THE DISPOSSESSED by Tom O’Brien
Being away for so long had made me homesick. When you’re young, four years seems a lifetime. The notion of swapping the concrete wilderness that was Kilburn for the more natural one of Currabaha for a few weeks seemed like a good idea.
Oh, I was brash and I was flash; my easily-acquired ‘Big Smoke’ veneer not so shiny anymore, but I was still lonesome. London was a great place for people like me – fellas with little inclination of getting out of bed in the morning – yet deep down there was always this nagging feeling that I didn’t belong. Where did I belong? That was the burning question even then, all those years ago. I didn’t know then, and I’m not sure I know now…
The first shock I had was seeing my father’s physical condition. He seemed to have aged ten years. And he had developed ulcers on his legs which made walking painful. His bicycle had been replaced by a moped – an NSU QUICKLY.
This contraption carried both him and my mother wherever they wanted to go with the greatest of ease. It was progress of a sort I guess.
The biggest shock, though, was seeing the electricity cables connected to the house. For years we had lived in a twilight world of paraffin lamps and candles. Now the place was ablaze with electricity. There was even an electric cooker and a TV. There was piped water too. No more dragging buckets up from the well a hundred yards away. The only modern convenience missing was a bathroom – and father was working on that. To be truthful, I had forgotten how primitive our existence used to be. London had seen to that.
“Speak to your father”, my mother urged. “He won’t make the first move”.
As we hadn’t spoke for almost a year before I left, I wasn’t sure how he would react. I needn’t have worried: he seemed as eager to talk as I was. The period of silence between us wasn’t referred to at all. Both of them showed a keen interest in my life in London so I invented a fictitious existence for myself. I don’t think the truth would have gone down well, so I told them what they wanted to hear. I felt a real shit telling them lie after lie, but what was the alternative? Tales of my gambling and thieving would hardly have endeared me to them.
Little things that I had forgotten, like people blessing themselves as they passed a church or drivers stopping to offer you a lift, reminded me forcefully that this world and London hardly spoke the same language. The culture gap was so great, the way of life so different, that my few years absence made me feel a stranger myself.
I was forced to play out the charade of the big spender when I visited the Dirty Bucket and other watering-holes in the neighbourhood. And suffer all the back-slapping and hand-shaking as I bought drinks for half the county. A prestigious job had to be invented too – so I told everyone I was I was working for the William Hill organisation. Which I was in a way. Someone got the mistaken impression that William Hill was a building contractor, and several fellows asked if I could fix them up with a “start”. I said I’d see what I could do.
One day I borrowed my cousin’s motorbike and rode up the side of the Comeraghs. And when I could ride no more I abandoned the bike and climbed. Finally, I stood in the shadows of Crotty’s Eye, a needle-like projection that eavesdropped on the valleys below. Idly, I wondered what Crotty, the highwayman, thought when he looked down on those plains. I imagined him, patiently sitting in the eye of the needle, watching potential victims grow large before his eyes as they made their way slowly along the mountain trail. And I visualised him,later, dangling from the gallows in Waterford City, where he was hanged for his crimes.
“Hey Crotty”, I shouted in the wind, “I bet you never thought the Clancy Brothers would make you famous” .
I’ll tell me ma when I go home the boys won’t leave the girls alone…
A highwayman, now that was the life.
Being there reminded me of Deirdre. It didn’t seem that long ago since we had swore our undying love for each other on this very same spot. Now I had learned from my mother that she was to be married to some fella from Cork in a couple of weeks. “Forever”, she had whispered in my ear. “I will love you forever, Terry”. It occurred to me now that “forever” isn’t such a long time after all.
Making my way back down I passed Lackendaragh’s Cave. It wasn’t really a cave; merely a couple of stone walls bridged over with galivanised iron and bits of timber. then covered rocks and sods of earth. The rear end was sealed with more stones, the front partly covered with fertiliser bags. I peeped inside but he wasn’t home. The place looked like it hadn’t been lived in for some time, so perhaps he had moved on. That didn’t seem likely though; he had lived half way up these mountains for as long as anyone could remember, coming down to the village on the odd occasion to collect his few meagre rations. I had always thought of him as Moses, with his long white beard and flowing hair. Perhaps he was dead.
The days passed in a pleasant alcoholic haze and I was well into my second week before I got as far as Tramore. Which surprised me, because I always felt some special ‘magic’ about the place. Now as I strolled along the prom all I felt was indifference. Oh, it was still a beautiful spot, and it was difficult not to be moved when you saw those big Atlantic breakers rolling into the bay, but when I looked back at the amusement arcades and fairground booths that dotted the sea-front, I realised it could just as easily be Brighton or Clacton. Or any of a hundred other seaside resorts. And I felt sad.
