Sunday, 26 December 2010


One day in December 1959, just before the Christmas holidays, I was summoned by the rector of my boarding school, to be told that my father had arrived to take me to visit his mother, who was dying. I had been called out of geography class, and a few hours later I learned the geography of my dying grandmother, which was that of a continental shelf, with a plentiful supply of fish in its waters. Her bed in the hospital ward was an island and around it lapped the ocean with its abundance of fish. 'Look, look. Do you see the fish flapping over there?' she said to her grandson, just before the end.
But her grandson's geography was mica, quartz, and other substances that glittered in rocks. It was cast-iron, stainless steel, copper plating, Shanks' vitreous china, asbestos, formica, and other products of industrial countries rich in colonies and/or mineral resources. He was a foundry, a smelting works producing durable surfaces that kept everything out. He was impregnable and glittered. He was a robot, a being of mechanical intelligence with complicated wiring inside, a Frankenstein in whom the beginnings of an emotional life sizzled and fizzled and frizzled in a repeated series of short-circuits. 
         In other words, he was a teenager, the kind of creature which had only recently been heard of, a mild self-injurious sort of mythical monster, incredibly sullen and responding positively only to pop songs, which seemed to have some way of slipping through the defences and feed with hope the heart that languished neglected in some corner of the complicated ironworks and power stations of its own creation.
         Got no bags and baggage to slow me down,
         I'm a-travellin' light 'cause my feet ain't touchin' the ground.
         Travellin' light, travellin' li-ight,
         Well, I just can't wait to be with... my baby tonight.
         I remember looking out the window of a bed-and-breakfast in the village of my grandmother, gazing out on the dark winter street, the rain glistening under the lamps, while my father was preparing, at a mirror somewhere in the room behind me, to attend the removal. It had come to that. My kind old Granny was dead, and I did not feel any emotion of loss; instead the words of Cliff Richard's song came to me. They came to my mind as light into darkness, as future promise. I was sixteen now, and soon it would all be over, I would be free to do as I liked. Soon I would be free to be with my Baby Tonight.
         Meanwhile, a bed and breakfast was a nice kind of place to be staying for a night, better than the college or home. A bed and breakfast was the kind of place to which you might take your Baby. You would have to make up false names, of course, and pretend to be married. The landlady would give you a funny look, because you were so young. Some landladies, Scanlon had told me, even asked to see a marriage cert before letting you have a room. Scanlon had also told me that very young couples could get a quick marriage in a place in Scotland called Gretna Green.
         I felt a surge of sorrow the following day, at the funeral. I remembered it a few years later in one of my first pieces of modernist free verse:
My grandmother died with visions of flapping fish
In an ironic city hospital with notices requesting silence,
And was buried in the old Schull graveyard, this side of the ruins,
To the grating of emotion through horror, overlooking chopped winter 
         'Ironic' was transferred epithet, because I thought it was a really strange aspect of the hospital to have notices requesting silence in a ward of old people like my grandmother, where the first thing that struck anybody who entered was the pre-death silence, which absorbed into its vast dome the occasional ramblings of the patients. 
         The 'winter waves' serve to confirm for me a vague memory of a grey day, an icy wind from the sea, when the teenager I was stood at the graveside of his loved grandmother, and hardly knew what to feel, or how.

From memoir in progress, 'The Hungarian for Cheese', © Ciaran O'Driscoll 2010

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