The shock must have been tremendous. Our place is on the brow of the hill or just below it and the village lies below us again. The village and the church and the monstrous new school and the sea with its islands spread out like a broken necklace. That’s why we have two huge picture windows in our pub. They don’t suit it, a drystone building should have small windows, but then it’s not really a drystone either, I mean how could you live in one with the drafts? But it looked like a drystone.
He must have seen it as soon as he came over the hill. It was the first thing he looked for always, you would think it was his own, the way he carried on over it. Well, it’s gone now and it won’t be back in his lifetime and certainly not in mine.
I had some sort of an attack a year ago and I haven’t been able to utter a word since. You might say I was struck dumb and no doubt, many did; there is always someone ready to say the bad word. But I think I can fairly say that I was never a talker. I just did what I had to do and minded my own business and left other to get on with theirs. But Stanley could never do that, he was fanatic about Ballybawn Wood and he went out of his way to quarrel with the Parish priest about it; right out on the street. They nearly came to blows, what a sight they were. Two grown men, two ugly grown men; Father Barry, must have been the ugliest parish priest ever consecrated. He was big and fat with a misshapen bald head and a purple birthmark that covered his features like a mask, through which, he scowled continuously and Stanley my husband, going snarly face to face with him over a Ginkgo Biloba tree which was presently and majestically growing in a field beside the church. Barry was proposing to cut it down to make way for a new school building. He got his way in this and the new school was built, a right monstrosity. Stanley never got over it. He loved all trees and the Ginkgo had been his pet.
That wood, now for instance, Ballybawn Wood; it had nothing to do with us. It was church property and theirs to do with as they saw fit. Of course, there are those, like my husband, who see it as national property, a natural treasure, to be husbanded and revered. I don’t know, certainly it had many fine trees, oaks that were growing when the Magna Charta was signed; and fine beeches, chestnuts, monkey puzzles , elms and many more I couldn’t put a name to although Stanley could and he often did, he would make me walk all over the place of a Sunday afternoon. When we could close up for a few hours and have a rest from the faces.
I would have given a lot to have been allowed to put my feet up and watch whatever rubbish came onto the television. That’s what I call luxury, sitting in a comfortable chair doing nothing at all.
Well that’s all over now because the wood is gone, chopped down and carted away, I suppose, to make houses and furniture and, says Father Barry, now at last we have room for the Priest’s house and the playing fields he always wanted.
Poor Stanley. His face was so black I thought he was going to have a stroke. It was impossible to see his eyes the way his face was squinched up and he didn’t say a word to me just took a bottle of Scotch whiskey down and off to his den. We didn’t see him again that evening. I had to tell Peadar to stay on. Difficult enough, it was all in sign language and the bloody fool was making signs back to me instead of using his voice, he knows I’m not deaf. If he hadn’t been illiterate I could have written him a note.
Stanley surfaced the following morning and I gave him the book I use to communicate with him. Since the advent of my dumbness I had kept a notebook in which I jotted down thoughts and events for him to read. In fact, he rarely read it. Unused as he had become to communicating with me, it disturbed him to see me there in black and white, saying real things, but this time he did read it and he did more, he reread it, twice.
It was just something about Father Barry wanting a new wooden house. Then he started raving on about Father Barry calling him a fat pig and all sorts of names that I couldn’t repeat; after all I am a Catholic, even if I did blot my copybook marrying an English Prod. Back in the days when I could still speak people used to ask me how I could be happy with him. Poor Stanley, he always had a unfortunate way with people. I can’t think what made him take up the hotel trade, he should have been a Park Ranger or a gardener, some outdoor occupation anyway that would bring him amongst trees. His type of snarly face was more like a knot on a tree-trunk and should never have been in amongst people.
After a while Stanley stopped his raving and began to work around the bar. I knew this would happen. It was his way of coming to grips with the situation; he would clean out the whole bar and dust every bottle. Never mind that they are all shining anyway, for how do you think an old dumb bar managers wife spends her days?
It’s a strange thing, but I have learnt such a lot in the last few months. It’s as if I had spent my whole life going about with my eyes closed, or maybe I mean, with my mouth open. If I have learnt anything in the last six months at all, it is that speech destroys perception. I have become invisible because I cannot speak and now I can really see because I am invisible.
