Friday, April 28, 2006

A History of Irish Dreams


In that moment when I have woken up – still in the most dark hours - but am still not confident of being truly conscious, sounds come to me, drifting on a breeze of memory, floating past my eyes, and just touching my ear-drums like the gentlest whisper of an exhausted lover. They might be a very light slop of the wind and moon pushing the river against the quays, the rhythms muffled and shaken by their paths along the stone streets and alleys to a bedroom window from decades long lost. They might be a hard rumble of APC tires pounding along pavement, tinged with the high-pitched notes of barbed wire vibrating on an e-chord. They might be the deep breaths of a vanished lover, a siren’s high-low echoing from far away but coming closer, the fall of a never forgotten early May rainstorm, a sound we all know must have been a gunshot, or of the door closing as my father came home, or of my mother’s feet pacing from kitchen to front window in fear.

And then I am awake, and the ceiling is above me, and the light of the always on television provides the room with a dangerous glow. I will get out of bed. I will stare out the window at the emptiness of the street below. I will go downstairs. I will consider pouring a beer down my throat. I will even open the refrigerator, and hold the bottle in my hand. I will consider just getting up. Making coffee. Sitting down and being productive again in these early hours, and writing. Sometimes I will even do one or the other of those. But usually not. Usually I will not make coffee. Usually I will put the beer back. Usually I will go back upstairs and climb back under the quilt and let my head fall into the pillow. Usually I will fall back asleep. Sometimes this will all happen two or three times in a night.

The field up at St. Peter’s was not much of a field when I was a kid. What’s that old Father Ted joke? “It’s not really a field, just a place with fewer stones”? Really it is not much of a field now. But it is what we had, and so we played there. Hours upon hours, all ages mixed together mostly, sometimes twenty or more boys on a team. It did not matter. You did not touch the ball much, unless you were both older and very, very good. And tougher too – but that was always understood. When I got older and close to very good I did to get to touch the ball often, although it was, most assuredly, nothing equal to the brilliant George Best moves I had dreamt as a boy. But by then the games happened much less often. Mothers kept the younger ones hidden inside believing that was how they could be protected. And the best had disappeared behind ski masks or into internment. And then we could not really even go to the Brandywell anymore, and Geordie went to play for some team in Los Angeles and then, just fell into drink. We all do, do we not? And there was not enough hope around us to build new dreams. So it is those original fantasies that still creep along my vision’s perimeter when I pass a field of boys kicking the football around.

When I think of that one weekend, and I think of it often, I call it the “Camelot” weekend, though I hope not out loud. There are dreams that need to held, to be yours alone. Then they can be much freer, and I think maybe safer too. During that season when, despite the calendar, the stones of the city had turned from warm and protective to cold, gray, and unforgiving, we ran. It was not easy. Movement was simply not easy then. We had silently slid from our bedrooms, snaked around those unbreachable city walls staying out of the glare of Army and RUC lights. We had run and hid, and run and hid, like the camp escapees we really were. Running across the Craigovan Bridge – was it two or three in the morning? – we had lain flat on the pavement when we saw headlights coming from either direction. We knew we had to be across and through the Protestant neighborhoods and out of the city before light came, and light came quickly in these northern latitudes in early summer. It took a whole other day and night to get to the sea, to the beach, and we feel asleep curled into each other behind the dune at the strand at Portstewart. For three days while parents cried and the Provos searched because back then you couldn’t ever have called the police and if you had they couldn’t have crossed into the NoGo zone anyway, we lay on the sand and splashed in the cold salt water and ran into the town to find bread and cheese, and we made love like teens do, badly and quickly but often, and with great excitement, and we smelled of the sea and sweat and each other. Until local kids found us, and I beat one of them up, and the RUC grabbed us and drove us back to the barricades, calling her a “little pope-girl slut” and threatening to cut my balls off. And all parts still come to me on certain nights, though not together, and the beach might be a different beach, and the bridge a different bridge, but the smells never change.

Coming to the kitchen door, yes, coming in from the back on an autumn day when the wind rose out of the north, coming straight down from the Faroes and Iceland and the pole and even if the sun had visible it would have stopped being able to really warm me weeks ago, the thick wool sweater, the knits of my ancestors, covered with the water drops that filled the air, and my ears and face red and stinging and I would fall into the corner by the stove, the peat fire filling this room with its phrases and legends and ma in the kitchen, the bangers sizzling in the pan, the thick sense of the mash reaching through my nostrils and into my brain and, yes, I would fall asleep there until the scream to come to the table. The warmest moment I can summon from my past.

The places that come unsummoned are the places where the bodies lie. They never change, though the backgrounds do, and the weather, and even the faces, and who I am and what role I play in each particular film clip running during that specific REM episode. There are too many bodies. And whether they died for this reason or that, for the cause or not, they have all died of the same thing. This island is cluttered with the lost ghosts we sing to as if they are heroes. They get their revenge on us by staying close.

