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Moments of Grace

by Cyril Ó Céirin


At ten o’clock on a grey Dublin morning, Curtain the Poet was already at work:

    I could not love my little bolthole so much,
    Loved I not Honor Moore.

    He looked with some measure of satisfaction at his calligraphy, still neat and even almost beautiful, which he had just now scribed with her too-bright lipstick on the dressing-table mirror. Another man, he knew, might have scrawled it or smudged it, especially if he was under siege like himself from the hangover and depression which had become the normal conditions of his mornings before he could put on the motley which was his armour against them and against all the other vicissitudes of his life. Given these circumstances, the accomplishment was a not inconsiderable one: the two lines of parody might never make his Collected Poems, but, at least, the finding of the lipstick and the steadying of the hand proved that he could still will some order into a universe which (as he would confide in his more serious moments to both sycophant and compeer alike) like the Oola-Oola bird of ribald song flying in ever-decreasing concentric circles, daily and, even more so, nightly, threatened to disappear up one of its own black holes.
   
Much earlier in the night or morning, the ludicrously-named (and, at that hour, also ludicrously drunk and ludicrous-looking) Honor Moore of the inscription - her epitaph, really - had cried that he was an ageing, alcoholic, egotistical poseur who bolted from the truth to the bottom of a glass and between a woman’s legs, and would have the world believe that, because he had once been a great poet, he was absolved from all his sins.
   
How things might have changed and fate obviated had he graciously said, as he almost did say, “In vino, veritas”. Instead, he said, in his superior, pitying manner, “In vodka and vallium, verbosity.”
    Then he added, “And vertigo,” after she had lunged savagely at him, lost her balance and fallen heavily against the bedhead.
   
Even as she crawled only half-undressed under the bedclothes and pulled them over her head beside him, he would not resist making matters worse. Ever so politely, he had said, “Forgive me mentioning it, but you are dating yourself, my dear Hannah. Haven’t you heard? There’s been no such thing as sin for years now, not since you were a little colleen called ‘Honor’ and still virgin, which - I’m sure you’ll not dispute - was neither today nor yesterday.”
   
It was so typical of her in her less pleasant moments with him (she miscalled them her ‘moments of truth’) to hurl words like ‘sins’ at him. How often had he heard her in public, in bars and good restaurants and hotel lounges, at book-launches, press-conferences, public-meetings and late-night, post-partying, pissed-up polemics insist on the need for women to be freed from shame and guilt and angst. She would flagrantly express her admiration for some Dutch or Danish or Australian feminist personage (never an Irishwoman!) because of her being ‘such a marvellous guilt-free person’, while condemning him in private for having learned long ago to survive without guilt. (It was doubly ironic when he himself could, would and did expound in open court on the fact that the world’s greatest literature had more to do with what used to be called ‘matters of conscience’ than with any other one facet of human existence.)
   
They had been squabbling most of the night, that is, from the time they had lurched into the flat after the book-launch (not his book, unfortunately) until she had fallen asleep. Of late there had been quarrels as never before in the handful of years since he had moved in with her. Basically the nesting instinct, he had supposed. How could women who expounded so much and so vehemently on Women’s Lib and all that, still wish to tie themselves to a male or, rather, tie a man to them?
    “Aren’t we married enough already,” he was going to say, “sitting up jawing at each other half the night and you forever haranguing and hassling me about rent and responsibility, care and commitment as if I were really your ould fella!”
   
But, like a long-married man, he knew when it was too dangerous to overstep the mark. Instead he said, “Let me into my bolthole then,” and, stubbing out his fag-end, he turned quickly from his back and scrambled on top of her, pushing himself between her limp legs. But she had fallen asleep, or unconscious, with her puffy sensual mouth open like a child’s.
   
“ ‘I could lie down like a tired child and sleep away this life of care,’ ” he misquoted softly, looking down on her vacant face from his vantage position on top of her. It occurred to him Shelley was dead, almost certainly by his own hand, within a few weeks of writing the original. For some seconds, pity and an emotion close to love welled up in him like tears.
    “Can there be love - real love - without some measure of pity?” he heard himself murmuring aloud. She lay under him as if dead. He examined her face suspiciously to see if she was shamming. He gently pulled an eyelid up a little with his thumb. Out cold. He started to get up off her.
    “Pity makes cowards of us all,” he mused.
    “And lovers. And great poets.”
   
