It All Happened So Fast

Before We Forget

Reflections on the COVID-19 pandemic

It was a different Dublin. Most likely it was a different Ireland altogether, but I couldn’t say for sure; I couldn’t go far from home.

On a Saturday evening, just before eight o’clock, I glided across the city by car. It was the longest and furthest I had driven in three months, from Raheny to Rathmines, via Ballybough, Smithfield, The Liberties, Dolphin’s Barn, all in the hope of avoiding any Garda checkpoints. “It’s very important that I collect my bicycle Guard. I need it to work from home.”  “Get your arse back home,” they’d say.

Every road and street on the journey was busy.  But, just busy. In the way nature is busy, but doesn’t get in your way: the insects climb, fly, build, the trees grow and swish, the wind cajoles and the clouds make their way importantly to their next point of business, too busy to stop and talk. In all that motion, there is absolute serenity. And for the first time in Dublin’s history – or perhaps the history of my memory – humanity had achieved serenity.

Ballybough looked like it does when Ireland has lost a soccer match in the World Cup – all the people, nothing to celebrate. But there was no sport, only the mild threat of disease and death, and yet an air of contentment and joviality stretched from the Tolka to the Royal Canal as people ambled, queued for take-away, or sat in sun chairs outside the front porch. A nameless festival never to be repeated, but remembered often.

Equally, the Grand Canal stretched its beautiful limbs under the warm embers of a late-May’s evening, with small groups of people calmly al fescoing amidst the bullrushes and recently cut grass with blankets, baskets and flutes. From Dolphin’s Barn to Rathmines the banks were busy, but just busy. I had never seen an evening so busy, and yet so relaxed.  There were people, but they were here. Not going there. Not rushing for the eight p.m. reservation, not getting a taxi to make it in time, not living for the expectation and passing the reality. They were all here, to enjoy the moment, as it could only be enjoyed. But dare we ask now, as it should be enjoyed?

That is only a fantasy. It was a passing glimpse into a transient world that found happiness where it could. As like all the greatest of romantic notions, they are based in times and places that do not last: a sense of desire heightened by the dread of losing it.

The following evening I glided again along North Dublin Bay’s coast on my bike. The still waters about Bull Island’s wooden bridge nodded gently in agreement with the coalescent hum of May’s last day, when the Irish Summer prepares to welcome Official Summer, and people pottered about a pedestrianised island taking pictures of a cirrus-capped sunset that gently stroked the brow of the Dublin mountains farewell. Along the promenade all the way to Fairview, the same spirit of enjoying nothing to do and all the time to do it could be read on the bodies of the small groups of people adorning their blankets. By the time I returned up the Howth Road, I observed so few cars that I only took note of the buses. The air was so still, so sweet, and so clean, I’m sure I smelled the dinner of every house I passed.

Our actions were based on avoiding death and suffering in greater numbers. So many have died. Some have died in the cruelest of circumstances. Those that have survived have endured pain and suffering that many will not comprehend.  Away from sickness comes worry, about work, about money. We are being forewarned of economic scenarios that will no doubt be used to justify the tightening of belts and screws for decades. There will still be greed, uncertainty, fear, sickness, even death. We must ask ourselves, how do we meet it?  Will we always be graced with picnic weather? What happens when the lack of economic and physical freedom threaten us once again in the depths of Winter, at Christmas time? Who will tell the children that Santa Claus’ magic can’t overcome the need for social distancing in the workshop, and toy stocks are low, or empty. What does turkey taste like over Zoom? We will picnic on our couches, instead. I can only hope, that perhaps even in the dead of Winter, over the faint glow of an electric heater and a TV special, we may still find the same serenity.

Of Alcohol & Christmas

When I was twelve years of age, I made my Confirmation as a member of the Catholic Church, and willingly took part in “the pledge“. The pledge is an odd legacy of 19th century Irish society, in which various Catholic and Protestant leaders urged people to refrain from or reduce alcohol consumption, and which has survived, despite Ireland’s slightly unhealthy and overwhelming obsession with drink.  Perhaps, considering the regular tragedies related to over-consumption of alcohol, something as diametrically opposite as “the pledge” makes sense.  It’s a weighted reaction to a weighty problem.

