Friday, 28 November 2014

Meet old Joan, one of my favourite characters

“Would you mind if I sat here?”
Janice blinked into the wrinkled face of an old woman in a large floral hat dripping raindrops. She flopped into the chair and began to tap on the table with the strange bird-like handle of her umbrella. “I must get a cup of tea into me. Who do you have to talk with to get a cup of tea around here?” the old woman repeated into the space behind her shoulder and, turning to Janice, added, “I'm parched and it's raining so much outside.”
She found this amusing and cackled. She continued to wave until someone brought her a teapot, a cup and saucer, milk and a bowl of sugar. She splashed tea across the table and into her cup. She fumbled with bony hands deep within her massive handbag until she found her pills. She rolled two of them onto her spoon, tipped it onto her tongue and swallowed a mouthful of hot tea. She burped silently and implored Janice’s pardon. She smiled between the cup and the spoon, still raised to her face that was impish despite the lines of age and lines of doubt and fear.
Janice was becoming interested, but for the longest time, the old woman sat there, tilting forward every now and then to take another sip of tea. Time passed and the old woman sat in the euphoria of her tea, turning at times to comment on the weather. At first, Janice thought she was trying to converse, but no matter what she said, the old woman didn't reply. Janice returned to her diary, but the old woman showed no sign of noticing. She continued to sip her tea and mutter about the weather. Janice smiled up at her every now and then, just to be polite, and as she was about to leave, the old woman raised her eyes and stared at her.
“What has you so frightened?”
Janice might have lied, but there was no point. “Too many strange things have happened since I came here.”
“Oh! That sounds exciting.”
Janice had to smile. Reluctantly at first, she began to speak, but as the words unfolded, she found comfort in her odd companion’s attention and, with a growing sense of release, told the whole story of her outing to Howth.
As the old woman listened, she started to nod her head and Janice felt more encouraged. She tried to make it sound whimsical, like she was more curious than alarmed. When she finished, she waited for the old woman to comment, but she was hunched forward, as if she was still listening.
“So?” She regretted saying so much. Now that it was out there, it sounded like madness.
“I see,” the old woman finally answered and returned to pottering among her thoughts.
“What do you see?” Janice blurted as impatience got the better of her. “Isn’t that the strangest thing you have ever heard?”
“Oh, no, not at all, the very same thing happened to me.”
“What do you mean?”
“The very same thing happened to me a long time ago, when I was a young woman. I was walking with my young man, just along from the very same pier. We used to like to walk along the cliffs, too, because, back then, we didn’t go to the cinema that often, and of course, there was no television, either. Not that I am a big fan of television, mind you. I prefer reading a nice bit of poetry every now and then. Do you like poetry, my dear?”
Janice nodded; she didn't want to break the silky threads that held the old woman’s gossamer thoughts together.
“Isn’t it wonderful when someone can write a poem that takes you somewhere, even if it's only for a moment or two? And I prefer the old style of poetry because it makes more sense. I can't understand why modern poets don’t learn to rhyme better, don’t you agree? But then again, you're young and you might like modern poetry, especially if it's written by a handsome young man who wants to take you for walks along Howth Head and wants to try to steal a kiss when nobody is looking.”
Janice nodded and wondered how much this crazy old woman could read from her face.
“You mustn’t let them do that, you know!”
“Do what?”
“You mustn’t let the young men kiss you. They're only after the one thing, even the good ones. But they're the ones who'll wait until you're married and appreciate you all the more for making them wait.”
The old woman lowered her head to her raised teacup and looked inside. “That's what I don’t like about television. People meet and start kissing each other all over the face and then start to take their clothes off, right there in front of everybody. I never watch after that because I don't want to see people committing sins. You're not like those people, are you? Are you?”
“Oh, no, of course not,” Janice answered, trying not to think of the night on all fours in her room, “I do like to kiss and cuddle a bit, but you're right, they appreciate it more when you make them wait. But tell me more about what happened to you at Howth.”
“Oh, yes, my dear, I was just about to tell you about that. It was very strange. It was like one of those things you read about in the poems by those English poets – you know the ones that took all that opium – like the fellow who wrote about Kubla Khan.”
“Who, my dear?”
“Coleridge”, Janice repeated.
“Oh! No! I think that it was Coleridge who wrote that poem. But I'm often wrong. Sometimes I wonder if reading all about them and their adventures didn’t addle my brain a little. Have you ever tried opium?”
“Good for you and neither have I. But I've heard of girls who have and then can't get enough and go running off to places like Constantinople and become white slaves to the Sultan. They take off all of their clothes, too, and let the Sultan use them carnally, if you can believe it – and all for opium. It's a shame. Someone should try to do something about it, don’t you think?”
“Yes, yes it's a terrible thing, but you were telling me about Howth. You used to walk there with your young man. Did he marry you?”
“Oh, no, he died years ago.”
