golden. On channels of bedrock. And he knew – as much as he knew he
could know anything – that dealing with essential matters had more meaning to
him than it had had before. For his own good, for his own little life, he needed
to become a doctor. Too bad a tractor does the work of eight men, cutting you
off – cutting Colm off – from neighbours, from Breughel scenes. Why, if you
don’t start with yourself, not with your Mum or Da, or Miriam, or Colm, or
Johnny, he realised, you can’t do good for anyone. Only then can there be a
chance of meitheal. In operating theatre. In backyard. A few moments with a
bull and a pike or two, and a neighbour or two, had taught him that.
write his acceptance of his acceptance before bed.
Blow-in Molly Chisom rose early one foggy morning intent on chronicling the off-to-mart procedure. She sought what she called “the raw real”. If Irish photographer John Hinde could snap survivors emerging from rubble after bombing raids on London, she, surely, with her Yankee grit, could photograph Gaeltacht islanders loading cattle onto the mailboat. If the locals would let her. If she didn’t invade their privacy. If she didn’t become too fussy about what they thought of her, whispered of her. If. The challenge was human relations. And herself. The hardest thing to change, she realised, was not belief but attitude.
Over the last two years she’d made a start as a professional photographer. The Cork Examiner’s small circulation West Cork News Supplement, issued on Fridays, regularly published her work, but she had more an editor than an audience: he knew her, played her along, published, on average, two photos of hers a month and gave her credit. But no one else knew her. And why should they, after all? Her photographs didn’t have, she knew, a distinctive style; people couldn’t see one of her studies and say right away, “Oh, that’s a Molly Chisom.”
She set off, her two goats tethered out from a drystone wall she was trying to clear of bramble and gorse. On the way to the main pier, she noticed, sure enough, that her neighbours’ cattle had been before her: unmistakable brown smudges covered the ruts and ridges of narrow lanes; Rube Goldberg contraptions of shipping pallets and barbed wire blocked gaps to pastures; empty molasses barrels interspersed with rotting lumber barred access to front yards. Here and there frayed blue baling twine wrapped sea-salvaged timber in the shape of x’s between stone pillars. On dilapidated galvanised gates she’d never seen shut before she deciphered the words “Keep closed by order.”
Local colour in dim light. Glad she had loaded a roll of ASA 400, she shot a series of the jury-rigged gates. She knew better than to publish these in the WCNS: Her neighbours might be embarrassed. And she too believed in clean linen, not dirty laundry. She wasn’t a whistle-blower. Yet she wanted truth. So she wouldn’t not take the pictures. That was it. That was the solution. Her growing archive helped her be ready for . . . for she knew not what . . . for. . . eventualities: One day a picture, perhaps, in The New York Times, The Boston Globe. Or in a spiffy magazine like ISLANDS. Glitz? Aesthetics? Be careful, little upstate New York Molly, you could blow out as easily as in; after all, John Hinde sold out, made the big bucks. How could he have trapped us in that romantic postcard style? Don’t get caught, don’t catch.
To her her adopted Irish island was authentic rather than picture postcard, honest rather than backward, “raw real” rather than kitsch. That’s what people need to see, to learn to see: Values, yes. Not rock stars and fashions but people going about their daily lives. But she’d best be vigilant. She realised her camera threatened, that she could be experienced as a spy, a voyeur. And she feared that she might fall prey to using people. The moment she treated a human being as an object, even if an aesthetically pleasing one, she committed nothing short of evil. That’s how evil begins, that’s what evil is: treating people as objects. Hang on to that, she thought. Point of reference.
Within sight of the pier, but out of shouting range, she happened upon a posse of cows moseying home, back to the Glen. They sauntered, they sashayed; they had, she decided, the very air of whimsical freedom about them. Up the hill toward her they came, now and then nipping a tuft of dry grass growing out of a wall. She knelt down to try to make them look as though they were looming into the picture. Click – included the harbour behind them in the shifting fog; click – the ghostly green mailboat at the end of the pier; click – the cattle coming on, almost upon her, the purple bell-tipped foxglove beside the ditch.
Standing, she slipped the encased camera into a pouch fastened tightly around her waist. Then she decided she’d be of assistance by herding the cattle back to the boat. They had, after all, already stopped their uphill procession when she rose. But they wouldn’t turn when she stepped toward them; they were resistant, downright stubborn, pawing at the earth. Before she could drive them down hill, they broke over a feeble stone wall rather than reverse direction. They traipsed about in an unmown field. It was early July. The tips of the grasses swayed heavy with seed. She had, she realised, unwittingly complicated the situation. “Damn, damn, damn-all,” she muttered. “Murphy’s Law, you’re alive and well on Cape Clear Island and in the hands and wits of Molly Chisom!”
Undeterred, she clambered over the new gap, careful not to twist her ankle in the clutter of stone. She scooted around the cattle – they now skittery – and succeeded in driving them out through the new gap, but, again, they headed homeward. She remembered her neighbour Fineen saying, “A cow, she do nothing but mischief. She do, she do, she do.”
