Postcards from the Pandemic (Or learning to live with Covid)

By the Shanachie

Someone told me that there is a Green Man in the old cemetery in Dumbarton. I was intrigued. I imagined a being of urban myth. An Old Man of Ben Macdhui. A presence that appeared on moonlit nights, a ghostly invocation of the dreams that gravestones inspire. I had never come across the Green Man on any of a hundred times wandering by the headstones. I set out to find him. In daylight. I ambled by the green space that is home to paupers’ unmarked graves and by the monuments to the self-regard of the Denny family. Then, to my surprise, there he was. In plain sight. Head and shoulders emerging from trees planted by a row of graves. The Green Man! As I drew closer, I saw that the Green Man was actually a statue whose upper half had been turned green by time. A Merchant who had been interred in Liverpool, Proudfoot by name.

Saint Cecilia, Stained glass

Saint Cecilia’s Day, 2021 A beautiful morning. Stars before dawn like diamonds. Thick frost on the Common. Icecovered windscreens. A pale waning moon in a pale blue western sky. “No fuss” the brandnew septuagenarian said, as she took breakfast (tea and toast) in bed. “Just another day”. We had been well warned. Dire threats made. Twenty years ago, she returned from work to find the house festooned with balloons and banners advertising her age. There was to be no fuss. The living room was crowded with a harvest of gifts – maybe not quite as many as our new grandson has received but still a mighty crop. (My favourites were the paintings which I gave her. Hmmm. Surely, we give what we think the other will enjoy and not what we know we enjoy? Ahem. I am almost sure she would like a trip to Madrid for her Christmas!) All afternoon the doorbell rang with seemingly endless deliveries of gifts. Flowers and bottles of gin. “No fuss” included attendance as usual at the Spin class, followed by a meal of ‘cauliflower popcorn’. The outer limits of celebration! St. Cecilia, I read, spent three days singing after being stabbed three times in the throat and then died. Is this why the Tories thought hers an appropriate day to stab Thatcher in the back? I doubt Lee H Oswald had the saint in mind when he fired the fatal bullet. (If he did). Anyhow in 2021 there was a beautiful sunset, fit to match the sunrise. P.S. While the septuagenarian was being treated by friends to the kind of afternoon tea you have in the morning, I was being treated by the NHS to a routine check-up. All good. Passed with flying colours, although one of them may be the skull and cross bones.

I walked out by the Bonnie Banks and sat awhile looking out at the Loch, sunlight – by then subdued by the presence of streaky cumulus – playing on the waters and turning the Ben into gold. I felt something like contentment. Or perhaps just an unwillingness to haul myself upright and move on. Another gift was ‘The Lyrics’ of Paul McCartney. Did he write a better song than ‘Eleanor Rigby’? Less Miserable. The Lodger has given his mother two tickets for a matinee performance of ‘Les Miserables’ between Christmas and the New Year. My heart sank. “End of the row seats” the Lodger said cheerfully, nudging me in the ribs. Perhaps she will find a less miserable companion. I did, against grumpy expectations, enjoy ‘Wicked’. And what is a musical but an Opera for less pretentious audience? ‘Master of the House’ is a fine rollick, and I have a soft spot for ‘The Song of Angry Men’ (but not the awful one about the dream.) I have seven weeks to practise cheerful compliance. Perhaps I could bribe someone to go?

Something strange happened this week. Through the post came a copy of Christy Moore’s new CD. I have been very fortunate to receive through the post during the pandemic a number of gifts. For most, I was able to work out the identity of the benefactor. This time, I was puzzled. All was revealed, however, when by chance I checked sent e-mails, to discover that the one who had ordered the CD was me. At 1.50 a.m. on Sunday morning, when I thought I was sound asleep (sleeping off wine and beer.) Sleep-shopping?