These days I usually sit at the back of the bar. I can see and hear everything and the customers pay no attention to me, middle-aged women are little enough noticed anyway and I make a great play of my embroidery which seems to take the curse off my presence and, as I have mentioned before, they all take my dumbness to be deafness too. They seem to go together like wind and rain or hunger and thirst.
So there I sit every evening, visibly invisible, voyeuring the voyeurs, sitting across the bar from me as they greedily drink in, along with the pints and half-ones, all the drama of the publican's so-called private life. Stitching two and two together and making incest, rape, sickness (meaning cancer), bankruptcy, fraud and murder. All this out of the snippets and glimmers of information inadvertently dropped by their genial host; in the small talk of orders given and received.
Oh yes, I do mean Stanley. He could be very genial in a Teutonic sort of way. If you ever saw Hitler doing his little dance in the French forest you would know what I mean. Come to think of it. Stanley looks very like Adolph . . . very like.
It’s really very strange that I never noticed it before; and we got married in the war, when you could see Hitler’s face snarling out of posters nearly everywhere. Sure, you couldn’t have a good sit-down in the lav without your man Adolph giving you the evil eye. They had posters everywhere; about careless talk. Of course, Stanley was younger then and I seem to remember him smiling more, not a lot, mind you, he was never a life and soul, but he did smile. I remember somebody once compared him to a seal? It made me laugh like a drain, you know; I could just picture him balancing a ball on his nose and his big black eyes gleaming, his dark hair very short and smooth, the mustache thick black and glossy.
That must have been the moment I decided to marry him. Yes, now I can see that I began to feel certain something for him then and I laid my plans to turn him into something worthwhile. I didn’t want to marry a barman, for God’s sake, so I worked on him until he became an under-manager and then I married him. Then nine months later didn’t we get a little place of our own down in the New Forest.
Would you listen to him now? Talking to those two quare hawks at the bar; the sly slinky eyes of them, nudging each other with their knees and laughing behind their hands at his silly war stories.
“There we were, me and the missus just across the road from the Corn Exchange, I was taking her down to the hospital where she was going to help out with a bit of cooking an’ that. Well, we hadn’t hardly stepped off the pavement when he came along the road, couldn’t have been more that thirty feet off the ground, an ME109 with the black crosses standing out on the wings and I twigged immediately what he was after, only a crocodile of little kiddies, looking like orphans to me, being led along the pavement by this old trout, couldn’t have been a day less that eighty and, of course, she hadn’t the slightest idea what was happening. I looked back at the pilot an’ I swear I could see him just as well as I see you now, I could never forgive him as long as I live. Do you know what he was doing? You’d never guess. Smiling! That’s what he was doing. Smiling as he pressed the trigger of his guns. I can never forgive the the Germans, never.
D’ye, see what I mean? Why does he make such a fool of himself telling such stupid stories? Who could believe them? He only makes himself a laughing stock. I know for a fact that Freddy de Brun does imitations of Stanley telling outrageous stories, all the while scratching his privates through his trousers pocket.
I can’t deny that Stanley does that, it’s well known. He tells awful stories about the blacks and the Jews, the Irish, Russians, Americans, it doesn’t matter who. You could have won the Nobel prize a hundred times over.As far as Stanley is concerned, if you aren’t white and of English stock, then you can’t be human.
Sure, he nearly wanted a divorce when I began to make my contributions to the foreign missions. Well, strictly speaking, it was when he found my first copy of ‘The African Fold’, a magazine about the missions. It was on sale outside the church and I brought it home with the papers one Sunday morning, it must have been in 1952 when things were getting a bit easier in England. We could afford an atomic bomb but we still had rationing. Anyway, your man nearly had a fit when he came across my little paper. It wasn’t a glossy then and saw all the pictures of black villagers building schools and churches, bridges and dams. Well, it was too much for him and his particular dam burst and nearly swept away our marriage.
Because you know I wouldn’t give in to him.Wasting his money indeed. Why, without me behind him he’d have been off somewhere in some sort of a loony bin gnashing his snaggy teeth instead of swanning around his own hotel, giving his orders to the staff and living like a king.