If he could have at that moment accepted his emotion, who knows how it might have turned his head and heart but, conditioned as he had become, he reacted swiftly, shutting pity out as if, almost without thinking, he closed the door in the face of a caller he feared. He remained where he was, on top of her. Her bloated face now roused first his contempt and then a self-loathing. Suddenly angry, he slapped her cheeks quite viciously. She moaned a little, hardly even a protest, and would not wake up. Prurience, salacious and slightly sadistic, overwhelmed him. Cruelly clutching her fat breasts with both his hands, he tried to force himself into her. She was too dry for pleasure. He coldly greased himself and her from the tube of jelly she always kept to hand in the bedside locker beside her jar of vallium. He gained penetration with grim satisfaction, his lip curled in derision. She barely squirmed under him. He began to screw her, taking his time. It was a wholly pleasurable exercise; he didn’t have to please any other person but himself, or coax or service or come to terms with anybody, nor was he on trial, nothing required of him. He felt a sense of power which was vaguely frightening but still he would not stop, fastening his fingers even more cruelly into her breasts. It was like a superior form of masturbation: thus abusing her was the ultimate in self-abuse.
   
He withheld as long as he could. His head swam a little as he extricated himself. He lay on his back and did not look at her once. He felt curiously guilty and ashamed and tried to reason with himself why he ought not to be so. It hadn’t meant anything: simply a physical act of no special significance beyond the fulfillment of the biological need (as everyone these days would agree with regard to normal fornication) and not much different to that which he performed on her a few times a week when she was awake. A clear-cut example, my Lord, of unmarital non-rape and there had been no witnesses: case dismissed.
   
As if to show the matter meant nothing to her either, she began to snore. He pushed at her shoulder until she again subsided. Some time later, he thought she was not breathing at all and, in panic, turned over to her. Subconsciously at least, he was always afraid that, accidentally or otherwise, she would some day die on his hands. (His conscience, always unpredictable in drink, cynically interrupted: “Or by your hands.”)
    Some weeks before, he had been warned by a palmist with whom he had appeared on the same t.v. chat-show panel. Over drinks afterwards everybody had to have his hands read. The palmist warned Curtain of impending catastrophe, perhaps not for himself but for someone very close to him.
    “Stand back, everybody,” said Curtain, holding out his pint from him, “I think I’m going to puke.”
    Everybody laughed and the soothsayer retreated. But next morning, Curtain had realised that Hannah was the only one in the world close to him and the thought chilled him momentarily.
   
This time, at any rate, she was just out cold. He checked out her locker with his eyes but, thank goodness, the jar of pills was not to be seen. Relaxing, he switched off the bedside lamp and, on impulse, he put an arm around her, under her soft, plump breasts, and laid his head against her shoulder. The last thing he remembered was murmuring into her ear, “I think we should both try and forget this ever happened and sleep the sleep of the fucked.”
   
Now it was late morning, and she was still asleep and he was sick and desperate as usual. From the end of the bed where he was dressing, he looked back upon her puffy face. She was still on her back, lifeless. She looked as if she were pumped to bursting point with sleep - and semen, he reminded himself, and vodka, and vallium, and a potentially lethal mixture of blighted hopes and hopelessness. She looked a lot older than when they had gone out the previous evening and, yet - perhaps it was her plump, little cheeks and open, swollen mouth or artless repose or vague air of vulnerability - there was still something naive and childlike about her. For several reasons he was glad he had not woken her.
   
He found her half-empty bottle of vodka on the dressing table and swallowed a mouthful or two by way of a cure, then lit a cigarette and coughed horribly. Another swig and another pull at the fag and he was feeling a little more like his usual self.
   
“Women,” he announced to an imaginary audience, “should never wake up. Indeed, none of us should ever wake up. Look at me - I was feeling fine til I woke up. My Hannah here is going to feel terrible when she too finally wakes to this dazzling new day. It isn’t life we yearn for, is it, ladies and gentlemen? No, it’s to be cured of life. And the only known cure, for life as for dandruff, is our last long sleep. In the meantime, the merry in-between-time, there is always wine, women and song, and what matter if we aren’t too good at the singing anymore, it’ll all be the same in a hundred years time. Enough!” he cried (but not loud enough to wake his comatose audience), “I must don the mufti which is my motley.”
   
