'The magic of Cavan is that strangers talk to each other'
Michael Harding is glad he lives in the present because, unlike the General, he's too squeamish to be a hunter
There was a man standing on a street in Cavan with a fresh head of cabbage in his arms. It was a sunny morning.
“That’s a fine big cabbage,” I said. I didn’t know him, but the magic of Cavan town is that strangers talk to each other.
“I should be growing my own,” he said, with a kind of sadness, as if he were still a schoolboy and a voice in his head was still telling him he could never do anything right.
I bought an apple, and played with it like a cricket ball as I walked through the egg market, where I met an old school friend.
It was one of those mornings when you suspect everyone on the street is in love. Young men were carrying buns and take-away coffees to their offices. Doors opened on shoe shops to let the sunshine in.
In the supermarket, girls measuring the floats in their cash tills counted the coins as if they were fingering emerald gems. On main street, restaurant owners in waistcoats set out menu boards for soup and sandwiches, and carvery lunches later in the day.
“I was at a concert last night,” my school friend whispered. His hands were trembling. “I had two tickets for Nathan Carter. Me and herself went on our own. It was the best night ever.”
His eyes watered and he could say no more, overcome by the memory of whatever love or fun he had enjoyed, holding hands with his beloved at a Nathan Carter gig.
He pushed his glasses above his forehead and dabbed his eyes with a folded handkerchief. But I suppose that’s what music does to some people.
By mid-morning the cars were bumper to bumper around the post office, and there was a queue at the ATM beside Dunnes Stores. Coffee shops were full, and a man from Ballyconnell was squeezing his Mercedes in between two Nissan Micras beside the old convent chapel.
I met the General in the Kilmore hotel for lunch. As he devoured his meat I was thinking how glad I was to live in the present and not thousands of years ago, because, unlike the General, I’m too squeamish to be a hunter. The General’s lips were dripping blood as his teeth gnawed the juice out of a steak, and he looked like a beast around whom small animals would not be entirely safe.
He was raging because he didn’t get invited to the garden party at Áras an Uachtaráin the previous week.
“But,” I said, “it was only for theatre people.”
“I am a man of the theatre,” he hissed, as his eyelid twitched like the wing of a dying moth.
To change the subject I mentioned the steak juice dribbling down his chin.
“Don’t mind that,” he declared. “I have no problem with the juice of a steak. It’s dead fish I can’t cope with, their eyes looking up at me from plates of lettuce every time I visit the wife.”
“A fresh mackerel can be agreeable at this time of year,” I said.
“Ah ha,” he said. “So that’s what you had at the Áras, was it? Fish?”
“No,” I replied, “We had sandwiches.”
“Sandwiches?” he sneered. “You mean to tell me the President offered you sandwiches? By jingo, he’s lucky I wasn’t there.”
That night Lisa O’Neill was singing in the Town Hall, an old building recently renovated and opened as an arts centre. O’Neill’s songs are so full of truth that I would cross the ocean to hear her sing.
In the beginning she was intimate with the audience like a friend, full of comic self-effacement, but gradually, as one beautiful song followed another, she grew into a storm of full-blooded passion, flinging her stories, her love songs and her poetry into the air with the unruly elegance of an Elizabethan bard. And by the end of it, the audience was in love with her.
On the way out, people were lodged in the doorway waiting for the rain to ease. The rain was flowing down the gullies in furious streams.
A tall boy with a long neck stood staring at the sheets of water.
“That’s rain.” he declared, as if there was a doubt about it. As if all we had experienced from the clouds for decades had not been rain.
And there was a playfulness in his assertion that a Zen monk might have envied. It swept over me like the first beat of haiku.
“And the day was so warm,” I added.
“Aye,” he agreed. “But the ground was parched.”