Tuesday, April 27, 2010

From an abandoned trip

Cork is a small town. I had been there six months. It is a valley that looks down into itself, best pleased with what it sees. When the flood comes, it will be covered, and no-one will miss it. I had walked its streets, asking work in every place, shaking with a fever brought on from an illness I had picked up in a river someplace and from humiliation. Nobody even wanted me for free, so I sat in the city library, with the men in moustaches and jackets that had been in fashion fifteen years earlier, who read every page of every newspaper; and I translated Heinrich von Kleist anecdotes, bitter little jokes, good jokes. I typed them up on the library computers; then I walked across the footbridge, through the back entrance of an old school, and up the sweet smelling stairs, past statues of civic leaders and sportsmen, past newspaper-cuttings on the illustrious, forgotten past. In a converted classroom, the editor of Cork’s literary journal, in his slacks and cord blazer, his jowly face, told me, unironic and unabashed, that his brief was not to publish German Romantics, that I should add in an Irish touch, maybe reset them in West Cork, so that he could use them. I hadn’t laughed in months and I didn’t laugh at this. I am still ashamed of not laughing at it. I am not laughing now. Cork is small. I was born there.
But it is a port town, and health comes back when you are young, so I headed down to look for passage south, thinking to find work on yachts. It is always a good idea to have gone out with a rich girl whose father once used you as skivvy on trips around the coast. I knew very little about sailing, but enough to bluff, and enough to not get thrown off at the first port of call thereafter. But there are no yachts in Cork. So I walked to Cobh, down the hill, past the cathedral, that I remembered as being bigger, down to the water. There were yachts, and I asked for work at every one, work for passage and board. I have since then learned pride when it comes to work, though it has only been a hindrance to me. Back then, I had no pride: I was just old enough and had seen just enough of myself to have lost it. Since then I have seen the world.
We were to sail for Marseille; I was to do the hoisting and lowering. We were on a new-looking 35-footer, bunks in the front and in the back. They were a French couple, doctor and nurse, fifties, with children my age. He had a bad back, which explained my presence. She was friendly. They paid me to do things for them, and seemed good people. Doctors in France are not rich. One of them must have had private wealth to have a boat like that. A pushy, over-competent girl was to cook, and make things less Lady From Shanghai- or Knife in the Water-like. She was from Western Poland. Her parents had most likely arrived into old East-Prussia from further east, after the war, but she didn’t talk about it.
The weather was perfect, wind from the south as we rolled past Spike Island. Our first stop was meant to be Bantry. We were going in the wrong direction, and this was still Cork, but I said I’d make use of it, and since I never got much good of around Bantry, I told them to pull in at Union Hall. I was fairly sure a boat could dock there - though it wasn’t listed as a recommended docking point - since my father had told me of going down in the nineteen-fifties to count coal being unloaded there for the creameries. It turned out to be ideal, which impressed my new employers greatly. When we docked it was already almost dark and that night as the boat creaked, the Polish girl prayed in a whisper. I see now that for her this was the first leg of a journey home.
My father had told me of a German who had drowned in a lake near Union Hall, a local celebrity because he used to wear sandals all the time, and didn’t drink. He dug holes for electricity poles, with a shovel and a pick, and used to jog, years before anyone else in the country started doing it. He had fought on the front line in the war, so my father had said. One hot day at Croaghalicky Lake, a man wagered he could cross the mile of lake on horseback, but he fell off mid-way and the German swam out and saved him. But he lost a ring in saving the man, and after swimming back out to find the ring was himself never seen again. I decided to go over and pay my respects.
We sailed the following day. We were able to run across the wind as far as the south coast of England, and even to France, but then we had to start zig-zagging and tacking down the French coast, and my work started to be work. France passed. By night we docked in ports along the French west coast. I knew it a little, vague notions of La Rochelle and Bordeaux. The only real proof of movement for me was that it got hotter as we moved south. And the Polish girl prayed every night, knowing that she was going somewhere, her prayers growing more confident as the days passed.
