Saturday, November 22, 2008
"In this world of change, nothing which comes stays, and nothing which goes is lost."
-Anne Sophie Swetchine
In taking advantage of the local bus service, as I have been of late, I expected to stumble upon characters and encounters of such number that I would have little time to assemble the sketches into words.
I have found those, of course: if one is indeed searching, intricate tales of human existence will be identified on every corner.
Conversely though, I find I am also being reminded of other, long-ago bus rides I underwent or endured or delighted in.
I wrote a lot of letters when I was a teenager, whole bundles of missives to people near and far.
Kathleen was almost blind, scratching out a living on a farm she shared with her son. She was a widow in her eighties. I first saw her name in a local Irish magazine: she was looking for the words of a tune she had known eons ago in her girlhood. I knew the lyrics but I possessed as well a recording of the song, and I posted her a copy of both.
I had not known she was blind. Neither had I expected to hear from her.
She wrote a brimming, enthused note in a hand that trembled, with a pen that would not obey its frail owner. We wrote back and forth to one another for a year or two, she mentioning frequently the joy of playing the song over and over as though the years had left no mark.
At length, we both thought that I might visit. She lived quite north of me in Ireland and I was readily set for adventures.
Mater bade me farewell, resigned to being burdened with a daughter that would embark alone on a bus journey of seven hours in order to emerge onto a landscape of immeasurable sparsity and meet an old lady whose brief query had been printed in the Wanted section of an obscure magazine.
Kathleen's son was assigned to collect me in his car. As the bus drew near to the region I grew nervous, clutching a novel I was paying scant attention to, watching tensely out of the window for any sign that I ought to get off the bus. Their home was a good many miles out of town and I was instructed to arrive in a little village whose signposts were battered and useful only for long-time locals who did not depend upon them.
Despite my diligence, I became distracted and when I raised my head again I saw that the bus was in the heart of a village- had been, in fact, for some moments- and was about to continue on its way.
In a panic, I gathered my belongings, called out to the driver to stop, scrambled to my feet and leaped off the bus.
The cough and splutter of the bus dwindled gradually away, and when there was nothing but a faint rumble to distinguish the carriage I had been cornered in for hours, I understood to my great alarm that I was altogether in the wrong village and that I had no notion of what direction to begin striding in.
After an urgent recalling of my momentarily-lost wits, I noted that the village I sought was a considerable three miles away.
Worst, Kathleen's son would be watching the bus as it turned into the village in a few minutes, and I would not be on it. He would not, however, know that I would not be on it because he also did not know what I looked like and presumably he would ask each and every young lady if she happened to be me, until at last, after startling enough young ladies, he would establish that I was not anywhere.
That was an era before I possessed a cell phone. I was lost hundreds of miles from home, several miles from my unfamiliar host, already causing untold trouble and anxiety to an old woman on the verge of blindness and her obliging offspring.
If only, I toiled furiously in my head, I had stayed on the bus, had been more patient and observant, I would not be in such a sorry pickle.
Pickled I was, and I was reduced, in the end, to knocking on the door of the nearest house, choking back my tears and pleading to use the telephone.
After I dialled the number and got no response, I remembered that the entire household of two was waiting at the bus stop.
The lady must have intuitively taken into account my struggle to keep from breaking into floods of tears, for she made an offer so kind it rendered me speechless.
"I'll drive you there," she said, putting away her vacuum cleaner, slipping on her jacket, and bidding me to follow her out the door.
I was astonished, but not so much that I refused the suggestion.
I offered money along the way, but the dear lady would not take a penny. She set me down in the village square and wished me well. Shortly afterward, I made a desperate call from a public telephone box which at last found Kathleen and her son fretting, wringing their broken hearts about how to inform my mother that I had tragically vanished at a mysterious point between her house and theirs.
The ruffles of my tortured arrival were smoothed over as soon as the kettle was set to boil on the stove.
Kathleen and I sat at her well-worn kitchen table for most of the weekend, drinking tea and rummaging through ancient biscuit tins that held yellowed letters and brittle photographs, treasures and fragments of another age. One could not quantify the shared solace and wonder we found in exchanging bits and pieces of our two lives that might have been considered to have little in common.
So solitary and lonesome was daily life for the old woman and her son that the farmhouse rarely saw a passing visitor. A powdery lane of narrow proportions trickled through their land, hemmed with fiery brambles, entwining its way out of a secluded green corner where the years lapsed without haste and where societal progress was reluctant to provide its signature.
The visit was completed in two days, when I had to return to my job as a waitress, and it never happened that I saw Kathleen again.
We continued to write to one another for a time until her last letter reached me: it told in handwriting I could scarcely recognise that she had fallen ill, suffering a stroke.
I cannot think of my gentle, welcoming penpal without simultaneously evoking glimpses of the chaos I set in motion and the stranger that helped me to undo it.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:43 AM