Seeing wild gesticulations from the pier, which she interpreted to mean, “Stop them at all costs!”, she breathlessly managed to scurry past the cattle on their right where the lane widened into a lay-by. She pivoted, positioned herself – she thought with false bravery – in the middle of the road. She spread her arms and yelled, “Whoa, girls, back you go, old bony ‘craytures’. Back, I say! Turn! Turn, you villains!”
They broke by her in a stampede. Fifty yards further on they slowed to a brisk trot and continued along the road to the Glen. With the disused harbour on one side, and enshrouded, craggy, gorse-growing cliffs dropping down to the road on the other, she couldn’t get in front of them for a good quarter of a mile. And by then she’d have missed what she came to photograph, the loading on board of cattle. She headed for the harbour.
Wet with dew and sweat from scrambling though the high grass, sneakers soggy, camera tight at her waist, she wondered what guilt she bore, when Matt came ambling up the hill and met her at the top. He explained to her that those cattle had been “sucker bait”, meek trained old dears he’d placed at the head of his herd as he drove all eleven down to the harbour. The sucker bait he’d then intentionally turned loose, knowing they would find their way home, while the ones he wanted to sell were penned behind makeshift gates at the end of the pier. He patted her consolingly on the back. Molly couldn’t quite tell if he was patronizing as well as nice.
When she and Matt arrived at the foot of the pier, a group of four farmers in front of them were vainly – click – trying to coerce three heifers toward the mailboat berth, but no go: one brown maverick broke away – click – and dashed off, frisky and carefree as a rambunctious young bull. Matt and Molly together tried to block her path, but she swept by them with the disdain of a locomotive. Molly attempted a shot of the disappearing critter, but knew it was wasted without proper foreground, contrast. If only I could get one good one, just one, out of every roll, she thought, I’d be happy, happy as a harbour clam. Happy as a Baltimore Bay oyster with a pearl.
Matt leaned toward Molly and said, “Did you hear what I heard?”
“What was that?”
“I could have sworn I heard her nibs say, ‘See you next Wednesday, chump!’”
They laughed. No, he had not been patronizing, she knew now.
Molly looked for a vantage point from which to view the scene. Partly for her own safety, and partly for that of her F-3, she selected the pile of grey booms by which the safe harbour was closed off in severe storm. She hoisted herself up onto their top, some four feet high. From there she had a firm platform and could command the length of the pier as well as down into the mailboat’s open stern deck, where the cattle would – if all went well – soon be snugly tied for the crossing.
She counted twenty-two cattle, seven goats. They were cordoned off at the end of the pier. Farmers and the ferryboat crew, some holding the makeshift gates, constituted a movable pen. The sling was made ready, the boat’s hydraulic lift put in motion, and one sturdy beast found herself miraculously flying. Click, click, click. Once the heifer was deposited on deck – click – and secured by halter and rope to one of the ship’s bollards, a group of four was herded – click – toward the shipside’s open door. Although the tide was coming in, there was still a decent drop, and the cattle balked.
Molly saw sixteen legs brace. Click. One bullock had four men working him over. Ger pulled the halter, George yanked the tail, Fineen walloped him with a piece of plastic hose, Seán pushed against the rump. Click click click click. She hoped she would capture the sense of manure and curses flying, of men struggling all out. His knees buckled as he went in, click, but he righted himself, click. As the men turned for the next, click, the stubborn bullock bolted and sprang out, click, amongst grand swearing in Irish and English. Click.
Molly heard Seán say, “No fear, no fear. Once he’s been in, lads, he’ll in again. Next time’s easy, duck soup. A little tap and a yank on the tail do the job. No hiccoughs, lads!”
The scene repeated itself. Molly tried to witness the comedy and strangeness and danger of the struggle. Cattle bolting, cattle balking, four feet locked against all movement. Cattle and men slipping on streams of dung. Seán would go first for a tail and twist it into a tight circle over the vent. That formed the swirl on which he set his shoulder.
Men grunting, grimacing, panting. The red of hydraulic hoist, the blues of stained boilersuits, the browns and whites and blacks of cattle. The enclosing, intensifying fog.
As if on cue, the sun came out. Molly upped the F-stop, finished off her second role of thirty-six, loaded an ASA 200. She too was sweating. Hadn’t Ger tried to turn his face away from her lens even while in the thick? Was she perceived as just a blow-in busybody, or as a photographic journalist, or as an historian? It wasn’t fair, no, no, she recognised, to hope the latter. She remembered reading some work by Laurens van der Post in which he remarked that primitive people believe a camera steals the souls of those it photographs. Hey, hey, girl, do you think Capers primitive? Are you guilty of unwitting condescension. That’s an attitude to work on, girl.
Are you aiming some insidious, dehumanizing high-tech gun at those you like and admire? “No, Molly my girl,” she said clearly to herself, “something too much of this. Get on with it.”
