There he was, a priest in the sun; like an actor on his mark. He looked away, effacing, as if to say ‘I have you’, from the start. ‘I have you’, I thought.
I had just guided the stylus onto the first track and as the scratchy hum from the speakers confirmed contact I heard a faint rap on the front door. Who in this wilderness had come calling? I silenced the sounds, wiping the first bars of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue from the air, and went to see. Outside in the August haze was a shrivelled looking creature all in faded black. His pursed lips threatened to whistle or begged of thirst. Nothing else in his face stood out from a desperate wanness. The delicate head was balanced on a narrow contortion of skin and pipe that slipped through a stiff yellowing collar without fuss. Why didn’t it choke them. And all their medieval repression? Need to make martyrs of us all. The concealed body was, no doubt, lacerated and pierced; like Sebastian? I needed shot of this intruder. Get back to the glory of my man on the turntable.
‘How can I help you?’ says I.
‘Oh,‘ says he, ‘aren’t those little flowers just beautiful?’
‘Bluebells.‘ I watched the snowy cat pop her nose around the blistered green gate.
‘A sight,‘ he offered. ‘This blessed earth.’
The cat squeezed herself under the bottom rung of the gate and padded towards the geranium pots, the audience taking her seat. She settled there and took us both in; the nanny-goat priest and myself, the young fellah that fed her.
‘Yeh, blessed with human care. Can I help you at all? ‘
‘Oh yes, your sign “cabbage plants for sale”?’
‘Yeh, they’re round the back . . . in a bed . . . late plants. Yorks. English I’m afraid.’
I could smell the heat off the straw roof a foot above my head and I wanted to move this along so I led on through the yard and into the side garden, by the gap in the privet hedge. He overcame his inclination to go first and found a gait that tried to say authority, but just about coaxed a shuffle that kept up behind me. I could sense the cat follow us by a series of creature short-cuts. As I passed by the corner of the house I opened the tap that fed into a yellow hose. The sun blazed in the vegetable patch. The blue-green cabbage plants were collapsed, splayed imploringly on the cakey soil.
‘They’ll be in need of a drink,’ says I, ‘but they’re fine.‘
‘Do you take a drop yourself? ‘He was now doing a wringy-hand type thing and giving me a crotchety look. I wondered if he would suddenly pull out a pamphlet; something with the dark shadow of a man in despair on the cover.
‘I like a pint.’ I checked my level of civility. ‘And yourself?’
‘You are new around, yourself. Dublin is it?’
‘Yeh Dublin. I’m here three, four months. Happy enough. So far. Good to be away from the Smoke.’
‘Is it? Very?’
‘Oh no that’s what we call Dublin. The city. I suppose it is. In the winter.’
‘You can have as much smoke as you want here. As long as it’s legal. Light a fire you know. You’ll get a bit of turf? The winters can be cold.’
‘Yeh I’m hoping for a simpler life. Easier to heat and all legal.’
‘Oh sure it’s a great community here. To move into. Rural people. Quiet people. Mind their own business.‘
‘Quiet. Sure. Well I find them marvellous. Friendly. Helpful. I’ve good neighbours. Peg, Ned.’
‘They’d be Church of Ireland. Ned and Peg. The McConnells. Estate people.’
‘Oh I see what you mean. Well sure that’s a fact so.’
I saw the little blaze that his eyes had become; fiery little windows to . . . what? I moved around the other side of the cabbage-bed, reversing places, to get at the hose; and got him in my shadow. I opened the faucet at the end of the hose, and the warm water hissed and spluttered onto the bed. There was something helpless, yet dangerously unpredictable, about this man that now stood silently, watching me watering cabbage plants. The only sound was from the water plipping into the dry soil. I could sense the cabbages revive as the ground dampened. I wondered if I should try and revive this priest with a splash or two.
‘They’ll perk up grand when you get them replanted. How many will I give you?’
He had moved again blocking the sun. I held up my palm for shade as I tried to find his eyes. All I could see was the sun exploding from his head on top of his black form. His features danced into focus, x-rayed, and I saw that his eyes, like dark beads from a rosary, helpless in their shell holes, were staring back up at the cottage. I repeated,
‘So, how many?’
He turned back towards me.
‘Ah, let me see. A shilling’s worth?’
I plucked a couple of dozen of the frail plants from the wet soil and bunched them. I held them up, damp clay clinging to the tangle of translucent roots, for his inspection. He paid no heed. He was clearly not too interested in buying cabbage. He looked hot and bothered. I started back towards the cottage.
‘Grand so. I’ll get some newspaper.’
