Taking the train, this empty lonely Dublin day of Sunday. Staring out the stained streaked window, westwards. With the sweet smell of turf puffed whitely by the engine out into a purple darkening sky of Ireland.
The snow deeper across the white frozen countryside. Streams and the canal iced over. Cattle standing dumb and still. A line of black figures on foot following a horse drawn hearse waiting at a barrier to cross the railway track. Ivy clad trees passing like multi armed dark green monsters. Fluffs of snow blown off the shiny green leaves in the carriage’s thundering windy wake. A farmer tossing forkfuls of hay from a cart to his hungry shivering bullocks.
Nearing the big midland town. Horizon glowing pink, the winter afternoon grown dark. Faint lights in the houses after the gnawing painful solitary stretches of empty fields and bereft boglands. Compartment doors opening. The bangs as they slam shut. Flurries of snow blowing along the cold concrete of the station platform. A large ring and key handed to the driver. A shout. And off again.
Rumbling along the lake’s sparkling blackness and by the gentle whitened moonlit hills. Till the train wheels squeak and screech again against their brakes. Heft down my two bags from the luggage rack. Say goodbye to the pictures of watering places in the county of Kerry. Unhook the leather strap and drop the window. Push open the door. And alight at last on this familiar station.
A priest, two nuns and a farmer with a box of pullets huddled out of the wind, emerging from the little waiting room, to board the train further west. The station master stopping to stare as if he were seeing some interloping stranger until recognition suddenly overcame his face.
“Ah it’s yourself sir, Reginald Darcy Thormond Dancer Kildare. I didn’t recognize you from the size of you.”
Approaching in a battered dark trilby hat, the brim pulled down fore and aft, and a long black coat tied closed with a piece of twine. Sexton. Straw and cow dung frozen on his boots. The station light flashing across his face. A tear in his only eye and moisture seeping down from his eyepatch.
“At long last welcome home Master Darcy. And apologies for me appearance. I was out foddering the cattle when Crooks jumped at me with the message you were coming.”
On the apron outside the station a cart collecting packages and mail off the train. Station master calling all aboard out of the darkness. A silent world so far away from the lights of a city. Sexton throwing up the bags behind the box seat of the victoria. And helping me by the elbow to sit up on the rugs.
“This weather with the snow and the wind biting the very skin off the face, would make you think you were living in Zhigansk Siberia.”
Sexton’s big horny hand so delicately guiding the reins, to the gende beat of Petunia’s hoofs muffled on the roadway. An automobile passing skidding and sliding along. Its lights blinking out and then on, and fading out again. Petunia shying and Sexton giving her a belt across the quarters. The sputtering choking automobile suddenly silenced behind us.
“Any fool out in horseless carriage a night like this deserves a ditch in the darkness. Ah Master Darcy, the moral tone of the nation of this moment is very sadly low. There should be a requiem for the national anthem. And I see you’re without a nosegay. Well out of the conservatory I’ll have a selection laid out for you in the morning. That’ll knock your eye out. You’d be a foot taller. And it’s a grand bit of smartly cut thorn proof tweed you’re wearing.”
“Kind of you to say, Sexton.”
“And I’d also say now Master Darcy you’ve had an adventure or two. You’d learn lessons a litde differendy in the city than you would in the country. And I heard tell you became the owner of a great motor car up in Dublin that would give goose pimples of envy to them teetering on the very highest pinnacles of the aristocracy.”
The cold moonshine casting black black shadows across the countryside. The straight road up and down these little hills and over the stone bridge of the canal. Another familiar mile. Another stone bridge over the river. Ivy clutched on the broken walls. Cottages, thatches white, faint yellow light in the windows. Through their turf smoke, the air sudden sweet. Ahead on the left, from this hill. That vast dark expanse of trees. Andromeda Park. In the magic silence. Strange drums thumping. Who doth it be. Awake. What stranger. Takes me by that grabbing hand. A music weeping. To lead me back. Under the purple bright stars. To those long lain now, faded in the grin of death. And to those still alive in the pain of living.
Out of their troubles
On a good horse
Beyond the snow capped walls, the moonlit towering shadows of the chestnut, oak and elm trees. Turning through the front gates, the lodge’s broken door and windows, a sapling growing through the roof. Petunia shying, nearly overturning the carriage. A shadow at the side of the drive suddenly bolting behind the rhododendrons, swinging two rabbits by the ears.
“Ah by god, look at that now, no longer content are they to skulk around stealing and crawling out through a hole in the wall, they have the nerve now to try to come in and out the front gates. A blast of shot across the backside is what he’ll get next.”
