Dublin in 1907 is a city of whispered rumors. An actress still in her teens begins an affair with a damaged older man, the leading playwright at the theater where she works. Rebellious, irreverent, beautiful, flirtatious, Molly Allgood is a girl of the inner-city tenements, dreaming of stardom in America. Her lover, John Synge, is a troubled, reticent genius, the son of a once prosperous landowning family, a poet of fiery language and tempestuous passions. Yet his life is hampered by Edwardian conventions and by the austere and God-fearing mother with whom he lives. The affair, sternly opposed by friends and family, is turbulent, sometimes cruel, and often tender. What is to become of each of them?
Joseph O'Connor: Joseph O’Connor is the author of seven novels, including the international bestsellers Star of the Sea and Redemption Falls. His work has been published in 30 languages and he also writes for the stage and screen.
A LODGING-HOUSE ROOM IN LONDON
27 October 1952
In the top ?oor room of the dilapidated town house across the Terrace, a light has been on all night. From your bed it was visible whenever you turned towards the window, which you had to do in order to fetch your bottle from the ?oor. Most nights, the same. The bulb is lighted at dusk. In the mornings, a couple of moments after the street lamps ?icker out, it dies, and the ragged curtain is closed.
You are sixty-?ve now, perhaps the age of that house, perhaps even a little older – what a thought. You approach your only window; it is shockingly cold to the touch. Winter is coming to England. The weather has been bitter. Last night a hurricane struck London.
You have never noticed anyone enter or exit that forlorn house, but the postman still delivers to it, stuf?ng envelopes through the broken glass in the door panel – the letterbox has been nailed closed many years. Men urinate in the porch. One of the street girls plies her trade there, and the balustrade has long been splashed with obscene words. Many of the window embrasures are boarded. Buddleia sprouts from the façade.
You have a sense that the occupant of the room is a man. One midnight a ?eeting shadow crossed the upper windowpane – so you thought – and there was maleness in how it moved. There was a time when you used to think about him – how can he live alone in a bomb-blasted old house? who sends the letters? what are they about? – for it helped to pass the brutal hours
Immediately preceding dawn. But this morning someone else is come to you again, out of the same light, somehow, out of an unseen room, out of a city you have lived in the last thirteen years but have never found a reason to call your own. This has happened to all of us: a coasting across the mind by one we had thought forgotten or purposefully banished. But today will prove him a wanderer reluctant to be exiled, an emigrant still at tempting to come home.
He could be dif?cult sometimes. What use in denying it? Irritable, unforgiving, for a relatively young man. Because the whisperers and poke-bonnets and gossips and sniggerers always made such a point of the age difference between you. Envious vixens. Triple-chinned hypocrites, too deceitful to utter their true objection. What are years? Fictions. Ink-stains on a calendar. There are moments, of late, when yesterday feels a life ago, and tomorrow an unborn century, so unreachable it seems. And had he lived beyond his youth, the years would have contracted, be cause a married couple become the same age, grow to resemble one another over time, like bookends, their recollections in greyed bindings between them and neither bothering to read what once divided them. What’s this he’d be now? Eighty? Something. A slippered old duffer. A shuf?er. An auld bags. Hard to work the calculation through the fug of a hangover. Your reckoning of the decades keeps stalling, tripping up. After a few ruined attempts, you abandon it.
You take a small, sour sip. Medicinal. Just a settler. The reek of gin dampens your eyes, somehow intensi?es his presence, but you grimace it away with a swallow. The daily spite of this unmannerly town. Wasn’t it Yeats wrote that? Or my other lunk? Shaw. Dublin, he was whining about; but all towns are unmannerly, to the old, the poor, the collaborator. What is it in poets that must dress a thing up? Christ, they’d nearly call their dandruff ‘the fairy-snow’.
Not long after dawn. The shadow-kissing time. Grey light at the window and the whistle of the kettle as you move about, failing to keep warm. Mittens ?ittered to ribbons. You wear a dead man’s boots. Well, no point in wastefulness. A sin. Down below in Brick?elds Terrace, a milk wagon is delivering. You wonder would the man advance you another month’s credit but the fear of being declined dissuades you. Hoarfrost silvers the pavement, the telephone kiosk, the street, the wrecked colonnades of the house where the light burns all night, an awning over the grocer’s on the corner of Porchester Road. Rooks are circling the chimney breasts.
Johnny Synge’s bit of native. The proddy’s little squaw. That Kingstown playboy’s huer. Insults hurled long ago by the wags of witty Dublin, still audible after more than forty years.
