Grow old, know less, say nothing and hear more

When meeting old friends, there are times when things are best left unsaid


‘What do you love most?” I asked her. “Getting away from the kids,” she said. “I like coming over the hills near Castleisland, and seeing the Kerry mountains for the first time.”

We were at Listowel Writers’ Week and she looked as beautiful as ever. I hadn’t seen her for more than 30 years. Not since we were students.

She was studying philosophy when I met her but before then she used to be a nurse and she kept the nurse’s badge, with the words “Per Tenebras ad Lucem” on it.

“That’s the motto of the nursing hospital in London where I trained,” she told me, in 1983. “It means – we must go through shadows to get to the light.”

I always felt safe in her company. But the years slipped by and I lost track, and suddenly there she was again, in the middle of Listowel calling my name.

John Montague had been reading in the Listowel Arms Hotel, accompanied by Paddy Moloney on whistle and pipes, and on two occasions John Sheahan, the white-bearded Dubliner, joined in as well.

The music and the poetry brought me back, not just 30 years, but 300 years, because there’s something distinctly bardic about Montague, and when Paddy Moloney plays O’Carolan’s music, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

“Oh it was gorgeous,” my old friend said, squeezing her eyes shut, as if to savour something hidden behind her eyelids; we were sitting on a bench in the square.

“I always imagine God is inside you,” I said, “when you close your eyes.” She laughed.

“What does that mean?” she wondered. “I haven’t a clue,” I replied.

“So you still think there’s a God,” she said.

“No. I just don’t know any more,” I confessed. She laughed again. It was almost 10 o’clock.

We parted and agreed to meet in Tralee the following day for coffee.

Saturday morning was sunny and the woman at reception in Siamsa Tíre gave us permission to sneak into the auditorium of the folk theatre. Both of us danced on the empty stage and pretended we were in a Siamsa folk theatre show, where people sing in glorious harmony and dance like dance masters. All around us, the wings were empty and full of shadow.

In a theatre’s stillness
There is a ghostly stillness that arises from the floors of an empty theatre; the corridors and the dressing rooms and the wardrobes that lie idle are all portals to the invisible world, and ghosts shelter in every nook and cranny. In Siamsa, the stillness is broken each night of the summer by wonderful song and dance, but to walk through the empty theatre in the early morning was like walking in a dream.

“Yes,” she said, “I think there’s a ghost in here.”

“It might be John Moriarty, ” I suggested.

“And why would you say that?” she asked, as she poked about in the wings.

“I don’t know,” I confessed.

She said: “It’s amazing how little you know.”

I said: “That’s what happens when we grow old. What we know gets less.”

Outside we sat on a wall and looked at the mountains. “How old do you think those mountains are?” she wondered. But I couldn’t say.

Further on, at a coffee shop, we had éclairs and lattes. We were sitting at a table outside on the pavement enjoying the morning sunshine when a stranger approached with a copy of my book and asked me to sign it. I obliged. Then the stranger, a woman with large bones in a summer dress, asked me if it was true that Buddhists believe there are 13 different hells. I said: “I never heard that particular teaching.”

“I wouldn’t like to be part of a religion that had so many hells,” she whispered.

“So maybe it’s not true,” I suggested.

My friend interrupted.

“Listen,” she said, “there are definitely 13 hells. And they’re all real. I know, because I’ve been through every one of them.” She laughed again, and this time I sensed some loneliness in her voice.

The stranger walked away and I turned to the woman sipping the latte but I made no comment because you can’t step into another person’s life after so long.

We hugged at her car, and she drove off without looking back. I headed for Leitrim in the Jeep listening to songs by Berlioz on a CD.

I like Berlioz, because in his songs there is so much melancholy, and so much that goes unsaid.

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