Something stirred in a part of me. A sudden sympathy? I turned back to him.
‘Maybe you’d like a drop of something? Above in the cottage? We can get out of this sun.’
He followed me without a word, in under the baking stems of the eaves, and I showed him into the end room and offered him one of the wooden backed chairs. The room was alive with music from the stereo I had turned up; jazz from Miles. The sun clipped the reveal of the window to the rear but a curtain was drawn to keep out the direct glare from the side window. Soon the faint shadow of the cat settled itself on the sill outside. The atmosphere in the room was peachy soft and my visitor seemed to soften too as soon as he sat. I wrapped the plants in newspaper and left them on the dresser. I pulled a bottle of Black Label from the old pine cupboard and held it up. He nodded his approval and I lifted two glasses in the fingers of my other hand. I thought of him washing his fingers in water from a cruet (his eye on the other cruet with his wine) during the altar ceremony as I placed the glassware on the scrubbed boards of the table in front of my man. I’m sure I saw his nostrils flare.
‘He is one of the lucky ones.’ He nodded toward the stereo and finished the statement with his glass tipped into his mouth.
‘Miles? Lucky? He’s a junkie.’
He drained the glass and gazed at me for a moment.
‘Was. He had such a long respite, ‘til recently, wherever he’s holing up. A great word that. Junkie. Sure aren’t we all junkies of one sort or another?’ This sounded like a sermon. ‘I am a fan of American jazz music.’
Where was this coming from? This priest that had been withering in the sun earlier was plumping up.
‘I thought you people called it “devil’s music”?’
‘Oh I’ve no doubt that some do. People call us things too you know. But no, I am a . . . an aficionado, I believe is the word I am looking for. Hawkins. Tatum. Bebop. Charlie Bird Parker was my all time hero. Unlucky Bird. Do you play anything at all yourself?’
‘Drums, just a bit. Rock. A little keyboards, not so well.’
‘You see I play a little myself. Piano. Not much jazz. Oh no, not in the parochial. It’s Chopin and Schubert all the way there. But in my youth . . . yes. And the occasional little . . . outing . . . still. Everyman has his holidays, and a few weekends you know. Oh yes little hobbies. There’s a good few follow the horses, National Hunt you know. And the doggies.’ His voice dropped into a whisper. ‘A fellow PP I know down in Cork goes to Brands Hatch and rides heavy motorbikes. And for another man I know, it’s Milan for the Opera.’
‘Normal is what you are saying?’
‘No, more than normal. Ordinariness is for small minds.’
‘But yours, your flock, what are they?’
‘Ordinary people yes. Their intelligence is of a collective nature. There is nothing small about faith.’
The desiccating priest from earlier now had traces of a glow in his veins. His arms moved more freely. He crossed and uncrossed his legs as he warmed to his thoughts. His fingers tapped rhythms to my only Charlie Parker album, which now did its thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute. He gave me his hardest look yet and I sensed a different dryness off him as he spoke again.
‘Great music, and literature, is good for the soul. Needed for the soul.‘
‘You respect modern expression then?’
‘Of course. Modern, post-modern. Labels. It’s the individuals that matter. Proust. Eliot. Joyce. Beckett.’
‘Might hold on there. Wasn’t Joyce on the . . . ?’
‘Sure of course he was. That started in America. With the postal service. He was a wonderful writer. Not easy. You like the Russians?’ He lifted Fathers and Sons from the table and glanced at the books stacked on the dresser.
‘Yes I’m a big fan. It’s a relief from all that heavy American Beat and druggy stuff. Burroughs. But I suppose all that’s good with you, fits in with the jazz? I much prefer the humanity of the Russians.’
‘Pre-modernist. Pre-revolution. Ah where did all that humanity get them?’
This conversation had gone a long way from the cabbage patch in the sun. He had become almost frisky. I was interested, but I got a peculiar feeling that I was being cornered. In fairness several peculiar thoughts went through my mind as I tried to figure this priest out. Better slow him down first I reckoned, or he would have me out of my depth. I offered to top him up. I thought let’s go that way and see if we can get this on to a different ground. Let him try and mark out his real territory there. And me mine.
‘So you are the boss-man of the church in these parts?’
‘More the boss-man’s man I would say. You are not a believer?’
‘You’ve drawn that conclusion. Why?’
‘Young man, down from the city, seeking out the simple country life. Listens to serious music, reads serious books. You say “yours” to me. No, I’d say you’ve no time for my faith.’
‘I’m not a hippy if that’s what you think. Not that decadent.’
