(Page 2 of 3)
Later that morning I went there by cab. I was to fly in a few hours to Madrid, and then on to New York. I walked up a flight of stairs to a large white room with its shutters open to a sea breeze. There were paintings already up on walls, others leaned against a doorframe. A man sat in a chair beside a sleeping dog and studied them, running his fingers through his wiry beard, his head tilted to one side.
“Are they yours?” I asked him.
“The gallery is mine,” he said. “The paintings are by an Irishman.”
I walked through the room and looked at the paintings. Curious to have called it after Monaghan. There was nothing there, at least nothing direct, of my home place. The paintings were of faces in light — alarmingly alive, I thought, at that hour, and me with so little sleep. One was of an old man looking out of the frame with such force that I felt I had to hold him back. He had on a plaid shirt and a coolie’s beard. Still, he was Monaghan to somebody. That soft word, like a sigh in sleep. I’d known Bough townland — hedge, lane, gable wall, church pew, barley field — like I knew the folds of my daughter’s skin when she was a baby. But it had faded. My father went from an aneurism when I had an internship in Barcelona. My mother by then was over in Nottingham with my older sister. There wasn’t one among us who wanted to tend cows. I never returned and only rarely thought of it. It was, if truth be told, remote, a little quaint. No fellow countyman met by chance would place me there. I didn’t even use phrases like “if truth be told” any more.
Still, it was Monaghan that brought me to this gallery on a morning when I had nothing else to do before going to the airport. I reached the last painting on the wall. The red in it had caught me from the other side of the room. It came off one of the shawls on two women in a street, caught up in the mystery of a message. I’d have thought, and even began to think when I was there looking at the two women, Why take the name of my county in vain? But the paintings were too decisive to be vain.
I stepped back. A caterer set wine glasses on a table. A young woman came out of an office speaking into a mobile phone. A fair man with his back to me fitted a bracket into a frame.
I went back to the man with the dog.
“I am from that place,” I said.
“Interesting,” he said. “Interesting that you should be the first to see this work. We open tonight.”
“But why does it have this title?”
The man shrugged, smiled.
“A caprice, perhaps. I don’t know. You’d have to ask the pintor.”
“Is he here?”
“He’s the person you will see if you look over your left shoulder,” he said. “Niall?”
The painter and I each turned fully around as if in a courtly dance until we were facing one another across the gallery floor. He took a step towards me and a memory began to form. It took me out of Spain and out too of New York to a place and a feeling that was held out of reach until he raised his face and I saw his luminous turquoise eyes and the triangular gap where the piece of his front tooth had been.
“I know you,” I said.
He stopped mid-stride and waited for me to explain.
Later I cancelled my flight and called my wife. I waited in a bar while he attended to his opening and afterward he drove me over the border to a village in the mountains outside of Biarritz where he had been living for a time in the attic of an old schoolhouse. On the way I asked him why he’d put that name on his paintings and he said it was a long story and I said I hoped to hear it. In time I did and in time so will you. I spent three nights with him, sleeping on a camp bed in the corner of his studio. We cooked, we drank wine, we walked the mountains and along the streams. He drew and I watched him. I watched the rapid, bird-like movements of his eyes as he took everything in. And we talked, over the days and sometimes through the night. Mostly I asked and he answered. I questioned him as a confessor might, delicately, patiently, with a long view. Drawing was the more pleasing form of speech for him, but he accommodated me with his answers. It seemed that whatever he’d held in, in a life of holding in, he brought forth. I caught myself listening with a thirst I hadn’t felt in years. I thanked him for it on the last morning as I sat in the car that was to drive me away. He tapped the roof twice, smiled and said, “Good luck.” Then as we pulled away he called out, “You got a lot but you didn’t get it all.” I watched him through the rising dust, his hands in the pockets of his jeans.
Hands that painted, hands he’d taken into war. Hands of an unusual steadiness. Could the same hands serve such different masters? When he was eighteen he stepped out of his own life and into history. Now he was trying to get back. Could he do it? Impossible, some would say. He’d crossed a line not once but systematically, every day, over a dozen years.
What’s the distance between him and me? At the age he took that step, I was still unclaimed, a boy on a cattle farm in Bough townland thinking about exams and football and my hairstyle. I could have gone any way at all. I could have gone the way he did. At least that is theoretically the case, the way Schrödinger’s cat was an infinity of possibilities as long as he was still in his box. In Bough we lived under their observation posts, the shadows of their helicopters moved over our land, their mines blew up our lanes at the border crossings. There were at least three of my own age in the townland who did as he did, one of them long since under a headstone with a harp on it in the graveyard. And then the one who came before us, who said, “No one can ever accuse me of running away.” You grew up there you’d have that sentence ringing in your ears. There’s a monument to him over at Corlat. We all knew the story. We all attended the commemorations. And if I needed any more motivation to join them, there was my Uncle Frank, my mother’s brother, taken by peelers off a flight from Birmingham the day of the big bomb there. They hung him up in a lift shaft in York barracks and drove iron bars into him through gaps in the wall. They put their cigarettes out on his back. He was the quiet uncle who years later used to take me fishing on Hollywood lake. I remember his pale, vacant eyes, the shake in his hand. I’d read the history, I’d listened to the songs. If I wanted to take up a gun, I knew where to go, who to ask.
