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.