Dark notes embedded in the beautiful melody of life


Last week I met a woman whose two grandfathers were musicians. She said one of them played the accordion and the other played the flute. They came from different parts of Ireland but both took the boat to Liverpool around the end of the 19th century. One ended up in Manchester, the other drifted though Wales until he found work in a colliery. Each day he worked in the mines until he was black in the face. When he returned home his wife would leave a tub of hot water in the shed, and he would scrub himself and put on a clean shirt before he went inside to tease the goldfinch and kiss the wife and sit smoking his pipe by the fire.

The fellow in Manchester worked for a butcher, delivering sausages and puddings all over town on a black bike with a huge wicker basket hanging over the front handlebars. On his rounds, he always noticed the smell of freshly baked loaves coming from kitchen windows, and it dawned on him that everyone made their own bread and that there was a future in yeast. So he opened a small business selling yeast to the women of Manchester and after a while became a wealthy man.

Map of Wales

The Welsh grandfather never became wealthy: he worked in the mines until he was old and when his granddaughter came to visit him she sometimes helped wash his back in the bath. By then his back was a tapestry of black lines where the coal grit had lodged in the gullies of his skin. He called it his map of Wales.

When her Welsh grandfather played his accordion to beat the goldfinches, or when her wealthy grandfather marched down the street in a flute band, she was always a little sad that the music had not travelled into her own bones. She was tone deaf, although deep in her heart there were romantic and poetic seeds that had not yet germinated.

When she was a young woman her romantic notions swept her away to India.

She travelled by aircraft from London. Most of the passengers on the flight were English. When they landed in the Gulf they all got off and the aircraft filled up with Arabs and Indians. They terrified her because almost all of them were men. They had suitcases held together by string and their breath smelled of hot spices, and she was so terrified that she turned away from the people around her and stared out the window for five hours, as if she was fascinated by clouds.

When she returned from India her heart was swirling with rich and ornate prayers to a thousand deities and many people said it was the trip to India that shaped her life.

Beauty and despair

Not that she did anything extraordinary. She fell in love and reared five children and eventually became a widow and a grandmother. She breastfed her children and found the connection intensely beautiful, but she also found despair in those same moments, as if while she was nursing, and happy on the outside, a part of her psyche was falling down a dark black hole within.

Because she always allowed for sorrow and joy in life she became a wise woman and I have talked to her about almost everything over the years. I once told her about my orgasms, and the fact that no matter what bliss I partake in, there is always inside me a dark self that refuses to party. She just smiled at me and nodded knowingly.

“So what do you think of the pope withdrawing from the world,” I asked her last week. “Do you think he will sit all day in his drawing room eating biscuits and playing the piano?”

“Goodness,” she exclaimed, “I never knew he played an instrument.”

I assured her that he did; but not the accordion and never a jig or a reel. And I don’t know if he ever experienced a sensation of falling down into a black hole of despair, or what happens inside him when he closes his door and renounces the world.

To change the subject I put on a CD and we listened to Eleanor Shanley and Ronnie Drew singing Restless Farewell and The Parting Glass. And when the song was over the wise woman said: “Isn’t it strange that life can be so intense and yet the only thing that remains when we die is the music.”

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