This chapter is from a picaresque novel-in-progress entitled The Poets’ Stairwell.
It tells the story of two youngish Australian poets travelling about the British Isles and Europe in the mid-1970s in search of their respective muses. One of the poets is in the process of a religious conversion, the other is troubled by the authenticity of his gift, and how to reconcile the actual grain of life with the rigours of his practice as poet.
At this juncture in the story, the two have had adventures in Bangkok, London, and on the trip across central Ireland. Eva and Beamish, their two Australian coevals who they meet in the Kombi, have been encountered earlier in the story where the incalculable elements in their respective characters have been established.
We remained in Sligo a further night, then made sluggish progress the following day, hitching up the winding road north, catching glimpses between trees of the slate-coloured waters of the Atlantic. From Donegal town we crossed to the border with The North at Strabane where, politely, but thoroughly, our persons and our packs were searched by the soldiers of a Lancashire regiment.
“From Australia, lads?” chatted the corporal who sank his hand deeply into my sleeping bag. One is up so close when being searched, the corporal’s face hovering inches from my own, a smell of webbing, hair-oil perhaps, many cigarettes. “Then you don’t want to be seen talking to the likes of us. You’ll get your heads blown off.”
“Hey corp,” Henry’s soldier called as he refastened the straps on the red pack, “did you hear about the Pakistani lorry driver who got shot because the gunmen thought he was a spy?” The question, it was obvious, was collusive, designed to unnerve us; unnerve or induct. “Poor bugger couldn’t even speak English,” the soldier clinched his stagy question.
“Good luck, lads,” they waved us through the checkpoint.
After the quiet of Clonmacnoise, our cordial treatment at Sligo, the misty tracks on Ben Bulben, my sense as we walked out of Strabane was of having exchanged country for zone. Forty-four gallon drums, filled with concrete and gaily painted in white and pale blue, lined parts of the main street to protect buildings from car-bombs. There was an armoured vehicle and two Land Rovers parked in the town square. For all their bristle of aerials and armament, the grilles, the small viewing slits that somehow put one in mind of a sleepy crocodile, I saw the group was surrounded by children who taunted the soldiers in a mood more cheerful impudence than threatening. We tramped on and suddenly were confronted by a young, smartly dressed man who materialised from a side street, glanced at us, his face hideously disfigured by burns.
At the edge of town we chose a convenient lay-by where I stood forward, ready with my thumb while Henry sat on his pack a small distance behind, his prejudice against hitching lifts vindicated by the two or three buses that passed us by.
Hard upon these came a Kombi that stopped for us, and when the passenger window was wound down, there was Eva beckoning me, behind her Beamish in the driver’s seat.
“I thought you two were in London.”
“Who says we didn’t come looking for poets?” She gave me a contemplative look and there was just a hint of triumph in those lively features. She eyed her bête noire behind me and said, “If you were not in the company of such a peculiar companion we might be able to squeeze you in.” As before, she allowed a few moments to elapse before she mouthed the word “joke”. The vehicle’s door had been opened and room made for me on the bench seat. Someone in the back of the Kombi had slid open the rear door to welcome Henry.
But Henry, who in his unworldliness, could sometimes be quick when the world presented him with the unwelcome, had perceived the presence of Eva, cette âme de boue, and so, for all the coincidence of their turning up, he was reluctant to move from where he sat on his red pack. Sotto voce, I argued that, after all, Londonderry was only fifteen miles down the road, it would be uncivil to turn up this offer of a lift, and we could go our own ways from there.
And giving me his the-world-is-stupid shrug, he agreed to accept.
I sat with my pack on my lap. By the time Henry had clambered into the back and arranged himself, he found he shared the space with another passenger, a bearded American of perhaps forty who introduced himself as Titus. Titus had his right leg in plaster from ankle to knee and had moved his crutches from the seat to make room for the newcomer.
“Acquaintances,” Eva had introduced us to Titus. “They write poultry.”
