Wednesday 16 April 2008

Missing You

She would spend most of the day alone, sitting in the kitchen-living room of her council-built rural cottage. She sat to the right of the fire, facing the window that looked out on the hill where gorse and rush had long conquered the meadow in front of Toland's old house which had melted away among a handful of firs. She would regrip the rosary beads when her mind returned to prayer after wandering among clippings of happy memories and fragments of dreams. And, prayer regained, the focus of her gaze would pan down on the empty chair at the other side of the fire.

The figure who was not in the chair was her husband, who was now almost 7 years dead. They were forced to marry - there was no other choice in 1940s Ireland if the unthinkable happened. Society had reserved a special taboo for their case - they were first cousins. In a tiny, close-knit community, a violation of mores such as theirs couldn't be concealed, it had to be endured. Worse followed. He fell ill and was unable to work their small, subsistence farm. The incessant toil in the fields and on the bogs was now added to her burden of carrying, giving birth to, and rearing a family of 10. One of the ten was to die of TB when he was only 6 months.

These days she would think often about the figure not in the chair. He was timid and physically frail. But he was gentle and compassionate. His slight, bony frame moved slowly in the world. He preferred the imagined life to the real, which he kept at a slight distance. His weapon of survival was his humour - a quirky, almost childish humour. All throughout his married life his humour was his shield against her caustic tongue. She could never let a word of his pass without cutting it down. Even in front of visitors he was always humiliated. He was a silly old. Where did he think he was? He was a waste of oil! She had blamed the ghost in the chair for the life of struggle that was etched in her face.

But again today, she reminded herself that her life was not all misery. She loved their children, even if they didn't visit very often now as adults. She remembered the banter and craic of the meitheal after gathering the harvest. The generosity of neighbours. Births and Weddings. The raucous disorder of children playing on the street. She recalled the earthy smell of livestock and their wordless dignity. The hope of progress after a good year. Ramblers singing and how music suspended the drudgery.

Her whole life, everything in it and that flowed from it, all of it was nested in and around this house. And he, the absence from the chair, had always been there, a quiet, tenacious anchor. She looked again at the chair and took a slow, deep breath.