Everyone is born tender. It's only life that hardens us up


I’VE JUST discovered Chopin. His music is exquisite. And that surprises me, because when we were children “Chopin” was a word we used to destroy each other. There was a boy who took piano lessons, and calling him Chopin was a way of letting him know he’d never be any good.

The name Chopin underlined the ridiculous nature of piano lessons. The boy was trying to express tenderness on the keyboard of his father’s upright. He was trying to be Chopin.

But it was far from Chopin that any of us was reared. And in our brutish boyhood world our first duty was to ensure that no one ever escaped. “Here comes Chopin,” we jeered as the posh boy approached.

In my 20s I lived with young men who rolled their own cigarettes, drank cider and left the empty cans on the coffee table until Monday morning. They slept in sleeping bags or dirty sheets and squeezed the guts out of songs like The Town I Loved So Well, and whenever I was caught listening to classical music they’d say that I was too middle class to appreciate Thin Lizzy. I suppose everyone is born tender. It’s only life that hardens us up.

I was in Blakes Bar in Enniskillen last week and saw two tender young people kissing each other. The bar was buzzing, and three snugs were stuffed with artists just arrived from an exhibition opening at the Clinton Centre.

The romantic couple were hidden in a corner near the snugs, and they kissed every three minutes. She would rest her hands in her lap like a nun and would push her head up and back, as if in passive anticipation of some doctor’s approach to investigate her eyelids, or some priest come with communion.

That was an exquisite moment to watch. Her eyes closed, her lips stretched in a trembling smile while the boy fingered the back of her neck to demonstrate his confidence, before moving towards her lips, his head masking her face

Afterwards they drank their pints like thirsty calves and stared into each other’s eyes with happy wonderment until the next kiss arrived. I could see it coming each time.

And in each interval I grew expectant, as one does when waiting for the next clap of thunder. But it wasn’t thunder. It was more a rhapsody; a little Chopin fluttering in their breasts above the din of the public house.

There were two writers in the snug, and I saw an arts officer in conversation with a painter from Galway, and a nurse was chatting with a ceramic artist who has a studio in the Buttermarket.

Gabriel McArdle and other wonderful musicians were in session in the snug below the bar as I squeezed past people on the stairs en route to the gents, where I met a friend from Cavan drying his hands under a machine that gushed air with the fury of an Airbus taking off.

He said he was learning Spanish. “I can say, ‘I want an animal but not a dog,’ ” he declared.

I usually meet him foraging around the electrical aisle in Tesco, where he buys useless things that end up on shelves in his garage, and when he phones me he is always apologetic about himself and always asks, “Is this a bad time to call?”

Why Spanish, I wondered. He said he saw a movie on television about a Colombian pilot who crashed into an Irish village and the only one who could speak to the pilot was a boy who knew Spanish because his father was Spanish.

“But his father had gone away and the boy missed him,” my friend concluded. I guessed that my friend identified with the boy because he missed his own son since his wife moved to Galway.

“Sometimes in the morning I can’t breathe,” he confessed. “I think I’m asphyxiating. The room feels like there’s no air in it.”

I was in his bedroom only once, to attach a plug to a CD player. So I said, “Perhaps you should clean the bedroom. Leave a window open at night. And play Chopin music when you open your eyes in the morning.”

“Don’t be daft,” he said. “You’ll not catch me listening to Chopin.”

We left the gents together and walked along the corridor. “Chopin,” he sneered, as he headed for the street and I went back upstairs, where Gabriel McArdle was playing a mazurka and the young couple were in the middle of another kiss.

They drank their pints like thirsty calves and stared into each other’s eyes with happy wonderment until the next kiss arrived. I could see it coming each time

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