We drove off along the road to Londonderry and in the front seat, naturally, there was some exclamation between the three of us as to how astounding it should be our paths should coincide like this, etcetera. What were they doing here?
Doing? Why, just a spot of political tourism, a drive past the bombsites and into the bandit country. They each had four days in their Easter break, so look! The Ulster thing was a stir, although it was probably a useful rehearsal for the forthcoming adventure to Yemen that was programmed for the summer vac. In the excitement of this fluky meeting, Beamish and Eva seemed to speak both at once. But why had they not mentioned their intended political tourism in London when they knew Henry and I were going to Ireland! Oh! Just spur of the moment!
“Why, do you think we’re really following you?” Ha! Ridiculous. Though they had wondered if they might bump into us …
Yes, Eva’s expression did seem to me a touch triumphant at this serendipity, and it did prompt the absurd suspicion to cross my mind that they might have set out from London within a day of our own departure to track us down just for the stir. I was more aware than Henry of the maverick element that persisted in the temperaments of the old politicos. But Beamish insisted they were merely intent on looking at Derry, at Belfast, at the wilds of Armagh, before catching the ferry from Dun Laoghaire to Holyhead in time for the new term. Australians united, we could tag along for the entire trip if we wished.
I wasn’t sure of our plans, I prevaricated.
Meanwhile, I became aware a more hair-raising encounter was unfolding in the back seat where, with some courtesy, Titus had introduced himself to Henry and was trying to prompt the graduate to become more forthcoming about himself beyond his name, nationality and educational status.
But with Eva in the front seat, I observed Henry had sunk into his deep-freeze and was unwilling to chat. Then I saw the American had swung his plastered leg down so that he could sit adjacent to Henry and from somewhere had produced a firearm. The gun was, I recognised from my childhood garrison memories, a Webley service revolver, and it had been placed by Titus, gently, thoughtfully, in Henry’s lap.
“Now you must tell me, as a poet, what you think of that, Mister Luck,” he invited, glancing at the weapon, then commencing to roll himself a cigarette from a soft pouch beside him on the seat. His voice was a velvet American growl, possibly southern, but not especially easy to hear against the Kombi’s guttural engine. So I was unsure whether Beamish and Eva were aware of what was transpiring behind them.
“It is a weapon,” replied Henry, crisply, glancing at the object. While I paid attention to Eva’s chatter in the front, I was trying to watch Henry with the corner of my eye, and my impression was of a person contracting in upon himself, as cats do when an unexpected peril requires the shrinkage of presence.
“Come, Mister Luck, you are permitted to pick up my weapon and have a good look at it. Guns thrive on handling, you know.” Titus appeared to be watching Henry with a look of sympathy. Was it my prejudice, how American it was to endow a gun with responsive flesh?
“I have not the smallest wish to pick it up,” Henry was adamant.
“The smaller firearms, you see,” Titus put the made cigarette behind his ear, took the weapon back, then pulled out the flap of his shirt from his trousers and wrapped it in the folds, rubbing its butt and chamber with the cloth, “they are like babies.” He held the object up between his two hands, the muzzle carelessly pointed toward his bearded face.
“I don’t see it.” Henry had folded his arms as though to keep the entire stupid world away from himself.
“Now, now, now, where is this rumoured poet in you, Mister Luck?” Titus, for all he needed to compete with the harsh Kombi motor, could remonstrate smoothly. “Look at this,” he ran his hands over the steel. “Smooth as the proverbial …” he crooned. “Happiness is a warm gun. Ha, why is it, do you think, that we like to hold small, smooth-skinned objects close to our persons? Cosset a baby, coddle a firearm.”
For some moments the American contemplated his own question and then said, “It is my personal belief, you see, that this was the real motive behind the framing of that Second Amendment in my country’s constitution.” He nodded sagely. “Does the right to bear arms exist because the citizen has a right to protect himself? Not at all. It is because the firearm is a comfort. It is a strokeable thing, an intimate, companionable kind of an object. What do you think?”
“I think that is absurd,” Henry replied levelly.