Standing on the alter of that church, I remember watching my friends leave, and hearing how some took the pledge very lightly, with some even joking that they would get drunk that very night.  I would have felt slightly disappointed, thinking that some would give up so quickly.  There we were at the turn of puberty, so much of the innocence of our youth running past us.  The inevitability of growing older coming hard and fast.   Why embrace it?  Why not wait a bit longer?  We have the rest of our lives to be adults.   Because so few adhered to the pledge, and because I was naturally stubborn, I tried to be different, and yet had been influenced by my mother’s recommendations.  For years, as a child, I would always chug glasses of fizzy drinks within a few seconds.  My mam would say that I shouldn’t drink alcohol if I was going to drink that quickly.  It stuck in my head, and from then on I intended to avoid drinking.  As the teenage years rolled on and ‘knacker drinking’ become de rigueur, I must admit, I became slightly snobbish toward the whole thing.

It’s mainly around Christmas time that people ask me why I don’t drink.  If it’s not at Christmas parties, it’s before Christmas parties, or after them, or around the time people are preparing or recovering from a massive session.

It can be a bit of show stopper, or a conversation killer.  The shift in mood is downward, with an immediate group of listeners gently going silent as if to make way for the awkward, social pariah who has to explain why they are different, like somebody with a chronic infliction explaining their condition, or somebody of different ethnic or social origins trying to explain why they’re there;  time taken from nonsensical merriment to give due consideration to those less fortunate, or who don’t quite fit in.

I usually jest to make light of the conversation, stating that the main reason I don’t drink is because I might piss the bed.  That always gets a laugh, but then I remember that people can piss the bed when drunk, so I might actually be embarrassing the drinker.  Maybe I could tell them about the times I spent cleaning up vomit at parties, because I was stone-cold sober, thinking of what my friend’s parents might think when they came home?  Or standing in the city at 3 a.m. waiting for a girl in the group to stop crying over ‘that bastard’ and realise that that song wasn’t about her?  It’s not a party ’till a girl cries, usually at the bottom of the stairs, still talking about ‘that bastard’, and being comforted by a bitchy friend who throws dagger looks at anyone who comes near.  Christ, what a nightmare.  I hated alcohol growing up, having to listen to that drivelly shit.

Imagine explaining that to a group at a party?  Dullsville.

I could also tell them about my addictive personality: about how it’s taken me nearly ten years to come to terms with and control an eating disorder;  how I could eat an entire tin of Cadbury’s Roses, even the orange caramels, no longer enjoying them, to the point of agony, because of a self-destructive void within that cannot be satisfied?  Sure, why not throw some alcohol into that vortex of misery?

No, thanks.  They’d be backing away with raised eyebrows.

The truth is, not drinking can be a terribly isolating experience.  While people always praise me for not drinking, telling me that I’m much better off, healthier, richer, they can proceed through the evening becoming more and more distant, harder to converse with.  Anyone who knows me would agree that I’m probably a pack leader when it comes to loud, rambunctious jocularity.  But the fun ends when you stop getting feedback, when your jokes fall silent on gently smiling faces that are clouded by an alcoholic haze, moving further away, as I’m left talking to myself.

And I’m still there, twelve years of age, standing on the alter, watching my friends leave, going to a places to which I still haven’t gone, and probably never will.  If I am so better off as is, why don’t they come back and join me?

The solution is, as always in life, moderation.  I’ve learned to not be a judgemental prude when it comes to alcohol, but I haven’t gone so far as to enjoy or appreciate a good glass of wine.  Perhaps it’s something I need to consider:  to taste, experience and socialise around an alcoholic drink;  to discuss its finer points;  to contrast and compare.  But not to develop a dependency; to learn more self control;  to make it as frequent and inconsequential as it is to the sophisticated continentals.

Whatever about me, in this season of increased consumption, please don’t hurt yourself by drinking too much.  2014 has been a tragically shit year on a global scale.  Don’t make it worse by fucking yourself into a tree at 100 Km/h, or suffocating on a cocktail of cheap beer and curry chips while you sleep.  Do what I can’t do yet, and enjoy, savour and appreciate what you drink, but in good health.

Break

“Yes, it’s fine tomorrow, but you’ll have to be up with the lark,” said Mrs. Ramsey, before hanging up.

Unfortunately, Tom had shot the lark during yesterday’s hunt, and so overslept, missing the boat to take him on the excursion to the lighthouse.

The light, Spring air still hadn’t given up its dampness, causing a luke-warm sensation underneath his flannel shorts and shirt that was brushed away by a slightly cooler, less clammy breeze coming off the sea.