‘Another wonderful word that. Your Russians would call jazz decadent.’
‘My Russians are all dead. And the new ones don’t think jazz is decadent. Not any more. Not for years.’
‘We are all in the same game. Trying to de-muddle peasant minds.’
‘Or keep them muddled. Isn’t that safer?’
I had turned the radio on to catch more music and now it was News time. The death of Elvis Presley was announced. An extraordinary thing then happened. My man was on his feet in the centre of the room. The feet were planted firmly, his spindly black legs twisting to a beat. He held an imaginary microphone in one liver-spotted hand and stretched to the ceiling beams with the other. Skull down, wisps of hair shaken out, he twanged out a version of “Heartbreak Hotel”, ‘Since my baby left me . . . .’ I watched this strange priest give an astonishing evocation of the tragic man from Tupelo, until I was interrupted by the shrill tone of the phone ringing in the hallway. It was the woman from the local exchange telling me my brother had been on earlier and offering to put in a call back to him. No doubt he had called to talk about Elvis. As I chatted with her about the stunning weather my priest went by me, departing with a shake of his raised hand, and disappeared into the dazzling broil. I finished the arrangements with the operator to return the call to my brother and left down the receiver and I heard the engine of his car rev and fade away between the ditches. I stood in the doorway and felt shaken up. The cat was watching me from under the fuchsia hedge, her body all pink now reflecting the boiling sun as it sank in a pristine western sky. I went inside to find a shilling on the table. He hadn’t taken the plants. But I figured, he had gotten what he had come for. Left me with something else too.
It was several months later before I caught sight of this priest again. I’d heard, or rather overheard, that he had not been well; had gone away for a while, hadn’t been seen about. The winter had come on cold and dark and one wet Saturday evening I was in the village shop bartering for my weekly groceries—I would bring in a box of vegetables to Oliver Nangle in the shop and try and swap them for tea and a few tins and some cold meat or whatever. This wasn’t the easiest process but the result was usually alright. Handy enough for onions and ordinary cabbage but understandably tricky when it came to my sparkier produce.
‘Bok what?’ Oliver grunted through teeth that clenched a burning Players, the ash, as always, about to tip on the ham he was slicing or into the sugar he scooped into a bag.
‘Choy. Bok Choy.’ It’s like a tight little cabbage. ‘Chinese.’
‘Jesus I don’t know Eamon. Chinese is it. Would anybody want it? There’s talk of a Chinese restaurant coming to Trim. Be the hokey. Never heard the like. Bok Choy . . . huh?’
A couple of women had come into the shop on their way up to evening mass and had mentioned that the priest was back.
‘Oh I much preferred when he was away. Sure that young Father Pat was only gorgeous. Oh I’ll miss him up there with his guitar and his big black curls.’
‘Get away out of that, sure haven’t you got big black curls of your own at home?’
‘Yeh. Out in a field. Oh God the PP is very dry though.’
‘You can’t beat the young priests now. I love the new folk masses.’
I decided to let Oliver off the hook on the Chinese cabbage. I had a better idea. I hadn’t been next nor near a church for years so it was just an impulse that took me. I’d recently been recalling to my brother the day Elvis died – the day of the priest’s visit; so I was curious too. It would be interesting to see this jazzer in action on his own stage.
I skipped in under the torrents from the black thunderous sky and sat in at the back of the church just as the lacy procession of altar boys led out from the sacristy to the altar. I recognised his shuffle as he came out behind them and I thought from a distance that the heavy vestments could crush him. He struggled through the ceremonies making only the odd faint sound. His sermon was inaudible and interrupted by his sickly coughing that resonated for me with the waxy smell from the wooden pews. I’d go on up to his house later and try and see him.
The housekeeper looked suspiciously at the little cabbages but she took them and marched off to the kitchen, holding one in each hand like grenades that might go off if she didn’t get them to the larder fast. I waited in the dark musty hall with the tocking of a grandfather clock for company. The parochial house was a big grim affair just outside the village. It had once been a glebe-house but now all of its better features, such as the window frames and gardens, had disappeared and had been replaced by something ugly and modern. The driveway had a plain feel with hedge-to-hedge tarmac and the hedges themselves were a uniform yellow laurel. The housekeeper showed me into a massive drawing room that had a dim fuggy green hue. There was a more homely corner that he had created for himself to one side of the big fireplace, in which a fire still sparked. He sat in a little armchair with cushions and a rug, and was lit from a standard lamp over his shoulder. A card table was laden with paper and a few books. I recognised the title on one. ‘Ah yes,’ he said, picking up on my curiosity, ‘yes, I have been revisiting your beloved Russians. Frightening.’