Bringing the bottle and the cigarettes to the bathroom with him, he shaved and dressed. His clothes were much more selective than people would have ever suspected: he had to dress to his image more than ever these days, that of the little, working-class, country-townie, brilliant and ageless and irrepressible and incorrigible, who could ‘do’ the American University circuit each year with the same aplomb as he did the pubs of Dublin. He felt himself getting high on the vodka, dangerously so, but he encouraged himself (being his own protégé), for the alternative he knew to be unthinkable depression.
    “Anyway,” he told the protégé in the mirror who was having his cloth-cap adjusted to its proper wink-and-elbow angle, “manic depression becomes a genius like yours.”
    He then wrote his poem, Ode to Honor, on the mirror with her lipstick. Pausing by her bedside on his way out, he thought better of kissing her, crooned softly, “Bless you for being my bolthole,” and was gone to make some money, easy pickings.
   
He walked the half-mile or so hurriedly from the flat off Haddington Road to a hotel near Grafton Street (a Sunday paper profile had once described him as ‘scurrying about the streets of Dublin with a hump on his back like a travellin’ rat’) where he had arranged to meet Maggie O’Byrne Kelly, producer of a forthcoming series of books programmes, and an old workmate of his from the halcyon days of the Precincts journal; there would be others, the presenter, of course, and probably one or two hopeful of a place on the panel, like himself. He knew he had the inside track, O’Byrne Kelly having proposed him: all he had to do now was convince the most urbane but still young presenter (whose face and name he usually refrained from remembering), a learned sort of chap of obviously gentle breeding, that he had nothing to fear from this refractory genius in the workman’s cap.
   
They had coffee, nothing stronger, in the coffee dock of the hotel. The poet had approached the company quietly sans cap, shook hands affably all round and thereafter proved to be as civil, manageable and intelligent as the next man. The presenter was persuaded to dispose of his doubts, though against his better judgement. He had not encountered Thomas Curtain personally before, but (besides knowing his work, which, of course, he admired) he knew of him by his several reputations: only last week, in a new book on the literary scene in Dublin, he had read a hair-raising account of how the inebriated poet had made a most dramatic entry through the swing-doors of the packed Auditorium in Trinity College at the most crucial point of the distinguished American professor’s lecture,’ crashing through them,’ it said, ‘like a spastic fighting a Force 7 gale and, then, having successfully found a seat on the floor nearby, discovered (just as both the learned Professor and his audience had regained their composure) that he had forgotten his cigarettes, clambered unsteadily to his feet like a heavyweight boxer struck nine seconds before by Mike Tyson and indomitably assailed the swing-doors once more.’
   
The presenter’s doubts returned when, after all the main business of the day had been satisfactorily concluded and the company were indulging in the usual genial small-talk before breaking up, he heard Curtain comment that there was “no such thing as bad publicity - one’s own obituary always excepted”. But it was too late to reconsider. He kept his misgivings to himself, doubtlessly laying down the groundwork for a future duodenal.   
   
As for Curtain, he left, as he would have said, ‘in monumental humour altogether.’ He had worked his meal ticket (or, rather, beer ticket) for the winter months and, on top of that, inveigled Maggie O’Byrne Kelly (who, as she herself would always say, ‘understood’ him) into giving him a small loan, an unofficial advance which would see him through for a few days. It was wonderful, he thought, what a person could achieve if he put his mind to it and, though he had work on his latest book planned for the rest of the day, he headed for a cure to a certain hostelry where he often held court.
   
He had stayed much longer, and drank far more than he had first intended. Not that he had set out to get drunk: he simply could not for the time being face home and Honor Moore, she to whom he had affirmed his love (in lipstick) that morning.
    “Home,” he was noted for saying, “is where you hang the hangover.”
    It didn’t seem funny any longer: home was also the place where the woman you happened to be living with had taken to haranguing you with unendurable verities, as if she were your lawfully-wedded wife. In the circumstances, he thought, he could excuse himself for preferring whiskey and Guinness to wormwood and gall.
   
And yet today he could find nought for his comfort in whiskey and beer. He discovered himself trying to appraise what in fact he had achieved of significance over the past ten years, but the time had gone so fast and in such a whirl he could (to his shock) barely recall any of it. Once he had been forty and famous (well, relatively so, but of some significance certainly) and now, after what seemed to be no more than a twelve-month, he was fifty and futile. In vino veritas. He opted to face the cold comfort of home and Honor Moore.
   