The victoria’s wheels crunching the gravel where the thick pine woods sheltered the drive from snow. Petunia’s hoofs resounding, puffing like a train up the incline to the last turn between the plantation of rhododendrons. The looming great black silhouette on the landscape. Shutters closed on the windows. White curls of smoke from chimneys caught in the moonlight. Kern and Olav rushing out barking from around the house. Bigger, greyer, shaggier monsters. Their unbridled delight hooting yelping and howling. Jumping to put their massive snowy paws up on my shoulders.
“Only pups when you left, they’ll be glad to see you now, Master Darcy.”
Footsteps frozen on the snowy granite steps of the porch. Sexton reaching to turn the latch. The door already sweeping open. In the candle lit hall, Crooks. More aged and considerably more cross eyed and infirm. His unentitled old Etonian tie flagrantly hanging down his rather soiled detached shirt front, which breaking out from his lapels displayed beneath, a rugby jersey sporting his equally unentitled colours of Trinity College.
“Good evening and welcome home Master Reginald, trust you had a pleasurable journey.”
Reginald Darcy Thormond Dancer Kildare, crossing the hall. A fire blazing in the hall grate. A tiny glow against the chill clammy damp. Crooks taking his hat and coat in hand. Heels clicking on the black and white tiles. Darcy Dancer’s long hair pouring over his shirt collar. A yellow silk handkerchief stuck in the greeny brown tweed pocket of his jacket. Stopping by the staircase hall under two mournful portraits of my mother’s father’s two wives. A whiff of whisky from Crooks’ breath. Stains thicker on his coat. Larger swatches of grey in his hair, his cheeks hollower and his neck thinner. And here, all of them stand. Except Edna Annie. Perhaps finally indisposed by her ancient age. The familiar and fatter faces of Kitty and Norah. Catherine the cook, her hair coffied in a mountain of grey, brushing her hand down her apron to shake mine. The others curtseying as I nodded to each. Crooks, displaying his best butlering, his ecclesiastical voice echoing.
“Edna Annie sends her best Master Reginald.”
“Is she alright.”
“Ah her fragile but willing bones are still washing and ironing. And this is Mollie. And this is Leila.”
Hardly more than my own age, two unfamiliar faces. Mollie freckled skinned, her hair a frizzy red. Leila behind her. In the shadows seems raven black haired, and the darkest eyes staring from a smooth white skinned face.
The small contingent proceeding up the grand stairs. Candle aloft flickering in the breeze, a limping Crooks unable to lift the bag leading the way. Sexton following, kicking as he went, the brass carpet rods. Around the landing, past the great window, facing the grove of beeches silvery in the stilly snowy moonlight. Crooks mumbling back over his shoulder at Sexton.
“Boots in the house, boots in the house.”
Halfway down the hall, just as a bat flew by overhead, Crooks turning to announce.
“Your bath is drawn Master Reginald. And supper will be at your convenience.”
I could hear Sexton murmuring under his breath that last word should have the letters I and N in front of it. And by these sounds apparitions and sights, one did indeed know one was home.
Sexton lifting the luggage up on the oak baggage stand. The candles flickering. Darcy Dancer shivering in the damp room. Where under the long acquired dust nothing seemed touched or changed. Opening the shutters, the snow looking even colder out on the trees in the moonlight. The idea of a bath floating with icecubes fills one with dismay. At least Crooks need not worry about the debris and snow melting off Sexton’s boots.
“The fire’s out Master Darcy. I’ll go fetch matches and light it.”
“That’s alright Sexton. Leave it till the morning. It will help me get out of bed.”
“Now is there anything else. That would make your comfort kinder.”
“No thank you Sexton.”
“Master Darcy just let me say, it’s good to have you back, you were sadly missed.”
“I appreciate your saying that, Sexton.”
“And by god, whose holy name we praise, we’ll have the estate shipshape again in no time.”
Sexton just as of old, always hating to take his departure, lingering, his eye sparkling and as always searching for any new topic of conversation. And I must confess, despite my famished cold condition, I had not the heart not to aid and abet him a little.
“Who are they Sexton.”
“Who’s who sir.”
“Those two new girls.”
“Well now the two of them arrived at the station. One is perhaps the dumbest creature god ever put on earth, and well she deserves the name Dingbats. Daughter of a blacksmith in Galway. Who I’m sure between belting the sparks out of horseshoes has been trying to get rid of her for years. The agent collared the two of them. Just the day before your father packed up his shotguns and was away to parts unknown.”
