Swing - Ryan Simpson

A James Joyce emulation

            The darkness engulfed his every thought as he sat on a cold, stone bench. Trees swayed to and fro, their whispers piercing the silence louder than any child’s laughter. The winter air was dry and brought strain to each breath like a leash suffocating a throat. Night’s dark robe began to veil the playground while eddies of wind danced beneath the moonlight between headstones in the adjoining graveyard. Cavan[1] waited in stillness.

            Mothers chased children who circled round the park. One mother with a snakelike scarf followed after her golden-haired son. He shrieked with joy, his grin revealing the few teeth he had. The black-haired woman clutched her son’s arms and raised her blonde toddler to the sky. She chanted his name, Ailbhe[2], swinging him side to side. Her old face sighed. She needed rest.

            Chained by the anchor of despair, the town had sunk to the depths of the vast, overwhelming sea of poverty. Cavan knew of its troubles. Few families could put food on the table; few priests could buy bread for services. Wood boards shut houses off from the world. Some tried to leave with the few coins they had, but each face that left returned unrecognizably ghostlike. On the tier of wealth, Donegal finished dead last. The town felt vacant, ominous and dead.

            Cavan viciously wiped the dust from the road off his overcoat. Small specks of sand slipped through the holes in the black coat. His own family struggled currently too. The more his father lost to gambling, the more devils sucked the withering soul from his mother’s fragile heart. Illness left her feeble, barely strong enough to survive. She lacked food to eat, lost faith to live and dwindled in thought. The ecstasy of past memories slowly washed away like the remnants of muddy bathwater gradually disappearing down the drain.

            The last summer when Bronach[3] was still alive echoed in his thoughts as the wind’s howling intensified. Her laughter had lit the sky; her eyes had warmed his heart. Her pale hands stroked his face from ear to ear and back again. He still remembered the ring on her hand with the garnet gemstone to brand his love. He longed for freedom and hoped Bronach was the answer. Cavan reached into his pocket and felt the cold stone against his hand. The wind died down to a droning, eerie silence.

            It was a half-hour past when the church bells chimed ten times before Conall[4] arrived at the park, vivaciously pushing through the squealing gate. Conall ambled towards his friend as the gate swung behind him. His upright body stood bold and fearless; his warrior figure shadowed over his slender friend. Conall’s bloodshot eyes glowed fiery red, burning with passions and desires. The steam within his head escaped as perspiration, forming a distinct double semi-circle of sweat streaking across the grey shirt that covered his chest. His biceps bulged through his shirt from years of working at the iron factory.

            From sunrise to sunset he went through the same process; he melted iron, poured the iron into casts and then stacked the casts until iron bars formed. While most industries faltered, iron was always needed. As poverty increased, crime also increased. New inmates meant more prison cells and more iron bars to contain such sinners. While Conall made the iron, Cavan managed the orders; Conall’s iron was Cavan’s words; Conall’s cast was his friend’s typewriter.

            --- I have news from Liverpool. Workers have gone on strike in the iron factories. They have asked for workers from Ireland to fill the positions. God has granted us life yet again!

            His booming voice rattled the trees behind the stone bench, and the branches trembled fearfully. Life! The playground had not changed since the day the two men met some ten years before. Now young men at the age of nineteen, they conversed every Friday afternoon upon that bench. They discussed all facets of their lives, their greatest secrets heard only by each other or the cold slab of rock they sat on. Barren and isolated, the graveyard was surrounded by tall, sturdy trees; between these dark bars of Hades gates was a worn dirt path. Opposite this mournful cemetery was the town church with quartz stairs marking the passage to the place of blessing. White columns held the colossal structure upright, with bells that chimed Heaven’s tunes every hour of the day. Cries of sorrow always responded with cries of praise. Cries of praise always responded with cries of sorrow. This music across the playground was the only heartbeat of life the men had ever known.