She returned to her teacup as the settling sun hopscotched through holes in the clouds and through the fogged-up window. In the place between them, above the tea-stained table, dust and smoke particles gathered in the beams and were gone when the café moved beneath the clouds, but her silence remained.
“How did he die,” Janice asked as delicately as her curiosity would allow.
“Who died, my dear?”
“The young man you were telling me about.”
“Oh, yes, I must be getting addled. Well, let me tell you, he was walking along the cliffs one night and jumped into the sea and was never seen again.” She nodded in agreement with her own lingering statement and raised her cup again but didn't drink. “It was terrible, but I suppose in some ways it wasn’t so bad. He used to have seals come up to him, too, so I'm sure that they are good company for him now – but that might have been because he used to cut up fish.”
“Cut up fish?”
“Yes, dear, he worked in the fishmongers. He always brought a nice bit of plaice for my father when he called around. He used to bring mackerel, too. I'm very fond of mackerel.”
“You were saying that he jumped in?”
“Yes, he went mad for something or other and jumped in. He was mad surely because he was out walking alone on a bitter night in January. Perhaps he was taking opium.” And for a moment, the old woman nodded at the plausibility. “Of course, I had stopped seeing him before this on account of his going mad and all, but I heard stories from the other young women of the time. They told me that he went mad and jumped – right into the sea. I'm surprised he wasn’t broken open on the rocks on the way down, somebody was looking out for him that night.”
“But he did die?”
“Oh, yes, of course he died, he jumped off the cliff! But he died in one piece, and he was a fine handsome man. It would have been a shame if he had died all broken into pieces. There are some that say that he can still be seen out at Howth in January, but what kind of person would go out there then; they would have to be touched in the head, if you know what I mean. They never found his body, either. I think the seals took him down into their place under the water.”
“And why do you think they did that?”
“Because he smelled of fish, were you not listening to me at all?”
Janice sat back in her chair and looked this old woman over. Her hat was decorated with freshly plucked stems of fledgling flowers and her eye shadow was kingfisher-blue and her cheeks a smudged red. It would have made her look whorish if she wasn’t so old. She wore a slender silver chain around her neck, dangling a white gold cross on which hung the dying Jesus. She had her handbag on her lap and had folded her arms on top of it. She was about to ask for more tea when a middle-aged couple whispered together for a moment before walking straight to their table. He took the old woman by the hand and gently helped her to stand up. “Come on now, Aunt Joan, it’s time to get you back to the home.”
“Who are you and what do you want with me? Are you one of the Sultan’s eunuchs?”
“C’mon now, Joan,” he took her elbow firmly, but gently. “Let’s get you back to the home before the night.”
As they struggled to move her away the younger woman turned to Janice, “I hope she wasn’t bothering you, she's my husband’s aunt, and she gets a bit scattered sometimes. She forgets herself and gets a bit confused. I hope she wasn’t bothering you.”
“Oh, no,” Janice re-assured her, “No, actually she was lovely company.” And for reasons she didn't understand, Janice added, “She was just telling me about Howth.”
The other woman’s face changed and she exchanged a glance with her husband before she stepped closer to Janice and spoke softly. “Did she tell you what happened that poor young man? That’s when her mind snapped, watching him fall right before her eyes. Anyway, thanks, and I hope she wasn’t a bother.”
They ushered the old woman out the door to the waiting car and drove off as the rain started again, hesitantly at first, until it gained the courage to pelt the streets and windowpanes. The wind tore at overcoats and twisted passing umbrellas inside out.
Janice sat and stared at the street as the car rounded a corner.
What was that all about? Am I crazy – is she crazy – or is all of Dublin crazy?
She closed her journal and left as the evening rush began. The buses were crowded and crawled along, squealing and shuddering. She decided to walk and raised her umbrella against the teasing winds that rushed out from the passing side streets. She headed toward the Green. It was where the gentry strolled when they came to town for the season. She would find peace and collect herself among the whisperings of spring before the gates were locked.
Since the English departed, the Irish had raised statues among the trees and shrubs. But they weren't the trumpeting statues of heroes who had risen in resistance. These statues celebrated the poets and playwrights who had kept the spirit alive, writers who blended myth and martyrdom, fact and fancy, and even after a half-century of church-dominated self-rule, their words still hovered.
She stopped by the Yeats’ monument. Henry Moore had really got it right. She would have to paint it, the half-man, half-cross before a senate of mythology. When she squinted a little, it looked like one of the faces from Easter Island. From another side, it looked like a Spanish dancer, but from the front it was plain, the cross on a restless grave.
She tugged at her journal and settled down on the cold damp stone. She flicked through the first few pages. She had a done sketch, somewhere at the beginning, one of her early ones. Ah, she found it. She had captured it and added a few notes. But there was something else, something she hadn't remembered writing;
Until she came into the Land of Fairie,
Where nobody gets old and godly and grave,
Where nobody gets old and crafty and wise,
Where nobody gets old and bitter of tongue.
And she is still there, busied with a dance
Deep in the dewy shadow of a wood,
Or where stars walk upon a mountain-top.