The world was a grey one - grey skies, grey streets, grey houses, grey faces. The interior of the mouldering Georgian house in which they had their flat was dark and dank, cavern-like, even tomb-like. When the heavy hall door slammed behind him, the house shuddered and echoed. He remembered that he had completely forgotten to phone her workplace that morning to let them know she was ‘indisposed’. As he went up the great, threadbare stairway, he was reminded of a man climbing the scaffold. Opening the flat door, he thought to say something cheery and diverting, contriving somehow not to make it sound at all like gallow’s humour. Something like, “Shall we lunch at the Mirabeau today, Honor, darling, or would you prefer a simpler repast of hamburger and chips?” - making sure to flash some of his advance before she could retort.   
   
The living-room and kitchenette were empty, the door to the bedroom still closed. He was visited by a strange feeling of apprehension. The moment seemed to have come fortuitously (then again, perhaps not) when he was about to walk onto a stage, incomprehensively significant, at exactly the prearranged instant, as if all his life had been leading up to this juncture.
    “Mere deja vu,” he told himself, though he knew it was not. He opened the bedroom door, preparing to repeat his lines like an actor in rehearsals, but there was a sense of vacancy in the darkened room, like a ship that had been suddenly and seriously abandoned - watch, comb, headache tablets and perfume scattered on her locker, tights and shoes thrown on the floor, and the vallium jar he had missed the night before at the edge of the mat, empty. She was lying as he had left her, with her child’s mouth open and a couple of tablets like peppermints on the crumpled sheet beside the pillow. His eye could detect no sign of breath or life.
   
The inevitable had come to pass. By the wall was a pretty, white dressing table and mirror with gold braid and pretty golden handles and matching stool, which had been there since he first moved in and which he had hardly ever noticed. Without taking his eyes off her, he pulled out the stool and sat, unable to think or to feel, conscious of nothing but that she lay there before him and was no longer there, even if he could hardly credit the fact.
   
When his mind began to work again, it was to recall so incongrously the many times he had stolen into this room, up beside the bed in the dark, clumsy with drink but still cunning enough not to wake her, and had thought for a moment or two that he had heard nothing from the bed - standing in the dark, on one leg even, sock in hand, listening for movement, his head to one side like a bird listening for a stirring of something in the earth, frightened sometimes of hearing nothing (had she left him, was she dead?) and, at the same time, hoping unwilled that there might indeed be no breathing there and that, at the least, this chapter of his life might be done; then, at last, he would become aware of movement, a stir, a sudden intake or expulsion of air, a gurgling of the intestines or the old, familiar fart, and the cogs of life would remesh and the whole inevitable, fatal machine roll on once more like a video when the pushbutton had been released.
   
He reached to touch her forehead, as if she were a sick child. His heart recoiled at the coldness of it. He opened an eye with his thumb, could see the distinctive brown fleck below the grey pupil, saw light reflected there and, for a moment, thought there might still be life in her. Then he believed absolutely that she was gone. He was filled with a baffling, unutterable maelstrom of hurt and regret and even resentment. He was like a child in his resentment: people are not supposed to go away without warning, without goodbye, without leave. He covered his eyes with his hand. When he lifted his head again, he could not bear to look at that which was once her.
   
The night before she had said: “I need loving. I don’t mean sex and I don’t mean passion either. I think after all I’ve been through, I’d be entitled to a little bit of love. You were my third chance at happiness - is it fair that a woman of my age should have to go off again looking for love?”
   
He had never told her, seriously at any rate, that he loved her. He liked to quote Gauguin: “To make me say ‘I love you’, you’ll have to break my face.”
   
She had said: “No one can help ‘falling in love’ - it’s simply a form of heat really. Loving is something else. Love is a commitment, a conscious decision - a constant one. You of all people should understand. It’s like becoming a poet, or a priest. It’s a way of living, life-long….”
   
He had understood only too well. There was a time when he was committed to the Muse. He would wake up in the morning and say, “I am a poet”, just like another person might say, “I am a teacher” or “I am a miner” or “I am a professional boxer.”
    In those days, he was composing poetry, all of it honest, most of it successful, some of it significant. Then the well had dried up. Failure of faith? Failure of nerve? Failure of heart?
    “But the heart that I had, I thought ’twould burn my body laid on the deathbed”. But Yeats’ heart had burned to the last, his own had not. Like a kind of a zombie, he had been masquerading as The Poet for years.
   
