At the tea station today my colleagues and I were chatting about the cold snap and how the winters seem to have changed since we were young.
Some of the coldest winters I remember occurred when I was about 9 or 10. It was the early 80s. One of those winters, I think 1982, was particularly cold. I thought I could check the integrity of my memory by looking up the Met Eireann site, but it seems they haven't got around to putting their historical data on line. First I thought, that's a shame, it would be a fantastic service.
On reflection, that might be wrong. Maybe we lose something in the conversion of a memory, which is rich, and blurred, and pliable, into a mere fact. (One of my pet subjects at the moment is memory and subjectivity of historical experience, personal and non-personal, and I've my eye on a couple of books, but alas, the unread section of my library is getting too big to bear another parcel from Amazon).
I think there is something wonderful about the unreliability of memories. I find a particular magic in revisiting the ice days of 1982. But maybe it wasn't 1982, it could have been 81, or 83, I'd say 84 at the latest. Maybe there wasn't much ice: that might be what the facts say. Perhaps a few days of -2. But in the deep caverns of experience that I have retained from childhood, I have a record of weeks and weeks of unbroken and severe frost. The landscape of those memories contains very little snow, though everything seemed white. The bitter weather had sucked away the colour, leaving everything in shades of gray. But it was as if in doing so, the contrast was hightened - everything became crisp and sharply focused.
I used to spend a lot of time at my Granny's farm as a boy - holidays and weekends - and I recall being there during the Big Freeze. The Cattle were short of water, in winter they depended on a fairly rudimentary suppy that consisted of a few pipes leading from a spring well on the hill, all lay over ground. They were, of course, frozen solid. So uncle Gabriel and I set off to the lake to fetch a few barrels of water. When we reached the lake, the wide, circular surface was a pure white, motionless disk. Even on a calm day the surface would ripple and dance a little, just to let us know that time was passing. Now it was still, like a stopped clock. The shallows and the deeper centre, reflecting and refracting the sky in different ways, had always looked different. Now the entire covering was uniform. The fir trees on the far side of the lake were a frozen white, and the rolling hills around were shades of gray and white. We had just landed in a lunar crater - in a tractor! The lake appeared to be asleep, and its shoreline was part of its serene dreamscape. Nothing moved. No sound. Until we arrived in the David Brown, disturbing the Sea of Tranquility.
Gabriel had taken a pick axe to smash the ice. His first swing barely scratched the surface. He was as impressed as I was, and so he decided to test his threory that the ice was strong enough to support the tractor. He backed the two large wheels out onto the ice. (he wasn't insane, just young, he was still a teenager) The ice held. Luckily the frosty surface provided enough grip to allow the tractor to pull forward again off the ice. A few hard smashes of the thinner end of the axe eventually smashed the ice. I was kind of surprised, and even disappointed to see the water bobbing under the two or three big chunks of ice that had shattered off. Water underneath after all, not a new era of solid lakes and visible breath. We filled the barrels, icy bucket after icy bucket, then headed for home.
My memory of the frozen lake is stored near dreams that were filed as memories. They must be dreams : one of them has uncle Liam, Gabriel's brother, and who had a reputation for being a pioneer (or just heedless), standing on the ice near the shore. In the background his Ford Capri is parked towards the centre of the lake. There is no motion -- it's, I suppose literally, a freeze frame. And there's a sense of foreboding, the whites aren't white enough, and there is a grave expression on Liam's face, as if whatever was going to happen had already happened.
I hope those memories, or inventions, or dreams, never thaw for they are marvellous and beautiful in all their childish, icy madness.