Oh dear. On a Roll. One wet morning I took the West Highland Line one stop to Helensburgh Upper. As I trudged up beyond the town to the little reservoir by the black road, the clouds rose and dispersed. The morning had brightened. I strolled around the still waters. A lone fisherman cast his line and settled in for a long haul. Tranquillity. Disturbed by a commotion caused by the arrival of two swans, from nowhere, briefly scattering the reflection of clouds, until the waters composed themselves again. I thought of John Muir’s dictum. “Everything is hitched to everything else in the universe.” (Something like that.) I ambled on through the Hielan’ Man’s Wood, golden groves turned black, light drizzle hardly making it to the ground. Back in town, I had a sausage and egg roll in Dino’s. The conversations on which I eavesdropped were all about covid. Oh, and Peppa Pig.

Airports. In ‘Flights’ Olga Tokarczuk describes airports as ‘city states’. Some – Schipol – have art galleries as well as shopping malls, moving walkways, bars – and places to pray. (One thinks of the Everly Brothers’ deathless ‘Ebony Eyes’. Maybe ‘deathless’ is not the right word.) But no airport can compare to the Great Railway Stations. Grand Central in NYC, Atocha in Madrid, Gare du Nord in Paris, Westbahnhof in Vienna. These are Cathedrals for the traveller, compared to airports, which are merely soul-less warehouses of transit. The airport I liked best was Carnmore in Co. Galway. Little more than a shack with a runway. Sadly, the runway was deemed to be too short and public flights ended about 12 years ago. Nowadays the journey to Galway involves (for me) a visit to Heuston Station in Dublin and the Iarnrod across the central plain of Ireland (which is very plain – one is delighted to spy a horse in a field and the Shannon comes as a spectacular drama at Athlone.) I booked at short notice a trip to Galway. Why not? (In the realms of technology this week, I surpassed myself. I downloaded an NHS App and followed, not necessarily without glitches, instructions issued by Artificial Intelligence which included things like scanning passport and barcodes – and lo! at the end of the process I had a vaccine passport. I am OK for nightclubs and other crowded venues. This is how we learn to live with covid.) The story, once told. Also, this week I finished the 100th book of 2021 (not including poetry books, which one never really finishes). It was Fintan O’Toole’s personal history of Ireland since 1958 (the year of his birth). A mixture of personal childhood memories and later mature commentary on Ireland’s development. To anyone who would like an Irish passport, a fascinating read. On the one hand the incredibly corrupt politicians in cahoots with big business, and the criminal treatment of vulnerable women and children by the Catholic Church, about which everybody knew and acted as if they did not. And on the other the development of a more secular and liberal country, which survived the disaster of the Celtic Tiger’s implosion, to welcome immigrants, to recognise same sex marriage and to repeal the anti-abortion clause in the constitution (introduced as late as 1983.) I was in Dublin at the time the abortion referendum result was announced. Crowds celebrating at Dublin Castle. The Minister of Health (Simon Harris), interviewed on RTE, said “I am so grateful to all the women who came forward to tell their stories. A story, once told, cannot be untold.” Fintan pointed out that more people over 65 voted for repeal than those under 25. When the same sex marriage referendum was won by an even bigger majority, Moira emailed to say that “it was like waking up in another country.” Oh, for a Scottish O’Toole (now that Kenneth Roy is dead). We won’t really know what has been going on in this country until it is too late for us to change it. (Corrupt politicians in cahoots with big business? Hmm. I smell a Peppa Pig.) Why Not? Galway and I have history, when it comes to weather. I was stranded there by Storm Ophelia and had to flee from the Beast from the East. Dublin airport was closed for three days. I took a train to Belfast and a Stena Line ferry to Cairn Ryan. I should have checked the forecast. I was not surprised to read that Storm Arwen was due to bring strong winds on the very days in which I was in Galway. I shrugged. What is a little light turbulence compared to the Great Meteorological Disaster which awaits us? Next time, I will check the forecast. Comfort and Joy. I was in Ceannt Station before 2.00 p.m. Bitter cold could not diminish the clicky heels kind of elation which overtook me as I crossed Eyre Square. The Christmas markets were in session, people determined to enjoy themselves, the city’s ethnic diversity evident. Checked in to The Western Hotel. Room 110, which I had occupied in January 2020. Hit the streets as soon as I could. Strolled down the shopping streets, delighted to come across the full quota of buskers. A Young Man singing ‘Losing my Religion’ as if it was a Christmas Carol. The Lad with the banjo singing ‘Skibbereen’. A Man with a Goatee and a roll-up in his mouth playing a tune on the Uillean Pipes which I recognised but could not name.