She had said: “If you can’t write poetry any more, at least write something in prose, for education, or entertainment - at the least that could be honest. Get off your fat arse - or, rather, go and glue it to the seat of the chair until you produce something again. Anything. Even something that will sell, for God’s sake. Doctor Samuel Johnson said that ‘there is nobody writes who doesn’t write for money - except a blockhead!’ Or somebody who hasn’t got the guts to turn an honest penny.”
   
Stung at last into answering, he had called her a parasite.
    “All women,” he said, quoting a bitter, self-indulgent line of his own, “are harlots at heart.”
   
“You kill me,” she had hissed.
    “God between us and all poets and artists, the whole damn crowd of ye, musicians, playwrights, novelists, actors, poets - especially poets! Ye’re the parasites. Ye feed off the rest of us like rats, especially those of us who have the god-damned misfortune to love you and get entangled with you. Ye can always find someone to suck her blood from her - bloodsuckers, that’s what bloody poets and artists are! - and when you’ve sucked us dry, you batten on our dead bodies. You’ll probably even write a poem about me when I’m dead and go off and forget I ever existed.
   
My heart is broken,” she had said between fits of weeping. She was in a state of complete disarray from drink and misery. But how ludicrous the heartbroken are, he was thinking. He would not let pity undo him.
    “Darling,” he had said, look in the mirror - the role of tragedienne does not become you.”
   
Now he wished he could have taken that back, taken back the rest of it, all of it, all the needless hurt he had done to her. He had never loved her as he did now at this moment when love demanded nothing more from him than his discomfort. Dear Hannah. Why did you die? Why did you leave me like this? We could have fixed things up. There was still time. We could have still tried to get everything back on the right track. What nonsense made you do it? You didn’t leave me a chance. You, dear Hannah, vulnerable child, with your mouth open and your mascara ludicously run from tears, you ran out of time. He was looking down on her, now suddenly reminded years before having impatiently and (as it turned out) unjustly struck his little son for some childishness and, later visiting his bed, found him asleep with blackened eyelids and lashes still wet from sobbing, kissed them, his own now wet and terrible knowledge in his heart of needless hurt done which could never be undone nor proper restitution made. Pity was undoing him. Little Honor Moore, I love you. Too late I can tell you that, when it doesn’t matter any more. Too late.
   
Hannah, Hannah. Why didn’t you wait? Why now? Things could have got better. I swear to you now things would have got better. If I had only known, only woken up in time to what I was, what I had let happen to me. To us. Why couldn’t you have waited a little longer?
   
And yet he had known. He had even been told and the irony was that he couldn’t believe. The palmist had cornered him as he lurched back to the party from the toilet.
    “May I have a word with you in private?” he had asked apologetically.
    He was an affable, ordinary-looking fellow, in a blue suit and tie, a little deferential in manner perhaps but with the assurance of a man who knew his business. He might have been some sort of tradesman or craftsman before entering what the poet thought of as showbusiness.
    “Please bear with me for a moment,” the palmist had said.
    “Often when I read hands, I can read minds - what I am trying to say is some kind of telepathy is set off. I am sure of what I said to you already, about there being a catastrophe destined for you or for someone very close to you. Wait - I know you do not believe in fate. Neither do I, as a matter of fact, not in the ordinary sense of the word anyway. But a linesman may warn a train-driver that the bridge is down some miles ahead. The driver has several options. He can accept the warning, stop the train and so save himself and his passengers. On the other hand, he may be too stupid or stubborn, or perhaps proud, or conditioned, or too neurotic to be guided by the knowledge and he continues to race on blindly to destruction. In my experience most people choose the latter course, and so what is predestined becomes their fate. Do you understand me, Mr. Curtain? I’m telling you now again because I believe that for you there is still time - but only just. You can still stop the train and save your - ah, passenger. It’s up to you. Anyway, I’ve done my part.”
   
“And fuck you, too, with crystal balls on,” was all the Poet could say by way of repartee.
   