            Could he leave Ireland? Could he start a new life? Cavan felt his heart and stomach churn. He peered upwards only to see the stern face of his friend, then averted his eyes under the crushing weight of Conall’s glare. He longed to act, to change and to overcome the adversity around him but his feet drove deeper and deeper into the mud as he thought. Can I leave her? His hand drew toward his pocket, the arm shriveling in the winter air like a rose at the first frost. The ring had been passed down to each generation successfully, always given to the youngest son for his wife. The tip of his finger first stroked the gemstone, then the gold band the garnet stone rested on. A soft wind stroked the side of his face, caressing his icy cold cheeks.

            What about Mother and Father? As her days lessened his drinking grew greater; the end was near for them both. The illness took her soul one piece at a time. First were the double black rings that circled her eyes. Next those eyes of beauty were glazed with gray. Then her face turned pale and thin; her body wore away to a ghost in human form. Father could barely look at her anymore; he left in the morning before the sun rose and returned at night after the pub had closed. He would only see her in darkness when he could not see the details of her face. In the night her beauty was restored.

            --- When does the boat leave Dubhghall Harbor?

            The sleeve of his dark coat muffled his words. His voice quivered, straining to speak his sentence through his dry, choking throat. Freedom had never felt so empty. His friend sat down heavily upon the rock. Turning his hazel eyes, Cavan met Conall’s piercing grin of strength, of success, of dominance. Conall took his friend’s lean hand, consuming it with his coarse calloused paw resembling nothing less than a one sided handshake. Beside the fiery red hair of his friend, Cavan once again saw the little boy Ailbhe. The swings effortlessly rose and fell as if the white-haired angel had left but his ghost still remained. Moonlight was his spotlight while he climbed atop a slide. He had journeyed up the steps; he was exalted at their top; he had risen for all to see. In an instant the boy slid down the long black slide, the moonlight no longer following him. He fell into his mother’s arms at the entrance to the graveyard.

            A chance to escape! A chance to be free! A chance for life! His heart was overwhelmed by the thought of Liverpool. A new home and a fresh start waited for them both away from the torments of his past. He had enough money for passage, food to last, will to prevail and faith to hope. Could he leave Ireland? The moonlight disappeared behind the tree line guarding the cemetery. Even through the shadows, Conall showed insistence on his face.

            --- Glad to have you on board young chap! Tonight we depart on the ferry at midnight.

            The air was still until the last word was said. Midnight! What a dreadful time! The cycle of day would begin but nighttime would still prevail; church bells would sing to an audience of nearby graves. Cavan’s eyes froze on the dark path leading to the land of the deceased. The wind insidiously danced upon his eardrum faintly calling his name. Closing his eyes he saw Bronach’s face peeking through strands of soft black hair, the deep blue irises in her eyes fading into her pupils. Her voice sang melodious hymns like an organ harmonizing the prayers of all people or the tunes hummed softly as a coffin lowers beneath the soil. Her voice could make the living listener die; her voice could make the dead rise again. Can I leave her?

            --- Join me at the dock when God’s bells chime the twelfth hour, Cavan. God’s speed until then.

            With these final words he rose and turned to the moonlight, his shadow cast over the bench one final time. Conall walked along the same path he had entered by, crossing the dark road, a boundary between the graveyard and church. He entered those doors of Heaven that promptly closed as the night service began. Cavan waited in stillness. The silence pierced his thoughts; the nighttime darkened his eyes; he did not follow his friend. Eddies of wind danced beneath the moonlight between headstones; Bronach’s voice echoed in the whipping wind; the trees swayed to and fro. He staggered towards the worn path across the playground.


[1]       Masculine Irish name derived from the name of an Irish country, which is from Irish cabhan meaning “hollow”

[2]       Masculine Irish name from the Gaelic word albho meaning “white”.  Also the name of a sixth century saint

[3]       Feminine Irish name derived from Irish Gaelic bron meaning “sorrow” and is also the name of a sixth century saint.

[4]       Meaning “strong wolf” in Gaelic, this masculine name refers back to Irish legend specifically the hero Conall Cernach, a member of the Red Ulster, who avenged Cuchulainn’s death by killing Lugaid.