Feeling the heat around the table amid memories of the invisible woman


Sweating in long johns at a posh dinner while the fire roasts my innards

MY CHRISTMAS WAS doomed in the back of a taxi, as myself and Rita Ann Higgins headed for the National Concert Hall, to do a reading.

“Pull over at the Centra,” she said to the driver, “I need a pair of tights; old buildings can be very cold.” Ever since Rita Ann Higgins advised me to put cinnamon on my porridge I have trusted her every word, so a week later, as I was heading for a Christmas dinner in Wicklow, and with the prospect of being in a draughty old farmhouse for hours, I decided to heed the poet’s opinion of old buildings, and wear, not just my woollen suit, but my blue tights, or what my wife more accurately refers to as my long johns.

It was a posh dinner, with eight guests, dripping jewellery and as many children, and all of them eyeing me with quiet alarm when I said I was a writer from Cavan. “Well it’s wonderful you were able to get here,” one of them exclaimed, as if it was an achievement just to lure an artist out of Cavan’s swampy wilderness with a pot of lentils.

And it was lentil soup. People sat with straight backs and spooned the broth with the discipline of samurai warriors scooping raindrops from a pond. Then the ladies fussed about carrying plates to the kitchen, our host freshened the wine glasses, and the conversation bounced from one anecdote to another. A dog stretched before the fire, while another snored under the dining table. Sun drenched the beech trees outside and I began to sweat in my tights.

The turkey arrived on a silver platter, with the usual condiments, and to the great irritation of the children, the hostess insisted on giving me a leg. Shortly afterwards the drumstick fell, unnoticed, from my plate to the floor where the dog began licking it. I recovered it to my knee, and rather than embarrassing myself before the entire company by confessing the accident, I wrapped it in my napkin and slipped it into the side pocket of my suit jacket, without anyone seeing me.

Two guests discovered that they came from the same village, and began comparing memories. “Did you ever hear of the invisible woman?” one of them asked. “Of course I did,” the other replied. And so an extraordinary story was related. Once upon a time there was a young girl who fell in love with a grown man who lived nearby. But her parents disapproved, so she ran away from home, and was never seen again.

Where she went, nobody knew, but a belief grew up that she had secretly joined her beloved in his house. Occasionally neighbours crept into the yard in the hope of discovering ladies’ underwear on the line. They stuck their noses to the glass of the kitchen window, to see some sign of feminine grandeur, but without success. They sat in his kitchen trying to detect if any scent remained in the air to indicate that the one they called “the invisible woman” was somewhere in the building.

Shopkeepers noted what foods, soaps and toiletries he bought. And children once said they saw a shadow at the upstairs window on their way home from school, when the master gave them an unexpected half-day, on the occasion of a local priest’s return from Africa. And for many years the neighbours remained convinced that the invisible lady was within.

But years afterwards an elegant lady arrived from London, and married the old man in a quiet ceremony, with no white dress and only a modest bouquet, and a flowery hat, and so the neighbour’s child, who had been missing for decades eventually became the lady of that house.

Though neighbours still insisted her skin was pale and unwrinkled, like a nun who has spent a lifetime indoors.

I would have enjoyed the storytelling better if I had not been so hot in my long johns, and was forced by pudding time to cast off my jacket, because the fire was roasting my innards and I was perspiring to a degree that I thought was alarming the lady beside me.

At the Scrabble table later, a child appeared with my jacket in one hand and the leg of fowl flesh in the other, and said, “Look mummy! The Cavan man is trying to steal the turkey!” Red with shame I explained what happened, though I wished for a moment that I too could be invisible.