Now the catastrophe was upon him. Time had run out on her - or was it she had run out on time? He could hardly accept that it had all been some kind of terrible accident, that she had not, at least subconsciously, opted to remove herself from time. In any case he had neglected to try and stop the train. Of what avail now his promises, his wishes, his tears? Too late.
   
So what was to be done next? The generation he was reared with had their customs and rituals, rooted in a mixture of superstition and religious faith, to help them come to terms with death and bring the event to order. They might open a window, veil the mirror, stop the clock, close the eyes with pennies (looking quickly at the corpse, Curtain could see the eyes were already closed as if in sleep), order crêpe and candles, place a crucifix in the hands (where would he find a crucifix, for god’s sake!) and tell the priest.
   
It occurred to him that he should telephone a priest. He didn’t know any. Anyway, contacting the parish clergy might prove embarrassing. There was always the ‘Show-business Priest’, a famous character who married and buried actors and singers and what-have-you and was photographed christening their babies. Curtain knew he could be contacted at the offices of the tabloid for which he wrote a popular weekly column. That priest would know what was to be done. Curtain had second thoughts however, he might be bothered afterwards by the priest trying to convert him when, having just gone through all this, he’d be in too vulnerable a position.
   
Yet, unaccountably, the thought occurred to him that he should pray. Prayer required faith. Or desperation He had neither. Faith, he knew, had to be stoked up or it coagulated, like the creative talent. And he was hopeless, not desperate. He doubted if he ever had had real faith anyway. He could remember the last two times he had prayed: at his mother’s death and when the only woman he had ever passionately loved left him. Prayer had brought neither of them back.
   
What surprised him now was that the urge to pray had surfaced in him at all, when he would have thought the last vestiges of religion in him had long ago been purged. Conditioning, of course. “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” his mother used to say. (She was always praying for her children - believed to the last, poor woman, that a mother’s prayers were always heard.) And here he was now with some weird need for prayer or, at least, some strange feeling that a prayer might be appropriate. Strange. The damned thing might be dead for years and then at moments like this, especially at moments like this when a man was at his most vulnerable, the cadaver would resurrect like Lazarus, bound by his bandages and blinded by the light, and having to face into the same futile existence he had quit some time before. No, this world never changes, Curtain contended. Only the individual human being may change his or her life for the better, and in his experience he had never known that to happen. No, prayer, too, was futile.
   
What was to be done then, he asked himself. Death always takes us so unawares, even if we are expecting it. Strange. We all know the inevitable is coming but which of us is prepared for it? “In the midst of life we are in death,” said St. Augustine. He had changed, hadn’t he? Some crisis or other had forced him to a moment of choice.
   
Curtain realised he had raised his head and was addressing another self in the dressing table mirror. Yes, there he sat, the misshapen mound of the corpse on the bed behind him, and the vodka bottle at his elbow half empty. He had a weird feeling that he was no longer himself, that his former self in the mirror had been coming to this point all his life, that his own new self at last was coming to life….
   
“Bullshit,” said his former self.
   
“But don’t you see?” he said.
    “Theologians speak of such things as this as ‘moments of grace’, junctures in our lives, full of possibilities, especially powerful, where the balance in a man’s soul (we’ll have to call it that at the moment for want of another word) can swing so that he changes from what he is to what he might become -”
   
“I wouldn’t dwell on it too much,” his other self interrupted.
    “Life is a continuous journeying thought such crossroads, but most people ramble along, veering or drifting thoughtlessly or taking the turn life has conditioned them to take. For better or for worse. Making deliberate choices is dangerous work, close to madness, in fact.”
   
“You made one once,” he retorted. “To be a poet.”
   
“And look where it has got me,” the other laughed cynically.
    “Seriously, though, if you give credence to these ‘moments of grace’, as you call them, you are immediately faced with a far more desperate choice than mine was. Though you do not realize it yet, the choice you face now is ultimately one of cosmic significance. It is the same ultimatum that Moses gave the Jews: ‘Consider that I have set before you this day life and good, and on the other hand death and evil.’ And if a man does not then choose good and commit himself to the blessing, cannot step out blindfolded onto the abyss of faith, or hope, or love, whatever is demanded of him, what then? Surely, my brother, his last state will be worse than the first. No, I would not dwell on it - better the devil we know than the devil we don’t.”
   
Both of his selves reached down for the vodka bottle and took a swig.
   
Yet it still must be possible, he thought. Only a few minutes before, he had said to her that, had she gone on living, things would have changed, he would have changed.
   
