Some corner of a foreign field. Irony. Rapture of the Deep.

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For want of a nail…This is where Captain Cook came to grief. It seems that he refused to give any more nails to the native people. They took umbrage and killed him. There was a swordsman by his side, Molesworth Phillips, from Swords in County Dublin, a Royal Marine. Even Molesworth couldn’t save the great navigator. This small piece of Hawaii is British territory in perpetuity, in honour of the captain. Her Majesty could surely spare the man a flagpole and a flag. Maybe, of course,  the captain was trying to bring alien species into the island. They are very strict: ‘Are you carrying any snails or reptiles, Sir?’  Americans can use ‘Sir’ like a searchlight. ‘Step away from the car, Sir’ You know that you are nailed when you hear ‘Sir’. My brother in law was nabbed trying to bring Clonakilty black pudding to Florida. ‘Step away from the sausages, Sir.’  He’s not strictly my brother in law. There are no smugglers on my side of the family.

 Nails are precious things. I asked my neighbour, Milo if he had a couple of nails to spare. ‘Come into my nailery,’ he said expansively ‘and I’ll see what I can do.’ He had a drawer filled with dust and rusty nails. There were oval wire and round ones of many different sizes, straight and bent.  He had a little boat with a put-put outboard motor. It was held together by rusty nails. ‘Should you not use copper?’ I asked out of my ignorance. He looked at me pityingly, a landlubber, steeped in ignorance. ‘Nothing holds like a rusty nail.’  The nails made attractive, blue/grey patches on the wood. We went out to Saint Patrick’s Island , one summer evening. There was a big swell running. Put-put-put went the motor. Clang-clang-clang went my heartbeat. We lost sight of the horizon in every trough. We teetered on the crest of every wave. I looked longingly towards the distant land, the white flicker of surf and home, measuring the distance. I was the better swimmer.  Milo whistled, at ease in his natural element.

On another occasion we came around The Baily in a Fastnet 34. Fastnet! Get it? Hurricane? Major yachting disaster?  Simon le Bon’s keel snapping off?  The bolts sheered off under the force of the waves. Should have used rusty nails.  We were in a lumpy sea, with an easterly wind. I drew Milo’s attention to these coincidences, as the yacht dropped from a dizzying height, into a swirling abyss. ‘Huh,’ he muttered, intrigued and went below to put on the kettle. We were heading for a mark, with several other towering yachts converging on our course. I drew his attention to the situation. ‘Luffing rights,’ he remarked. Of course. Why didn’t I think of luffing rights?  ‘Luffing rights,’ he called to the rival skippers. They turned away.  It’s a phrase I keep in reserve for real emergencies.

Strangely for the Hawaiians, who had no concept of metallurgy, (hence the craving for nails) they host the Ironman World Championships every year.We went there to cheer on our son, Alan. He is a non-stop athlete. He did spectacularly well and continues to do so. No sign of rust there. We did the tourist things, like reef snorkeling at Captain Cook’s monument. When you put your head under the water, you could hear parrot fish, crunching at the coral. Apparently this is their sole source of food. Crrrunnnch-crrrunnnch  all day and all night, nibbling the island away. Fortunately the island is constantly re-built by the volcano. The Hawaiians were having a day off, when they named this island. It is the biggest of all the Hawaiian Islands. They called it Big Island. Our daughter once lived on Avenue Road in Acton.  Adam called flies flies because they…. Must try harder. 

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The parrot fish are down there somewhere, crunching away. The reef falls away into vertiginous depths. They talk of rapture of the deep, but that is brought on by gas. There is a rapture brought on by the strange colours, the sense of weightlessness, the myriads of fish, the story of the people and their relationship with the ocean. History. I decided to swim over and pay my respects to Captain Cook and the Swords man. I clambered out onto the reef. A voice, magnified by a loud-hailer called out:  ‘Sir. You are forbidden to stand on the reef.’  It was the skipper of our ‘rib’ an intimidating young  American woman. I slithered back into the water like a hunted cousteau and merged with the other flotsam. I imagined that I could hear the parrot fish tut-tutting, the hypocrites.

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I should have shouted ‘luffing rights.’  I could have pointed to the activities of the parrot fish. It was pointed out to me afterwards that, as a citizen of the European Union and pursuant to the Treaty of Rome, The Schengen Agreement, the Maastricht Treaty, the Single European Act, ratified by all the member nations, guaranteeing freedom of movement  et cetera and cetera, I am entitled, as an Irish and E.U. citizen, to enter Britain or any other E.U. country, without let or hindrance. I could have, but I wasn’t carrying any copies of the relevant treaties at the time. I was wearing Speedos, flippers and a face mask. If I had been carrying weighty copies of the treaties in my Speedos, I would have incurred even more suspicion from our imperious skipper.