But then Northern Spain. I had heard that my grandmother had been in Spain as a governess up until the war in nineteen-thirty-six, but no-one in my family knew where, and I knew nothing about these places. Each place making its claim, nearly winning me, winning me, to the idea of her having been there: twenties, no longer in the first flower, reading about bullfights and Spanish suffragism, mass in that church I see calling above the town, not missing home at all – home here as much as anywhere -, her sisters maybe, she the eldest, they at home with her parents still, but the life here drawing her away from all that: more and more of conversations understood, young men taking more of an interest in her, she arguing now occasionally about the vote, reading a modern Spanish novel maybe, the bookseller smiling at her audacity, she putting up with the children for the sake of the parents – she didn’t like children much ever –, then all coming to a sudden end: Franco in Andalusia, in Madrid, home, home on a British boat, with all the others like her, caught up in something that didn’t exist yet for them, no bomb seen or bullet heard, following the war from Ireland, only getting one side of the story, first weeping, then infuriated, then resigned, then forgetting.
But as we moved, another town would call out its claim: a plumper, jollier spire; a more harmonious disposition of houses on the hill; just the fact of being there, now, the previous town lost to view and to thought. This place. That place. Which? All. None. We sailed on.
Portugal meant nothing to me. It floated past like a beautiful uninhabited island. We reached the Southern side of Spain. It was unlikely that my grandmother would have worked here: it was forbiddingly poor, or at least so I had heard, but what do I know about Southern Spain? So my thoughts began to find a new centre, and that was Barcelona. Nineteen-thirty-six: again there was my grandmother, even though she may never have been to Barcelona.
We sailed up the coast of Roman and Muslim Spain - Zaragoza, Cartagena, Segunto - never stopping off, each of us seeming to know, without having said anything, which city it was we were all dreaming of. I had a map of Barcelona, but nowhere to go when I got there, so I wandered, asking advice of passing locals as to where a person could get a drink. I saw no cathedrals, no museums. I found unfriendly illegal bars and herds of prostitutes, mostly African girls, doing brisk business with the equally herd-like masses of North European tourists and with locals heading home alone from the unfriendly bars. I fought off pickpockets bodily. With two French students I bought beer from men hiding bottles in mopeds on street-corners. I met married Germans bragging of their exploits with the prostitutes.
At night, lying in docks just on the edge of the city, I listened to the Polish girl’s prayers, as I had listened every night since Union Hall. Now they were no longer a whisper but a clear speaking voice. Hearing these Polish prayers which had accompanied me round the side of a continent, I thought of the succession of Romans, Moors and Christians. And I thought of Kleist, born and raised just this side of the present Polish border, deepest Prussia then, of how even places change. He could have written about West Cork. I had translated marriages and love stories, dreams gone awry, people trying to put order on situations. That was everywhere. Does a thing have to happen in your parish for you to recognise it? The Polish girl prayed a long time that night in Barcelona, and I knew her prayers so well I could have recited them nearly as well as she.
Again without anyone saying it, we all knew that we wanted to leave. We put in at Sète, on the north-west curve of the Bay of Lions. I had been to Sète before, and knew about the place: about the boatful of early Zionists setting out alone onto the sea from by the lighthouse. And I knew about the poets of the place, so I climbed the hill to visit another grave. It is as good a way to visit a place as any other, and better than most.
August in the south, climbing into the darkening blue sky, cicadas creaking as the boat had done, I arrived in time to attach myself to the last guided tour of the day. There are guided tours of everything, why not of Sète? The Americans wondered why they had been brought up here, and in the dull headstones saw no more reason to be there once they had taken a photograph of a tombstone with a plaque from the dead man’s boules club, an old man in a straw hat, leaning to play his shot. They looked down at the sea, deepening in colour as the sun set to the other side of the hill, its rays still reflecting off the windows of the lighthouse, passing on its light to the beacon that would come into its own before long. Then they turned and looked across the lakes, saw the last few skiffs inspecting the neatly laid out lines of oyster poles, windsurfers cutting angles. By the poet’s grave, in the half-light, the guide told us the tale of a song, and then began to sing. A song about travel and coming home, and she sang it quietly.
