I've almost given up on theatre and church. I don't belong


When I was a teenager in a duffle coat and only shaved twice a week, an older man said to me one night that I looked confused. “You’re afraid of your shadow,” he said and smiled with a mouth as juicy as Dracula.

The description haunted me for years. I feared there was something unmanly about me and, to prove my virility, I used to drink with bravado and get up on tables at parties and dance alone. One night I took off my clothes in an act of complete narcissism, and twirled on the table at some artist’s party at four in the morning.

“Why did you do that?” a woman, disgusted at being visually assaulted by naked testicles, inquired later, when I had sobered up and had gathered my things, and was leaning against the fridge in my socks and underpants.

“It’s Halloween,” I said. “Halloween is an excuse to let the beast out.”

Before the recession, the swanky rump of Mullingar society would let the beast out with gusto at Halloween. Back-garden marquees were popular in the suburbs, where mothers dressed as priests and bank clerks dressed as nuns. Some women relished the slutty look, with plastic boobs and tiny skirts, and they shrieked with pleasure when someone pinched their bottoms, while their shy husbands wore wigs and lipstick, drank warm beer and waited for someone to sing The Old Bog Road, when things settled down.

Just before I got depressed two years ago, I took cuttings from beech trees and decorated the house with rusty leaves for Halloween. Enormous branches dangled from the hallstand, from the sides of wardrobes and kitchen presses, while the mantelpiece in the front room became a little woodland. The house was choked in a cluster of amber leaf and cobweb, and the sense of decay lasted until Christmas, when the dead wood had to give way to plastic fairy lights and compulsive jollity.

I don’t know why I did it. Perhaps I was unconsciously anticipating my illness and impending decline. I wasn’t dancing with a shadow any longer; I was actively trying to seduce the grim reaper, to conjure him out of the dark with dying things.

Conjuring was a priestly craft, which I first observed as an altar boy in Cavan Cathedral. The place resembled a railway station on All Souls Day, as the faithful made multiple visitations on behalf of dead relations whose souls, it was feared, were burning elsewhere. God, present in a wafer of bread, was exposed in a gleaming silver monstrance for 24 hours, and a visit to the church and the recitation of certain prayers could merit an amnesty for those in purgatory, whose souls were apparently burning like babies in a shower of napalm.

Not that I cared much about anyone burning in purgatory or indeed about children in Vietnam sizzling in napalm. I knew it was cool to be against war. But secretly I thought American helmets looked attractive. They were cooler than the upside-down soup bowls that British soldiers wore in movies on television.

And so it’s that time of year again. Halloween. And I’m building a fire in the stove with lumps of coal scooped from the earth by helmeted miners in Colombia. And I’m listening to some playwright on the radio talk about ghosts in theatre.

But I’ve almost given up on going to theatre and church. I don’t feel I belong any more to the collective history that theatre represents, or to the uncertain future that religion promises. I feel pleasantly alone in the present moment, as fog hovers over the lake.

I regularly fall asleep by the fire, and dream of a blind man, a broken soldier with eyes like pearls, as he dances naked on the table, and mutters some complaint about his lost helmet.

“And what happens to helmets when the soldiers are dead?” the spectre inquires. “Do they end up as pisspots under beds, or as woks on the back of bicycles to fry noodles for backpackers outside railways stations in Saigon?”

“A good question,” I interject.

“Write it down,” he says. “Write it down.”

And I do, because I suspect it’s only in war that writers become articulate, or at least in moments when the black at the back of the mirror is acknowledged, and we see our mortality up ahead.

So each Halloween I put on lipstick, and dance on the table with a shadow who is always waiting for me to follow him home.