Love in Times Gone by

Love in times gone by

If you put our ages together we would be old and weary but we are not. That’s the way I like to think about it. We are barely half way to being old and weary.

Mrs Strong is going to Mass. In five minutes, Mr O’Keefe will pass by on his way to the same Mass. At four-thirty Mr Branigan will drive his tractor from the farmyard to the back of his house. And at close to midnight one or more of the Smith boys will be dropped off at the very top of the lane and sing as they make their way home.

Billy rang last night. He is worried about global warming. He’s always asking about the weather where we are. You’re worse than an old woman I tell him. Seriously Desiree this is important. My name is not Desiree. It’s Doreen. His little joke. It’s raining, I tell him, but what’s so unusual about that? It’s always raining in Ireland. I know, I know, he says, I’m a catastrophist.

The first time I ever had the urge to take a photograph was when I saw a face on one of the old apple trees in the orchard. It has two indentations where branches once grew. The ‘eyes’ are a little too far apart for a human face, but who is to say what passes for beauty in the world of trees?

You go, treading softly as you have been told. I pull open the draw slowly and let my hand rest on the wooden handle of the largest knife. I place it on the table and gather the others quickly, half expecting a muffled summons from the bedroom.

The spokes on your wheels spin, sparks flying from contact between metal and stone. The sweat is on you, hat tilted back, nodding when I speak without looking up until, job done, you stretch and smile, shuffling your hat backwards and forwards, big fat sausages for fingers, stamping your feet as if you were about to dance.

What are you doing with that? Taking pictures. Oh, taking pictures. Of what? Trees. Trees. People? No, not people. Not me then? I develop them myself. Sounds complicated. It is and it isn’t.

Mother asks will you have a cup of tea? I will. On the way out mother pumps you with questions about every foot of road from here to Dublin. That’s where I do it. The developing. Maybe I’ll take a look next time I come by. If that’s alright with you. Yes. I have an invitation then? You do.

Time aches. Crawls to the roadside and groans as it bleeds, its internal organs ready for the crows and magpies to come pecking. I curse myself for being so forward, for investing so much in you, the thought of you, in your hat and your smile and your great fat fingers. How many other women would you be taking tea with?

You’ve been coming to the house for five years but have forgotten me already.

Of that I am certain.

If only you knew how long I spend at the living room window waiting for your arrival. And when mother catches me doing the same while making her comfortable she says ‘that fella of yours stood you up has he?’ She refers to every man who passes within a ten miles radius as ‘my fella’. I have a fella who is a priest. I have a fella who is a parliamentary candidate for the Fienna Foil. And I have a fella who sells vacuum cleaners.

Fictional characters have also started to join the long cast list jostling for a part in my life, including the British soldier from our bed-time story.

Once the door is shut I allow my eyes to adjust to the dark. I visualise each picture: the light falling onto the film, the silver crystals bonding furtively to form the deep impenetrable images.

Carefully, I pull the leader beyond the lips of the cassette. A tiny glint and the untidy end hits the floor like an autumn leaf. The film winds slowly into the spiral. Mother is calling, but I take my time. She can wait. After a while she will think I am out in the field or on one of my walks and will relent.

Another blink of the eye and the end of the film is cut away from the cassette spool. I place the spiral into the developing tank and make sure it is secure before switching on the small red light. I am in complete control, pouring in the developing solution (even after all these years, I cannot abide the smell of the chemicals). We take it in turns, me and imaginary you, turning the tank upside down.

My hand unexpectedly brushes yours as we pass the container to and fro. We both quickly recoil like a clock being reset.

I am transported back to when I was a young girl and the shed was part of the milking parlour. I could be watching father tend the cows.

Water splashes everywhere as you clean the film. You are not tidy.

I only know the things you have told me. I know that if we collected all the old farm machinery that litter the fields and yards of County Meath, and took a bit of time to get them back into working order, we could harvest the whole of the Milky Way in one summer.

I know that you were married but your wife died. You are my age or perhaps a little older.

And I know the things I tell myself in the quiet of the night. I know that I am excited. And afraid.

