I was there again last night; not, I need hardly say, deliberately—if I had my own way I would never want to think of that house or that city, let alone revisit them. It was the usual pattern. I was in Cork on some family business; my business required that I should walk past the house; and, as usual, although it was the deep middle of the night, the kitchen window upstairs was dimly lit, as if by a lamp turned low, the way my mother used always fix it to welcome my father home from night duty. She usually left a covered saucepan of milk beside the lamp. He would put it on the stove to heat while he shook the rain from his cape all over the red tiles of the kitchen, hung his uniform on the back of the door, and put on a pair of slippers. He welcomed the hot milk. It rains a lot in Cork, and the night rain can be very cold. Then, as happens in dreams, where you can walk through walls like a pure spirit and time gets telescoped, it was suddenly broad daylight, I was standing in the empty kitchen, and that young man was once again saying to me with a kindly chuckle, “So this is what all that was about?” It was five past three in the morning when I sat up and groped wildly for the bedside light to dispel the misery of those eight dismissive words that I am apparently never going to be allowed to forget, even in my sleep.
It is a graceless lump of a house, three stories high, rhomboidal, cement-faced, built at the meeting point of a quiet side street curving out of an open square and a narrow, noisy, muddy, sunless street leading to one of the busiest parts of the city. Every day for over twenty years I used to look down into this narrow street from the kitchen window-down because of the shop beneath us on the ground floor, occupied in my childhood by a firm of electrical contractors named Cyril and Eaton. Theirs was a quiet profession. Later on, when the shop was occupied by a boot maker, we could hear his machines slapping, thumping, and buzzing below us all day long.
My guess is that the house was built around 1870; anyway it had the solid, ugly, utilitarian look of the period. Not that my lather and mother ever thought it ugly, They would not have known what the word meant. To them, born peasants, straight from the fields, all that the word “beautiful” meant was suitable, or useful, or prolific, and all “ugly” meant was useless or worthless—a field that grew bad crops, a barn that leaked, a cow that gave poor milk. So, when they told us children, as they often did, that we were now living in a beautiful house, all they meant was that it suited our purposes perfectly. They may also have meant something else. Because they had been told that the house had originally been put up by a builder for his own use, they considered it prime property. It was as if they had come into possession of land owned by a gentleman farmer for generations. Few things are more dear to the heart of a peasant than a clean pedigree. Its beauty keeps history at bay.
Not, of course, that they owned the house, although they sometimes talked dreamily about how they would buy it one day. Landless people, in other words people of no substance, they had already gone to the limit of daring by renting it for £26 a year, a respectable sum in those days for a man like my father—an ordinary policeman, rank of constable, earning about thirty bob a week. Their purpose in renting so big a place was to eke out his modest income by taking in the steady succession of lodgers who were ultimately to fill the whole house, with the sole exception of the redtiled kitchen, where the six of us lived, cooked, idled, or worked. I do not count as rooms the warren of attics high up under the roof where we all, including the slavey (half-a-crown a week and her keep), slept with nothing between us and the moon but the bare slates. We were far from well off. Still we were not really poor. Perhaps because we knew no better, we were contented.
During some forty years this was my parents’ home; for even after my brothers and I grew up and scattered to the corners of the compass, and my mother grew too old to go on keeping lodgers, and my father retired, they still held on to it. So well they might! I was looking at my father’s discharge papers this morning. I find that when he retired at the age of fifty his pension was £48. 10s. 8d. a year. Fortunately he did get a part-time job as a caretaker of a garage at night, which brought him in another £25. 5s. 5d. a year. Any roof at ten bob a week was nicely within his means. It must also have been a heartbreak to his landlord, who could not legally increase the rent.
One day, however, about a year before 1 left home—I was the last of 11s to go—my father got a letter which threatened to end this agreeable state of affairs. When he and my mother had painstakingly digested its legal formalities, they found to their horror that the boot maker downstairs had, as the saying goes, quietly bought the house “over their heads,” and was therefore their new landlord.