I didn’t want to do it, but the time had come for him to grow up and be told, so I told him. Yes, we had a good old barney and I got a few things off my chest. It cleared the air a bit, for a while, it didn’t change him. But you couldn’t expect that; really all I wanted was breathing space.
Breathing space, room to expand, I had come to that time in my life when I knew that I had to depend on my own efforts if I wanted to progress any further. Stanley had turned out to be a cul de sac in my life and I was stuck with this human backwater so I would have to make the best of it.
The way I chose might seem strange but it was the best I could do. I devoted all my spare time and energy to the starving black people of Africa. It was a lifelong interest of mine ever since I started school in Ballybawn. I suppose we were lucky because Father Tom became parish priest just at that time. He had spent thirty years of his life in Nigeria; when a rich uncle had died in America leaving him all his money. On the condition that he left the missions and lived the rest of his life in Ballybawn.
It was a marvelous coincidence because Father Tom was only a creak away from death’s door through debilitation and malaria. When he came home he looked like a walking skeleton, his yellow skin was stretched across his bones in a way that made his smile look painful.
So it was Father Tom who started me off; with all his stories about the Hausa and the Ibo. He had a wonderful way of keeping your interest alive, and he took me on many imaginary journeys through the Nigerian heartland; until I came to know that country nearly as well as he did himself.
Then as I grew older and he weaker; I used to act as his secretary helping him with the voluminous correspondence he carried on with the missionary stations all over Africa, India, China and South American. As a matter of fact, I carried on a thriving little business myself with the stamps he allowed me to steam from the envelopes of his incoming post. But I didn’t keep that money for myself, dear me no, that all went for the Black babies; and I’m sure that by the time I was twenty I had a whole school full to my credit.
But that was in 1939, a bad year for me and the rest of the world. Father Tom died and my own father followed him a week later, to be followed three months later by my mother; and I was left alone and nothing for it but to head off for England, for I had to fend for myself now.
So when I began to take the monthly copy of the African Fold in 1952 it was really only an assertion of my own interests, for I had never let so much as a week pass without it; except during the depths of the war when there was no paper. You could hardly cross the road without seeing an aerial dogfight in progress. Though try as I might, I cannot remember Stanley’s incident at all.
It hurts me to see him letting himself down in front of those two. What are they to be sniggering behind their hands at a man? Who, for all his faults, is twice the man either of them could ever hope to be?
Take that Fred de Brun for instance. With a face like a gargoyle and eyes like slimy gimlets. I wonder does he ever take that hat off his head or does he wear it in the bath, does he ever take a bath? That’s an Englishman, who has been found out in his own country and gets grants to learn Irish. To do things in Irish that he couldn’t make a living at in England; where he drew the dole as Fred Brown and mind your manners.
The fellow beside him isn’t any better. The sort of creature you’d imagine being born out of the very stuff of the bog. Stuck together with clay and wattle, two stones for eyes. He has all the expression of a Haitian zombie complete with a ghoulish half smile; that can’t find its way into his dead eyes.
And these are the sort of creatures we keep a bar for. Polishing glasses and optics, counters, floors and lavatory’s, working our fingers to the bone, so that they can come into our house and treat it like a lunatic asylum.
But then, what is a pub, if not an asylum for the mildly insane? We must be mad ourselves to do it. Poor Stanley must have caught the bug, having to spend all those years in the bar. I mean, it’s well known what happens to psychiatrists and them learned men and aware of the danger. What chance have we, mixing with them every day?
At any rate, let us get back to poor Stanley, he’s an awful eejit, but I have to give him credit for the way he comported himself all day, in the face, you might say, of the enemy. They came in droves. I never saw it so busy, even on the day of the Ballybawn Regatta when we had strangers in, we weren’t as busy, But, you see, they had come in to drink and these people, these were locals come to gloat.
Ghouls, every last one of them, nearly were falling over themselves in their hurry to get a look at his face. But, thank God, the longest day draws towards a close and by eight o’clock I was tidying an empty bar. Closed, oh no, we don’t close our doors before eleven-thirty. Just empty, the other star attraction in Ballybawn that evening was a church meeting to discuss the building of a new house for Father Barry and a village center. Father Barry would preside and even the village dogs would go to share his triumph over Stan Gibbs. Not one of them realizing what they had lost.