Since she had the lay of the land, she ventured out to the end of the pier and tried a new angle. Even more light facing south. Aperture up to 18. She made adjustments. She alternated lenses, her zoom for close-ups, her fisheye for bulky scenes, her portrait lens now and then when she could sidle close enough. But best the zoom. It enabled her to be less obvious. It gave her freedom. Maybe. Everything had to be so tentatively qualified.
And then she heard commotion at the foot of the pier. Niall was leading his bull, the one she had heard had gone through a three-foot thick, five-foot high stone wall last week. He couldn’t be trusted any longer. He’d pulled out his tether twice. Besides, the calves he fathered often died at birth, too large to be winched out without being crushed in the pelvic passage.
The bull could still, usually, be led by the nose-ring. Carefully Niall walked beside him speaking comforting, soft words, sometimes crooning. Everyone moved respectfully aside.
In the silence Molly could hear Conor muttering over and over again, “Fair dues to ye, boy.”
The bull could not make the jump down: he might break a leg with all that weight going with him, or he might so rebel he’d bolt. “A loose cannon like that on deck, dive for the bilge.” Matt had come up behind her.
The captain, who oversaw everything from behind the wheelhouse where he worked the hoist’s controls, motioned Molly and Matt to get well out of the way. She squatted behind a bollard at the pier’s end, ready to jump into the sea, Nikon or no Nikon. Matt hunkered down beside her.
Slowly, the mates positioned the two slings under his belly and placed their ends together in the crane’s hook. Click. Despite the muck, the sailors looked as though they were walking on eggshells. Molly captured the look of relief on Johnny’s face as the hook’s safety flap came down, locking all four sling ends in. The mates stepped back. The captain edged the lever forward. The cinch tightened. Click. The surprised bull hung there, two inches off the pavement, pawing the air. Click. The ship tilted to starboard. Sparks flew from where the hooves momently touched the pier. Niall’s relief Molly framed. Click.
And then she concentrated on the bull. She felt as if she had some captured god himself before her and caught him high in the air as he was swung out over the stern deck. She caught, too, the ship’s white wheelhouse behind the brownish-orange bull, the green harbour water reflecting the pub, a yacht moored in the background, a look of rage on the bull’s face. His bellow filled the bowl of the harbour. She had him. She had him again. She had her picture. She had, she imagined, a bellow from out the sky.
Niall scurried onto the stern deck, caught the nose-rope as the bull was lowered. Click. Niall took several turns around a cleat, and as the bull was dropped to within inches of the deck, Niall took in the slack. Click.
She had photographed clock-work. All cattle and goats aboard, scrunched together, secured, ready for the sea leg of their journey to the mart. She became conscious of herself taking a massive breath, letting the air out slowly, completely. Whewwwo.
But to be thorough, she shot the aftermath: farmers walking down the steps to the sea to rinse their hands, a mate efficiently hosing the skid marks and general muck off the pier, groups sitting about relaxedly having a smoke and chat, a few in boilersuits leaning over from the bridge to observe their livestock. Yes, Ger was turning his face away. Was she within her rights, she wondered. No, rights had nothing to do with it. She was nothing but an interloper. She would let him know she’d publish nothing that included him.
When the tourists going out began to arrive near nine o’clock, the freshly washed pier glistened in the sun, the cattle sent up their odour from the stern. Between the cattle and the passengers metal gates had been tightly lashed together. When they saw the bull, most of the tourists, despite the sunny morning, entered the saloon of their own accord. The captain motioned to the inquisitive that they, too, because of the bull, would have to travel inside. When they started to object, he just said, “In.” They obeyed.
As the mailboat steamed out the harbour for the mainland, George went up to Molly and said, “Please, no photographs of me, not in anything. No way. I’m sorry.”
She assured him she would never use any with him in them. She wouldn’t, no no no. She couldn’t, she realised, use any shots without permission from each soul. Maybe it was good that life was complicated.
On the way back to her cottage, she stopped, leaned on the seawall, and stared blankly out over South Harbour, on out to sea. A Galway hooker was sailing across the mouth of the harbour – but no shot: it was all by itself. It couldn’t be related to anything else. Unless. And then, realizing she had no answer to her blow-in photographer’s predicament, she felt a surge of assurance, almost as if Matt had put his arm around her. “Not all problems can be solved,” she said aloud, not caring a hoot if anyone heard her; “the arrogance of the western world teaches us that all problems can be solved, girl, and it simply ain’t so. But you can learn to live with your problems, to become conscious of ’em, focus on ’em, hold ’em in view, suffer ’em. That’s the best you can do.”
earth felt unusually solid beneath her, the air tasted fresh, rich. She chewed
several mouthfuls, straightened up, traversed the long hill home, answered the
goats’ bleats with a “Hi ya, fellas!”
Tomorrow, she decided, she’d work on oystercatchers in flight. On
Friday, Matt had invited her to photograph while he guided the mould board
plough behind his pony Paddy. Should she use black and white, she wondered, or
colour? Both. Could she treat Matt and Paddy as one? Could she click on that
“sheer plod” that “makes plough down sillion shine”? She’d see all in
due time, she decided, as she crossed the threshold into her island home.
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