Now, forty odd years in a city, even in so small a city as Cork, can go a long way toward turning a peasant into a citizen. My father, as a lifelong member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, then admiringly called The Force, had over the years imbibed from his training and from the example of his officers, who were mostly Protestants and Gentlemen, not only a strong sense of military, I might even say of imperial, discipline but a considerable degree of urban refinement. My mother had likewise learned her own proper kind of urban ways, house pride, such skills as cooking and dressmaking, and a great liking for pretty clothes. At times she even affected a citified accent. When they read this letter and stared at one another in flight, they might, at that moment, have been any two peasants from Limerick or Kerry peering timidly through the rain from the door of a thatched hovel at a landlord or his agent or some villainous land grabber driving up their brambled boreen to throw them out on the side of the road to die of cold and starvation. The kitchen suddenly became noisy with words, phrases, and names that, I well knew, they could not have heard since their childhood evictions, bum bailiffs, forcible entry, rights of way, actions for trespass, easements, appeals, breaches of covenant, the Land Leaguers, the Whiteboys, Parnell and Captain Boycott, as if the boot maker downstairs slept with a shotgun by his bed every night, and a brace of bloodhounds outside his shop door every day.
Nothing I said to comfort them could persuade them that their boot maker could not possibly want to evict them; or that, far from being a land grabber, or even a house-grabber, he was just an ordinary, normal, decent hardworking businessman, with a large family of his own toiling beside him at his machines, who, if he wanted anything at all, could not conceivably want more than, say, one extra room where he could put another sewing machine or store his leather. And, in fact, as he patiently explained to my father, that was all he did want; or perhaps a little more—two rooms, and access for his girls to our private W.C. on the turn of the stairs. He must have been much surprised to find himself thereby thrown headlong into the heart of a raging land war.
I left home that year so I cannot tell if there was or was not litigation at this first stage of the battle. All I knew for certain is that, after about a year and a half of argufying, both parties settled for one room and access to the W.C. The rest I was to gather and surmise from their letters to me. These conveyed that some sort of growling peace descended on everybody for about three years, toward the end of which my father died, my mother became the sole occupant, and the boot maker, seeing that he now had only one tenant over his head, and that with expanding business he was even more cramped for space than before, renewed his request for a second room.
At once, the war broke out again, intensified now by the fact, as my mother saw it, that a bloody villain of a land-grabber, and a black Protestant to boot, was trying to throw a lonely, helpless, ailing, defenseless, solitary poor widow-woman out on the side of the road to die. The boot maker nevertheless persisted. It took him about two more years of bitter struggle to get his second room. When he got it. he was in possession of the whole of the second floor of his house with the exception of the red-tiled kitchen.
Peace returned, grumbling and growling. Patiently he let another year pass. Then, in the gentlest possible words, he begged that my mother might be so kind, and so understanding, as to allow one of his girls, and only one, to enter the kitchen once a day, and only once, for the sole purpose of filling a kettle of water from the tap of her kitchen sink. There was, to be sure, he agreed, another tap downstairs in his backyard— a dank five-loot-square patch of cement—but it stood outside the male workers’ outdoor W.C., and site would not, he hoped and trusted, wish any girl to be going out there to get water for her poor little cup of tea? I am sure it was the thought of the girl’s poor little cup of tea that softened my mother’s heart. She royally granted the humane permission—and at once began to regret it.
She realized that she had given the black villain a toehold into her kitchen and foresaw that the next thing he would want would be to take it over completely. She was right. I can only infer that as the boot making business went on expanding, so did the boot maker’s sense of the value of time. At any rate he was soon pointing out to my mother that it was a dreadful expense to him and a hardship to his staff to have to close his shop for an hour and a half every day while his workers, including his family, trudged home, in all weathers, some of them quite a long distance, for their midday meal. If he had the kitchen they could eat their lunch, dry-shod and in comfort, inside half an hour. He entered a formal request for the kitchen.
Looking back at it now, after the passage of well over a quarter of a century, I can see clearly enough that he thought he was making a wholly reasonable request. After all, in addition to her kitchen my mother still possessed the third floor of the house, containing three fine rooms and a spacious bathroom. One of those rooms could become her kitchen, another remain her bedroom, and the third and largest, which she never used, would make a splendid living room, overlooking the square, with its pleasant enclosure of grass and shrubs, and commanding an open view up to the main thoroughfare of the city—all in all as desirable an apartment, by any standards, as thousands of home-hungry Corkonians would have given their ears to possess.