But instead I took my leaving cert results and enrolled at Edinburgh University. I passed through tutorials, thesis reviews, fellowships, colloquia, and peer-reviewed journals all the way to consultancies and a chair of my own at Columbia at the age of thirty-seven. Along the way, I fell in love with Erica Flax by a lake near Malmö in Sweden and married her in New Mexico. That’s her adding bay leaves to a sauce in the kitchen. I can see the shadow of our daughter spilling into the hall as she brushes her hair. I passed a quiet war in Ireland, then went away. It was almost as if it never happened.
It was strange when he began to talk, like something called up from the dead. It might have been Beirut or the Golan Heights at first, but then I was back, or halfway back, to the borderlands. I saw my own gestures and speech moving back towards the forms they had when I was living there. I can feel it happening even now as I write about it. What he said shocked me, not because it was unexpected, but because I never had to picture the details before. We read of events in newspapers. We supported, if that was our wont, but asked no questions. He let me ask. He answered patiently. It was almost as if he felt I needed it more than he did.
To plant a tree, write a book, have a son. That’s a life, they say. And to kill? It’s not as it is in the movies, I know that at least. It’s slow and obscene. What does it qualify you for? To laugh like a ghost as he did before the funeral of Generous McCabe? By the time I left I knew where the laugh came from. But to understand is not yet to feel, as he did.
Who was he? You can see a drawing he made of himself, placed there before these pages begin. “Confession,” he called it, then laughed. You can make of it, and its title, what you will. Those are his features, certainly, but his look…? I will try to tell you something of it, and of his manner, and the atmosphere around him. When I look at this picture I think, Boldness, Implacability, Disgruntlement, a lack of interest in Guile. When I think of him as I saw him in the mountains, I can find all of these things, bar disgruntlement. The picture lacks Severity, Humour, Sensuousness, but he had these. He could seem a little ahead of your thought. Equivocation could feel rank in your mouth, maybe because of what I knew he had done, but it was also in his eyes. He carried something certainly, something that set him apart, that had for decades made him feel not quite human. I felt it myself when I saw him in Monaghan. The difference was that for him it was an illness, for me something to be envied. He would try in time to paint himself back. This will be a story about that. He was tall, contained, unkempt. In his face you could see both the boy and the old man, the boy in an innocence he had when looking at things. A shape in itself could amuse him, the way notes amuse musicians. It was as if the shape were telling him a joke. He cooked well and simply. In drink he showed little effect. He was alert, as both predator and prey are, but looked as if he were listening to something I wasn’t able to hear. He took so long sometimes to answer that I thought he hadn’t heard, or had forgotten the question. He was trying to read himself. His rhythm was slow, feline. When describing something he had an eerie objectivity, a three-dimensional scene seeming to assemble itself before him, details observed and placed, small movements and angles of light noted. He measured everything in metres and their fractions. He had an awkwardness with words visual people often have. It made me embarrassed by my own fluency. Those who can, do; those who can’t, theorize. About war, about art, and about love, he had no theories at all.
Those eyes, still so luminous. Like cold flames.
I look up from the page and out at the city. I’d almost forgotten that this is where I live. To the south is the negative space where the two towers were. I was in Brooklyn when they were brought down. I watched it from the riverbank, the hideous chemical smell of the fires coming at me in waves.
We all know what happened next. The city fell sick. Men and women went into uniform. From here a War on Terror was launched. And as this war was defined, much of the world came to understand that those with guns and bombs and beliefs but without uniforms had come from the deepest pit of hell and had to be sent back there. I know this. I felt it myself.
But I didn’t think like that when I was living in Bough townland. And no one I knew did either. We felt we had known for eight hundred years what men in uniform meant to us, and it didn’t fit with the War on Terror. That was the first thing he made me remember.
Before I left he gave me his book of drawings and notes and a disc of the painting he left behind in a hotel room in the San Francisco Tenderloin. I didn’t know what I’d do with them then, but I felt they’d tell me something I couldn’t get anywhere else. I have them here on the table beside me. Later, when I went to Berkeley to give a lecture, I crossed over the bay and walked the streets where he had walked and met the people among whom he moved. They had their own name for him and knew nothing of the world out of which he had come. And later I drove to the Federal Correctional Institute at Lampoc in Santa Barbara county and spoke to an inmate there. He knew. He knew more about him than anyone did, except for me. I never did find her. She, it seemed, went into a cloud, just as he had done.