“Aha!” said his other self, reading his mind brutally, “‘I wish - therefore it is possible.’ Faulty logic, my boy.”
   
He persisted: “But if she had lived and - and I had come to my senses in time, who knows how we might have changed? If she now groaned and opened her eyes, what might I, knowing what I know now, what might I be capable of?”
   
“And where would you begin?”
   
“I’d begin at the beginning. At the essence. Like the first phrase or line in a poem. ‘God gives the first line,’ some believer had said, ‘you must make up the rest yourself.’ The starting point is the readiness, which, in fact, is the mother of committment. The rest would follow as occasion demands and opportunity presents.” (Even now, he was thinking had she still lived, he might at last be ready.)
   
But his image looked doubtful. “You do get carried away when you have drink on you, don’t you? The starting place is where one has already come to. In other words, old son, your starting point would be me. With all my faults and failings - as some would call them, I think of them as simple conditionings myself. Just take a look at yourself, man, for Chrissake! Some beginning!” They looked each other in the face and took another drink in unison.
   
“Forget this thought ever occurred to you,” his former self continued. “I can assure you it was merely the result of emotional shock. Where could such a ‘moment of grace’, as you’ve called it, come from anyway?”
   
“From God, I suppose.”
    He said it lamely. He had almost said, “From the good God.” Conditioning again. “You know I never really believed in him. Anyway, I think it was unfair of him to present you with such a moment at - ah, such a moment. You were never more unprepared for it, in my opinion.”
   
It was true. He was not ready, never could be. He had never had Faith, he had merely conformed for a time to his mother’s religion. Neither had he ever had Hope, only the blind optimism of his people which held that things could be worse, it was no use complaining and it would be all the same in a hundred years time anyway. Once upon a time, in the days of his integrity, he had held what he thought was a steadfast belief in art and in the wish, more immediate than hope, that his poetry would not only constitute his monument but his significance.
   
“ ‘Ars longa, vita brevis.’ ”
    His former self again had read his thoughts. “That sort of thing? Not enough, was it? It didn’t keep the old heart burning?”
   
Well, that was Faith and Hope out to begin with. There remained only Love. Once he would have unhesitatingly said that he had proved he could love. He had given up his wife and children - oh, his children, his treasures! - for the sake of that love. In the end, it had destroyed him. When his inamorata left for London with her agent (she was an Irish rock singer), in his suffering he wrote her poems which, perhaps, had made her immortal. Then he learned her agent was her lover and he had almost gone mad with hate and jealousy. Shortly afterwards she was killed by a bus in Baker Street; he shed no tears but had almost drunk himself to death. He couldn’t remain with his wife afterwards. He went to an American University for six months as Writer-in-Residence. When he returned, his wife was gone back to her father in Germany and taken the children with her. He could not think why he had ever married her in the first place.
   
“Love?” his alter ego was asking him. “What is love, might I ask?”
    Curtain the Poet forgot himself. He was on firmer ground here, even if he was feeling a little drunk. The answer leaped onto his tongue, straight from the King James Bible he had, as an apprentice poet, studied so assiduously because of its beautiful English. He could still reel off whole chunks of it to suit his purpose, like the devil was supposed to. “ ‘Love,’ ” he began to quote, “ ‘is patient, is kind: love envieth not, dealeth not perversely, is not puffed up, is not ambitious, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinketh no evil, rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth: bearth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Love never falleth away …’ ”
   
“Too much to expect of yourself, I’d say. But don’t let me interrupt: continue - it sounds great, really it does.”
   
“ ‘If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal…’ ”
   
“If you believe that you’ll believe anything,” the other said impatiently. “I was - I am still celebrated for my poetry and I never loved anyone.” He paused. Then, in a much more subdued tone, he added, “It’s true. I never loved in my life. My mother? Natural animal affection. My children? The same - and, anyway, I abandoned them. My rock singer? Passion, self-love. You? You’re a chip off the old block - how could you possibly be so vain as to think you could start to love now?”
   
“But I did love once,” he protested, remembering.
    “Just now. Pity and love. I even told her-”
   
“How lucky for you,” the other cut him short, “that she was as dead as mutton at the time!”
   
He had no answer to that. They drank again.
   