In the Polynesian myths, the world stands on a pillar which stands on the back of a great turtle. It’s an analogy for islands that perch on top of pillars of volcanic rock. The coral grows only in the daylight near the top. The turtle moves from time to time. It’s a precarious world. I watched much of the race while perched on top of a plastic wheelie bin, with three or four other spectators. It was an excellent vantage point, until the lid began to soften in the heat and sag under our weight. I expected to be plunged ignominiously into the depths of the bin. I decided to get down. My right leg was dead from cramp. I fell to earth and hobbled around, trying to get back some circulation. It’s not funny but it makes you laugh all the same. Pins and needles. Like rapture of the deep only drier. Alan was doing fine. It was all bloody fine for him. He had trained for it; pumping iron, iron enriched food supplements or whatever.

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Captain  Cook was dispatched with a wooden club or spear, probably ironwood. Milo’s boat was shattered on the beach in a sudden storm. The nails gave up the ghost. My neighbour lost one of his good shoes in attempting to rescue it. It is probably still bobbing around the Hebrides or’ the still-vexed Bermoothes,’ the shoe, not the boat. John Kingston’s legendary hardware shop had the world’s greatest nailery. You could buy one or a bucket full.   The shop exploded one night, in a most astonishing conflagration of paint, timber, gas cylinders, bitumen, roofing felt, oil, insecticides, fertilisers, wall-paper, glue, (even one called No-More-Nails), tools, nuts, bolts and anything you could think of. John had it all. It laid a heavy swag of smoke across the strand and all the way across the sea to the horizon and Saint Patrick’s Island, where Milo sailed his little boat.  He was a great mariner who would never refuse a person a nail or a favour.

Even without Saint Patrick, there are no snakes in Hawaii. No Sir.  I drive to Swords nowadays to buy nails.

When I nibble shortbread biscuits, I hear the parrot fish.

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Grand Hotel and ‘a man more sinned against than sinning.’

‘Is your Mammy in?’ asked the man at the door.

‘There’s nobody here but my Auntie Peg,’ replied my sister politely. (Politeness mandatory at the door.)

‘What?’ He tried again. ‘Is your Mammy at home?’

Somewhat testily my sister repeated, ‘There’s nobody here but my Auntie Peg.’

‘What?’ He frowned in puzzlement.

She snapped. ‘Ach, there’s nobody here but me Ant.’

‘Ah!’

My Auntie Peg taught English  and French to young ladies in a convent school in Ealing. She was most particular about language. She read The Times Literary Supplement. She knew Old Vic personally and had seen Olivier play Yorick in Hamlet.  She appreciated how he fleshed out the role. She had wit and very good table manners. In fact she often mentioned table manners to us. It was a recurring topic at dinner. She did not appreciate haste or loud noises in the consumption of food. In deference to her strange preoccupation with hygiene, we washed thoroughly behind our ears, before she came to stay, as she did several times a year. She travelled during her holidays and sent glossy colour postcards from exotic places. Louis XIV had a very nice house in Paris and a few others around the country. There was a Hall of Mirrors. It was probably easy for him to check behind his ears, before my Auntie Peg arrived, with her entourage of young ladies, although I don’t think he was too hot on hygiene. There was The Eiffel Tower, a radio mast built before radio. The French like to be prepared. Think Maginot Line. Think Cognac, bottled today, but not to be opened for half a century. If I had anticipated the modern television programmes about antiques and ’eminently collectible’ old photographs, my album of Auntie Peg’s postcards would make me a rich man. But, malheureusement, (Gallic shrug) what can I say?

I actually know very little about Peg. I remember her long conversations with my mother, but they segued into French if there was anything of interest coming up. I know that there was a young man in UCD, before the war, but he turned out to be a bit of a cad. There was talk of a Canadian paratrooper, killed in Crete. She told us about her new coat, obtained with precious ration coupons and ruined when she had to lie down in the  street, during an air raid. I imagined the sirens and the crump of bombs. I could see the burning buildings reflected in the wet tarmac. She told the story ruefully, but I imagined her crying. I think she had a lot to cry about, but politeness prevented her.  She loved Tom Jenkins with The Palm-Court Orchestra of the Grand Hotel. It was a Sunday evening ritual on the BBC Home Service. ‘We go over now, to Tom Jenkins and the  Palm-Court orchestra of the  Grand Hotel…..’ Everything stopped for Tom Jenkins. I tried to imagine what the place looked like and whether the musicians sat among the trees or behind them, but all I could see in my mind was the silver cake stand with the selection of iced cakes glazed in many colours. On the rare occasions that aunts of any kind brought us out to tea, this cake stand appeared, piled high with a bewildering variety of cakes. The other person always gets the nicest one.  I thought that…. but no. Table manners decree that you take one and one only. You can look but you may not touch. Was she remembering afternoon tea with her Canadian, in a shady palm-court long ago?