“Now you must disencumber yourself from your Australian morality, Mister Luck. Firearms and babies. Both are such small things, and yet within each lies the power to make an orphan or a widow. Ha ha, particularly when the one comes into the power of the other, as it were. That’s rather remarkable, don’t you think?”
Henry would not answer the question on this occasion, but gave another the-world-is-stupid shrug.
As I tried to pay attention to what Beamish was telling me, I saw how Titus had flicked open the pistol’s chamber to disclose several cartridges gleaming there. This dismissed the possibility that the thing might be a toy imitation.
“With that reasoning in mind,” Titus resumed, “do you not sometimes find yourself attracted to an object of this nature, Mister Luck.” He closed the chamber, pointed it at the back of Beamish’s head and made a soft plosive sound, then placed it in his shirt folds again. “I speak of how it has such ambiguity of appeal and yet such exactness of operation.”
“I do not find myself attracted,” said Henry from his deep-freeze.
“Why, just look at this engineering!” Titus turned the weapon around in his hand. “Here is embodied improvement upon small improvement. Now, this particular weapon was manufactured …” he peered at the small date-stamp on it, “… 1942,” and held it up for Henry to see. “Well, think of those generations of benign, thoughtful Webleys in their small workshops or at their factory lathes, fellows with families, who smoked pipes, listened to serials on the radio, and all of them putting their best selves into making this little fellow more handy. More deadly, the prejudiced mind might say.”
“I do not think of it,” Henry reiterated.
Henry’s posture was now entirely rigid. A convoy of Land Rovers and armoured vehicles was passing us in the direction we had come while Titus shook his head, as though uncomprehending that a young man of poetical mind should not be open to these small wonders of history. Whether Beamish was aware he had been notionally shot in the back of the head, I saw that the exchange behind them had now attracted his and Eva’s attention and they both glanced periodically into the rear-vision mirror, then glanced at me with quizzical expressions.
Were they in the know? Was the conveying of an armed American through rigorous security checkpoints a part of “the stir”? I could not be sure, though the marvelling on their faces suggested that in Titus they had given a lift to a more incalculable party than they had bargained for.
“What do you intend to use it for while you’re over here?” I asked.
“Situations, Mister Boon, situations,” Titus replied airily.
To his credit, it was Henry who next put the practical question to the man. “Will you tell me what you intend to do with that thing when we get stopped and searched by soldiers?”
“That is a fair question, Mister Luck,” Titus conceded. He placed the weapon beside his tobacco pouch then rolled the trouser back over his plastered leg to reveal a moulded cavity in the cast on the inside thigh. Into this holster he slipped the weapon, then pulled the trouser leg down again, and the smile he gave Henry was, I thought, piratical. “I am a man who likes to be stimulated,” he patted his inside leg, “who likes what Mister Beamish and Miss Swart here have called a stir.” He allowed this disclosure about himself to sink in. “So it amuses me to exercise my right under that Second Amendment in this place where every second person seems to take their pleasure in its exercise. And yet this simple human right places a person in unreasonable jeopardy from the very forces that safeguard our rights. How so? I ask. It is a conundrum, a challenge.” Titus paused for a few moments, then concluded his explanation. “But the nub of it, Mister Luck, is that we must live with edge. Edge!” He made a sawing motion with one hand across the palm of the other to illustrate edge. “It is edge that brings into high resolution our humanity. Perhaps you will agree with me?”
“I will not. I think your amusement is lunatic,” Henry stated.
Miraculously there were no checkpoints on the miles to Londonderry and we were not stopped by any of the Land Rover “gunships” or armoured vehicles we passed. The road came down beside the River Foyle and the water glittered on our left-hand side. It should be said that the conversation in the back seat—now lapsed—had provided sufficient concentration for the mind to suspend any impulse to chatter and the throaty roar of the Volkswagen engine was the only accompaniment to our various reactions to the presence of Titus in our midst. If our journey from Strabane to the bridge that crossed into Old Londonderry took less than half an hour, this interval seems, as I look back on it, not so much longer as outside time altogether.