On those nights when I am desperate for respite I pour enough pints into my brain and when my head hits the pillow I call to the thick rains that would fall and wash everything from the ancient ways of the city. That would chase those fighting inside or at least out of sight, and I in my hiding place under the rafters, could let the world be drowned out by the drumming of God's water on my family's roof. If I am lucky, it will do it still. I will sleep til dawn and arise to a very vicious, very welcome, headache.

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copyright 2006 by Ira Socol

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Easter Rising

Sometime near four hours past the midnight that began Easter we nicked a Ford Cortina off some Proddie "minister" in Dungannon – our own version of social justice in the anger of adolescence – and with three pounds collected from the wallets of fathers drove south across the border, smoking cigarettes and pot and wishing we had girls with us but of course they would be dressed in their best today, looking like candy confections, and going to mass and sitting between fathers and mothers and untouchable then and occupied with family suppers later so we might as well be on these roads, which were empty in these still dark moments of the holiday and so, like nothing else, belonged to us.

"There should'na be no Prods in Dungannon," Kevin announced, "It is the place of our kings and our church." "Go back to playing with yourself," Sean told him. "Play with your ownself," Kevin said, "ya ain't never gonna put that little thing of yours in Maggie anyway." They battled in the back, Brendan and me traded a joint and a beer up front and the sun began to push over the horizon.

There was nothing open in Monaghan to spend our three pounds on. We looked far more out of place than seemed possible, or maybe it was just the way we felt. So we dumped the car in an alley and went to the early mass and stared from a back pew at these girls of the Republic in their Easter finery – and a young priest watching latched onto us at the end and invited us to an Easter meal in the school, so we went there and one of those girls reached past me, serving bangers, and her hair brushed the side of my face and the smell of her soap filled my nostrils.

We walked back through a sun-filled evening and a night of stars and a dawn of rain. We sang every song we knew until we needed the quiet to surround us. It took 13 hours to get home.

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copyright 2006 by Ira Socol

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Not Only the W is Silent


Despite the physical evidence of the sun slowly sinking behind his head, turning the sky into an azure satin and the edges of his hair to a heated red, she sees her world as made of flat surfaces, where what is behind the corners is always out of reach from wherever she currently stands.

“Two more Smitticks,” he tells the waitress. He is smiling but his eyes are roaming nervously. “Smitticks…” the waitress responds, “Is that how it’s said? I’m new this week.” “Aye, lassie,” he laughs now, “the double-ya is silent and the aitches, well, they usually are as well.” “Most people round here don’t say it that way, are you from there?” “Aye,” he stays in character, “was raised on this as mother’s milk,” draining the pint, a thin film of wetness spreading on his lips.

“You’re so full of bullshit,” she tells him as the waitress moves beyond hearing, “do you ever stop playing?” But she is smiling. His performances spin the world around him, and at their best, well, as long as they stay away from the worst - she feels this surely, she loves the ride.

He stares at her hands. Always afraid of eye contact with anyone that matters. He trusts her as he’s trusted few people in his life, but he has never been certain of anything, not even that the sun will successfully circle the globe in the night and return in the morning, and so he still takes comfort in the infant’s belief that he establishes a certain level of invisibility when he dodges eye-to-eye gazes.

She stares at his half-closed eyes. She knows that on another side of her world of corners there is stability and comfort and reassurance, but from over there this level of magic would be impossible. The pints arrive, he asks for a mix of hors oeuvres that she never would have considered, but that sounds to her like both a fabulous meal and an inspiration. She wishes she could stand on an edge and be on two planes at once, but she has found that kind of balancing act exhausting and unnerving.

“You ever going to look at me?” she asks. “You’re so beautiful in this light,” he says, staying where he thinks he is safe.

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copyright 2006 by Ira Socol

Friday, April 14, 2006

Mother Mary Comes to Me

The clock says 3:45 in an electric color that once surrounded the clock, pushed a quarter hour ahead to ease last-call pressures, that lit the corner of the pub where my father would hold court in the evenings. Water leaks from the dark new spring sky and the dog, terrorized by thunder when the front rolled through, has finally fallen into a deep sleep.

The only dream of a night that has now included just a single hour of sleep has terrified without any of the ghosts of my past intervening. Is it progress to move beyond repetitive re-livings of historical losses? This dream was pure fear, ancient, eternal human fear. A dream a man could have had four million years ago. Perhaps I need to start at the beginning to truly move forward.

Television offers cold comfort in this strange hour. Should Americans use only English? Superman as an adolescent. News from here. News from there. News in a language I probably should, but cannot, comprehend. Game shows, vampires, murders down under. I stare - clicking the remote – cycling without purpose.

When I was young and it would rain in the night I would drift to the attic spaces, the storm covering the sounds of my movements, and I would lie on a scratchy old blanket in a place so dark I could not see my own hands, letting the rhythms push me into sleep and dreams of travel, escape, ocean voyages, and treks across an empty North American wilderness. Usually I would travel alone. But sometimes I might be accompanied by my own visions of the saints we prayed to: St. Jerome offering me a ride on his Triumph motorcycle, St. Francis cooking in the ships galley, pouring hot coffee spiked with whisky. Once, at age 12, Mother Mary herself - providing ham and eggs in a colorless café on the Alberta prairie.

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copyright 2006 by Ira Socol