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Mothers and Sons: Storiesby Colm Toibin
Noel was the driver that weekend in Clare, the only musician among his friends who did not drink. They were going to need a driver; the town was, they believed, too full of eager students and eager tourists; the pubs were impossible. For two or three nights they would aim for empty country pubs or private houses. Noel played the tin whistle with more skill than flair, better always accompanying a large group than playing alone. His singing voice, however, was special, even though it had nothing of the strength and individuality of his mother's voice, known to all of them from one recording made in the early seventies. He could do perfect harmony with anybody, moving a fraction above or below, roaming freely around the other voice, no matter what sort of voice it was. He did not have an actual singing voice, he used to joke, he had an ear, and in that small world it was agreed that his ear was flawless.
On the Sunday night the town had grown unbearable. Most visitors were, his friend George said, the sort of people who would blissfully spill pints over your uilleann pipes. And even some of the better-known country pubs were too full of outsiders for comfort. Word had spread, for example, of the afternoon session at Kielty's in Millish, and now that the evening was coming in, it was his job to rescue two of his friends and take them from there to a private house on the other side of Ennis where they would have peace to play.
As soon as he entered the pub, he saw in the recess by the window one of them playing the melodion, the other the fiddle, both acknowledging him with the tiniest flick of the eyes and a sharp knitting of the brow. A crowd had gathered around them, two other fiddlers and a young woman playing the flute. The table in front of them was laden down with full and half-full pint glasses.
Noel stood back and looked around him before going up to the bar to get a soda water and lime; the music had brightened the atmosphere of the pub so that even the visitors, including those who knew nothing about the music, had a strange glow of contentment and ease.
He saw one of his other friends at the bar waiting for a drink and nodded calmly to him before moving toward him to tell him that they would soon be moving on. His friend agreed to come with them.
"Don't tell anyone where we're going," Noel said.
As soon as they could decently leave, he thought, and it might be an hour or more, he would drive them across the countryside, as though in flight from danger.
His friend, once he had been served, edged nearer to him, a full pint of lager in his hand.
"I see you are on the lemonade," he said with a sour grin. "Would you like another?"
"It's soda water and lime," Noel said. "You couldn't afford it."
"I had to stop playing," his friend said. "It got too much. We should move when we can. Is there much drink in the other place?"
"You're asking the wrong man," Noel said, guessing that his friend had been drinking all afternoon.
"We can get drink on the way," his friend said.
"I'm ready to go when the boys are," Noel said, nodding in the direction of the music.
His friend frowned and sipped his drink, and looked up, searching Noel's face for a moment, then glancing around before moving closer to him so that he could not be heard by anyone else.
"I'm glad you're on the soda water. I suppose you know that your mother is here."
"I do all right," Noel said, smiling. "There'll be no beer tonight."
His friend turned away.
As he stood alone near the bar, Noel calculated that, as he was twenty-eight, this meant he had not seen his mother for nineteen years. He had not even known she was in Ireland and, as he looked around carefully, he did not think that he would recognize her. His friends knew that his parents had separated but none of them knew the bitterness of the split and the years of silence which had ensued.
Recently, Noel had learned from his father that she had written to Noel in the early years and that his father had returned each letter to her unopened. He had deeply regretted saying in response that he wished his father had abandoned him rather than his mother. He and his father had barely spoken since then and Noel resolved as he listened to the music rising and growing faster that he would go and see him when he got back to Dublin.
He found that he had finished his drink quickly without noticing; he turned back to the bar, which was busy, and tried to capture the attention of John Kielty, the owner, or his son, young John, as a way of keeping himself occupied while he worked out what he should do. He knew that he could not leave the bar and drive away; his friends were depending on him, and he did not, in any case, want to be alone now. He would have to stay here, he knew, but move into the background, remain in the shadows so that he would not meet her. A few people in the bar would know who he was, he supposed, since he had been coming here in the summer for almost ten years. He hoped that they had not noticed him, or, even if they had, would not have occasion to tell his mother that her son, two hundred miles away from home, was among the company, that he had wandered by accident into the same bar.
Over the years he had heard her voice on the radio, the same few songs always from her old album, now released on CD, two of them in Irish, all of them slow and haunting, her voice possessing a depth and sweetness, a great confidence and fluency. He knew her face from the cover of the album and from memory, of course, but also from an interview done in London maybe ten years earlier for The Sunday Press. He had watched his father burn that week's edition but had surreptitiously bought another copy himself and cut out the interview and the large photograph which had been printed alongside it. What had struck him hardest was the news that his grandmother in Galway was still alive. His father, he later learned, had banned her visits as well, and visits to her, once his wife had fled to England with another man. His mother told the interviewer that she often returned to Ireland and traveled to Galway to see her mother and her aunts from whom she had learned all the songs. She did not mention that she had a son.
Over the months that followed he often studied the photograph, noting her witty smile, her ease with the camera, the dazzling life in her eyes.
When he had begun to sing in his late teens, and the quality of his voice was recognized, he was used on a number of albums as harmony and backing vocals. His name was printed with the names of the other musicians. He always looked at the CD covers as though he were his mother, wondering if she would ever buy these recordings, and imagining her idly glancing at the names listed on the back, and finding his name, and stopping for a second, and remembering what age he must be, and asking herself about him.