The Polish girl would be praying on the boat at this exact moment. The lighthouse came on. It scanned the bay, reaching out to Marseille, to Italy, to Israel, to Africa, to Southern Spain, to Barcelona. My grandmother, the great wanderer of the family, lay in a graveyard alongside her grandparents, not two miles from the house she was born in. A German soldier and labourer lay at the bottom of a lake in West Cork. The girl sang on. I looked out at the dark and the sea, and for a long while quite forgot where I was.

Hurling and Football

Rain clotted view. It is March. Like opposing outposts of an old war, he and his corner-back lean one against the other. He pitied him, equally as frightened and nervous as himself, having learned from some mean-spirited trainer, perhaps from his father, that the corner-back must keep his hurley against the man’s back: He felt the constant nudging, the length of the stick against his shoulder-blades, or the butt occasionally into the middle of his back. This was done more for the form than out of any real conviction, and was just to be borne: he could move away all he wanted; his corner-back would always follow. He knew the type: pallid, blustering, afraid of everything, who suffered terribly during every game, having no desire to ever touch the ball, but enough sense of others’ expectation to feel bound to make a show of trying to win it, and enough skill, whether innate or won through hours of lonesome slogging against the grey side-wall of the house, to occasionally get hold of it. He was shivering in the cold, holding by the one rule he remembered.
Was there still a war? A ball had been thrown into the mud some sixty yards away and had stayed there. The pelting rain kept from seeing any distance, and not one of the six full-backs and full-forwards in either team had come close to gaining possession. The going was too heavy for anything resembling hurling: solid rain. It is a trial match between under-14 selections from South Limerick and West Limerick, a trial for an eventual county Limerick team which will play in a weekend-long tournament at the beginning of the summer. Both he and his corner-back have lost interest and hope as half-time approaches, but neither speaks a word to the other, not even a word of complaint; it is too late now, and in any case both are too cold to speak.
His father drove him to the game and is now sitting in the car at the village end, the far end of the pitch. There is no way that his father can see him, and yet he is ashamed. His father has brought a friend along. Who is this friend? A light, grey man, with a flabby, heavily lined face, whom he has never seen before, and would never see again. At half-time, having never had a chance to even run for the ball, he is substituted. It is not surprising, as at least another ten hopefuls have waited on the sidelines in the rain, all through the first half. He makes his way to the car, without bitterness, wondering only whether his corner-back had also been substituted. He is from a very small club, and knows no-one else on the South Limerick selection. He changes in the car – he must have togged off there too – and the three sit looking out, other fogged-up cars around them, other fathers most likely, also pinned in by the weather. He sees that the car-park is separated from the field by a low mound, so that his father and his friend could not have seen the game from the car regardless of the weather. In good weather they would, he supposes, have stood out to watch. At club games his father always shouts loud encouragement and lambastment. He doubts whether he would have done so in the new and strange company. At this game no-one had shouted. There were no spectators, and the players were too nervous and cold to shout. It had been ghostly, and this lack of sound added to the isolation caused by the obscuring rain, and to the numbness caused by the cold, to furnish finally a sense of being alone in the world with his corner-back. Of course, at this moment they were in a cloud, hurling in a drifting cloud, but nobody sees and lives it that way. It is for them a sky as low as the grave, only worse because of hopes that it might lift.
His father does not really ask about the match; the friend murmurs sympathetically. In answer, he complains about his corner-back and corner-backs’ tactics. Why does he do him that injustice? He had suffered alongside him, with him, and also because of him, but now that he had vanished, though perhaps still there in the rain, he could curse him. This was affirmation. They drove home, he silent, the two men silent for the most part.
Hurling is a game almost without structure. Each man (“or woman” is to be understood throughout) must simply beat his man as a part of a series of three or four such contests, and the final man have the wherewithal to do this and to put the ball between the posts. You can sometimes help the man next in this series by making a pass, but this is relatively rare. Almost every ball in hurling is a fifty-fifty ball, one man against his “marker”; this a telling enough word. Each man is expected to win such contests. You are also expected to win forty-sixty balls. You win the ball, and then unless you are going for a score or making a pass, you play it as far as possible toward your opponents’ goal. The succeeding contest in the series then takes place. Because of the thoughtlessness of such a process, hurling is a game of instinct and attitude, and, in the end, a game of desire. You are a link in a relatively homogenous chain of desire, your only struggle being with the desire of your marker. It is hard to be desirous in the cold and the mud, in any field of activity, and hard also when you become aware of your corner-back’s personhood. Few things are worse in fact than marking a hurler only frightened into selfhood, whose sense of self does not encompass you and is reduced to his own expectation, oversensitive feelers searching for and touching the expectations of others, but ready to be pulled back at every moment. These are the hurlers who find no joy in anything, even in their own minor or major successes. These are the hurlers that injure you.