“Is she addressed by the name Dingbats.”
“It’s cook who started calling her Dingbats. And as it’s now universal, so you might too, being as she’s familiar with the name now. Sure she’d smile back at you if you called her a tart, liar or layabout. And mind you, she’s just enough brains to understand the two last at which she’s best at.”
“Oh dear me Sexton, do tell. Seems all so familiar.”
“Dumb when it suits her. And the rest of the time she spends cowering around inside the house terrified of her own shadow seeing a host of ghosts. Swears there’s a rat bigger than a cat in her room. Outside she’s in dread of the dogs. And it’s probably the only thing she’s to be believed about.”
“Well I can’t think that that’s going to do, Sexton.”
“Ah but now the other young lady is a different kettle of fish altogether. Parents unknown. And was from out of the female orphanage. By god isn’t she some looker though.”
“I’m afraid I can’t remark on that Sexton, she seemed to shrink somewhat back in the shadows.”
“Shy she is. But her wits about her. With shopkeeping experience no less. And a set of teeth you wouldn’t believe were her own. Sculpted they look by Galileo himself.”
Sexton seemed to have revised his feelings about former departed members of the household. Speaking rather nostalgically of Mr Arland my tutor who would have surely corrected him on his reference to Galileo.
“She’d even be an improvement on the beauty of Baptista Consuelo, upon whom poor old Mr Arland wasted his love, and scourged himself with the evil pain of jealousy. But now there was a man, Master Darcy as who knew his Caesar and Gcero.”
Departing off down the hall, as I closed the door Sexton went murmuring, et incarnatus est. Facit indignatio versum. One did wince at the papist bias in Sexton’s Latin. And his latter phrase certainly, as I loosely translated it to mean righteous wrath creates poetry, did not materialize in my case as the dressing cupboard door, promptly as I opened it, fell off its hinges and my righteous wrath created a bloody blast and damn and a good kick to the shins of the wretched furnishing. All my clothes too small. My dressing gown coming above my knees, the sleeves inches above my wrist. The faded mauve and the chocolate brown borders and facings which sported my mother’s racing colours, now mottled with a dusty mould.
Going bathroom wards, a breeze blowing out the candle in the hall. And promptly tripping over the carpet to open a wrong door. To the scrabblings of a rat, and the fume of dead mice. A taste and sure smell of things to come. Dear god. Please. Give me fortitude to, by oneself, stomach such immense difficulties. I do not ask to lie on velvet. Or even to wine and dine well. Just merely to have some horses sound and be able to once more decently hunt, decently shoot and decently fish.
A relief to find the fragrance of bath oil in the ablution room. The towels dank, no longer aired as they once were in the kitchen oven. But Crooks had indeed drawn my brimming bath steaming hot. In which stretched immersed I immediately fell asleep. And with my head slipping under the water, nearly drowning. Dreaming momentarily of a rather recent night life moment in Dublin after the races. Of a waiter, wildly out of control, rushing from one of the better restaurant kitchens to dump a pail of freshly caught uncooked prawns on top of an American lady’s head who’d incessantly complained she wanted really fresh seafood. I did on the real occasion witnessing it with my pal Rashers Ronald, who bent double at our table slapping both his thighs, also ungentlemanly laugh. But now waking not knowing where I was, I felt boiled like a lobster in a pot.
Darcy Dancer wrapped in a towel shivering back along the corridor. Seeing by the light now coming from the staircase. Avoid holes worn in this ancient carpet. My slippers too small. My dressing gown hopeless, split in half by my shoulders. Use its tattered girdle to hang myself when that time comes. Floorboards crackling underfoot ready to give way. Perhaps I shall move. Select a bigger, grander bedroom. More befitting my position. Better suited to taking my privacy. Decorate it in a manner of my recent preference for Regency. Somehow black dog doldrums and despondency do not seem to soul scourging when one can reach out and lightly caress a lavender scented rosewood furnishing in one’s life. And damn it, it does not mean that one is in the least effeminate.
My door ajar. My hairbrush moved. My ties laid out on my dressing table. Shoes neatly placed together. And a linen card propped against the mirror.
Sir: Sherry will be served in the library.
A note written in the most elegant print, ever so slightly slanted to the left. And who now would know the use or meaning of a colon in this household. Perhaps of course Sexton, who would certainly pretend he knew. But he has never written such a fine hand. The pen’s black ink strokes discreet yet bold enough. And curled as if engraved. Well, well. Dear me. Provided the sherry has the suitably fresh nutty tang of old, this could all be rather unexpectedly cheering. Requires a dig in my luggage for my silk shirt. And my gold best cufflinks.