I hadn’t been long in the town when I noticed a girl hanging around the arcades giving me the eye. We got chatting and I learned she was from Belfast. She told me she was working as a maid in one of the hotels and it was her day off. Later, we sat on the pier, our legs dangling, and ate greasy chips washed down with warm Fanta. She told me her name was Marian, and said she had watched me ride in on the motorbike. When she asked if I owned it I said yes.
“I love the feeling you get on a big bike”, she said. “Don’t you?”
Then she asked if I would take her for a spin. I was only too happy to oblige and we soon left the town behind us in a ribbon of blue smoke.
The bike was a charging chariot and I was starring in Ben Hur as we negotiated the coast road. We flew low over Annestown and Boatstrand, slowing down only to negotiate treacherous hairpins. When the adrenalin finally gave out we found ourselves on the cliffs overlooking Bonmahon.
The signs of decay were everywhere. If ever a town basked in the shadow of former glory, this was it. Less than a hundred years ago, this was a thriving mining community, vibrant and volatile. The lanky main street once boasted rows of terraced housing – maybe not exactly luxurious living – but at least it radiated life. All that was left now was a ghost town. The sand dunes had crept relentlessly towards the remains of the Main Street, the only barrier to further encroachment the facades of the houses. They has been chopped off at shoulder height and were only recognisable because the bricked-up windows and doors were of a different colour.
We had parked quite close to a railed-off section of cliff. Here, too, the signs of decay were visible. DANGER! KEEP OUT! DISUSED COPPER MINES. Even the warning signs were faded. The copper, the houses, most of the people, long gone. Nothing left but some bloody great holes in the ground.
The summer day ebbed as we sat on the grass and talked. About everything – and nothing. Marian had spent some time in London, working in hotels along the Bayswater Road
“Most of the guests were sex-maniacs”, she said. “Everything time we went into a bedroom to do our work we needed armour. Many of them were Middle Eastern, Arabs I suppose, and they thought their money could buy them anything”.
She laughed at one particular memory…”one guest was still in bed when I went into his room. He had a book on his lap, a guide book he said, and asked me to point out a certain landmark to him. I am short-sighted and had to bend down to have a look. Well, he pulled away the bedclothes and you can imagine what I was left looking at! That was enough for me…I came home to civilised people after that”.
She would have returned to Belfast, she said, but most of her friends and relatives were fleeing the place. “There’s more of us in Shannon now than Belfast”. Then she asked me if I was a sympathiser.
I said I hadn’t thought about it much but I supposed I was. Well, if ever there was a collection box to be filled I always threw a few bob in. I had seen the pictures on the telly; hordes of them tumbling over the border, faces on them like they had seen Old Nick himself. And sure maybe they had.
Later, as the sun sank into the sea, we rode back into Tramore and terrified ourselves on the big dipper. Then we jousted in the bumpers; the head-to-head collisions sending her screaming with delight. When we had our fill of drink we went dancing in the Silver Slipper, and later still I asked her to come back to London with me. She said she would. To celebrate we consumated our passions on the still-warm sand with the Atlantic breakers lapping gently against our toes. Afterwards, I fell asleep. When I woke up she was gone. And so was my wallet. Ah well, that’s red-headed women for you.
The following night I went dancing in the Rainbow, with money borrowed from my mother. What I thought of as a palace now turns out to be nothing more than a glorified shed.
I watched from the shadows as a man scattered handfuls of crystals on the uneven floor. Occasionally, when the ballroom doubled as the cinema, the same man used to strike terror into us youngsters, curbing our exuberance with whacks on the head from his torch. Now, he was just an old man.
Later, as the hall began to fill, I felt like an interloper as I watched the age-old rituals unfold. The men lined up one side of the hall, the girls along the other. The space between was a sort of no-mans land, across which the two sides sized each other up. When the music commenced it was a buffalo stampede across no-mans land to grab the girl of your choice. Sometimes there was a sharp change of direction to grab a second or third choice when the initial selection was commandeered by somebody else.
I didn’t dance all night. I merely stood there and watched, and realised that I didn’t have the stomach for it anymore. Friends and acquaintances, I watched them waltzing and fox-trotting by me, happy in their world, and I knew I wasn’t part of it anymore.
Absence hadn’t made my heart grow fonder; it had only distanced me from them and their way of life. For the first time in my life I truly understood the expression I had often heard in London, “you can never go back”. Its true – You can never go back.
A few days later I “acquired” some more funds and returned to London. I’ve never been back.