Unfortunately, if I did decide to think his request reasonable, what I would have to forget, and what he completely failed to reckon with, was that there is not a peasant widow-woman from the mountains of west Cork to the wilds of Calabria who does not feel her kitchen as the pulse and center of her being as a wife and a mother. That red-tiled kitchen had been my mother’s nest and nursery, her fireside where she prayed every morning, her chimney corner where she rested every night, the sanctum sanctorum of all her belongings, a place whose every stain and smell, spider web and mousehole, crooked nail and cracked cup made it the ark of the covenant that she had kept through forty years of sweat and struggle for her lost husband and her scattered children.
If she lost her kitchen, what would she do when the Bottle Woman came, to buy empty bottles at a halfpenny apiece? This was where she always brought her to sit and share a pot of tea and argue over the bottles and talk about the set ret doings of Cork. Where could she talk with the Dead Man, collecting her funeral insurance at sixpence a week, if she did not have her warm, red-eyed range where he could take off his damp boots and warm his feet in the oven while she picked him dry of all the gossip of the narrow street beneath her window? She had never in her life locked the front door downstairs except at night. Like the door of any country cottage, it was always on the latch for any one of her three or four cronies to shove open and call out to her, “Are ye there, can I come up?”—at which she would hear their footsteps banging on the brass edgings of the stairs while she began to poke the fire in die range, and fill the kettle for the tea, or stir the pot of soup on the range in preparation for a cozy chat. All her life her neighbors had dropped into her kitchen. They would be insulted if she did not invite them into her kitchen. She would not have a crony in the world without her kitchen.
Knowing nothing of all this, the boot maker could argue himself hoarse with her, plead and wheedle with her to accept the shiniest, best-equipped, most modern kitchenette, all run by electricity, all white and gleaming, two stories up from the hall door, to him a marvelous exchange for this battered old cave downstairs, where she crouched over a range called the Prince Albert, where the tiles were becoming loose, where he could see nothing to look at but a chipped sink, one chair, a table, one cupboard, a couple ol old wooden shelves, and a sola with the horsehair coming out of it like a mustache. He might just as well have said to a queen, “Give me your throne, and I’ll leave you the palace.”
While as for proposing that she could keep her old kip of a kitchen if she would only let him make a proper kitchen upstairs for himself, his family, and his workers . . .
“Aha, nah!” she would cry at me whenever I visited her; and the older and angrier she became the more did her speech revert to the Hat accent of her flat west Limerick, with its vanishing versts of greasy, limestone roads, its rusty reeds, its windrattling alders, and its low rain clouds endlessly trailing their Atlantic hair across the sodden plain. “Is it to take me in the rear he wants to now? To lock me up in the loft? To grind me like cornmeal between the upstairs and the downstairs? A room? And then another room? And after that another? And then what? When he’d have me surrounded with noise, and shmoke, and shmells, and darkness and a tick-tack-turrorum all day long? My mother, and my grandmother before her, didn’t fight the landlords, and the agents, and the helmetecl peelers with their gray guns and their black battering rams for me to let the flag down now! It’s a true word, God knows it, them Proteshtants wouldn’t give you as much as a dry twig in a rotten wood to light your pipe with it. Well remember the time ould foxy-whiskers, Mister Woodley the parson, died of the grippe away back in Crawmore, and my uncle Phil stole out the night after his funeral to cut a log in his wood! While he was sawing it, didn’t the moon come out from behind a cloud, and who do you think was sitting on the end of the log looking at him out of his foxy eyes? Out of my kitchen I will not stir until ye carry me out on a board to lie in the clay beside my poor Dinny. And not one single mi nit before!”
Which was what happened, exactly six years later.
All in all, from start to finish, my mother’s land war must have lasted nearly fourteen years. But what is fourteen years to an old woman whose line and stock clung by their fingernails to their last, sour bits of earth for four centuries? I am quite sure the poor boot maker never understood to the day of his death the nerve of time he had so unwittingly touched.
