Walking With Ghosts

Gabriel Byrne | 11 mins

HOW MANY TIMES have I returned in my dreams to this hill. It is always summer as I look out over the gold and green fields, ditches foaming with hawthorn and lilac, river glinting under the sun like a blade. When I was young, I found sanctuary here and the memory of it deep in my soul ever after has brought me comfort. Once I believed it would never change, but that was before I came to know that all things must. It’s a car park now, a sightseers panorama.

Here, I imagined my life to come, read my comics, later forbidden paperbacks. Once, a book of one thousand jokes, which I tried to learn by heart so people would like me for making them laugh. Two cannibals are eating a clown. One says to the other: Does this taste funny to you?

I dreamed of first love. A dark-haired girl with pale skin. How I loved Mary Foley in her pink cardigan, smiling. For her I would ride my invisible horse to the doors of Wild West saloons, shoot at Nazi stormtroopers, and score the winning goal for Ireland in the final moment of extra time. Alas, she loved another. Elvis Presley.

I would come here in all seasons, when grass was stiff with frost or on days of such stillness you could hear the fwoofing wings of a pheasant startled from a bush.

Autumn, and the earth turned, evenings drew in, fires were lit in front rooms. The smell of earth in decay, smoke from burning leaves carried on the wind, and a kind of melancholy that made me lonely.

On winter evenings electric wires sang like ghosts in the laneways. The beams of an occasional car lit the bare-fingered trees as I ran to the farm to collect milk for my mother, who distrusted shop-bought.

The old farmer woman sat on a one-legged stool, milk foaming into the bucket between her legs, her head leaning against their ribs, cow piss running out into the yard, their flanks caked with dried shit like scabs, letting out bellows as they looked at you, sad-eyed.

Sometimes for a joke she would turn their teats and spray us as we ran for cover. Jews came too for their milk, carrying silver cans, speaking their own strange language.

Then, like a forgotten memory stirring, springtime arrived again, dark giving way to light. Windows opened, the first snowdrops and daffodils and coltsfoot appeared; evenings lengthened; all of nature stretching after its long sleep. Days that brought joy and hope.

Finally, the longed-for summer: the sky blue as the Virgin Mary’s mantle, long days of freedom from hated school.

I am thinking of the seasons of my own life, learning now in my winter days I must shed what I have held most dear.

Yet there is contentment, even joy, in a landscape of bare trees, when the light makes everything more stark and bittersweet.

Here I stand now, a man longing to see as a child again, when every smell and sound and sight was a marvel. Yet I will never know again the childhood thrill of finding a hawk feather snagged on a briar, or the taste of wild blackberries after rain.

This place birthed my love of simple things.

I have never loved concrete as I love a tree, or reeds by a river flamed by an evening sun, or the first stars of evening; the bleat of a lamb in a distant field or the small spitter of rain on a windowpane.

Sometimes in those days I felt that I might crack and break apart with joy, and to contain my wild feelings I ran and summersaulted until I was breathless and dizzy. I lay for hours beneath the upside-down sea of the sky, where the clouds became camels or the face of God.

Over there a boat rotted by the riverbank where long-beaked birds speared for food. I liked to stand and sing on the river stones, bare feet distorted by cold rushing water. When rain came, I’d take shelter in the hoof-marked mud beneath the trees. I shat there like the animals, wiped myself with a dock leaf, covered it in case anyone might know it was mine.

Here is the ruin of a small cottage where Mrs. Doran lived alone. Her husband had been a soldier. One day he left in his green uniform on his motorbike and never came back again. There was still a photograph of him on the mantelpiece beside the one-eyed china cat.

That’s where Mrs. Prunty used to live in her great house. Only the chimneys showed above the woods where her family had resided since before the famine. We hardly ever saw her, except in the fields tending to her horses, moving among them with a bucket of feed, touching their faces as they whinnied and stomped and butted heads in delight. Or on Sundays in the back of the old Bentley, face covered by a mantilla, being driven to service in the Protestant church.

Once, we stole through the woods and peered in through the lace curtains at the furniture covered with sheets, buckets on the floor to catch the rain from a leaking roof, the Bechstein piano we had seen speeding above the hedgerows on Turley’s truck, rotting in a corner.

Beyond is the chapel, its door locked now with a thick chain. When I was a child, it was always open, God’s house, for a quick prayer. Another place of escape and comfort, where I came for the answers to what ailed my boyhood self. A little chat with Himself. The recording of a bell rings now from its tower. Beyond was the factory where once the workers poured in and out of the gates to the siren’s call. Men in boilersuits, women in nylon smocks and headscarves.

