Clear vodka, red lights and black balloons


My memoir Staring at Lakes is being launched in Cavan Library on Thursday evening, so last week I drove over to Cavan to see if the book was on the shelves. There was a poetry reading going on in the Crannog Bookshop and I stayed to listen. The audience sat in rows, with their overcoats on, like country people at Mass, apart from two women in miniskirts who were clearly from elsewhere.

I squeezed in between the ladies, happy as Larry, while the poet intoned his verses. The woman on my right had a little plastic purse for her cigarettes. It was made in the shape of tiny yellow knickers, replete with white polka dots and lace edging. And the other one told me she was just back from Central America. I suppose poetry readings attract all types.

Everyone was heading for the poet’s house afterwards, but I had a problem. My jeep was broken. Earlier in the day it had spluttered into Cavan town and died on Farnham Street, where I had abandoned it before the reading.

“I suppose there’s no chance of a lift?” I said to the woman with the cigarettes in her knicker-like purse. She winced.

“I could give you a ride,” said the woman back from the Gulf of Mexico, “but how would you get home?” Foolishly I said, “Who would want to go home?”, at which point both of them went ice cold and spoke in unison. “Well perhaps you better not come,” they suggested.

Off they went and I alone to my mother’s empty house, to drink vodka from the freezer and trawl through Facebook, and wonder, like everyone wonders, where do the dead go, when they die?

Three weeks ago, I was in a bar in Warsaw when a woman spoke to me. “Why are you sad?” she wanted to know. They were serving tomato soup and marinated herrings, and a glass of vodka was only €1.50. I was looking out the window to where a group of Catholics were holding a vigil on the pavement. They had naked wooden crosses in their hands and red lights flickered on the pavement before an icon of the Madonna.

I said: “I’m sad because my mother has gone to heaven, and I’m alone now on Earth.”

“And where do you think heaven is?” she wondered. “Heaven is up in the sky,” I suggested, ordering more vodka. She looked at me with the disturbing grimace of a non-believer.

I explained that my mother died last summer. “She’s in heaven now,” the undertaker whispered to me, in the hush of the funeral parlour as the soft closing of her coffin broke the silence of a July afternoon. “She’s in heaven now,” I said to the woman in the bar, as we watched the red lamps across the street spluttering before an icon of God’s mother, on a frosty January night.

“You sound like a priest,” she said.

I had no answer for that. It’s a long time since I drank in the student bar in Maynooth and then climbed back over the gates of the seminary with another student and sat at the foot of the staircase leading to our rooms and talked about the influence of the Holocaust on 20th- century philosophy. At least my friend talked, and I listened. He was erudite and at the time I was a young, unconscious and unlettered culchie.

He remains a priest, 30 years after I walked away. He’s out there somewhere, breaking bread poetically, his private Eucharist still an act of defiance.

I never thought he would get ordained because his intimacy with the writings of Camus didn’t mark him out as the kind of man the Catholic Church was looking for once the papacy was restored to glory in 1978. I remember him holding black balloons in protest against American foreign policy on the day Ronald Reagan’s limousines drove in a ghostly cavalcade through the empty streets of Galway. I suppose he’s still out there somewhere near the ocean, mumbling private prayers in a gentle voice.

On the streets of Warsaw I thought a lot about Karol Wojtyla, the Polish pope whose voice once rang out on Victory Square, near the tomb of the unknown soldier; a voice that made the Soviet Union shiver. But I still wonder where popes and unknown soldiers go when they die. And if my mother is in heaven, then I hope that on Thursday when my memoir is released, she will be smiling down on me.

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