He was not called to further trials for the Limerick under-14 team, and in fact they had left well before the end of the game, when any arrangements as regards such trials might be announced. His father had said, peremptorily enough, “Let’s go”, soon after he finished changing; the friend had raised no objection, and he was too disheartened to suggest waiting. He had wanted to. Is this how it must be: resignation? Vicious hope having to be suffocated?
At home the fire was lit; commiserations were proffered embarrassedly. He complained, rightly enough, of the impossibility of the conditions, and was supported in this by his father. This event, its loneliness, the deep green of the firs behind the goals washed to grey by the rain, the cement bench of the waiting substitutes, they a vague threat, unseen but felt, looking out from behind the sheets of rain, the unhappiness of his corner-back in his awareness of his self, all this soon faded and was subsumed by other successes and failures.
The rain had turned to a mist that hid the mountain as he went out in the early evening. He looked at it though he couldn’t see it. He looked at the featureless grey and imagined that there were no mountain, but fields running to an infinite horizon, or a losing of lines of sight in ditches and trees. It was his job to clean out the cubicle house, a job he enjoyed, the methodicalness of the thing: animals out, stalls brushed down, centre aisle scrubbed out, lime sprinkled on the stalls, animals filtering back in tentatively, some, more canny that others, or simply more afraid of a cold day, pushing quietly in before he had finished. He was glad of them. Their smell was the calm, sweet smell of comfort, of refuge, the house warm with the body-heat of beasts at ease. In this house he had seen and assisted at many’s a birth, a starry winter sky peering in through the tractor-high doorway. Were Joseph and Mary to seek shelter these days, it is here they would find it. As he sprinkled the stalls he eyed the dead crow hanging by its feet in the doorway.

Football is a different ballgame. Yes, fifty-fifty balls are an element, but much less so; it is about the team, about passing. The ball, quite simply, does not go as far, so your job in releasing it is to find a team-mate. Kicking as far as possible, though defended as a strategy by some die-hards, is only a last resort. Your are thus forced to feel yourself part of a structured unit, to have a sense of your own responsibility as regards the outcome of the next one or two in the series of struggles for possession. Indeed, football is less a series of struggles than is hurling, and more a series of probabilities, almost inevitabilities, where only error will halt the successful progression of the series.
But he was corner-back. Corner-back in football is a purely negative force. He does not allow a corner forward to define himself, for a corner forward in football is not alone with his corner back as in hurling. The corner-forward in football is both utterly dependant on the one or two links before him in the series and creates these links, shapes and forms them, and even forges the link between them, by his own movement.
The corner-back in football is the loneliest player. He is absolute negativity: he is negative, but he is nobody’s and nothing’s negative. His identity is stopping a corner-forward, or at least it is if the corner-forward is good, but the corner-forward does not concern himself with the corner-back. Only a very bad corner forward will define himself by his relationship with his corner-back rather than by that with his team, but a good corner-back will know himself by his relationship with his good corner-forward, for whom he barely exists, and certainly doesn’t matter. It is a hard position to play.
In football he was corner-back, and enjoyed it. Players in front of him depended on him for their sense of freedom; he knew they did, but he could not allow himself to take this into account, as this worth was born solely of the purity of his concern with his corner-forward. His absolute negativity, a negativity enclosed within itself, allowed his team-mates their freedom, team-mates and freedoms to which he must always be external.
In his first year on the senior team they played a grudge match against a well-touted side. The game of the previous year, from which the resentment had arisen, he had watched from the stands, a county final, in the Gaelic Grounds, watching in the first half, shouting in the third quarter and in the final quarter lamenting his half-parish’s decline into unnecessary and self-defeating physicality. They had lost stupidly, and today was about proving their abilities, and yet more, about proving, and thus winning, self-possession.