I came in one day in a foul mood. It was raining. There was nothing to do. ‘The weather is lousy,’ I said angrily. She fixed me with a Miss Jean Brodie stare. Silence. My well-washed ears began to burn. All my crimes were manifest. ‘I will not tolerate such language,’ she said, icily. ‘Kindly leave the room.’

I shrugged. I didn’t care. ‘Huh!’ That’s not bad language. Do you really want to hear bad language?  Anyway the weather was lousy.  However, I left the room, just to keep her quiet; just because I am a reasonable man who can bear the injustices of life with philosophic resignation.  C’est la vie, (Another Gallic shrug). Peg was a good friend. Margaret and I met her in London on our honeymoon. She brought us to afternoon tea in Piccadilly. There were cakes. My ears were impeccable. She produced theatre tickets and then got up to leave. We protested.  ‘You’re on your honeymoon. You don’t want an old aunt around.’ I suppose that was tact and politeness.

Long afterwards, Margaret bought a climbing rose, Grand Hotel. I thought of Peg.  It climbed and produced flowers in great profusion. You don’t prune a climbing rose. You steer it. It climbed along the party wall. It approached the house. It became necessary to put up supports over the window. Does anything suggest domestic harmony as well as a climbing rose over the window? A cascade of red roses flowing around our blissful home. Poets write about that sort of thing. Tom Jenkins probably had an orchestral piece on the subject. I went to John Kingston’s hardware shop. John had the answer to every problem. He would even throw in instructions and advice. It was probably the only shop in the world where you could buy a single screw… and take it back if it was the wrong length. Lesser men use drills and rawl-plugs with screws made to the correct thickness and length. They are the kind of poor devils who have to measure before they cut a piece of wood or drill a hole. I use masonry nails. Masonry nails are for wild free-booting, buccaneering types like myself; men who know how to use language when the nail hits a flint or an impenetrable stone in pebble-dash. There are few things more satisfying than the feeling of the masonry nail going firmly home. You could climb the Eiger, north face of course, with masonry nails. Lesser men climb the south face.

I got the step ladder. There are dangers in working at altitude. My grandfather died in a fall from a ladder. Admittedly it was Christmas. He owned a pub. He was hanging Christmas decorations. There might be other contributory factors  there.  I ascended warily, with a pocket full of masonry nails. I began to work. I got one nail in at the first go. I reached for another. I became aware that I was higher than the party wall. I was higher than the Grand Hotel . I became aware that my neighbour’s beautiful daughters were practising their gymnastics in the back garden. They had a full sized wooden beam, on which they were balancing and executing dismounts with double forward, backward somersaults with pike. It looked very dangerous. I addressed myself to my task. I just checked again, that they were all right, precisely as I struck the nail. I hit my thumb. The masonry nail shot out, with a pling and struck me on the cheek, drawing blood. Masonry nails are unforgiving. I lost my footing and fell astride the rung of the ladder, barking a shin and causing extreme pain elsewhere, at the same time. With admirable presence of mind, I grabbed a handful of rose bush to steady myself. I grabbed the thorns, not the beautiful, red petals. I suffered five different wounds in the space of a second. Ollie and Stan would have had to rehearse it . The only recourse was profanity.

‘There’s no need for that kind of language,’  said Margaret, reprovingly.  There was. There was. The injustice of it all struck me. ‘A man more sinned against than sinning.’ I thought of Peg and her Shakespeare and her  ‘Kindly leave the room.’ I retired to nurse my grievances. The rose would have to wait, at least until gymnastics practice was over and my thumb regained some mobility. On a more optimistic note, on another occasion, after the young ladies had practised in the front garden, two lads working on the telephone connections across the road, left a hammer, a vice-grips and a big lump of lead behind, when they left. That would have cost me a few bob in John Kingston’s.

Our Grand Hotel in Skerries was a pretty shabby place. The lead must have been stolen from the roof. It leaked. It became part of the school where I taught for some years. I met a pupil whose father had stayed there on the night that Harry Boland was shot. Harry was shot in the room at the end of the corridor. The boy’s father and uncle hid under the bed. There was a chamber pot under the bed.  The chamber pot was full. If they used language, it was surely under their breath. There was no Palm-Court or orchestra in that Grand Hotel. It wasn’t even ‘grand’ in the Irish sense. It was pretty awful. Peg would have been amused. Although I saw her become an old woman in poor health,she retained her droll wit. At her funeral, a tenor made a dog’s dinner of Panis Angelicus and Ave Maria. He was brutal. My cousin leaned across to me.Peg would have enjoyed that,’  she whispered. 

She  left us that evening in London. I have a memory of her walking away, against the crowd in Piccadilly, a small, rather stooped, lonely figure. She danced there with a sailor on VE Night.