Darcy Dancer in black tweed, a blue polka dot tie and silk hanky peeking above a pocket. A candelabrum placed on the window sill of the staircase landing. Making it all feel a little safer proceeding down these steps. Flame reflecting on the panes of the window. And right here where I stood once. A tiny innocent boy. When from the front hall foot of the stairs, my so called father, a sour cruel look on his face, called me a little bastard. And one does wonder. What now do all these portraits think. The long departed dead. Staring down from the mouldering walls. Grand aunt of my mother’s. Painted as she regally sat on a dais in the ballroom. Her haughty beautiful face. A ringlet halo of hair. The indistinction close up of the thick mottled lumps of colour which come into miraculous focus as one stands away. The sumptuous finery of her black lace gown. Bejewelled straps across her pink shoulders. Sparkling necklace of pearls and diamonds upon her bosom. If artistic standards are to be considered, this is undoubtedly one of the finer pictures escaping theft by my father. Who upon being advised that certain paintings could indeed be genuinely by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo then assiduously denuded the walls of same.
Darcy Dancer passing by the open door of the library alight inside with another candelabra. Stopping further down the hall. To push open these large hinge squeaking double doors. The massive cold darkness of the ballroom. Two bats aloft darting back and forth. Streak of moonlight across the dusty floor. Slanting in a window where the shutter hangs broken. I should so dearly like to hold some very grand great party. Invite the better local ladies and gentlemen if any are still to be found. The ballroom chandeliers sparkling light once again. If an orchestra is out of the question make music on the old gramophone. Whoever wrote the note placed in my bedroom could manage the invitations. Do. O do come. Won’t you. At home. For the champagne. Our buckets full of caviar. And your broken ankles. You most certainly will get my dears, dancing through the floor.
Darcy Dancer sipping his sherry in the chill fireless library. Poured from the decanter in all its nut fragrant pale brown gleaming glory. Warming the innards and the boulevards of one’s memories as I glance by the spines of these leather worn ancient musty tomes that Mr Arland and I would crack open on the many rainy winter days, delighting over their fusty language of pompous travels and pretentious recall. Of socially distinguished gentlemen pulling their legs out of sharks’ mouths and wrestling heroically with monstrous pythons. My how people did then take themselves so seriously. Of course there were accounts of intrepid Shackleton, especially admired by Mr Arland perhaps because of his Irish connections. And dear me before freezing to death here I had better soon be proceeding to supper in the dining room. Ah a creak of floorboards. A knock at last.
“Master Reginald, when you’re ready, supper is served.”
“Ah indeed. Thank you Crooks, I am in fact quite ready.”
The shutters closed. A fire at least taking the chill off the dining room. Crooks equally at the ready with my chair. Something to be said for having dear old servants surrounding one who although frequently forgetting, do occasionally at least try to acquit themselves agreeably. Having been such a deliberately appallingly bad servant oneself, one of course knew of the endless opportunities a servant could find for making life utterly miserable for his employer.
Cabbage soup. Boiled potatoes. And stew with carrots and turnips. Not awfully exciting. But so starved am I one simply can’t mind at the moment, having all I can do to not dive grabbing into the food like a pig famished.
“The likes of youse is no use at all when youse won’t learn left from right when youse is tolt.”
I was surprised to overhear Crooks mimicking in the guttural overtones of a Dublin accent as he grumpily ordered Leila about in the pantry. One could not help feel that there was just a touch of jealousy at this new girl’s albeit nervous efficiency. As she stood behind Crooks with Brussels sprouts one attempted to observe her but could only discreetly just catch sight of red swollen hands shaking gripped tight on the steaming heaped bowl, and the serving spoon banging. Crooks as he finished pouring wine at my right, snapping his fingers for her to come around to my left side. And just to casually lighten the atmosphere I pointed to the stained and soaked seat of one of the dining room chairs against the wall.
“Crooks what befell that chair.”
“Ah more than a sup of rain has made a recent habit of coming through the ceiling. The chamber above is getting a spill from the chamber yet above again. Poor old Chippendale. When the snow melts Master Reginald you’d want to be dining here in a tent.”
