Fear not: heaven is just around the corner


The woman on the train said there was no luck left in Ireland, but I was lucky – I had tickets to The Waterboys

ON FRIDAY, I saw a man on the train who looked sick; his face was devastated, as if someone had just slapped the life out of him. His hair was tossed and his hands were white and watery. A woman beside him was talking on the phone to her babysitter.

“Don’t give them any sweets. Only if they’re good.”

She drank a can of 7Up and said the heat was terrible on the trains.

The man with the destroyed face agreed.

“Are you working in Dublin?” the woman asked him.

“No,” he said, “I just go up for the hospital.”

There was a silence.

“I have cancer.”

There was another, longer silence.

The woman asked him was he getting treatment. He said he had to go to four different hospitals in the past year.

“At the moment they’re giving me injections in the back.”

Maynooth flew past the window.

She said the people in Longford miss the cathedral since it was burned down. She said she often went in herself for five minutes. The man said it was just bad luck that it burned down. She agreed. “There’s no luck left in this country,” she said.

I was lucky that night because I had tickets for The Waterboys playing in the Abbey Theatre: Mike Scott flitting about the stage like a spider with long hair, and Steve Wickham, a dark presence in a Venetian mask, making the fiddle talk like a cormorant. They stretched the poems of Yeats to the ends of the earth, and I fell into the well of their magic.

As I listened to Mike Scott singing Yeats, I got the feeling that there are no dead people at all, and that heaven is just around the corner, where all the poets and musicians of the past are dancing behind a veil.

And of all the fiddlers that ever lived, who dug the fields, or played their music and supped their whiskey at open fires – I could not imagine a single one of them as dead.

Of all the box players who foddered cattle on rugged mountains, their coats tied with twine, or who pedalled up hills on old black Raleigh bikes, with saddles that would rupture a delicate backside, or who faced the wind on Honda 50s, I could not imagine a single one of them in the grave.

Listening to music can be like that: the clergy sleep and lack surveillance, while lovers stay forever young and all the world is woven in eternal dance, and even Yeats himself – that tattered coat upon a stick, I sensed, was tapping his foot in the wings.

After the gig, the band and the crew had a few glasses of wine in the Peacock bar, and I sat in the corner with Steve Wickham, talking about various ways of getting to heaven.

I remembered an old flute player in Fermanagh, years ago, who kept his instruments in the bath. He would go to the pub and play all day and when he came home he would play in his room, alone, till late in the night.

One day he went out to play in Swanlinbar. But in the evening he took a notion that he would like to visit an old friend, so he walked the two or three miles to his house. And he knocked, but no one answered him. Then he tapped the window but there was no one at home. So he turned back for the village and realised that it was too far for him to walk, now that the fever of whiskey had worn off. So he lay down behind a wall and played a few hornpipes, scattering the notes in the wind, like berries in a pool, and then he went to heaven on his own, and the body was found the next day.

I stayed in the Eliza Lodge, a swanky little hotel on Wellington Quay. The next morning I lay on the pillows, thinking of Yeats and heaven and angels, and the power of the sun on the stones of Loughcrew. And I prayed the man on the train would be cured.

People were walking the streets below my window, and a guard was questioning a driver on the other side of the river, and the pope was on Sky News, with his hands outstretched, but I kept the sound off.