A Young Woman playing the flute, and another singing what I fear was songs of her own composition. All this while the temperature sank towards zero. I crossed the Wolfe Tone Bridge. The Corrib was its usual mad whirl, a monochromatic torrent. By Nimmo’s Pier and round the edge of the Claddagh. For once the light over Galway Bay was subdued, and the Hills of Clare grey humps. I walked out the causeway to Mutton Island, with a small and chilly sense of achievement. A place of epiphany. Then I returned by the Claddagh Basin, back by the Quays to High Street, anticipating the wonderful moment when I step into the Comforting Gloom of Murphy’s Bar, for 15 years my spiritual home. Oh No! Imagine the devastating blow to my spirits when I saw that the pub’s doors were shut. At first, I did not panic. Some of these Irish pubs have erratic opening hours. Maybe it would be open tomorrow. But I noticed that the insides of the windows bore patterns of grime, a sure signifier of dereliction. And so it proved to be. Murphy’s Bar is no more. Where I have found sanctuary over all these years, watching other old men watching their pints. The framed photographs of Old Worthies with bulbous noses. And of scores of swans by Nimmo’s Pier. The row of half-poured Guinness tumblers on the bar. The way time passes and does not pass. I was bereft. However. I thought of the line in ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’. “If my true love, she won’t come / then I ‘ll surely find another…..” Freeney’s Bar is right opposite Murphy’s. Probably, if one was to be objective, slightly more attractive. I showed proof of vaccination and ID and sat in a corner with the Irish Independent.The Guinness was sublime. Despite my broken heart, I was the epitome of contentment. I remembered that Al, Charlie and his brother John were in Freeney’s in 2005, on our cricket trip. Hurling took the place of cricket.). I had dinner in Ard Bia by the Spanish Arch, a posh place with posh prices – and great food. Langoustines and venison. Later I was allocated a high stool in Garavan’s. All the strictly observed protocols make for a lack of spontaneity, of the unexpectedness which is the glory of busy pubs. A wee session was getting under way just as I was leaving. There was a queue outside, patiently waiting. Candles. Next morning, after a Very Full Irish Breakfast.

I walked to the Woodquay, by the Salmon Weir to the Cathedral, where I lit candles for the grandchildren, and others. Did the same in the Franciscan Church. It was the kind of morning on which everyone has a red nose. I wandered by Nun’s Island and out to Salthill. Paused by the Memorial to the children who died on the Famine Ships, and scuffed sand of the white strand of Grattan Beach. It was bright, cold and blustery. As I pushed myself into the wind on the causeway, the sun rose above a bank of dark cloud. The light above Galway Bay was a parade of variousness, the stuff that magic is made on. This is the reason for coming to Galway. Pubs may come and pubs may go (I told myself) but the Light above the Bay goes on forever. Ahem! And after some anxiety about the travel all went smoothly. If I had gone north to Hopeman, I would have been stuck in a train at Huntly for 17 hours.

Last Words. After I was in Galway in January 2020, I sat down and wrote this, stealing from Seamus Heaney’s ‘Postscript’. I wrote it for my nephew who was terminally ill. He and his wife had hitch-hiked to Galway in 1985. “Some time take the time – and train (a more measured Journey than the rule of thumb) – to go out west again Across the Shannon at Athlone, by Ballinasloe to the Bay Where light and wind will do their tricks for you. Buskers in High Street will sing old ballads for you while the Corrib Rushes to the sea. Time will dazzle. The absence of time Will darken, dim and brighten. A gull will toss a shell down On the concrete, trying to winkle out a whelk. You will be Neither here nor there, on the edge of everywhere. Two swans Will beat their way upriver to the slipway where bay-battered Hulks huddle. Their grace is yours also. Sunlight on the Hills of Clare. Here yours is the heart that does not fail, the light that does not fade. In the poet’s show you will read the last words. “Do not be afraid.” There we are. The final postcard from the pandemic. On we go. Another variant to live with. Maybe Murphy’s Bar will rise again. All will be well. May kind fortune turn the wheel! Good luck and good health!


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