You shuf?e away from the window, to the cubbyhole by the cooking ring. The room smells of cabbage-water and dust. Somewhere below you a wireless is playing too loudly but you do not object to the interruption, ?nd it oddly cheering sometimes. There are hours, late at night, when you miss its consolation. Silence can be frightening to the lonely. He always said you were over-imaginative, too given to fantasy. A Catholic trait, he would joke. These nights, you read Mills & Boons from the tuppenny library in Earl’s Court Road. Sure you’d be lost for a bit of an escape only it wasn’t for True Romances. How he’d have hated them, your dog-eared and tearstained bedfellows. ‘Opium for spinsters,’ he’d mock. The sun would dry the oceans wide;
Heaven would cease to be;
The world would cease its motion, my love,
Ere I’d prove false to thee.
A song that would draw the heart out of you, Molly. That anyone ever felt such devotion.
A drop or two of milk would take the scald off the gin. This cheap stuff hits your throat like boiled sand. Eighty-one. His age. If he was alive today. Were he to be alive. Still correcting your grammar. The sense that you were an embarrassment to him has never quite surrendered. The difference was not only one of age.
The cupboard contains a tea caddy decorated with a transfer of a parrot, and an empty sugar bag that can be scraped for its few last grains. You are thinking about the milkman, who is old beyond his years. They say he was shell-shocked at Anzio. The children of the neighbourhood are afraid of him, call him names. It is whispered that he has queer obsessions, with dog dirt, with blood, with immigrants, especially Poles, and the lack of public lavatories. He used to make a nuisance of himself with a pretty schoolgirl as she took the short cut to St Catherine’s, and now no schoolgirls are ever seen on the Terrace. He has the grin of a corpse and the bearing of a soldier, but sometimes he stretches his stride as one negotiating stepping stones, laughing the while through his teeth. Has he failed to understand that the gaiety of the passers-by is forced, is actually a peculiarly English kind of hatred? Perhaps an under standing could be reached. If one went to him with honesty. But no. It would not be seemly.
—One does not ask for credit, Changeling. If appropriate, it is offered. One must always cut one’s cloth having regard to proprieties. Anything less is the death of civilisation.
The cat slinks haughtily across the sticky, bare ?oorboards and arches its back against a chair-leg. Of a sudden it appears taken by a leather-framed photograph that is propped between two empty candlesticks on the mantelshelf. The man in the portrait has been dead a long time. His clothes are Edwardian: a shabby plus-four suit and brogues, a loose varsity cap, a knotted kerchief about the throat. An ashplant cane in the gloved right hand and a book protruding slightly from the pocket. Sepia has made his garments the same colour as his hair, as his mother’s chaise longue in the background. The picture has shrivelled over the years. It has seen many mantelshelves; many boxes and cheap hotel rooms, the greenrooms, the ?ophouses, the pouches of a cardboard suitcase. There is a stiffness in how he holds himself, as one braving the ?ring squad in an opera, and the eyes, martyr sad, are very slightly blurred, as though he blinked or was weeping at the moment the shutter was opened. But that would have been so unlike him.
A medieval Scottish ballad on an unseen wireless. You’d be grateful for the coming of morning. The slow plodding clop of the milkman’s dray. Someone’s motor car grumbles into life, a bicycle bell trills, and the phantoms recede into the wallpaper. You seem to see yourself at a distance, as a character in a story, perhaps. Miss O’Neill shivers at the table, drinks the acrid black tea. An offcut of linoleum serves raggedly as tablecloth; it is spotted with candle grease and cigarette burns. Here and there on its surface appears a crest of crossed rapiers with the motto fides et robur. She has twice been married, once widowed, once divorced. Her only son, an RAF pilot, was killed in the war, shot down over northern Germany, never found. It has been a long time indeed since she last played a leading role, since the palaces of Broadway rang with acclamation for her brilliance, but in whatever life those riotous ovations still echo, if they do, the ghost of a curtain still rises. One St Patrick’s Night they stopped a train in Scranton, Pennsylvania, for the townspeople had somehow heard Molly Allgood was on board. Irish immigrant families. Weeping and cheering. Lofting children on their shoulders. An old miner kissing her hand. Coal dust under his ?ngernails. Withered sham rock in his cap. You peer at your bony knuckles, see the fossil of a bird’s wing. Can they remember they were once kissed in Pennsylvania? Mother of Christ
Star of the Sea
Hope of the wanderer
Pray for me.
Somewhere in the room is a packet of old programmes all containing your name, but you wouldn’t know where to ?nd it among the clutter. Anyhow, the ones signed by the famous were long ago sold, with whatever books were worth anything at all. There is a little bookshop in Russell Square where they specialise in autographs. A kindly widower, a Jew, shy and scholarly, is the proprietor. A Communist, so they say – he denies actual member ship. He lost an arm in the Spanish Civil War.
Does the body remember? When the mind has forgotten? Does Mr Duglacz dream that he is whole again, a sweat-stained revo lutionary? If he stretched to pull an orange in the sopori?c heat of a grove, or groped towards some Annamaria’s scarlet, mournful mouth, would he see his vanished hand and weep? And if dreams unmask our longings, as the wise have claimed since the Greeks, why is it that the dead are so often silent when we dream them? Don’t we want them to speak? What would they say? Does Mr Duglacz ever dream himself a baby?