Mother is an animal in the smallest zoo in the world. I am the zoo keeper. We have mother and spiders and ants and slugs. But mother is the star attraction.

My thoughts wander here and there, following you along the lonely lanes. I take all my clothes off and walk through the orchard. I lie in the long grass until my skin is itchy and sore from bites.

What can I tell you about me besides? I can be cruel. I once served mother sausages four days in a row. She wasn’t sure whether she could trust her memory so she said nothing. And I spend a lot of time staring out of the kitchen window, my hands sunk in warm water, waiting for it to slowly cool, unable to move.

I think about it. I do not think about it between me and you or me and the priest or me and the dashing captain. I think about it being in the air, filling my lungs, jamming my ears, invading the dark room, absorbing the light, casting shadows. It in everything we say and do.

My great grandmother is talking to my grandmother and my grandmother is talking to my mother and my mother is talking to me. But who am I talking to?

We should be more like trees. Let’s take root close to each other, make our own shade, blossom, be free with our fruit and let the years roll by.

I wake up and have a smoke. Mother tells me off if I am smoking and she isn’t but she is smoking now. I can sense her furtive contentment. We are both figuring out the route we will take through the day. My route is the knife sharpener’s route. I cycle with him, carrying some of his equipment and, then, near the day’s end, rush ahead to prepare his evening meal. And I take pictures of all the old men and women before they raise their faces.

I was born at home, in this house, on 17 June 1941, the first child of Philip and Louise Murphy. Sometimes it is best to go right back to the beginning, to the irrefutable absolutes. God should be the first and only true absolute and, in a way, he is, but he hides like a little sparrow chick afraid of the cat.

From my bedroom window a giant brown moth flies along the top of the hedgerow. Except it is Mrs O’Grady’s hat. She is out riding her pony and trap. I forget him for moments and I am glad of the escape from my obsessive thoughts but also sad, as if not thinking about him means that he is further away from me and will not return very soon.

It takes twelve minutes for the transformation to take place.

You try to hold my hand while the film hangs to dry but my palms are sweaty and it makes me feel awkward.
I am sure they are inexpertly conceived, but to me they are all beautiful – even the ones on the end that are half scorched by too much light.

Who’s that?” you ask.

An old man came to the door.”

That’ll be me in thirty years’ time.”

Just knocked on the door.”

What did he want?”

I don’t know.”

Man of the road.”

I gave him some apples and sent him on his way.”

I read the book to mother as usual before light’s out. She calls it ‘lights out’ but she is scared of the dark and as soon as I am out of the room she switches it back on again. In the morning, before she wakes, I switch it off. It’s a little game we play.

The novel is the story of a young British soldier at the time of the Irish famine, tasked by his commanding officer with finding a pretty young woman for the General. He is chosen for his angelic appearance: “Look into their eyes,” he is told, “until you see yourself”.

The soldier can’t find anyone who isn’t skin and bones. All he sees in the eyes of all the young women he meets is death. He realises that he has only one choice: to find someone and feed them up until they are plump enough for the General’s taste. He hits upon a dark haired beauty and gives her food stolen from his own regiment’s stores – food that feeds not just her, but her family and the whole village.

Mother smiles despite the accounts of starving children clawing at the earth. She knows the soldier and the girl will kiss before the end.

I hear your breaks squeaking as you pull up in the lane. You kiss the glass of the kitchen window from the outside. When you are set to work sharpening my knives, I do the same from the inside.

Your name is Charlie. It is a name that already sounds too familiar. I hear it being called over fences and yards and in public houses. Charlie, what’s yours? Ah, my man Charlie again. Let me introduce you to Charlie.

In my imagination I am always catching up with you in the lane, breathless, all the unspoken words forming a disorderly queue in my head.

I have something for you”, I say, as you straddle your bike. And depending on how I view my latest batch of photographs, I present you with a picture of a particularly handsome oak or ash or elm.

Mother would like to see you a moment,” I say. “She is having some trouble with moths. They are ruining her fur coat.”

You spend an hour or more with mother, talking with her as she sits in her room. You admire the fur and promise to return with some special powder. I hover in the hallway listening, then make my way to the old milking parlour, hoping against hope that you will find me there one day.

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