Stanley went off and ate the salad I had mixed for him while I, having tidied away the debris, restocked the shelves and polished the teak top of the bar.
Another thing that always gave me the sick about Stanley was his deplorable taste in music. Only the opera would do for him and even then it had to be that silly German rubbish by Wagner. Which I can’t help thinking of, as a group of overdressed fat Germans shouting philosophy at each other. Worse still, he sang along with it. Why couldn’t it have been God’s foible to make me deaf instead of dumb? Well, I don’t really mean that God, I mean, what would I do to pass the time?
Half-way through one of his tapes the incredible din, which sounded as if either the professional singer was having (God forgive me) a spear stuck up her arse or, the salad hadn’t settled too well with Stanley, I heard that distinctive sound, grump, grump, grump, of car doors being closed and so with great pleasure only slightly tempered by the annoyance of having to meet more people, I killed the music.
Stanley was out like a flash, he knew that when the music stopped it meant customers and the only music you play for them is country and western which he wouldn’t sully his hi-fi with.
When the bar door opened I never expected to see the sight that gladdened my eyes. Three black beauties, they might have been sisters of the Queen of Sheba, if we are to believe all re reports of her beauty. When they came in they transformed our drab bar with their exotic dress and alluring faces.
Stan’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. He really hates blacks but he can’t withstand a pretty face no matter what the color. I could see his eyes popping in his head and when he spoke to ask for their orders; his voice came out all squeaky and cracked.
One of the women spoke to Stan but he couldn’t take in what she said and had to ask her to repeat it. She had a musical contralto. “I ask you if this village Ballybawn and are you, Stanley Gibbs?’
I knew that would throw him. The very idea of three beautiful black girls coming specially to see him. He stuttered and his eyes began to blink like mad. “Yes . . . yes . . . that . . . that’s right, I . . . I’m . . . I’m Stanley Gibbs, Ballybawn, er, I mean this . . . this is my pub and this is Ballybawn.”
The dark lady resuscitated him with a sympathetic smile and the two other ladies smiled also. It was like turning on a spotlight.
“That is very good, Mr. Gibbs, for we are come to speak with you on a very private matter. At what time do you expect to be free?” Her dark eyes found me out in my corner. “Is this lady of your household, for the matter we have come to speak about, is a private one?” Her accent was very good though her cadences were strange and her idiom old fashioned. I could have listened to her all night. Stan turned and looked at me briefly. Then he turned back to the lady again. “It’s alright, she . . . that’s my wife, but she can’t speak.” She gave me a brilliant smile while those deep liquid eyes washed over me and withdrew again like a fast tide. I felt assayed.
“I can’t think,” Stan said, he was getting bolder, “of any business you ladies could have with me, I have never in me life left the British Isles but let me offer you all a drink and then I’ll go and close the bar.” He offered them brandy and poured three drinks then he locked the outside door and turned out all the lights except for those over the bar.
When he got behind the bar again he helped himself to a double scotch. That was very unlike his usual behavior, but I suppose he felt a bit on the spot being the focus for three pairs of eyes.
“First of all,” the first lady said, with a smile that even included me. “Let us introduce ourselves and then we tell of the purpose of this visit.” She indicated the lady in the middle of the bar, maybe her nose was longer but apart from that and a green shawl around her shoulders I couldn’t tell any difference between them.
This is Clarinda, the other lady in the corner is Murial and I . . . I am Jupu. I wish to keep things simple for now so these names will suffice. Now let us come to the reason for our visit, this also is simple; we come to honor you with a gift.”
Having said her piece Jupu drew her shawl, a splendid creation, in what might be called Nigerian Paisley, up around her shoulders and nestled into the left-hand corner of the bar; the exposed upper globes of her large firm breasts reflected the back lights of the bar in a hypnotic manner. I could see that Stanley was in difficulties about where to look. He decided to look at his hands, a bad choice because his nails were bitten down to the quick. He looked into his glass . . . empty . . . he filled it again, at this rate he would be too drunk to understand anything this Jupu one, would have to say to him.