He always paid cash, more than fairly at that, was glad to see you coming, offered tea or a small sherry, showed you volumes he had recently acquired at house clearances in the shires, was perhaps even a little ?irtatious in the abashed way of old men as he fumbled among his broadsheets and foxed aquatints. (‘This might interest you, Miss O’Neill, the binding is exquisite. Not everyone could appreciate it as you would.’) But you have almost nothing left to offer him and no pretext for calling. It has been more than a year. You think of him sometimes. His embarrassed, touching courtesies and mild self-deprecations; his cheerfulness only grief turned brave. At moments he suddenly arises like a rumour of himself, or as a reminder of someone else: the man in the photograph on the mantelshelf. Anyhow, you are glad. All that is behind you now. ‘Bloom where you are planted,’ your mother used to say. ‘When sorrow sours your milk, make cheese.’
Life abounds with blessings. To be alive – even that. For the chances against our existence are incalculable, overwhelming; it would mesmerise you even to start considering them. So many you knew are gone. And the billions never born. Nobody should be here. Yet we are. And it is all such a beautiful and strange adventure; who would forgo it only the mad or the broken? This afternoon you have an engagement at the British Broadcasting Corporation, a part in a radio adaptation of a play by Sean O’Casey, one of the many Irish playwrights you once counted among your friends. You have never liked the piece. There are few plays you truly like. You wonder where O’Casey is now.
He would be old, even more bitter. His sweat would taste like the wince-making tea: metallic, like blood, only stewed. They say he lives someplace on the south coast of England (Jaysus), is grown shrivelled with his hatreds, has been blind many years. He wears a skullcap and sea-boots and a ?lthy Aran sweater he stitched from dead critics’ hair. A face like an elephant’s bollock, one of the stagehands once chuckled, and that was neither today nor yesterday, God knows. Poor Johnnybags Casey and his harem of perceived slights. What must they make of him, the villagers and their children, as he shambles the fogs like a poisoned old dosser on his way to sign fraudulently at the Labour? A Friday night ?ght-starter. A slum boy translated. Has he friends? Does he drink? You cannot remember now. Is he still at this end of the plank at all? You picture him facing out on the storm-lashed breakwaters, raging at the raucous gulls.
—Napoleon the Third was exiled before dying in terrible agony on the south coast of England. Where a lot of people live in terrible agony.
‘Let me alone,’ you whisper. ‘I am not able for you today.’ The breeze comes back crisply, fricative, falling away, like a saxophonist playing sub-tones, full of breath. The cat pads towards the window and utters a famished mraow. From the cement factory in Paddington Dock, the alleluia of a siren. Men will be making their way from the estates of west London. The wind rising cinders. Wives in their milky happiness. Still the middle of the night in Manhattan.
You have nothing to eat. There has been little for two days. The hunger is dizzying, now groaningly painful, like the feeling that used to assail you when about to menstruate. Kindly, he was then. A womanly solicitude. It is so cold that you consider dressing over your nightgown and vest, but for pity’s sake, Molly, there must always be self-respect. You cannot dander about London knowing you are in a nightgown. It would be a nice pancake if you had an accident and they had to cart you to the hospital. Imagine if you died in the street, girl. Naked, shuddering, your soles on cold boards. Quickly now, Molls, fetch a drawers and a shift. Don’t be minding the lack of curtains for there’s nobody gawping, and a nice fright he’d get if he did. A woman stalks across your memory, a dresser once assigned to you on an American tour, an astonishingly elderly Irishwoman – people said she was a hundred – but her name will not come, is kept at bay by the cold. She’d be dead these many years, you realise now. Was it Mary she was called? Born in Galway.
You have a rudimentary wash at the sink – the lavatory on the upper landing cannot be faced in the mornings – and dress quickly, fumblingly, blaspheming the cold, in your old black blouse and chestnut lambswool twin-set, and run a brush nine times through your hair. How he drowned in my ringlets. His mouth in my curls. Gone to spiderweb now. Old scuttler. The blouse is a little shiny but it is a pre-war Worth; good couture will always last, and proper tailoring. Taking your ancient box of numbered powders, you apply pan-stick and face pack in the little cracked shaving-mirror you inherited with the room: 2j with 3, a ?ngertip of 13, and yellow for an Italian warmth. After powdering, you dust your temples and cheekbones with terracotta dry rouge, a touch on the end of the chin, carmine lips for youthfulness. As you work, it is your fancy to imagine scenes the mirror has observed. Can it remember the man who ?rst bought it, used it? Perhaps poor Mr Holland, the scaffolder’s mate from Belfast who died in the rusting single bed you lie awake in. You some times wear his stiffened boots. You inhale him in dust. For months after you to...