I am walking on the bones of the dead. I feel their cheekbones and jaws cracking beneath my Converse; deep beneath the recently re-surfaced roads; smooth and freshly painted. Crunch, crunch, crunch.
There is history all around us and beneath us and above – it is in the air that I stop to – inhale. I have lived in these lands for close to twenty years and it takes a while to see – to really see, what has been hiding in plain sight all along. Everyone sees it; everyone sees through it. And I too have finally become accustomed to its grandeur and its arched windows and the horror that it has housed.
I have acclimatised and my shock has dissipated and I walk on.
Irish eyes are smiling. I have yet to meet an Irishman who does not show creases at the corners and a lilt to even the most sorry lament. They have a way, you see, of holding that smile though their insides are corroding with the most horrific histories. Their hurts, personal and private and individual – solitary suffering.
I take a walk daily. I leave my house, with the dog in tow and start down the hill. I make sure that my shoes are sturdy and have a good grip. I have, on occasion, taken a slide on the smooth road that was recently upgraded. It has been smoothed and rolled and financed to a deadly shine. On a wet day pine needles from a towering tree above collect along the edge of the road and lull me into a sense of safety. There are manholes dotted along the road, though the stench of the town’s shit and piss seep through the bolt holes. I hold my breath for several seconds as I walk past. It is worse in the heavy heat of June. The manholes are precarious in the rain and see me lose my footing only to right myself up. A sharp, fast jolt runs through me as I momentarily hold myself between life and death. And then, I walk on. Down I go.
There is an old Fever Hospital to my left with a field that fills with long grass and daisies in the summer. There were horses kept there until recently. Only four of them, but they gave life and movement to an unsettling square that looked over the town below. The horses have gone now. The building is next to the new local hospital – designed and built as though in rebellion with the Fever Hospital adjacent. The new hospital is a cubist expression with sharp lines and costly glass that is cleaned early in the mornings by a Polish cleaner who sprays and mops and dusts as her children sleep softly at home. She thinks of them as she empties bins and changes toilet rolls. She is not seen nor heard but she works – Oh, she’s a tearing worker. The Polish clean a way better than the Irish – it’s a known fact. She receives soft smiles and cold eyes from the ward nurses and stands - back to the wall - as the Doctor conducts his rounds.
The hospital stands on the grounds of the old Workhouse, and I search its perimeters for the cry and churn of a hungry child and an anguished mother. The housing estates that have built up around our local hospital have surely entombed the bones of those who could not be carted to the old cemetery two miles south of the town. Their history is trapped beneath family homes and close-knit neighbourhoods. The dead watch on Christmas morning and hold their hands to their ears at the squeals of a delighted child and the holding smile of a tired parent. What a history shifts beneath us!
The Fever Hospital, in contrast, still stands. It was bought some years ago by a very wealthy man who made his fortune in France. He was born and reared here but by God, he ran – fast. He visits each summer and stays elsewhere but holds on to the Fever Hospital and he has me puzzled and addled. Why does he keep this building? To the untrained eye, it is an impressive sight. It stands long, double height with symmetrical windows along both the ground and first floor. The door has been painted red though it is doubtful it was this cheery colour when the infected were brought through the doors a hundred and fifty years ago.
It was built on an angle, turned from the road and instead, faces the Cathedral spire that cuts the horizon. I line out a path, now grown over, between it and the new hospital – the old Workhouse. The act of walking is a kind of death in motion. Feet shuffling forward with a stern stare and appraisal as they entered a holding cell. Never to leave; not likely.
I lie in bed at night and listen for the moans of a thousand children who sweated and tossed this way and that. Cold and hungry and restless. Walls moved and spoke back to them - It’s alright – it’s going to be alright. The children hallucinating in the height of their fevers and a dangerous voice behind their ears – it’s alright.
This mantra has surely seeped into the blood and bones of those who broke their fever, survived and lived on. This town lives and breathes this ideology of splendid isolation.
There is an old man who lives nearby, in one of the last farmhouses on this road that has become overrun with pristine dormer bungalows. Gardens geometrically dissected so sharply the robins become cross-eyed as they search for a branch on which to perch. The polished windows are blinding, and each is guarded by a cast iron set of electric gates with a lit-up keypad hiding discreetly in the artisan stone wall beside. This is how we live; now.
My neighbour walks down the footpath from his house to the town. He seems to wear the same clothes day in day out – year in year out. He sleeps in them, I suppose – though he must remove his hat? He walks with a hospital issued crutch – what was once a pair, sent home to recuperate and he kept one but returned the other. He stops every few steps and holds out his crutch and waves it, angrily, at cars that pass by. At school children that gingerly step past him on the way to school. At me. He is angry and I look down or away or sometimes, at him - ‘Nice Day’ I mumble as my eyes move fast and I dodge the waving crutch.
I wonder who he is brandishing the crutch at – he is ready to fight back – now. When he was small, he was unable to push back; push off the weight of sweat and want. He inhales and still collects the stench of Guinness and bacon and rotting teeth. It smells like baby’s spit up, stale and sweet and permeating. It is a punch in the face each day of each year of his sentenced life. He carries the hurt and shame of violation and the trauma of shame imprisoned, and he goes on brandishing that crutch and choosing not to wash. And someone, somewhere, does not care for him.
My mind grapples with this – where is the love of kin? Where is the empathy of a neighbour, of a community? We walk the Main Street and side streets of this small town, like a thousand small towns that infect Ireland, and we side-step cruelty and violation and rape. Irish eyes keep smiling but I begin to look a little deeper into those eyes and - they are soulless. Each pair that meets mine. They are cold and cowardly and they are seeking a beyond. The small town is progressive, you see. It thrusts its gaze forward and looks past injustice and hurt and shame. Because that is the only way it knows to keep breathing; keep beating.
All life shuffles from one path, doomed, to the next – there is always a destination and at the end – God? Salvation? A chance to repent eternally – and this is what sustains a generation that is slowly making their way along that overgrown path to their death. I visit a grave and stare at the headstone and its stares back at me. I study the faded photograph and it returns a gaze – soulless.
Ireland has fought a vibrant and nourished campaign for my womb – I thank you. We pushed and pushed and pushed against the clerical calvary and they barely put up a fight – only stood back and had their infantry of the faithful spout lines from a forgotten text and it meant nothing on my ears – nothing. A language I no longer understood. And so, I thank you – should I find myself pregnant, and thoroughly informed and educated in the viability and probability of foetal survival and should I find two sympathetic and fearless professionals who might note down – in shorthand – my body’s abnormalities and should I find time, between precisely conception and twelve weeks gestation – well then, thank you. My life shall be forever altered, and we will talk of this no more.
The graveyard is a living history though they sleep eternally. The old cemetery, now full, lies in a joyful state of chaos with graves peeking out from behind briars and along hidden, stone walls. Some of the more recent headstones stand vertical and are inscribed. But there are more graves that are only marked by a jagged stone, sat upon raised earth. The unknown and the unremembered. Distant cousins from America can be found wandering, searching for a name that was whispered when they were children, their DNA buried and forgotten and eroding in the salty breeze that blows in from the bay.
The new cemetery, in contrast, is perfectly aligned, maintained and contained. A low wall runs along the perimeter and a black gate allows visitors in. The gate is painted, annually, so that it now bubbles and cracks and a dirty rust seeps out each rainfall. No matter. There are faded wreaths that waver in the wind bearing the words father, mother, grandfather. Each headstone is inscribed, some simply, others more elaborately with details of familial ties and connections. Who loved who, who is dearly beloved, who is sadly missed, and most important, she, who will not be forgotten.
A certain history is maintained and carried on after death and it is the living who control the narrative. So, as I stare back at those joyless eyes, I mourn not the bones that settle beneath my feet but the legacy she left and was forced to pass onward – away.
If history is not regaled and transmitted, virus like, why then, it mutates of its own accord. History changes and the narrative becomes infected – for better or worse. I can only pause and imagine the events that transpired. No one is talking – no one sees. Her history is standing as sure as a solid stone ruin, plain as day as we skirt past its perimeter. We cannot enter because it is closed; overgrown. And no one ever arrives and starts hacking at the briars. I imagine it was a girl – but I am not sure – it seems to fit right; that it was a baby girl thrown out into the void of secrecy, shame and fabrication.
How old was the mother? We can’t be sure; a girl-woman. Old enough to bleed and old enough to butcher by the holy trinity of God, State and Community. Shunned and spat upon and eyes cast beyond. She must now be clear across the country – I am sure. And does she feel that crushing on her soul? Does she feel the vacuum of absence; does she carry her mother’s defeat? For her sake; I hope so. For it would be far worse to carry the crushed soul – unbeknownst to herself. Why? – she might ask. Why so empty, why so agitated, why do I lack?
To the cast aside, to the moved on, to the transacted – know that you fly in and out of our thoughts for an eternity. You are considered and you are confirmed. We know the story of origin and you have a mother, who carried you, who felt each turn and kick and stretch in utero. She spoke softly to you in those dark nights and smiled as you pushed against a stretched womb.
I visit less often than I should. The headstones multiply and grief will soon cover the grounds entirely. Her plot falls further and further from view and there is new mourning to be done and others visit and begin to wear a new path to new graves. Her picture might fade and the inscription is at risk of filling with grime and moss so that letters begin to merge or convolute into mis-readings. And Irish eyes will barely glance at her as they skirt past the marble structure and look forward; eyes that see and have not seen.