It’s a block of expensive-looking apartments now.

Across the field was the dance hall, by day an unremarkable building of cement with peeling paint doors.

But by night, lit by Christmas lights around the door, it was a place of magic. From a ways off you’d hear the music spilling out over the fields.

Crowds streaming out of the pubs, some walking or on bicycles; hard chaws in their fathers’ cars leaning out windows with cigarettes, like they were in a film, combing oiled hair into Elvis quiffs and whistling at the girls click-clacking by in short dresses.

On the stage the spangle-suited band, brass flashing, guitars twanging beneath revolving globes that scattered shards of light over the dancers.

Wallflowers looked out with shy, uncertain eyes.

How long had they spent in front of the mirror getting ready and here they sat unwanted, with thumping hearts, yet hopeful they might be chosen, having to look unconcerned when they were not.

I understood them, afraid of being rejected, as I was shoved toward them in a herd of Brut aftershave and Guinness.

There was a row of shops, I remember.

On the corner, the hardware shop where grumpy Tom, in canvas coat, sold everything from rat poison to Christmas candles, nothing a bother.

And the drapery where Betty worked. My mother bought her Castle Hosiery nylons and satin underthings there.

I liked to watch Betty in her nylon coat, beehive hair tied with a ribbon, pins in her mouth; moving around the shop in high heels. I could see the outline of her underwear and the little notches of her stockings. My first sins of impurity.

Next door was Mr. O. the chemist and part-time waltzer.

Open nine sharp, closed five on the dot. Fresh starched white jacket every day, three buttons on the shoulder, name written in red across the chest.

He’d give my mother medicine in a little white envelope, to help her sleep when she’d go up for her lie-down in the afternoons with the curtains closed.

—Maureen O’Hara herself couldn’t hold a candle to your mother, he’d say.

At the end of the row there was Bill the barber’s.

Bill had worn a wig for fifty years. A formal one for Sunday Mass. An untidier one for more casual occasions. If you happened to call to his house, he might have on his after-bath piece.

—Come in, I’m just drying me hair!

A ladies’ man, quick with a wink or saucy word, he’d saunter down the street in his David Niven mustache and Crombie overcoat.

I loved his cozy shop of red-vinyl-and-chrome chairs, colored bottles and shaving mugs with the Queen’s face, sticky paper with dead flies hanging from the ceiling, a fog of cigarette smoke. Ash from his cigarette falling into the gap between your neck and shirt, the cold clippers catching, pushing your head down, him blowing at you with his hot breath and your hair falling to the floor in clumps, and Gerry, his apprentice, sweeping it into a bag to be brought to a place where they made wigs for sick people.

Maybe that’s where Bill got his made; he could have been wearing my hair.

And the victualler’s.

MEAT TO PLEASE YOU, PLEASED TO MEET YOU, a sign said under a drawing of a pig dressed like a man with trousers and a jacket.

Where the butcher chopped up bad boys, made them into dog food; gristle, bone, organs, and all.

Then the picture house, Hollywood dreams on a white screen. The creaking of seats as lovers kissed and fumbled under coats. I saw sometimes ten films a week in a fog of cigarette smoke and disinfectant. There I am in its womb, dark refuge.

At the crossroads every Monday, the men pasted the coming attractions for the week on the hoarding, the smell of geraniums rising up from the hedges around it.

My grandmother brought me the first time to the pictures.

Photographs of film actors smiled at me as I ascended the stair in the echoing dark like a blind boy, holding onto her coat.

A curtain of snow trees covered the screen and there were soft glassed lights above in a ceiling of stars, and the red-uniformed ushers walked up and down the aisles. A girl in a yellow coat sold ice cream and chocolate from a tray.

Then it was dark and a huge ocean tumbled toward us, horses thundered through dust and gunshots, a woman screamed and a man was dying in her arms and sad music played.

But always the wonder and magic leaked away and the world dulled, as if drained of color and sound, when we came out into the ordinary street again.

But how I loved this world of imagination my grandmother opened for me.

Cold-eyed killers moved in the shadows, singing cowboys pushed through saloon doors, stubbled American soldiers dangled cigars from the sides of their mouths, and screaming Indians riding bareback were shot down to die spectacularly in the dust by the cavalry heroes in blue. There were women with pointed breasts, the circus, funny men, swords and spaceships, Arabia, Paris, St. Louis, the North Pole.