“Now,” said Jupu, “you will remember the black babies I am sure,” I was equally sure he would do no such thing. I could see the side of Stan’s face in one of the side mirrors. I think he thought she was going to bring a paternity case against him. Jupu saw the puzzlement on his face. “A Catholic organization for bring succor to the young of Africa.” She pointed a bejeweled finger. “Look, you have two collection boxes here for the purpose of collecting funds to aid the African Missions and that is why we are here today Mr. Gibbs, for you have throughout your life been responsible for sending vast amounts of money to our country and we want you to know how thankful we are in Nigeria especially, for your continues assistance. I want to tell you that in Kaduna, which is our village,” she encompassed the others with a wave of her shapely arm and the bar lights shimmied across her breasts, “your name is great and is often spoken in gratitude, you are the great white father of us all and your reward is to hand. We are hear of your misfortune and your great love of trees, we too love and so we bring to you in this very small phial which, Clarinda and group make. Phial contain amazingly powerful tree juju, with almost instant effect and dangerous therefore to inexperienced user. We must all walk around the town to work this juju in the night.”
I could see by the set of Stanley’s shoulders that he was going to resist, so I got down off my stool and took him by the arm. I steered him around the bar and into the spicily scented shadows of those three tall ladies. They clustered about him as I unbolted the doors, ushered them out and locked the doors behind us. “Now,” said Jupu. “We three will chant juju spell for safety of all while we walk slowly around town”
This we did. Me, arm in arm with Stanley and it reminded me of my young days when I walked in procession with father Tom. Muriel, who had never spoken, now detached herself from the group and began to dance ahead of us rather like a very soulful belly-dancer, waving what I assumed, was the phial over her head and all about. Meanwhile, the other two kept up a very musical chant, which seemed to get louder and wilder as we went about the town. It didn’t take very long and that was a good thing; strangely the streets were deserted and we walked and danced about in them for no more than half an hour, but Stanley was getting restive. Mumbo jumbo invariably annoyed him. When God assigned us our spiritual gifts he left Stanly short or he put it all into Stanley’s love of trees. Finally, we arrived back at the bar and he went straight for the brandy. The three Nigerian ladies seemed to understand his ungracious mood so they left him alone but they covered me with kisses as if they had realized just who it was had sent them the aid. Then off they went in their car to God knows where and I went to bed.
I spent the night in a dream of happy days and overslept my usual early morning date with the birds. Yet it was darker that it should have been. So I went in the bar and drew the curtains back on the two picture windows. Then it took me several moments to come out of my stupor; to understand the sight before my eyes.
I ran for Stanley and pulled him out of bed. He was crotchety, from all the drink of the night before and resisted, but I was just as determined and I pulled him out of bed by main force. He had to see the amazing sight that glorified the town.
It was Trees; Trees, Trees; of every color, shape, and variety that you could name. I don’t know the names of many trees but I recognized a Jacaranda, a huge beech with golden leaves; a stately ash; Stanley enumerated them for me later. There was a bald cypress, a black walnut, A white oak, some sugar maples. But the sight which took away our breath and made us want to laugh in wonder and delight was the giant Sequoia which had reared up inside of the ugly schoolhouse foisted on us by Father Barry.
The school-house, or what remained of it, was balanced precariously somewhere about the top of the tree; which had soared during the night to the wonderful height of about 300 feet. With various items of school furniture adorning its higher branches. The large bulging figure of Father Barry, clad only in his winter Johns, could be seen capering in a towering rage around the base of the tree. He shook his fist, he raved his swollen features, a rare purple, given only to bishops, almost colored the base of that huge tree. He had lost the great battle between his kind of magic of a certain kind of mind and the Earth-magic of Gaea the primordial mother of all. But the town had lost nothing except their slavish dependence on a system of belief that had, over the years, failed them in every way. Instead, they had acquired a subliminal, almost symbiotic relationship with the magical new trees and with Mother Nature herself.
Slowly but surely the people of Ballybawn were coming to realize the pure pleasure of a life shared with Trees and nature. Gradually they began to respond and became cleaner generally in their personal habits. Before long it would be difficult to find anyone in the village who smoked, cars were banned from town and had to be parked, by general agreement, some way out of town. Dogs regained their freedom and cats adorned the trees. To live in Ballybawn was to live in an earthly Paradise.