As the dimness dissipated I could see that the room was chock-a-block with a whole mish-mash of furniture. It had probably seen a thousand committee meetings. There was an old chaise-longue upholstered in a sort of greeny velveteen, several unmatched armchairs, various dining-room chairs, two big bookcases in the alcoves with diamond-panelled glass doors, a scattering of low tables and a piano. The floor had a nondescript dun carpet, covered here and there with very old and beautiful silk rugs. Who had had the taste for the silk? I sat on a large beige a-la-mode settee, with a faded cover. It was the dominating piece in the gloomy room.
‘So you’ve been away?’
He gave me one of his more petulant looks and told me that he had needed to take some time ‘out’ – that he wasn’t back to full duties yet. Everything about him told me that here was a man going through his tortures. Tortures, matched by the mouldiness of the green wallpaper with its darker fleur-de-lis pattern, occasionally accentuated by a flash of lightning in the intense darkness pressing on the panes of the two large windows.
‘Yes. So yes, have you ever had to question anything fundamental in your life? Ah well, you are very young. But still.’ His voice was faltering and he spoke even more deliberately and slowly than when we had met previously. I allowed a silence and considered my next remark.
‘I brought you your cabbage.’
Whereas before he had looked washed out, I now thought as I looked at him, doll like in his chair, that his yellowy delicate skin might be torn like parchment and his bones crumbled to dust by a crack of the thunder. ‘Atrocious.’ I referred to the weather. He looked at me with a kind of curiosity, or fear – which, I could not be sure – chewing and sucking at his lips; his terrified eyes a question.
‘I would like to play the piano for you. I am no longer able.’
The fingers of his right hand flexed and gripped the arm of his chair. I could see, in the contortion of his features, the effort he made to conceal the quiver in his left hand; trying to steady those fingers, until he finally managed to grip with them too.
‘Here let me help you. I’m sure you can manage something. You would like that.’
I helped him over to the piano. I almost had to carry him, so unsteady were his steps, but the slightest of smiles threatened to crack open his face. He settled himself on the stool and managed to join his tremulous hands. I opened the sheet music on a Chopin nocturne. He studied the page and then looked up at me, somehow achieving a wryness in his expression.
‘Be patient with me now.’
He managed the first few notes, falteringly like his voice, and then miraculously the melody began, like someone else had started to play. The fingers of his right hand moved in a strained fluidity across the keys while his left hand had somehow started to pick out a broken but matching rhythm. The piece he played–I can’t remember the number—was even more complex and beautiful given the painstaking nature of his action. The slow cascade of the rich notes of the melody was powerful against the melancholic beat. It hit me in that cleft at the back of my neck. ‘Bring on the night,’ I thought, listening to this controlled rapture, watching this sick man melt into his playing. It hit me then that he might well be dying. Had something miraculous inveigled me as a witness to this, his last effort, his last plea, for the aesthetic? It completely blew me away.
A pale rent was showing in the black sky where it joined the low tree line to the west. The rain had stopped and I moved impulsively to open a window. There was a thin sweetness to the harmonic of dripping water that penetrated from the outside in the current of cool air. A promise of spring and nourishment. I turned too late to seek permission, and saw that he had made his own way back to his dainty comfort by the fire, a puckish glint in his eye.
I never saw the poor man alive again after that night. Not long after, in the shop one day, I heard of his passing and made enquiries about the funeral arrangements. His name was Ivan Moore. I went back into that room in the parochial house to find the big beige settee had been replaced by trestles supporting his coffin. He was arranged in a brown habit. I felt those notes from the piano like an opiate flow into me and I touched his sage-tinted marble forehead to share this with him. I thought he might have thrown me one of his looks or tossed me back the jumping chords of Miles . . . . He looked good, and wise, like he could be in a warm bed in Kansas City or San Francisco, with his own. In some peculiar way this priest, this man, had managed to release me . . . give me something. Grace? No, gave me a bit of himself. Some martyr then. Both of us?
At the rainy graveside there were just a few of the older folk from about and only one stranger, a tanned elegant man, sharply dressed in a black overcoat and pink paisley scarf and holding aloft a black umbrella and with a sprig of snowdrops in a neatly gloved hand. A dark tiredness stained his eyes and he continuously brushed wisps of lustrous white hair from over the thick, darker sideburns that cut into his deep-lined cheeks. There was a rhythm to his hand movement and I tuned to it. It could have been Chopin or Davis but I settled for a low humming; ‘Since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell . . . .’