I did not get up, he had no option, and the result was an order for my dismissal, but as quietly as possible so as not to scandalize my brothers in JC or the good people of the town. Old Cogger showed me the letter. I was to get a suit of clothes, underwear, railway ticket and one pound. It revived me immediately. I told him the underwear I had would do and he raised the one pound to five.
The next hurdle was how to get my fit in clothes in a small town without causing scandal. Old Cogger dithered till the day before I had to leave, but at nightfall brought home two likely fits. I picked one, and packed it, and off we set by bus for Limerick, to all appearances two Christian Brothers going on some ordinary business, but old Cogger would come back alone. We did not speak on the way.
Behind a locked door and drawn curtains I changed in the guest room of the house in Limerick. I’ve wondered what happened to the black uniform I left behind, whether they gave it to another CB or burned it as they burn the clothes of the dead. Cogger showed me to the door as I left for the train but I can’t remember if he wished me luck or shook hands or just shut the door on my back. I had a hat too. Yes a brown hat and a blue suit, but I didn’t realize how bloody awful they looked until I met my sisters on O’Connell Bridge. They coloured with shame. Afraid to be seen walking with me they rushed me into a taxi and didn’t speak until they had me safely inside the front door of the flat, when one doubled up on the sofa unable to stop laughing, and the other swore at me, ‘In the name of Jasus what possessed the Christians to sail you out into the world in a getup the like of that or you to appear in it?’ Though what I remember most was the shock of sir when the waiter said ‘Thank you, sir,’ as I paid him for the cup of tea I had on the train.
Even if the memories are bitter they still quicken the passing of time. It is the sly coughing of the children that tells me the hands have passed three.
‘All right. Put your books away and stand up.’
In a fury the books are put away and they are waiting for me on their feet.
They bless themselves and chant their gratitude for the day.
‘Don’t rush the door, it’s just as quick to go quietly.’
I hear their whoops of joy go down the road, and I linger over the locking up. I am always happy at this hour. It’s as if the chains of the day were worth wearing to feel them drop away. I feel born again as I start to pedal towards the town. How, how, though, can a man be born again when he is old? Can he enter a second time his mother’s bag of tricks? I laugh at last.
Was it not said by Water and the Holy Spirit?
Several infusions of whiskey at the Bridge Bar, contemplation of the Shannon through its windows: it rises in the Shannon Pot, it flows to the sea, there are stranger pike along its banks than in its waters, will keep this breath alive until the morning’s dislocation.
The Beginning of an Idea
The word Oysters was chalked on the wagon that carried Chekhov’s body to Moscow for burial. The coffin was carried in the oyster wagon because of the fierce heat of early July.
Those were the first sentences in Eva Lindberg’s loose notes, written in a large childish hand, and she started reading them at the table again as she waited for Arvo Meri to come to the small flat. The same pair of sentences was repeated throughout the notes in a way which suggested that she leaned on them for inspiration. The word Oysters was chalked on the wagon that carried Chekhov’s body to Moscow for burial. The coffin was carried in the oyster wagon because of the fierce heat of early July. There was also among the notes a description of Chekhov’s story called ‘Oysters’.
The father and son were on the streets of Moscow in that rainy autumn evening. They were both starving. The father had failed to find work after trudging about Moscow for five months, and he was trying to muster up enough courage to beg for food. He had drawn the tops of a pair of old boots round his calves so that people wouldn’t notice that his feet were bare under the galoshes. Above father and son was a blue signboard with the word Restaurant and on a white placard on the wall was written the word Oysters. The boy had been alive for eight years and three months and had never come across the word oysters before.
‘What does oysters mean, Father?’
The father had touched a passerby on the sleeve, but not being able to bring himself to beg he was overcome with confusion and stammered, ‘Sorry.’ Then he swayed back against the wall. He did not hear the boy’s voice.
‘What does oysters mean, Father?’ the child repeated.
‘It’s an animal … it lives in the sea,’ the father managed.
The boy imagined something between a fish and a crab, delicious made into a hot fish soup, flavoured with pepper and laurel, or with crayfish sauce and served cold with horseradish. Brought from the market, quickly cleaned, quickly thrown into the pot, quick-quick-quick, everyone was starving. A smell of steaming fish and crayfish soup came from the kitchen. The boy started to work his jaws, oysters, blessed oysters, chewing and slugging them down. Overcome by this feeling of bliss he grabbed at his father’s elbow to stop himself from falling, leaned against the wet summer overcoat. His father was shivering with the cold.
‘Are oysters a Lenten food, Father?’
‘They are eaten alive … they come in shells, like tortoises but.. in two halves.’
‘They sound horrible, Father.’ The boy shivered.
A frog sat in a shell, staring out with great glittering eyes, its yellow throat moving — that was an oyster. It sat in a shell with claws, eyes that glittered like glass, slimy skin; the children hid under the table, while the cook lifted it by its claw, put it on a plate, and gave it to the grown-ups. It squealed and bit at their lips as they ate it alive — claws, eyes, teeth, skin and all. The boy’s jaws still continued to move, up and down; the thing was disgusting but he managed to swallow it, swallowed another one, and then another, hurriedly, fearful of getting their taste. He ate everything in sight, his father’s galoshes, the white placard, the table napkin, the plate. The eyes of the oysters glittered but he wanted to eat. Nothing but eating would drive this fever away.
‘Oysters. Give me some oysters,’ he cried, and stretched out his hands.
‘Please help us, sir. I am ashamed to ask but I can’t stand it any more,’ he heard his father’s voice.
‘Oysters,’ the boy cried.
‘Do you mean to say you eat oysters? As small a fellow as you eats oysters?’ He heard laughter close. A pair of enormous men in fur coats were standing over him. They were looking into his face and laughing. ‘Are you sure it’s oysters you want? This is too rich. Are you sure you know how to eat them?’ Strong hands drew him into the lighted restaurant. He was sat at a table. A crowd gathered round. He ate something slimy, it tasted of sea water and mould. He kept his eyes shut. If he opened them he’d see the glittering eyes and claws and teeth. And then he ate something hard.
‘Good Lord. He’s eating the bloody shells! Here, waiter!’
The next thing he remembered was lying in bed with a terrible thirst, he could not sleep with heartburn, and there was a strange taste in his parched mouth. His father was walking up and down the small room and waving his arms about.
‘I must have caught cold. My head is splitting. Maybe it’s because I’ve eaten nothing today. Those men must have spent ten roubles on the oysters today and I stood there and did nothing. Why hadn’t I the sense to go up to them and ask them, ask them to lend me something? They would have given me something.’