They won, but there were no celebrations. In proving their worth, they – he felt included in this – had also demonstrated their culpability in the dissolution of the previous year. This day’s curing of resentment, dipping and dropping of the sword of vengeance, need never have been necessary; they had shown that they could now only blame themselves. “There is no fate”, they said; “there is agency, yours and others’ or at worst there is lack of agency.”
They won that game but still lost, it being the last game in the opening, league-based, section of the county championship, and they already out of the running for qualification. They knew that the game had meaning only for their opponents, or at least only for their opponents meaning beyond itself as regards sport. For them it was not quite autotelic, but nearly, and they knew it. This winning and losing, or winning even though you have already lost, going out to win, honestly and sincerely desiring victory even though nothing is won -and when in fact innocence is lost, freedom from guilt, - is not uplifting, or cause for celebration for either player or spectator. If anything, the opposite: it is humbling to see a place and know it yours, not by fate, but by an act of your own. The talk later is of separate incidents, always a source of pleasure, but there is no future. There is only next year, and next year is not an easy thing in a small club with internal rivalries and reasons.

His father had been at that game, and had shouted with the rest, but unlike most he railled and congratulated in equal measure, regardless of affiliation. Watching Limerick play was the same. He tried to be chauvinist, tried to cheer only his own side, but he could not but acknowledge good play, participate in the joys of others as much as in Limerick’s. Ground traced on a map and separated by a line – whether marking a river that only made for quarrels, or an arbitrary thing – it matters, he would be told, but a beautiful catch and clearance could override it.
In football you have time to consider all this, or at least at corner-back, if your corner-forward is the static type, you sometimes catch yourself thinking about things. You shouldn’t do; it ruins your game, and must be eliminated once spotted, but it does happen. To be a poet in a bunker is one thing, but if you think like a poet once out and about in battle, you had better hope that God loves poets, and history has not shown this to be the case.
That a friend of yours is from the parish you’re playing, that the man being taken off injured has forty cows to milk, that to kill the thing you love is the worst of torments; any one of these thoughts can put you off your game. Thought is a tragedy: it is a flaw that both raises and destroys. A thinking footballer is no King Lear, but he rises by his vision, and then is laid low by it. A corner-back does not choose his corner-forward, but he must. He is the stoic who wants what happens. At the beginning of the game, he looks at his corner-forward and chooses him. The corner-forward has other concerns – such is his role, which he must also choose; his corner-back he does not need to choose. In hurling you do not need to make this choice: it is thrust upon you.

Playing into a setting sun, trains rolling by to the western end of the pitch, in a game that nobody anywhere, nobody, remembers, a ball skidded across the square. Instead of pulling on it, someone went to lift it. That game is gone from memory; the bobbling ball is all that remains. And yet perhaps three hundred people saw that game. Where did it go? The result is in the sports pages of an archived newspaper somewhere. But of the game, all that is left is one moment. Why choose this moment? It was not necessarily decisive; that skittish ball perhaps made no difference. Something has to remain, of everything: a shard. It signifies nothing, as the thing, the game, is forgotten and means nothing. A signifier can only lead to another signifier. So if a thing is lost, it cannot be signified. What is this skidding ball, so? It is a shard, but a shard of what? The game is lost, forgotten; can it be a shard of that? No. It is a metonymy of error in general, of the chance of success, of the idea of the possibility of a wrong choice, of a right one.
A story told in some History of Hurling somewhere, or perhaps in the programme of an inter-county game, tells of an American seeing hurlers doubling on the ball above their heads, and declaring it to be the game of the gods. It is rather the very game of men, passing, fickle, delightful, heaping surprise on disappointment, awareness of oneself in others on solipsism, surprise at oneself on surprise at oneself. This is the skidding ball, an onrushing consecutiveness of moments, perhaps decisive, perhaps not, of possibility, of possibility lost, a hurtling thing which can come and go, and where we both decide what we are and only struggle to know that which we are made to be.