His adversary, swilling the liquid round in his glass and looking into it, continued in a musing, rueful way:
    “How ironic of this good God of yours - the least he might have done was send his ‘moment of grace’ while she still lived.”
   
Stricken with self-knowledge, Curtain whispered in quiet despair, “Perhaps he did - I just didn’t take any notice in time. For whatever reason.”
   
He gave up then. There was nothing could be done about it now. He would drink his way through this death as he had done with the others. His compeer rose unsteadily and, leaving the mirror, stood looking at the corpse, scratching his poll. It was too late to call a doctor. Then he remembered there would have to be a death certificate, he still had a corpse on his hands. He got up immediately and picked up the empty vallium jar. As if afraid of waking her, he carefully picked the tablets off the sheet, went out to the kitchen and disposed of them and the jar in the rubbish bin. He wondered if a cover-up of the manner of her death (he assumed from the onset that it had not been accidental) might be arranged somehow. He decided to phone his literary agent, and impresario and manager who kept many irons in the fire. The phone was answered immediately but the receptionist told him in a jaunty tone that Mr. Coral was out for a half an hour and would he like to leave a message. He declined and she blithely bade him have a good day.
   
There was nothing he could do now but wait. Coral, he was sure, could fix everything. He got a glass from the kitchen and returned to the death-bed. The old people had a strict rule that at no time ought the corpse to be left alone: at least, he could do that for her.
   
He was still sitting by the corpse, sucking from the near-empty bottle and taking care not to look again into the mirror. After this was all over, what then?
   
He would do only what he was capable of: he would write a poem on this death, this life. It is what would be expected of him anyway. Of greater importance to him was the fact that she would have liked him to do so, had, at one time, complained, at first cajolingly, then peevishly, that he had never written a poem for her. Yet, he was too much of a realist not to admit that this in itself was of no great matter either.
   
An old country jingle from boyhood days came to mind and mocked him:
   
“If you love me let me know it,
    If you’ve any gift bestow it,
    If you prize me or you praise me, tell me now.
    Do not wait till life is over
    And I lie beneath the clover
    With a row of snowwhite lilies on my brow;
    For no matter how you shout it,
    I won’t really care about it
    Or know how many teardrops you have shed.
    If you think my honour’s due me,
    Now’s the time to pay it to me
    For I’ll never read my tombstone when I’m dead.”

    Yet, in the end, the poem could be of real significance, not merely as sounding brass or tinkling cymbals but as a fitting offering and gesture which might excuse in some small measure his failures as a man and, though he had now lost the chance forever of making restitution to her personally, it might even in some mysterious way compensate for his failing her while she lived. He could already feel the germ of it in him, as some women know absolutely that they have conceived new life, that the embryo is already there. He knew the first words of it would come unbidden, some mysterious moment and he would then go to work choosing, shaping, intuitively happening on words, until he had built for her a monument.   
   
He went and rubbed his heartless billet-doux of the morning off the bathroom mirror and returned to his wake by the death-bed. He would phone Coral again in a while, have him make the arrangements with the doctor and undertaker. But in the meantime, he would keep vigil. He felt very drunk with creative excitement and alcohol. He would hold this moment, capture it, scrutinise, analyse, commit it to memory, storing up building blocks for his poem. But when his eyes had dwelt some time on the open child-like mouth and travelled down the soft line of her exposed throat and began to linger on the blowzy, bulbous mounds of the breast unshielded except by a sheet and loiter in the helpless defile between the thighs, he comprehended that what he was doing was obscene, that already his vigil was turning to voyeurism and deviating to necrophilia. With horror, he recalled his hideous, loveless pleasuring of himself with the dead woman the previous night. Oh, God, he cried aloud in anguish, what can ever excuse mankind the grossness of his humanity, however inadequately, or treat, if unconditionally, for remission for the hardness of his heart?
   
Disgusted with himself, if maudlin with drink, he ran an unwieldy but utterly tender hand over her head and face. A moan at once escaped the pallid lips. Startled, he thought it was air from the lungs escaping through the vocal chords - change of temperature, perhaps. Then to his utter consternation and perpetual wonder, she moaned again, more insistently this time, and, under the sheet lapped round her like bandages, her body was stirring and she farted the old, familiar fart…..


________

Taken from ‘This is Where We Came In’ (1992), pages 62-75.



Cyril Ó Céirin
 

Guilty, My Lord