Then, it seemed, the vehicle needed fuel, so we stopped at the first petrol station where, mindful from London of Eva’s severe views on the social contract, I offered a contribution. This was promptly pocketed. As the tank was being filled, I spied Henry departing toward the toilets and saw he had taken his rucksack with him. Our transaction completed, we stood about awaiting his return, and when he had not emerged after some minutes, I made a guess at the situation.
“My responsibility,” I announced to Beamish, and went looking for Henry in the gents. There was one locked cubicle.
The response was immediate. “I will not proceed in the company of a man who is in possession of a gun,” he stated, and I heard the turning of a page. Ah! He was using his time in this sanctuary efficiently, going further into the Yeats Memoir.
“Fair enough. What will you do?”
“I will remain here until they are gone.”
“They’re waiting for you.”
“Then they will wait.”
An interval of silence ensued between us before I ventured to ask, “Have you been given a fright?”
The pause before he answered was a long one. “You might say,” he allowed. There was another long pause before he followed with, “And you?”
As it happened, I had watched, dimly aware of the peril, but entirely unabashed by it. I did not put this down to an especially strong nerve—I was mindful of my recoil from the python in Bangkok, but I needed to think for a few moments before giving an answer to this question.
At length I said, “I think my imagination works more slowly than yours.”
There followed a longer silence between us in which I heard another page turn. “I get the impression Beamish and Eva were unaware that Titus had the stupid thing.”
“That is irrelevant to the question.”
“We-ell,” I cavilled, because I knew what was coming; it would be my job to go out and do the explaining. I could foresee Eva’s provocations against these practitioners of poultry, Beamish’s knowing grin, Titus feigning surprise at Mister Luck’s upset perhaps. “You could always come out and explain to them your decision,” I tried.
“That is not my responsibility.”
“It was not me who accepted a lift in that vehicle.”
This argument was fair enough, I conceded, though I still felt needled by the inevitable preparedness of Henry’s logic. Yes, needled. But under my annoyance, again I marvelled at how reflexively the poet was protecting himself against the distractions to his proper creative calm. Freeze, withdraw into the gents of a petrol station and wait until the danger recedes. It was almost reptilian.
“So you want me to present our apologies?”
“You must do as you think fit.”
O Henry Unicorn, how you could try my patience! Of course you were right, it was lunatic to travel about this riven province in the company of a man with a Webley service revolver tucked into his leg-plaster. So how do I confess to you that I saw the appeal in Titus’ claim that we become more ourselves when life presents us with edge?
“Fine, I’ll sort it,” I said shortly, then went out to where Eva stood a little apart and explained the situation.
She listened, and then distilled the moral challenge for me. “Would you continue to hang out with us if your poultry friend was not a consideration?”
“The gun should be thrown into the river,” I replied.
“Maybe,” she said, and then admitted, “All right, Titus the fucking Yank sprung this on us. That’s Americans for you!” She regarded me for some moments, then reasoned. “But look, this is where we are. We are lumbered with a mad Yank, toting a gun in a war zone.” She gave me a steady look. “It’s the fact. I guess Beamish and I will deal with it somehow.”
She added that they would probably stay in Londonderry that night and drive off in the morning, minus Titus if that could be contrived. If not, then see what happens.
“Does the fucking Yank make you nervous?” I asked.
She gave me a quick glance indicating this was none of my business, but at this point the American hobbled over on his crutches. “I hope my presence has not made Mister Luck at all uneasy.” The enquiry might well have been innocent; it was certainly suavely asked.
“Maybe a bit.”
Then it occurred to me to lie on Henry’s behalf. I explained how my companion wanted to find a quiet corner in this town to get an important book review done. I suppose the lie was pointless, and yet I wanted to speak up somehow for what I saw as Henry’s outlandish integrity. There was funk, but there was also his lucid recognition of a folly that was vicious, of a world that was stupid.
“He’s found his quiet corner all right,” observed Eva cattishly, nodding toward the toilet block. I did not respond to this comment; Eva and Henry’s antipathy to each other confounded me at the time.
