‘The incessant downpour, constantly slapping our backs, felt like a massage, more distraction from real life, more putting us firmly here in the now.’
The Book of the Gaels
By James Yorkston
Published by Oldcastle Books
Creagh, West Cork, 1975
Due to the proximity of the house to the lough, or perhaps more accurately, the proximity of the house to the cess pit, there was always an army of flies around, and they were more often in the house than out. I’d say the constant rain was an irritation for them, and here inside they’d find enough scraps and scrapes of food to get by. We’d watch them squadron around the house, up and down the staircase, in and out of rooms, groups of twenty or so, sometimes interacting with smaller groups, buzzing, conversing. We’d be sitting there, my wee brother Paul and me, commentating on their battle manoeuvres, the flies from upstairs being the rotten Jerrys, and our brave Scottish brigade gallantly guarding the foot, the exit to outside. What helped our fantastic little game was that on occasion a fly would all of a sudden drop out of the air, dead. It’d lie beside us, give us a last shimmy, a shake of the legs and be still.
We discussed when it had last been to Confession. Would its soul be clean? Bless me, fly-father, for I have sinned. It has been two long minutes since my last confession. In that time, I have landed on an apple and wandered around a bit before taking off again for the big light, you know, the one in the kitchen…
Once, a fly death-valleyed in Paul’s hair, and sensing it wasn’t on the hallowed ground of the window sill or the staircase, or the sink or the fruit bowl, or a shoe or drink, it fuzzled for a good minute longer than we were used to. Paul was screaming Get it off ! Get it off ! And I was dancing around him like a puppet master, invisible strings to Paul’s head, scared to touch him, scared to see the fly. When the buzzing stopped, Paul sat on the stairs weeping and I, bravely, looked through his hair and removed most of the fly.
Is it all gone? It is.
It wasn’t, but the most of it was. I think maybe I lost a leg with the combing, and maybe a wing, but nothing one wouldn’t get riding down the path outside on a pony or a bicycle.
Once the bodies were dead for sure, safe, still, we’d pick them up by shuffling them on to pieces of paper using one of our father’s old books, until we had a bunch, twenty or so, then we’d carefully carry them to the top of the stair. We’d position ourselves and wait, waiting for the next battalion of flies to emerge from below. When they arrived, or when we had become bored, we’d throw the entire lot of carcasses into the air and down the stairwell, shouting Attack! Attack! And Hiawatha!
I have no idea what the other flies thought, if anything. Seeing their dead cousins springing briefly back into life then falling like a stone once more on to the ribbed stair carpet below.
Next time we scooped them up, they’d be missing legs, half their bodies, wings… Where did it go, all this excess?
Come supper, I’d stir my soup with caution.
The rain came that evening, and it brought us outside. Father appeared, grinning – Come on! – Paul and me looked at each other and prepared for the onslaught that awaited. As father pulled on his boots, we added layer upon layer, all our jumpers and shirts, followed by the big woollen beany hats that Mrs Cronin from up the lane had knitted us, our scarves, and finally our coats. We knew what’d be up and sure enough, within moments father had us leaving the house and walking outside, him striding quickly ahead, then returning and grabbing my own hand, Paul holding my other and – off we went, in procession, down to the lough. We’d learnt not to grumble, for this would be a happy time for us all. Father couldn’t complain about the weather, after all it was him who was dragging us now right into the heart of it. We began the slow freeze and curse the lack of second trousers or be grateful we remembered all our socks. Past the farms, sensible dogs pricking up their ears and seeing us approach, but them being keen on being dry and barking only, not charging towards us. Father picked up a long stick anyway, just to wave, beckon with. We continued on, father’s speed, us slipping behind him on the once-tarmacked road, long now defeated by grasses and wildflowers. We slipped into the forest, offering a small degree of cover but nothing really, almost bigger raindrops now, collecting on the canopy and falling far down on to us.
Whack! Right on the nose.
Look down, watch my step, avoid the sticks, the slips, passing occasional ruined buildings, ancient tracks, heavily mossed walls…
…and finally out, out of the forest and by the lough, the rain now tipping upon us and us – well, my father – hysterical with the noise – at least, I’ve always thought it was the noise, the beating of the rain upon the lough, the lough surrounded by forests and mountains on each side and the roar of the falling weather reverberating all around. There was a car there too, parked a good few stones’ throw away, but they had a motor running and father looked to them anxiously, slipping his face from them to the lough, them to the lough, until they turned their motor off and he relaxed There you go and concentrated on the lough.
He was hypnotised, staring out there. There was nothing else to hear, nothing else to think about, just the enormity of the body of water itself and the huge, vacuumed swell of the rainfall. The incessant downpour, constantly slapping our backs, felt like a massage, more distraction from real life, more putting us firmly here in the now.
The wet began to trickle through my defences and down my neck. One tiny river, then another. Reach my tightened waistband and circle around, tickling. I’d ignore it, best I could.
Looking up at father, his eyes were wide, occasionally wiped by a naked hand, he was inviting the weather, challenging, revelling, swimming in it. His jaw was slammed shut, slightly shaking, steam piling out of his nostrils like a bull, blinking his eyes as if this dwam was delivering some magical, powerful charm. Shaking himself from a momentary slumber then back, staring once more, eyes darting left and right but always, always returning straight down the line, forwards, as far as the eye could see, a mile or so across into the inlet where this giant, deep lough met the Irish Sea.
The Book of the Gaels by James Yorkston is published by Oldcastle Books, priced £9.99.