Unable to dance his attendance on his toes, Crooks holding his chin awfully high, and behaving with an autocratic attempt at efficiency one had never witnessed before. Announcing in sepulchral tones the year of vintage as he poured the decanted premier grand cru Margaux with its bouquet shrinking back in the glass from the cold. He was also very voluble indeed. Especially with his elaborate excuses over the more noticeable dilapidations of the house. And once such great bitter enemies, it was enthralling to now hear Crooks recall our previous housekeeper, Miss von B, in glowing terms. Elevating her from that regrettable bitch to Princess, and tossing in her Royal Highness when invoking her name. And as he waved Leila to collect my plate he then stopped by the sideboard, placed his towel dramatically over his arm, and then took a Napoleonic stance to stare vacantly up at the ceiling.
“Ah isolated in these lonely hills. If only her Royal Highness, the Princess, was here. Magnificent seamstress. Ah she could sew. Mends in the heels of socks like sparkling jewels. Linen folded with such perfection, would bring tears to the eyes.”
And last night in Dublin I had a dream that Miss von B had come galloping on her horse, back to Andromeda Park. Coming up the front park lawn and jumping the fence to the drive. Dismounting and striding up the front steps to march into the front hall. Confronting me there in her rather severely styled fox hunting raiment, as a massive military band ceremoniously played outside. Trumpeters sounding, drums beating. Her blonde hair snugly netted gleaming, her velvety cheeks pinkly glowing. The front hall suddenly silent as a church. Then a soft music playing a lament. I trembled and trembled and shook and shook. Waking and staring about my hotel bedroom in the dark. A milkman passing, his horse faintly clip clopping up Dawson Street.
“Master Reginald, we’ve gone short of the d’Yquem that you and her Royal Highness so esteemed. There were great calls on it these past months. Decant a little port perhaps.”
“Please don’t bother Crooks.”
“Not a bit of bother, not a bit. Port.”
“That would be nice.”
“Then port it shall be. Now I’d have the blue parlour fire going but for the jackdaws with a nest halfway down the chimney. I’ve had a chair put in front of the fire in the front hall.”
I was quite surprised at my twinge of thoughtfulness concerning the staff’s need to get off to bed. And pouring cream on top of the whipped cream of my second helping of trifle, I did not go on to have three helpings. Somehow too, the new girl’s thinness gave one the uncomfortable feeling that it was inappropriate to gorge myself any further.
Darcy Dancer crossing the front hall towards the new girl mending the fire, which out of the shadows sent its dancing licking flame of colour up to the ceiling. And was doing it properly too, putting logs on from the sides and one across the back at the top, leaving the middle with embers to glow out. I pretended to examine the guest book on the hall table, my mind aflood with questions conjured up to ask her. All sounding so damn stupid and foolish. Like I understand young lady you are a lonely abandoned orphan who now works here. And how do you like it. But even as I thanked her she just cast me a nervous glance and hurried away. At least one was saved sounding like a patronizing ass.
I did enjoy the jolly good port. Sipping as one stared into the crackling spitting flames beaming warmly against the feet, hands and face. And except for its being like sitting in Amiens Street Station back in Dublin one enjoyed the ear ringing silence. Which suddenly was rent by a shout.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, they’re at me. They’re at me.”
The sound of pounding running feet somewhere upstairs. Now other feet and doors slamming. And ten minutes later. Crooks with a candelabrum crossing to me.
“Forgive the upstairs intrusion Master Darcy. But that one Dingbats said a rat big as a fox jumped up on her in bed. Sure now if there was a rat it would be very surprising he didn’t take a good bite out of her being as she’s got a body on her like a boneless shoulder of pork.”
One did at this moment find it physically painful to have one’s quiet reverie and privacy so invaded. Perhaps a beam next would bounce down on my head. Or the assembled staff come lurching in, bottles to their lips, quaffing back, having been in the wine cellar. But this tonight is home. In all its hopeless insanity and crumbling dilapidation. Mine. Its land I do so love. Marked up and down and over hills with its mossy stone walls. Where I ran and rode. With sunshine joy, swinging in the lichen grey apple trees. My sisters chasing me. Peeking round the strong sinewed ancient trunks of beech, oak and chestnut. Streams and lakes streaking with trout. Emerald meadows of softest velvet. No footsteps heard. Lonely walks dreaming beyond these halls and rooms. Where I was born. And in such bygone pain. Saw my mother die. And what sadness now. Lies before my feet. Tongue of a vixen. Out there. Screeching. Across the white frosty night. An owl. Calls. Out of a sorrow cold and old. Who doth it be who hoots. And I must. Fight as I have never fought. Never give up. Someone must preserve the architecture. Someone must cherish the porcelain, paintings and silver. Someone must care about the trees, the flowers and butterflies. Someone must love again. The air, the waters and grasses.
A moment longer