In Mullingar, people talk because there is no sea


Watching Queen Elizabeth on TV, the mind drifts to the sea, to a vanished friend and memories of an encounter with a real lady

I HAVE BIRDS in the attic and I’ve been listening to them for weeks. In the beginning they were shrill and squawky, and I imagined their blind beaks emerging from broken shells. But they have been well minded, because now their voices are deeper and more mellow, though it can’t be easy for their mother, coming and going with worms all day.

Every morning last week I watched another mother, Queen Elizabeth, on television. She doesn’t have much comfort either, as she walks up an endless amount of stairs, without a crutch, while the cameras of the world crawl all over her face. When she held the spade in the Phoenix Park, and shovelled clay on to the roots of a new tree, I felt sympathy for her, and for her lady of the bedchamber, who was wearing a blue dress, and who held the Queen’s handbag as the monarch held the spade.

Not that holding a handbag is hard work, but the lady of the bedchamber has many other duties to the Queen, and I take a great interest in her because she once lived a mile away from me, in Cavan, in the grand estate of Farnham, where her husband, a tall upright and handsome figure, was lord until his death in 2001.

I met her once, many years ago, when myself and a school companion cycled our bicycles as far as the gates of her estate, and braved it up the long pebbled avenue on foot, into the splendid lawns, just as she was getting into her car.

I had often been to the orchards on the estate, to get apples, and plums, but I had never been in this forbidden space of sequoia and cedar tree, of flat lawn and magnolia petal on her private grounds. We trembled in her presence and her posh accent terrorised us. “Can I help you?” she asked, stroking her long sandy hair away from her eyes, and showing her face to be sharp and beautiful. We fumbled for words.

“Would you like to sponsor a line for Concern,” we asked, in flat Cavan accents. It must have sounded like gobbledegook to her, but after a brief interrogation she finally extracted from us that we were collecting money for a charity walk. She said she’d be delighted to give us a donation and she even offered us a lift back into town, four miles away.

Our bicycles were in the ditch at the front gate, but neither of us could resist such intimacy, so we hopped into her car and went back to Cavan like men who had found the Golden Fleece, or negotiated the security of the world with an alien from another planet. We floated in leather seats past the rhododendron where our bicycles lay hidden. We could easily collect them on the morrow. There was always time for everything in those days, and we lived slowly as if we had oodles of time, because we were young.

Little did anyone realise that my friend had very little time left, because just a few short years later he was swept into the sea in Donegal. A companion with him saw him in the water and shouted to him that he was going to get a rope. But in the minutes it took his friend to find a rope the sea took the drowning boy away and his body was never found.

People who live by the sea don’t talk much, because the sea does the talking for them. In it’s whoosh and thrum the sea embodies a real presence, an otherness that allows us to feel that someone out there is watching over us. A human being may walk the beach with a lover to say momentous things; to say, I love you, or to say, you have betrayed me, but in the end there is no need for words because the sea says it all.

In Mullingar there is no sea, which is perhaps why people talk so much, and why I listen to birds in the attic; because they too are a real presence that calls to me from elsewhere.

Perhaps the Queen sometimes listens to birds in her attic, or perhaps her lady of the bedchamber occasionally recalls the glory of a dawn chorus along the shoreline of a lake in Cavan. And perhaps my old school friend heard, in the call of seabirds, some benign elsewhere, singing to him, before he vanished forever.