Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Between the Jigs and the Reels

"Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger."
-Ben Okri

Spouse and I went to Ireland for Christmas of 2004.We were fortunate enough during that stay to be offered the gratuitous use of a caravan in remote wilderness by the ocean. I barely knew the family who had suggested it, and Spouse not at all, but somehow we agreed to it and found ourselves driving in the darkness and blinding salty rain along a curvaceous and treacherous bit of road. The trailer was freezing and we were, unsurprisingly for a seaside holiday park at December's end, the sole guests. There were approximately fifteen other holiday homes in the field and the occupants of the house next door were owners and caretakers of the property upon which the caravans sat.
The wind rocked the tiny caravan like fragile paper lanterns and we were sure all night long that the rain was falling not on the vehicle but inside it.
Nevertheless we were happy, and grateful to the goodhearted souls who had bestowed this unexpected kindness on us.
The fact of a complimentary holiday was superseded only by our meeting a man who told us such good stories that we ate, contentedly and without clamour, a Chinese meal with a dead fly at its core. We referred forever after to that dinner, which we consumed in the caravan on our first night, as 'Szechuan Fly.' We were not certain whether the fly landed during our repast or was cooked into it accidentally but no matter: we had eaten most of the feast before either of us thought to ask what that dark ingredient might be. We naturally removed the corpse but goodness knows if it had melted into the food or not.
The owner of the house, a man in what we guessed to be his sixties, came to speak to us briefly on our first evening and again on our second. He had, over the years, become good friends with the owner of the caravan, a person we were not very familiar with. After admitting that most people who knew him well called him John The Mill, he settled in for the evening and launched into a series of stories stretching distant horizons back in his mind about his life and his work. We identified with him on so many levels. He confided that he was considered by locals to be a blow-in, an out-of-towner. We were curious to know two things: where John the Mill had come from, and how long ago he had moved to the current place.
In answer to the first question he responded that he had come from a very small village about two miles over the road.
Two miles.
He further told us that he had come from that tiny place forty years ago.
Forty years.
We were absolutely stunned. We knew all about being outsiders but even to us that was unheard of. A blow-in he might have been, but they were lucky to have him.
We hardly talked at all, my Spouse and I: we simply listened. John the Mill told us mainly about windmills. His great project was windmills, hence his name. He wanted to erect windmills all across the local area for environmental purposes. He was currently working very hard on getting support for his idea. Thoroughly excited to have some listeners, he enthusiastically dashed, almost childlike, out of the caravan in the awful weather and returned with a sagging briefcase full of papers related to the issue. For three hours he sat with us on three consecutive nights as the rain pounded mercilessly on the tin roof. We lost track of the number of times he said that he would tell us just one more story and then leave; he kept remembering more tales and the night descended with him continuing to promise that he was nearly finished.
Every adventure was punctuated with the phrase, 'between the jigs and the reels,' which was his way of saying 'eventually, after all that...' I suggested that he write a book about his life and call it just that. He said that he would do so.
There was a lovely story about him being in the army in Ireland in his youth and sitting at dinner with his comrades. His egg,when he broke it open,was rank and rotten. John the Mill was hungry, so he reached over to the plate of his oblivious fellow-diner and snatched the man's egg and replaced it with his own. It was a terribly sneaky thing to do but he was duly punished for it: he broke open the second egg and it was even more rotten than the first one. He could not do a thing except eat it.
During those lengthy talking sessions, with the remains of the fly presumably long digested in our systems, each night we could have listened for much longer but the man's voice would be close to giving up, morning fast approaching, and understandably there were windmills to deal with.
We enjoyed his visits more than anything else during the short stay. I sent Christmas cards after that and Spouse spoke to him once or twice from California: we were on the verge of moving out of the state and our lives were a little confused so the fact that we maintained contact in a tumultuous time brings us gladness.
He passed away unexpectedly last year and Spouse and I were deeply shocked.
We were told by the family who own the trailer that in the caravan there sits a newspaper cutting with our wedding photo on it; John the Mill had wanted to borrow it the very next time he stepped into the family's caravan. He did not get the chance but I am glad the evenings meant as much to him as they did us, that he might have wanted to have a photo of two people who, unbeknown to himself, had eaten Szechuan Fly for dinner before they settled in to hear his stories.


Beth said...

Another wonderful story. It reminds me of a night that I stayed up late in Wales talking to an old man who let us stay the night. So many things I learned in that conversation---I think I may have to write about it.

Phyllis Hunt McGowan said...

I think you should write about it! It sounds intriguing...that sort of story would remind you there are nice people in the world. And in Wales, too, how wonderful :) Do tell it.

Kane Wilson said...

Great stories on your blog. I came across you through a search for Moya Cannon's wonderful poem entitled "Between the Jigs and the Reels". Here it is for you:

Between the Jigs and the Reels

Between a jig and a reel
what is there?
Only one beat
escaped from a ribcage.

Tunes are migratory
and fly from heart to heart
that there’s a pattern
to life’s pulls and draws.

Because what matters to us most
can seldom be told in words
the heart’s moods are better charted
in its own language -

the rhythm of Cooley’s accordion
which could open the heart of a stone,
John Doherty’s dark reels
and the tune that the sea taught him,
the high parts of the road and the underworlds
which only music and love can brave
to bring us back to our senses
and on beyond.

Phyllis Hunt McGowan said...

ikw, I'm so glad you found me! I didn't know the words of that poem, thanks for sharing.
I like these lines a lot:
"the rhythm of Cooley’s accordion
which could open the heart of a stone..." I'm going to look and see what else she wrote...
Thanks for visiting.

Kane Wilson said...

I couldn't find the poem online so I typed it up instead. Moya is one of Ireland's great poets; from Donegal and living in Galway. Her ability to prune is incredible. Her latest collection is called Carrying the Songs.

I'd love to know where that caravan park was in Ireland!

Phyllis Hunt McGowan said...

ikw, the caravan park was in Waterville, in County Kerry :) a remote and wild place. It didn't have a name, it was simply run by a nice couple.

As for Moya Cannon, I found this beginning of one of her poems:
"A word does not head out alone.
It is carried about the way something essential,
a blade, say, or a bowl,
is brought from here to there when there is work to be done."
And I say thank you for helping me to find her- this is so beautiful, and just the kind of poetry I love.

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