Sunday 24 March 2013

Winter Triage

Just over twenty years ago, in the midst of the last big recession and against the advice of all our friends-and-relations, we returned to Ireland.  We’d left, with our infant child wrapped up in a handkerchief and tied to a stick, to seek our fortunes in England, Holland, and America.  We hadn’t found a fortune but we had grub-stake enough to think of settling back home.  The infant child had a green passport but was really no more Irish than a Chicago policeman and his accent was clearly from across the water. So we decided that we’d reinforce his sense of cultural identity by wrapping him up in the Leaving Certificate.
The job that was going to fund this ambition was in Dublin but at the tag-end of a glorious summer I signed the lease on an old farm-house out near the airport.  The farmhouse was huge, rambling and embedded in a working farm recently transformed into riding-stables.  Huge and rambling was convenient because, from yard-sales and junk-shops on two continents, we’d accumulated a mountain of possessions: hundreds of books, dozens of plates, three wardrobes – which we stored in the spare bedrooms - and a spider-plant for the bathroom.  The glorious summer turned into winter, and we saw why nobody before us had rented the farmhouse for more than 12 months.  The windows merely slowed down the wind, you could see daylight round the door-frame and the walls were 2 foot thick and wept condensation.  A bale of briquettes loaded into the grate would roar heat up the chimney to be consumed in minutes while leaving only the memory of heat in the room.  Did we sleep with hats?  It would certainly have been sensible.  But we stuck it out for 5 winters partly because we were well ‘ard but mostly because the spring was such a relief.  
In due course, in the depths of the third winter and after a gap of eighteen years, we were blessed with another child.  A few weeks later in the dead cold dark of night the baby woke up to be fed and after a moment we noticed a curious orange glow on the curtain.  It took us a groggy couple of minutes to twig that it was not street-lighting but a fire in the landlord’s hay barn. I startled out of bed, woke the landlord and his family, called the fire-brigade, shucked on some clothes and went out to help. The hay-barn was roaring a plume of bright sparks into the dark sky, much like our living-room grate but much louder, and everyone in the yard was bright orange on one side and throwing a long black shadow the other.  It seemed sensible then, though cracked in retrospect, to go into the adjacent stables and push a couple of the horses out of their boxes with the heel of my boot without pausing to consider that they might kick back.  As the fire spread, the landlord’s grown-up son heroically dashed into the edge of the inferno again and again; flopping backwards into an old trough to cool down before going in for another pair of horses.
At some stage in the night, the fire-brigade announced that if the wind shifted a tad, then the farmhouse itself might be in danger.  So I went back home and we prepared the baby for evacuation: we had more than a handkerchief to wrap her up in but even that only took a few minutes.  With time stretching, the child safe and nothing more to be done for hay or horses, I started to reflect on what to save if the wind did indeed change and come whistling through the letterbox from the still blazing barn.  Top of the list was my recently acquired, brand new and absurdly expensive Macintosh LCIII computer which I accordingly double wrapped in bin bags to be taken outside.  The evidence of my contributions to horse-rescue show that I was clearly not thinking straight that night.  What I should have rescued were the photographs: the computer was only money but the photos were irreplaceable hooks on which to hang memory.  
NotsUNdayMisc XII

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