Down the boardwalk from the house and onto the beach, he strolled barefoot while admiring the large, cumulus clouds that hung on the horizon, well defined with contrasting whites and greys, like painted planetary bodies from a science-fiction set.  The hint of sea mist gave an off colour to the sky overhead, but the defiant sun gave the headland a chance to shine in the distance, the distinctive clock tower as beautiful from here as it was up close with all its fine, imperial detail.

Down the beach he stumbled upon the unfortunate figure of Toby, Mrs. Ramsey’s son.  Toby was middle-aged and largely single, but carried a sense of youth the many considered to be affable, but more experienced sufferers considered to be stupidity. Even his appearance suggested that he was still dressed by his mother;  an over-sized, bald infant with white tennis wear that was far too restrictive.

Tom, feeling laid back and unusually amiable, saw to helping Toby prepare the small boat with its oars, the vessel a bright blue colour.

“I guess this means you’ll come with me to the lighthouse”, chirped Toby.

“I guess it does,” Tom replied, flatly.  If he’d known that helping was an acceptance of a disguised invitation, he’d have accidentally flung the oars with great vigour into the retreating tide.

Donning their life jackets, Toby took out his sailors hat and whistle.  “Scull the oars old chap.  I can’t both blow time and exert myself, of course,” his unapologetic, dumb grin bearing deep into Tom’s rage centre of the brain.

Each blow of the whistle, Tom pictured bringing the oar down on Toby’s head, his dumb grin increasingly looking more painful, until the last, long stroke brought the fore of the craft crashing into the pier of the lighthouse, Toby landing on his back, half choking on the whistle.

Defiance

For its crime, the tree was incarcerated in a square, grey, open-top prison.  Banished from its natural realm, the Great Spirit had grown angry at the continued disrespect during the Winter months, not shedding its leaves and continuing to grow defiantly in the low, Winter sun, aiding its living brethren in harsh times.

 

“You shall bear no fruit for the birds or the animals.  The Winter sun will be hidden from you, until the arms of Spring pull away the covers over its distant memory, and only then in the long daylight shall you be given the right to grow.  Your companions will be small and jealous.  Your carers will be bored and indifferent, and will see you only in the dullest of moments.  The breeze from distant lands will pass high overhead, with faint eddies giving glimpses to the senses, reminding you of far away and hidden joys to which you are no longer destined to bare witness.  And if you remain obstreperous, your ignorance to my Great Design will be in vain, for in the long darkness of Winter your green leaves shall remain hidden from those who hope to glimpse such untimely beauty, and your display will fall blind on lifeless, stone walls.”

 

The tree shrugged.

 

“What of your grey walls?  Below me sits the Earth that you created, and from it I suckle on your eternal wealth.  You take your vengeance and hold it dear, and hope that it does not consume you, for the time will come when I grow beyond your frozen concrete, frozen like your vengeance, stunted.  And I will rise into the year-long sun and from afar all the birds and animals will recognise that symbol of defiance, and come to me for comfort and food, away from your frozen tundra of greed and misery.  And all mankind shall hold its axe steady, as they look on, hopeful, reminded of the reality that beauty is timeless, and will not wait for time.”

 

This story is an opposing variation on an old Cherokee story entitled, “Why Some Trees Are Evergreen”.  It is documented here, under the section “Greenness in the midst of Barrenness“.

The Surgeon

She walked into the prep room, alone and naked.  Raising her forearms skyward, parallel, the anti-bac gel was applied in dollops to her finger-tips by ten self-adjusting nozzles, tracking her hands’ movement.

 

The gel was applied with enough force, viscosity and mass, with full consideration of her hand size, the room’s temperature and the pre-emptive bacterial scan, that it ran smooth and perfect down her fingers, down across her palms, the electromagnetic forces between the molecules being enough to ensure that no part was left uncovered as the gel sought out itself in every direction.  Down her wrists, down the forearms until the warm, almost tickling sensation touched her elbows, her arms left with the sensation that a taught, delicate film enveloped them.

 

From in front and behind, two pairs of claws gently draped two, perfect, thin white layers of synthetic – meshed nylon and wool; warm, organic, elastic – over her form, latching together on her shoulders with the faintest adhesive.  As the claws retracted, two panels revolved outward, again in front and behind, consisting of vents of varying shape and size.  From them blew a jet of hot air, the current directed primarily to the edges of her body, around her arms and legs, such that the synthetic crumpled, retracted and adhered to itself and herself, leaving her covered knee-to-shoulder-to-elbow in operating material.  There would be no gloves as the instruments would be operated remotely.