After the funeral it was my last task to empty the house, to shovel away—there is no other word for it —her life’s lares and penates to a junk dealer for thirty shillings. When it was all done, I was standing alone in the empty kitchen, where I used to do my homework every evening as a boy, watching her cooking, or baking, or making, or mending, or my father cobbling a pair of shoes for one of us, or sitting at his ease, smoking his pipe, in his favorite straw-bottomed chair, in his gray constabulary shirt, reading the racing news in the pink Cork Evening Echo. As I stood there I suddenly became aware that a young man was standing in the doorway. He was the bootmaker’s son.
Oddly enough, I had never spoken to his fatlier, although years ago I had seen him passing busily in and out of his shop, always looking worn and worried. But I had once met this son of his in the mountains of west Cork—fishing? shooting?—and I had found him a most attractive young fellow. lie came forward now, shook hands with me in a warm, manly way, and told me how sorry he was for me in my bereavement.
“Your mother was a grand old warrior,” he said, in genuine admiration. “My father always had the greatest respect for her.”
We chatted about this and that for a while. Then, for a moment we both fell silent. He looked curiously around the bare walls, chuckled tolerantly, shook his head several times, and said, “So this is what all that was about?”
At those eight words, so kindly meant, so good-humored, so tolerant, and so uncomprehending, a shock of weakness flowed up through me like defeat until my head began to reel and my eyes were swimming.
It was true that there was nothing for either of us to see but a red-tiled floor, a smoke-gray ceiling, and four tawny distempered walls bearing some brighter patches where a few pictures had hung and the cupboard and the sofa used to stand. The wall to our right had deposited at its base a scruff of distemper like dandruff. The wall to our left gaped at us with parched mouths. He smiled up at the fly-spotted bulb in the ceiling. He touched a loose tile with his toe and sighed deeply. All that about all this? For fourteen bloody years! And yet, only a few hours before, when I had looked down at her for the last time, withdrawn like a snail into her shriveled house, I had suddenly found myself straining, bending, listening as if, I afterwards thought, I had been staring into a tunnel of time, much as I stared now at him, at one with him in his bewilderment.
I thought I had completely understood what it was all about that morning years ago when they read that letter and so pathetically, so embarrassingly, even so comically revealed the terror and the power of time. I had thought the old boot maker’s mistake had been his failure to understand die long fuse he had so unwittingly lighted. But now—staring at this good-humored young man who, if I had said all this to him, would at once have understood, and have at once retorted, “But even so!”—I realized that they, and that, and this, and he, and I were all caught in something beyond reason and time. In a daze I shook hands with him again, thanked him again for his sympathy, and handed him the keys of victory. I was still dazed as I sat in the afternoon train for Dublin, facing the mile-long tunnel that burrows underneath the city out to the light and air of the upper world. As it slowly slid into the tunnel, I swore that I would never return.
Since then I must have gone back there forty times, sometimes kidnapped by her, sometimes by my father, sometimes by an anonymous rout of shadowy creatures out of a masked ball, and sometimes it is not at all the city I once knew but a fantastically beautiful place with great squares and pinnacled, porphyry buildings, and snowy ships drawing up beside marble quays, but always, whatever the order of my guides, captors, or companions, I find myself at the end alone in a narrow street, dark except for its single window, and then, suddenly, it is broad daylight and I am in our old kitchen hearing that young man say in his easy way, “So this is what all that was about?”, and I start awake in my own dark, babbling, clawing for the switch. As I sit up in bed, I can never remember what it was that I had been babbling, but I do understand all over again what it was all about. It was all about the scratching mole. In her time, when she heard it she refused to listen, as I do when I hear her velvet burrowing, softer than sand crumbling or snow tapping.
She was a grand old warrior. She fought her fight to a finish. She was entirely right in everything she did. I am all for her. Still, when I switch on the bulb over my head, I do it only to banish her, to evict her, to push her out of my house that I have built for myself, and I often lie back to sleep under its bright light lest, in the dark, I should hear her whispering to me again.