Once, the excitement of seeing Dublin on the screen, and we gave it a round of applause for being Dublin.

And grandmother used to marvel at how in old films all the people you saw on the screen were dead and were ghosts now. And she would pick out a random person in the background and say what a strange thing to be captured by a film crossing the street years later among a crowd of anonymous people.

The picture house is a carpet showroom now.

I stood yesterday where the screen would have been.

—If I can be of any assistance, sir? Was there anything in particular you were looking for? the salesman asked.

—There used to be an usher dressed in red braided uniform to click your ticket. Right where you’re standing. And the stairways had photographs of the stars.

Glamorous and godlike. Beyond imagining.

And look up there: where the houses of the new estates are now, the road to the countryside once began. Farms on either side, orchards, fields of barley and corn.

I remember my father teaching me to ride a bicycle in the laneways among the high hedges. I wobbled and tumbled into the ditch, and he made me get up again, and soon I was speeding down the hill, the wind in my face, and one day I reached the bottom without falling and I let out a whoop of joy and soon I was riding down with my feet on the handlebars. And I wished everyone would see me, especially Mary Foley, and be full of admiration for me being so brave and heedless of danger.

My father taught me how to read simple things: the bundling of clouds, or the seconds between thunder and lightning to tell how far it is away. How to smell snow in the wind and know by the night sky if frost will come.

He taught me the names of trees, wildflowers, birds.

I remember a day, standing beneath the trees to take shelter from the rain, my father and I watched a field being plowed. The horses plodding through the black turned earth, backs slick with rain, a man walking behind them.

Hike, he said when he wanted them to stop and Gup, when he wanted them to go on.

Crows and gulls circled and shrieked, grub-greedy on the air behind. Beyond the field, a rain curtain covered the mountain. The man turned the beasts at the end of the field, the blade catching the light and flashing.

A sudden wind came up, making leaves flap like the wings of insects, and just as suddenly the sun came out and then the last drops like when you pop your lips together and the hills were clear again. A rainbow appeared in the blue-black sky.

The horses put their heads together and made a noise like a sneeze. The man held the shaft of the plow, straining this way and that, cutting into the black earth. Once, they made a mistake and he pulled them back; they stomped their heavy hooves and started again. One had a white stripe on his face, as if painted there, the other had white socks. The long strips of cut earth narrowed the field with each turn, and the man stopped to light a cigarette out of the wind’s way as the animals munched from nosebags, having their dinner and a rest.

—He is the last of his kind, my father said.

I carry that day like a photograph in my heart.

I had never felt so close to him as in that silence.

Here I come to a bridge that crosses a four-lane motorway now cutting through those fields, see the blue lights of a police car, kids being handcuffed by the embankment.

—Too bloody soft on them, a man with a dog says. A few lashes of the cat-o’-nine tails. That would put manners on them.

I move along, to the house that was our home, where eight of us lived for so many years. How the hell did we all fit in there?

Gone my father’s hedge that he clipped on summer evenings. The grass he cut, pushing the mower over and back, whistling to himself. The flowers that bordered the path replaced by concrete. The curtains my mother bought because Mrs. Kelly, the doctor’s wife, had the same ones.

I can see her standing in the living room to appraise them.

Mrs. Kelly was the first to get a Hoover and you’d see her out in flowered housecoat and fluffy slippers, on the porch sucking at the dirt with the nozzle and changing the brushes for the mats. Her door would be open and opera pouring out from the record player and you could see into the hallway, and her white table with the telephone there, a painting of a crying boy above.

—Lino isn’t good enough for that one.

I can see my father too, in his years of unemployment sitting behind those curtains, smoking his pipe, watching the theater of the street.

Friday nights: my sisters made-up and glamorous, hurrying to meet boyfriends. Commandeering bathrooms, clothes drying before the fire. Us boys, hair oiled, covered in Brut aftershave, the record player or the radio at full blast.

—I’ll take a hammer to that curse of God music, my father used to say.

The front door opens now, and a man and woman step out, pushing a pram. I look behind them for a moment into an open-plan extension where our kitchen used to be. The man regards me with suspicion.

—You want something?

—No, nothing. Just looking. I used to live here.

They pull the gate behind them and walk down the street without a backward glance. And I stand, an intruder in my own past. I think of our life there, all the days and all the nights since. The weeks, the months, the years. I think of time, and how it passes.