Would my dead mother’s voice from old recordings destroy my warm memories?
Michael Harding: How did I get from my mother to Nigel Farage turning his arse to Beethoven?
'In my mind now, my mother is still a teenager, wearing a frock, hugging her sister Nancy.' Photograph: iStock
I got a fright last week when I opened an old computer and found recordings of my mother.
“Nellie’s Voice,” the folder said.
There were 10 voice files inside, but I didn’t open them. I was afraid that if I heard her talking on some long ago afternoon, it might destroy the warm memory I have constructed of her since she passed away seven years ago.
In my mind now, she is still a teenager, wearing a frock, hugging her sister Nancy, as they lean against a stone wall in Westmeath; smiling at whoever was taking the picture that now sits on my desk, almost 85 years later. Memories can be a way of reinventing the past.
But there was another folder on the computer, which I did open; full of voices I recorded in Newfoundland 10 years ago, peppered with stories of fish and birds and drunken sailors.
One woman spoke of a sea bird called a guillemot, known as a turr in Newfoundland. It’s like a flying penguin, black and white, and can dive below 50 metres in the ocean. Newfoundlanders like to shoot them and then eat them.
After they’ve been shot out at sea, the birds are taken to a shed at the end of a wharf that stands over the water – for cleaning.
I could almost smell the sea air as the woman described it.
“The dead birds are dipped in boiling water, roughly plucked, and then rubbed with sawdust to remove the remaining small feathers. These sheds are called Stages, and they are mostly places where men go. They sip rum and make jokes about whatever guy is doing the rubbing.”
She had a lovely laugh, although she wasn’t sentimental about little birds. I was amazed at the intimacy of her voice, after all those years sleeping inside my computer. I felt she was in the room.
I gazed at a picture on the screen; me and her in a bar called the Duke, in St John’s, with pints of lager on the table beside us.
In the background, three men were lined up at the bar, their trousers so low as they leaned towards the counter that the cheeks of their bulging rumps were entirely visible.
“Look at this,” I said, turning the screen to the General, two weeks ago, during the good weather, when he arrived on the patio hanging out of the back of a cigar.
But by then someone entirely different had come into my head
He scrutinised the males.
“Are they Brexiteers?” he wondered.
“Why would you say that?”
“Because there’s something very English about showing your arse to the world,” he declared.
“This picture is 10 years old,” I pointed out. “I took it in Newfoundland.”
“Don’t underestimate Farage,” the General warned. “He turned his arse to Beethoven a few weeks ago. He’s capable of rewriting Canadian history in the wink of an eye. And Boris Johnson confessed that he liked making buses out of empty wine boxes and painting little people on them; very English.”
It’s strange that whenever I think of Beethoven’s anthem, I think of concentration camps and how defiantly music completes the human being as a symbol. Orchestras played music in Auschwitz and on the sinking Titanic. Music is an integral component of how human beings face darkness; which is what made the Brexiteer MEPs’ reaction to Beethoven so obscene.
“What are you thinking of?” the General wanted to know. He always asks me that when his glass is empty.
“I was thinking how one idea leads to another unrelated idea,” I said.
“Because the arses on a barstool in Newfoundland made you think of Brexiteers; and Farage’s arse in the European Parliament made me think of Beethoven.”
But by then someone entirely different had come into my head; Magdalena. I met her one night in the bar at the National Theatre in Warsaw, after a performance of Tosca, and she had an instrument case strapped to her back. She said she played Timpani in the orchestra, and I told her that I lived in a place called Timpaun, which was a Gaelic word for a percussion instrument.
But I didn’t want to share that anecdote with the General. So instead I told him about my mother; how I found her voice on the old computer and how I was afraid to listen to it.
He eyed me like a walrus inspecting a clam.
“No matter what the topic of conversation is,” he observed, “you always end up thinking of your mother.”
I didn’t reply. I just went off and got him another drink.