Beamish, Eva and Titus installed themselves once more into the van. As I recovered my pack from the front seat I was aware that Eva had quickly pressed her lips to my cheek with that same affectionate impulse she had done so on the London Underground. “Good luck with your pal and the poultry, Lava Field,” she winked at me, then closed the vehicle’s door on herself and they drove off. I went to inform Henry that the matter was dealt with, and my expectation was that I would not see Eva again, at least for several months.
Henry and I set out toward the centre of the town on a route that took us under the city walls where cannon donated by the various apprentice guilds during the siege of 1689 still pointed their muzzles out across Roman Catholic suburbs. We tramped uphill toward “The Diamond”, passing a bookshop where each of us bought a volume of poetry at special markdown prices on account of the book’s being bomb-damaged. On our way squads of patrolling soldiers passed us, bristling radio aerials, weaponry, neat scarlet plumes attached to the cap badges on their berets, and strangely deliberate against the nonchalant behaviour of the more numerous civilian pedestrians. I was struck by the disciplined gait of these fellows, the tail man of each squad performing a slow, almost choreographed turnabout every dozen paces as part of the drill against sudden assassins who might materialise in a car from the rear. Henry, recovering his equanimity, showed a mildly derisive amusement at this slow bovine plod, so distinct from the natural gait of the townsfolk all around them.
But I was rather moved by it. For all that the march/dance appeared ridiculous, had it not been devised by fellows facing particular danger and designed to protect a life or two from murder?
This sentiment cleared my head a little with respect to Henry and the presence of the impulse toward poetry. I now knew myself to have no instinctive grasp on the deeper nature of what poetry was and I knew I would always shuffle toward that knowledge naively. But I was sure of one thing, that whatever my own efforts were, they must go with the actual grain of what life presented from day to day. However hair-raising. And with that, I wondered whether I should not have gone along with Eva and Beamish, seen where the Titus adventure led, left Henry in his cubicle with Yeats’ Memoir.
By the time we located a backpacker hostel our papers had been inspected, our packs perfunctorily searched by soldiers or RUC on three occasions. Dumping our luggage, we found a pub, drank some beers, ordered a meal of soup, white bread and butter. Our thoughts ran on the afternoon’s events but some inhibition stopped us from talking about the thing, so we listened to each other slurping the minestrone. By the time we had finished it was dark. Henry decided to return to the hostel, but as it was a Saturday night, I was restless for some benign adventure, Henry-free adventure.
At the back of our pub I heard fiddle music and the tramping of feet. The music came from a large hall where there were folk gathered around its edge while several lines of dancers faced each other on the floor. It was some social club or other, but I was able to pay a pound and join the audience that clapped time for the dancers. Then, across the room I spied Eva. She too was free of her companions and, not yet joining the dance, yet she was watching the phalanx of dancers with that look of enlivenment I had noticed come over her on the far more unruly dance floor of the Leeds rock concert.
Perhaps I should have made her aware of my own presence. Some instinct persuaded me to stay back and observe her during the evening, and as a result of this decision, I had my Henry-free adventure, for I saw Eva dance once more.
It was the third and last occasion I beheld her transform the human body into rapturous movement. For me it was as utterly captivating as the first two occasions I had seen her dance. This time there was no free-form improvisation allowed to her; these were dances of the folk and she needed to conform to the dance steps.
Presently I shall describe her dancing. But what I saw in the course of that evening was a gifted person, evidently quite ignorant of the formalities of folk dancing, come, by the intensity of her watching and trying, into possession of communal dance and be its luminary. Titus the lunatic, Beamish the mischiefmaker, even that part of her own quarrelsome nature, were nowhere. I saw the astounding depth of her gift, and began to understand her severe politics in a slightly different way. For she was as instinctively protective of her own expressive powers as Henry was of his, and the fierce politics allowed her to protect these by distracting anyone who approached her as to her true being. Was this why they detested each other so instinctively? I could not say, nor fathom why this should be so. And yet it was so.