New On Old
It seemed that each day started now with that scrabbling at the door. Doxy was getting more and more impatient as her pale hairs grew. His eyes slowly opened to the thought that patience was a thing that stoicism bequeathed to you; a little grace that tempered your ideas of your own significance. As he stretched out for the mug he was grateful for the cold tea because there had been times when he had had a lot less. Maria was still in the land of nod of course; the young needed their sleep. But sleep faded as the dark light made a headstone of his window. Gradually, an old man, his daughter, and a cat prepared themselves for the whitening skies of a March morning.
The cottage unwrapped itself carefully. A fire was lit. A tin of salmon was opened in the yard. Water whispered to itself in the blackened kettle on the range.
Soon she came in with the boiled egg, and the pint mug was filled. As it smoked on the chair beside the bed, he felt ashamed again at the depths of his infirmity. Age was unforgiving, it was the black eye of a shark in a mirror; a predator through and through. He thought back then to his youth, when he had nothing- and everything, and it seemed like just a moment ago.
"Are ye for getting up Daddy? Seanie is coming after school for his dinner because Bernie is workin' late up at Cross again this evenin'."
He couldn't see her. He couldn't see the small manifestations of worry and regret that sharpened the creases of middle age; but he could hear them. He realised that she needed his help with the boy. When he came they would sit and talk by the fire. They would be 'thick as thieves' for an hour or two. Maria would have this house to herself soon enough, he knew.
"Aye, I'll get up about two then; I've made another little hat for that doll that he's got."
"Don't call it that, sure ye know he hates it when you call it that."
Old Johnny smiled. He understood his Grandson's obsession with the toy soldier: the doll in army green. Who would have thought little boys and girls so similar? Any parent that paid any attention at all, he supposed. We're all so similar really - searching for the same things in different ways. Besides, the boy was almost ten - and that would have to be old enough. Old Johnny smiled ruefully as the room contracted around him, and the cold air of the mountain snaked in through cracks and windows and gaps in the doors. He wondered would it be soft or hard for him when it came? But the thought was scarcely born before sleep smothered him like the warmth of a nestling hen.
Her face swam before him. She was so like her mother: the auburn hair that fell like feathers; the features fine and sculpted, so unlike his own heavy head. Even in old age it still retained remnants of the strength that had made him seem imposing for a time.
"What?" She enquired softly.
"You're the image of your Mother." He said.
When the boy came running in, Johnny had the old pipe going. He had watched the plumes of smoke warping and rending themselves asunder, and thought of the clouds high above.
"Hello Seanie - what's it like outside today boy?"
The boy seated himself across the hearth and regarded his Grandfather steadily as muffled clatters and bangs from the scullery announced that cooking had commenced.
"Ah, it's just rainin' as usual. Look at that Granda, that's his jungle hat."
Seanie produced a bundle of leaves wrapped in green darning wool from the depths of his jacket pocket. The old man could smell the Spring air steaming off him. It was the smell of rebirth; the smell of life. He nodded a smile.
"Well, I made you a hat for him too. But then I thought that I might have a better thing for you, if you're interested?"
"You make the best stuff Granda! Is it another gun, like the pipe cleaner one?"
Old Johnny gazed at the boy's eager face and glimpsed, for a heartbeat, the pursed lips of his brother Tom the day that he had left for France. His Mother had the last of her life sucked from her. He remembered being glad that his Father had not lived to see his eldest son wear the uniform of the enemy. But he was hurt in ways he couldn't express. He used to wake up sobbing like a child.
"No, it's a different thing Seanie; you remember how you always used to ask about how I got this big scar on my head here?"
"You said it was an accident."
The old man leaned closer, and the orange glow from the flames bestowed a black etching on the ragged puckers of the glossy seam that stretched from his collarbone almost to the crown of his bald head.
"Well that was a lie lad. The truth is, and don't you tell your Mother or Auntie Maria I told you this, the truth is - I was shot, and near killed, up there behind the house. Way up on the mountain there."
The boy's shocked countenance was tinged with a kind of wonder; a facsimile of awe with dark edges - good, but bad too.
Old Johnny held up his forefinger to forestall the blizzard of questions.
" Just listen now, and I'll tell ye quick before the grub is ready. It was nineteen and twenty, and I was seventeen. Our column had been out on the mountain for a time and had orders to ambush an army convoy. Now, we had word that they'd be comin' at the beginning of the week, but we'd been lying up out there for nearly six days before we heard the sounds of their engines climbing up towards the pass."
The old man held his hand up.