 

A small cap of the same synthetic was applied to her head, leaving her to walk barefoot on the firm floor that felt as if it had goosebumps, breathing, as it was perforated with minute holes to allow the continuous stream of air to forever carry downward any foreign bodies: skin flakes, eye lashes and expelled moisture from her breath.

 

The patient, facing a routine appendicectomy during their lunchtime, was already being prepped with a course of medicines – anti-inflammatory and anti-biotic – such that there would be little to clean up post operation, allowing them to return to daily life with only the slight physical discomfort of having a body part removed.

 

She approached the already-active terminal, the camera hovering over Mc Burney’s point, a faint overlay of a thermal image revealing the position of the inflamed appendix.  Placing her hands on the panel, relaxed, fingertips sending changes in EM waves to the device, she proceeded with the incision almost by thought, the action played through in her mind giving enough, minute direction to her fingertips.  Open, she moved the claw into the wound, grasping the appendix with four mechanic digits, a fifth simultaneously cutting and cauterising  at the base.  The offending article removed, two thin needles, web-thin, with two joints in the middle, snaked back and forth across the wound leaving a faint trail of contracting stitching, the wound pulling closer together as the device completed its journey.

 

The patient is awoken shortly after, the surgeon standing over, smiling, ensuring that all is felt well, barring the obvious pinch in the lower abdomen.  Machines capable of doing so much, but not yet in offering the comforting welcome of a caring human.

Five Words

Plain; Shadow; Mountain; Light; Glass

See the great glass ceiling
unveiling that eternal shadow
shifting on the mountain’s brow,
with dim light cast down
upon the plain, sloped snow-face.

Shadows give way to Spring day-sky
welcoming its plain blue crown,
turning the mountain into a deity’s throne.
The light from starless Heavens, still turning, invisible,
like glass clockwork, always keeping time.

 

Plain Shadow Mountain
No light for the valley trees
They are still, like glass

The night-club light buzzing and
dispelling the grungy shadows of
plain-faced punters,
a mountain of muscle puts paid to
a weapon of clumsy glass.

Morning light on the footpath,
a mountain sits atop the mind,
crushing the shadow of a man who thought plain
to attack a bouncer with broken glass.

Awake

Lying astern to groggy morning
I lay in ache with strongest yearnings
for Neurofen or the Opiate Queen
to unveil her visions on ceiling beams.

A pounding heart,
a pound of flesh.
Phantom scabbards
form some painful mesh,

as nature seeks to unleash vengence
outwards to my every ‘pendage.
via virus which burns within
like purgatory for an unknown sin.

Rattle my bones and makes me weaker,
This blasted virus digs even deeper
’till one of us sees the bitter end:
either me or this dogged pathogen.

Black Heaven Starless

Those two birds strolled upon the sand

hiding secrets, hand in hand.

Two blue sea shells found as a gift

offered to his betrothed in a passion, in a fit:


“If these two shells were to be your eyes,

should I gaze at them for all our lives.”

To which she said, “Then they are yours

for you to worship forever more.”


Along the months a Prince believed

of a beauty whose eyes held a raging sea.

Finding her on the lonely sands

he knelt and held aloft his hand:


“Should these rare diamonds be your eyes,

then for all my life I’ll be your prize.”

To which she said “Then they are yours

for you to worship forever more.”


Through passing years a distant King

heard of a Princess with eyes like rings.

Once seeing her standing on lapping shore

rode quickly to her side and swore:


“If those starry Heavens were to be your eyes,

such beauty would bring about my demise

as thieves and enemies ransack my stores

as I stare lovingly, forever yours.”


To which she said, “Should you be broke and I a Queen,

no stars in Heaven could keep me keen

on a daft old fool who cannot see

that I only love what is given to me.”


And there she stood amidst the night,

a pauper’s, Prince’s, King’s delight,

a vision of beauty staring coldy

at black heavens demanding boldly

that these far treasures be hers alone,

’till what was left was sand and bone.

Missed

“I’d fight back” I told the Judge
“and hit him with the honey-pot,
square to the jaw then temple,
’round he’d spin to his troublesome lot.”

The hammer cracks across the rumble
of an uproared court full of jest,
a lovers’ quarrel once raw and deadly
now a scene for tabloid press.

Amidst the chorus, amidst the din,
the bailiffs coercing wild men,
the wigged coachman lashing
the whip of justice then

Two old souls meet through eyes
of yearning for guiltless days,
of simple affection, nothing special.
No gaudy ring or Shakespearean divide,
just love and love for all their lives.

Group

Raining hard tonight
Tears are falling from the sky
Miss you, Valentine