He bought another soda water and lime and turned from the bar, trying to work out where he should stand. Suddenly, he found that his mother was staring directly at him. In the dim light, she seemed not much older than her photograph in The Sunday Press had made her appear. She was in her early fifties now, he knew, but with her long fringe and her auburn hair, she could have been ten or fifteen years younger. He took her in calmly, evenly, not smiling or offering any hint of recognition. Her gaze was almost too open and curious.
He glanced toward the door and the dwindling summer light; when he looked back at her she was still watching him. She was with a group of men; some of them, by their dress, he judged to be local, but at least two of them were outsiders, probably English, he thought. And then there was also an older woman whom he could not place, sitting in their company.
Suddenly, he noticed that the music had stopped. He looked over in case his friends were packing up their instruments, but saw that they were facing him as though waiting for something. He was surprised to see that the owner's wife, Statia Kielty, had appeared in the bar. It was a rule she explained to all comers that she never stood behind the bar after six in the evening. She smiled at him, but he was not sure that she knew him by name. He was, for her, he thought, one of the boys who came down from Dublin a few times each summer. Yet you could never tell with her; she had a sharp eye and missed nothing.
She motioned him to move aside so she could get a better view of the company. As he did so, she called across to his mother, seeking her attention.
"I'm here, Statia," his mother replied. There was a faint English edge to her accent.
"We're all ready, Eileen," Statia said. "Will you do it now before it gets too crowded?"
His mother lowered her head and lifted it again, her expression serious. She shook her head gravely at Statia Kielty as if to say that she did not think she could do it, even if she was ready to try. John Kielty and young John, by now, had stopped serving, and all the men at the bar were facing toward Noel's mother. She offered them a girlish smile, pushed her fringe back, and lowered her head once more.
"Silence now!" John Kielty shouted.
Her voice when it rose seemed to come from nowhere. It was more powerful, even on the low notes, than the voice on the recording. Most people in the bar would know, Noel thought, one or two versions of the song she sang which were plainer, and some might also know his mother's version. This rendition was wilder, all grace notes and flourishes and sudden shifts of tone. As she moved into the second verse, she lifted her head, her eyes wide open, and she smiled at Statia, who stood behind the bar with her arms folded.
Noel believed that she had started too intensely, that it would be impossible to get through the eight or nine verses without losing something, without being forced to bring the voltage down. As she carried on, however, he knew he was wrong. Her control of her breathing for the high grace notes was astonishing, but it was also her naturalness with the language which made the difference; it was her first language, as it must have been his, but his Irish was half-forgotten now. Her style was the old style, with electricity added, almost declamatory at times, with hardly any interest in the sweetness of the tune.
He had not intended to shift from where he stood, but he found that he had come closer to her and stood alone between her group and the bar. The song, like many of the old songs, was about unrequited love, but it was different from most of them in its increasing bitterness. Soon, it became a song about treachery.
She had her eyes closed as she worked on trills and long notes. At times she left half a second between lines, not to catch her breath but to take the measure of the bar and its inhabitants, let them hear their own stillness as the song began its slow and despairing conclusion.
As she started these stanzas of pure lament, his mother was staring straight at him once more. Her voice became even wilder than before, but never too dramatic or striving too much for effect. She did not take her eyes from Noel as she came to the famous last verse. He, in turn, had worked out in his head a way of singing above her. He imagined fiercely how it could be done, how her voice would evade such accompaniment, and perhaps deliberately wrong-foot it, but he believed if he was ready to move a fraction more up or down as she did that it could be managed. However, he knew to remain silent and watch her quietly as she looked into his eyes; he was aware that everyone was watching her as she sang of her love who took north from her and south from her, east from her and west from her, and now — she lowered her head again and almost spoke the last words — her love had taken God from her.
When she finished, she nodded at John Kielty and Statia and turned modestly to her friends, not acknowledging the applause. When Noel noticed Statia Kielty looking at him, and smiling warmly and familiarly, he believed that she knew who he was. And he realized then that he could not stay. He would have to summon the others, try to exude a natural impatience; he would have to make it look normal that his mother would remain with her friends and that he would leave with his.
"God, that was powerful," one of them said when he approached the recess at the window.
"She's a fine voice all right," Noel replied.
"Are we going to stay or what?" his friend asked.
"I told the others that I'd drive you to Cusshane as soon as I could. They'll be waiting for you."
"We'll drink up so," his friend said.
As they slowly prepared themselves for departure he kept an eye on Statia Kielty. She had moved from behind the bar, and was accosted by a few drinkers for polite banter, but she was clearly on her way to speak to his mother. It could take Statia a while to mention that Noel was in the bar. Indeed, she might not mention it at all. On the other hand, it could be the first thing that she mentioned. And it might be enough to make his mother stand up and search for him or she might smile softly, half indifferently, and not move from her seat or change the expression on her face. He did not want either of these things to happen.
He turned and noticed that his friends still had not finished their drinks; they had barely put away their instruments.
"I'm going out to the car," he said. "You'll find me out there. Make sure you grab Jimmy up at the bar. I'm taking him, too."
When one of them looked at him puzzled, he knew that he had spoken falsely and too fast. He shrugged and made his way past the drinkers at the front door of the pub, making sure not to look at anybody. Outside, as the first car of the evening with its full headlights on approached, he was shaking. He knew he would have to be careful to say nothing more, to pretend that it had been an ordinary evening. It would all be forgotten; they would play and sing until the small hours. He sat in the car and waited in the darkness for the others to come.
Copyright © 2007 by Colm Tóibín
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