" No questions now Seanie, there's books down there at the library that'll tell ye all about them times. All I have is this story for ye. Anyway, like I was sayin', they came then alright. Jesus, it was a terrible night and the fog was alive. There was bullets flyin' and men roarin' and God knows the Mountain had never heard a noise like it. I was young and full of badness, for me own Brother had been killed fighting for the British in the trenches. Anyway, when I ran out of bullets, I ran like the clappers. Now - whether it was one of theirs, or one of ours, that clipped me - I'll never know. It was like getting punched by a giant. There was a big flash and that's all I can tell ye. Next thing I know, I came to in the middle of the moor, lyin' face down in the reeds, in a scrape in the ground. Now, in them days we used to all smoke cigarettes; we had a trick that would keep the matches dry by dipping the heads of them in candle wax. When I woke, all that was on me mind was the need for a smoke. I didn't know how bad I was hurt y'see. All I can mind, before I passed out again, was takin' a couple of pulls on the fag and lyin' back with the matchbox on my chest, openin' my mouth to catch the rain for I had such a terrible thirst on me."
The child sat like a mannequin; a plaster boy - the firelight dancing in his eyes.
"I could have died of exposure, or loss o' blood, or both, I suppose. But I had a dream. A little man, about the same size as your soldier there, did wipe my wounds down. He was as black as coal. On him he had the skins of the Whitteret: a long coat and trousers, and on his head he had a crown made of rushes. Tall at the front it was, like a bishop's mitre. Anyways, he got up on my chest and poured something, out of a little article that he had, into my mouth. When I came to again my matchbox was gone and there was a taste in my mouth like all the flowers of the mountain. I sat up straight then, and about a minute later I hears a shout, 'Johnny, Johnny!', and there was my old pals runnin' like divils across the bog to me."
"What happened then Granda?" The boy stammered.
"Well, my pals told me that I'd been lyin' out for two nights, and they couldn't look for me for fear of the soldiers that were crawling all over the place. They had given me up for dead. But another attack on the police barracks down in Cross had drawn the soldiers away, and so they all came down out of the mountain to look for my body. They took me away between them up to an old hut and nursed me for three weeks. I had a fever y'see. I nearly died a couple o' times, but they kept me warm and fed and eventually I got better. I was young y'see".
The old man paused and took an opened tin down from the mantel.
"Look there now Seanie. What do y'see?"
The boy peered into the tin and discerned the remains of a faded yellow matchbox.
"What is it?"
"Well, it's the end of me story. Y'see, I know that the little man healed me. But it wasn't my broken head that he fixed; it was my broken heart. I wanted to die out there in the moor, for I was soul-sick for my brother Tom. Anyway, my last night in the hut came upon me, and I laid down on my back beside the fire and fell into a sound sleep. This time the little man got up onto my chest again and left my matchbox back. He made a little bow, and jumped down, and that was that; he was gone. Well, ye can imagine, when I awoke, the surprise I got when I saw it there - just where he had left it in my dream. I couldn't get over it. All my matches were gone. But the little lad had left something behind for me. Somethin' old for somethin' new, maybe."
"What was it Granda?"
"Take a look, an' you'll see." Said old Johnny.
Slowly the boy slid the drawer of the matchbox open, and there was a little knife made from the tooth of a fox. It was bound in strips of leather so artfully entwined as to create a criss-cross pattern that dazzled the eye. In the pommel was a mauve stone the size of a pinhead.
"That's the blade he used to cut out the pain in my heart Seanie, and very soon - it'll be yours."
"Why do you think he left it for you?"
"We're always at war, Seanie - one way or another - all our lives; but peace lies inside us - if only we can find it in our time. The blade is a killer and a saviour both I think. That little knife always makes me think; and in thinking, we find new ways of seeing old puzzles. D'you understand me?"
Old Johnny laughed.
"Well then, let's just say that it's a gift from a King."
"The King in the rushes Granda?"
"Aye, the King in the rushes."
but both knew that underneath was the mark
where the glass of red wine had been thrown
and whose shock waves had split their lives.
As if freshly fallen snow had accumulated
giving the air of softness and support whilst
underneath, the path was coated with lethally flat ice
a telepathic swipe of any passing traffic.
Their rings replated with dipped gold
day by day slipping off in delicate flakes
to reveal the worn out old metal
perhaps - it was so long ago - plastic.
They stare at the wall and they know
better than what is there now
they know what used to be
because there is more truth
in the old than in the new.
The first snow we had.
It fell, still - slow, round and heavy,
Like drops of sleep.
Nothing stirred in the aching trees
Or patient lanes --
But a reverent silence.
Striding out in giant's footsteps,
Where crops struggled up black goblin hair,
We felt the wind bow down our backs
Like a godly hand in a cold cathedral,
And hurried home.
Yet by four, sunlight ran like butter
Across a line of hedges,
Down the plump, pillowed fields and drip, drip, dripping
In the churchyard.
The old spring lambs leapt and butted,
And then a skylark rose -
A gladening prayer,
In a sunset pink, new